Here’s what keeps me awake at night: Our country looks like it is close to being in real peril, and we aren’t paying the right kind of attention.
I’m not a fan of hyperbole or overblown, the-sky-is-falling dramatics. But in the past when candidates I haven’t supported have been elected to office, whether it’s a governorship, a Congressional seat or a Presidency, I’ve always felt that the republic would survive. The agenda I’d want to see furthered would be stalled, perhaps, but the republic would survive.
Why? Because we have always had strong institutions, systemic checks, a loyal opposition, a free press and a somewhat informed electorate.
None of those things are certain now. Some have been in decline for years but we’ve been able to get by due to the strength of the others.
Let’s take the loyal opposition component. In the past, the party not in power on the federal level has been able to work, at least to some extent, with the party in power. The loyal opposition is just that: Loyal to country first, but reasonably challenges the party in power. This serves not only as a check to the party in power but in an ideal world improves the government’s final work product, whether it’s helping to build the world’s greatest economy to putting a man on the moon to making huge technological leaps to ensuring our elderly have health insurance.
The loyal opposition in Congress, though, has abdicated its Constitutional obligation for the last eight years. They determined that their primary purpose was to block any achievement of Barack Obama. They’ve threatened to default on our debt obligations, shut down the government over funding a women’s health organization that happens to provide abortion access, gone through the motions of trying to repeal health insurance legislation some five dozen times, blocked appointments to head key agencies, refused to act on judicial nominations – including one to the Supreme Court – and basically have done little of the work with which they’ve been charged. Nothing has been furthered by Congress in years.
And they’ve gotten away with it. How? For a lot of reasons, not least of which is that we’ve had a couple of bad Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United and others). We also have a segment of the electorate that’s uninformed and apprehensive. No matter what the unemployment rate is, they are told it is five times higher, and they believe it. They think most of their tax dollars go to support social programs for people who are undeserving, when only a small fraction of their tax dollars actually do. They don’t think income equality is a problem, although they’re the biggest victims of it. They’re afraid for their jobs, and they’ve been told blue collar jobs are scarce because of the ungodly high corporate taxes in this country, when I would hazard that most blue collar jobs that are gone have been eliminated due to automation and the cheap cost of labor in other countries. Unless we want to pay $3,000 for an iPhone by having it manufactured here by people making a living wage instead of someone in China working under slave-like conditions, those jobs likely aren’t coming back. Even if Trump imposes a 300% tariff, it will probably still be cheaper to buy an iPhone that was made in China.
[By the way, I’m not advocating that iPhones be priced cheaply by use of slave-like labor – all I’m saying is that everything’s a trade-off. We seem to think people who don’t receive health benefits through their job are undeserving, but we are certainly not willing to pay $10 for a footlong at Subway so that the person on their feet all day putting the sandwich together can receive health insurance through their job and be treated for a bad knee. But I digress.]
We have a press that faces increasing competition from fly-by-night jackasses with a website (why hello, incoming Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon!) or blog who issue opinions and lies as facts but don’t identify them as such, and people cling to them because they’re attracted to “news” that justifies their preconceived, semi-conceived, half-baked and sometimes even correct notions. Increasingly, the legitimate press is pressured to perform to ratings rather than inform the electorate. That’s why we were treated to a national obsession with Casey Anthony in 2011 rather than the press collectively making it clear that nearly all candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination were buffoons. It was easier for the electorate to digest “news” about Hillary Clinton’s emails for 600+ consecutive days than for our fourth estate to pound – and I mean pound – on the importance of why Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns was actually important. It’s why even our legitimate journalistic institutions reported on emails purloined from John Podesta and the DNC – and that’s something of which they should be ashamed. Stolen emails give us a glimpse into how the sausage is made, as it were, and are far more titillating than explaining that foreign entities trying to compromise an American election is, well, not a good thing – or that emails stolen but not yet disclosed could compromise an incoming government.
This brings me to institutional failure, and this scares me. I’ve already described how Congress has essentially failed us during the Obama administration, and it’s hard to suddenly start doing your job when you’ve slacked off for eight years. Given the confirmation by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia did, indeed, take part in the American election, it shouldn’t be surprising that it took a day or so for just a few Congressional leaders to say “wow, this is bad!”.
But institutional failure specific to Donald Trump is happening now. Institutional norms that we took for granted are creeping to non-existence. The emoluments clause in our Constitution should be touted as the crucial issue it is, the lead story of every news broadcast, and made front and center by every Democrat in Congress (and, frankly, every Republican – remember when they were up in arms because Obama was speaking to schoolchildren in September of 2009?), and the lead story of every publication. I do not give a rat’s ass that Kanye went to Trump Tower today. I want to know if our incoming President is compromised and, if so, exactly how, and what I as a participant in this country can do to mitigate or correct it.
Further, our President-Elect and his transition team have very publicly, before our allies and our enemies, trashed our intelligence community, and he has publicly shrugged off receiving daily intelligence briefings as unnecessary (didja hear that, ISIL?). He has nominated a person to direct the agency overseeing climate change, nuclear matters and use of fossil fuels who advocated for the elimination of that agency five years ago. He has nominated a person to direct our foreign affairs who was awarded recognition of “friendship” with the country that hacked into our political systems and was identified by his own party’s 2012 nominee as our greatest threat. And this is off the top of my head with no more than thirty seconds’ thought. Give me 10 minutes and I could add five more infringements he’s made to institutional strength.
We continue to collectively shrug. Oh, we gnash our teeth and kvetch amongst ourselves on social media, but we do not meaningfully agitate on a collective or wholesale basis.
Our highest court will basically be remade in the President-Elect’s image, and that should terrify everyone. Even without this guy’s two or three additions, they’ve already eroded key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Who knows how future elections will be impacted?
So what institutions remain to protect us? We have a creaky, rusty and inactive Republican Congress that might actually spring to action to repeal Obamacare and/or eliminate Medicare as we know it – but what action will they be able to summon to stop an out-of-control President FuckFace von Clownstick? They couldn’t even stop him from steamrolling over the best their party had to offer.
Can we count on the judicial branch to protect us? Only if you happen to be a straight white man.
Can we count on the executive branch to protect us? Hell, that’s the entity that’s turning into the Children’s Television Workshop (and I mean no offense to the CTW, which actually does fine work but it’s for children).
So can this movement, this creeping that puts the future and survivability of our country in peril be stopped? What can stop the dominoes from tipping over?
We have already conceded a great deal. I don’t know why. A lot of these bells can’t be unrung and we’re stuck with them. In the future, we can’t require a candidate to disclose his or her tax returns any more than we can fire this guy’s Supreme Court choices once he’s out of office. Down the road, we’ll never be able to require that an elected official divest themselves of commercial interests that conflict with the office he or she holds. We’ll never be able to righteously and automatically dispense with any candidate who’s been accused of fraud by a state attorney general where the charge has sufficient merit to proceed to trial.
And you know what “conceding” makes me recall? “Appeasing”. And you know what “appeasing” makes me go to? “Peace in our time.”
“Make America Great Again.”
Close Encounters of the Third Reich.
I swear I’m not an alarmist. But sleeping is a little hard right now.