Wednesday, November 9, 2016

America Does the Limbo: How Low Can We Go?

My father, an intuitively perceptive man now dead over four years, would remark now and then upon the adage that in mass marketing of all kinds success was achieved by appealing to the "lowest common denominator."  In other words, success was obtained by appealing to the least discriminating audience or target group.  Especially now but it would seem throughout the history of popular and semi-popular government, politics has been little more than marketing.

H.L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, wrote that:

"When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. "

Mencken had his faults; he was an unabashed elitist.  But it would seem to me that this is prescience.  Prescience, that is, regarding what has become the tendency of voters in our democracy, such as it is.

I don't think, though, that democracy is itself inherently defective or that Mencken even thought it to be such.  What Mencken objected to about democracy, or more properly democratic forms of government (our nation isn't a democracy, strictly speaking) was the place of people in it.  He loathed most people, and was contemptuous of the intelligence of the mass of people.  Consequently, he loathed government by the people or any government which is dependent in any significant sense on the whims of the people.

The problem with people he refers to specifically in what's quoted above is that their thinking "is done in terms of emotion" and their "dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand."  This seems to be true, and seems to become increasingly true here in our Glorious Republic.

 We "dread" when we greatly fear something we anticipate will happen.  The relationship between fear and hate is well known; we hate what we fear.  And fear, as Ambrose Bierce noted, is an idiot.  In this recent, seemingly endless, presidential campaign and election, fear, hate and idiocy have been much on display, and have been exploited.  As Mencken noted, it's probable that the successful candidate will be the one that is most devious and mediocre.  That would seem to be the case in this case.

I can't find it in me to mourn the fact the losing candidate lost; I simply wish she had lost to someone else.  She has never struck me as an admirable person, and was, to put it mildly, uninspiring, just as she has always been.  The editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant, whose work I greatly miss, used to draw her as a cat sitting on pillow or with a princess crown on her head, the image of entitlement and smugness.  I think that portraying her as a cat was unjust--to cats.  However, I've never hated her with the fanaticism some have and still do.

Her secretive and suspicious nature and self-righteousness made her so unappealing that I doubt she would be successful in most circumstances; she was overwhelmed in the last election, and was nearly pushed aside within her party in this one.  But I didn't think that even she could lose to this particular opponent.

I venture to say that no reasonable person can maintain her successful opponent is qualified for the presidency, having never served in public office of any kind, elected or appointed, or the military.  Nor do I think it can be said it's been established he has any unusual ability in business.  He pretends to expertise in a variety of areas, but it seems his claims must be taken on faith, as they have been unsupported.

More disturbing than his lack of qualifications, his ignorance, his boorishness, however, is his courting of support through exciting and exploiting the "worse angels of our nature" so to speak.  Parallels have been drawn with both Hitler and Mussolini, and those comparisons aren't altogether absurd.

More disturbing than that, though, is the fact that so many were sold on his message.  One can understand frustration with the system, the establishment and the feeling that it must change (though how it could be changed wasn't addressed).  The specter of a global society, government, economy, is I think not one to be frightened of much.  The desire to retain sovereignty is understandable, but as far as I'm aware that isn't in any serious danger, except perhaps in the minds of those who live in fear of the Illuminati, or the Council on Foreign Relations, or some other focus of our many conspiracy theorists.

The message was more (and less) than this, unfortunately.  It included contentions that America is imperiled by those who are believed to not be Americans or to be un-American, and they include Jews, Muslims, Hispanics (mostly Mexicans), immigrants, Gays, and virtually anyone who is not white and Christian and straight and was born either in the United States or Europe.  The message also was that something must be done to protect America from those folk, and this would make America great again.

What many of us succumbed to, therefore, was an appeal to emotions of the worse kind, primarily hatred and fear.  So we were exactly what Mencken said we would be, which I think isn't what we could and should be, if only we would think.  But thought wasn't sought and so wasn't given, either.  We bought the claims made, pure and simple.  We wanted to believe that our problems were caused not by ourselves, but by others.

We sink low and it's reasonable under the circumstances to ask how low we can go.

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