A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1810
March 28, 2016

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

MONTPELIER – Whatever any of us may think about the current campaigns for the Presidential nominations, there’s one group of people who are simply loving them: the media. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Chairman of CBS, Leslie Moonves, expresses his pleasure openly: “It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going.... It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

It’s ever been thus: With our lusty appetite for conflict and drama, we turn greedily to the media in times of heightened excitement (which they help to create), and their advertising rates also become more robust. Even The National Enquirer got a boost recently, with its lurid cover story about candidate Ted Cruz’s alleged multiple extramarital affairs. I’m pretty certain that, while planning the publication of the story, the tabloid contacted advertisers about securing spots amid the text.  This campaign has been great for the media business.

I also have a strong suspicion that, in spite of Mr. Moonves’ reservations, it’s also been good for America, and will continue to be for some time.  The phenomenon of two “outsider” candidates has upset the traditional campaign apple carts – on the one hand by vitiating the vaunted influence of the multimillion-dollar political action committees recently approved by the Roberts Supreme Court, and on the other by social media populist fund-raising whose proceeds to date rival those of the usual corporate moneybags contributions. It’s reminiscent of the prophet’s report of God’s intentions in the Book of Isaiah: “See, I am doing a new thing!” When God did it, finally, that also upset a few people. But in this case, it seems to have stimulated voter participation, and that’s got to be reckoned a positive development.

Media pundits, analysts, consultants, and experts of all stripes have been at pains to explain the reasons for this unique season and to predict its probable outcome. There are almost as many suggestions as there are suggesters, but one thing seems clear: The cellar-dwelling approval rating of the Congress is not just a number; it’s an actual, deep disaffection that’s been looking for an active outlet. With Donald Trump refusing to shut up on his side, and Bernie Sanders refusing to give up on his, surprising numbers of normally apathetic potential voters seem to be feeling the potential to effect real change in their situations – feeling the Bern, if you will.

Many commentators have suggested that Congress’ failures over the last seven years – specifically, its open obstructionism as expressed by Majority Leader McConnell and his “one-term President” goal – have frustrated folks increasingly unhappy with their lot and unwilling to continue waiting for the relief they need. Congress, covered as it by ubiquitous microphones and cameras, has become more than ever before a theater in which speech outweighs action. The Senate’s arcane rules of engagement create huge frustration in taxpayers who note the members’ compensation and working hours, and compare them with those of the citizens whose wages the members steadfastly refuse to consider raising.

A few years ago, apparently concerned about the shrinkage and aging of its traditional base, the Republican Party welcomed the new Tea Party congressmen as compatriots.  It was complicit, in the wake of the 2010 national census, in helping to gerrymander their districts to ensure the safety of their seats. And then, when the new members had taken those seats, they turned out not to be housebroken, and began making a mess inside the tent. The party had one hope in this current election, really – Jeb Bush – and just as it was lining up its resources behind him, there arrived a self-financed party-crasher with no regard for niceties, platforms, or convention. Now the furniture is scattered everywhere, and nobody seems to know what to do in order to avoid irrelevancy.

The problem and its causes go father back than the Tea Party and the disastrous wars of the Bush years; they go back to the day of Jim Crow, the era in which most of the comfortable old white guys who run the party grew up. The election and reelection of Barack Hussein Obama were as great a shock to their systems as would be the election of Donald Trump. The world was shifting beneath their feet, and they had two choices: go with the change or try to stem it. They’ve chosen the latter and, with language creepily reminiscent of Presidents Reagan and Nixon, have tried to scapegoat their problems as caused by others: African-Americans, Hispanics, immigrants, atheists, gays. In the rapidly changing world of today, this is not a brilliant strategy.

In the April issue of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg writes about President Obama’s much-maligned foreign policy. Without going into the mind-numbing complexities of the Middle East, the Far East, Russia, Salafism, “free riders,” and state-sanctioned misogyny, one central thought resonates. In discussing the United States’ relationship with China (I’m paraphrasing), he says there’s more to fear from an unhappy, struggling giant than from a happy one.

If we Yankees can manage to climb out of our New England bubble and listen to the fears of, say, the seventyish white Midwestern burghers who dine with their wives at Applebee’s each Sunday after church, we’ll appreciate that they feel ever more strongly that some year within a generation – which they won’t be here to experience – they’ll be members of a minority voting block. They are an increasingly unhappy giant; their sons and daughters are the bullies acting like Italian fascists at Trump political rallies. It’s difficult to imagine how that perceived existential threat can be lifted from them. We’re probably in for more violent discourse and behavior before that distant day – which I won’t see – when our President is a woman whose apellido ends in -ez.

Photo by Willem lange