I thought the Republican primaries were the best reality show I’d ever seen. I mean, no professional writer would have dared to create a character like Herman Cain, for reasons of political correctness if nothing else, and no real writer would have written Newt Gingrich as broadly as Gingrich wrote himself. Rick Perry’s and Michelle Bachmann’s downfalls were as campy and crudely satisfying as any storyline devised for a big ticket wrestling match. It was great entertainment.
The general election, on the other hand, is turning out more like a bad dream. Romney will trumpet every bad piece of economic news from every corner of the globe while relying on racist whispers to do the rest; Obama, in turn, is going to spend the next six months trying not to look like Jimmy Carter.
It’s a pretty unedifying spectacle, all in all.
And worst of all is the fact that they agree about so much. As polarized as we might be about some things, our political class shares a remarkably strong economic consensus. They all vest their full faith in the system that gave us Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet—not to mention Bernie Madoff and Jamie Dimon, Donald Trump and Herman Cain.
Elizabeth Warren is perhaps the closest thing to a left wing populist hero we have. But for all the vitriol she inspires from the right, her talking points come right out of a Frank Capra movie. “Washington is wired to work for the big guys, the ones who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” she says. “We need to put Washington on the side of middle class families again. Fixing the system is going to take better disclosure rules, some kind of public funding system for elections, serious action to reverse Citizens United, and most importantly, people across the Commonwealth and the country pushing for a democracy in which everyone’s voice is heard.” Blame Mr. Potter or the Koch brothers, in other words, not the system itself. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s first inaugural, there is nothing bad about our system that can’t be fixed by what’s good in it.
For all the right’s fear-mongering, the menu of economic choices that mainstream voters are invited to choose from today—unfettered laissez faire versus sensible regulation and a minimal safety net, TR versus William Howard Taft—is less diverse than what was on offer a hundred years ago. For all the partisan rage, both parties purvey a gauzy-lensed, nostalgia-tinged vision of the world as it seemed to be when their candidates were very young, back before the bottom fell out in the late sixties.
Neither major party is prepared to admit that our system is fundamentally broken and/or intrinsically corrupt. How could they? It’s not that it’s hard to choose between the two candidates–I’m going to vote for Obama. But there’s such a depressing, slouching towards Bethlehem feeling to the whole spectacle. The worst are so full of passionate intensity; the best lack all conviction. Surely the center can’t hold for much longer.
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