“What kind of government have you given us?”— Unknown Colonial matron
“A Republic, Ma’am, if you can keep it.”—Ben Franklin
November is a good month. The weather is cold and crisp; yet winter’s severity has not yet set in. Toward month’s end comes Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, and a uniquely American celebration
of inter-tribal peace and plenty.
But this November will be different. Weather.com predicts just one night of brief frost (a bare 32℉) before the election, even in formerly frigid Akron, Ohio, where I used to live. Near Santa Fe, where I live now, no frost at all is foretold through the election, despite the high altitude.
For near Santa Fe, the last two days don’t show any predictions at all. They just show historical highs and lows. Apparently not even modern computers can reliably predict the weather ten days out any more. It’s just like the coming election: up for grabs.
And so we come to the big reason why November is different this year. We’re going to get an answer to Ben Franklin’s challenge. We’re going to find out whether billionaires can turn our failing democracy into a South American oligarchy by getting ordinary people to vote against their own interests—or by keeping them from voting at all.
Is it just coincidence that this critical midterm election comes exactly three decades after we thought 1984 had passed without incident? When prophecies don’t come true precisely on time, should we ignore them?
Ironies abound. Orwell foretold
a world of three great warring blocs: China, Russia, and a collection of so-called “democracies,” including England, most of Europe, and North America. There’s no hot
war yet, but isn’t his dark vision on the way to becoming reality?
Orwell also foretold a society of surveillance, without privacy or hope of effective individual action. Edward Snowden tried to warn us
. Now he’s a political refugee stranded in Moscow.
Think about that. An American
political refugee. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But it’s true.
Orwell was wrong on detail. The motive for extraordinary surveillance is not the three-bloc conflict, as he foretold. It’s terrorism. It’s also business, which wants to know everything about us so it can sell us things we don’t think we want. But the level of detailed surveillance of our everyday, private lives, both by business and the NSA, would have been unimaginable in Orwell’s day.
A second irony is our “democracy.” We Yanks style ourselves the paragon of democracy and “freedom.” Yet this November’s election is all about getting ordinary people not
One method is voter suppression, which our own Supreme Court recently upheld in Texas—the epicenter of American bossism
. It upheld new rules making it harder for poor people to vote, especially African-Americans and Hispanics.
Ben Franklin, of course, would understand the ploy. In his time only white male property owners could vote. Nearly all African-Americans then were slaves. Our Constitution counted them, officially, as three-fifths of human beings, and then only to determine how many elected representatives white male property owners could have.
But Ben Franklin was a very smart guy—a Renaissance man. Together with Tom Jefferson, he was the only Founder who understood science. He even made significant contributions to science.
Once you explained to Ben that, in theory, every
adult can vote today, he would be sad. He would understand how our promise of universal suffrage is being whittled away. He would know, deep down, the risk of losing our Republic.
Our second method of voter suppression would astound Ben even more: attack ads. You would have to explain to him, maybe more than once, how personal attacks on candidates keep people from the polls by making them cynical and dubious. You would have to let him see for himself how many attack ads are designed precisely for that purpose: to make all pols look like scoundrels unworthy of a vote. You could astonish Ben by noting that, in many key states and districts, 30% or so of the electorate will decide this coming election, simply because the rest don’t bother to vote
Ben Franklin would be puzzled at first. But he was a quick study. After some reflection, he would be sad, very sad. What, he would ask himself, did we Founders do so wrong that our promising Republic could last barely more than two and a third centuries? Surely he would see it slipping away, with this election a big milestone of slippage.
The last great irony has to do with race. Having been a good man, Ben would be pleased that the descendants of slaves are now free—and can vote freely. He would marvel at their numbers in political office, including the presidency. But their voting, too, would dismay and trouble him.
With only thirty percent of the majority
voting, Ben would wonder out loud why the so-called “blacks” didn’t organize, vote as one, and take this election away from the billionaires. He would be filled with hope and anticipation.
Then you would have to explain to Ben some hard facts of life. You would have to tell him that the President, while racially similar, is no descendant of slaves. You would have to inform him that Obama’s paternal, African grandfather was a minor tribal chieftain, and that his ancestors were free men and women, on both sides, as far back as anyone can reckon. You would have to describe to Ben how many native
African-Americans are starting to lose hope, just as they reach the final lap in their four-century struggle for freedom on this Continent.
There’s one final thing you would have to explain to Ben, and it may be the most important. You would have to explain the ubiquity and power of modern media, especially television. You would have to get Ben to understand how some homes play Fox for most the family’s waking hours every day.
Then you would have to explain to Ben how Fox is the greatest, subtlest and most powerful machine of propaganda in human history. You would have to show Ben how much more powerful it is than the similar but less sophisticated machines of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. (You would also have to recount for Ben who Hitler, Stalin and Mao were.)
After doing all that, you would have to retell how our Supreme Court, equating money with speech and abstract corporate entities with citizens, allows rich and powerful folk to turn all our twenty-four hour media into machines of propaganda with political attack ads. You would have to show Ben how those ads, financed by billionaires and created by hired media geniuses, cheapen politics, exaggerate good pols’ human failings, and make ordinary people turn away from using their vote to protect their own economic interests.
On hearing all this, Ben would grow pensive and troubled. “Should we have drafted the First Amendment so broadly?” he would ask himself. “Should we have included an escape clause?”
Then Ben would look for excuses. “How could we Founders have anticipated a society of universal suffrage in which ordinary people were so disadvantaged by income, wealth, education and the legacy of slavery? Can the structure of the Republic that we built in a much more innocent time withstand the raw power of these destructive forces?”
Ben would have a lot to think about. And so do we. As we await the results of what may be the most critical midterm election in our history, what we should really be expecting is an answer to Ben’s challenge. Can we Yanks somehow keep our Republic?
Our much-maligned government
once gave workers the right to bargain collectively, creating
the strongest, most equal and most cohesive society the world has ever known. It also beat Nazi Fascism, Japanese Imperialism, yellow fever, polio, smallpox and AIDS. It developed nuclear power and nuclear weapons, put men on the Moon, and started the Internet and gave it to commerce. Today it’s fighting Ebola here and abroad. If the rich and powerful can convince ordinary folk that this
government is an evil, stupid bumbler and an enemy of “freedom”—just so they can pay lower taxes, avoid regulation and get richer—we will have lost our Republic.
If loud paid-for voices can convince millions of voters that the law that brought 7.3 million into our health-care system, that forced health insurers to cover pre-existing conditions and eliminate caps on coverage was a mistake, we will have lost our Republic. If propagandists can convince those who bother to vote that a good President, and not the selfish rich, is the source of all their troubles, we will have lost our Republic. Most of all, if the rich and powerful can sway this absolutely critical midterm election by getting one-third or less of elegible voters to decide it, we will have lost our Republic.
The answer to Ben’s challenge, like the future of our society, is blowing in the anomalously warm fall wind.