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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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At last night's CNN-YouTube debate between the Democratic candidates for the party's nomination for president, there was no clear winner. The three front runners, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, all did really well, I thought. Senator Obama was especially good when he was criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War and taking swipes at Senator Clinton for her complete lack of leadership on the issue when the authorization to go to war was before her in the Senate.

That's all fine and good, and despite the fact that I originally supported the war (though for far different reasons than Senator Clinton and much of the weak-kneed Democratic leadership), I am much closer to Senator Obama on the issue than Senator Clinton. But this debate seemed headed the same direction as the Republican debates have, which are carefully orchestrated and rehearsed efforts by each of the candidates to "define" themselves, in other words to reinforce through careful phrasing, creative talking points and calculated jabs at specific opponents the "character" they want to be in the mainstream media's narrative-style coverage of the election.

Like a boy band, the candidates know that in an intense media environment, their path to success is lined with tropes and stereotypes. There needs to be the bad boy, the cute one, the Is He Gay? one, the poet, the jock. Except here, there's The Natural (Clinton) the Hope/Unity Guy (Obama), Mad As Hell Howard Beale Guy (Biden), The Sleeper Genius (Richardson) and, of course, Mr. Smith (Edwards), although in this case he'd be returning to Washington.

I'm skeptical about all of them; I'm sure the Republican side fits similar roles that are more GOP-friendly (The Immigrant Slayer, The Budget Rescuer, The Maverick, Goldwater Guy, etc.) but it isn't really the point.

The point is that the calcification of the political class in this country has made it almost impossible to talk about and tackle huge issues that require real bodies of theoretical work and street-level organizing to even begin to approach. Lyndon Johnson's attempts to push America towards social democracy were stymied by the Vietnam War; Reagan's "conservative revolution" was stymied by the fact that conservative philosophy is unworkable in practice and exacerbates problems it means to solve. Since then, all we've had is a series of public relations stunts masquerading as real politics: the 1994 Contract with America that used Reagan rhetoric to win political power and little else; Clinton's "Bridge to the Future," for all the good it did in practice, was really a series of small, even if shrewd, victories that came in a fortunate economic and international context.

Whether you are a conservative, progressive or liberal, you agree that the disaster of the Bush presidency has presented our nation with problems and pessimism that will require a real national reawakening to overcome. Americans are split on many issues but they are united on one: they love America but seem to dislike Americans, they love their fellow man but seem to have a distaste, or fear, of their next door neighbor — in other words, for all the flag waving and passion for the idea of this country, there is an intense aversion, perhaps even hatred, for all the practical parts that make our country what it is.

I'm no longer impressed by a candidate who stands up and says, "I am willing to make the tough decisions." Congratulations. "Americans need to come together and stop fighting." Really? Thanks. Here I thought maybe it was time for another civil war.

Stop playing characters. All of these men and women (woman) believe in things. Hillary Clinton was a brilliant student and activist who had really, deeply held beliefs about this country and what was right, and moral and fair. Barack Obama, too, has some firmly held beliefs about the practical things that are hurting all of us.

A justice system that you can beat if you can afford it. An economic system that discourages the rights of individuals to bargain collectively but protects loose credit and fraudulent insurance rackets that hamstring tens of millions of Americans. A health care system that, counter-intuitively, discourages people from getting healthy. Rampant cost inflation compared to stagnant wage growth; spikes in productivity not rightfully compensated.

A prison system that creates hardened super criminals rather than rehabilitated civilians. A higher education system increasingly meant to serve the children of the leisure class and force others to be their worker bees to pay off debt. An endless "war on drugs" that herds people into a criminal lifestyle rather than a public health program that would simply steer them towards healthier lifestyles.

We could go on for a while. Conservatives have to be worried about rampant government spending and a severely degraded intelligence and diplomatic network. Property rights have been eroded along with individual liberties as corporate America has, like a tick, worked itself into the very flesh of government, to the point that they are increasingly indistinguishable.

Having gay friends in red states will not solve this problem. Being ready to change and lead doesn't actually mean anything. How are you going to help people? How are you going to make a more fair system? Having the audacity to hope is nice, but what am I hoping for?

Ever take a writing class? Remember when they would say "show, don't tell," or "use concrete images"? For example, saying, "I want to change the tone in Washington to one of cooperation so that all Americans can achieve the American dream," is nice, because it's like a Rohrshack test: everybody sees something else happening in that statement. But saying, "I'm going to go to Washington and confront the vested interests and in my first 100 days I will guarantee the right to collectively bargain, and I will place high windfall taxes on energy concerns; I will shift investment to alternative energy sources and I will raise the leisure taxes — capital gains, estate and the top marginal rate — to fund a national infrastructure program that will give Americans the type of freedom of movement that is currently enjoyed only by the privileged." Whew! Wouldn't that be awesome!?

That is why one moment from the debate really caught my attention. John Edwards, who is coming dangerously close to promising the moon, caused a stir when he said

"If you listen to these questions, they all have exactly the same thing, which is how do we bring about big change? And I think that's a fundamental, threshold question. The question is, Do you believe compromise, and triangulation will bring about big change? I don't. I think the people who are powerful in Washington — the big Insurance companies, the big drug companies, the big oil companies, are not going to negotiate. They are not going to give away their power. The only way they are going to give it away is if we take it away from them."

I don't want a president experienced at standing in between two fighting morons and getting them to agree on something, because I seriously doubt two morons will come up with a non-moron solution. That's the problem — you can talk all day about how much you want to "bring people together," but in Washington the people you're bringing together are, by and large, up to no good, and I mean that in the most literal sense — they are not doing anything real.

What kind of compromise are you going to come up with?

I don't want to end "partisan rancor" in Washington. I want somebody to have ideas so powerful and right that they will fight for them against all comers, and the righteousness of those ideas will win people over. Maybe not in one or two election cycles, but eventually. The conservative movement that catapulted Reagan to power and subjected this nation to nearly 30 years of some kind of conservative governing mediocrity was built painstakingly out of the ashes of the Goldwater candidacy, where their man was "a choice, not an echo."

It is hardly inspiring to hear from candidates who are telling me they are a choice... to echo the two sides of a futile and in fact negligent argument.

You have to speak truth to power. When you do that, you will finally see that, in the end, power is never given over voluntarily. It is always taken. Always. You cannot nice problems away, especially when those problems are caused by vested, powerful interests. In the case of our nation, a plutocratic class has infiltrated and wielded government against working people. Are those plutocrats going to hand over power because somebody gives a good speech?

I don't want to think about gaming elections anymore. About what "plays in Peoria." Let the public relations flacks and ad agencies worry about that. Juveniles being raped and beaten in prisons for adults and working men and women being worked to exhaustion and poor health deserve to have somebody fight really hard for them.

The argument about doing what you need to do to get elected is absurd on its face. You cannot sell tickets to Fiddler on the Roof for two years and then, when you're on stage, perform The Sound of Music. All this garbage about saying and doing what is smart to get elected seems to forget that the people you're "tricking" into voting for you will be awful pissed when you get into office and start doing different stuff than you said you were going to do. So, of course, you wouldn't do it for your first term, because you need a second term.

But you can't do it right away in your second term! Look what happened to Bush when he tried to privatize Social Security right away! You'll drag down the mid-term election ticket. So, maybe you can finally do all the secret stuff you were planning to do in the last two years. Except, then you don't want to screw your party's next nominee, do you?

So, I want somebody to sell tickets to the show they intend to perform. Talk about real things out in the world, not vague feel-good concepts. And talk about Big Change, not little Washington change. I mean "nationalized health care" change, not "how about catastrophic health catastrophe insurance for 18 percent of uninsured children!"

I mean, "The leisure class are stealing from us and should be treated like thieves," not "increase the top marginal tax rate to its already ridiculously low pre-2001 levels."

I mean, "Let's take power away from them."

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mike / July 25, 2007 8:05 PM

A wonderful call to arms.

Anyone else feel that this is our nation's last hope to behave, as the author once stated, 'nearly civilized."

Or I guess we could hand it all over to private corporations and watch the US turn into a feeding frenzy for the rich. Which would be fun.

I personally love telling Educational companies like Sylvan to stop bribing my students and to stay the hell out of my classroom. I love that my co-workers have to defend A PUBLIC SCHOOL from PRIVATE interests......
-just an example-

Breanna / July 26, 2007 1:13 PM

I appreciate the authors opinion. I very much enjoy the idea of taking the power away from the oppressors. However, its a much more difficult task than I think candidates are expressing. The problem is that our country is ran by those oppressors, and the general populous suffers from a severe form of "individualism." I agree,give me a candidate who can EXPLAIN how they are going to take action.

I am not anti-Bush because of his lack of qualifications, his inability to perform public conferences, or how weak his cabnet is; I dislike Bush because instead of proving his actions and explaining proper solutions he continues to address the same issue... "America's freedom is at stake..." Is it really? Bush has put our countries freedom at stake by making very drastic decisions to pay for his large deficit. My big thing when it comes to politics is... PROVE IT!

Arjuna / July 26, 2007 1:53 PM

I think an Edwards-Obama ticket would be our only hope for the kind of real change that absolutely must take place. Hilliary has already shown that she will support whatever seems to be the most popular viewpoint. She supported the Iraq war not just in the beginning, but all the way until the majority of Americans opposed it. I opposed it before it started, so obviously I am more intelligent than she is! We should give Edwards the chance to shake things up the way I think he really would.

Rick / August 9, 2007 12:50 PM

I haven't read one of your articles in a good long while but I would like to think this is the best thing you've ever written in your life.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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