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10 Signs US Politics Is Completely Screwed
Turn on the news, and it’s clear that American politics is in a bad place. Everyone is fighting, everyone is polarized, and nothing is getting done. But this isn’t some minor blip. It’s quickly becoming a permanent reality.
Right now, American politics is like a cartoon car from Wacky Racers, careering toward the edge of a cliff long after the engine has fallen out and the brakes have stopped working. Unless something drastic changes soon, everyone’s going to crash to the ground in a flaming wreck.
10Paranoia Is Going Mainstream
In summer 2015, the military embarked on Jade Helm 15, a multistate training exercise that became a magnet for fringe beliefs. Some thought it marked the beginning of a violent federal power grab. Reports showed that anywhere between one-third and one-half of all Texans thought Jade Helm was a federal plot to take over the state.
This might be funny if it weren’t for the potentially serious consequences. In mid-July 2015, the FBI arrested three men who had amassed a military-sized stockpile of weapons for killing Jade Helm trainees. Reports indicated that they were driven to action by conspiracy theories about the training exercise.
Scarily, these guys are only outliers in the sense that they intended to kill. Jade Helm paranoia ran so deep that US Representative Louie Gohmert publicly claimed that Obama had labeled Nevada, Texas, and California as “enemy states.” Rather than pour cold water on these conspiracies, some other frontline Republicans seemed to back him up. When people who are in the government are telling you the government is out to get you, it’s perhaps no wonder that people start stocking up on bombs.
Why would some GOP veterans be fanning these paranoid flames? We’ll come to that in a moment. For now, we want to be clear that Jade Helm is only part of a larger paranoia fest that’s brewing. A small but significant number of people believe that Muslims are operating terrorist training camps across the Deep South. In the GOP, 54 percent of people think Obama is secretly a Muslim.
These ideas are demonstrably false. They’re so far from reality that truth is barely a speck on the horizon. But no one seems to care. We’ve gone beyond the point where fringe beliefs are either on the fringe or capable of being rebutted with facts.
9Rhetoric Is Turning Toxic
When facts no longer mean anything, it’s easy for rhetoric to turn toxic. Most recently, this has been happening with Syrian refugees. Ben Carson has publicly compared those fleeing ISIS to rabid dogs. Trump has called for all Syrians to be monitored or deported and for Muslims to be banned from entering the US entirely. Multiple governors have banned refugees from their states.
There is doubtless a good debate to be had about America’s refugee policy. This is not that good debate. When mainstream rhetoric turns violent, violence usually follows. That’s why the UN spoke out after British columnist Katie Hopkins called migrants “cockroaches.”
Words often lead to actions. The list of violent incidents targeting American Muslims in the wake of recent rhetoric is long and depressing to read. It includes a 15-year-old boy who had his legs severed in Kansas City, a taxi driver shot with a rifle, and over 23 incidents when Sikhs were beaten, stabbed, or shot because idiots couldn’t tell the difference between their religion and Islam.
This is not normal. A prime-time TV news host calling for death squads to execute every member of a Muslim political party is not something that happens in a sane world. Alabama outlawing sharia law when there is literally no way sharia could ever be applied in an American court isn’t common sense. It’s madness.
Inflammatory speech isn’t just harmful where religion is concerned. In 2013, the conservative Family Research Council was shot up by a liberal radical who chose his target after seeing the Southern Poverty Law Center describe them as an antigay “hate group.” The recent shooting of a Planned Parenthood clinic may also have been triggered by extreme antiabortion rhetoric.
Obviously, banning such opinions would infringe on free speech laws. But it shouldn’t take the law to convince people to exercise some basic decency, especially when they have a popular outlet for their views. Words can kill, and the words our pundits are using are more extreme than ever.
8Lying No Longer Matters
We’re used to politicians lying. Whether it’s Watergate or Bill Clinton’s infamous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” politicians talking bull has a long and ignoble tradition. But lying politicians used to be eviscerated by the press. Now they simply carry on as if it doesn’t matter.
The clearest manifestation of this is Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly lied about issues ranging from 9/11 to America’s refugee resettlement plans. Nonpartisan media group Politifact has recorded over 50 occasions when Trump spouted facts that were “mostly false” at best and dangerous fabrications at worst. Nearly all of these lies have been widely reported. Not one of them has damaged The Donald’s poll ratings. When Trump lies, his supporters don’t seem to care.
The real issue here is the rise of alternative media. There are now so many different “news” sites on both sides of the aisle that you can always find someone willing to reinforce your prejudices. Think Jade Helm is a coup? Alex Jones has got you covered. Want to believe that the government is admitting 250,000 Muslim refugees a year even though they’re not? Head to Breitbart. It’s now easier than ever to dismiss the mainstream media, especially when they’re doing something inconvenient like fact-checking a candidate.
Unfortunately, when these conspiracy theorists go to the polls, you get people like Louie Gohmert indulging in conspiracy theories he can’t possibly believe. Be sensible, and you become part of the hated “establishment” (and thus voted out). Keep peddling outrageous lies, and you’ll keep your base happy and your job secure.
7Lawmakers Vote To Let Terrorists Arm Themselves
In American politics, the gun debate is perhaps the most polarized. We’ve covered it before from each side, here and here. Yet whether you’re progun or antigun, we can probably all agree that allowing terrorists to have access to heavy weaponry is a really bad idea. Yet that’s exactly what lawmakers voted to let happen in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting.
The US has an active watch list of suspected terrorists. These people are forbidden from getting on planes, and any evidence of them stockpiling fertilizer will trigger an FBI swoop. Yet current laws mean that these people—whom the US government officially suspects of being terrorists—are allowed to buy as many guns as they want. Between 2004–2014, people on the terrorism watch list legally purchased guns 2,043 times. Those who tried to do so had a 91 percent success rate.
As the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Paris attacks showed, guns are now ahead of bombs as the weapons of choice for modern terrorists. Giving them a legal means to purchase these weapons is crazy. But the NRA is currently so powerful and so militant in their beliefs that even passing legislation intended to disarm terrorists is effectively impossible. Nor can we count on lawmakers to fix this loophole. As long as they’re scared of losing office, representatives of progun states will keep voting to leave the loophole open.
6Colleges Let Terrorists Take Positions Of Power
Imagine for a moment that a violent terrorist was released from prison. They had robbed an armored car, been involved in the murder of police officers, and been connected to a bomb-making factory that intended to target American soldiers. Now imagine they were given a well-paid job teaching students at a famous US college and their crimes were utterly forgiven. There’d be outrage, right?
Actually, this has already happened, so apparently not. In 2013, Kathy Boudin was named the 2013 Sheinberg Scholar-in-Residence at NYU Law School. She’s just one of several members of left-wing terror group Weather Underground who are now working as college teachers.
Former Weathermen Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn are also teachers. In 1970, they were caught making pipe bombs filled with nails which they intended to use to attack an army dance. Ericka Huggins is a former Black Panther now at Laney College and Berkeley City College. In 1970, she was witness to the torture and murder of a police informant. She did nothing to stop it.
To be fair, all those listed above have served their time. They’ve all been hired by private colleges, who can hire whomever they like. But as the Daily Beast noted, the chances of those same colleges hiring a former Klansman or a right-wing terrorist are almost nonexistent. Rather than being condemned, these formerly violent radicals are now being held up as folk heroes. Huggins is described by her college as a former “political prisoner.”
One example from the right, though not in the education field, is Cheryl Sullenger, the current vice president of pro-life group Operation Rescue. In 1987, Sullenger was arrested after she tried to bomb an abortion clinic.
5The Public Doesn’t Trust Anyone
The US is in an age of cynicism that is almost unparalleled in modern history. Poll after poll shows that the general public is more than just disillusioned. They actively distrust everyone.
In summer 2015, a Gallup poll showed US confidence in institutions was well below historical norms. Where government was concerned, only 8 percent said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot of” trust in Congress. Only 23 percent trusted the criminal justice system, 24 percent trusted organized labor, and 21 percent trusted big business. The Supreme Court was one of the highest-scoring institutions and only scored 32 percent on trust, 1 percentage point behind the presidency. Only the police, the military, and small businesses had the trust of over 50 percent of the population.
This would make a good news story except that Americans no longer trust the media, either. A Gallup poll from the end of September 2015 put trust in the media at a historic low. Among the young, barely one-third today trust the mass media.
These aren’t encouraging signs. When less than 10 percent of the population feels that Congress speaks for them, you have a system that’s facing a crisis of legitimacy. Yet rather than do anything to shore up public support, politicians just stumble on like zombies. That’s why someone like Trump can blow up from nowhere and get so much support. He’s one of the only people running who seems like a genuine (if flawed) human being.
4Compromise Is A Thing Of The Past
The US government runs on compromise. Unless one party carries the White House and both chambers (which happens rarely), basic rules require both parties to thrash out some sort of deal. Things have changed now. Today, many in Washington consider it a point of honor to never compromise.
This is most noticeable in the Tea Party. Thanks to them and the growing antigovernment paranoia we mentioned above, the most motivated GOP voters now support candidates who won’t give Obama an inch on any issue. Polls have shown that 75 percent of Republicans want candidates to be more confrontational with the president. Two-thirds want their representatives to “stand up” to Obama even if it paralyzes Washington.
The trouble is, Republican candidates have no incentive to ignore their voter base. Those who compromise are in danger of being shunted out in favor of more ideologically pure candidates. So you wind up with idiocy like senators voting to repeal Obamacare even though everyone knows Obama will veto the motion. Representatives have also threatened another shutdown over abortion laws.
If this was just a wing of the GOP, it would be one thing. But a lack of compromise is now infecting both parties. Democrats have become intransigent on major issues, too. If things carry on this way, expect far more shutdowns in the coming years.
3The GOP Is Imploding
It’s clear that the GOP is in trouble. Its presidential front-runner is a guy who is extremely disliked by most of the party. Candidates are failing to attract the nonwhite voters they mathematically need to claim the White House. The commentators at Vox think things might be even worse than they seem. They argue that the Republican Party is on the verge of imploding.
It goes back to what we were saying about paranoia and the “purity” of never compromising. Since the 1990s, the far-right media has been brewing up a perfect storm of outraged voters who think any compromise with the Democrats is a sign of weakness. Unfortunately, these are the voices drowning out the sensible Republican voters. The more extreme members of the party vote in droves in primaries, organize mass telephone campaigns to senators, and can bring a career crashing down in flames. They’re also the people who could ensure Trump gets a spot on the GOP ticket.
If that happens, the nicest thing we can say is that it would make the party unelectable. That may be why some people think Trump is a Clinton plant. But the point Vox is making goes deeper than whether Trump gets the nomination. In the current GOP environment, another Trump could emerge at any time. If the party keeps getting more extreme, it will wind up being stuck in perpetual opposition.
This might seem like good news for Democrats, but it really isn’t. Living in a de facto one-party nation isn’t a good advertisement for democracy. And just because the GOP can’t get the presidency doesn’t mean they can’t control the House. As we mentioned above, such a scenario might lead to nothing but endless shutdowns.
2Ideological Purity Is Infecting Liberals, Too
It’s not just Republican voters who are drifting away from the center. Liberals are headed down their own path of ideological purity. Across American college campuses, debate and free speech are getting shut down over issues of political correctness. Where things like the environment and genetically modified foods are concerned, some even claim that there is a liberal “war on science,” mimicking the right’s antievolution crusade.
There are other signs that the left is losing sight of both the center and compromise. A 2014 Pew poll found that 60 percent of consistent liberals said it was important to live in a place where most people shared their political views. Although that’s less than the 79 percent of consistent conservatives, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of belief in a plurality of viewpoints. The same survey also concluded that strong liberals are more likely than strong conservatives to aggressively donate to candidates who support their hard-line views.
In short, both sides of the political spectrum are drifting away from one another. In a system designed to be based on compromise and working with rivals, this is clearly bad news.
1It Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better
After the federal government shut down in fall 2013, it finally seemed like things had gone too far. People were furious about the failure of Congress to keep the country running. Public workers didn’t get paid, national parks and war memorials were closed down, and the GOP—widely perceived to be the cause—took a beating in the polls. It should have spelled the end of partisan extremism for a long time.
Then something strange happened. No one learned any lessons. Fast-forward to late 2015, and we’re trying to avert another shutdown. Although this one is unlikely to occur, the fact that it’s even being considered shows how few lessons have been learned. Compromises are still rare. Ideological purity is still valued. And the alternative media (on both sides) is just as inflammatory as it ever was.
The trouble with not learning the lessons of the past—even the recent past—is that things will never change. Republicans seem to be hoping that everything will magically get better when Obama leaves. Liberals seem to be looking forward to Hillary giving the GOP a beating. Both of those things are unlikely to sort out the dysfunction at the core of American politics.
Things have become too extreme. Without some sort of major overhaul, each party will keep pushing away from the other, cheered on by the media and their angry base. Eventually, you’ll have a government that’s incapable of doing anything but reach a stalemate, even as voter approval dips lower than ever.
One day, these issues will be sorted out. But it’ll take a lot of political will and a desire in the media to stop fanning the flames of hatred and resentment. Whether that happens anytime soon is another matter entirely.