The defining characteristic of the Republican Party is a contempt for human life. Or, stated in a more businesslike way, the view of human life as just another form of capital, and not a particularly valuable one. This has been the case for generations; the Trump administration has just offered a more obvious and distilled version of it.
Fortunately, we live in a democracy. Unfortunately, we live in a broken democracy. The opposition party’s approach is not, “We value human life,” but rather, “We calculate the value of capital in a slightly more appealing way!” Thus, giving health care to people, stopping climate change and creating a just society are justified as money-saving ideas, rather than as existentially necessary steps for our common survival. If you are not inspired by two insincere people arguing over the interpretation of a profit-and-loss statement, you will never be inspired by mainstream American politics.
Last night, the nation gathered anxiously for the most important political event of the day: The release of new data from the Federal Reserve showing that the 50 richest people in the country now own as much wealth as the 165 million least rich people combined, and that the majority of stock market wealth is now owned by the top 1% of Americans. The rich, believe it or not, are getting richer this year as usual, even as tens of millions of Americans slide into an abyss of paltry and insufficient unemployment benefits that you can’t even get because the phone lines are overwhelmed. Inequality was the worst problem even before the pandemic — the problem that is dissolving the American dream from within. The pandemic is making it worse. And, because the blissful continuation of life as usual for the rich insulates them from being forced to care about the pandemic’s economic effects, it also makes it far less likely that anything serious will be done to mitigate the crisis.
“My god — the bottom half of this country owns less than 2% of the wealth,” millions of Americans gasped last night. “We came into this crisis without any economic safety net. The shoddy safety net that the government provided has proven to be inadequate and dysfunctional. And now, after criminal mismanagement of the public health response has prolonged this pandemic and devastated our economy, the Republicans have the gall, the sheer fuck you-ness, to walk away from passing a relief bill before the election, a move that will consign millions of us to suffer horribly in poverty with no support from our government. Truly, this is a moment that lays bare the cruel moral bankruptcy of the Republican philosophy, in which human worth is apportioned according to how much people are able to donate to Republican campaign coffers, and everyone else is welcome to die.”
Ha! No, of course instead people watched the vice presidential debate, in which the Democratic candidate did not say any of this, but rather spent her time refusing to associate herself with Medicare for All or the Green New Deal and insisting that Joe Biden would not limit fracking. Incredibly, the Democratic Party is choosing to stick with its traditional strategy of wedging itself between the Republican Party and the “middle,” as defined by the beliefs of a fictional white suburban family that exists only in the mind of Chris Cillizza. The state of the world gets objectively worse, but the party that is supposed to be responsible for rescuing us never, ever changes.
Our political system is broken for many reasons: It represents money rather than people; its absurd, antiquated design heaps power onto small rural states; its structure effectively disenfranchises the people and places that are, in fact, most representative of the country. It is all fucked up. But in the largest sense, its flaw is that it fails to move in tandem with reality. The formula for gaining and exercising power is to cater to a small, specific core of influencers and forget everyone else. That is what politicians do, because it works. If a pandemic strikes and millions are rendered unemployed and small businesses are devastated and evictions grow and schools are closed and kids are hungry and families are homeless and the sick are abandoned, that does not, in a strategic sense, matter. The system will go on catering to billionaires (and, to a lesser degree, Iowa corn farmers and Pennsylvania coal miners) because that is who has the power to determine the ultimate outcome of elections in our stupid, stupid system. We have not chosen this system so much as we have been sentenced to it.
America is not kind to visionaries. In the business world they can get rich, but in the political world we tend to marginalize or assassinate them, depending on how bothersome they become. So even in a time of crisis, when a visionary is called for, we are stuck instead with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, a relentlessly anti-visionary duo of traditionalists, who promise to get power back from the madman in exchange for a collective agreement not to upset the order of things too much. What is on offer in this election is not a revolution but a return to the baseline — a rewind to 2015, when all of the big, existential threats were the same, but the government offered the promise of competent rather than insane operation. We are not offered a solution, but rather a sense of nostalgia, like a bunch of people who decided their broken arm wasn’t so bad after they were threatened with broken legs as well.
There is no path to “pull the Democratic Party left” through the voting booth this year. In fact, the left is in its classic hopeless position of “back the centrist or nothing.” The one strength of the left, however, is that it sees the world for what it is. There is a world beyond the voting booth, where people are desperate, relief is not forthcoming, and neither side seems very pressed to change it. Reality, in the form of millions of unemployed and angry Americans, will intrude on our dysfunctional political system soon. Politely, or otherwise.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.