Web Only// Features » July 30, 2012
On the Bainality of Evil
Why truth and politics don’t mix.
Why can’t politicians just tell us the truth?
Why would it be such a surprise if the president said that our behavior is frying the planet, that we don’t seem to care much, and that our indifference to climate change is an act of collective suicide?
Why are politicians unable to say that factory farming is barbaric; that it’s viciously cruel to animals and workers alike; that the meat it produces and the fast-food industry it sustains are unhealthy at every level; and that a culture that allows it to flourish is gripped by madness?
Why can’t politicians say these sorts of things bluntly and without hedging?
One obvious answer is that politicians don’t tell us the truth because there’s no future in it. The money to fund political campaigns has to come from somewhere, and corporations donate to political campaigns on both sides of the red/blue divide.
That explanation goes only so far. Corporate influence explains the moral bankruptcy of the GOP and the corruption of the Democratic Party, perhaps. But it doesn’t explain why it’s rare for politicians to engage in “let’s cut the bullshit” bluntness even when they have nothing to lose: whey they’re close to retiring, for example, or when they represent safe Senate seats and House districts. When was the last time Dianne Feinstein really told it like it is to the people of California?
It’s different in the movies and on television, where politicians and pundits who call bullshit on the insanity around them are a recurring fantasy. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the classic example. In the latest version of the fantasy, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, a milquetoast broadcaster who’s fed up with the pervasive lying of the political class becomes a crusader for truth. In the late 1990s movie Bulworth, Warren Beatty played a moderate Democratic senator so disillusioned with politics, and with himself, that he hires an assassin to take himself out. Freed from the burden of kissing up to voters and special interests, he becomes radically honest about his own motives and about how the system actually works. That honesty revitalizes his campaign and turns him into a media sensation.
To the extent that they exist at all, the real-world versions of Bulworth are mainly on the Right. There’s Chris Christie’s abrasive relationship with the press and with anyone who challenges him. There’s Ron Paul and his willingness to point out the failures of the GOP’s foreign policy over the past decade. More broadly, the tea party has had a Bulworth-like influence on some Republicans, in the sense that the politicians it supports are so disdainful of the Washington establishment that that they sound like radical truth tellers.
Christie’s continuing popularity as governor of New Jersey, and to a lesser extent Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin, suggest how desperate we seem to be for politicians who will cut through the bullshit and just be honest with us for once. In solidly blue New Jersey and in purple Wisconsin, both governors have approval ratings around 50 percent. Though voters might not approve of their right-wing policies, they give them credit for believing their own b.s., and for not backing down in the face of criticism.
So why are politicians on the Right so much better at laying it on the line—or seeming to—than those on the Left? And how can the party that defends corporate interests and the wealthy also be the party of aggressive populists?
The answer is that, for all its rhetoric about taking personal responsibility, American conservatism rarely asks anything of anyone but the poor. It plays to short-term thinking and narrowly defined self interest. It offers ideas and answers that sound like straight talk—but are empirically untrue. Global warming isn’t happening. Cutting taxes and slashing regulations are the pathways to economic growth. Locking up addicts is the answer to the nation’s drug problem. Guns don’t kill people. We have the best health-care system in the world.
This is fast-food culture as a political philosophy. Cheap and gratifying in the short term. Lethal in the long run.
Which is why, though he’s never been a favorite of the GOP’s base, Mitt Romney is actually the perfect poster child for modern American conservatism. Short-term thinking was the heart of Bain Capital’s mission under Romney. The basic idea was to buy companies and sell them at a profit as quickly as possible, usually after closing plants and cutting jobs. Romney’s Bain was capitalism taken to its insane conclusion—a world in which profit is the dominant, and essentially only, value.
Even some conservatives, before they fell in line behind Romney as the GOP’s nominee, were queasy about the way Bain conducted itself. In the Republican primaries, Texas Gov. Rick Perry described it as a “vulture capitalist” firm. In January, a super-PAC that supported the Newt Gingrich campaign aired a powerful half-hour video titled “When Mitt Romney Came to Town.” It focused on the employees of four companies that were devastated by Bain Capital. In one scene, Romney is seen responding to an off-screen interviewer. “Make a profit,” he says, chuckling. “That’s the name of the game, right?”
Is it? Things would be a lot simpler if that were true. Because if Bain’s drive to make a quick profit is the name of the game, anything that gets in the way of profit is the enemy—not just taxes and regulations, but any concern for the consequences of one’s actions, any values other than monetary values.
“Humankind,” as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “cannot bear very much reality.” The Right’s populism is potent because it offers a simple, uncomplicated narrative in which government is the source of all evil, and there are clear heroes (the hard-working American people) and clear villains (taxes and government bureaucrats). When profit is the name of the game, all the rest is just a distraction. The health of our communities? The fate of human civilization on this planet? Irrelevant.
Maybe it isn’t politically possible to tell the truth about our situation. Maybe reality really is too much for humankind to bear. Would it make any difference if Barack Obama said that we’re frying the planet and committing collective suicide? Not likely. There’s no obvious villain to pin the blame on and thus no compelling story. Put another way, the story is way too complicated. The villain is every one of us, and doing anything about the problem would require collective action on a massive scale. It would require what conservatism is never willing to ask of us: sacrificing our narrowly defined, short-term self-interest.
When Obama recently made the mundane point that successful businesses rely on a wide range of government services—roads, schools, police—for their success, the Right quickly pounced. Conservatives prefer to believe, apparently, that every individual succeeds or fails based only on hard work and merit, detached from any social context. Government only gets in the way.
That’s a radically narrow–and bearable–vision of reality. If you’ve received nothing from society, you owe nothing to it. You have no responsibilities to anyone, and no obligations to the future, or to anything other than the bottom line.
There isn’t much truth to the idea. But it sure is convenient to think so.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.