The Politics of Imagery 2016

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The Politics of Imagery 2016

By Francis Zarro, Director of Legislative Initiatives and Civic Engagement
Friday, February 5, 2016 - 5:15pm

“The whole art of politics consists of directing rationally the irrationalities of men.”—Reinhold Niebuhr

The outcome of the Iowa caucus has set the stage for what may be the most structurally definitive American presidential election since Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in 1932.

The strong showing by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, followed by Donald Trump, the self-financing billionaire and perceived frontrunner, and the emergence of Florida Senator Marco Rubio as the third man in the room delivers a very clear message—Republican voters are tired of mainstream candidates and prefer individuals who possess or have access to large personal fortunes and are to a degree willing to compromise themselves spiritually by pandering to select faith-based groups to the exclusion and even demonization of others.

The results of the Democratic Iowa caucuses were equally revealing. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just nine months ago had no real opposition in Iowa or in other primary states, barely eked out a narrow win over Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and according to recent accounts in the Iowa press, the final outcome is now in the process of re-evaluation.  In a hasty post-caucus victory lap, Secretary Clinton reminded her supporters and the rest of us of her considerable experience and qualifications for the job and her lifetime of work in supporting progressive causes. Senator Sanders, in his comments later that night, spoke passionately about his caucus outcomes and put the country on notice that Iowa was just the beginning of what he and his followers see as an emerging American political awakening. He spoke of the critical importance of financial reform, the crisis in our criminal justice system, and the threats to democracy posed by income inequality, racism, and our present campaign finance system.

As the New the Hampshire primary rapidly approaches, it is beginning to look like this may be the presidential election that brings the structural changes in our democracy that we thought we were getting in 2008 with the election of President Barack Obama.  At the time many progressives believed that we had finally found “the new FDR.”  Many conservatives preferred to think that we had elected an American Gorbachev who would unhinge our economic and social systems.

As it turned out, both sides were wrong. Once in office, President Obama quickly found the center and made valiant efforts to govern by consensus. His “principled aversion to absolutes “ and preference for compromise were the hallmarks of his first term, leading into his second. Only more recently has the president reclaimed much of his original core progressive agenda; for the most part he has conducted himself as a “pragmatist and historist” whose purpose was not so much to radically alter our existing socio-economic and political structure but to “loosen the bolts” and set the stage for incremental change.

And now a steady flow of invective from the Republican frontrunners is fueling the fears and irrationalities of disenfranchised voters who are frustrated with Washington. Far from channeling reason, candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz seem intent on exploiting the frustrations of millions of middle-class voters, and the strategy seems to be working. Political pundits and Republican party operatives alike are now coming to grips with the possibility that Donald Trump, the billionaire capitalist who equates personal financial superiority with virtue, or Ted Cruz, the Tea Party contrarian ideologue, will tap into the “Reagan Democrats” coalition and become the party’s presidential nominee in 2016. In the midst of all this, establishment Republicans are literally banking on Senator Marco Rubio’s emergence as the standard bearer of the mainstream.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’ politics of democratic socialism and political revolution is making real headway among young voters and in traditional Democratic middle-class strongholds, and even in some more conservative rural sectors. He is now gaining in the national polls and raising impressive amounts of money in the form of small donations from individual contributors. He has reignited the nation’s young people, many of whom feel let down by President Obama’s pragmatism and perhaps, unfairly, see Secretary Clinton as a dubious progressive alternative.  

As it is usually the case in our presidential politics, Americans are thinking and voting with their pocketbooks. Money and financial security are driving American politics in 2016 almost evenly with national security issues. Imagine a choice between Donald Trump, the quintessential capitalist and materialist who admits to paying for political favors with calculated, bipartisan campaign contributions, and Bernie Sanders, the lifelong socialist who disdains money and its corrupting influence on the political process.

It is difficult to understand how the same mix of voters in states like Iowa and New Hampshire can handle such extremes, but the way things look now, a Trump-Sanders or a Cruz-Sanders race in 2016 may be exactly where we are headed, and it is all about wealth, race, justice, and class. Some voters see Donald Trump as the person they want to be and think that supporting him might improve their fortunes. They like his populist stance on issues like trade, immigration, and taxes. Others see Bernie Sanders as their only prospect for achieving the structural economic and regulatory changes needed to level the economic and justice playing field in the United States and Hillary Clinton as the right person at the right time to become the first woman to be elected president of the United States. Others see Ted Cruz as a true conservative who walks the walk and shares their religious beliefs, and still others see Senator Rubio and a more conservative version of a 2008 Barack Obama.

Is Bernie Sanders after all the new FDR?  Are either Donald Trump tor Ted Cruz the new Ronald Reagan? Will the primary process eventually fall back on the mainstream candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio?  Is there a systemic structural socio-economic and political sea change in the wind? Will the candidates change or calcify the way wealth and power are distributed in this country, or is this just another four-year cycle of rhetoric resulting in the preservation of the status quo?  In other words, is the 2016 presidential election going to be based upon real issues and structural political, economic, and social imperatives, or will it be as in the past built on sheer political imagery?

In his last published work, The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our Time (2004), the economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “Let there be a coalition of the concerned.  The affluent would still be affluent, the comfortable still comfortable, but the poor would be part of the political system….”

Today most of us are surviving on mere images of prosperity, democracy, and justice.

We live in a kind of conscious unreality, where the pace of our everyday existence creates illusions of prosperity, justice, security, and liberty. We borrow frantically, mete out justice sparingly, neglect participatory democracy regularly, and rotely exclude millions of low-income people and people of color from the mainstream. Sadly, what most Americans mistake for democracy and prosperity these days is really nothing more than momentum.

The solution to these problems is not to be found in fringe movements, or the ranting of extremists or candidates who want to cut back essential programs like Social Security and Medicare, suspend core constitutional rights, build walls around our borders, ban unfamiliar religions, and indiscriminately send our young people to war and blanket bomb imbedded enemies. The answers are in the hearts of ordinary decent Americans who use common sense, do their duty every day, and strive to make sure that everyone has a place at the table and is treated fairly.

That is democracy, and that is the kind of genuine patriotism that “the greatest generation” exhibited when they encountered their “rendezvous with destiny” in the 1940s and conquered fear, poverty, and tyranny and went on to ignite the greatest period of economic expansion the world has ever known.

No true progress on any of these fronts can be achieved until the imagery is taken out of the political process and we return to this kind of genuine patriotism and to a rational democracy. This means first and foremost that there must be mandatory public financing of every local, state, and federal election as well as continued funding of public and alternative radio and television and community forums as a means of fostering the open and free exchange of ideas. We are badly in need of a return to civic engagement in the Unites States.

Money is driving public policy as never before, and not only a from corporations but also from unions, political action committees, and known and unknown individuals and enterprises that direct cash to the political candidates who wax elegant with imagery during political campaigns. Once in power, they do the bidding of their financial backers.  This is not a Democratic or Republican issue but a matter of human nature. When you accept things from people, you obligate yourself to them. Donald Trump may not be accepting PAC money right now, but he no doubt will be if he gets the nomination, and every other major candidate for president, excluding perhaps Bernie Sanders, are accepting the benefits of Super PAC money (though Senator Sanders does benefit from PAC money from National Nurses United). It does little to solve the problem to say that billionaires like Mr. Trump and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg can self-finance or that progressive candidates have no choice but to avail themselves of this cash if they are to be competitive. It’s no better than an oligarchy to have our candidates and public officials obligated to super PACs and high net worth individuals.

The present system corrupts by convincing us to enter into covenants for governance with people whose primary purpose is to perpetuate power, not to serve the public interest or the rule of law. There is a vast difference between the rule of the law and the rule of power. This is politics gone irrational.

And it does not stop after the campaign. Candidates continue to maintain and spend these funds well after the election is over, often on other like-minded candidates and to further their own political and personal agendas. There can be no reasonable expectations of breaking loose from the hold of political imagery has on the political process until we enact into law legislation that requires 100 percent public financing of every political campaign from local alderman to U.S. president.

The results might surprise us. There are thousands of decent, competent, well-intentioned Americans with much to contribute to society who could run for political office if they had the means to do it and did not have to contend with financial monoliths running against them.

This would open up the political process to include young people, students, teachers, professors, farmers, retired and seniors citizens, laborers, shopkeepers, pharmacists, doctors, scientists, homemakers and on and on. Indeed, this is the democracy our founders envisioned.  The citizen public servant who holds office, serves, leaves office and makes room for another citizen to serve; not a cabal of lawyers, financiers, and career power brokers who take control of the government and never let go, and give us a good speech and saturate us with imagery every two, four, or six years.

At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin warned us that our new adventure with liberty would last only as long as the people kept it honest.  When the people become “so corrupt” as to require a “despot” Franklin said, the experiment would surely fail.

Our public officials feed on people’s fears and appeal to their irrationalities. We have allowed imagery to corrupt the political process. This did not happen because Americans are corrupt or irrational. On the contrary, we are a people rich in common sense, character, courage, and generosity. What happened is that we all got caught up in the momentum, and then the stillness came, and now we are remembering, listening, asking the right questions and are ready to act.

An April 1945 editorial appearing in the New York Times following FDR’s death said, “One hundred years from now, men will thank God that Franklin Roosevelt was President of the United States.” Is there a candidate for president today who might inspire that kind of epitaph?

If we treat our present economic, social, and political crisis as our own “rendezvous with destiny,” we will not lose our economy, our democracy, or our justice system. Instead, we will restore them and in the process bring reason and reality to our political processes and institutions.

Francis Zarro is responsible for strategic planning and project coordination at First Fairfield Associates, a private social enterprise firm located in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He helped to create the Skidmore College Restorative Justice Project and serves as the project’s director of legislative initiatives and civic education programming. Mr. Zarro has taught administrative law at Pace University and college-level law courses, including legal research and a law library clinic, to incarcerated individuals, among them veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces. He has taught additional courses in the prison system in such fields as literature, history, government, and business. He has held positions with the New York State Unified Court System and with the New York State Defenders Association, where he helped to create the Veterans Defense Program.

Mr. Zarro received a master’s degree in public administration from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University and a juris doctorate from Seton Hall University School of Law.