Elites vs. Deplorables
Continuing the vocabulary theme, campaign and legislative debate politics have devolved to name calling intended to marginalize, even demonize, the other. It elicits emotionally biased responses while avoiding meaningful discussion of the issues. America has a long, inglorious history of humiliating, demonizing political name calling, but it also has a long history of serious public debate about the issues.
The 2016 election changed whatever balance there was between the two, making it more difficult to have worthwhile negotiations over issues in need of resolution. The 2012 Republican primary debates saw it coming when one candidate, Trump, used humiliating nicknames and snide remarks to cover up his lack of knowledge and inability to engage in intellectual debate (insofar as primary debates are ever intellectual). He transformed debate into name calling humiliation of the other to demean whatever they had to say about anything, without having to say anything of substance himself.
It might have ended there, but Clinton gave him all the ammunition he needed to finish out the campaign as a contest between two irreconcilable forces when she coined the term “A basket of deplorables” in a September 9 fund raising speech. She was recorded as saying half of Trump’s supporters were a “basket of deplorables” who were racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic. He used the moment to wholeheartedly agree, setting his deplorables against her elites.
That gave license and permission to those who held any kind of racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic belief or attitude. No longer constrained by social mores that kept them in check, they had a champion on their side running for president, and he had won their vote. The added plus was the creation of a new scapegoat to be blamed for everything, the elites, especially coastal elites, snowflakes, every one of them.
Who were the elites? Well, Democrats to be sure, but not working class Democrats, only the Democrats who always looked down on working class people. And educated people who were book smart but lacked common sense and never worked a hard ten hour day under heavy handed supervision. They had no moral standards, were pro homosexuality, wanted open borders to let anyone in, refused to recognize the Muslim threat to America, and had no respect for the traditions that kept races in their proper places. And, yes, they mostly lived on the coasts, and in cities with colleges and universities, but not in the Southeast.
It was a cascading sort of thing that created its own reality transcending every assault by facts, demographic studies, op ed columns and popular books: weren’t they all produced by elites? We continue to live with it, not only because the president uses it with cunning skill, but because Congress has become a place of us against them in which one side must win, the other lose, or both will die, and negotiating with mutual intent to solve problems in ways workable for most is not an option.
Can all of it be blamed on Trump’s primary debate insults and Clinton’s basket of deplorables speech? No. The ground first had to be prepared, and that can be traced in large part to Mitch McConnell’s September 12, 2012 speech where he said,”When I first came into office my number one priority was making sure president Obama is a one-term president.” It was his intent to see that nothing coming from the Obama administration would ever see the legislative light of day, not even if it had once been a Republican idea. Other powerful legislators have been as pugnaciously intransigent, but none in recent history has been Senate Majority Leader, the office he assumed in 2015, and under whose authority lay the at will power to allow or disallow legislative progress.
The strategy McConnell began to hone as Senate Minority Whip back in 2003, would evolve into the take no prisoners and negotiate with no one policy that appears to have become the norm in today’s political environment. It works by humiliating and marginalizing the other, whoever the other might be, so that they become a dehumanized enemy unworthy of consideration. As deplorable as it is, it works because it lifts up the worthiness of ‘us’ against the unworthiness of ‘them’ who have always looked down on ‘us’ and had it in for ‘us,’ and now ‘they’ are getting what ‘they deserve.
‘They’ in turn, are incited to be well aware of who the enemy really is, and what must be done about it. We’ve seen this played out in fiction (1984, Lord of the Flies, etc.), and in the history of the world’s wars. Most frighteningly, we’ve seen it played out in European fascist populism we thought was defeated 74 years ago. But here it is again, with a wannabe fascist in the White House, and a skilled enabler heading the Senate.
I don’t know how we get out of this mess, but we must. Perhaps the voting public will wake up and clear the decks of such as Trump and McConnell. There are emerging voices from the center-right suggesting movement in that direction. There are center-left voices expressing hope. There are public voices who reject that legislative proposals have to be left or right, capitalist or socialist, but can be simply ideas, worthy of consideration, about how to solve real problems. Some might work, some might not, and something else might emerge out of the legislative process.