Back in 2004 Showtime ran a reality show called The American Candidate, which was about a mock presidential election with “candidates” that participated in numerous debates and political activities around the country. One candidate was voted off the show after each episode and the last one standing was the winner. The show limped along for ten episodes, before finding a permanent home in some TV archive vault next to Firefly and Party Down.
However, put on your tinfoil hats for a moment and ponder this. What if the producers of the show hit upon an idea for an even bigger one? Instead of placing phony candidates in a phony election, why not plant real politicians in a real run for the presidency of the United States? However, instead of a show like the one in the 1998 movie The Truman Show where one man was unaware that everyone around him were just actors in an artificial environment, it would be a program where the American voters are the ones who are unaware that they are the ones who are unwitting cast members in the largest reality show of all time.
Not too Far off the Mark
As I look back at the progress of the upcoming presidential election, I am beginning to think that the aforementioned conspiracy theory might not be too far off the mark. From the time Donald Trump supposedly fulfilled some prophetic scene from an episode of The Simpsons by announcing his candidacy after riding down an escalator, through all the Primary debates, and right up to the DNC and GOP conventions that gave us Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the two major contenders, this election has managed to blur the line between politics and entertainment beyond recognition.
I’ve watched as just about every debate turned into some sort of gentrified game of the Dozens. I’ve listened to one speech after another filled with so many buzz words and psychobabble, along with the concurrent cheers and jeers from the audience, that I wasn’t sure if I was listening to a political speech or an infomercial for a book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Defective People. I’ve seen too many press conferences after a tragic event that resembled a Kevin Nealon “Mr. Subliminal” sketch where we heard about all the “standing” we’d be doing with the victims as individuals, while at the same time implying that as a society this was somehow all our fault because we’re still so intolerant and divided. In short, I feel as though I’m living in a world where all the kids who had their moral instruction outsourced to values clarification curricula or ABC’s After School Specials, have grown up to be the writers who are scripting the narrative of our contemporary culture in all of its oppressive insipidness. God help us!
Now I realize that many will just say, “Well, politics is downstream from culture, so what do you expect?” This is a fair, albeit unsatisfactory, answer but unfortunately it appears to be the one closest to the truth. We have indeed reached the point in our nation’s history that author Neil Postman had predicted back in 1985 in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death,
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
While we are all entitled to our own opinions about what we think are the most important issues in the upcoming election, I’m going to go out on a sequoia-sized limb here and wager that the talking points that make up the background noise of this election cycle, have nothing to do with upholding and protecting our nation’s “First Principles”: inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All three of these principles have either been corrupted or watered down to the point that our culture now sees them as obstacles to some vague notion of an ideal secular society. Meanwhile, the issues that will actually make or break our nation in the very near future, and possibly lead to a final de facto jettisoning of those three ideals, are largely being ignored.
What You won’t be Voting on this Election
In his science fiction novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams said:
“it is a well-known and much lamentable fact that those people who most want to rule are, ipso facto, those least suited to do the job…anyone who is capable of getting themselves elected president should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
In Adams’ satirical universe, the job of the galactic president was not to wield power but to draw attention away from the ones who were. In our own world, every time we see the two major candidates giving a speech, we are witnessing a similar kind of rhetorical sleight of hand. That whooshing sound you hear is not them bloviating about standard election year tropes that we have heard over and over again- tax cuts, job creation, income inequality, the Middle East, and of course the most inane one of them all, “climate change”. It is in fact the sound of our economy rushing at an ever faster rate towards a deep hole that has been known about, but ignored for many decades: the national debt (quickly approaching $20 trillion), servicing that debt, future unfunded entitlement payments, and now a student loan debt load that has finally graduated into the trillion dollar club.
This is not to say that the other issues are unimportant. Some are, and some are just talking points. However, they are all contingent upon the ability of the United States government to keep its political and economic motors running smoothly. This is not what has been happening though, as our nation has continued to go further into debt by buying and selling treasury bonds not just to pay its bills, but also to use as collateral to borrow against, to go even further into debt. Anyone who is in any way receiving government benefits has to know that they and everyone else like them are maintaining their current standard of living on credit, while leaving the bill to future taxpayers.
Mark Steyn details this problem in his book After America- Get Ready for Armageddon by saying that our nation’s problems are not:
“just about balancing the books, but about balancing the most basic impulses of society. These problems are not cyclical, but structural and ultimately moral…credit depends on trust, and trust presupposes responsibility. So if you have a credit boom in an age that has all but abolished personal responsibility, it’s not hard to figure out how its going to end.”
We were given a glimpse of this end in 2010 when the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, spoke before Congress, and said that the long range forecast for our nation was “unsustainable.” According to Elmendorf, by 2020 interest payments on the national debt alone will involve a larger portion of the Federal budget than military spending. Elmendorf however, said that he remained confident that the elected officials to whom he was speaking would handle the problem.
Our second warning came in January of 2013 in a report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), after witnessing a budget deficit in 2011 of $1.6 trillion (how does that happen?). Once again it was announced that “absent policy changes…the federal government continues to face an unsustainable path.” The GAO, for its part, was silent on whether it believed our elected officials would tackle this problem, and of course the warning faded into obscurity as most important news items are wont to do.
Let me assure you, there will be no third warning. The inevitable outcome of all this debt will come like the proverbial thief in the night. Again from After America, Steyn says,
“Under no likely scenario does America’s debt burden do anything but go up. Whether it is Cloud-Cuckoo Land or Planet Zongo ‘up’ is mere details. Nothing is certain but debt and taxes. And then more debt.”
This is why I said that all the other issues being bandied about by any of presidential candidates are basically just fodder for the masses; they all can either be voted up or down but only so long as there are sufficient funds, or at least a guarantee of sufficient funds, to implement them. However, as anyone who has ever been in debt will tell you, you cannot escape the laws of interest and sooner or later you must pay the piper. Or as Jonathan Swift so poignantly rhapsodized in his poem The Run Upon the Bankers,
“From his own hand [he] foresees his fall, they have his soul who have his bonds,’Tis like the writing on the wall.”
Make no mistake, the writing is on the wall and America’s scales are way out of balance.
But Do We Really Know All This?
I am certain that this is not the first time you have heard such dire warnings. Moreover, I am equally certain that you have heard economists such as Keynesian superstar Paul Krugman say that there is nothing to worry about, in fact all this debt is a actually a “Good” thing.
However, it is exactly that kind of mindset, deferring to big government policies, that caused this debt crisis in the first place. Since World War 2 the size, the scope, the might, and of course the spending power of the Federal government has done nothing but grow. As the government got bigger, the citizens got smaller as they relinquished more and still more of their money and liberty, so that, as Steyn again points outs from After America,
“In the space of one generation, we have gone from a nation of savers to the world’s largest debtors, and a nation of makers and doers to become a cheap service economy.”
What all this means is that this coming election is not really about who is going to be the next president of the United States. Again that is just a sleight of hand or a ventriloquist act being done to distract you from the real issue. So instead of worrying about who is the greater of two evils that must be defeated at all costs, try to look at this election as a chance for you to seriously reflect on how far you are willing to go down the path that your elected representatives are leading you. Especially when all parties concerned know how it ends. For despite what Krugman and other Statist-minded economists say, we do know how this tale ends. All we have to do is look across the Atlantic.
Daniel Hannan, a British politician, member of the European parliament, and author of the book The New Road to Serfdom- a Letter of Warning to America, speaks about the cracks that are appearing in the EU (as both an institution and an idea) as well as the political and economic maelstrom that individual European nations are undergoing. According to Hannan, the current upheaval is a direct result of those countries squandering the money they saved on military spending (by allowing the US to pick up the tab) on lavish social programs which they can no longer afford, because they couldn’t be bothered to have enough children to replace themselves. Meanwhile, those same social programs have attracted economic migrants disguising themselves as refugees, who are looking to make more money by living off of government benefits than they can by working in their home countries. These “refugees”, who have no experience or education in Western values, are clashing with the citizens of Europe—and it will only get worse. Furthermore, most of these countries are heavily in debt to one another and are looking for further bailouts, while having no intention of changing the policies or habits that got them in their current fix in the first place.
In a speech he gave at Hillsdale College in 2011, Hannan was quite vocal about how, despite knowing exactly what is causing the problems in Europe, he finds it utterly “bizarre that the bits of the European system you [Americans] are intent on copying, are the bits that have most obviously and spectacularly failed.” By this he means that when government policies fail, the first impulse is not to rethink the plan, but for the citizens to outsource more of their political agency to what in Europe are called Quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization), so they can collect even more taxes to redouble their efforts.
In the end he implores us not to go down the path our government is determined to follow, despite being able to plainly see the gaping pit at its end that Europe is toppling into. Instead he tells us to hold fast to,
“the Jeffersonian ideal, that decisions should be made as close to those to whom they affect. That’s what has served to keep the government small and the citizen big…because with every shift in power from the states to Washington, from the elected representative to the federal czar, from the citizen to the government it becomes less representative. As it becomes less representative, it becomes more prey to vested interests, to lobbying, to the big corporations on the Left and Right, who will stand in the way of the majority interests.”
While these “Jeffersonian ideals” have undergone a resurgence in popularity among many Americans since the beginning of this century, the tenor of our political and cultural zeitgeist will ensure that translating any of those ideals into actual policy changes is not going to happen any time soon. Not only are the two major party contenders, and at least two of the third-party candidates, generally ignoring our nation’s debt problems, they are content to consolidate their political power in the here and now by growing the national debt even further. Thus, once again through that sleight of hand that most people miss, the role of guarantor to all this debt is being contractually assigned to American citizens who are not even old enough (and in some case not yet born) to vote for the politicians who are locking them into this deal.
Concurrently, at the level of the voter, far too many are still content to play “double or nothing” and think that this time with just one more election, we can overcome the cultural, ideological, and spiritual ennui that has been hanging over our nation for well over a decade. However, its hard to enact any change when most of the eligible voters don’t bother showing up on election day to begin with. Moreover, most of those that do are the product of an educational system that has left them woefully ignorant of our nation’s civic institutions, past and present, not to mention a basic understanding of economics.
Where This Leaves Us Today
This article began with a light-hearted supposition: what if this whole presidential race is really just one big reality show? The sad truth is that in many ways it is. Too many Americans have relinquished their responsibilities as citizens and are content to be spectators in their own lives. One of the downsides to having instant access to news and information is that, as Postman warned about above, we’ve forgotten how to distinguish between news and entertainment. Life has essentially become one big show that all seems to blend together into a mind-numbing mess, so that when we encounter events in our lives that we don’t like, are hard to understand, or require us to make changes, we just change the channel.
Postman was right, our culture is dying from atrophy and apathy. So you can go on voting and voting and keep on voting to your heart’s content- hey knock yourself out! However, nothing substantial will come of it so long as our post-Christian, post-modern, and now post-truth culture keeps producing and electing the same kind of politicians that have gotten us in the mess we are in now.
We keep trying to find a political solution to fix what is ultimately a moral problem. Its not our country’s civic institutions that need to change, its our culture that does. It needs to be revivified and as Christians we are properly disposed to do this task, for as an ancient Christian work called the Epistle to Diognetus says, “what the soul is in the body, Christians are to the world.”
In part two of this article, I will flesh out this notion, and offer some practical advice for the upcoming election and the world that will come after it.