Is Democracy a Fading Hope?

While we were all being mesmerized by the Clown Circus version of an insurrection, and years before that as we stood rigidly by, hypnotized by the seemingly talentless and ignorant man as he bullied and intimidated his way into controlling the fate of nearly every member of the Republican Party—while we were distracted by all that, we may have overlooked the slipping away of our democracy. 

We now have—officially—one party that believes in (or at least attempts to abide by) the Constitution, the rule of law, and all the responsibilities that go with it. We have another party, formerly made up of conservatives and the wealthy and now composed of conspiracy-dealing whack jobs (and the wealthy), that has no use for the rule of law, or the Constitution, or even for truth itself. 

These people see the writing on the wall, that under a true democracy, with arguments and policy constrained by what we are now forced to refer to as “objective reality” (i.e., the opposite of “alternative facts”), there is no cogent way to argue for white minority rule among a pluralist society of informed voters. Especially given how it has been so-far pursued by the party of white supremacy: voter suppression, voter intimidation, gerrymandering, throwing out ballots from counties they don’t like, lawsuits when they can’t do that, and more voter suppression. 

They understand the ‘theoretical’ votes are not there for white rule via apartheid-like policies, thus the ‘actual’ vote must be managed into a different result. It was made abundantly clear in 2008 and again in 2012. Only the electoral college’s “slavery days” quirks, the bored cynicism of coddled white voters, and the fierce misogyny of those same coddled white voters saved Republicans in 2016. And even for their one bedraggled ‘victory’, look at the price they have paid.

2020 restored the pattern despite every effort Republicans could make to undermine and sully the results of the best-managed election in modern history. But try as they might they could not erase the 7,000,000 voters who put Joe Biden in the White House. That’s a problem.

Democracy threatens to solidify this trend away from Republican presidents winning the popular vote—and even the electoral college vote! So now the Trump party has rejected democracy. It really is as simple as that.

To replace it, they have the Golden Calf himself, Donald Trump, the would-be Putin, the king of lies. Yes, when they paraded that gold-plated Donald Trump idol through the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting this year—a commission I have no doubt was financed by the Trump campaign—you could feel the reverence, the deeply religious and fact-free belief system that underlies the widespread worship of the former TV reality show huckster and all-around swindler. 

His fears are their fears. His deep-seated insecurity and the hatred it breeds for those who can actually do things, create things or manage things successfully—it’s their insecurity too. You can feel the animosity for “elites” in every word they speak, where “elite”is a catch-all term like “vermin” or “subhuman” or “mongrel”. We might think “liberal” is the word they want, that reliable pejorative, but recall these are not Republicans, nor conservatives. These are the people who bragged, at the first CPAC gathering after Trump’s unlikely electoral college victory, that “we killed Ronald Reagan.” In fact it seems these would-be revolutionaries care less for their party’s former leadership and luminaries than they do for just about anyone else. Karl Rove? Loser. G.W. Bush? Loser. His dad? Loser. 

It makes sense. If you want to reform a major political party in your idol’s image, the first thing you have to do is take down the old idols. Or at least those you perceive (in your mercenary, transaction-based world) as idols, since you cannot perceive of a public servant who just wants to do a good job for the people. That last notion, to a Trump party member, can only be believed by an ignorant fool. You don’t compromise, you don’t cooperate, and who’s gonna tell you you didn’t do a good job? Some elitist loser with a $400 haircut?

You dominate

Most interesting to me are those in that other branch, the one that used to wield at least some power over the presidency. They could, as lawmakers at least in name, reserve some power to themselves. But Trump party members in Congress are more than happy to toss whatever may count as their dignity overboard (some would be “air bailing” their dignity, but still, I’m sure they believe they have some). They want to be sycophants, they want to be toadies, they want to place their fate in the hands of someone just as likely to ruin their lives as grant them access to the “inner sanctum” (i.e., the front 9 at Trump’s Doral). 

It really does puzzle me, and the only explanation I can manage is that they were never leaders in the first place. They are, by definition, followers. They were voted in on a racist Tea Party wave and its aftermath for “saying the things” white supremacists were waiting to hear. Then it got easier, with loudmouth Trump up there from 2015 on, always out front saying all the nasty, racist things they would have shied away from saying (not because they didn’t believe it). They are exactly like the snot-nose kids who stand behind the playground bully and savor his amoral cruelty vicariously, too timid and frightened to say and do the same things. And sure, the bully may turn his hateful gaze on a toadie one day—but for now standing behind him is the safest place to be. And maybe a place to get noticed.

It’s just hard to come to terms with the fact that people like Lyndsay Graham are so spineless and lacking in basic dignity, because until recently many of us regular people would have at least respected “the office” of Republican members of the Senate. We respected their office simply because of the fact that they were among the few who are honored with such an office, and were entrusted by the people to work in their best interest. They were “leaders.” You had to give them a shot.

No longer. The pact is now much less nuanced than party politics or party goals ever were. We see, with a new Senator who (for example) doesn’t understand the three branches of government, and with local party officials “censuring” those few remaining Republican members of Congress and the Senate who “defied” Trump (i.e., voted for the truth about his Elmer Fudd style insurrection). We see clearly that for some regions—some voters—the only qualification for office is to be all-in with Trump. How hard is that? 

And when this ongoing purge is complete, when there is not a single person in the Republican Party who does not support every single thing that Donald Trump does or says, it will be even easier. 

They got rid of the Republican Party platform for 2020, saying the party was basically behind Trump and everything Trump might do. The name change will come shortly. When he runs in 2024, it will be under the Trump Party banner. The name will say it all—unless you want to say something different and throw away your future. Or maybe get punched in the mouth.

Will there be a party for conservatives in 2024? Will there be an election—or will it just be a more properly planned coup? It remains to be seen, which itself says a lot about how much has changed while we slept. I can safely predict, however, that once again it won’t be any fun for the regular folks. Just another pointless headache to endure as we try to live our basic little lives, where there’s really no time or desire to play at dice for the raiments of old would-be saviors.

The Counterfeit Surgeon

Once there was a man so confident in his opinions he decided to become  a surgeon. He felt medical school was unnecessary and a waste of time, because he believed he had a great native intelligence and ‘feel’ for surgery already. In fact, as he saw it, he had a kind of instinctive genius on every subject that crossed his mind.

Using fake credentials, he managed to talk his way into a senior-level job at a teaching hospital. He was assigned nine medical students, who would accompany him on his rounds and in the operating room.

As the man proceeded to attempt various surgeries based on diagnoses provided by attending physicians, it became clear to his students that he was not a very good surgeon. But they kept quiet, or phrased their comments carefully so as not to insult someone who could decide their fates. “This is an appendectomy,” one might say during an operation, “perhaps we should remove the appendix instead of the gall bladder? I mean if you agree.”

Knowing these students had the edge on him in terms of knowledge and expertise, the phony surgeon would comply. But his considerable ego was bruised, and his ire increased, a little more with each comment. He developed an innate hostility toward those students who kept correcting him. He wondered about their priorities – about their loyalty. To him, it seemed some of them were just trying to make him look bad, or worse—to expose him.

One day he had had enough. During a fairly routine operation, the patient went into cardiac arrest. The phony surgeon continued on as if nothing was wrong, removing a healthy section of bowel rather than the cancerous part indicated by the x-rays. “I think we need to attend to this infarction, sir,” one brave student offered.

“Yes, well I’m in charge and I say we continue the operation. I’m almost done.”

Eventually the patient was stabilized and in the recovery room. But his cancer remained and he had serious heart damage. He suffered another heart attack and died.

The medical students knew this surgeon was incompetent, but what could they do? “Well,” said one to the others, “I’m not just going to stand by and let this fool continue to kill his patients.” The student reported the surgeon to the hospital director, and the medical board convened a hearing. 

At the board hearing, the clever impersonator defended himself vehemently, expressing indignation at the gall of some inexperienced nobody of a student second-guessing his professional judgment. “It’s a complete hoax,” he said. “No one told me about the heart attack, and in fact I’m not so sure there was one. Lots of alarms were beeping, who could know what it was, and how could I do anything different anyway? I was concentrating on the surgery. In fact it was a perfect operation, it was beautiful, you can ask anyone who was there. And anyway, people are telling me the patient had a history of bad behaviors — smoking, drinking, no exercise, drugs maybe — who knows? I really I inherited a mess there. And that student who reported me—she’s always had it in for me for some reason. She’s not even from this country, maybe she hates people from this country, I don’t know. She lies all the time and has a very low IQ from what I’ve heard. Believe me, she’s a nasty person, a real dog. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but many people are saying it.” 

After some debate, the phony surgeon was narrowly cleared of all charges. While a sizable minority wanted further investigation, the majority and the chairman made it clear they weren’t going to continue to jeopardize the career of a valued teaching surgeon based on the accusations of a single student, whose own allegiances and motivations were now questionable. And after all, there’s the reputation of the hospital and medical school as a whole to consider. 

The medical student who reported the phony surgeon was reprimanded for insubordination. She eventually dropped out of the program under pressure from the junior teaching staff and some of her fellow students, who privately referred to her as “the rat.” Finally, after a new investigation involving the local FBI, she was deported based on some problem they found with her initial visa application.

The hospital was glad to have things back to normal. A disturbing trend of negative patient outcomes had recently been identified, and the counterfeit surgeon had hinted to the board chairman that he knew of a few students who seemed to him to be, in his words, “real losers.” The board and the staff needed to focus on that inquiry.

You could hear many of the staff, during informal hallway conversations, remarking on the ex-student, wondering why she was so full of hate, why she wanted to disrupt everything and distract the hospital as a whole from its important work just because of her personal feelings toward her mentor. Sure, he was brash and arrogant, and he rubbed many the wrong way. But he wasn’t hired to be liked, he was hired to get important work done. Why couldn’t she just let him alone to do his job? Why had she become so obsessed with bringing him down?

The News Conference

I think what he’s trying to say is that climate change is a Chinese hoax, the Ukraine and Democrats rigged the 2016 election for Hillary, this virus thing is a Democrat take-down attempt, the Stock Market has been in freefall because Democrats and the “enemy of the people” NYT and Democrats are evil Democrats tell Democrat lies destroy the country Democrats want millions to die just go to work you’ll get better Hillary Obama Soros Bernie Chinese Impeachment hoax should get the nomination Schumer Pelosi false teeth Burisma Bernie not Biden Hunter Lyndsey Rudy Russia are you listening to the impeachment hoax no quid pro collusion biggest hands ever and the election victory historic ’cause the mall was packed inauguration bigger than Obama tapped my phone crooked Hillary e-mails Melania’s a ten Obama where’s your birth certificate anyway Kenya shit-hole 3 million illegal Mexicans voting for her massing at the border an INFESTATION I know all about viruses it’s like a cold latest hoax it is nearly contained because fake tan hair teeth brain healthiest president to ever serve hamburders most successful presidency ever in millions of years your favorite president fake news stable genius flush the toilet 20 times tariff windfall coffers exploding trade deficit bad bad bad crafty Xi biggest tax cut in the universe “very low IQ person” shit-hole Baltimore racist civil rights hero stupid Maxine what have you got to lose? top advisers and fixers in jail ’cause Cohen’s DISLOYAL but not Roger Stone punch up counter punch how’d ya like a nice Hawaiian I like heroes who aren’t captured so cover that boat name he’s in Hell they’ll follow my illegal odors I think I’m the chief law enforcement water board the shit out of them blood coming out of her whatever rat-infested “urban centers” you can’t die from the flu I gave those veterans the money and the kids cancer charity too naked Miss Teen America it’s my right and when you’re famous they’ll let you do it anything I want as president no you can’t see my taxes Two Corinthians am I right Franklin? I’m a nationalist Mexican judges born in Michigan can’t be fair Trump University drugs and rapists Muslim ban and killers maybe some good people too I don’t know on both sides Secret Service Mar-a-Lago $550 a night that’s fair and balanced #MAGA I heart dictators Kim we fell in love and Putin never lies why would he? And neither do I said “wouldn’t” at Helsinki but the Washington Post and CNN and never Trumpers Cryin’ Chuck and Crazy Nancy Shifty Adam Shitt Pocahontas sad because they’re losers it was a perfect call NOBODY testifies and NO BREAKING RANKS counterpunch and whatabout that guy who shot Scalise fast and furious Solara pizzagate Benghazi FBI SCUM traitor Sessions “Justice” Dept intelligence my ass sons of bitches stand up for my song better go back to school deep state conspiracy CIA never-ever-Trumpers push me out and my friends in law enforcement and the biker gangs Breitbart and Fox who knows nobody wants it but maybe we’ll have a civil war it could happen probably not would be a shame but overturn the vote and I know more about it than anyone only the best people tweet you’re fired droned blown to bits whimpering like a dog so lonely stable genius with only my phone and no one to hold my little hand.

A Republic—If We Can Keep It

I hope Democrats (I’m not one) and their allies (I am one) will be at least somewhat rational about the primary process and, to the extent it’s possible here in MoneyWorld®, let the voters decide who their candidate will be. As we watch centrist candidates leave the race and coalesce around Joe Biden, we are not watching a “conspiracy” to deny someone else the nomination. We are watching the political process, messy as it may be, which involves people with like minds working together and coming together to advance their agenda, and to do so behind the person they see as best able to help them do that. As a very wise person said, your vote is not a love letter – it’s a contract offer. We vote for the best flawed candidate, or if it comes to it the least-worst flawed candidate. Name-calling and other hateful rhetoric is not  helpful to the process (although it’s helpful to the opposition party). The media reporting the heretofore obscure facts of a candidate’s history when they have earned that level of scrutiny accorded to the front runner is not a “hit job.” It’s unfettered journalism. It’s the Fourth Estate, itself flawed as it has always been but still a vital component of any democracy.

Facts are not enemies or traitors, as the one in the White House would have it. They are just facts.

We are in a populist era. I don’t consider that a good thing — it’s the ideology that brought the current administration and it’s damaging agenda into being, the notion that “I alone” can fix everything, like some modern-day Messiah. Bullshit. Nothing difficult politically is ever achieved by one person alone.

But popular ideas, as opposed to populist politicians, have a way of overlapping party lines and developing a staying power that can’t be denied. Abolition, the national parks, anti-trust laws, the EPA, the end of the Vietnam atrocity: all brought into being by Republicans under popular pressure. And of course it was the Democrats of old who upheld slavery, then Jim Crow, then redlining and school segregation: until popular pressure largely ended these practices. (Yes there’s still a long road ahead on this, and there’s no irony in the fact that it’s now Democrats who lead the way against a newly Republican Solid South.)

Unless this society slides from populism into authoritarian rule — and that remains a distinct danger — what this democratic society really wants will not be denied by any party or any interest group, nor by the intransigence of their entrenched infrastructures or party leaders. It might not happen tomorrow, or next year. But if we insist it happen, it will happen. I believe that.

Does this mean America wanted Donald Trump? No. The Electoral College wanted Donald Trump. And for that matter, it was not the people who put George W. Bush in office — it was a right-wing Supreme Court majority. Things to fix if we can, among many others.

It’s only natural and right to want the fair society you want. I know this society is miles and miles away from the one I would want, and I’m not foolish enough to think it will become a utopia any time soon. But in this ongoing experiment in self-rule, at least for now, you and yours have one tool, your votes. If you don’t have the collective votes to get exactly what you want, or the platform to get more of those votes, it’s not the fault of others earnestly striving for a similar vision. (But by all means–keep trying. Keep pushing. That’s what this whole thing is about.)

What’s the alternative to self-government, democratic traditions and the rule of law? Rule by the  loudest and angriest, by those most ignorant of history, by those most talented at whipping up a mob? Not if I can help it. 

Fate’s Blueprint: The New Populism

For us there is only the trying.
The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

They will call it “the new Populism”, comparing Sanders in the early 2000s to Nebraska’s own William Jennings Bryan a century earlier. Bryan was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, with his surprise nomination bringing many of his “Populist Party” supporters flooding into the ranks of the Democratic party. Bryan’s nomination was in fact a populist repudiation of incumbent Grover Cleveland and his “Bourbon Democrats” (i.e., the business-allied Democratic establishment). 

Of course, Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley in 1896, but he had become well-known nationally as a fiery public orator, galvanizing his followers with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, and pretty much inventing the extended cross-country stumping tour (which Teddy Roosevelt copied, Truman also exploited to great effect with his “whistle stop” tour, and which right-wing populist Donald Trump has effectively adopted as his “permanent campaign” approach to the presidency). 

The Democrats put Bryan up against McKinley again in 1900, believing their anti-imperialism stance would galvanize his populist following. And Bryan lost again. 

But by 1904, progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt had been in office a few years (after McKinley’s 1901 assassination), and with his support for anti-trust activism and widespread reforms he beat the Democrats’ new “Hail Mary” conservative nominee (Alton Parker) handily, thus rehabilitating Bryan’s stature among Democrats. Because by this time, the national popular  opinion had swung toward Bryan’s/Roosevelt’s ideas, such that after the 1904 election both parties were embracing the progressive reforms that had been championed by Bryan and his populist zealots for years. (In fact Bryan was once again the Democratic presidential candidate in 1908.) 

As usual, I think history has a lesson for us here – and it’s echoed in the words of T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, in a line I recently heard quoted by a brilliant man and poet at the University of Nebraska commencement. “For us,” Eliot wrote, “there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” With this quote, the speaker was telling the new graduates that unlike in our favorite movie endings, the good will not always be ultimately ascendant or triumphant. But that is not our shame, nor is it even our defeat. As individuals we are not responsible for the broad shapes that form the contours of the tides of history; we are not responsible for the victories of the undeserving. Rather, it is our sole responsibility to TRY on behalf of the greater good—here and now. 

Because sometimes, false prophets and immoral agendas will command the world’s stage despite the efforts of good people to contain them. Power is their only goal, so these people will then do whatever it takes, regardless of law or morality, to consolidate and cement their gains. They will then try to convince us morally inclined nobodies that there’s no use resisting their power, that we are impotent and alone in the dark, that we have lost and they have won. But there is no victory more fleeting than political victory. Immoral times produce their inevitable disastrous outcomes, yes, and then it is left to us morally inclined nobodies to pick up the pieces. But whatever the outcome this time, we will know that we, as individuals of conscience, did what we could to try to make the world a better place for all. That is our only responsibility. 

Our lives and our worth are not defined by the era we live in, they are defined by how we live in our era. Like a batter at the plate or a pitcher on the mound, or a poet with his pen: whether we are successful or not, the job is always the same. To try.