A near complete ignorance of issues
American voters will elect a new president next Tuesday.
While this has been called the most important presidential election in a lifetime, the American electorate doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea what it is about.
The Tyndall Institute has been tracking the flagship nightly news television programs for several decades. Since the beginning of 2016, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have devoted 32 minutes to issues coverage (see here). Tyndall defines issues coverage by a newscast as:
“It takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy” (see here).
As far as there was issues coverage, it dealt with terrorism, foreign policy, LBGT issues and immigration. CBS covered policing and the Environmental Protection Agency.
As Tyndall writes:
“No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits (have been covered). To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates’ terms, not on the networks’ initiative” (see here).
These data testify to the almost complete retreat from issues-orientated campaign coverage. Just eight years ago, the last time both parties nominated new candidates for the White House, the network newscasts devoted 220 minutes to issues coverage. CBS Evening News went from 119 minutes of issues coverage in 2008 to 16 this year (see here). A study last month from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy confirmed that during the time of both parties’ conventions this summer, just eight percent of news coverage centered on policy and issues (see here).
“During the convention period, even though questions of policy and leadership were on the agenda within the halls of the national conventions, they were not on journalists’ agenda,” writes professor Thomas Patterson (see here).
“Polls, projections, strategy and the like constituted about a fifth of all coverage, whereas issues took up less than 1/12 and the candidates’ qualifications for the presidency accounted for less than 1/13” (see here).
As Patterson concludes, part of the purpose of campaign coverage is to help inform voters about key issues of public concern. This year, the networks decided to walk away from that responsibility.
The reasons why are also clear. Covering nonsense and circus brings in big advertising for the networks – a fact CNN readily admitted. There is the pressure of the parties to not engage in anything serious. For the last nice months, journalists, would-be journalists, ‘influencers,’ lobbyists, intellectuals, ideologues and bloggers have been way too busy calling Trump a fascist, although if you would ask them who Franco was, or Salazar, most of them wouldn’t know. No, I do not exaggerate. A study just found that a majority of first year American university students fails to locate Vermont and Ohio on a map of the USA. They all know about Angelina Jolie’s marriage problems. This is a kindergarten level of ‘discourse,’ with even well-known people demonstrating their basis ignorance and bias. Michael Moore mentioned today that ‘no women (sic) has built the atomic bomb and no women (resic) is responsible for the melting of the polar ice caps.’ Another good reason to vote Clinton so it seems.
We don’t know and we don’t care
I have written several contributions on the electoral process this year. I concentrated very little on Trump. I am not interested in Trump. I refuse, for clear moral reasons, to choose between Trump and Clinton. In any decent society, none of either candidate should run. What bothers me the most is the utter lack of critical thought, what Hannah Arendt called the outstanding characteristic of fascism and totalitarianism: thoughtlessness.
There is no longer any doubt that the Democratic National Committee has done everything it could to keep Sanders away from the nomination. It became clear that that this process did not start in 2016 and not even in 2015. Plans to keep Sanders out were formulated in 2014, two years before the first caucus. The DNC and the Clinton Foundation effectively blackmailed democratic local and state politicians. Support Sanders and you will never very see another dollar again for your campaign. There can be no discussion about this. It is a proven fact.
It all started in Iowa, the very first primary, where six counties remained undecided. The winner was decided by the flop of a coin – Clinton won all six. As I said at the time, the chance of tossing 6 coins correctly 6 times in a row is 1.56%, meaning that there is a 98.44% chance that this outcome will not occur by chance. There have been many other “irregularities.” If a journalist like Glen Greenwald puts his reputation on the line by saying that Clinton stole the Nevada primary, I am ready to accept it. Very few people seem to be bothered. It was not even uncommon for Clinton supporters to defend the corruption of the nomination process: Sanders is not even a democrat, he had no business in the party anyway.
This thoughtlessness, as Arendt explained, leads to moral bankruptcy, insulation from reality and what she called ‘selflessness.’ As someone said this week on Facebook:
“One candidate has Vlad Putin and the KKK hoping that he gets elected. The other candidate doesn’t. I don’t care if Hillary ate my fricking email, stole my credit cards, and then told me my ass was so big it needed passing flags: I’d still vote for her.”
Apart from the eloquence of such very typical quote, there is the complete absence of any realisation of the inherent danger of such non-thoughts that such people feel compelled to share with the world. They feel good about themselves. At least they are not one of Trump’s ‘fascists.’ Ask these good citizens what Clinton stands for. They don’t know.
As Dylan Thomas wrote:
“Our innocence goes awfully deep; our discreditable secret is that we don’t know anything at all, and our horrid inner secret is that we don’t care that we don’t.”
It is okay for the liberals and the progressives that Clinton is pro climate change policies and pro fracking (besides, she told environmentalists ‘to go get a life’). Her vote to go to war in Iraq is forgiven and forgotten. No one cares about Clinton’s role in Libya. If you would mention Sirte to Michael Moore, who has been beating the Clinton drum for months, there is a big chance he wouldn’t know what you are talking about. Very few of Clinton’s supporters care about a no-fly zone in Syria, although this is the best imaginable way to make this regional conflict explode into something big and incredibly dangerous – not only the Russians, but also the Chinese are involved, apart from all other countries in the region. No one cares about the email server issue, although it is incredibly simple: what Clinton did was against the law and she lied about it under oath. It all seems to make no difference. It seems that The Washington Post fired Bob Woodward. This symbol of American journalism – Woodward broke Watergate which brought down Nixon – was sacked (or he left) because the Post doesn’t want Woodward to write about the corruption of the Clinton Foundation.
When Clinton starts yelling (yes, yelling) at Trump in the third debate about Russian influence and Russian leaks, no one cares when in the following days it turns out that there is not a shred of evidence for the thesis (according to Clinton affirmed by no less than 17 US institutes) that these leaks originate in Russia, nor that there is no relationship with Trump and the Russians, although, on the other hand, the ties of Clinton and the Clinton Foundation with Russia are well-documented and beyond any doubt (see here).
It makes no difference to people that the Clinton Foundation donated $675.000 to McAuliffe’s run for senator in Virginia, while his wife works for the FBI and is or was directly involved in the email inquiry. There is no proof (yet?) of any malice. It is possible that the upcoming senator received the money out of the goodness of Clinton’s heart.
It is not true that I have any sympathy for Trump. That is as preposterous as it is insulting. But if the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, Wall Street, the ‘Defence’ Industry and most of the most notorious neo-con hawks and warmongers in the US stand behind Clinton – and they do – I get suspicious. Wouldn’t you? None of them supports Trumps, because he is seen as too much of a dove or even as a “pacifist,” which is, in this political climate, a deadly insult. Trump is a symptom of many things. Trump canalises the anger and anguish of especially the white working and middle class electorate which have seen their lives devastated by the conservative counter revolution. It is far from the whole story, because, as research shows, Trump gets a lot of support of (again, mostly whites) with an average income that is higher than the average income of the Clinton voter. This is simple to explain. It is the defence of white privilege. The vicious attacks on (poor) women, Mexicans, disabled people, gays, Muslims, Jews, blacks and people on social welfare are nothing but scapegoating. Someone has to pay for the decade long failures of the system. At the same time, big money downplays the catastrophic effects of climate change and of poverty – more victimisation. Drones killing innocent people in other countries are “defence” and business as usual. A majority of first year university students cannot locate Syria on a map. The populace is being fed American exceptionalism. Let them, above all, understand nothing.
Democratic statecraft and soulcraft
Where are those who talk about democratic statecraft – proper public accountability, public principles, protection of rights and liberties, intelligent economic policies which benefit the population? Where are those who not only talk about equality before the law (not that this is not a major problem in itself – the great majority of the US prison population is being incarcerated because of non-violent crime; many of them could never afford a lawyer and accepted to plead guilty because going to trial would be seen as overloading the judicial system and result in even harsher sentences – and this is the reality for millions), but social equality, which means, at the minimum, that people can lead a decent life – for example a roof above their head, affordable health care, work for a decent wage and school for their kids to go to?
Who talks about democratic soulcraft – the quest for integrity, empathy and justice? Sociopathy is the dominant societal principle. It’s all about me and if you do not make it, go die in a corner, I don’t care, you deserve it and leave us alone. John Dewey wrote that this kind of nihilist psychopathology can be overcome by robust democratic education and courageous exemplars grounded in the spread of critical intelligence, moral compassion and historical humility. The 2016 election proves that close to nothing of this still exists. However, no social system can function like this. Hence we see repression on a scale that could not have been imaginable even a few years ago (see here).
What about the policy proposals? There is no doubt that Clinton will not only continue to promote and implement the same old disastrous neoliberal recipes, but that things will get worse. Those who see Clinton as a left of centre candidate are living in a dream. Obamacare is as good as dead. Clinton promised that single payer – universal health care – will ‘never ever’ come to pass. It is not unthinkable that pensions will be completely privatised (see here for Clinton’s plan to gut social security for the elderly). The ultimate result – if there are not too many big wars – will be another Trump in four years, perhaps a more intelligent, a more right wing Trump, a better orator, a greater populist, a bigger poison. The progressives will then once again argue for the necessity to vote for some lesser evil. This circus should stop, because the degeneration it led to has become clear: the luxurious choice to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Economic policy: “Predistributionism,” labour monopsony and other Orwellian newspeak
The nebulous term “predistributionism” means, in typical Orwellian newspeak, to put it bluntly, that the poor and the working class can go to hell in the USA and that the corporate state will help them find the way. It is not at all different from, for example, the DWP’s “activation policies” in the UK, which “support,” for example, someone who is dying from lung cancer in the development of his labour market potential (this is not a fictitious example – this happens).
The great insight of predistributionism is that society is becoming more and more unequal. Some groups do not profit from the gains of productivity growth. This is of course true. Since 2011, nearly all the gains of the ‘recovery’ have gone to the top 1% of incomes in the US. The incomes of the 0.01% have never been grown faster in history. Predistribution argues that these gains cannot just be ‘redistributed’ through social and fiscal policies and that rising wages are a political non-starter altogether. Unsurprisingly, someone comes up with a non-solution (see here).
The rhetoric on predistribution is on Clinton’s website. She seeks, for example, to “rewrite the rules to ensure workers share in the profits they help create,” including measures like rewarding corporate profit-sharing and strengthening collective bargaining rights and antitrust enforcement.” I don’t believe a word of it. Read Clinton’s speeches she gave to Wall Street (at ca. $ 200.000 per hour) which have finally been leaked. Then make up your own mind. There is absolutely no question about any tougher enforcement in the only real sense, that of democratic oversight. Tougher enforcement means increased Wall Street self-regulation. There is no question about a general rise of the minimum wage.
The idea behind predistributionism and labour monopsony is that if there is insufficient competition among businesses, they won’t compete with one another as hard they potentially could to attract employees and, hence, they end up paying their workers less than they would if there would be “true” competition. Isn’t this a really great idea? Low wages and unemployment are a market failure! Labour monopsony is the flip side of monopolies charging higher prices to consumers (see here). Rather than focusing on wages directly or on redistribution – tax rates and the social welfare system – the problem lies in the market. And although Obama’s White House has focused – but has not acted – on evidence that inequality is fueled by a shift away from labour unions – once very efficient instruments to make wages rise – by “corporate consolidation,” (read: stagnating wages for some for the last 40 years), predistribution puts into question that more powerful unions generate not just higher wages but stronger productivity growth and a faster-growing overall economy (see here). It’s just an idea, you know – we are not dealing with empirical evidence here. It could contradict us.
In short, if combating inequality – and stimulating economic growth, or, as Flassbeck calls it, a return to economic normalcy, would be the goal, simple and extremely efficient measures can be implemented tomorrow morning. These are exactly the measures that the corporate masters oppose at all cost: raising the minimum wage, raising wages overall, changing the tax system, public investment (dealing with America’s rotten public infrastructure) and rebuilding the welfare state. All these measures would lead to major economic growth, but who needs growth if the 1% gets more than 90% of all economic gains anyway? And if you go under, do it silently. Let us use you as a scapegoat first.
Futhermore, all these measures have the advantage of directness. One doesn’t have to wait for companies to “increase competition” so that they become “capable” of paying higher wages. Whatever happens on Tuesday, the American electorate will elect a president which will obstruct these policies with all her or his might. The rest is ideology, mere talk, sheer illusion. The only question that remains is what the greater “involvement” abroad will lead to – will it be more small wars or a big one? Will we go out with a bang or with a whimper? Or will it be possible for five leftists in a room to finally agree upon anything?