Outside the Asylum

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Lesser of Two Evils II

“If they’d wanted to win, they wouldn’t have run Hillary Clinton.”
--my mom, 2016

All the available evidence suggests that the two dominant American political parties exist primarily to limit American politics to one fairly narrow policy trajectory. The American tradition which links political change to widespread bureaucratic and policy change, a tradition that goes back to Andrew Jackson (a man of many sins, but that’s a story for another time), has been well and truly broken by a process that first became visible around 1988, during the contest between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. The presidential debate of that year was the first debate since 1974 not administered by the League of Women Voters.

After a 16 year period in which there were no public presidential debates, the League of Women Voters Education Fund (LWVEF) sponsored three presidential debates in 1976. These debates between Jimmy Carter (D), former governor of Georgia and Gerald Ford (R), President of the United States, were the first to be held since 1960. In 1976 the League also sponsored one vice presidential debate between Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS).

The League continued to sponsor the presidential and vice presidential debates every four years through the 1984 elections. Following that election cycle, the Democratic and Republican national parties came together in a decision to move sponsorship of the debates under the purview of the parties.

The League abandoned the 1988 presidential debates as a bad job. They did not cotton to various anti-democratic and dishonest changes in the debate format that were desired, nay, demanded by both parties and their candidates. Their discussion of these matters was impressively fiery, from the standpoint of 2020, where we have allowed lesser of two evils thinking to quietly justify everything from waterboarding to war:

NEWS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

October 3, 1988

LEAGUE REFUSES TO "HELP PERPETRATE A FRAUD"

WITHDRAWS SUPPORT FROM FINAL PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE

"The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter," League President Nancy M. Neuman said today.

"It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions," Neuman said. "The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

Neuman said that the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on
September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns' agreement was negotiated "behind closed doors" and was presented to the League as "a done deal," she said, its 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation.

But they're a private corporation. A club. It's not anybody's business how they run their debates. They're perfectly within their rights to determine how the debates work behind closed doors, just like they can determine who the candidate is behind closed doors. Or, to quote one of my favorite movies, "Veronica, why are you pulling my dick?"

(By the way, for the uninitiated, the "petition" Heather is trying to get the school to sign is actually a mass suicide note.)


Most objectionable to the League, Neuman said, were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings. Neuman called "outrageous" the campaigns' demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.

"The campaigns' agreement is a closed-door masterpiece," Neuman said. "Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates' organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands."

Notice the fact that both parties came together to shove this demand down the League's organizational throat (and down the collective throat of the American electorate). It’s easy to say that each party wanted to control the debate process in order to advance its own ambitions, as part of a competition with its rival. On the other hand, turning the debates into a prefabricated event, with pre-selected audience and questioners and a tight control over pres access, doesn't seem to advance one party's aims at the expense of the other's. It seems to advance both parties' aims at the expense of the public. And it would have been equally easy, at the time, for a party to make the calculation that unexpected questions could advance their ambitions at the great expense of their rivals--as long as they chose a candidate very good at responding to the unexpected, and well versed in impressing the public with his intelligence, composure, and acumen.

Indeed, that is how the presidential debates worked from the time I became aware of them in the 1970s until 1988 changed the process. Debates were meant not only to put candidates and their views on display for the American people, but to test the candidates’ ability to cope with the unexpected. Unexpected challenges provided a sounding of both the man and his ideas. They encouraged the parties to select candidates who could make a good showing in such a contest. A small instance of meritocracy, but better than the utter lack of it displayed when you’re in a prefabricated political environment.

I bring up this minor point of American history for two reasons. First, the joint demands made by the two parties at the time revealed a desire not so much for competitive victory as for narrative control. When one controls who gets to ask questions, one can construct the narrative of the debate ahead of time, almost like a pre-fabricated script. It becomes possible then to use debates as a propaganda piece: a way of shaping the American people’s expectations rather than winning their confidence.

Secondly, the 1988 debate turned out to look very much like propaganda: a display that would have done Joseph McCarthy proud. Vice-President Bush spent a great deal of his debate time repeating “You’re a liberal. You’re a liberal. You’re a liberal” to Michael Dukakis. The point here was not so much to beat Michael Dukakis, who was an eminently beatable candidate in any case. The point was to change the American people’s political assumptions: to convince them that there was something bad about liberalism that automatically disqualified any liberal candidate from public service.

This assumption was not common currency at the time. Most of America was strongly in favor of the Reagan Right; liberalism was definitely out of fashion and out of power. But not many in 1988 outside of the far right thought that liberals could be disqualified as presidential candidates simply because they were liberals. That would have conflicted with the norms of the two-party system, whose basic political idea was that, most of the time, one liberal would end up competing with one conservative for any elected office. In 1988, there had to be a reason why conservativism was better than liberalism in any particular case. In fact, that was the whole point of debate: for each candidate to make the case why his character, ideology and talents were better for the people and the country than his opponent’s. 1988 marks the moment when a political discourse based on making a case—a politics which seems to get its basic ideas from the courtroom-- first gave way entirely to a political discourse based on unmoored contempt—which seems to get its basic ideas from schoolyard bullies.

Of course, it would have been quite easy, even for Michael Dukakis, to wrench the steering wheel out of George H. W. Bush’s hands and take control of the situation. It wasn’t even a particularly difficult challenge—then. All he had to do was say “Yes, I’m a liberal. And you’re a conservative. So what?” He might have added “My colleague is trying to convince us that half the American public doesn’t deserve representation in our politics. But I consider myself the servant of all the people, and don’t intend to deny anyone their share in the republic. If any liberal or conservative wants to offer honest service to the people of this country, they should be able to do so. The people are capable of choosing who will best look out for their general welfare, whether that be a conservative or a liberal: far more capable than any D.C. politician consumed with partisan bias.”

See? Wasn’t that easy?

But Dukakis didn’t do that. He said:

“I’m not a liberal. I’m not. I’m not.”

The kind of people who try to find excuses for political negligence, malfeasance and incompetence argue that Dukakis was simply telling the truth. He wasn’t a liberal. And, in fact, if you compare him to Ted Kennedy, the bellwether of liberalism at the time, Michael Dukakis wasn’t particularly liberal. But a professional politician running for the highest office in the land must understand the political implications of his speech, especially at a moment when his words are the primary objects of national scrutiny. There is no way Dukakis could be stupid enough not to recognize that he was ceding ground on behalf of himself, his party, and every left-of-center person in the United States. His name was Michael Dukakis, not Dan Quayle. He must have known that he was not only losing the debate, and probably the election, but helping to put American politics on a Procrustean bed from which it would never rise.

Dukakis' role, like that of Alan Colmes on the Fox show Hannity and Colmes, was to establish liberalism as the side that always loses. Certain specific attacks were made on liberalism along the way during that campaign season: liberalism was weak, soft on crime, deceitful. But the only way to really wipe liberalism off the political map was to attack it in a way unmoored to specific characteristics, events, or facts. Specific accusations enable the accused to make a defense. That's why Bush's attack was powerful. "You're a liberal," voiced as an insult, doesn't require justification. Just speak in a sufficiently contemptuous tone about anything, and people will get the idea that your target is bad, without need for reference to any kind of provable fact. This is the politics of the schoolyard bully, who can make anything from the color of your shirt to the way you talk a badge of shame simply by acting as if it is. It’s the same politics that, sixteen years later, brought us the Dean scream.

I’ve talked about this moment in American history at some length, because it shows two things rather vividly. First, for some time now, Democrats have been, not capitulating, but cooperating in the creation of a more authoritarian, less rational, and more reactionary political culture (I say “reactionary” rather than “conservative” because I’ll be damned if I can tell what the right is conserving, or how destruction of the world can be considered a conservation of anything). It is only because the Democrats have been helping to create this authoritarian, irrational, reactionary political culture for the past thirty years that Trump could get anywhere near the Presidency. Pat Buchanan, who is as close to a Trump analogue as I can find in the 80s, got nowhere at all with his presidential bids—and he was arguably more qualified to be President than Trump. If you want the reason the political standards and expectations of Americans are so deplorable, why we even have a system where a man like Donald Trump can become president, look to the people whose job, for the last several decades, has been to move the American voters’ expectations down and to the right. A book could be written on this, tracing the Democrats’ dedication to this ideological erasure and to the general notion that we can’t have nice things, from Dukakis to Hillary Clinton.

And perhaps that’s why lesser of two evils thinking doesn’t work on me. I don’t see a choice being offered me between a horrible thing and another, slightly less horrible thing. These aren’t two different things in competition with one another, but two different parts of the same thing. The only competition I think exists between the parties is the competition between two rival employees of the same firm, both angling for a juicy promotion. They compete for who gets the plum position and the corner office. But both serve the firm and advance its agenda, regardless of what may or may not be good for me. My choice isn't limited, it's gone.

Secondly, and more importantly, the 1988 presidential debates exemplify the use of electoral politics to re-engineer American culture by changing the people’s expectations and assumptions. Bush and Dukakis weren’t just engaged in a political Punch and Judy show; they were teaching the American people how to think about politics. They were training them how to respond when the word “liberal” or anything left-of-center came to their attention.

Every time we are exhorted to obey the lesser of evils dictum, something in our culture is being re-engineered: some deeply held principle retired without debate, some awful behavior made normative. In case you’re wondering, the current project is convincing people that they don’t need to know who’s really running the Executive Branch because anyone must be better than Trump; therefore, it’s now become a moral imperative to vote for a mental incompetent in the middle of a national crisis. But the point isn’t whether or not we should vote for Biden. The point is who we will become after we accept the norms of the Biden Democrats. The Democrats probably don’t give a damn whether we vote for Biden or not, as long as we understand that we will never be able to vote for Sanders—and as long as we allow the demands of the lesser-of-two-evils Biden candidacy to shift our expectations away from our moral principles once again.

What will we give up? What will we embrace? Will we even remember what we used to believe, a few months down the line?

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Comments

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

then make one. But you can't make a lesser of two evils choice based on pragmatism and then condemn those who don't go along with you as immoral. You can't be an advocate of realpolitik and also be a moral crusader protecting democracy from evil. Particularly when the "evil" you're protecting it from is voters who won't agree with you. An organization whose business it has been, for the last forty years, to get the American people to give up their moral and political standards, is not in a position to deliver moral lectures to anyone. It isn't anyone's moral duty to betray their moral principles. And that's exactly what the Democratic party has been selling.

As for voters, and other ordinary people, it's your right to make whatever choice you want to, including allowing yourself to be railroaded into a false, forced choice. Just acknowledge what the choice really is.

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16 users have voted.

"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Lookout's picture

is the exclusion of other parties. Libertarians, Greens, whoever has got a name on the ballot of most states. If people heard other ideas it would help. Of course if the vote is being manipulated, as I suspect (and know in some cases like DWS district), it is all a charade...kabuki theater...to make you feel like you have a choice.

The other thing I would like to add for illumination is the idea of corporate logos of contributors should be worn by the candidate...or at least some sort of exposure.
logos.jpg

Hope all is well with you and yours. Had a get together this week on jitsi.org with my FL folk festival buddies. One was getting over COVID. He continued working from home the whole time. So his case wasn't very severe.

Have a good one!

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14 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Lookout

I can't believe I didn't include that. Particularly since Jill Stein--a woman I don't particularly like, but who has sufficient integrity to run an actual, honest campaign for the Presidency--got carted off in handcuffs the last time she tried to be part of a presidential debate.

You get carted off in handcuffs for being a third party candidate trying to participate in a debate, but you get handed billions as your reward for stealing the American people's houses out from under them. And you get forgiven for lying the country into war and excused for normalizing torture.

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16 users have voted.

"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Lookout

It's great that you had that get-together. I hope there will be a time when y'all can play and sing together in person. I'd like to see that again.

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7 users have voted.

"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

We have to ask ourselves how we came to accept the Dukakis/Cinton wing. IMHO it was the desire to win because of being out of power so long. Why was that? IMO it was the Do Nothing presidency of Jimmy Carter, revered here because of his morals. I, myself, have called him a great ex-President and i still do. But he lacked executive ability.

I'm reminded of a scene in one of the "Sharpe" movies, set in the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars (World war zero). Newly promoted Captain Sharpe is addressing his company of untested recruits before their first battle. He describes what will happen as the french perform the pas' d'charge, shouting and charging with the drummers beating enormous drums. "But if you stand and load and fire three rounds a minute, when they get to the river they will falter and if you keep formation and continue to load and fire three rounds a minute they will break and run." {The wall of lead theory that also served Nelson well} "And we all know you can load and fire three rounds a minute!" Then he turns and mutters "But can you stand." Jimmy Carter could not stand. The much despised Harry Truman could stand. LBJ could stand.

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9 users have voted.

I've seen lots of changes. What doesn't change is people. Same old hairless apes.

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@The Voice In the Wilderness

I'm one of those who likes Jimmy Carter and respects him. And I detect some poisonous Deep State chicanery involved in his fall. Had that one chopper not turned back, lots of people would hail him as a patriot and a daring military genius. However, I don't idealize him. He did (and still does) a lot wrong. He was a big fan of the deregulation of business. He closed state asylums, which sounds kind and good except that there was no real provision made for where those people were going to go. I think they went on the streets and supplemented the burgeoning homeless problem. And he, like Dukakis, really should have paid some attention to the way his words and behavior would be perceived (although, as I said, I think Dukakis probably knew what he was doing). I believe in telling the truth too. But try telling it in some way that doesn't sound like you're scolding the American populace while telling them that the future is bleak. That sort of thing just opens the door for bastards of all stripes. It left a wide avenue for Reagan to parade his "morning in America" nonsense down.

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9 users have voted.

"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

lotlizard's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal  
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carter_Doctrine

Just the world’s luck that Reagan & Bush Sr. — Mr. Deep State himself — should be the beneficiaries from Gorbachev’s relaxations and the glasnost / perestroika era, though.

Whatever a hypothetical Carter-Gorbachev détente might have looked like, perhaps it might have led to a more lasting global “peace dividend” — as it is, it only took a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall for ethnicity-driven war and genocide to re-emerge (Rwanda; bloody breakup of Yugoslavia) …

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet-Afghan_War

And: the Salafist Islamic fundamentalists the U.S. armed and bankrolled in Afghanistan to oppose the Soviets — a policy seeded by Carter and Brzezinski — later metastasized across the world, eventually re-spawning as ISIS …

… resulting, many years down the line, in murder and mayhem here in Europe — Islamic terrorist attacks on ordinary people. A pop concert in Paris — remember “Bataclan”? — a boardwalk in Nice, or a Christmas market in Berlin …

All down the memory hole now! Trump! Russiagate! Corona!

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3 users have voted.
Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@The Voice In the Wilderness

which is not to say that I excuse his disastrous and unethical foreign policy decisions. Even if they were Kennedy holdovers, he was President at that point and needed to make his own decisions.

But he accomplished, or at least helped to accomplish, some truly fine things. People act as if he had nothing to do with the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act being passed, for instance. And I like the Great Society generally, though it has been ripped up one side and down the other, I think in preparation for a similar hatchet job being done on the New Deal.

Unfortunately for them, it was quite hard for many decades to convince the American people that the deal that saved many of their lives and held the country together during disaster was the Devil and Ayn Rand was an angel of light.

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9 users have voted.

"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

lotlizard's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal  
You only get an up-or-down vote on one or another package deal, packed with nasty aspects as well as attractive ones.

There was no way to vote for LBJ’s domestic policy while also voting against him on foreign policy and war (e.g. a vote that would have said, “Hey, look, Mr. President, I don’t know if it’s you behind it or the Pentagon or the CIA or whoever misleading you, but I do think there’s a good chance that that Gulf of Tonkin incident of yours might have been faked, and I don‘t want any president getting us into an Asian war.”).

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5 users have voted.
Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@lotlizard

And btw, it's great to "see" you!

But it's the privilege of the historian--or anybody looking at history--to take that more nuanced view. At least, I think so.

Truth is the daughter of time, somebody said once.

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0 users have voted.

"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

enhydra lutris's picture

focus on the fact that a major part of their political strategy is to falsely portray an essentially immoral choice as not merely a moral one, but as THE only moral one. And, they do so with classic propaganda/brainwashing techniques.

It occurred to me that the act of conducting such a propaganda campaign, portraying the immoral as moral is arguably the very epitome of immorality.

Thanks for diving into that specific aspect of our electoral farce and casting such a pinpoint spotlight on it.

be well and have a good one

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13 users have voted.

That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

magiamma's picture

There is no choice. It's The Nutter vs The MIC (ObaClinHaliBuEtc). Or something like that. We can't go forward and we can't go backwards. It's painful to read about it, to think about it. I am spending a lot of time outside in my yard/garden and the wildlife preserve near. Thanks for this awesome essay. So appreciate it.

Take good care.

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12 users have voted.

Stop Climate Change Silence - Start the Conversation

Hot Air Website, Twitter, Facebook

We are shown, not told, that we, the people, will never, ever have what we want, and will be lucky if we have what we need.
There is a lag time before the propaganda fog clears and we see clearly.
I wish some "have nots" could step forward and become the leaders against the "have everythings".

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snoopydawg's picture

Thanks for the history of how the league of women voters stopped doing the debates. I knew some of it and that debates became a laughing farce after that, but not how it came about.

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5 users have voted.

It is not until the tide goes out that you discover who has been swimming naked.