It’s time again. We’re just days from that sacred quadrennial ritual, wherein we profess outrage at the subversive vision propagated by the coven of elites running the other party, and agree with our comrades that despite his failings, our own party’s candidate is a far cry from the conniving, pandering, crypto-fascist, pathological liar leading the mob of ingrates and plutocrats on the other side.
I’ve been doing a lot of late-night driving on backcountry roads, the kind that severs a man’s connection from polite society, and opens his mind to possibilities civilized people are expected to abjure, like zombie apocalypses, or mind-controlling thought rays from outer space, or a torrid affair between Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow.
The only way to ward off the visions of such horrors is with voices, and so I scroll through AM stations and amuse myself by imagining how many of the sentences belted out by sports announcers are applicable to presidential campaigns.
It’s all about who has momentum late in the game, don’t you know, and whether the hometown fans will show up to root their team to victory, and which quarterback will put points on the board first in the upcoming election/Superbowl.
Sports talk is well suited to politics because it is unburdened by thoughtfulness, and because it is tribal. We need that. We’ve reached a crisis point and it’s high time, by God, that somebody was held accountable.
It’s ever so helpful, in these circumstances, to have a bevy of villains across the aisle. They must be stopped. Push them back, push them back, w-a-a-a-a-y back!
This suits us because we need an enemy tribe, the chief distinguishing feature of which is that we are not in it.
Then we cannot be held responsible for this colossal disaster that is the modern American political economy, what with its sixteen trillion dollar debt, exchange rates so out of whack that a Canadian dollar is on the verge of being adequate to buy an SUV (though likely not enough to put gas in its tank), and phalanxes of economists projecting either double-digit inflation, full-on depression, or both.
The days of compromise are over because there’s no seed corn left, and that’s always been the grist of political deals—the ability to pass along the bill to kindergartners. But here we are, on the verge of our reckoning day, and now, more than ever, we need scapegoats.
Do you want to know, fellow voters, who we should blame?
It’s not Democrats or Republicans, not Christians or atheists. It’s not the Chinese or the Russians or even the French. It’s not terrorists or teachers or unions or corporate executives.
The great lie we like to tell ourselves about the American political system is that it’s not accountable to the people.
We say this even as we witness the spectacle of two powerful men—one a multi-millionaire, the other commander of the most lethal military on earth—submitting themselves to the indignity of being questioned, on live television, by a group of people so ill-informed about history and economics that they openly declare themselves undecided just three weeks before the presidential election—and wear their ignorance like virtue.
The truth is that politicians trip over themselves to give us what we want. The problem is that our desires are at odds with the laws of mathematics.
We want a government that tackles every problem, but we want the tax rate George Washington paid. We want a government that issues—at last count—over 80,000 pages of regulations designed to protect us from every possible failure of men and machinery, but we want businesses to sling up new factories, and offer within their walls a mystical kind of work that suits graduates whose math and reading proficiency has languished since the 1970s.
We want a military that fights on two fronts and offers more international aid than the Red Cross, but we don’t want to pay for it with an ounce of sacrifice at home—beyond that of the families whose boys come home in boxes.
We want to have our cake and eat it too, and we want it to make us skinny.
We want to be delivered from tradeoffs, and so long as it’s been possible to pile obligations for future payment onto unborn children, our national delusion has gone swimmingly.
We’re reaching our credit limit, and the truth is that even the wildest brutality against either party’s scapegoats won’t bail us out. Confiscate every penny from the wealthiest five percent, and it’s a drop in the bucket. Kick every poor person off Medicaid and food stamps, and we’re still owned, lock, stock, and barrel, by the foreign governments that have been the primary purchasers of our treasury bonds.
It has come down, as they say, to a game of inches. How many more inches can we nudge this creaking hulk toward the cliff before it finally plunges, and forces us to admit that there are not enough children being born to serve as the bondservants we need to pay for the forty-year party we’ve thrown?
We have lived wickedly. Not just stupidly, but wickedly. We have saved virtually nothing, and we’ve run up obligations that will take generations to pay down.
That is the truth of it, and most of us, in our soberest moments, know it.
We know it and we need to start saying so, because if enough of us admit it, the preeners and posers who pass these days for political leaders will scurry out front and do something about it.
They are in the business, after all, of telling us what we want to hear. Whose fault is it when they lie?
Note: Tony Woodlief will be reading with other Good Letters writers in Washington, D.C. on November 14th. To join him, RSVP here.