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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

The Debate We Never Had

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It has become clear by now that the Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney, views American society as an aggregate of atomized individuals each seeking to maximize personal gain; these "makers" owe nothing to the rest of humanity and are the true engines of all that is righteous and good in the world. The other candidate, President Barack Obama, sees American society as a holistic set of interconnected relationships where we rise or fall together.

In this election we have a GOP nominee who fits perfectly every stereotype of the detached, uncaring billionaire; while we have a sitting Democratic president who has succeeded in defying being pigeonholed as a Kenyan Mau-Mau (no matter how hard the right-wing echo chamber tries), but nonetheless has been far too apologetic and obsequious to the billionaire class his opponent represents.

The base election strategy of the Romney-Ryan campaign has aimed all along to pump up the volume on the Kenyan Mau-Mau trope (with the help of Fox News and Dinesh D'Souza), play on the latent racism of American society through phony "workfare queen" ads, and take advantage of the pain and suffering caused by high unemployment. Meanwhile, Romney's political allies in swing states have pushed through all manner of attempts to suppress the Democratic vote. He also has been careful not to offer any concrete policy proposals (a la Nixon in '68), and he has told so many lies on so many issues he apparently believes the path to the White House is paved with bullshit. Surveying the world from Romney's lofty perch as an entitled rich man how could this plan fail?

Romney and Ryan, hermetically sealed in their Randian universe, seem oblivious to alternative views of American society. A more accurate understanding of social reality than their goofy "each-individual-is-a-island" notion is the one that sees all of us as being interconnected in a web of (voluntary and involuntary) associations and interactions without which we could not survive. Romney, Ryan and the entitled wealthy elite they represent, should be forced to recognize that every human-made commodity they consume or use has embedded within it social relations. Every time they turn on the tap or flush a toilet there's a vast social infrastructure that makes that possible; every time they drink a latte or gobble some sushi they're consuming the labor or hundreds of people, from the farm workers who plant and pick the vegetables, to the truckers who distribute them, to the servers who set the plate on the table. In the Romney-Ryan-Rand world these hard-working people are nothing but "takers" or "moochers" deserving no recognition for the jobs they do every workday that allow American society to function.

President Obama's worldview of shared commitment and sacrifice looks pretty damn good when compared with this dystopian Social Darwinism.

Unfortunately, only now, in the heat of a campaign, are we starting to have this debate about the nature of American society that has eluded us over the past four years. Amidst the most devastating economic collapse since the Great Depression, which exposed the extent of Washington's subservience to the interests of giant corporations and big banks, we saw little action that might bring added equilibrium to America's skewed class structure. Congress is addicted to Wall Street money like a heroin junky and even when the Democrats were in control offered only lukewarm "reforms" when a radical restructuring of the banking system was desperately needed. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner and the economist Larry Summers early on convinced President Obama not to turn up the heat on the big banks. The banks got bailed out and the people got sold out. We already missed the opportunity to have a debate on the disastrous financialization of the U.S. economy that has taken hold via the policy choices of our "leaders" over the past 20 years.

We have one political party that promises to give the giant corporations and big finance 100 percent of what they want, and another party that makes noises about supporting workers only to cave at pivotal moments. A Democratic president who refuses to stand with the working people in Wisconsin during their struggle against Governor Scott Walker's union busting, or in favor of the striking Chicago Teachers Union, reminds us that when the chips are down the rhetoric doesn't match the action.

The Wall Street toxic waste dump of 2008 revealed the level of corruption in Washington, which the 1 percent has bought and paid for. No politician close to the presidency has shown the guts to stand up to our modern day Trusts and force them to yield to the public interest. Neither Mr. Moneybags nor the President at this point can credibly promise that the nexus of corporate power and political power in Washington can be broken.

Where are the wealthy politicians who are willing to buck their class for the good of their country? We've had 'em before in our history and their absence today signals the biggest failure of the Baby Boom generation.

Tonight I'll be watching the Great Debate with its trivia-sodden commentary about "optics" and "atmospherics" and "zingers," awaiting substantive contrasts that most likely will never come. Both candidates will probably attempt to blur their policy differences in an effort to reach out to what's left of the "undecided," yet all-important, low-information voters in the swing states.

And when the dust settles after November 6th, barring a repeat of the possibly rigged elections in Florida or Ohio of 2000 and 2004, we'll return to the status quo ante where big finance and huge corporations continue to define what's possible in Washington. The most likely post-election scenario is the one that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and others have warned us about: A "grand bargain" that is neither "grand" nor a "bargain" where President Obama, under intense pressure to "get something done" (like Bill Clinton in his second term) and facing creative new Republican extortion tactics, will sign a GOP "debt relief" bill that institutionalizes austerity and beats down his base. But for now, let the show begin!

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