by Barry Edelson


Play By the Rules, and Lose



"Politicians cause a lot of problems,
but the voters are no bargain, either."

— Barney Frank


We would like to believe, for very good reasons, that ordinary life is largely divorced from politics. However, as events remind us again and again, politics is merely a mirror that reflects the characteristics of the society that produces it, albeit in an exaggerated and shrill fashion. Perhaps we might describe politics as a fun-house mirror that distorts our own image just enough to make it unrecognizable. If we didn't know that we were actually looking at ourselves, we could be fooled into supposing that the image in the glass bears no resemblance to normal human beings who live, work and vote.

This illusion breaks down when we start to notice the similarities between the behavior of the corrupt and venal grotesquerie before our eyes, and the conduct of the fellow creatures with whom we interact on a daily basis. It becomes increasingly obvious that there is one eternal verity of politics that is plainly reflected in "regular" human conduct: that those who have the power to make the rules craft them for their own benefit, while those who merely play by the rules are chumps. This is no more true on Capital Hill than it is on Wall Street. In the one arena, there are endless battles over campaign finance, voter registration, ballot initiatives and candidate selections, with a commensurate army of activists and advocates wielding enough briefs and petitions to fell all the forests of the world. The "regular" person reads the news, attempts to make judgments, and goes to the polls at the appointed time, seeing only glimpses, in the increasingly rare investigative report, of the inner turmoil that governs the political process. As newspapers are bought and sold by supporters of one faction or another, for the express purpose of preventing this ugliness from coming to light, the voter must read between the lines, or put his faith in one huckster or another, thereby succumbing to the inanity that is the modern political campaign.

In the parallel arena of finance, the ordinary investor wagers his money in a vast and opaque market that he is told is both fair and overseen by regulators to ensure that it remains so. The investor is powerless to change the rules, or even to understand the growing complexities of the markets and the financial instruments concocted by insiders, but does his best to keep himself apprised of developments in business and world affairs, events that are far more likely to make him regret his investment decisions than to realize his dream of independent wealth. Large investors, by contrast, do not sit passively on the sidelines and allow their great hordes of cash to float on the vagaries of markets. Wisely, they spend vast sums in the halls of Congress to manipulate the labyrinth of tax loopholes and regulatory mechanisms, in order to guarantee that their money is not only safe but increasing. They, too, deploy lobbyists and lawyers by the thousand, not merely to stay on one side of the authorities, but to draw the boundary of the law so that they and the authorities are together on the same side of it. For the unknowing majority, the risks are unavoidably great; for the knowing minority, they are reduced to the barest minimum.

Ronald Reagan's popular aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats is simultaneously appealing and inapt: the tide may not discriminate between rich and poor, but the economy is not a tide, and people are not boats. Even if the economy were like the tide, its rise would as likely swamp the smaller boats as lift them, while the large pleasure boats found safe harbor in quiescent tax havens and dry banks conveniently located at higher altitudes. That the 40th president believed in the truth of his own rhetoric belies yet another aspect of the observation with which we began this examination of the body politic: the contrivance of language to elicit a desired response from an otherwise unreceptive audience. The cunning metaphor, trite anecdote or simplistic comparison is another form of the mirrored reflection, one that fools us into thinking that we do indeed recognize ourselves, not in the chicanery of politicians as a class, but in the embodiment of national ideals in one particular person who is, unaccountably, rather more like us than we previously imagined. This corruption of human communication alone is a subject so vast that it must wait for another day to receive the explication it requires.

Rules? What Rules?

Four years ago, The Pursuit of Worldliness bemoaned the fact that we seem unable to hold a presidential election in which the two major-party candidates are not seen to represent an existential threat to one half of the population or the other. It is not merely the pressure to distinguish oneself from one's opponent that pushes office-seekers to ever-greater extremes of ideology and rhetoric, but an entire industry of influence and opinion that works day and night in all seasons to make these differences appear far greater than they are, a machinery of deception which consequently has much to lose from any semblance of agreement among opposing forces. The demagoguery of those who profit from this illusion is surpassed only by their shamelessness.

Once again, we are led to believe that pulling the proverbial lever for either Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama will save the country from ruin, or deliver us to it.

Partisanship is cowardice.

Whatever consensus there may be among supporters on both sides on any particular issue — immigration, taxes, education, war, health care, entitlements — is papered over to appear as though each must consider the other its born enemy. We deride the "bubble" in which our adversaries hide but fail to acknowledge the one in which we voluntarily ensconce ourselves. Once again life imitates politics: we tend to believe that only other people are tax cheats, reckless drivers and lousy parents, but of course responsibility for the world's failings lies within us all. We are each of us complicit in allowing the purveyors of hysteria to convince us of the dangerous and utterly false notion that our differences are irreconcilable.

Let us have no illusions that there are not in fact ideologues in our midst who could, and would, do the nation great harm. But we need not allow the ineradicable human tendency toward intolerance and domination to reduce us always to the baser instincts of our nature. We are to a great extent driven toward distrust and hatred by our own experience, but this does not prevent us from recognizing when others are fanning the flames for their own aggrandizement. None of us is wholly consistent in his views, and there are enormous areas in which most of the opinions of most people overlap. The vast majority of Americans neither hate the wealthy nor disdain the poor, are neither wholly intolerant nor foolishly oblivious to differences, are neither purely liberal nor purely conservative. Time and again we have pulled ourselves up from the darkness of division and found the light again, not by the victory of one "side" over another, but by most of us finding a way to occupy the great middle ground. It takes some courage to acknowledge the borders where we diverge without resorting to demagoguery. Partisanship is cowardice.

Imagine a campaign between a Mitt Romney who feels no need to run from his record as a center-right former governor of Massachusetts who once espoused universal health care, or a Barack Obama who is under no strain to defend center-left positions for which there has long been a national consensus. This election is not a choice between a ticket of John Birch and his running mate Jim Crow on the one side, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the other. But if you got all your news from cable television, talk radio and/or the blogosphere, you would hardly know otherwise. Both parties and both campaigns have learned well the lessons of election years past, and are not about to let good sense or decency get in the way of victory. Democrats have learned the hard way what Republicans have more easily absorbed: you can play by the rules, and hold true to your precious principles, or you can win.

At this point in the election, we may not like the choices presented to us, but we always have a choice in the way we think about our government, and about each other. We can behave like the distorted reflection we are forced to witness daily in political advertisements, stump speeches and the recitation of talking points that passes for debating. Or we can acknowledge our common humanity — taught in nearly all of our schools, and praised in nearly all of our churches — and turn away from the depraved image we see before us. We mistakenly expect our political leaders to be role models for us and our children, without realizing that we, the people, are the role models for the politicians. The political classes will exploit whatever visage we present to them. If we distrust, disregard and detest one another, if we are dishonest in our dealings and disdainful of the law and the rules of society, what else can we expect but for them to follow our lead? No politician can make you cheat, steal or lie. If you want to know what kind of government we will get from the candidates, never mind the election. Just look in the mirror.


October 7, 2012


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