The Ugliness of American Politics: My Top-10 Culprits

A friend of mine in Thailand, recently wrote:  “As the presidential election is approaching, I have seen in the news that the situation in America is getting uglier. What is going on?”

To which I responded: Yes, there is a lot of ugliness here.  On the surface, American politics now seems reduced to the issue of whether the Republicans can steal the election by suppressing voting rights in just enough states to prevail in the Electoral College or whether Democrats can replace the Republicans by outspending them. (Democrats seem to believe having such resources requires that their supporters be reminded by email at least 50 times each day, that while  the sky has already fallen, a deeper descent into Hell awaits unless each recipient kicks in anotherallegedly triple-matched$25 to $50 soon.) 

But at a somewhat deeper level, here is my personal list of the “top ten” culprits of our political ugliness.

1. Donald Trump’s lack of character (his narcissism, his lies, his aversion to science and truth, and so forth) and refusal to accept democratic norms (especially his willingness to undermine human and voting rights and his refusal to pledge to abide by electoral results).

2. The Republican Party generally and Mitch McConnell specifically who have been Trump’s lapdogs and have refused to oppose his most egregious pronouncements and actions.

3. Trump base in the electorate: mostly those aging white men who are deeply threatened by the increased multiculturalism in America.  They believe that the advance of women, immigrants, and especially Blacks threatens their status and jobs.  (Isabelle Wilkerson’s recent Caste is a great source on this.)

4. Our political culture suffers from what David Brooks (in the forthcoming issue of the Atlantic) calls “moral convulsion.”  Our political culture has long encouraged and accepted excessive individualism, materialism, consumerism, and addictions to various amusements, and these orientations have only become stronger in this century.  Additionally, our culture is now increasingly characterized by declining and dangerously low political, social, and interpersonal trust.  Trump and his Republican allies have added a strong dose of tribalism, to increasingly divide us along partisan, racial, and other lines.  Our overemphasis on sports has encouraged people to regard politics as just another brutal competition, in which “our team” needs to prevail at all costs over “the other team.”  America must triumph in international politics (even against our allies), whites must dominate and exclude people of color, “my party” (especially Republicans) must crush and even banish the evil-doers in the other party.  When people are increasingly distrustful and resentful of others across national, racial, partisan, religious, and other such lines, there is little ability for us to take effective collection actions, such as accept regulations to alleviate the pandemic, climate change, etc. 

5. Social media and talk radio increasingly provide outlets for conspiratorial allegations, fantasies, and unvetted lies accepted by and thus disseminated by those Americans who are poorly educated, uninformed, and crazy. These are the folks that Hillary Clinton saw (and unfortunately labeled) as our “deplorables.” I think they make up only 10% of our population, but they contribute disproportionately to our increasingly flawed political culture.   

6. The increasing concentration of wealth at the top (the 1%); the excessive privilege of their kids; and the limited social mobility of those in the lower half of our economic class system

7. An increasingly irresponsible, profit-oriented, and politically-active corporate sector that has used its increasing clout to undermine the ability of our regulatory agencies to act on behalf of the public interest and provide justice.

8. The Democratic Party, while not nearly as corrupt as the Republicans, has nevertheless not always been a responsible alternative.

9. An “originalist” and deeply conservative Supreme Court.  (I do not include Chief Justice John Roberts as an “ugly” problem here, as he seems to me to be a typical conservative Republican and thus someone operating within acceptable political differences.)

10. An ancient Constitution that needs a series of amendments to update our electoral and governmental structures. Note that I am not saying the whole Constitutional system is rotten and needs to be replaced, but specific changes are needed.  Getting rid of the Electoral College is but one example.

There are many good things about America, but, in my judgment, these are the main things that prevent the realizationand indeed now threaten to undermine our pursuitof such American ideals as inclusion, opportunity, justice, and democracy.

Please join Lynn and I in hoping for a thorough house cleaning of the Trump administration and the Republican Senate next week.