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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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OCT 2020 Issue
Field Notes

Politics with Normal Characteristics

“The stakes in this election are greater than any other in modern times,” John Kasich said during his brief speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Awkwardly standing at a symbolic “crossroads” that clearly seemed to be someone’s gravel driveway, he warned of “a path that’s led to division, dysfunction, irresponsibility, and growing vitriol between our citizens.” He described President Trump as “unlike all of our best leaders before him, who worked to unite us, to bridge our differences.” He outlined the “real choice” we face, one that would have “consequences for America’s soul.” This, after all, was why the proud Republican chose to appear at the convention in the first place. “In normal times, something like this would probably never happen,” he wryly acknowledged. “These are not normal times.”1

Despite such unprecedented stakes, Kasich recited his speech with the rehearsed cadence of a lecture, as if the situation alone were enough to elevate his clichéd language to something that resembled conviction. It was an appropriately lifeless performance for a dying political machine. Kasich’s presence could not have been more emblematic: a stand-in for the “reasoned” governance Trump’s administration has desecrated, the former Ohio governor frequently references his work with President Clinton to balance the federal budget in 1997, a feat accomplished in part through massive cuts to Medicare. To thrust Kasich in front of the camera six months into a pandemic—when refusal to use government money for anything other than subsidizing low-profit businesses and keeping the financial system solvent has only amplified the suffering of the poor and working class—is so astonishingly out of touch it would be stupid if it weren’t unintentionally honest.

For one thing, it has been decades since the “party of the people” invested in the lives of workers. Their cloying brand of woke corporatism, complete with fashionable masks and Instagram live streams, embodies the middle-class complacency of those comfortable enough to remain unaffected by domestic policy, and whose politics are fundamentally aesthetic. Accusations of fascism and assertions that “This is not normal!” belong to the hysteria of professionals, those for whom Trump’s poor taste and political incorrectness finds its criticism in late show monologues and The New Yorker cartoons. For them, a return to normal is merely not being forced to look at Trump’s spray tan. It is the return of feeling safe enough to not have to care. So long as they know the captain is competent, they can stop worrying about the ship going down and get back to reading White Fragility.

The reality is that Trump’s presidency has been anything but “not normal.” It has continued the same brutal worldview of his predecessors, albeit with unorthodox theatrics that has made the mockery of our two-party system transparent. This became evident when the neutralization of Bernie Sanders’s social-democratic message was celebrated even more by Democrats than Republicans, the former of whom could never get beyond Sanders’s fatal error of using the term “working class.” Unsurprisingly, these same people have nostalgically pined for the “decency” of George W. Bush and rallied behind Joe Biden, a man whose entire political career has been spent championing the very policies that made a figure like Trump appealing to so many in 2016.

Indeed, one of the great ironies of the “real choice” between Trump and Biden is that while Biden’s career has effectively been that of a Republican, Trump spent most of his life as a Democrat with very few principles outside of getting rich and putting his name on tall buildings. By every metric, Biden’s lengthy career has done far greater damage than Trump’s brief stint in office, and his lifelong obsession with fiscal deficits will guarantee the now familiar “bailouts for banks and business, budget cuts for the poor” routine that admits just how little deficits matter—unless you happen to need something essential like health care. Already, Biden’s campaign has hinted that ambitious spending of the sort that would benefit working people will be “difficult to achieve.” As Biden’s transition leader told the Wall Street Journal: “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit… forget about COVID-19, all the deficits he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.”2

In this light, it is difficult to see how Biden’s platform could resonate as a viable alternative to working people, whose lives have not meaningfully changed since January 2017. They toiled for eight years under Obama’s austerity, and have continued to toil under Trump’s. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, millions of workers are now “too essential” to be paid to stay home, but not so essential as to be provided with health care or a living wage. While some received a stimulus check and extended unemployment benefits, elected officials were quick to frame such generosity as a temporary vacation from the drudgery of work. The great ideological battle between Democrats and Republicans remained how, precisely, to test this relief, and how long it should last before everyone is left to fend for themselves. Predictably, many so-called “progressives” accepted defeat and lined up behind Biden, somberly repeating the dangers posed by Trump’s reelection while their party’s nominee appeared via webcam from the basement of his Delaware mansion.

The most common argument for choosing Biden is one of “harm reduction”: its premise assumes Biden’s policies will cause less harm, hardly a certainty given both his hawkish foreign policy record and his promise that nothing fundamentally will change. His decision to pick Kamala Harris as his running mate was met with cheers from Wall Street, with financial advisory firm Signum Global “already telling its clients that the choice of Harris reinforces the notion that the Democratic ticket is more moderate than progressive.”3 A former prosecutor who oozes managerial condescension, Harris made her career putting poor people in jail. Her education proposal during the primary took the stupidity of means testing logic to its ridiculous extreme, promising to enact a “student loan debt forgiveness program for Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities.” While they may have played up their differences in cheap debate performances, the two are a perfect pair for those wanting a ticket that has nothing to offer.

Nevertheless, even those who dislike Biden will demand you “vote blue no matter who,” if for no other reason than Biden being better on x issue: he is not a climate change denier, he does not pander to racists. It is true, for example, that Biden will likely handle the crisis at the border differently, which is to say that there would be no more kids in cages. This is a perfectly valid reason to vote for Biden, but so is not voting for Biden given his role in supporting Obama’s drone program that killed nearly 3,800 people, including many civilians.4

Why should voters be expected to perform such utilitarian calculus, determining which lives are more worthy of our attention and action in some funhouse version of the trolley problem taught in Philosophy 101? Why should they reasonably expect any meaningful action on these issues whatsoever, when election after election has proven just how little anything will change? In the end, our politicians just seem to do what banks and insurance companies demand of them anyway.

This harm reduction logic maintains our pathetic conception of politics, one that asks voters to choose which version of misery they’re willing to endure, with the hopes that maybe things will be different down the road. While this choice might seem clear to some, for those whose precarious existence remains ignored by both parties, it is certainly less so. It might feel good to call these people stupid or racist for not caring about the proper issues, but it hardly offers them a compelling reason to vote for Biden, a guy who mostly seems confused about what he’s saying, and who has very little to say when he’s not.

Perhaps the biggest (and most obvious) takeaway from this election is that electoral politics in the United States is not a politics for working people. Rarely has it been, a fact evidenced by the large number of low-income voters who choose not to participate: of the 117 million eligible voters who did not vote in 2016, 56 percent made less than $30,000. This same income bracket only made up 28 percent of those who did vote.5 While many still believe Trump’s victory in 2016 to have been the work of the dreaded “white working class,” this story was largely invented by a sensational news market in search of an easy villain: the poor, the trashy, the uneducated.

The real culprit for Trump’s win is a political establishment that is fully captured by the interests of the wealthy and the media. Our two-party system functions basically as a duopoly, one which stages its partisan battles to maximize campaign contributions and prevent an independent third party—or any party that speaks to the needs of workers—from ever becoming a viable alternative. Politicians may think they’re clever enough to deflect from their patronage, but working people are not too stupid to see them for what they are. They know when someone is pissing on them and calling it rain, and they know the easiest way to avoid getting pissed on is to stay at home.

But what about the guillotines our self-described communists insist they are preparing for the likes of Jeff Bezos? What about the creeping threat of fascism? Like everything else about our political system, these are fantasies that mask dysfunction. What passes for a left in America lacks cohesion, and exists mainly to participate in the discourse for clout or, better yet, a career at a progressive media outlet. Even Sanders’s form of social democracy requires a level of cooperation that is fractured by the supremacy of culture studies and zero-sum identity politics, to say nothing of the absence of class consciousness. At present, it’s unclear how demands can be won from the ruling class without a common project that appeals to millions of workers who have no relationship to activist causes.

Fear of fascism, meanwhile, amounts to little more than a moral panic. No one can seem to agree on what fascism is, and it has become something of an empty concept that is used not to describe something possible but amplify the danger of something actual. While this may be effective at getting people’s attention, it does nothing to deal with the problems at hand. Again, nothing Trump has done breaks from the tradition of his predecessors—his deportation policy was an extension of Obama’s, and his rule of law posturing is hardly different from Biden’s tough-on-crime rhetoric. Ironically, Trump’s foreign policy record is less reprehensible than that of any president in living memory. And while it is true that Trump has received support from self-described Nazis and white supremacists, guilt by association would not fare well for Biden, a man endorsed by such noble figures as Rick Snyder, Alan Dershowitz, and architects of the Iraq War.

None of this is to say that we are not in a moment of crisis, or that we do not face threats that need to be taken seriously. The question is how we address these problems in the face of a political establishment that maintained business as usual even as the entire world economy came to a halt. We saw how it responded to Sanders, one of the few politicians with an ounce of sincerity and concern for working people. We saw how it responded as unemployment reached nearly 50% earlier this year. If a global health crisis could not even encourage our “progressive” party to end its relationship with privatized insurance, imagine how it will respond should we ever ask for meaningful action on climate change beyond slapping a bumper sticker to our Honda Fit that says “Green New Deal Now.” Of course, Amazon has committed to spending billions doing its part, so perhaps everything will be fine after all.

Given this reality, there is something tragically symbolic about the choice between Biden and Trump. The latter represents the excess of finance capital and real estate speculation, a man whose use of superlatives mirrors the language of click-bait advertising. He is not so much evil as he is self-interested, a perfect hero for the petite bourgeoisie yearning to no longer feel so dreadfully suffocated by working life: one day they too can golf every weekend and call a New York Times reporter a loser. Biden represents the total capture of neoliberal politics: third-way compromise, a cozy relationship with Wall Street and Silicon Valley. His entire campaign seems as if it were run by a human resources department, from his VP pick (Harris is a Black woman who is friendly with big money and not so friendly with people caught up in the criminal justice system) to his meandering but ultimately cautious speeches about how terrible Trump is for the country. We may laugh at his lack of energy, but in some ways it reflects our own impotence and cynical celebration of end times.

Equally symbolic is that there is nothing about this choice that speaks to working people. They understand that, regardless of the outcome, nothing is likely to change for them. They will still be required to work—if there is still a job available—and to do so without dignity or stability.

Four more years of Trump will expand the publishing industry bubble churning out memoirs and exposés to a readership hungry for gossip. Nothing will be done to address health care, or wages, or the climate crisis. We will continue to laugh at Trump’s absurd theatrics and shake our heads in embarrassment that such a man could have ever become our president. Poor people will be blamed a second time for his victory. Biden, like Hillary Clinton, will retire in shame, and a generation of activists will wait for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to turn 35, when she will surely have better luck than Sanders.

If Biden somehow wins, he will fill his administration with well-educated moderates. His commitments to addressing income inequality and climate change will be either watered down or blocked by Republicans unafraid to actually use their power. Like Obama before him, he will talk a lot about what needs to be done and lack the conviction to do more than complain about a deep political divide that can only be overcome by being more reasonable. This, to be sure, would be a victory for those who read about just how bad the world is getting on their phones. Nature would heal. Life would feel normal once again.

Don’t take my word for it. As Kasich openly admitted in his speech: “I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat. They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that. Because I know the measure of the man. He’s reasonable, faithful, respectful and you know, no one pushes Joe around. Joe Biden is a man for our times.”

A man for our times, indeed. Perhaps this is why the camera framed Kasich standing at those crossroads in such a tight shot. If it had panned into the distance, it might have revealed that those two gravel paths, rather than diverging, ultimately lead to the same place.

  1. Matty Yglesias, “John Kasich makes the Republican’s case for Joe Biden.” Vox, August 17, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/8/17/21373196/john-kasich-dnc-speech-transcript
  2. Ken Thomas and Eliza Collins, “Joe Biden United the Democrats—It’s Not Likely to Last.” The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-united-the-democratsits-not-likely-to-last-11597847147
  3. Brian Schwartz, “Wall Street executives are glad Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris to be his VP running mate.” CNBC, August 12, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/11/joe-biden-vp-pick-wall-street-executives-are-happy-about-kamala-harris.html
  4. Micah Zenko, “Obama’s Final Drone Strike Date.” Council on Foreign Relations. January 20, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/blog/obamas-final-drone-strike-data
  5. “An examination of the 2016 electorate, based on validated voters.” Pew Research Center, August 9, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/#how-did-2016-voters-and-nonvoters-compare

Contributor

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch is the author of the Field Notes book No Home for You Here: A Memoir of Class and Culture (London: Reaktion/Brooklyn Rail, 2020). He lives in Chicago.

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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

All Issues