About a week ago our air conditioner broke. It didn’t completely stop working, but it couldn’t make the house cooler than 81 degrees. This happened, of course, during an intense heat wave when outside temperatures soared into the mid and upper 90s for several days straight (and let’s not even talk about the heat index).
Our air conditioner was 23 years old, which is about 105 in human years. It was old. And our furnace was even older. So we decided it was foolish to spend hundreds of dollars to fix the AC when we could instead spend thousands to get a new AC and furnace combination, which is what we did.
It took almost a week, from the time we noticed we had a problem to the time a new system was installed, because when you’re about to spend thousands of dollars you feel obliged to get estimates from at least two companies. And that takes time. So for almost a week we were living in a house whose inside temperature hovered between 81 and 83 degrees.
The AC failed on July 23, right after the Republican National Convention and right before the Democratic National Convention. The Internet was abuzz with news and commentary about Trump and Hillary and Bernie – enough to add a few extra degrees to my perceived temperature in the house. And when Donald Trump did something batshit crazy (again) – like inviting Russia, a foreign and hostile country, to interfere in our election to his benefit – well, it got (psychologically) even hotter. And when I read comments on Facebook by people from the “Bernie or Bust” crowd saying they will vote for Jill Stein or sit out the election, it seemed to affect the temperature in the house even more. I developed a heat rash.
For a “mere” ten grand plus, we fixed the AC problem. Our new air conditioner is not only more efficient but better in other ways as well. When it comes to technology, we always seem to progress. When it comes to our politics, not so much. In fact, in recent years I’ve felt like, as we continue to make astounding progress technologically, in politics we are regressing. Which reminds me of a great cartoon about Republican devolution – it shows (from left to right) a tall and upright President Lincoln, a shorter and somewhat hunched-over conniving-looking President Nixon, and finally an ape-like Donald Trump.
In past election years we could argue about how big government should be or why some people need government assistance while others don’t or whether we should yet again cut taxes for the rich. In this election the question is, as Michael Bloomberg so succinctly put it in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, whether we want someone who is sane and competent. No kidding.
Whenever I get sick or I’m dealing with an aggravating problem that inconveniences me or makes me uncomfortable until it’s solved – say, some taken-for-granted appliance breaks down – I feel like I’m in a tunnel, and I can’t wait until I can see the light of day again. That’s how I felt during the week without air conditioning. During that long, warm, and humid week I felt increasingly lethargic and sodden.
And that’s how I’ve felt, come to think of it, for the last decade or two, as our broken political system has allowed the “political air” to get increasingly heavy with mindless vitriol – reaching its current nadir in the nomination of Donald Trump to be the presidential candidate of the Republican Party.
Even many Republicans are in shock. And some – those, say, who take very seriously our national security or our military or the treaties the United States has forged with long-standing allies – have publicly disavowed any support for Trump. Some have even come out in support of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. That is a big deal.
There has been endless opining and speculation about why Trump fans support him. And there are probably a number of reasons (none of them good). I have on occasion heard a Trump supporter say something like, “The whole system is corrupt. We need an outsider like Trump to shake it up.” That strikes me as the equivalent in the political arena of saying, “The air conditioner isn’t working properly. Let’s take an ax to it and see if that does the trick!”
There are, of course, experienced companies that repair air conditioners and can tell you if you should just get a new one – like the company that diagnosed ours and replaced it with a new and better one. Don’t you wish there were experienced companies that could repair dysfunctional political systems? They could just come in and take a look and diagnose the problem. Oh! You have a bad case of gerrymandering! So the voters aren’t choosing the candidates; the candidates are choosing the voters! Fix that up, and your system will be good as new!
But wait … we see another problem. Your system is encrusted with money! It’s clogging the gears! It’s in everything! It’s making the system unresponsive to the needs and desires of the people. All that money needs to be cleaned out. And, oh my goodness! Here’s another problem – Who put these undemocratic voter suppression laws in the system?? They’re preventing it from working properly! You might as well have put gum in the gears!
When I think about it, it seems that the problem isn’t that it will “cost” too much to fix our political system, to make it work well. The problem (well, at least one problem) is that many politicians don’t really want it to work well. They want it to work well for them, for their party. Voter suppression laws help the political system work well for the Republican Party, but not for our democracy. Money in politics helps those politicians on whom it is bestowed – or at least they think it does. And it certainly helps those who bestow it (great return on the dollar!). But it isn’t so good for everyone else. And because of the overwhelming sense it engenders that corporations and the rich can simply “buy” politicians and “friendly” laws, it isn’t so good for our democracy; it undermines trust and decreases participation by ordinary citizens. And gerrymandering – well, what can I say? Even those who do it would admit it’s anti-democratic. And it’s not just Republicans who do it. My own blue state of Maryland is highly gerrymandered.
When you have an appliance that works well, that hums along and does what it’s supposed to do, it’s easy to take it for granted – until it fails. Those of us who live in rich countries like the United States are a bit spoiled – I know I am. We take for granted our lovely air-conditioned houses and cars. We take for granted so many things that technology has given us.
And until relatively recently we took for granted our democracy as it hummed along reasonably well. But it’s pretty clear – and it couldn’t be clearer in this election – that there’s been a breakdown somewhere. Actually, it’s been breaking down for years.
I would argue that many politicians have made choices that seemed to benefit their party to the detriment of our political system and our democracy. It’s as if they purposely tinkered with some parts of the machine in ways that, in the short run, made it work better for them – but in just a little more time it became apparent that it really threw a wrench in the works. I suspect even the tinkerers have begun to see it.
Our political system is over 200 years old and it’s just barely creaking along. Maybe we should just scrap it and replace it with the latest model … Oh, wait. There isn’t any “latest model” political system.
I’ve heard some on the far left say we should simply dismantle what we now have and put in something radically different, but I’ve never heard them specify exactly what that would be. Communism was radically different; that didn’t work out so well. The Khmer Rouge dismantled the system in Cambodia and tried to “refashion” the Cambodian people; those who survived – i.e., those who were not among the 1.5 to 3 million killed in the process – can tell you that didn’t work out so well either. Various fascists in Europe were “radically different”; they didn’t work out so well either. To those who think Trump will work out well, I have a bridge to sell you.
I don’t really know what to say about all this. Perhaps just that it’s easier to fix or replace a broken air conditioner than a broken political system. Which is why it’s so important to take great care not to break it in the first place.
As I write this, shortly after the Democratic National Convention ended, the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is pretty tight. Clinton is starting to enjoy a “post-convention bounce”; perhaps she’ll open up a substantial lead. But given all the things Trump has done and said that have horrified so many Americans – both Democrats and Republicans – it amazes me (and so many others) that anyone would consider voting for him. There has never been a presidential candidate, from either party, who has so universally been declared unqualified and unfit to be president. It is astounding – and sobering – that he is doing as well as he is.
If Trump ends up winning the presidency, he could well destroy the country – our democracy, our stability, our economy, our foreign policy, our standing in the world. And I can’t even think about Trump having access to the “nuclear button.” Even the Trump supporters, those who think he’s in it for them, will, I suspect, be sorely surprised and disappointed – because all indications are that he’s really only in it for himself.
It’s as if he will take an ax to our country and give it a yuge whack – from which it may not recover. And we will be left to survey the rubble of what we once had. In truth, the wrecking-ball behavior started well before Trump – although, if elected, he may take the biggest whacks of all.
When our air conditioner was working properly, we took it for granted; we simply enjoyed the cool air. It wasn’t until it broke down that we realized how wonderful it had been. It’s like that with our country. But unlike our air conditioner, our country cannot just be replaced by a “newer model.”
To those who point out that our country isn’t so great – that we have many problems, which existed even before Trump came on the scene, with our political system, with our economic system, with the racism and sexism that are still part of our society – I would say this: It’s true that we have problems that need to be solved. And they are serious problems. But you may have no idea how much worse it can get if we allow someone like Trump to be our president and commander in chief. I hope we never have a chance to find out.
 See, for example: http://warontherocks.com/2016/03/open-letter-on-donald-trump-from-gop-national-security-leaders/ ; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/06/30/heres-the-growing-list-of-big-name-republicans-supporting-hillary-clinton/
 I, and many others, would argue that the “wrecking-ball” behavior has not been equally distributed between Democrats and Republicans. Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two well regarded congressional scholars, place the blame squarely on the Republican Party. See, for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/lets-just-say-it-the-republicans-are-the-problem/2012/04/27/gIQAxCVUlT_story.html