Challenging the Washington Consensus

Political wisdom always has a sharp, cynical edge. You can’t utter it without feeling the throb of ancient wounds.

For instance: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

Emma Goldman’s observation nestled into my subconscious decades ago, and each presidential go-around aggravates it with new intensity. The Washington consensus never changes. The mainstream media shills never cease their efforts to bully all seriousness — all reality — out of the process. And money and militarism silently, invisibly rule, no matter who wins.

The alleged result of this is an entrenched public complacency, as Americans settle for techno-consumerism as a substitute for participation in real, political life and a voice in who we are as a nation. Beyond our shores . . . whatever. Empires will be empires. What can you do?

I don’t really believe this, but election campaigns bring out this despair in me — or, at any rate, they used to.

“Donald Trump is throwing the GOP primary into chaos by channeling the GOP’s id, spinning out wild fantasies of the Mexican government deliberately sending a flood of rapists and murderers across the border,” PaulRosenberg wrote back in July at Salon. “But Bernie Sanders is disrupting Hillary Clinton’s coronation on the Democratic side by channeling the party’s soul, with a specifically issue-based focus.”

Could it be?

At the very least, something unexpected and against the wishes of the Washington consensus is happening in both major parties here in 2015, as the absurdly lengthy presidential election season begins to shake and rattle. At this early phase, it’s difficult to assess the extent and significance of the change. Trump is beyond the edge of weird, as he lights up the Republican base with code-free racist diatribes and a political agenda he seems to be making up as he goes along.

But what about Sanders? And I don’t mean, is he “electable”? I’m willing to suspend my doubt in that regard, but I have yet to fully embrace him politically. Does he simply look good because the Democratic Party has fled so far to the right over the last three decades?

There was a moment in last week’s Democratic presidential debate that exemplified all of the above for me: the mainstream media’s determination to continue shaping and defining the American political consensus and the still-marginalized but emerging counterpoint to the militarism of that consensus.

At one point, CNN’s Anderson Cooper tried to nail Sanders with a “tough” question, bringing up the fact that the Vermont socialist had applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. “What would you say to a young soldier in Afghanistan about this?” Cooper asked, his question quietly loaded with implication.

Here’s a young soldier in Afghanistan, risking his life to defend America’s freedom! And here’s a presidential candidate who not only didn’t serve in his generation’s war back in the ’60s, but actually had the temerity to apply for I’m-against-war-in-general status, which politically speaking has the feel of a mortal sin.

Fascinatingly, this was the only time Cooper — or anyone else on the stage, except the seriously marginalized Lincoln Chafee — mentioned any of America’s failed-but-ongoing wars in the Middle East. The moment was a glaring demonstration of how the media shape public consensus: not by overt propaganda but, far more effectively, by silent implication. An imaginary GI is trotted out in his battle gear to stand briefly in judgment of the CO applicant who, 50 years ago, wanted only to avoid risking his life in service to his country. Shame, shame.

I repeat: The wars themselves were never discussed, because that would have been  . . . well, awkward.

Sanders could have stepped directly into the question and talked about the courage and moral clarity it takes to declare oneself a conscientious objector. He could have discussed the cost and pointlessness of our current wars, including the bombing, barely a week earlier, of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. He could have embraced the very GI Cooper had summoned in moral judgment, addressing PTSD and the dismal inadequacy of vets’ health care — in the process disrupting and exposing the game Cooper was trying to play.

Instead, Sanders settled for pointing out that, while he had been against the Vietnam War, “I’m not a pacifist.” He added: “I supported the war in Afghanistan. War should be the last resort, (but) I am prepared to take this country to war if necessary.”

OK, fine. The moment passed and (almost) disappeared. The debate went on. And while I was disappointed in Sanders’ answer, I was fascinated that the issue had come up at all. Conscientious objection to war has a consensus-threatening volatility even at this marginal level of acknowledgement.

And the presidential campaign is still in its early stages. And Sanders, to his immense credit, is refusing to run as a candidate beholden to big money. And, as a blogger named Karim pointed out at the website SecularNirvana: “An incredibly large portion of Bernie’s supporters aren’t just voters, they have become activists.”

Being not just a voter but an activist is the antidote for Emma Goldman’s observation. This is how to change the world.

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