Even before the January 6th coup attempt there’s been something about how our political systems have operated that’s bothered me deeply, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I read this sentence in a CNN article: “Impeachment could also force the Senate to consider the impeachment articles in a trial at the same time Biden was being sworn in and would need the Senate to confirm his Cabinet.”
When I read that I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t the Senate confirm Biden’s cabinet because we impeached a criminal President?” But the answer is obvious–there is no sense of justice, fairness, or truth in politics. We like to pretend there was in the past, and maybe there was at specific times in our history, but mostly it’s always been like this.
Politics is all optics and relationships. Politicians don’t do what’s right for people based on facts, or perceived truth, or reality, but based on their feelings and how they think people will see them and what relationships they have with other politicians.
There’s long been a quiet understanding that in order to succeed in politics one has to be egoistic. Without a healthy ego no one would ever willingly subject themselves to the scrutiny and bullshit that comes with power. A person has to sincerely believe in themselves, for whatever reason, to run for office. As an optimist, I like to believe that the belief stems from a sense of wanting to do good, even if that good is only good for a minority of people.
But that’s not true of every politician. Some do only get into politics for power. Because they’re bullies and like to assert their influence over others. Right now, much of the Republican party seems to be made up of these types of people.
There is no good system of government because there is no objective, nuanced way to find good leaders. We have to make a determination of who might make a good leader based on those who step forward and apply for the job. In the name of free and fair elections–Democracy–our political system doesn’t even safeguard against known grifters or criminals. That’s how you end up with a con man and rapist in the White House, and pedophile protectors (and nearly actual pedophiles) in Congress. Arby’s has more stringent hiring standards than our political system.
And that’s how we end up with a political party that potentially confirm an entire cabinet and allow our government to run like it should because they don’t like that their President was held accountable for his crimes. Because they had a relationship with him that isn’t based in any objective truth or reality, but only their perception of power.
What I’m going to say isn’t profound, or even news to anyone. But it’s something I’m increasingly feeling and, since this is my blog, I’m going to talk about it.
I grew up pretty poor. I know for a fact that my father never made more than $20k in a year, and I doubt my mother made more. After my father’s work injury and the divorce, the purse strings got even tighter. I was never hungry, so I’m lucky in that sense, but I never realized just how much of a balancing act my father performed to ensure that until recently. Now that I pay a mortgage, have a kid on the way, and compulsively watch my stocks and 401(k), I have a new appreciation for just how poor we were and what little hope my father had of escaping it.
I’m no longer poor. I am solidly middle class, maybe even scratching at the doorway of upper middle class (oh you fancy, huh?). I worry about money in the same way a dog worries about its favorite chew toy–I know it’s not going anywhere, and that if it does there will be more somehow, but I like to keep an eye on it, just in case. Through mostly luck and privilege (if I’m honest) my wife and I are well taken care of. But in feeling this way, I can see how so many others aren’t.
My wife had a small health scare recently that incentivized us to change our diets. We moved toward buying more fruits, vegetables, and oats, less processed food, and “organic” foods that had less sugars and carbs. As a result, our weekly grocery bill got more expensive. That’s just one small thing that is indicative of the cycle that keeps people poor.
If you can’t afford to buy enough vegetables and whole grains to feed your family of four for a week, so you opt for cheaper, more highly processed foods just to keep bellies full, you’re going to be unhealthy. And if you’re unhealthy you’re going to spend more time on medical needs. And more time on medical needs means more money spent on medical needs because the U.S. absolutely refuses to socialize medicine. Don’t forget the time and money you need to spend on public transportation to get to a store, if you’re not in a food desert. If you’re in a food desert, I’m sorry, you’re fucked.
Food deserts are areas (usually urban and usually with high minority populations) that do not have ready access to a large grocery store. According to the USDA, 13.6 million people live in food deserts–and that data’s old! In reality it’s probably more. And with the virus being what it is, and the government doing as little as possible to help its citizens, that number is only going to grow.
I’d like to think this is so obvious no one would ever need to say it, but I will anyway. When you’re poor it’s really, really hard to break that cycle of poverty.
When I consider how my sister and I dug out of our family’s cycle of poverty I can’t identify anything about us that justifies our ascent over someone else. My sister joined the military, which taught her useful skills and gave her steady employment. She helped take care of our family after that. My undergraduate degree was mostly paid for by New York State because of my family’s income (or lack thereof), but I basically squandered that. I fell into the job and career I have now by sheer chance and my sister’s generosity in allowing me to live with her when I first moved to DC, which opened doors that wouldn’t have been otherwise.
There is an impulse in our society, spurred by politicians that have taken up Reagan’s cries of “welfare queens” and the demonization of the “lazy poor,” to look down on those struggling with poverty. Those of us that weren’t born into it have no reference for how difficult it is to be poor, so we look down on them. Say that if only they worked as hard as we do they wouldn’t be poor. America is the land of opportunity, pull yourself up by your bootstraps (some bullshit), whatever. And still more of us that did grow up poor but by some miracle are no longer forget, or confuse our luck with work ethic.
It’s not true. Being poor is really hard work. We’d do well to remember that and lift up instead of shoving down.
Last week I watched a panel discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, hosted by the National Book Foundation and moderated by Franklin Leonard on “A New Black Politics?” In the course of their discussion (which you should watch in the link provided), Franklin Leonard and Ibram X. Kendi broached the topic of identity politics. I was struck by something said by Keenanga-Yamahtta Taylor starting around the 31 minute mark:
“Identity politics as a framework that was coined by the women of the Combahee River Collective in their 1977 statement was about politics. It wasn’t just about identity. The premise was that because the vast majority of black women were at the bottom of society, that they had a particular political viewpoint that made them empathic towards the struggles of other people on the bottom. They saw themselves in solidarity with colored women around the world. That was the basis of their politics. So, it wasn’t just identity unto itself. It was their identification as black women who were particularly oppressed, particularly exploited, that gave them a particular political insight. I think that that has obviously gotten lost, where people think that identity alone is enough to conjure a political connection.”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “The New Black Politics?”
The line that I bolded and italicized struck me particularly hard, perhaps because this week I’ve also been reading deep dive articles on toxic masculinity over at Jezebel. This article, in particular, discusses how the language and beliefs of Men’s Rights Activists (those who feel that their identity as men is being infringed on by feminism) and the far right movement, which has now evolved past the Tea Party to things like Qanon, have steadily entered mainstream politics.
Keeanga’s discussion of identity politics and the articles at Jezebel made me think about power structures, and how over and over again we see those structures reinforced by exploiting our innate sense of identity–or the promise that you’ll be included in upper end of the social hierarchy by betraying your identity, thereby maintaining the status quo.
What I think we’ve seen recently (although this is hardly a new phenomenon–it’s just become less subtle over time) is the adoption of racist and sexist rhetoric by mainstream politicians in order to hold onto power. The dog whistles of Trump, the hiding behind “being a mother” for Amy Coney Barrett, or the questionable decision-making of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the Breonna Taylor case. In each of these cases, we see explicit or implicit racism and sexism (or both) as a way to gain or hold onto power.
We’re hard-wired to want power, as power essentially guarantees our safety. When we were hunter/gatherers living in small groups that was simple. In order to survive, we only had to prove ourselves more powerful than the other group that might be hunting and gathering on the same tract of land. Now, in a society where we’ve become so connected that we can’t realistically conceive of the number of other people we’re connected with, we seek to return to those small groups. Those who covet power exploit that need for their own gain.
And I think that’s what important to remember–the people using identity politics as part of their platform have no actual interest in those identities. To them, identity is a means to an end. We’re the ones that hold onto whatever our identities are so hard that they can become weapons. This means that we also have the power to change the narrative and no longer allow disingenuous politicians to use identity for their own gain.
As Keeanga notes, there are times when identify is important to the physical and spiritual survival of a group. That’s not a political issue–it’s a human one. For the benefit of everyone, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
I’m no political junkie or pundit, but I have had a more-than-passing interest in politics for a long time. My earliest political memory is going to vote for Bill Clinton with my mother when I was 9 years old. My awareness of politics grew with each new crisis: the 2000 election recount, where even 13 year old me understood that Al Gore got fucked in Florida; 9/11 shortly thereafter and all its fallout; the start of the 2003 Iraq War, Haliburton, and nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; Howard Dean’s “yee-haw!” that unfairly (and, perhaps, quaintly in today’s climate) tanked his campaign; the excitement and anxiety of watching the rise of the nation’s first Black president and the racist backlash (when President Obama won I was convinced that we were going to see him assassinated not long afterward and it made watching everything he did in public nerve-wracking); watching the Democrats lose the House and Senate in the 2010 mid-terms and the unprecedented blockages of President Obama’s agenda; every government shutdown thereafter; the slog that was the 2012 election cycle and Mitt Romney; and consoling my wife in 2016 after Trump won.
Obviously, that’s barely scratching the surface of the dysfunction that’s personified our political processes over the past 20 years or so, and really only covers things happening at the federal level, which generally has the slowest and least wide-affecting change, but those are the high-level events that jump to mind.
There are times when I think I might want to go into politics. It was that thinking that led to my political science minor in college, where I began to learn how ignorant we are about our own country. One of the first things I learned in my political science classes was that the main goal of the Founding Fathers was to prevent the populace from having too much of a say in government (and not only because the Founding Fathers were racist, sexist, and classist, either). They didn’t trust that most people in the country are anything but reactionary and ignorant, driven by selfishness with little concept of the greater good. So they created a complicated system to slow change. What they couldn’t know then, and what we’ve only just begun to realize despite its consistent happening over the past century or more, is that the safeguards they put in place to prevent reactive change would be weaponized to prevent any change. As of right now, those “safeguards” may actually cause our country to regress in values and freedoms.
But I digress, as that’s not the topic I want to discuss. As a professional facilitator in my day-job, I’m a firm believer that debate is pointless without agreeing to a the context in which that debate is being held. In short, what agreed-upon truths are we building our conversation on? I want to lay out what I find to be the unalienable truths about the purpose of government and what I think that means for how the government should treat its people.
The Purpose of Government
Government serves one main purpose: To protect the people between its borders. The core argument of the Federalist Papers is that a single, unified government can do more to protect the people than some combination of independent states or loose collections of confederacies.
This is accepted fact and informs the entirety of our approach to government.
Where disagreements begin is in what “protection” means. Is it a standing military? Does protection include freedom from persecution, whether for religious beliefs, or sexuality, or speaking out against the State? Is universal health care a form of protection? What about housing?
In short, as far as I can tell, disagreements center on the question, “How much responsibility do we as Americans have to protect ourselves?” Republicans, being the party of small government and personal responsibility, believe the answer to that question is that we have all of the responsibility to protect ourselves. It’s why they are against universal healthcare, but for guns. Against providing housing to the homeless, but for tax cuts for the upper classes.
Except, the government is already large. And a lot about our society has changed in the last 250 years. So these beliefs aren’t aligned with the context of our current situation.
Protection is our Inalienable Rights
Before I dive into what I think “protection” should entail, let’s outline the context I’m talking about. Just so we’re all on the same page:
More people live in cities than in rural areas
We are the richest country in the history of the world
Our country is geographically disparate, and very large
We live in the most interconnected time in history
Because of this interconnectedness, the world has gotten smaller and we are increasingly reliant on foreign nations for trade and labor
With this context, all of which are truths that can be ignored but not denied, I believe all Americans have the right to the following protections from our government:
Health: A healthy society is a strong society. We can spend hours going over the facts and figures around health care in America, how much money we would save in health care costs if we had universal health care, how unfair it is to laborers that they are tied to a job because of how health care is managed in our country, and how other nations have succeeded in providing their people health care. Regardless of all of that, if a government’s sole purpose is to protect its people, that should include from disease.
Education: An intelligent society is a strong society. Set aside the fact that America prides itself on innovation and without education (or immigration, for that matter), innovation becomes more difficult. Instead, let’s focus on the inequities of education. How minorities and poor families (often one in the same) are not provided the same level of education as white and middle-class or above children due to how schools are funded. Let’s focus on the disparities in what is taught and how topics are taught between States. Every child deserves an honest, high-quality education regardless of where they’re born or what family they happen to be born into.
Housing: A secure society is a strong society. Without access to the safety and security of a home, people can find themselves in a downward spiral that is nearly impossible to free yourself from. For example, to apply for certain benefits of our social safety net, you often need an address. To apply for a job, you need an address. Without those, homeless becomes impossible to escape from. And that’s not even taking into account the economic cost of homelessness on our country.
Religion: Yes, freedom of religion is in the Constitution, but in our current society freedom from religion is also necessary. If church and state were really properly separated, there would be no challenges to Roe v Wade or Obergefell v. Hodges. Woman would have the right to do as they feel is necessary with their bodies. Everyone should be able to practice what they believe, but they should not be permitted to use those beliefs as a weapon against others’ rights.
If we accept these as forms of protection that the government is designed to provide us, then prioritizing how we spend taxpayer money and how we legislate becomes much easier. I firmly believe that most people agree on these foundational values, stemming from the government’s single purpose. The problem, then, is taking the necessary step back to reframe our arguments as arguments for these inalienable rights. The talking points have gotten too complex, the media too filled with noise, and if we can just take it back to our core, foundational values as a country, we can make everyone’s lives better.
Future Soldier in the Word Wars
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.