Madison, Wis., was in lockdown mode last night, a day before the visit by the president of the United States. It is Obama’s last stop before Election Day. It just so happened that he and I were in town on the same day to speak to students, faculty, and residents.
My host, Young Americans for Liberty organizer Joseph Diedrich, and I were leaving the restaurant above the Museum of Contemporary Art and walking to a cigar bar on the other side of the Capitol building to meet other student and faculty for late-evening conversation.
We had to go the long way because of all the barricades and equipment.
Crowds were milling about everywhere, and some people were sitting on risers listening to someone giving them instructions on a bullhorn. They sat there all fresh-faced and eager — anticipating the great moment when Il Duce would pay them a visit. I asked someone who these people were.
“What are they volunteering for?”
“To help with tomorrow’s event.”
“And they do this because… they love Obama?”
The guy nodded but detected skepticism in my voice. His face darkened into a scowl. I could imagine these words going through his head: If you see something, say something.
It was time for me and Joseph to get going. We walked on rather hurriedly, and every third or fourth step I turned back to look at the guy. His eyes were following us very carefully, and I kept looking to see if he would whip out his cellphone and call some official thugs to give us the “what for.” He didn’t, but the escape seemed uncomfortably narrow.
Who were all these people? They could have been home surfing the Web, playing with kids, reading a book, watching television. But no. They are dedicating their time to re electing Obama. Why? My own theory comes from a book by Chris Hedges called War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. His thesis is summed up in the title. But his thesis can be broadened.
Politics is the force that gives life meaning. It is what people do in order to convince themselves that they are making a difference in the world, that their lives are not petty and useless, but big and important. It is an illusion. They are dupes of a process. But they do it anyway because they want to affirm their own significance in the course of human events.
Sadly, political activism typically requires brains to be in the off position. And I’m not just picking on these nice people. You would find the same at a Romney rally — though my sense is that his backers are not quite as devoted.
This doesn’t make these people bad. The guy who shot me and my friend the evil eye is probably a nice fellow otherwise. Had he been serving drinks at the local bar, we would have been on great terms. It’s the venue that extracts the suspicion and hate. Politics turn nice guys into thugs.
It’s a microcosm of what democracy does to the whole of society. And where is the payoff? For most people, there is none. What is truly at stake is much smaller than what people believe.
For months on end, I’ve heard people tell me what Romney or Obama is likely to do if elected, and, therefore, why, in the scheme of things, it would be better if one or the other were elected.
And how do people know what either is going to do once in office? Their suppositions are based on an assembly of passing data: what they have said on the campaign trail, their intellectual and personal backgrounds, what the party platform says, who their biggest financial backers are, what kind of people are voting for them, and so on.
But here’s the truth: No one knows for sure what a newly elected politician will do. Intellectual or professional background counts for little when a person is suddenly flush with power, slammed with daily duties, bound by institutional expectations, surrounded by people who know far more about nearly everything related to the affairs of state, and overwhelmed by suddenly being the chief executive of history’s largest and most astonishing complex power apparatus.
The same is true about what was said on the campaign trail. By the time they are sworn in, it’s all ancient history, just data points in the process that got them where they want to be.
Party platforms? Those are as binding as yesterday’s editorial page of the local newspaper. Platforms are pressure valves for chumps, worthless documents that provide a means to convince the party regulars that it really does matter what the workers and peasants in the party believe, even though it doesn’t matter at all, since they’ve already performed the essential service of giving money, making calls, passing out leaflets, and holding approved signs at the conventions.
Financial backers might be the best predictor of future actions of presidents, but even here, the guidance is vague. It’s not even entirely clear to what extent the person of the president himself really possesses the control that American political culture assumes he has. People complain about how politicians betray the people every single time. But what if betrayal is inevitable and all the promises and claims are nothing more than propaganda just to get one gang into power instead of another?
People like to assume that we are voting on issues. The media hector politicians to “stick to the issues.” We are supposed to do our civic duty and bone up on the “issues.” But when you get to the voting booth, there are no issues on the ballot on the federal level. There are only people’s names. That’s what we are voting for: person x or person y. All the rest is guesswork based on fleeting, gassy words in the air. All the talk about issues only distracts from this devastating reality that no one has a clue what this or that elected official is going to do in reality.
And consider the claim that candidate x would be better than candidate y for a variety of reasons. This is non verifiable. You can’t run an experiment. It’s not like the natural sciences. A person who said the following would be considered a lunatic: “Let’s try four years with Obama and then try the same four years with Romney and see which turns out best.”
Yet that’s precisely what we would have to do in order to make any truly valid claims about who would be better. Nor can we tell after the fact that the person who lost the election would have been better or worse.
All we really know is that every president makes a terrible mess. Even the few that do something good or do as little as possible leave a terrible mess in their wake. That’s been true… well… pretty much without exception since the beginning. The ones who make the smallest messes you never hear of, while the ones who make the biggest messes make the history books and, if they are lucky, get their picture put on some paper money.
All of this extremely strange stuff in an election makes for a dramatic contrast with the free market. If you want shoes, you can buy shoes. If the shoes don’t fit, you can take them back. The company that makes the best shoes at the best prices tends to advance itself in the marketplace, and those who do not tend to fall back. At any time, the buying or the abstention from buying determines the outcome, and there is a direct link between what is produced and what is consumed. It’s simplicity itself.
In the marketplace, we are voting every day — without the national psychodrama, divisive frenzy, and astonishing expense, not to mention the lies, graft, and betrayals. Thus do I renew my call for us all to rally around those who truly do serve us and try our best not to get sucked into a racket in which you will certainly be betrayed.
The topic of my speech tonight is the history of ownership and commerce. It is a magnificent history full of drama and meaning. In this way, it is far more rewarding than politics.
Spy Briefing Books has published some extremely important books this year — all of them valuable in their own way. But the book that today stands out to me as having massive explanatory power is Beyond Democracy. This is a book that can liberate your mind. It can keep you out of the slaughterhouse.