Perfidy is one of those interesting words that you do not see used often, but which has always intrigued me, as its sound to the ear matches its meaning. It means deceitfulness or untrustworthiness. Penury is another such word, and describes a condition of deep impoverishment and serves as a good descriptor of a profoundly enervated public dialogue. Recently, I have seen depravity, a strong word connoting moral corruption, appearing in print more frequently. On reflection, I am struck that together these words go far in capturing several central threads of our current politics. They represent clarion calls for new thinking and for a corrective course in our collective efforts to govern ourselves. In short, I wish here to raise a caution flag and to highlight some long-term disturbing trends in our culture and politics that I believe fall within the reach of the meanings of these words. The first notable development has been with us for decades and is now daily reinforced by a market logic driven by a desire for profitability on the part of firms supporting it. This has to do with the role of the media in our society and our individual and collective capacity to expose ourselves only to the views, news and ideas with which we are predisposed to agree. With the proliferation and canalization of radio, television, Web and print media outlets, progressives may, for example, watch CNBC and read The Nation while conservatives can have their perspectives reinforced daily by Fox News, a number of radio entertainment shows and The National Review. Those driving these media daily proselytize on the Web, via the airwaves and in print, not only sharing points-of-view, but more importantly, attracting viewers, readers or listeners to boost profits. Shrillness, anger and outrage sell. Sustained efforts to bridge differences among competing perspectives do not provide such salient dramatic tension, nor do they persuade voters not to change the channel or find another website.
The result is a mediated politics of breathless immediacy, frequently without depth or perspective, whose principal driving criterion increasingly is what will ensure a profitable rate of return for the parent corporation. Thus, Rush Limbaugh daily rails against imagined horrors of all sorts that are always the product of the current “evil” President and his political party and that play to the fears, anxieties and prejudices of his listeners. This orientation has yielded a handsome income for Limbaugh and strong profits for the firms sponsoring him. For similar reasons, CNN and other media outlets have provided Donald Trump large chunks of falsely intense free coverage (Has he arrived at the hall yet? What will he say next? How will his latest target react to his jeering? Tune in at 6!) because his outrageous behavior draws viewers, and those eyeballs ensure ads and profits. We increasingly have a “news” media that too often panders (thankfully not always) to consumer preferences and prejudices and does so with a nod and a wink to maximize its profitability. And far more often than not, the vision offered listeners and viewers is one of false alarm, unmerited anger and imagined decline, for which there is no logical endpoint. These claims are thereafter always addressed by a veritable army of pundits, commentators and politicians with simple, and just as often simple-minded, absolutist explanations—blame an “other” of whatever sort, and denigrate self-governance and equality as the signal “problems” our society now confronts.
In addition, our Supreme Court has declared that all who can afford to do so may essentially spend whatever they wish to further political campaigns and advocacy of their particular interests. As a result, as a nation we find ourselves, for example, awash in multi-million dollar corporate-sponsored efforts to persuade citizens that climate change is not occurring, because the business models and immense profitability of the firms backing them depend strongly on continued use of fossil fuels. These sorts of expenditures and initiatives have been accompanied by orchestrated efforts by billionaire libertarians designed to convince Americans to despise their governments and to adopt a negative view of the very notion of the commons as a necessary condition of self-governance. These wealthy individuals have created a wide array of “think tanks” and institutes, and they have supported candidates at all levels of government to press and appear to legitimate their views, which ultimately, they see as essential to protect their unfettered business interests.
Amidst these well-documented trends, a majority of lawmakers in Congress and state legislatures have worked for decades to privilege the wealthiest in society on the view that such individuals are the engines of economic growth. Interestingly, empirically, that policy choice has repeatedly failed, but it has nonetheless contributed strongly to the most unequal distribution of economic resources in the United States since the Gilded Age. A similar naïve adulation of the market has resulted for more than 40 years in claims that the country’s citizens must remake all social institutions in the market’s image, including governments and civil society entities. That has wrought Rube Goldberg policy implementation machinery, which is devilishly difficult to make work efficiently, effectively and equitably. In any case, today’s complex governance structures are opaque to the average citizen, who often has no idea of how public services are delivered or why they are so offered. That incapacity to fathom the complexities of what is happening in government is now yielding persistent frustration among voters who are increasingly willing to listen to demagogues and self-interested purveyors of the equivalent of snake oil concerning supposed alternatives to self-governance. Paradoxically, all of this has resulted from deliberate choices and claims by interested advocates and political leaders that there can be an “easy” alternative to democratic choice making.
Speaking of our lawmakers, they are less and less representative of average Americans and more and more the beneficiaries of primary elections that attract only the most zealous voters, whose beliefs and claims are typically far less moderate than those of the larger electorate. Once in office, congresspersons have worked assiduously, and for the most part successfully in recent decades, to gerrymander their districts to maximize their possibilities for reelection. The result too often is a politics of meanness and smallness, with elected officials more consumed by efforts to signal true believers and donors and to score points against the hated “others” who disagree—or “losers,” in Donald Trump’s phrase—than in seeking to serve the common good or public interest. What matters today in politics is zinging your perceived opponents in facile ways and gaining media attention as you do to galvanize your core supporters.
Coupled with this long-term trend of forgetting how to disagree civilly is a propensity most obvious in the GOP to adopt extreme and fantastical stands that play to citizen prejudices and fears and bear little relationship to the needs of the polity writ large or the demands of self-governance. Thus, we have nominal presidential candidates today calling for expelling all immigrants to the United States, for building walls along the nation’s borders for no clear purpose and demanding unending conflicts without a serious explanation of their necessity, except claims that “we” will get the “bad guys” thereby. We are witnessing similarly vacuous and not so subtle disparagements of entire swathes of our population, including women, Latinos and African Americans, all in the name of playing to the perceived anxieties and ignorance of disaffected, confused and fearful voters.
Put differently, we now are a polity whose political leaders more and more do not believe themselves beholden to those “other” voters who are not members of their electoral coalition, and in which many of these individuals openly declare that their intention is to undermine the very possibility of governance, despite their oaths of office to the contrary. Thousands daily cheer their stance. Led with depressing frequency by a vision of declension and emptied of deep concern for the polity as polity rather than as mobilizable factions, our politics has too often become a setting for the sterile and often puerile pursuit of power for its own sake. Our lawmakers commonly title new bills by names meant to disguise their true intent and just as often offer pseudo explanations designed to justify stands adopted for other reasons. That is, our politics is now very often perfidious. It is so because it can be, and because those pressing the interests so often driving it aim only to advocate their preferences to lawmakers too often guided by little more than simplistic ideology and a desire for power. These trends raise the specter of a nation characterized by a politics of moral corruption. We currently are witnessing tens of thousands of would-be voters supporting supposed leaders who daily malign major shares of the nation’s population as “less than” and who prey—often viciously—on the prejudice and lack of understanding of those they are charged with serving. History teaches that in this direction lies only depravity.
None of these trends is unchangeable, but all are deeply entrenched and all serve specific economic, political or social interests or concerns. The large question now confronting our people and regime is whether we will continue to countenance these directions or will begin to take steps to rein in the perfidy, impoverished rhetoric and growing depravity they represent, and find ways to discern common cause and act together to support human dignity and freedom.