Politics as Spectacle and Nostalgia Show

Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson. Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, Joe Biden, Martin O’Malley, Elizabeth Warren. The list of Republicans and Democrats who have already made public their intention to run for president in 2016 — or those who have not convincingly said enough that they definitely won’t throw their hats into the ring — would nearly make up two whole football teams.

Hardly a single name on the list needs to be remembered. On the Republican side, they mix it up in a race to kiss the rings of wealthy supporters or fundamentalist preachers first so they can survive their own party’s primary elections and infighting. Jeb Bush, son of the 41th president and brother of the 43rd, probably has the best chance of being nominated. The surveys that appear almost daily have little to no significance. Lest we forget: At the end of January 2007 the opinion polls had Hillary Clinton ahead of Barack Obama by a margin of 41 to 17 percent.

And this time, Clinton also has the lead with the Democratic base, if the surveys can be trusted. But what’s the significance of that? Elections are like long distance races: Whoever is in the lead after the first 100 meters isn’t necessarily the one who will cross the finish line first 10,000 meters later.

The question is, how many Americans really pay any attention to this spectacle? It’s not only an exclusive process — they talk to wealthy political backers or to hand-picked church congregations and not to the unwashed masses outside — but it’s also a profoundly nostalgic process. Both sides look longingly back into the past. Republican contestants envision restoring the global hegemony the United States enjoyed a quarter century ago. The Soviet era had scarcely ended before the rise of the developing nations began.

If one goes by the second volume of Hillary Clinton’s uncreative and meaningless memoirs, she mainly wants to be the first female president in U.S. history and to pick up where her husband left off: In a pre-9/11 world before the great recession which sowed the seeds of Wall Street deregulation, and also before the emergence of Russian and Chinese chauvinistic nationalism. But that world no longer exists. Clinton challenger ex-Senator Jim Webb believes Democrats must return to their “Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson roots” and put greater focus on “white, working people.” Thanks to his status as owner of a slave plantation, Jackson was wealthy and waged genocidal wars against Native Americans and Mexico.

The world of tomorrow that will be led by one of these hopefuls from Jan. 20, 2017 onward bears no resemblance to the world as it was from 1945 to 2000 — the one most familiar to them. What can be done about the terrorist Islamic State army? The city of Kobane that was reduced to rubble and ashes by more than 600 aerial bombardments costing hundreds of millions of dollars is surely not the example we should follow. What to do about socioeconomic inequality? According to available statistics, every second American citizen lacks sufficient savings to enable them to survive unemployment or serious illness for more than one month. And what about climate change? Half of all Americans live in close proximity to the ocean and even those inland suffer from weather extremes.

These existential questions have thus far been addressed in only the sketchiest of terms by most of the candidates — answers not sufficiently binding to risk giving their opponents any possible electioneering ammunition. Only Rand Paul, a libertarian, and Elizabeth Warren, who we Europeans would call a Social Democrat, give the impression that they are interested in getting more deeply into those issues.

But Paul and Warren are unlikely to survive the expensive primary election process. That’s the American tragedy: The most interesting candidates have the least chances while those with the best chances of being elected are those leftovers from yesterday.

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