Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Winter Is Coming, Politically

“Having women make up half of her cabinet would be historic (in recent years, a quarter to a third of cabinet positions have been held by women), and Democrats close to Mrs. Clinton say she may decide to retain Ms. Lynch, the nation’s first black woman to be attorney general, who took office in April 2015.”
 —News story by Patrick Healy in Sunday’s New York Times
The other day I was listening to the BBC World Service’s World Business Report program and I heard the host, Susannah Streeter, preface a question to a guest commentator thusly: “I don’t know whether you are a fan of Game of Thrones, but there are some commentators here in the UK who say that that TV series is like a children’s program compared to what’s going on at the moment in the political scene at Westminster.”

Really? A fictional story that regularly features such incidents as murder, torture, mass slaughter, rape, infanticide, incest and people being burned to death by dragons cannot hold a candle in terms of outrage to the latest political machinations in London? Really?

Okay, I will take off my Mr. Literal hat and take Streeter’s point the way it was no doubt intended. The fact is that many of us have thought more than a bit of HBO’s groundbreaking fantasy series while observing politics in both Europe and the United States. Not because of the levels of carnage on the TV show but because of its world view of moral bleakness and utter hopelessness. Almost all of the characters are (or were; the number of cast members has dropped lately) terribly flawed. Viewers looking for someone to root for have to measure the quality of various rivals with a heavy emphasis on moral relativity. Just when you find a character you can really get behind, she or he is summarily butchered. The most evil of the lot tend to prosper—at least until someone more evil comes along. Lately the noble bastard Jon Snow has looked to be an actual savior for this morally desolate world, but seasoned watchers will not be surprised to have that rug pulled out from under them, like so many others. Queen Daenerys Targaryen generally seems to be a benevolent despot and a great leader, but like many other monarchs in author George R. R. Martin’s world, she has plenty of blood on her hands. (For an interesting take on the Game of Thrones/modern politics comparison, check out Emily Nussbaum’s piece in the latest New Yorker.)

The natural reaction of the usually empathetic viewer is to resist getting emotionally involved, to not get behind anybody in this crazy violent world, to deliberately not pick a side in order to avoid disappointment. And that brings me to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

It is a cliché by now to complain about the terrible choices presented to us by the major American political parties every four years, to badmouth both the Democrat and the Republican. But never has that “pox on both your houses” sentiment felt more real or merited than this year. As usual, it will come down to which candidate turns you off more or, more likely, which party you usually vote for. It is hard not to see a larger number of voters than usual simply staying home. Others will resort to third-party candidates or write-ins. People who actually understand math, however, will realize that every vote or non-vote is a de facto vote for either Clinton or Trump, so you are only fooling yourself if you do not make an explicit choice and act on it.

Both candidates have said and done enough things to disqualify them in a normal election year. So how will voters make the choice? They will choose the same way they usually do—by going for the candidate that comes closest to being “one of us.” That will be decided mainly by how the candidate talks. People who feel that the world is falling apart around them and that the collective elites in government and business do not care will respond to things that Trump says—never mind that his positions seem to change from day to day. People who see Trump as a racist/xenophobe/misogynist will respond to Clinton’s buzz words about being inclusive of minorities, immigrants and women. If those same voters worry about the unfairness of the economic system, well, they will just have to put that aside because, clearly, Clinton (and not Trump) is the choice of Wall Street and the so-called one percent.

They will also have to put aside the fact she may be the most corrupt politician of our generation. Buried in a news story in Sunday’s New York Times was a clear quid pro quo extended in public to Attorney General Loretta Lynch (see above). This came one day after Clinton was questioned for three and a half hours by the FBI and six days after Clinton’s husband had a half-hour private conversation with Lynch aboard her plane. It does not matter what the conversation was about. The signal was sent to the “career prosecutors,” as the attorney general continually refers to them but who, in the end, report to her. In case there is still any doubt, today Clinton is traveling on Air Force One with Lynch’s boss on a campaign swing to North Carolina. People who usually vote Democratic will no doubt process all this in a way to make themselves feel okay about voting for her anyway. And who can blame them? You can hardly expect them to vote for Trump. The main thing Clinton has to worry about is whether her voters are bad at math. Meanwhile Trump’s voters have their own processing to do.

What is most disturbing about all of this is how the United States’ political divisions are hardening segments of the country into groups who see themselves having less and less in common with the other segments. Increasingly each group sees its well-being put at risk by the others. These divisions (white vs. minority, urban vs. rural, religious vs. secular) begin to take on the aspects of clans or tribes. Sadly, this is encouraged by both political parties because, in such a large country, this is the easiest way to engineer a majority vote.

In that respect, yes, America does bear something of resemblance to Westeros. And, as in that fictional realm, the political infighting risks distracting us from more fundamental dangers.

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