The charm of disgusting
According to a recent article in the Economist, Hillary Clinton “is reckoned to be the second most-unpopular presidential nominate ever, after her Republican opponent Donald Trump.” The historically unprecedented dislike of both candidates is illustrated in the case of Clinton by a recent pool among registered U.S voters, showing over 56 percent of white and non-white respondents answering ‘no’ to the question “Do you think Hillary Clinton is honest?” In the case of Donald Trump, his unpopularity seems to be generated by the insulting and incoherent remarks directed by the nominee to certain important electoral groups. Eliot Weinberger, in a humorous article for the London Review of Books, lists over forty categories of recipients of offensive attacks from Trump’s apparently well-supplied lexicon of vulgarities. Among these recipients—the reader must bear with me as we plod through the following long list—we encounter women, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Chinese-Americans, the modest, the peace lovers, the morally concerned, the logical, the educated, the non-violent, the gastronomically inclined, the humorless, the scientists, Gold Star members, and the mathematically precise, to name just a few. (For a full account, see Weinberger’s essay in the October 20, 2016 issue.)
The question that comes to mind is why Americans seem to be ready and disposed to cast their vote and choose one of these two questionable and disliked political characters as the leader of the country for the next four or more years. Although there are many possible explanations for the existence of this unique American political phenomena (deeply rooted sado-masochism, or a deeply rooted yet underdeveloped and misguided pragmatism), but essentially, it mostly has to do with the effectiveness of capitalist ideology and the consequent dulling of the political consciousness of the electorate through main stream media. As Heber Marcuse pointed out a few decades ago,
“ The total mobilization of all media for the defense of the established reality has coordinated the means of expression to the point where communication transcending content becomes technically impossible”.
Marcuse’s message is as gloomy as they come, but it seems to describe the submissive practices of self-alienation endured by the American electorate in the last decades. We have been charmed by a system in which disgusting candidates can be elected even as we despise them for good reasons. Yet a vote for any of them is aligned with the logic of the beneficiaries of the system and not with the logic of freedom-seeking human beings.
Ménage a Deux
The independence of the American electorate was lost in the late 1930’s as consequence of the weakening of the labor movement, which was betrayed by Roosevelt, along with the persecution and violent repression of socialist, communist, and Trotskyist organizations that until then had shown increasing power and organizational skills. By the year 1933, huge marches of workers were taking place demanding union recognition. According to the International Socialist Review, “in 1933, there were 1,695 work stoppages, twice the number of the year before, involving 1,117,00 workers, nearly four times than the previous year. In the year 1934, the figures rose still higher: 1,856 strikes involving 1,470,000 workers”. Workers’ strikes spread to Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Toledo, Minneapolis and other industrial cities in the nation. Most people voting today have forgotten—or more likely never knew—that in the 30’s, the American left was not only able to generate a wide mass radicalization, but also able to build a multiracial movement led by the Communist Party’s struggle both in southern and northern cities, including Birmingham in Alabama and Harlem in New York, fighting against unemployment, hunger, racism, racist hiring policies, and lynching. By 1937, according to the same publication, “a Gallup poll showed that at least 21 percent of the population supported the formation of a national farmer-labor party as an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. [This percentage rose to 32 in in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, where independent farmer-labor parties won important victories against the two major parties in the first half of the decade.]
This type of political scenario is hard to imagine under the current circumstances. Instead, we have been mentally and politically engulfed, decade after decade, by the social domination of the two party system, transforming ourselves into respectable zombies of liberal democracy unable to transcend the ménage a deux of Republican and Democrats.
Those who advocated voting for Clinton instead of Trump, often did so by using the poorly digested ‘lesser evil’ principle at its lowest common denominator. They show no signs of knowledge about the aforementioned significant political demarcations and instead have become conscious or unconscious proponents of the automatization of electoral behavior. They not only perceive the political panorama as a bi-partite dichotomy, but fundamentally assume that what is normal, or what is real, begins and ends within the two-party system, as if the political epistemology of capital is the only possible or desirable way to conceive the destiny of the nation and the world of politics. Also, while pointing to the differences between the two candidates, simultaneously they forget to acknowledge the deep questionable similarities between the two, mainly the corporative class interest they both represent and the birth mark of neo-liberalism contained in their platforms. Proposals coming from the “lesser evil” camp assumed as impossible other political agendas more in tune with the interests of the majority of people, as if we couldn’t imagine better political scenarios and more just forms of existence.
The examples mentioned above suggest that other types of political reality and different forms of political knowledge and political experiences have been possible in the past. Hence, there is no supernatural reason why the will of the people cannot put them in practice again. We must admit to history and take responsibility for falling under the spell of the mermaid songs of capitalism given voice by the two newest Republican and Democratic singers. Listening to this fatidic duet has clouded our thinking, diminished our political freedom, and made us deliver every four years the transformative energy of political progressive thinking to the dinner table of the Democratic Party, from Jessie Jackson, to the largest popular progressive movement of the last decades which agglutinated behind Bernie Sanders.
History, contrary to what many may think, does not teach anything per se. It is human agency and reflection upon historical events that can open up the possibility of learning from past mistakes. In the 2016 elections, we had the option to waste our vote by choosing one of the two candidates of the perennial parties, or to choose a different alternative that demonstrated our will and our capacity to transcend the current socio-political domination. A better society is possible if we persist in the forging of an independent popular revolutionary movement and culture. To paraphrase the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, our intelligence may suggest pessimistic perceptions of the present, but our will should be the source of optimism in the future.
Enrique Quintero was a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, then taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.