Outside the Asylum
“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.
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:
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.)
Notice the fact that both parties 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 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?