On being totally alienated from electoral politics.

Some of you may have noticed the increasing nastiness that has come out of everything I have to say about this election. Let me explain why.

This election has been grim disappointment after grim disappointment. I used to admire Barack Obama, and at least respect John McCain and Hillary Clinton. It’s amazing to stop for a moment and think about who these people were before they started fouling their own nests, and ours, in this travesty of an election. Barack Obama was a classic liberal intellectual of the best type, an organizer, an activist, a professor, and (making up for the disasters of our previous shots at electing that type, like Al Gore, and, earlier, Stevenson), a genuinely talented speaker and inspiring leader. Hillary Clinton was also a classic liberal intellectual, a woman who could always be relied upon to take a stand for feminism, the leader who fought nobly and lost honorably in the struggle to get Americans a civilized health care system. She was a little tainted by her ties with the weirdo-Christians, her random crusades against things like video games, and her folly in going along with Bush’s warmongering, but, on the whole, she was definitely one of the good guys. John McCain was even in that category, too. Though a Republican, he was a decidedly decent one. A legitimate war hero and patriot (contrast with Bush), he’d avoided serious entanglements with the Christian-crazies, and accordingly had the decency to not join the anti-choice whackos in his party. He also helped lead those gestures that Congress managed to overcome its revolting self interest to make toward campaign finance reform (remember McCain-Feingold?). Some part of the “straight talk express” image he’s been flogging about himself was true before this wretched campaign.

And then look at what happened. It started in the primaries. Hillary Clinton turned into a nutjob machiavellian who was visibly willing to burn the democratic party down around her if it would give her the slightest chance of stealing the nomination from the candidate who the voters in her party actually preferred, mainly because he hadn’t been slightly so eager to support Bush’s random military games. (And because Clinton could not get herself out of the mire of doomed defensiveness about her votes on same.) All the while, Obama was creating a really sinister personality cult around himself and his increasingly content-free primary campaign, complete with Big-Brotherish posters communicating nothing more than a Mao-styled image of himself and the slogan “Hope,” and brainless chanting with nary a policy proposal in sight at rallies. (I went to a Stanford rally for Obama — I only lasted about 10 minutes before cringing away in horror at the fact that these otherwise intelligent students — OK, Stanford undergraduates aren’t always the best, but they’re at least nominally capable of higher reasoning — practically ripped the clothes off of the backs of even the campaign hacks who had come to represent his campaign at that event in rock concert Mick Jagger-style teenage fame-lust.)

The general election just made matters worse. Obama basically went to the kitchen store, picked up a nice big butcher knife, and casually and openly walked around to the rear of his even slightly liberal, or, in many cases, even decent (regardless of politics) supporters, there to stab us in the back again and again and again. The first blow was when he decided to decline federal funding (and the money limits that come with it), in a completely unprincipled signal that he cared more about winning than he cared about the fundamental political equality that makes democracies function. This, naturally, was contrary to a previous pledge to take public funding. That’s not even a liberal/conservative thing. That can’t even be explained by the median voter theory, and the consequent imperative for unprincipled political animals to swim to the center in general elections. For conservatives can support campaign finance reform just as much as liberals (witness, again, McCain). Then Obama’s vote for a bill that included telecom immunity for helping the Bush administration piss all over the Constitution by spying on Americans was a nasty blow. He finished doing a number on any genuine hope that might attend his campaign by picking as his running mate the loathsome creature from Delaware, the Senator from MBNA, the plagiarist, the crook, the most dishonest man in the Democratic party, the Senator who was supposedly picked for his foreign policy experience but thinks ethnic partition is the way to end civil war. As far as I can tell at this point from Obama’s evidence of actual principled behavior (none), an Obama presidency will just be a repeat of the Clinton administration — broadly competent but generally corrupt governance combined with no actual ideas or commitments and frequent gratuitous sops to the extreme right. A big improvement from Bush, yes, but nothing like we could have hoped for, say, if the Supreme Court had let us elect Gore in 2000.

All the while, McCain wasn’t resting quietly. He took the opportunity to seize hold of his historical relative-moderation (as republicans go) by the throat and throttle until dead. All the while he was verbally distancing himself from Bush, his every policy or outcome-related behavior indicated that he was gearing up for another 4 or 8 years of the same Jesus-goat-driven war and torture abroad mated with poverty and civil liberties violations at home that we’ve been suffering through for the last 8. As far as I can tell, a McCain presidency would have two departments: the president’s Department of Going to War with Random Countries, Starting with Iran, and the vice-presidential creature from Alaska’s Department of Creationism and Coat-Hanger Abortions.

It makes me very sad. By all rights, this should be a wonderful, historic election. It’s highly probable that we’ll come out of it with our first black president. Fifty years ago, Barack Obama couldn’t have even sat on the front of a fucking bus. And yet I can feel nothing but despair.


12 Responses to “On being totally alienated from electoral politics.”

  1. Mike Says:

    They behave as the people want them to behave. And so I hate humanity.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Maybe there’s an optimistic story involving some kind of collective action problem, where we actually want civilized leaders, but there’s some kind of warped incentive. I can only hope.

  3. Arvita Says:

    I don’t think that Hillary was trying to burn the party down with her run. She did win most of the primaries from March through June (9 out of 14), despite the campaign deathwatch that was incessantly chattered about. It didn’t help that Obama was basically getting a free pass on his gaffes and Clinton was having every little thing analyzed to the nth degree.

  4. Daniel Says:


    A man must keep himself on a mountain, above the ephemeral babble of politics and national self-seeking.

    It is amazing to me that someone as committed to public health policy as I could loathe politics as much as I do. Like you, I am large; I contain multitudes.

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    Arvita: I think the idea is that there’s a norm in primaries that those who start to lose drop out, so as to avoid burning resources (as well as making people hate their opponent) that could be used against the real enemy. There was definitely a pretty-close-to-universal sense that she’d lost several weeks of damaging attrition before she finally threw in the towel.

    Daniel: there’s a really serious substitution effect at work here. How much time could we all be giving to math, or learning German, or reading Plato, that we’re giving to this silly election that is already all but decided?

  6. Richard Says:

    he first blow was when he decided to decline federal funding (and the money limits that come with it), in a completely unprincipled signal that he cared more about winning than he cared about the fundamental political equality that makes democracies function.

    I think you’re way off on this one — see my post on Campaign Finance Reform.

    I also find it pretty hard to believe that Biden is ‘the most dishonest man in the Democratic party’. (He may not be perfect, but don’t forget you’re talking about a party full of politicians here!)

    FISA is pretty bad. I also lament Obama’s indefensible protectionism, xenophobic rhetoric, and vote for the Farm Bill. But I guess some degree of expediency is necessary to win an election in a country where most voters are stupid, scared, and xenophobic. So I’m not sure it really makes sense to be upset at Obama’s decisions (rather than the underlying political environment) — unless you think things really would have turned out better with a slightly different balance of principle to expediency.

    (I guess my point here is just that I don’t think you could reasonable hold that a politician should never hold their nose and make intrinsically undesirable decisions for instrumental gain.)

    Overall, I’m still pretty excited about an Obama presidency. Progressive tax policy, sane foreign policy, and liberal supreme court appointments — those are some pretty significant political goods to look forward to. Not to mention his meta-political policies (for increased transparency, etc.) — quite the opposite of “generally corrupt governance”, I would’ve thought.

  7. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hey Richard,

    Thanks for the comment (I am unnaturally appreciative of comments on this blog).

    On the campaign finance question, I’ll have to disagree. I think you don’t give enough weight to the fairness issue — not because other factors (like name recognition) aren’t unfair too, but because we could get significantly more beneficial fairness by restricting spending on things like advertisements.

    The idea here is that there’s an upper limit to the total amount of effective advertising — there are only so many hours of TV time, there are only so many commercials people will pay attention to, etc. Allowing well-funded candidates to effectively monopolize that time makes it harder for poorly-funded candidates, like third parties, to even be heard. The effect is one of drowning out. And that, I think, is a serious threat to political equality.

    Perhaps you’re right in general, however, about the balance between principle and expediency. But asking how things would have turned out with a different balance between the two begs the question: someone who is committed to more principle and less expediency has to be willing to accept (or at least risk) worse consequences to get that, pretty much by definition.

  8. Richard Says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “fairness” in this context. Politicians aren’t owed anything. Presumably what matters here is just that our political system is set up in the best way to ensure that voters’ decisions are well-informed, responsive to reason, etc. Is there any reason to expect that capping campaign spending would help voters to make a better-informed decision?

  9. Richard Says:

    Especially in this case, when you consider all the sleazy emails and robocalls insinuating that Obama is a Muslim terrorist, there’s an awful lot of background prejudice out there to overcome. The more people get to see the real Obama on TV, the better informed they become, or so it seems to me. I have a hard time believing that Obama’s opting for the limitations of public financing would have made this a more informed, rational election.

  10. Paul Gowder Says:

    It’s not a matter of fairness between the major party candidates, it’s a matter of fairness to third-party candidates who can’t keep up with the spending. Those politicians do have a legitimate claim to such fairness (after all, politicians are citizens too, exercising a perogative of citizenship).

    Likewise, we want to ensure that voters’ decisions are made out of as broad a set of options as possible. Which, again, counsels strong campaign finance restrictions. (Although, admittedly, the U.S. electoral system is fairly well biased against third-party candidates.)

    That being said, I agree that limiting Obama’s funding wouldn’t have made this a better election, however candidates in general opting to take funding limitations would make elections in general better for the reasons noted.

    And then we’re back into the age-old question of moral obligations in nonideal theory: given that candidates in general spend as much as possible, is any individual candidate obligated to accept limitations? I say yes, in a case like this, where doing so would help bring moral pressure to bear on others.

  11. Richard Says:

    Again, I just have no idea what you mean by “fairness” here. Can you explicate a principle, or something? I just can’t imagine how you get the conclusion that fairness to one citizen (say, Bob Barr) requires silencing three million others (donors to Obama).

    If you want to guarantee a certain amount of free airtime to candidates, that’s one thing. (Though, again, I’d wonder about the principled reason behind it if we’re not giving free airtime to every citizen.) But I’m not seeing how spending caps help. If that other airtime isn’t used by Obama, it will be used by McDonalds. Is there some reason why it’s preferable for non-political commercials to use up those finite “hours of TV time”? I don’t get it.

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    I think I might have to expand this conversation into a full post later — there are a lot of interconnected ideas at play. One complexity, for example, is that the same citizens are bearers of interests that conflict (the interest in being able to exercise free speech via money and the interest in having a wide slate of candidates to choose from). At the same time, they are the bearers of a resource that ought to be distributed fairly to candidates (attention). The tensions between these ideas make arguments on this question rather complicated. So, well, watch this space?

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