The red thread running through all my blog posts is that big money in politics – the cash politicians get from rich people and corporations to fund their election campaigns – has destroyed our democracy. Campaign cash has damaged our democracy in many different direct and indirect ways, through several different pathways. Today I want to talk about what the journalist Bill Greider, in his prescient 1992 book Who Will Tell the People, called the relationship of mutual contempt between politicians and voters.
That voters don’t respect politicians is no secret. In one recent poll, only 24% of Americans said they approve of how Congress is doing its job. We see politicians as dishonest and immoral, as indifferent to our needs and wishes, and certainly wouldn’t want our daughters to marry one. Donald Trump laid waste to his Republican rivals in 2015 and 2016 by channeling the voters’ contempt, ridiculing his competitors each in turn, abandoning all pretense of civility and respect, giving each opponent his special contemptuous nickname – “low energy Jeb,” “liddle Marco,” “lyin’ Ted.” He then turned this contempt on his Democratic opponent, “crooked Hillary” Clinton, and led his rallies in cheers of “lock her up!”
While our contempt for politicians is everywhere to be seen, their contempt for us remains carefully hidden, expressed only behind closed doors in conversations with political operatives and campaign donors. Every now and then, however, the mask slips and reveals the ugly truth beneath. One such moment came on September 9, 2016, at a Democratic fundraiser in Manhattan, for which we have a transcript of Hillary Clinton’s remarks. As some of the most disgusting words ever uttered in American politics, her statements deserve to be quoted at length.
Clinton tried to explain to the well-heeled donors in the room why some voters might support Donald Trump. “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Here the transcript records the response of her elite audience: “[Laughter/applause]”. Clinton went on to define these “deplorables:” “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” Given that nearly half the country supported Trump at that time, Clinton was saying that a full quarter of the electorate was bigoted and morally depraved, and had no legitimate motives for supporting her opponent – but “unfortunately there are people like that.”
Clinton went on to describe “the other basket” of Trump supporters, the other half, and thus another quarter of the voting public: “that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.” While it is charitable of Clinton to want to “empathize” with “those people,” her utter lack of respect for them fairly drips from her words. The people in this “other basket” haven’t actually been let down by the economy and government (although in fact they clearly have been) – they just “feel” that they have been let down. They are not thinking adults looking in an intelligent way for better government – they are “desperate for change,” and so stupid and ignorant that “it doesn’t really even matter where [the promise of change] comes from.” In sum, as Clinton and her wealthy donors see it, one quarter of America’s voters are immoral bigots and a second quarter are desperate, easily misled losers. And if you think she has much more respect for Democratic voters, you are fooling yourself.
Clinton still doesn’t understand why she lost the election. She went so far as to write a book about why she lost. She blames James Comey. She blames the Russians. Probably she still blames the American people for not having enough respect for women. All of these factors may well have played a role, but Clinton overlooks the obvious point that her opponent was a manifestly incompetent, morally depraved buffoon, and the election shouldn’t even have been close. She lost because she forgot about democracy and did not respect the voters, and the voters, not being stupid, saw through her, just as they see through the rottenness of the entire American political system. She lost because she didn’t respect the voters, and she deserved to lose.
How did Clinton develop her contempt for the voters? This does not strike me as much of a mystery. Like almost all politicians, across the past three to four decades, politicians have been spending less and less time listening to voters, and more and more time meeting with wealthy donors, as the cost of election campaigns has steeply risen. And the donors are so much more fun to be around! Unlike the average voter, the typical high-dollar donor is highly educated, impressively accomplished, sharply-dressed, cultured, sophisticated, witty and charming. The donors don’t live in Harlem, NY, or Kenosha, Wisconsin. They live in exciting places like Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and own vacation homes in the Hamptons or on Martha’s Vineyard, where many fundraising events are held.
While politicians still need our votes to get elected, we’re interchangeable with each other and we’re a dime a dozen. It’s the donors who give politicians the money they really need to win, including to pay for focus groups and opinion polls, which produce emotionally resonant slogans and slick advertisements that manipulate us. Politicians see us as children to be placated and controlled, not thinking adults whose consent is required to make their power legitimate. Our job is to shut up and vote, and then our “leaders” will gather behind closed doors with the donors and other smart people, and figure out what’s best for us. Hillary Clinton is only the most egregious and self-involved example of what our political class has become.
I have already written about one example (in my post of 10/31/19) of how campaign cash has destroyed our democracy. In the months to come I will give you many further examples. But what I have written about today is the most sickening form of our democracy’s degeneracy. Democracy is important not only, or even mainly, because it is the most stable and most efficient form of government. Democracy is necessary because it is the only form of government which is consistent with the worth and dignity of human beings. Our relationship of mutual contempt between politicians and voters does more than rob our government of its legitimacy. For the American people, it is degrading.