When something is beyond the strictures of the popular imagination, a thing which is conditioned by a lifetime of mass media (and increasingly “social media”) consumption, it is unthinkable. We cannot even entertain unthinkable ideas because they are simply… unthinkable. Until they are thought, expressed, discussed, debated, formed into things we can now easily think about, talk about, make part of law and culture .
A quick thought experiment:
We presently have more than twenty political candidates from an opposition party, united in their determination to defeat a president who squeaked into power with a surgically engineered 78,000 vote margin in the Electoral College and has been stacking the federal courts with record numbers of ideologically pure lifetime appointees of the extreme far-right (thirteen more were confirmed by Moscow Mitch and his crew right before Congress went on holiday). He put a controversial, pouting, crying, angry partisan on to the Supreme Court, 51-49 — fair is fair! (Ain’t democracy great, folks?)
This Electoral College president has done many cruel things, attacked countless foes, lied thousands of times and demands complete loyalty from a rotating cast of mostly unqualified sidekicks who are each busily doing maximum damage in their appointed spheres. Picture the climate disruption denier-in-chief removing the US from the Paris Accords, itself a fairly weak attempt to avoid a deadly climate refugee apocalypse, and restoring the federal death penalty so as to, hopefully (they hope) execute Julian Assange, for a quick whiff of this guy’s style.
What do we do here in America in the face of this? What we always do. We begin the presidential election campaign a year and a half before the election and make every fart and hiccup of it daily news for months and months and months. We hold a competition, a popularity contest, and put all the contestants to unseat this disastrous president (if they qualify by raising X millions in campaign funds) into a game show format where they fight it out on live TV until there is only one candidate standing.
Think of it as Political Survivor, a zero-sum gladiatorial contest won by brute strength, cunning and sheer determination to be the last one alive. The spectacle gets great ratings, like the Hunger Games in that thinly veiled depiction of our dystopian society where the majority of citizens don’t have the $400 they need to avoid an immediate crisis, or homelessness. Everybody tunes in, everyone has an opinion about who won, who lost, who sucked, who sucked worse. Advertisers line up to buy a spot during the most heated contests.
Unthinkable thought: instead of this contest have well-spoken representatives of various factions in the Democratic Party (or the Republican, or any party, really) sitting around a table making their best, crispest case for what their party stands for, ironing out a unified party platform that whoever their eventual candidate is will put into action once in office. How about a few nights of televised debates as follows:
Night one, a presentation of the many problems caused by global warming, a tight ten minute slide show, showing the scope of the problem, its causes, describing why we haven’t been able to make much progress (and here discuss Exxon-Tillerson and the Koch’s well-funded, exceptionally American ‘climate skepticism’ movement) then set goals and talk about the best way to move toward them.
If you like the “America’s got Talent” or “Dancing with the Stars” format, add realtime on-line voting about the propositions being discussed. Run the numbers as they discuss various ideas, to add excitement and immediacy to the discussion of policies that will decide the fate of the planet and all life upon it.
“Oh, look, Dolores, that chyron shows 89% of Americans watching actually believe drought and flooding and heatwaves and wild fires are getting worse every year and it’s the government’s job to do whatever is necessary to slow this looming catastrophe down!”
“Look, Ed, 91% think the government should regulate the polluting industries that put the most CO2 in the air. 58% support a carbon tax. 72% support regulations requiring more efficient automobiles that emit less CO2. Who knew Americans were so smart?”
The next discussion would be health care. Then poverty. Then education, then the ongoing, silent crisis of American military veteran suicides, and so on. A week after each show the party would present its platform on that issue, published on line, its essence delivered in a five minute prime-time spot. Whoever becomes president from our party is committed to this set of principles. Let Americans know what we actually stand for, exactly what we will fight for once in power.
As it is now it’s up to the individual who survives the Darwinian winnowing process and emerges as the candidate to decide exactly what she or he is going to do as president and leader of the party. If so, what’s the point of having a national party at all? What’s the point of that party putting its considerable thumb on the scale during the nominating process? (As it did when it decided in 2016 that Hillary Clinton had waited long enough for her turn and made her the candidate in a rigged primary system — she started the games with a several hundred ‘super-delegate” lead).
There are, of course, several reasons why this kind of thoughtful public policy party platform discussion is unthinkable.
The first is that Americans are not used to it and might very well hate it. We prefer exciting bouts where one person punches out the other and we raise the winner’s hand and everyone cheers. We are used to gladiators. We crave the excitement of blood sport. How boring would it be to see a bunch of thoughtful people agreeing that the present administration has done these specific disastrous things and, when elected, we will do these specific things to fix the deepening problems these cynical hucksters have exacerbated? Who would watch two hours of that? Where’s the drama?
Instead we have an animated squabble between vying contendets, egged on by celebrity moderators, about whether Medicare for All must eliminate the many private health insurance companies in business now or not. Few Americans (unless they work for a health insurance related company– and millions are likely in this category) give a rat’s ass one way or another what entity helps them pay the cost of needed medical care. The real debate is “do Americans have the same right as the French, the Japanese, the Germans, the British, Canadians, Iraqis under Saddam, for fuck’s sake, to decent, affordable nationalized health care?”
The framing we have, and the jibing, sniping “how you gonna pay for it? how you gonna pay for it?” (a question never asked about endless, unprovoked war) make a serious discussion of how to move forward almost impossible. It’s like Reagan, cheerfully slamming Jimmy Carter over and over with “there you go again!”. “I know you are, but what am I?” “Keep talking, spongey gums, it tickles” It’s a long gotcha contest where candidates wait for their star-making moment to distinguish themselves as the most poised under attack, the most stylish with a put-down.
As always, there are specific reasons why intelligent non-adversarial discussion is unthinkable. First, it’s simply not the way it’s done here. They go at each other in a robust debate, no holds barred, and we pick the one whose style, whose courage under attack, we like the best. Elizabeth Warren turned to a fretful “how you gonna pay for it?” naysayer on the stage with her the other night, attacking her idea for redistributing 2% of vast, largely hereditary, wealth in a way that would benefit most Americans, and asked him who “goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for?”
Personally, I loved that answer. Full disclosure, I’ve loved Elizabeth Warren since I first saw her interviewed by the great Bill Moyers many moons ago, when she was still teaching law at Harvard, talking about her idea for a federal consumer protection agency.
Second, everything in America must be paid for, we all know that. TV time (supposedly publicly owned, remember) is very valuable. If you don’t have viewers, no advertisers want to buy ads. The network loses a ton of money. That’s one reason Trump was so good for business. Not every candidate can eat 50 corndogs, then bite the head off a live chicken and claim, bloody lipped and covered with feathers, that his vicious, lying opponent did the disgusting deed. He was great for ratings. You never knew if the zestful flag-humper was literally going to take a shit on stage. The man was made for TV, reality TV, that carefully scripted alternative fact world so many Americans crave. If we run thoughtful discussions about real, pressing problems and how to best solve them– we’d be fucking CSPAN, nobody would tune in. No profits for anybody.
Third, the mass media is run by advertising dollars. Les Moonves, former CEO of the company that owns CBS, (before he was “disgraced” over his non-consensual sexual practices and forced out with a gigantic golden parachute) said, during the lead up to the Trump presidency, that he didn’t necessarily like the man or what he stood for, but, by God, he’s making us a shitload of money! More than one network showed the empty Trump podium, while bad for business Bernie Sanders addressed another huge crowd, uncovered by the cameras, after yet another improbable primary victory. “We’re still waiting for Trump, he’ll be out in a minute to say something explosive (or possibly even take a dump on stage)! Please stay tuned, we’ll return to his empty podium right after this important message.”
Fourth, in America it’s all about the Benjamins, baby. We live in a profit-driven culture. If you have a net worth of fifty billion there is no shame attached to an ambition to double that wealth — go for it! The people we admire the most, as a culture, are the biggest winners. In America we call these money-crazed oligarchs “philanthropists” and give their opinions about problem solving the greatest weight. They have the money to form giant non-profit companies to put their ideas into practice. Their ideas carry great weight because they are clearly brilliant, since they have amassed billions as a result of their obvious genius. Even if they are born to their great wealth, they’re better than most people, in a materialistic culture that values only acquisition.
Fifth, the political parties themselves, and all of their candidates (with a few notable individual exceptions) are dependent on Big, Dark Money, corporate and personal, and lots of it. Corporate lobbyists/colleagues/lobbyists are a big factor too, you can’t snub your old friends, and the powerful causes they represent, and expect to survive in the marketplace of “donations”. Everybody seems to like this horse race model of electoral campaigning, keeps the money flowing.
Down through all the rest of the numbers here, the answer is the same. People make money, a shit ton of money, from the way things are arranged here in our “free market”. The mass media is run for money, every political debate is a source of revenue for multiple corporations. We run our elections like the Super Bowl, a parade of the world’s most expensive and ingenious advertisements, made by the greatest advertising minds, vying for the coveted title of best Super Bowl advertisement. If you have a billion to spend on your political ad campaign, versus an opponent with only ten million, chances are excellent that you win! Money is speech, baby, Supreme Court said so, loud as hell, in Citizens United. If you have a billion you just get to speak louder than a punk with a puny $390,000. Freedom, you dig.
Children separated from their desperate parents, kept in filthy conditions in privatized child prisons? Nobody is paying us for soap and water for these stinking little bastards! Fuck you, Commie. These kids are evil, illegal, alien. You can do whatever you want to them, they have no rights, no humanity. We’ll fight you to the death against charges that we don’t care about children, are deliberately cruel to deter these pricks from sneaking in to ask for asylum. How fucking dare you? Why have a bully pulpit if you can’t be a bully? Suck my ass while I tweet about your ass-sucking, loser!
Unthinkable, really, to have intelligent people of different points of view squarely facing the most difficult actual challenges of our lives here– climate catastrophe, intergenerational poverty, massive American despair, rage, violence, addiction, untold American deaths from preventable diseases, suicide — and hammering out the best ways to improve things.
Better for everybody to just let our most charismatic and well-funded gladiators hack each other’s arms off for our amusement. Let the fucking games begin! Anything else? UNTHINKABLE!!!
 A short list of long-time unthinkable ideas:
Constitutional abolition of Constitutionally protected slavery (1865)
alcoholic beverages made illegal in every state (1920)
alcoholic beverages made legal again (1933)
universal women’s suffrage (1920)
federal regulation of child labor and creation of the 40 hour work week (1938)
$15 minimum wage (adopted in many states and municipalities)
legalized recreational marijuana ( currently the law in eleven states, see map)
Constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all states (2015, but 5-4, watch out my gay brothers and sisters)
“pre-existing condition” right to refuse health insurance coverage abolished (2010)