The Campaign Begins

The national news media spent much of the month of April sounding very much like Capt. Louis Renault in Casablanca – it was “shocked, shocked” to find out that the crowd of presidential candidates was actually running for president.

The absurdity began with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announcing his candidacy, followed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and then the big Kahuna of candidates, former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton. The parade of official, if not unexpected announcements, continued with Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, and a host of others. Each of the announcements resulted in the same press rollout – a dissection of the announcement, a round of TV appearances (Clinton being an exception on this), and the requisite public tour. One might be forgiven, however, were they to ask what all the fuss was about. After all, the press has been treating the newly crowned presidential hopefuls as if they were running since Nov. 6, 2012 – and earlier, in the case of Clinton. The only difference is a technical one – the announcements trigger the imposition of federal election laws. Otherwise, nearly everything remains the same – and that is the problem.

American elections are little more than popularity contests and the press has done its best to ensure that they can be nothing more. This goes back decades – perhaps to the first of our elections – but a confluence of factors has served to focus elections on pant suits, basketball and other peripheral matters.

The problem is that our elections should be about much more substantive issues, about the structural problems that are responsible for the failings big and small that turn up on the news every day.

The American economy is based not on opportunity but on the control of resources. The people with money, with power, with ownership of natural resources like oil or water use these resources operate on a different plane than the rest of us. They use their power to protect and enhance their power – not just by using their vast wealth to influence elections, but by manipulating the levers of government to control what is left of the regulatory process. They privatize their gains by attacking the tax system and socialize their losses by asking – demanding – that the American public bail them out when they make bad bets or by having taxpayers pay to clean up their messes.

This is a structural issue and not just a matter of tax policy. It is endemic to the way the American corporate model works, but we rarely discuss it in this way. We nibble around the edges, toying with smaller-scale and temporary safety-net programs – which are needed and should be larger in scope – rather than attempting to address the root, which is a system that values accumulation above human needs and treats the market as religious totem and beyond the control of mere mortals. But the market is not sacrosanct and the business community knows it. American oil companies get billions from the government in subsidies and tax breaks, they help write their own rules and – unless there is a high-profile, public catastrophe – they ask us to foot a significant portion of the bill for “externalities” like the incidental damage done to the ecosystem by their exploratory efforts. The same goes for the service sector, where companies like Walmart, McDonalds and others are fine with paying poverty wages and letting the government – i.e., the taxpayer – cover the gap between wages and what it takes to subsist in the modern era.

The are similar structural and philosophical issues concerning defense and privacy that we need to discuss – questions about nuclear proliferation that go beyond Iran, about our use of drones, about our involvement in various civil wars, and so on.

Some of this will get a hearing during the election, usually in small bites on individual issues divorced from the larger context. But don’t expect the candidates to debate the broader systemic concerns – especially with a press obsessed with personality and predictions.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2015

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