Soon We Will Know

Election Day is upon us; all I can say now is, as the Grateful Dead once sang, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” People will be writing about this election for as long as exhausted PhD candidates are in need of a dissertation topic, and no two people will quite agree on what this very odd election all meant—and what the long term effects on our nation will be.

Perhaps the last few months can be likened to the thrashing delirium that strikes just before a fever breaks. There can be no doubt there is an illness in our nation that begs for a cure. We may strongly disagree about the nature and extent of the ailment, but there seems to be a pervading sense that we’re well past the point where two aspirin will do just fine.

I cannot remember a moment in my adult lifetime when so many were so disgusted with so much—and had so little faith in our leaders and institutions. Perhaps this explains at least a bit of why those in each major party have tended to frame the possibility the opposing side will win in the most apocalyptic terms: We all understand that, whichever way we go, there will be no splitting the difference or turning back.

If one is to believe the exceedingly changeable polls, this Presidential election is now a coin flip in a hurricane, and no one is quite certain what unexpected and uncontrollable forces will buffet it before it finally lands.

Given that four words that should never be spoken together—“Presidential candidate” and “FBI investigation”—are now glued to Hillary Clinton, there is good reason to think that Donald Trump is in a position to shock the pundits and every polling expert in the land. However, Trump certainly has his own highly charged negatives trailing along in his wake like toilet paper stuck to his shoe, so there are a great many who will not vote for him—no matter what the circumstances.

If I were to be forced to bet a sizable sum of money on the outcome, I would certainly hate to do so. Two more thoroughly dislikable people have probably never gone head to head for the Presidency. Nonetheless, if only because it is positively un-American to not have an opinion, I’m going to guess the advantage falls to Donald Trump simply because it might be impossible for anyone to win an election when their name keeps getting mentioned in the same breath as Anthony Weiner’s.

Of course, those voting for Hillary Clinton are livid over the timing of the FBI’s recent public announcement that they have re-opened the investigation into whether her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State violated federal laws regarding the handling of classified information. However, I believe that the FBI was caught in an impossible position in this regard. Had they conducted their re-investigation without informing Congress, they would have been accused of complicity and cover-up. It stinks, but it had to be done (and how ironic is this?) to preserve the reputation of the FBI for impartiality in politically-fraught investigations.

Of course, much of what will happen—or will not—over the next four years will depend on what happens in the Congressional and Senatorial races. We are electing a President and not an Emperor, so the composition of the legislative branch will clearly indicate just how much change we can expect—and how fast. There is an old and largely accurate saying that all politics are local, but I am going to guess that a lot more voters this year will be casting their ballots with a nervous glance toward the top of the ticket.

No matter whether the winner of the election is Trump or Clinton, expect a howl of dismay to rise through our country. Nonetheless, I hope for at least a modicum of civility and courtesy from whichever side has to sit through a concession speech from their candidate.

The plate of the next President will be very full, and a number of difficult and disheartening choices are looming on the horizon. We will accomplish less if we dissipate our energies fighting among ourselves. We all need to remember that sometimes, as the Rolling Stones once sang, “You can’t always get what you want.” Nonetheless, we will still need to work together for the future of our country, lest we tear ourselves apart.

Advertisements

All The Lonely People

There is an old saying: “We’re born alone, and we die alone.” However, at least in the United States in the early 21st century, there seems to be a corollary jammed right in between those two: We now live alone.

Census data show that we currently have a record—and growing—number of single occupant households in our nation, accounting for about 28% of American homes. More and more that voice we hear when we come home from a hard day at work comes from our television. We want connection—but none is to be found—so we seek a substitute. Our innate human yearning for caring and companionship often becomes a silicon chip simulacrum where we are left to share our small victories and bitterest heartaches with a worldwide audience of strangers on Snapchat or Facebook—or we simply rely on our cat for a sympathetic ear.

It should, therefore, not be much of a surprise that so many more Americans are relying on alcohol and prescription anti-depressants to get through their long and lonely days. The drug of choice to allow us to endure our isolation might, of course, be something illegal, but that matters little to no one other than law enforcement or the doctors on duty in the ER. The real issue is simply this: We are becoming a nation alone and forlorn, which is going to have far-reaching political, economic, and social consequences in the decades ahead.

These echoing walls do not afflict only adults. Roughly 25% of children in the U.S. are being raised by a single mother or father, a rate higher than in any developed nation in the world. Aside from the additional stress and financial hardships for the parent that often go along with raising a child alone, we also now have tens of millions of children growing up without the stability that two-parent households have provided for the bulk of human history—a grand and perhaps terrifying American social experiment.

Of course, there are a great many highly credentialed experts in academia who argue vociferously that this is of no real concern because non-traditional family arrangements and government transfer payments are sufficient to provide the psychological and economic stability necessary to nurture these children into happy and productive adult lives. Moreover, as is correctly pointed out, a child is better off with one loving parent rather than two trapped in an unhappy marriage or relationship that ratchets up the level of household tension and can, in some instances, lead to dire consequences. No sensible person would argue that an abusive parent is preferable to an absent one, and a child certainly suffers if that terrible parent remains in their life.

However, only the most foolhardy or ideologically blinkered would argue that a society that excels at producing more and more loneliness and isolation is an entirely healthy one. Skyrocketing diagnoses of depression and anxiety among children, adolescents, and adults across our nation are likely attributable—at least in great part—to the loneliness and isolation of so many of our daily lives. In addition, given that the ability to form and maintain personal relationships is a life skill that must be both learned and continually practiced, a solitary existence can rapidly become a self-reinforcing phenomenon that can easily consume one’s life. That lost child of today might be the sad single or lonely senior of tomorrow, and this will cause a cascade of difficulties that will reverberate through our society.

When households and hearts are empty, a great void is left in that individual, one that in many instances is filled with dysfunctional and self-destructive behaviors that become problems for all of us. It cannot be merely a coincidence that nihilistic youth, sexually abusive behavior, and a fraying sense of civility and responsibility become yet more prominent facets of our national culture with each passing year. These problems are, of course, not the result of a single cause, and individual cases vary a great deal, but I believe that the crushing loneliness that pervades our nation is a root cause of much of our national anger and frustration.

We can certainly point to misguided and poorly executed government programs that have fragmented our families and harmed individuals, but the main force that drives us apart is the same culprit that is behind so many other problems in our society: money. With fewer and fewer family farms and small businesses surviving to be passed from parent to child, fewer and fewer families are staying together geographically to nurture a livelihood across generations. Moreover, a rapidly changing globalized economy propelled by mind-boggling advances in the ease and ubiquity of information technology now requires us to chase employment from industry to industry and location to location as never before in our nation’s history. Meanwhile, business starts ups, which are typically family owned and operated, have dropped precipitously over the past 30 to 40 years–and robbed many individuals of a vital anchor to both family and community. Money may, as the song goes, make the world go around, but our need to earn it is turning more and more people around our country into economic gypsies.

In addition, although the heavy hand of the regulatory state certainly dissuades many from opening a new business, it is also likely that local mom and pop operations are fighting to overcome the headwinds of a “click and buy” marketplace that makes it very difficult for many to turn a profit because they are now forced to compete with every business in every corner of our planet. We already know that free-market globalization harms many and helps few, but it might also be turning us into a lonelier and less connected nation at the same time by crushing our locally-owned businesses and reducing the vital community connections they provide. That Amazon box conveniently dropped right on our doorstep might carry with it a hefty hidden surcharge—of human isolation.

We obviously cannot compel togetherness, and there are some individuals who simply prefer to be left to themselves for a variety of reasons. However, few would willingly choose the lonely todays—and even lonelier tomorrows—that have become our peculiar and sorrowful national affliction. Although we tend to mythologize America’s small towns and ignore the insular pathologies that sometimes sprang up in those postcard villages of yore, I suspect that a great many today would quite willingly abandon a text message for an actual conversation, the Internet chat room for a physical companion, and thousands of “friends” on social media for just one person who will give them the love and attention that we all need and deserve.

No, We Are Not Heading For Civil War

The latest fashionable prediction in the weeks leading up to the Presidential election is simply an intensification of one that has ebbed and flowed in the background since the primaries: This year’s vote will usher in a new American Civil War.

If Trump somehow wins, so the thinking goes in some corners of the media echo chamber, the decent people of our nation will rise in rage to repudiate him, leading to a Constitutional crisis. If Clinton wins, some believe the violence-prone element of Trump’s supporters will snatch up their pitchforks and march on Washington, throwing our nation into a downward spiral of turmoil. The worries behind these predictions were in no way assuaged by the 3rd and—thank goodness!—final Presidential debate, which many times moved from the merely contentious to the positively vitriolic as each candidate snarked, snarled, and scalded our ears to emphasize the moral, ethical, and personal failings of their opponent.

I’m likely not the only American who cannot wait for this ghastly election campaign—one that has somehow managed to avoid discussing the skyrocketing national debt, military readiness, educational outcomes, and a host of other important issues—to mercifully come to an end.

It is certainly, therefore, worth asking if the “civil war” talk in the media is simply an effort to attract viewers and readers—or is there something more worrisome here? My short answer is that this kind of heated coverage is akin to severe weather predictions on television: Something is happening, but the warnings are framed in the direst terms to keep you glued to the channel. The day after the election, the traffic lights will still operate, the wheels of our vast government bureaucracies will grind on, and children will still be screeching their way around our nation’s playgrounds. Nothing much about the daily fabric of our lives, in other words, will really change.

This does not mean, however, that a great national reconciliation will spring from the ballot box—far from it. The election results will likely cause the chasm in our national psyche to split even further.

The fundamental divide between those who see government as a beneficent instrument of positive social change and improvement versus those who see it as an incredibly expensive tool of coercion and indoctrination will grow wider no matter who wins. The economic winners in our neo-liberal paradise of government regulation and global trade treaties will continue to have little common purpose with the factory worker waving goodbye to a well-paying job and now learning to ask everyone if they want fries with that. The social justice warriors who see sniveling bigots rampaging through the land will find it difficult to believe that a great many people are honest and just—they may simply disagree with your positions and premises.

We won’t be locked in a civil war; we will be trapped in never-ending civic dysfunction as we debate the proper role and scope of government against a background of austerity and unrest. This problem that will be worsened by exploitative media, crushing public debts, overwhelmed and underwhelming politicians, and a never-ending supply of harrumphing lawyers determined to milk our anger and distrust for every possible penny that they can get.

Meanwhile, our government debts will get larger, our technology will become more clever and intrusive, the average person will grow more disgusted—and the ties that bind us as a nation will be stretched to the breaking point.

The $620+ billion dollars we now spend on our country’s public education system is the perfect encapsulation of all that ails us. We spend a stupendous percentage of our national wealth (remember that our total annual Gross Domestic Product is roughly $18.5 trillion) to generate results that run the gamut from fair to abysmal.

Parents run into a rubber wall of regulations and ossified union contracts whenever they attempt to push for changes in their child’s public schools. The politics surrounding jobs, money and influence drive virtually every decision—the children be damned—with the recent resolution of the NAACP calling for a moratorium on the charter schools that have been a life saver for so many students being the latest example of the power of the Almighty Dollar in any educational debate.

Not surprisingly, many parents are looking into private schools and scraping every coin out of the sofa cushions to pay the tuition and save their children, and others who cannot afford private schools are turning to home schooling to help their children escape dangerous and dysfunctional public schools. Meanwhile, debates that have little or nothing to do with improving academic outcomes swirl and consume our energies while other nations continue to quietly—and for far less money—produce the highly skilled graduates who will become the economic leaders of the 21st century.

We’re not heading for civil war; we’ve just stopped believing the official lies. That fact alone is dangerous enough to those who count on our gullibility to maintain their power and control. This will be where the pressure will be building in the months and years ahead. I suspect—sadly enough—that our discussions about the future of our nation and its institutions will be no more elevated than what we have seen throughout this year’s Presidential debates, which will be both our shame and our pain.

What A Presidential Debate It Was!

I truly dislike instant political analysis. It encapsulates everything that is wrong with our culture today: speaking without listening, analyzing without thinking, and shouting instead of speaking.

Therefore, I decided to wait a week and let the barely palatable stew of the second Presidential Debate—which was an excruciating and depressing exercise in pettifoggery and insults most of the time—simmer for a bit before adding my own seasoning to the mix.

I thought the mud wrestle between Clinton and Trump during the first debate was a depressingly familiar exercise in cherry-picked “facts” that often seemed tangential to the issues upon a Presidential election should focus: protecting our nation, improving our economy, and providing opportunities for all of our citizens to succeed. The days leading up to the second debate provided yet more fuel for the bonfire of the inanities.

Leaked transcripts of the incredibly well-paid speeches Hillary Clinton gave to her Wall Street compadres served to confirm what we already know: She is a member of the privileged 1% who pretends to give a damn about the rest of us solely to garner our votes. What a shock!

We also learned from recorded comments that Donald Trump has all the charm and grace of your average horny thirteen year old boy when it comes to women: To put it bluntly, he’s a real jerk. What a shock!

I was filled with a keen sense of foreboding because I expected the second debate would devolve into a battle of insults, put downs, finger wagging, and one-liners that would tell me nothing other than I really don’t want either of these two damaged people to be our next President.

Unfortunately, the second debate lived down to my lowest expectations, and I am horrified at what our two major political parties have become. I do not know whether any of this will turn into an electoral bonanza for either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, but we have only a few more weeks before we find out what our nation’s voters think about being forced to choose between a lout and a liar.

The question after the debate for the Republicans was simple: Did Trump manage to cover Clinton with at least as much mud as she flung at him? My sense is that Trump gave as good as he got, and those who have always been offended by his coarseness are certainly yet more offended. However, his hardcore supporters probably don’t care about anything he says because, when all is said and done, he is at least not Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s non-payment of taxes because of his astounding business losses certainly calls into question his ability to present himself as a business genius who is prepared to straighten out our dysfunctional government, and it’s still more than a little difficult to imagine him providing calm international leadership in our increasingly fragile world.

The question after the debate among the Democrats was whether Hillary Clinton did an effective job of swinging independent voters who have been trending toward Trump because they neither like nor trust her. Clinton basically laid into Trump throughout the debate like a child on a sugar high whacking at a birthday party piñata, so it cannot be said that she failed to energetically attack her opponent, who did his best to appear contrite for both his language and behavior around women.

Nonetheless, the obvious dichotomy between her sanctimonious attacks on Trump over his treatment of women and her own past defenses of her philandering husband—all of which typically boiled down to calling Bill’s victims a pack of ignorant sluts—hung like a bad smell over the entire evening. I suppose that, when you have to do a hatchet job on someone, you just say what you have to say and pray that people have very, very short memories.

People will be writing and talking about this campaign until the sun snuffs out in the sky above us. The refusal to shake hands with one another before the start of the debate spoke very plainly to the distance between Trump and Clinton, which mirrors the stark divisions among the broad spectrum of the American people.

How bad did this all get? Let me put it this way: I’m certain we’ve never had a Presidential debate where one of the major party candidates threatened—if elected—to appoint a special prosecutor to throw their erstwhile opponent in jail. I’d say that’s a pretty clear sign the level of discourse throughout the evening was a tad inflammatory. Of course, the starkly different reactions to Trump’s comment were yet another indication of the political polarization of our nation: Some heard it as a threat to abuse Presidential power, but others heard a welcome promise to restore integrity to our criminal justice system.

The wounds in our nation’s soul are open, visible, and will be very slow to heal. Given the many possibilities for economic, social, military, and geo-political cataclysms right at our doorstep as we hurtle on to Election Day, I would have to guess the next few years in America could get very ugly.

I just hope that, when it all starts to fall apart, we can find some way to come together in common purpose instead of fragmenting in common dislike—and I hope I’m not unrealistically optimistic regarding our chances.

Now What?

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends….
President Jimmy Carter
“Crisis of Confidence” Speech (July 15, 1979)

As we stumble and bumble (Taxes! Email! Benghazi! Porn!) toward electing our next President, I’ve been thinking about our country’s college students, most of whom are voting for President for the first time—poor kids.

I’ve also been thinking about my first vote for President, way back when tie-dyed t-shirts and Radio Shack were still cool, no one had ever heard of a cell phone, and I was embarking on my first hopeful, confusing, and exhausting semester of college, one where I was still locating physical books by looking through typed index cards in massive oak card catalogues. Even worse, I had to trudge up to the stacks, find the book, check it out, bring it back to my dorm room, and (gasp!) read it before completing my class assignments on a (double gasp!) typewriter.

Did I mention that I often had brontosaurus for lunch?

What has not, however, changed all these many years later is that government seems the very last—and often very worst—option for solving our many problems. I cast my ballot for Jimmy Carter in 1976 because, like many Americans, I could not forgive President Ford for granting a full pardon to disgraced former President Nixon. Moreover, Carter’s military experience, Governorship of Georgia, and business background seemed a good mix to restore our trust in the Executive branch after the trauma of Watergate. I thrilled to his stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, and his easy informality touched a spot in my informal eighteen year old soul.

His Presidency was, however, fraught with international difficulties, a crushing oil crisis, and a tone deaf manner of lecturing rather than speaking—all of which were capped off by the failed hostage rescue mission six months before Election Day.

Enter Ronald Reagan, “Morning in America”, Iran-Contra—and the start of our great national adventure in borrowing and spending that has driven the Federal debt from under $1 trillion to nearly $20 trillion in just over 35 years. Maybe Disco wasn’t so bad after all.

Jimmy Carter certainly had his faults as President, but he clearly saw that the polarization of our political process—driven to extremes by campaign cash and myopic interest groups—was more of a threat to our nation’s future than every missile in the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal combined. Of course, the political polarization of his day seems almost quaint compared to the Twitter-fueled, 24-hour screamfest that masquerades as governance today.

The bizarre candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are not the problem: They are the symptom. The iron triangle of craven office holders, news media that have abandoned all pretense of objectivity, and a collapse of basic civic awareness have put us just where we are today: a “Kulture” that puts a Kardashian on the cover of every magazine and ignores the kakistocracy killing our nation.

The cure will not be without pain, sacrifice, and the howls of those asked to surrender their overly large piece of the pie for the common good. We will, in addition, need to use our votes to elect leaders who understand arithmetic, treat us as adults rather than children, and insist on results when our tax dollars are spent.

I suspect that we are nearer to the breaking point than many might realize. I could, of course, be wrong; however, I don’t think we have a great deal of time to engineer a turnaround before the wheels fall off altogether. If we go through another four years of business as usual, we might very well be looking wistfully back at the “good old days” of 2016—a truly frightening idea that causes my own “crisis of confidence” as I mull over the possibility of government debts even larger, a nation more fragmented, and politicians less competent than we have today.

By the way, I suddenly really, really miss The Bee Gees.