In modern Anglo democracies, no more than one national election in ten offers a choice between fundamentally contrasting policies. I have never been eligible to cast a vote in such an election.
The last US presidential election offered, as I complained at the time, a choice between “the moralistic imperialism of John McCain [and] the welfare-state-to-the world sentimentalism of Barack Obama.” In the event, Obama turned out not to want to give away as much of our national substance to foreigners as I feared. Moralistic imperialism-wise, he’s given the neocons a run for their money—I mean, you know, our money.
I voted for McCain anyway in 2008 as the lesser of two evils. Looking back, I doubt a McCain victory would have made as much difference as I then supposed. On big issues of national policy—war, energy, employment, immigration, multiculturalism, the public fisc—the two candidates of 2008 were essentially twins. The most that can be said for a McCain presidency is that we might have been spared homosexualist crusader Elena Kagan and affirmative action hire Sonia Sotomayor as Supreme Court justices. (Senator McCain voted “no” on both at nomination.) On Supremes, however, see below.
In 2004, the first presidential election I ever voted in (I only got citizenship in 2002), I was still clinging to the illusion that George W. Bush had a conservative bone in his body. John Kerry’s egregious awfulness fortified that illusion.
Previous to that, the only national election I had voted in was Britain’s of 1970, when the Conservative Party (which stood for bureaucratic managerialism) pulled off a surprise win over Labour (which stood for bureaucratic managerialism). I voted Labour. I forget why.
I thus missed both real-choice elections of the last 40 years, being ineligible to vote in Reagan v. Carter in 1980 and out of my country for Thatcher v. Callaghan in 1979. I was also out of my country in 2001, 1997, 1992, 1987, 1983, and 1974. Sure, you can register for a postal vote, but I have never cared enough about politics to do so.
Those occasional anomalous elections aside, modern Anglosphere politics has settled into a kind of one-party state. We are not offered choices, only faint nuances of policy.
Surveying the political developments of the last few decades in both my native and adopted countries, I find it hard to convince myself that politicians have been very relevant. The impression is of a great rolling juggernaut whose drivers have been able to exercise very little control; or of electorates wandering east to west, west to east, on the deck of a southbound ship.
Think of some big American national-policy questions of our time.
• Should abortion be unconstitutional?
• Why are we in NATO—an alliance created to deter Soviet imperialism—21 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist?
• Should “chain” immigration be restricted to spouses and dependent children?
• Should race preferences by public agencies be unconstitutional?
• With life expectancy today around 15 years above what it was when Social Security was introduced and seven or eight years higher than when Medicare came in, why have not eligibility ages for these entitlements been adjusted upward to correspond?
• If our massive nuclear arsenal was sufficient to deter the USSR, why would it not be sufficient to deter Iran?
• Why are there no secure fences along our nation’s land borders?
• Should welfare recipients be allowed to vote?
• Should public employees be allowed to unionize?
• Instead of a 3.4-million-word federal tax code, could not necessary revenue be raised by means any ordinary educated citizen can understand in their entirety?
• What purpose is served by the 52,000 US troops stationed in Germany, or the 35,000 in Japan, or the 28,000 in South Korea?
• Why does Congress never declare war, as Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides? Why do they never deny appellate jurisdiction to the Supreme Court, as Article III, Section 2 permits?
• What does the USA gain by permitting large-scale settlement of Muslims in our country?
• A shortage of skills in some occupation is signaled economically by a rapid, prolonged rise in wages for that occupation. Why, in the absence of such signals, are guest-worker visas issued?
• Should civil servants be hired strictly by merit as determined by competitive examinations?
You can likely add a few of your own, but that’s enough to make my point, which is: If any of those questions were to be posed to our two current major presidential candidates, how different would you expect their answers to be? How different would you expect policy to be on any of these questions as a result of the coming election going one way rather than another?
What is the actual difference between our two major parties on any of these issues?
There is, in fact, no politics in the USA. All significant political posts are held by either Democrats or Republicans, and on every issue likely to be thought important by the historians of 500 years hence, the two parties are of the same mind.
Supreme Court justices, you say? I spent a miserable couple of hours last week reading the transcript of the oral arguments before that court in Fisher v. University of Texas, down in the weeds with “compelling interest,” “critical mass,” and “holistic individualized consideration.”
Fisher is the third major appeal on affirmative action to come before the court this past forty years, counting Bakke (1978) as the first and Grutter (2003) as the second. Both the Burger court and the Rehnquist court did little but split fine metaphysical hairs on the issue, essentially allowing affirmative action—as plainly unconstitutional as a procedure can be—to continue under slightly tweaked rules of decorum. The Roberts court will undoubtedly do the same.
There is no politics. There is no choice. The mighty ship of national destiny steams steadily southward while we citizens wander across the deck, east to west, west to east, under the illusion of purpose.
I doubt I’ll bother to vote in November.
Image of American flag courtesy of Shutterstock
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