They are having a Presidential election in the United States. You may have heard. Why do they bother even going through the motions? Why does anyone even bother showing up?
The record of the past twenty years is discouraging. In 1988 the choice was between a feeble cipher with a pretty but alcoholic wife, and a scion of the American nobility named Bush; the aristocrat won, and proceeded to get his country into two murderous aggressive wars. (His internal policy was, however, no more repressive than that of his predecessor.) In 1992 Bush was challenged by a manifestly dishonest philanderer who was also a scion of the American nobility named Clinton; the philanderer won, and massively intensified internal repression, especially political repression — although the economy grew, and although the poor gained no benefit they told themselves it was all right.
In 1996 Clinton was challenged by an opponent named Dole who junked all his principles to become acceptable to the right wing, and who had a reputation for psychological instability; Dole lost, whereupon Clinton junked all his principles, adopted more right-wing policies, and got the country into some more wars (one of which, the proxy war in the Congo, killed about three million people). In 2000, Clinton’s Vice-President ran, a corporate gasbag and scion of the American nobility named Gore.
Gore was distinguished for having had a book ghostwritten for him about how everyone had to do their utmost to save the environment, after which he became the second most powerful politician in the world and did bugger-all to save the environment, so everyone knew what principles he had. He was running against a scion of the American nobility named Bush — playboy son of the ’88 winner — who was a recovering drug and alcohol addict who had never held a proper job and, like Gore, was a front-man for big oil companies. As a result the election was a dead-heat, although Gore’s party threw the contest (probably anticipating a bad recession, which indeed materialised) allowing Bush to take over.
Bush started some more wars, eventually killing almost as many people as Clinton had, and also introduced some even more repressive laws. Detention without trial had been on the statute books for half a century, but Bush made it respectable. Political assassination had been made nominally illegal in the 1970s, but Bush restored it to favour and also gave it his full support, taking personal responsibility for the murders, which he obviously enjoyed.
Since the country appeared to be on the road to a very dangerous future (Bush was even flirting with starting wars with nuclear powers) it seemed vital to get rid of him, so in 2004 the opposition put forward a man married to a scion of the American nobility (the relevant family was the Heinz dynasty, though the man was called Kerry), a flabby-looking figure who had helped found the Vietnam Veterans Against The War, but now abandoned all those principles to run on the basis that he had fought in that war, which retrospectively became a Good Thing. Kerry was also distinguished by having been so stupid that he had tried to investigate the Bank of Credit and Commerce International without apparently realising that it was a CIA front for funding international terrorism. So he lost — although some observers claim that he won; it was close enough that, as in the previous election, fraud could well have played a part.
What conclusions can we draw from this sorry history? One is that there was extraordinary continuity between the two allegedly opposed parties over the twenty years of Bush-Clinton-Bush. Aggression abroad and repression at home, together with ever-growing social inequality and endless gifts to the rich — that’s basically about it. Everybody hates trade unions and foreigners. Everybody loves outsourcing jobs overseas. There are differences in ways people behave and sometimes in the ways they express themselves, but these are mostly cosmetic.
Another is an extraordinary dependence on a few families. Clinton bears the same name as a nineteenth-century Vice-President. Gore was a long-standing political family. The Bushes come from a huge corporate family. Now, in 2008, there is admittedly some oddity; a black man named Obama, which doesn’t sound like a scion, running against a woman — the wife of a Clinton, as Kerry was the huzband of a Heinz. (Neither of them has any real policy, however.) And McCain and Huckabee and Romney, who were the Republican alternatives (and whose policies are rather disturbing; Huckabee and Romney are religious fundamentalists of extreme stamp; McCain has been distinguished from the rest by his opposition to routinely torturing captives, although he has abandoned these radical principles), are also outsiders in a sense; so this is the first time in a long, long while that one of the Imperial Families is not going to be running things. It really is a bit like the Roman Republic; it’s rare that a “new man” gets ahead of a patrician.
All this seems to suggest that American politics is a whole lot less democratic than it looks. Which, no doubt, helps explain all that continuity, and the well-founded arguments that America is really a one-party state. It is, however, worth asking how in the world all this is justified to the American people, who are solemnly and incessantly assured that they live in freedom in the greatest state in the universe. Why can’t they see through the facade, and if they do, why don’t they drag all those offensive leaky sacks of dysentery they call politicians down the Washington Mall by the ears?
Let’s consider the way in which Presidential candidates are chosen, for it is quite weird. Firstly, although candidates have to belong to either the Republican or Democratic parties to have any hope of winning, neither of these parties is a party in the conventional sense of the word — an organisation dedicated to a particular, coherent, political ideology and constituency, like the Conservative Party in Britain, the Communist Party in Russia or the Democratic Party in South Africa. Instead, these parties are amorphous entities for channelling funding and the opinions of their functionaries.
Both parties extent across disturbingly broad ideological spectra, although one can usually say that the Republicans are to the right of the Democrats (but there is a lot of political cross-dressing). The parties have no real leaders; they have chairs, but the chairs are not ever likely to seek political power. Structures are decentralised and disunified. At state level the parties may have constitutions (Texas has a famously fascistic Republican constitution) but this has no wider meaning (if it has a meaning at all — the constitutions are usually ignored).
So how do they choose their Presidential candidates? Not from the leadership of the Parties, because there is no such leadership which swings any political weight. Instead, at state level people have their names put on the ballot, on the basis of relatively small support-bases. Once this is done, there is a state-level poll, the “primary” to determine which of the people on the list will gain delegates for the eventual Party conference.
Think about how that works in practice. In theory, anybody could be on the ballot, so it sounds democratic. However, the people turning out to vote are registered Party members, and usually only a small number of them in comparison to the state’s electorate. As a result, the Party has a lot of potential control over who votes for who. It’s rare that a complete maverick squeaks past; in most states, only the approved candidates get anywhere.
And who are the approved candidates? The ones who have plenty of support in campaigns. Which means, the ones who have money to make and buy media advertisements and produce other publicity material and travel around a lot. This requires an enormous amount of money which has to be raised individually by the candidate. As a result, the candidates have to sell themselves to people who have that money, before they can begin to sell themselves to their electorates. In other words, the ruling class gets to pre-approve the candidacies. That’s pretty outrageous, but nobody in the United States seems to notice.
Then, of course, the candidates in each primary are pursuing essentially the same policies — of course, because they are in the same party. They may have real problems with their party’s policies, they may want to change them — but they can’t criticise the party, as that would potentially alienate voters. So in primary campaigns it is almost inevitable that issues are discarded. Instead, what matters is the presentation of the candidate.
This also means that the candidate’s image has to be clean. This is difficult, because every politician is a crook to some extent. Hence every candidate needs an enormous legal fund for self-defense, or at least stalling or covering up. The candidate also has to have a powerful research agency digging up dirt on potential competitors — not necessarily to use, but to hold as a deterrent against the competitors revealing dirt against them. Of course, talk radio and trash TV can be used to spread lies about candidates, lies which are invariably retailed by the established media. (Sometimes, embarrassingly, the lies turn out to be true.) If you don’t have plenty of money you have no defense against smearing.
Public relations trumps everything else — which is also splendid for the ruling class because it again means that the one hiring the best (or most expensive) public relations agency has the best prospect of winning, another capitalist hurdle against non-affluent candidates appearing. But all this means that for a large part of the campaigning season, nothing of any substance gets said — instead, the candidates blather about nebulosities like “Change!” [in what, not stated] or “Experience!” [with what, not stated] or “Straight Talk!” [about what, not stated]. It seems like a deliberate effort to humiliate the American people by emphasising just how appalling the American political system has become.
And this is how the finalist is chosen. By the end of the process there is usually an anointed leader who comes to the Party Convention with enough delegates to win fairly easily. Occasionally it takes longer. Sometimes someone thinks he has everything sewn up and then the other potential candidates combine against him. But mainly, on the basis of nonsensical rhetoric, dishonest public relations and under the almost total control of big business and party machines, a leader is chosen who will contest the national election. And then, of course, the bullshit really starts, in endeavouring to anoint some shallow, subservient sleazebag with the simultaneous mantles of Washington and Lincoln.
Is it any wonder that such a leader is invariably someone you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with? Fortunately, at least during the campaigning period you don’t have any danger of that; the Secret Service, the Presidential bodyguards, make sure that nobody gets into a lift with any potential candidate. But after the campaign season is over, most of those candidates go back defeated into their normal lives.
What lives, in the name of Ahura Mazda, what lives can such hideous excrescences possibly lead?