Thomas Paine, the celebrated pamphleteer of the American Revolution, never hesitated to speak truth to power, or what he called "Common Sense." He wrote in 1776 that "there is something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island."
Imagine the blunt-speaking Paine's response to today's political doings. "Absurdity" would have been inadequate to describe his reaction to the recent Iowa straw vote for Republican presidential hopefuls and the New York Times' anointment of Michele Bachmann as a "serious" candidate, one of the three top contenders. Bachmann placed first by less than two hundred votes over Ron Paul, who lends enhanced meaning to a "fringe" candidate. The Iowa voters were fed (and wined?) and the various candidates generally paid their registration fees to vote. Where are you George Carlin, now that we need you?
Despite Ron Paul's "strong" second-place finish, our great pundits have dismissed him, and Bachmann is a darling while he is a pariah. Perhaps Paul's 152-vote loss in something called the Iowa Straw Poll results in dismissal. Has someone decided that Paul is too far out there and that he is a crackpot who could never win a presidential election? Bachmann and Paul -- if there is a difference, it is one without a distinction.
From absurd we move to ridiculous, meaning from Iowa to South Carolina, a state now celebrating the 150th anniversary of secession with gala balls and other commemorations, to further define a more "representative" candidate. Appropriately, Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- who has spoken approvingly of secession as well as the few years that Texas had to "go it alone" before the South could secure its admission to the Union as another slave state -- announced his pursuit of the nomination in South Carolina. The "cradle" of secession will, along with Iowa and New Hampshire, the other early primary states, largely determine the nominee. Four decades ago, our primary season extended from March to June, from the biting cold of New Hampshire to the languid warmth of California, and with such truly representative states as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Oregon in between.
"Curiouser and curiouser and absurder, absurder," Alice's White Rabbit might have said. Something is drastically wrong with our presidential nominating system when a handful of religious zealots in Iowa, and the home of Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat/Republican Party, are to have such a decisive role. The underlying truth here is that the media, with its great editor in the sky, dictates the low of events.
Michele Bachmann is so obviously an off-the-wall politician, one deservedly dismissed as a fringe candidate, but ironically, the liberal media has propelled her rise from well-deserved mediocrity to a suddenly "serious" candidate. For the past several years, liberal commentators have mocked, berated, and scorned the Minnesota Congresswoman. But in so doing they only exalted her standing. Thank you, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and other pundits who bear a heavy burden for their mistake.
In anticipation of an Iowa victory for Bachmann, the media in lockstep pronounced her as "serious," meriting "serious" attention. Her views on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and religious fundamentalism have been widely aired, but where are the probing questions about her foreign policy qualifications, her self-proclaimed leadership of Minnesota "education reform," and her ideas, not her slogans, to reverse our economic stagnation? After all, she wants to be president of the United States, not to be chairlady of her church's sewing circle.
Paul Krugman's August 14 column, "The Texas Unmiracle," demolishes the myth of Rick Perry's prowess as a great job creator. Texas's unemployment rate stood at 8.2% in June 2011, below the national average, but more than New York and Massachusetts. One in four Texans is without health insurance -- the nation's worst record -- unlike Massachusetts where everyone is covered, with some thanks to Romneycare, the godfather of Obamacare. Texas's job growth is predicated on lower wages and less regulation than other parts of the country. And so, Krugman argues, if "Perrynomics" were applied throughout the nation, why then why move to Texas? Alas! Beyond the New York Times' op-ed pages, who will challenge Perry with such pointed, critical questions?
As the last votes were counted and the 2008 elections receded into the mists of history, the media promptly inaugurated the campaign of 2012. We are now deep into it and the media will dictate its course. But prospects for a critical media role are slim, except perhaps when some personal scandal erupts. Television and newspapers love labels; so former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is called a "serious" candidate, yet we have precious little of accompanying content to explain Huntsman's seriousness.
Our current economic woes nonetheless have promoted misguided austerity and contractions of the social safety net. Accordingly, much is made of the need for sacrifice and sharing burdens. Empty platitudes will not do. We need leaders who have the candor to equal Warren Buffet's assertion that "my friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress." Can the Republican Party continue to fool and manipulate its Tea Party adherents when Buffet convincingly portrayed the unfairness of a tax code that allows him and his friends to pay income taxes at a 15% rate, which is nearly half what "middle class" Americans fork over to the Internal Revenue Service? Tea Party folks are misguided in believing the IRS is their enemy, rather it is an effectively bribed Congress that allows the "coddling" of Buffett and his "friends."
There can be no sharing of burdens and sacrifices until we confront those best able to bear such burdens, and demand their fair contributions. We must go beyond the festering attraction of union-busting where we deprive public employees of collective bargaining rights and significantly increase their pension and health costs -- a tax by any other name, but not for most of us. So much for shared sacrifice.
Our chattering media folk do not hesitate to decide who or what is "serious." Perhaps they might begin with an intelligent discussion of our presidential wannabes; perhaps they might publicize and pursue Warren Buffet's courageous, honest call for meaningful tax reform. Then the media might abandon its role as enablers of a status quo that paralyzes our political life and stifles our economic development.
Thomas Paine still speaks to us today, not with clichés distorted from the American revolutionary tradition -- such as the current blather over taxation -- but with enduring truths about citizenship. The "sun never shined on a cause of greater worth," wrote Paine as he pressed Americans to take up the banner of revolution. That they did, and in July 1776 their leaders understood the "shared sacrifices" necessary to succeed. To that end, they willingly pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor." They would not hesitate to ask Warren Buffet and his friends to pledge a little of their fortunes for "a cause of greater worth."
Stanley Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate, and other writings.