The Decay of American Politics
My earliest recollection of national politics dates back exactly 60 years to the moment, in the summer of 1956, when I watched the political conventions in the company of that wondrous new addition to our family, television. My parents were supporting President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a second term and that was good enough for me. Even as a youngster, I sensed that Ike, the former supreme commander of allied forces in Europe in World War II, was someone of real stature. In a troubled time, he exuded authority and self-confidence. By comparison, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson came across as vaguely suspect. Next to the five-star incumbent, he seemed soft, even foppish, and therefore not up to the job. So at least it appeared to a nine-year-old living in Chicagoland.
Of the seamy underside of politics I knew nothing, of course. On the surface, all seemed reassuring. As if by divine mandate, two parties vied for power. The views they represented defined the allowable range of opinion. The outcome of any election expressed the collective will of the people and was to be accepted as such. That I was growing up in the best democracy the world had ever known—its very existence a daily rebuke to the enemies of freedom—was beyond question.
Naïve? Embarrassingly so. Yet how I wish that Election Day in November 2016 might present Americans with something even loosely approximating the alternatives available to them in November 1956. Oh, to choose once more between an Ike and an Adlai.
Don’t for a second think that this is about nostalgia. Today, Stevenson doesn’t qualify for anyone’s list of Great Americans. If remembered at all, it’s for his sterling performance as President John F. Kennedy’s U.N. ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Interrogating his Soviet counterpart with cameras rolling, Stevenson barked that he was prepared to wait “until hell freezes over” to get his questions answered about Soviet military activities in Cuba. When the chips were down, Adlai proved anything but soft. Yet in aspiring to the highest office in the land, he had come up well short. In 1952, he came nowhere close to winning and in 1956 he proved no more successful. Stevenson was to the Democratic Party what Thomas Dewey had been to the Republicans: a luckless two-time loser.
As for Eisenhower, although there is much in his presidency to admire, his errors of omission and commission were legion. During his two terms, from Guatemala to Iran, the CIA overthrew governments, plotted assassinations, and embraced unsavory right-wing dictators—in effect, planting a series of IEDs destined eventually to blow up in the face of Ike’s various successors. Meanwhile, binging on nuclear weapons, the Pentagon accumulated an arsenal far beyond what even Eisenhower as commander-in-chief considered prudent or necessary.
In addition, during his tenure in office, the military-industrial complex became a rapacious juggernaut, an entity unto itself as Ike himself belatedly acknowledged. By no means least of all, Eisenhower fecklessly committed the United States to an ill-fated project of nation-building in a country that just about no American had heard of at the time: South Vietnam. Ike did give the nation eight years of relative peace and prosperity, but at a high price—most of the bills coming due long after he left office.
The Pathology of American Politics
And yet, and yet…
To contrast the virtues and shortcomings of Stevenson and Eisenhower with those of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump is both instructive and profoundly depressing. Comparing the adversaries of 1956 with their 2016 counterparts reveals with startling clarity what the decades-long decay of American politics has wrought.
In 1956, each of the major political parties nominated a grown-up for the highest office in the land. In 2016, only one has.
In 1956, both parties nominated likeable individuals who conveyed a basic sense of trustworthiness. In 2016, neither party has done so.
In 1956, Americans could count on the election to render a definitive verdict, the vote count affirming the legitimacy of the system itself and allowing the business of governance to resume. In 2016, that is unlikely to be the case. Whether Trump or Clinton ultimately prevails, large numbers of Americans will view the result as further proof of “rigged” and irredeemably corrupt political arrangements. Rather than inducing some semblance of reconciliation, the outcome is likely to deepen divisions.
How in the name of all that is holy did we get into such a mess?
How did the party of Eisenhower, an architect of victory in World War II, choose as its nominee a narcissistic TV celebrity who, with each successive Tweet and verbal outburst, offers further evidence that he is totally unequipped for high office? Yes, the establishment media are ganging up on Trump, blatantly displaying the sort of bias normally kept at least nominally under wraps. Yet never have such expressions of journalistic hostility toward a particular candidate been more justified. Trump is a bozo of such monumental proportions as to tax the abilities of our most talented satirists. Were he alive today, Mark Twain at his most scathing would be hard-pressed to do justice to The Donald’s blowhard pomposity.
Similarly, how did the party of Adlai Stevenson, but also of Stevenson’s hero Franklin Roosevelt, select as its candidate someone so widely disliked and mistrusted even by many of her fellow Democrats? True, antipathy directed toward Hillary Clinton draws some of its energy from incorrigible sexists along with the “vast right wing conspiracy” whose members thoroughly loathe both Clintons. Yet the antipathy is not without basis in fact.
Even by Washington standards, Secretary Clinton exudes a striking sense of entitlement combined with a nearly complete absence of accountability. She shrugs off her misguided vote in support of invading Iraq back in 2003, while serving as senator from New York. She neither explains nor apologizes for pressing to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, her most notable “accomplishment” as secretary of state. “We came, we saw, he died,” she bragged back then, somewhat prematurely given that Libya has since fallen into anarchy and become a haven for ISIS.
She clings to the demonstrably false claim that her use of a private server for State Department business compromised no classified information. Now opposed to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) that she once described as the “gold standard in trade agreements,” Clinton rejects charges of political opportunism. That her change of heart occurred when attacking the TPP was helping Bernie Sanders win one Democratic primary after another is merely coincidental. Oh, and the big money accepted from banks and Wall Street as well as the tech sector for minimal work and the bigger money still from leading figures in the Israel lobby? Rest assured that her acceptance of such largesse won’t reduce by one iota her support for “working class families” or her commitment to a just peace settlement in the Middle East.
Let me be clear: none of these offer the slightest reason to vote for Donald Trump. Yet together they make the point that Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, notably so in matters related to national security. Clinton is surely correct that allowing Trump to make decisions related to war and peace would be the height of folly. Yet her record in that regard does not exactly inspire confidence.
When it comes to foreign policy, Trump’s preference for off-the-cuff utterances finds him committing astonishing gaffes with metronomic regularity. Spontaneity serves chiefly to expose his staggering ignorance.
By comparison, the carefully scripted Clinton commits few missteps, as she recites with practiced ease the pabulum that passes for right thinking in establishment circles. But fluency does not necessarily connote soundness. Clinton, after all, adheres resolutely to the highly militarized “Washington playbook” that President Obama himself has disparaged—a faith-based belief in American global primacy to be pursued regardless of how the world may be changing and heedless of costs.
On the latter point, note that Clinton’s acceptance speech in Philadelphia included not a single mention of Afghanistan. By Election Day, the war there will have passed its 15th anniversary. One might think that a prospective commander-in-chief would have something to say about the longest conflict in American history, one that continues with no end in sight. Yet, with the Washington playbook offering few answers, Mrs. Clinton chooses to remain silent on the subject.
So while a Trump presidency holds the prospect of the United States driving off a cliff, a Clinton presidency promises to be the equivalent of banging one’s head against a brick wall without evident effect, wondering all the while why it hurts so much.
Pseudo-Politics for an Ersatz Era
But let’s not just blame the candidates. Trump and Clinton are also the product of circumstances that neither created. As candidates, they are merely exploiting a situation—one relying on intuition and vast stores of brashness, the other putting to work skills gained during a life spent studying how to acquire and employ power. The success both have achieved in securing the nominations of their parties is evidence of far more fundamental forces at work.
In the pairing of Trump and Clinton, we confront symptoms of something pathological. Unless Americans identify the sources of this disease, it will inevitably worsen, with dire consequences in the realm of national security. After all, back in Eisenhower’s day, the IEDs planted thanks to reckless presidential decisions tended to blow up only years—or even decades—later. For example, between the 1953 U.S.-engineered coup that restored the Shah to his throne and the 1979 revolution that converted Iran overnight from ally to adversary, more than a quarter of a century elapsed. In our own day, however, detonation occurs so much more quickly — witness the almost instantaneous and explosively unhappy consequences of Washington’s post-9/11 military interventions in the Greater Middle East.
So here’s a matter worth pondering: How is it that all the months of intensive fundraising, the debates and speeches, the caucuses and primaries, the avalanche of TV ads and annoying robocalls have produced two presidential candidates who tend to elicit from a surprisingly large number of rank-and-file citizens disdain, indifference, or at best hold-your-nose-and-pull-the-lever acquiescence?
Here, then, is a preliminary diagnosis of three of the factors contributing to the erosion of American politics, offered from the conviction that, for Americans to have better choices next time around, fundamental change must occur—and soon.
First, and most important, the evil effects of money: Need chapter and verse? For a tutorial, see this essential 2015 book by Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard: Republic Lost, Version 2.0. Those with no time for books might spare 18 minutes for Lessig’s brilliant and deeply disturbing TED talk. Professor Lessig argues persuasively that unless the United States radically changes the way it finances political campaigns, we’re pretty much doomed to see our democracy wither and die.
Needless to say, moneyed interests and incumbents who benefit from existing arrangements take a different view and collaborate to maintain the status quo. As a result, political life has increasingly become a pursuit reserved for those like Trump who possess vast personal wealth or for those like Clinton who display an aptitude for persuading the well to do to open their purses, with all that implies by way of compromise, accommodation, and the subsequent repayment of favors.
Second, the perverse impact of identity politics on policy: Observers make much of the fact that, in capturing the presidential nomination of a major party, Hillary Clinton has shattered yet another glass ceiling. They are right to do so. Yet the novelty of her candidacy starts and ends with gender. When it comes to fresh thinking, Donald Trump has far more to offer than Clinton—even if his version of “fresh” tends to be synonymous with wacky, off-the-wall, ridiculous, or altogether hair-raising.
The essential point here is that, in the realm of national security, Hillary Clinton is utterly conventional. She subscribes to a worldview (and view of America’s role in the world) that originated during the Cold War, reached its zenith in the 1990s when the United States proclaimed itself the planet’s “sole superpower,” and persists today remarkably unaffected by actual events. On the campaign trail, Clinton attests to her bona fides by routinely reaffirming her belief in American exceptionalism, paying fervent tribute to “the world’s greatest military,” swearing that she’ll be “listening to our generals and admirals,” and vowing to get tough on America’s adversaries. These are, of course, the mandatory rituals of the contemporary Washington stump speech, amplified if anything by the perceived need for the first female candidate for president to emphasize her pugnacity.
A Clinton presidency, therefore, offers the prospect of more of the same—muscle-flexing and armed intervention to demonstrate American global leadership—albeit marketed with a garnish of diversity. Instead of different policies, Clinton will offer an administration that has a different look, touting this as evidence of positive change.
Yet while diversity may be a good thing, we should not confuse it with effectiveness. A national security team that “looks like America” (to use the phrase originally coined by Bill Clinton) does not necessarily govern more effectively than one that looks like President Eisenhower’s. What matters is getting the job done.
Since the 1990s women have found plentiful opportunities to fill positions in the upper echelons of the national security apparatus. Although we have not yet had a female commander-in-chief, three women have served as secretary of state and two as national security adviser. Several have filled Adlai Stevenson’s old post at the United Nations. Undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries of like gender abound, along with a passel of female admirals and generals.
So the question needs be asked: Has the quality of national security policy improved compared to the bad old days when men exclusively called the shots? Using as criteria the promotion of stability and the avoidance of armed conflict (along with the successful prosecution of wars deemed unavoidable), the answer would, of course, have to be no. Although Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Clinton herself might entertain a different view, actually existing conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries across the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa tell a different story.
The abysmal record of American statecraft in recent years is not remotely the fault of women; yet neither have women made a perceptibly positive difference. It turns out that identity does not necessarily signify wisdom or assure insight. Allocating positions of influence in the State Department or the Pentagon based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—as Clinton will assuredly do—may well gratify previously disenfranchised groups. Little evidence exists to suggest that doing so will produce more enlightened approaches to statecraft, at least not so long as adherence to the Washington playbook figures as a precondition to employment. (Should Clinton win in November, don’t expect the redoubtable ladies of Code Pink to be tapped for jobs at the Pentagon and State Department.)
In the end, it’s not identity that matters but ideas and their implementation. To contemplate the ideas that might guide a President Trump along with those he will recruit to act on them—Ivanka as national security adviser?—is enough to elicit shudders from any sane person. Yet the prospect of Madam President surrounding herself with an impeccably diverse team of advisers who share her own outmoded views is hardly cause for celebration.
Putting a woman in charge of national security policy will not in itself amend the defects exhibited in recent years. For that, the obsolete principles with which Clinton along with the rest of Washington remains enamored will have to be jettisoned. In his own bizarre way (albeit without a clue as to a plausible alternative), Donald Trump seems to get that; Hillary Clinton does not.
Third, the substitution of “reality” for reality: Back in 1962, a young historian by the name of Daniel Boorstin published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. In an age in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton vie to determine the nation’s destiny, it should be mandatory reading. The Image remains, as when it first appeared, a fire bell ringing in the night.
According to Boorstin, more than five decades ago the American people were already living in a “thicket of unreality.” By relentlessly indulging in ever more “extravagant expectations,” they were forfeiting their capacity to distinguish between what was real and what was illusory. Indeed, Boorstin wrote, “We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality.”
While ad agencies and PR firms had indeed vigorously promoted a world of illusions, Americans themselves had become willing accomplices in the process.
“The American citizen lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare to face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”
This, of course, was decades before the nation succumbed to the iridescent allure of Facebook, Google, fantasy football, “Real Housewives of_________,” selfies, smartphone apps, Game of Thrones, Pokémon GO—and, yes, the vehicle that vaulted Donald Trump to stardom, The Apprentice.
“The making of the illusions which flood our experience has become the business of America,” wrote Boorstin. It’s also become the essence of American politics, long since transformed into theater, or rather into some sort of (un)reality show.
Presidential campaigns today are themselves, to use Boorstin’s famous term, “pseudo-events” that stretch from months into years. By now, most Americans know better than to take at face value anything candidates say or promise along the way. We’re in on the joke—or at least we think we are. Reinforcing that perception on a daily basis are media outlets that have abandoned mere reporting in favor of enhancing the spectacle of the moment. This is especially true of the cable news networks, where talking heads serve up a snide and cynical complement to the smarmy fakery that is the office-seeker’s stock in trade. And we lap it up. It matters little that we know it’s all staged and contrived, as long as—a preening Megyn Kelly getting under Trump’s skin, Trump himself denouncing “lyin’ Ted” Cruz, etc., etc. — it’s entertaining.
This emphasis on spectacle has drained national politics of whatever substance it still had back when Ike and Adlai commanded the scene. It hardly need be said that Donald Trump has demonstrated an extraordinary knack—a sort of post-modern genius—for turning this phenomenon to his advantage. Yet in her own way Clinton plays the same game. How else to explain a national convention organized around the idea of “reintroducing to the American people” someone who served eight years as First Lady, was elected to the Senate, failed in a previous high-profile run for the presidency, and completed a term as secretary of state? The just-ended conclave in Philadelphia was, like the Republican one that preceded it, a pseudo-event par excellence, the object of the exercise being to fashion a new “image” for the Democratic candidate.
The thicket of unreality that is American politics has now become all-enveloping. The problem is not Trump and Clinton, per se. It’s an identifiable set of arrangements—laws, habits, cultural predispositions—that have evolved over time and promoted the rot that now pervades American politics. As a direct consequence, the very concept of self-government is increasingly a fantasy, even if surprisingly few Americans seem to mind.
At an earlier juncture back in 1956, out of a population of 168 million, we got Ike and Adlai. Today, with almost double the population, we get—well, we get what we’ve got. This does not represent progress. And don’t kid yourself that things really can’t get much worse. Unless Americans rouse themselves to act, count on it, they will.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author most recently of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.