One of the most common definitions of politics is that it is a means for deciding who gets what, when, and how. Politics is also about power. Power is also many other things. For example, it is the ability to impose one’s will on another person or group. Power is rigging the game to one’s own advantage. Power is convincing a person to act against their own interest, all while they believe the opposite is true. Power is not an abstraction. It acts on our bodies. And by doing so, power gives some people more privileges and opportunities than others.
But a political agenda is also advanced by manipulating people—in one way or another—via their emotions. The average citizen may not have a deep grasp of the particulars of public policy, but they do have a sense of their own emotions and feelings about politics. Alas, we are not human calculators, making wholly rational decisions that maximize our gains. We are thinking and feeling people that use “decision rules” to arrive at an answer.
And in this moment of authoritarianism and proto-fascism by the Republican Party, of “Trumpism” and fearmongering, feelings of bigotry and hatred are being ginned up to a fever pitch. As I have written about both here at Daily Kos and elsewhere, the end of the Age of Obama has inaugurated a full-on temper tantrum by the White Right. Obama’s election in 2008 began the public fit, and it will continue after his departure from office.
A desperate and revanchist Republican Party is fighting demographic suicide, and movement conservatism is bereft of new ideas. It is a political religion that draws on the 1950s and 1960s in order to make (failed) sense of the politics of the 21st century. Today’s conservatives are incapable of seeking out the better angels of compromise and consensus that Obama pleaded for in his final State of the Union speech, because they see government as their enemy and liberals and progressives as evil incarnate to be purged. Those who disagree with the right-wing news entertainment media’s alternate version of political and social reality are heretics to be persecuted.
The deep state and the neoliberals smile. A broken and ineffective government, faux right-wing populism, and mouth-breathing herrenvolk identity politics are a means to an end: Securing more resources for the plutocrats while millions of white Americans fight to protect the psychological wages of whiteness and the diminishing (although still very substantive) material rewards they bring to its owners. Right-wing “populists” who now flock to Donald Trump, or to the tea party a few years earlier, are a gaggle of useful idiots for the one percent.
On the other side of the color line, black and brown folks are brutalized by the carceral and punishing State. The black and brown (and white poor, albeit in different ways) underclass exists in a condition of “custodial citizenship:” They are more like denizens than equal citizens. The latter can access the full fruits of the American polity. The former are marginalized, rejected, intimidated, and punished by the State.
We are all left with a riddle that cannot be ignored: A president who happens to be black is the face of the American empire abroad and presides over a country that may have elected him twice. But the life chances of folks who look like him were unchanged, and by many measures made even worse, during his time in office.
One of history’s great questions will be: Did this state of affairs persist because of Obama? Despite him? Then there’s the counterfactual: How much worse off would black America have been under two Republican regimes?
The American middle class is compressed, depressed, and losing hope. Elites respond to the wishes of the very rich, and inside-the-beltway interest groups and think tanks. The white, black, and brown poor are demobilized. The white working class and lower-middle classes are manipulated by Christian fundamentalism, “End Times” madness, and promises of rewards in a mythic life thereafter to vote against their material self-interests.
The American public is also deeply divided. However, these divisions are overstated in terms of public policy, as there is a broad consensus among the American people on a whole range of issues. It is the elites, the media, and opinion leaders who are the most extremely polarized. They exert such a high level of gravity that they drag the rest of the public with them.
But these divisions do exist, in extreme ways, regarding hopes and dreams, and what is a sense that tomorrow will be better than today. White Americans, especially conservatives, are extremely angry, demoralized, and worried about their futures. Meanwhile, blacks and Latinos are much more hopeful. While their life chances and life outcomes are far worse as compared to white folks, non-whites still maintain a positive life attitude.
Is this future sustainable? We’re looking at a bifurcation in the American Dream in a zero-sum game—where too many whites view the progress of black and brown people as a threat, and as stealing opportunities that ought to be reserved for white people.
As Morpheus explained to Neo in the movie The Matrix, we know something is wrong, and we feel the tendrils and pressure of hegemonic power everywhere. But how do you fight an enemy that is nowhere and everywhere at the same time? How does a public negotiate a reality TV show culture, one which is beset with illusions and distractions that are designed to give pleasure, while also cultivating a sense of learned helplessness among a people who for too long confused consumerism with true freedom and a “we the people” democracy?
And what of Bernie Sanders? The wave of progressive and centrist populism that is buoying his political hopes is a reaction to some of the same frustrations that spawned the ugliness embodied by Donald Trump’s ascendance. Their wellsprings may be cousins, but the differences are stark. Sanders’ supporters are pursuing a humane and inclusive politics. Trump’s supporters (and the Republican Party en masse) are regressive, tribal, and cruel in their political vision for a future and present America.
And what of Hillary Clinton? Would her presidency just be an extension of Barack Obama’s policies, with all the attendant positives and negatives that it would entail? Is surrendering to what many consider “realistic” politics preferable to the more transformative vision offered by Bernie Sanders?
We are in the grasp of the politics of disorientation. How do we escape its swamp? Please point me in the right direction.
I am a victim of political disorientation. Are you?