It’s July 2016. Donald and Hillary are about to run the race of their lives.
I’m referring, of course, to the two hogs who will sprint against each other this Sunday, July 10, as the main event in the Nevis Pig Races in north central Minnesota. It’s hard to say what motivates these cloven-hoofed animal athletes, but one imagines that the pig who wins probably fares better than the one who loses.
Then again, perhaps not. It’s hard out there for pigs.
July is also when the major political parties in the United States hold their conventions. The Republicans are up first, set to nominate Donald Trump the following week. At the end of the month, Democrats will nominate Hillary Clinton. These are strange times in America: fat with food and convenience, yet broadly uneasy and fundamentally unequal.
Fittingly, this presidential contest has proven to be unlike any U.S. election so far. The outcome of this Donald vs. Hillary race does matter, but seems almost completely disconnected from the debate. What happens after the election is barely discussed. There is only how we feel RIGHT NOW.
But you know all this. And you certainly have an opinion. You’re already writing it out on social media. There’s a meme! Share it!
This, however, is not a meme.
This will be an essay, long enough to violate the SEO rules that my web platform is programmed to warn me about. God willing, this will be the only piece I write about the presidential race for the rest of the summer. I will be trying to convince you of something, but not how to vote. I will be telling who I plan to vote for, but not because I need you to agree with me. This is fundamentally a plea for functional democracy and livable society that can be applied to members of any party or political philosophy.
Never mind the election. No one will be ever satisfied until we confront the battle within.
A nation of yellers
I’m coming up on ten years of blogging. Not as long as some, but most of the other Minnesota bloggers that were around when I started aren’t blogging anymore. Looking back at archives from earlier years, what stands out is how often I spouted my opinions about national politics.
The years 2007 and 2008 teemed with posts about the presidential primaries and general election. I had an IDENTITY, you see. I was a pragmatic liberal who was exploring whether I fit in the American two-party system. MY OPINIONS MATTERED VERY MUCH! I supported Barack Obama that year, sharing the fervency that came to propel Obama’s meteoric rise from Illinois state senator to President of the United States. I felt like I was part of something. I felt like things were going to change.
Keep in mind, I knew what it was to believe in something and lose. The first two presidential races in my adult life were doubly disappointing. Not only did my preferred candidates Bill Bradley and Howard Dean lose in the respective 2004 and 2008 primaries, but their successful opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry, both lost to President George W. Bush. (Again, maybe you liked Bush. Or maybe you think those elections were stolen. I’m not hear to rehash those arguments). My point, especially to young Sanders supporters, is that I’ve eaten poo sandwiches in my life and lived to tell.
When Clinton appeared the favorite in 2008, I was no fan. I despised the notion of a dynasty. I did not believe that the first woman president should be someone who rose to fame because of who she married. When then-Sen. Obama announced his campaign, I took notice, but wasn’t all there yet, either. I thought maybe he was flash in the pan, a good talker who was riding his image to a premature run for President. Indeed, those were the very knocks that Republicans would lodge during the campaign.
But I read Obama’s books. His first one, “Dreams From My Father,” which Obama wrote before politics, was, to me, a window into the man’s soul. He was thoughtful, funny and keenly observant of the human condition. I watched his speeches. I read his interviews. He was no fireballer, but his very story, his Gen-X personality, and his experience all exemplified the change that was already happening in America. I saw him as a steady hand who would guide the nation during an uncertain time.
For the first time in my life, the candidate I supported won. It took awhile. And it felt great, even if that feeling couldn’t be sustained for long.
To be clear, I got the Obama I expected. That’s not to say that my opinion is shared by all. Some people expected something far different and were disappointed. Others held disparate views that Obama could not satisfy. Others joined a culture war that has no end. This is what surprised me most. Not Obama, but the reaction to him.
In the only two years where Obama’s Democrats had the House and Senate we got the signature “Obamacare” law, which made health insurance available to all through a shared marketplace. This prevented companies from blocking people with preexisting conditions or the very poor, and we won’t ever go back to that barbarism. We got modest financial reforms to Wall Street, where a housing and debt bubble had nearly hurtled the nation into a Depression. We also got economic stimulus and a bailout of failing U.S. automakers, arguably preserving at least one of them from disappearing.
None of these measures were perfect. All were watered down by opposing viewpoints and political caution. And none worked out precisely as planned, though to my estimation each achieved key goals. (Again, you can agree or disagree). Regardless, conservative anti-government forces rose to take the House of Representatives in 2010 and we’ve had divided government ever since.
Ever since, Congress has been unwilling or unable to engineer solutions to setbacks in Obama’s new policies or to suggest workable alternatives. Republicans will settle for nothing less than the unraveling of the whole Obama agenda and Democrats dig trenches around the status quo for lack of options. Both parties assume a role that highlights only their weaknesses, never their strengths. This only thing crossing the aisle is frustration.
Meanwhile, across the country, people have wholly adopted new communication patterns, spending exponentially more time online. On Election night 2008, Republicans watched Fox News while Democrats watched MSNBC. The sorting had begun. In 2016, the divide cuts across the culture.
Our divisions are the first thing we look at in the morning an the last thing we see at night. We let our animosity toward each other enter our most intimate space. Whole families have divided along partisan lines. A police officer shoots a black man in a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. Some call it a clear cut murder. Some say “he must have done something wrong.” The investigation might help clear this up, yet everyone “already knows.” And one’s opinion (personal fact) tells exactly who one is voting for in November.
What on earth?
It’s not just the commentators and smarmy bloggers like me who have opinions now, everyone does. And in social media they are all treated the same. Information is treated as opinion and opinions treated as “narrative,” which is now the only fact that matters in politics. Hastily generated memes, often with typos or obvious logical fallacies, are suddenly shared by millions, person to person, like a virus. And then forgotten, sometimes to be remembered and re-shared months later. Like a virus. And like a virus, they make us sick.
People who once shared laughs and stories now spit vile comments at each other. Our “friends” “like” and “share” what we say. Everyone else is our enemy.
We have become a people acutely sensitive to disagreement, and yet almost completely lacking in empathy. It’s almost as though we’re slowly developing an allergy to representative democracy. Perhaps an allergy to each other?
And so rises Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton returns. Both are historically unpopular and yet, like racing pigs, one will prevail.
Clinton vs. Trump
I took my driver’s license test the day I turned 16. I was so confident that I had already made birthday plans that evening which required me to drive across the Iron Range. I made no backup arrangements whatsoever.
My testing site was the Department of Transportation office in Virginia, Minnesota. There were two driving testers. Teenagers knew them only as “The Guy” and “The Lady.”
Everyone knew that you wanted to get “The Guy.” He was good-natured. Funny. My friends who had tested with him seemed to be getting high 80s and 90s on the score sheet.
Meanwhile “The Lady” was gruff. She spoke in a harsh voice. She didn’t have time for jokes. She scored very strictly. Everyone I knew who had failed the exam had tested with her. Those she had passed were lucky to break 80. (70 was passing).
I waited in the parking lot to see which driving evaluator I had drawn. The door swung open. I still remember the precise thought in my head at that exact moment.
“Shit. It’s the Lady.”
So I did the driving test. My armpits became visibly damp. The Lady said absolutely nothing but instructions. I resented her. The way she said things threw me off. I didn’t agree with her scores. I passed by the skin of my ass with a 74. For years I would complain about her every time I told this story.
Today I look at things a little differently. I still can’t parallel park with any sort of consistency. I speed nearly constantly. I once ran over a deer that was already dead. Seventy-four is probably a fair assessment. More than fair if you had seen the crap I pulled on the way to see my friends that night. (The top speed of an ’85 GM Cutlass Cruiser station wagon is unknowable due to the limitations of its speedometer).
Now my oldest son is just five years from taking the same test. I wonder who I’d want to affirm that he knows how to operate a motor vehicle? I think I’d be more comfortable if the Lady made real sure.
Furthermore, I now wonder how it is that the Lady got to be that way. How often do we think about that? D.O.T. people work with professional drivers, mostly men. The Iron Range drips with masculinity and bravado. Casual sexism is in the tap water. Everyone thinks they can drive. Even more so if they’re drunk. Now imagine you’re a woman facing near constant judgment. If you’re too nice you’re objectified. If you’re too mean you’re a bitch. But at least then you’re left alone. At least then you can get something done.
I think one of the reasons Hillary Clinton is disliked so much is because when Americans see her — especially men — they say “Shit, it’s the Lady.” They don’t like her voice, which reminds them of the 60-year-old teacher who was so much stricter than the young, cute teacher across the hall. When she raises her voice, she sounds like mom when you threw the cat into a big puddle.
Something hit me last year. I hadn’t connected how much people’s attitudes about Hillary Clinton seem so personal. Online critics call her “the bitch,” a “mean lady,” the “shrew.” They say they can’t stand her voice, or that she uses tricks from a political toolbox — including bravado during the campaign and deal-cutting behind closed doors.
Many of the traits people hate most about Clinton could be applied to the last several nominees of her party, except for her gender and higher voice. Her political background is full of what people call “baggage.” (I certainly said that in 2008). But more than 40 years in politics that cuts across two eras of political norms will do that.
It’s not that Clinton’s critics are necessarily against a woman being president, or consciously sexist. It’s just that I don’t think we account for how people got the way they are.
First of all, Hillary and Bill Clinton are political partners as much as they are a married couple. This is probably the primary reason they’ve stayed together despite Bill’s personal failings. They are a pair of flawed political geniuses in a symbiotic relationship.
One might not like the idea of a president’s spouse being elected because of the name. But that’s not what this is. Lennon and McCartney wrote a lot of great songs. Lennon’s name came first, but that doesn’t mean McCartney is worth less (this debate is as likely to start an argument as anything else here). Anyway, both are no slouches on their own.
Hillary Clinton, in her early legal career and the way she redefined the role of a political spouse, in her Senate career and service in the Obama government, has above average qualifications to be president. You might not like her. You might not agree with her. But that’s different.
When you consider that Clinton came of age at a time when women weren’t expected or even allowed to pursue the kind of ambition she had, she becomes a fascinating figure. Sure, it’d be great if the “first woman president” was some fresh face who no one knows well enough to hate. But Clinton is about to accept a major party presidential nomination after walking through a four-decade media crucible. She hit a triple wearing a 70-pound backpack.
I’ve come to like Hillary Clinton, even though I felt differently eight years ago. Perhaps the times call for a different person? I don’t decide that, nor do I know who that could be. Many of my friends were Bernie Sanders supporters and many others are Republicans or conservative independents. I’m not here to tell them what to do, or you. That’s just the progression I’ve gone through.
[An aside, I have another 1,000 words I could do on Bernie Sanders, but we’ll leave them to the wind].
Clinton’s biggest real liability, in my mind, is her current e-mail scandal. I don’t see this kerfuffle, in itself, as disqualifying. She didn’t break the law. She didn’t have criminal or malicious intent. She had only modified a practice that recent high level officials had already been doing. Most of the criticisms of the private e-mail server are deeply partisan and situational. It’s bad if Hillary does it, but when others have done similar things the reaction is different.
No, I can forgive that quite easily, except for how Clinton handled the e-mail server problem before and after it happened. It seems that creating a private server to handle the mix of work and personal e-mail is something you’d want to do very carefully. I do that on my phone, and put some thought into it. I don’t deal with potentially classified e-mail, but I do deal with information that I must protect. It seems Clinton went into this rather mindlessly.
Further, now that the e-mail scandal dominates political coverage, I am baffled why Clinton has let weeks go by without giving a major speech about this. If it were me, I’d apologize for the mistakes she’s already admitted and help people understand what she’s learned and how she’ll take those lessons into her potential administration. I suspect it has something to do with the investigation process, but that’s no excuse, politically or personally.
Fundamentally, this goes to Clinton’s biggest weakness: hubris, or pride. Politics is a field that generates pride and ego the way trees produce oxygen. It can’t be helped. But politicians are not supposed to show pride. It’s a paradox. Normally, this would spell trouble for Clinton, but not necessarily this year.
Because if Hillary Clinton is a tanker truck of hot gas, Donald Trump is the fucking sun.
The only column I’ve written on the presidential race this year gently suggested that Trump represented a particular kind of political movement that hasn’t worked out to people’s benefit in the past. Frankly, I see him as a potential tyrant. Not the “boo hoo he does things I don’t agree with” kind of tyrant that Republicans see Obama as, but the kind who uses his office to stifle debate, punish critics, and benefit himself. An American Vladimir Putin.
Nevertheless, I’ve talked to people who don’t see it that way. So let’s give their views some consideration.
STATEMENT: Trump is a reality show star with a deeply checkered history in business dealings and no knowledge or curiosity about how government actually runs.
RESPONSE: That’s what we love about Trump. He’s an outsider.
STATEMENT: Trump says cruel things about women, the disabled, Muslims and minority groups.
RESPONSE: He just calls it like it is. Some things you shouldn’t take so seriously, and other times he’s just saying what others are afraid to say.
STATEMENT: The global economy and delicate geopolitical system of alliances could all go into the crapper if someone as intemperate as Trump leads the world’s only remaining superpower.
RESPONSE: Yes, that sounds great. Not my problem.
STATEMENT: Trump’s policy proposals lack specifics. And ideas he does propose, like a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, or blocking all Muslim people from entering the country, are logistically and financially prohibitive.
RESPONSE: He’ll figure it out when he’s elected.
STATEMENT: Trump will cause chaos.
RESPONSE: Order isn’t getting us much. I’ll try chaos.
What’s interesting about these interactions I’ve had is that there really isn’t much you can do to counter the arguments against Trump if someone has adopted these positions. Outraged by the previous passage? Believe me, a Trump supporter doesn’t care. In fact, fuck you. What are you going to do about it?
So, since I’m sharing my opinions, I think Trump is — at his core — a smart but rather sad man who fills an endless hole in his heart with money and attention. What he’s doing in this campaign is an obvious gimmick and there’s no reason to believe anything good will happen if he’s elected. He’s tapping into real anger over global trade and the culture wars, but has no ability to actually change either.
About a third to maybe even 40 percent of the country has already decided to vote for Trump. Clinton can probably count on 45 percent, maybe even a little less. The election will be decided by almost a quarter of the electorate who knows these candidates very well and dislikes, maybe even hates, both of them.
Yes, the Libertarians have a compelling ticket with former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld. The Greens have Jill Stein. Maybe a minor party candidate gets enough attention to become a third option. (Johnson is the most likely person to do this). But they’d have to hit 15 percent in a poll pretty soon to get on the debate stage, and that appears unlikely right now.
It will be Hillary or Donald.
Neither hot nor cold
Many people I talk to, perhaps most, end political conversations by saying “I wish the two sides would put aside their politics and just use ‘common sense.'” Or, to the other extreme, “it’s time to stand up and just say no to [the other side].” To me, these both read as “I wish politics produced exactly what I wanted without any effort.” In other words, we want everyone to want what we want. This is a working definition of selfishness.
While politics has always been fertile ground for selfishness, it has been a system by which large, more selfless national goals have been achieved. And those goals have always involved deals made between people who don’t see eye to eye or buy tickets to the same concerts, so to speak. Imperfect deals. Ugly process. Deals that involve voting for something an official opposes to fulfill some other promise to the voters.
People who make deals like that are vilified, often by the same voters who later wring their hands over partisanship. Trump slew a dozen opponents on charges of capitulation with some faceless “establishment” enemy. Democrats are slower to purge the impure, but are quickly catching up.
Why are both parties in such a hurry to appease their fundraising and ideological bases?
The next president might appoint four Supreme Court justices — enough to permanently establish a philosophy of government and society. Don’t like Citizens United, where corporations can essentially cherry pick their favorite candidates for Congress? Well, that’s on the table. So is law regarding personal medical decisions, the war on drugs, the war on terror, legal process, and the collection of private data. Remember how Americans are spending more time online? The government monitors all of that. Who do you want running that government?
How will the next president handle the budget? No, I mean specifically? How will they balance revenue and spending? How will they pay for the programs and military everyone seems to oppose cutting?
I don’t just mean the president. Who do you want filling all the other chairs at the big table?
Democracy is a complex organism that requires a mix of disagreement and shared values. We also need enough forethought to look beyond an election cycle to the policy at the heart of what works, or does not work, about our government.
In the end, the pigs will run in Nevis this weekend. Perhaps Donald will win, or perhaps Hillary. But the real story is not the pigs. They are figureheads. The people lined up along the raceway are the ones driving the action. The people will decide what it all means. Pigs are pigs. It is we who wrestle with ghosts and struggle with notions of good and evil.
Recent weeks remind us that the world can be a fearful, angry, ugly place. Elections neither prevent nor cause this fact. Politics and government are tools of change. They must be used with patience and vision. If you want politics to make you feel good, you’ve got to wait five elections, not just until this November. In fact, there is virtually no chance this November will make most of the country “feel good.”
We must make the world beautiful. This cannot be accomplished with a vote alone. This must be done with our hands, spoken with our tongues and built among our families and communities alike.