An eminently forgettable book I recently read had one line worth remembering: “…a perfect politician; slippery as an eel, ruthlessly elastic, a rhetorical show to hide other things…”
Obviously not an enthusiastic view of politicians, but one commonly held, partly because it fits too many of them. I spent many years in the the political arena working as a staffer and consultant on everything from campaigns to issues of public policy, and at every level of government. It may surprise you that I’ve known many politicians who were hard working persons of integrity doing their best for what they believed was best for the citizens in their jurisdictions. Some had gifted competency, some struggled with the basics, the rest were like the rest of us, average. Of course they had egos, some more than others, but not more than you and me. It’s just that we don’t parade ours around in public on the campaign trail. Politicians are not, ipso facto, slippery, ruthlessly elastic, self serving characters who only work for the people who finance their campaign funds.
Sadly, these last few years have seen such characters proliferate in greater numbers with greater boldness, not caring that they’ve been found out. They hold some of the nation’s most important leadership positions at every level, including majority leadership in congress, the White House, and in an excruciatingly large number of state and local offices. Open and flagrant greed, corruption and cruelty have been paraded as virtues in support of “real Americans.”
It’s happened before in American politics, and world wide in many countries. There seem to be certain conditions associated with it.
- A critical mass of people, accustomed to being catered to, feeling alienated from the affections of previous political leaders
- Egregious degrees of income inequality
- Consolidation of political power that takes on dynastic appearances
- Public submission to corruption as the acceptable norm for politicians
These and related conditions are not enough by themselves. All they do is create the right environment for authoritarianism to emerge as a possible alternative, an attractive corrective perhaps. They create the right opportunity for would be authoritarian leaders to make their move, but authoritarians need a critical mass of followers to be successful. Creating one is the job of a corps of well organized thought and opinion leaders to:
- Undermine the legitimacy of all forms of news and commentary other than their own
- Exaggerate whatever the alienated feel threatened by
- Promise relief and salvation to the alienated, and to the exclusion of others
- Identify a class of others as the cause of their misfortunes and the enemy of their hope for a better future
- Portray the authoritarian leader as virtuous
- Establish loyalty to the leader as loyalty to the country
- Create the appearance of a spontaneous, popular grass roots movement in support of the leader
It’s a process that’s worked well in many countries, but not with much lasting success in modern democracies with histories of a free press, and cultures that value public freedom of expression. It’s one reason why we’re experiencing such strong sense of political polarization. The conditions for authoritarianism to emerge have been met. A few politicians who favor authoritarian ways have firmly established themselves in congress, legislatures and state houses. Authoritarian leaders have been encouraged to make their move, and one got elected president. A committed corps of highly skilled thought and opinion leaders know what their job is, and have bent to the task with considerable success.
But they’ve been met with an outpouring of well informed opposition from journalists and commentators who understand what’s going on, value their freedom of expression, intend to fight for it, and are not intimidated by threats from authoritarian forces. They are joined by citizens and politicians who recognize that treasured freedoms are at stake. Moreover, they’re aware of the social and economic conditions that allowed the possibility authoritarianism to emerge, the need to do something about them, and a few good ideas about what that is.
As a result, authoritarian forces have not been able to create the critical mass they need. They’ve come close, but they’re not there, and the tide may be changing. The push and pull looks like polarization, but the appearance may be exaggerated. If the temporarily united forces of freedom win, they will immediately dissolve into competing camps, each negotiating with the others to reach compromise solutions to conditions of alienation and economic inequity. It’s not the rock hard polarization of black vs. white because white is an illusion created by all the colors appearing together at one time.
It’s complicated by the existence of multiple alienated classes. Authoritarians recognized correctly that the class most likely to give them their critical mass was the so called white working class that had for fifty years served as the standard of who a real American is. Racism was the card for them to play, and they played it well, denying it was in play at all. Blacks and uppity women could be ignored because they were never catered to with the same generosity as the white working class. In other words, they were used to being discriminated against, and could usually be put off for a while with a few well aimed platitudes. American Indians have been successfully ignored for so long by so many that one more round was never an issue. Hispanics in general, and immigrants specifically, especially the dreaded illegal ones, were the perfect threat target. One couldn’t ask for a better class to be labeled as the enemy, and so they were.
It hasn’t worked as well as hoped. The white working class is not monolithic. It’s not even entirely white. It exists in too many parts and too many places to be easily manipulated as a bloc. Blacks, women, Indians and Hispanics have no intention of being ignored again, nor do they intend to submit to the imaginary white working class as the standard against which to be measured. Authoritarian intimidation has not yet descended to the use of generalized violence, and its ICE backed thrusts have been met with outrage and massive civil disobedience. The intellectual elite may be scorned, but using their knowledge and gifts of communication, they’re wading into the fray with some effect.
The Koch brothers network, and sympathetic others, have always struggled with easily getting their way with the inefficiencies of democratic legislative processes. They appear to believe it’s easier to buy corrupt politicians and manipulate authoritarian regimes. I imagine they’re not happy to have discovered they can’t out finance the opposition, and, to their surprise, not all politicians are for sale, not even authoritarians. People such as Bannon, filled with intellectual arrogance and contempt for their lessers, have yet to discover they’re not the smartest persons on the planet, nor are the people as easily manipulated as they think. No question they’re dangerous, but the greater danger is from a man like Trump who rather stupidly crashes along looking neither to the right or left in his single minded intention to win by causing others to lose, and rule without question. He never gives up, never admits he’s wrong, can’t apologize, and doesn’t care what others think. That’s why it’s so important to beat him at the ballot box.