“Anyone But Mitt”

Democratic politics, in theory, is about people choosing leaders to guide the country.  But lately it has come to seem in the U.S. that the process has become vindictive and charged with hatred.  The question has become not “What do we want?” but “Whom do we despise and fear the most?”

This phase began with conservatives deciding that their most important goal was brining down President Obama.  That single-minded obsession has produced legislative gridlock and rendered Congress impotent to deal with the jobless Great Recession.  Democrats, in turn, seem to have been reduced to scoring points against their adversaries.  Several times this has led the country to the brink of fiscal crisis.

There are legitimate differences of opinion, of course, about the policies we need.  But that’s not what the discussions are about – now all the more apparent as the Republicans are competing with each other for the nomination.  A succession of candidates has arisen, each presenting himself (or herself) as an alternative to Mitt Romney, but each has crashed and burned as the new front-runner shows himself to be politically inept or morally compromised.  Liberal leaning commentators are amused and contemptuous, while conservatives are aghast and anxious – if not actively joining in the fray. (See, “Republican Leaders Still Seem Torn About Romney.”)

What is going on?  What are the underlying reasons for this polarization and frenzy?  Why have our politics come to look like war?

The reason is that it actually is a form of war.  The underlying issue, thinly disguised, is who will profit the most from the restructuring of our tax codes, entitlement programs, subsidies and regulatory policies.  The competing political and economic agendas offered by the candidates are not about finding the best policies to move the country forward into economic recovery, as they are presented as being, but about who stands to gain the most — and who can best disguise the real underlying conflict.  The problem with Romney is that he has shown himself to be all too willing to compromise and betray the conservative agenda.  They want someone they can trust.

In general, we deal with these issues naively, unconsciously — and “optimistically.”  We do not want to see the clash of self-interests that underlies the idealized “land of opportunity” we still think we are.  We have been reluctant to face the fact that the country is split between those whose wealth is growing, aided by government policies, and the increasing ranks of the poor, who face further cuts to our already frayed safety nets.

But the Occupy Movement has forced the wealth gap to the surface of our minds, and the 99 percent are looking around and beginning to stir.  The Republicans mock the movement’s lack of a political agenda, but it has succeeded in placing the issue squarely in the minds of the public, and the conservatives don’t have a strong way to deflect attention away from it or a compelling, charismatic leader to distract us.

But they keep hoping something better will come along.