American Politics: The Basics
Basically, all you need to know about American politics can be gleaned from this quote from John Ehrlichman, senior aide to Richard Nixon:
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war [in Vietnam] or black, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did.”
The trick to creating an effective government, one that “works,” is to manipulate people’s passions. What can’t be done directly or visibly, e.g., making it illegal to oppose a war or to be a minority, can be done indirectly or invisibly, thereby allowing the government to operate efficiently, effectively.
There is no need to use what has been called “the bully pulpit;” in fact, secretly instructing people is far more effective. Visionary leadership may be what a lot of people claim they want, but secretly, covertly manipulating popular passions is far more effective. In this way, as Ehrlichman says, it is possible to vilify on a daily basis those who are opposed to the government’s policies. Those opposed to the government’s wars can be demonized as druggies, “hippies,” while minorities will become in the public’s mind “super predators” ala’ Hillary Clinton or “gang bangers in a hoodie” ala’ Joe Biden.
And basically, American politics, American political discourse, such as it is, revolves around manipulating popular passions. Which popular passions? Well, as Ehrlichman’s assertion illustrates, the passions being manipulated are those that lead to vilification and that justify government repression. Nixon, et. al., labeled this “law and order,” which is quite interesting insofar as he and his administration were the ones engaging in criminal behavior. But Nixon’s success also illustrates just how effective manipulating popular passions can be. “Law and order” is still embraced by most Americans unthinkingly. For who would or could be against “law and order?”
As a result, an underlying consensus anchors American politics, gives our politics a definitive trajectory, and limits our political debates within very narrow confines. Those who challenge this consensus are marginalized or, as it appears to many, marginalize themselves. They are not to be taken seriously and if the people begin to rally to them, they must be made to disappear, banished, much as Socrates banished the poets near the end of the Republic.
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