The Misguided Power of the Disenfranchised

The Misguided Power of the Disenfranchised

by @flakyfoont

There’s an old story that in 1930s America, even the poorest home was apt to have two portraits hanging on the wall: one of Jesus, and one of FDR.

How was it that an elite scion of a political icon more known for his imperialism and manliness somehow became the champion of common folk? How was he popular with everyone from the corner grocer to the schoolteacher to the migrant in the field?

In Peter Bogdanovich’s classic movie Paper Moon, Moses Pray kids Addie Loggins about her love for Roosevelt (whom she calls Frank): “Then why don’t you go write another love note to Saint Roosevelt?”

My father told me that when he was a kid, everybody he knew thought FDR had always been president. You heard him in his fireside chats, saw him on the newsreels, took comfort in his words and leadership. During the worst time in many American lives, FDR was something they could count on. And they voted for him again and again.

Despite a wealthy childhood of tutors and prep school, despite an Ivy League education and a patrician accent, despite a physical handicap that, while hidden, was commonly known (and even admired), this man managed to harness the goodwill and loyalty of the bulk of Americans, fending off a credible opposition from formidable Republican opponents in four successive elections. He was the People’s President. His NRA policies may not have worked, and his approach may have been overly regal, but FDR was considered by most Americans to be a fighter for the common interests of farmers and factory workers, housewives and prostitutes, the black poor and the white poor. Because of this, FDR had a lock on the disenfranchised vote.

So what the hell happened? How did Trump, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst and Loren Boebert become the representatives of this demographic, especially considering that their policies and voting record run directly counter to the people they purport to represent? How was the fact that they were financed by a group of elite billionaires who are fine leaving the bulk of America to outside the gates of their castles overlooked by the voters?

From what I can tell, the disenfranchised voters fell hook, line and sinker for the simple political tactic employed by every successful propagandist since Marcus Aurelius: get the crowd riled up about how badly they have it, point a finger of blame and tell them you can fix it. Repeat this message in various flavors ad infinitum.

Words have tremendous power and will frame how you think about things, especially if you’re not overly prone to thinking. Freedom Fighter. Insurgent. Terrorist. Patriot. Revolutionary. These can all be applied to the same 17-year-old Syrian with an AK-47. Which one fits? It depends whom you believe.

Studies show that a poor diet combined with stress and physical exhaustion will impair thinking ability. Add alcohol, a cozy chair and a loud TV and maybe Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity start to make sense. God knows they are loud enough.

These well-funded propaganda campaigns tell Americans it’s bad to have free healthcare, that college should be expensive and that the government is responsible for the problems mask the real efforts of the corporate oligarchy to transfer private money from the middle class into their own pockets. Public servants have enacted laws to make sure nobody is punished for this blatant robbery and have defanged the regulatory agencies that used to forbid drug manufacturers from, say, raising the price of medicine by 4000% just for the hell of it. They want to bankrupt public education, impoverish universities and silence the intellectuals. They seek to discredit anyone who points out the glaring obvious disparity between what is said and what is done, destroy anyone who calls these obscenely greedy liars out on their egregious actions. They get away with more and more every day.

It’s time to stop that. It’s time to change it.

Bernie Sanders was often the lone voice of dissent in this chorus of corporate servants. I remember him as the funny old guy with the thick Vermont accent setting up charts and addressing the empty chambers with illustrated presentations of fact. He called bullshit on policy more often than Jon Stewart, and he did it on the floors of both House and Senate. He did it for years. He said in 2003 that the Iraq invasion was a bad idea, a sham designed to enrich a certain few. He pointed out the connection between Cheney and the no-bid logistics contracts awarded to Halliburton and KBR. He pointed out the fact that returning veterans were being screwed, that the very promises that got them to sign up for the military in the first place were being routinely broken. If you troll the C-SPAN archive you will find hundreds of hours of Bernie speaking to the cameras in a largely empty room.

His message is always the same:

THIS IS AMERICA. THESE GUYS ARE SCREWING YOU. THEY ARE LIARS. HERE IS THE PROOF. YOU ARE ALLOWING THIS TO HAPPEN. YOU ARE ENCOURAGING IT TO HAPPEN.

Bernie Sanders told the truth. He told it again and again. He pointed out what was happening. He never asked why. He knew why. Americans found it easier to believe lies than to face the intimidating notion of change. It was easier to have a simple answer, especially if you didn’t have to do anything about it. Meanwhile, their money evaporated, their jobs disappeared, their health care and education costs went up a couple hundred percent and a very very few people got very very rich.

Truth has a way of getting stronger over time because it is often fairly simple. Lies will unravel, often because the liars try to cover inconsistencies and contradictions with layers of complexity. It’s pretty easy to tell them apart. Truth is simple. Lies are complicated.

But bullshit is a different matter. Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University wrote about a bullshitter in his brilliant treatise On Bullshit

“His interest in telling the truth or in lying
presupposes that there is a difference between getting things
wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally
possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in
the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others
as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both
from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This
would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever
about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making
assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that
cannot be anything except bullshit.”

His thesis is that bullshit is indifferent to truth or falsity, that it mixes whatever proportion of the two to achieve its aim of creating a specific opinion or impression in its audience. The idea that Obama’s presidency hasn’t done a hell of a lot for the middle class is harnessed to show that the problem is that the government isn’t working. The idea that Iraq and the rest of the Middle East have fallen into violent chaos is depicted to show a military failure by the US. The answer given, further inquiry is not only superfluous — it’s insulting (and unpatriotic). Easy answers for an exhausted, malnourished and angry populace.

The thing about lies is this: once you know you’ve been lied to, it’s very hard to believe anything the liar says again. Trump, who obviously has never been to the border states, wants to build a “nice wall with a big door.” Rand Paul wants to eliminated any agency that regulates government. These things are bullshit. They don’t hold up to even the most cursory examination. For example, when congressmen talk of repealing the Affordable Care Act, the question of what happens to the 27 million Americans (myself included) who find themselves without insurance is never addressed. When Trump talks about deporting 11 million illegals, the obvious questions of how this would be achieved are never broached (though I imagine Trump-uniformed storm troopers with golden Sam Browne belts and body armor smashing in doors Elian Gonzales-style and shoving crowds into cattle cars that will cart them to Nogales and other border towns where they will wait forever behind barbed wire in the giant refugee camps that dwarf anything ever seen on Earth).

I admire Bernie Sanders. I like his Mr. Smith-rolls-up-his-sleeves 1970s style of gettin’ shit done. I like that his message is simple and consistent.

THEY ARE SCREWING YOU AND YOU ARE HELPING THEM DO IT.

If Mr. Sanders can, by repetition of this simple idea, make an impression on this highly conditioned Fox News audience, if he can steer them away from believing the proliferation of lies and bullshit shouted at them from the corporate-owned media outlets, if he can get them to harness their tremendous power to change the political process and vote in their own interests — if he can even make a start at this, then maybe we have a chance to turn this all around.

This is a democracy, after all. At least for the moment.

And I have some room on my wall, right next to the picture of Jesus.