Saturday, October 20, 2012

'92 debate vs. '12 debate

(This article is reposted from

If you want a flabbergasting blast from the past, check out the town-hall meeting between Perot, Bush 1.0, and W.J. Clinton from 1992 here.

This debate is frankly creepy, because it shows how much things have and haven't changed in the past two decade. The '92 debate contrasts with the more recent Romney/Obama town hall debate in style: Perot, Clinton, and Bush each speak slowly and calmly, with obvious courtesy, whereas Obama and Romney are obliged, via pundits and polls (and blogsters like yours truly), to strut and squawk like fighting cocks to show how 'strong' they are. Obama's 'lackluster' performance from the first '12 debate resembled the '92 candidates' deference and good manners. This is where we're at: civility is a sign of weakness.

On the other hand, the substantive issues discussed in the '92 debate are nearly identical to the substantive issues discussed this year: in both debates, every candidate jumps on the importance of creating jobs by enervating the economy; in both debates, every candidate preaches the praises of globalism (except Perot, who's basically my dad's version Ron Paul); in both debates, health care is an urgent issue which everyone's worried about and no one can address; in both debates, school reform (via free market principles) is widely vaunted.

There are a few differences. In '92, "gun control" connoted gang violence associated with inner-city drug trade; today, it connotes random shootings in the style of Columbine and Aurora. And the early nineties, American hubris in the wake of the Cold War was at its height, whereas today the War on Terror defines our military outlook.

Still, the overall shapes of the debates are disturbingly, creepily, weirdly similar. Despite a difference of twenty years (and the respective presence/absence of populist creeper Ross Perot), not much has changed in the American political landscape: Immigration policy is bemoaned, but remains substantially the same; a polite version of American-Exceptionalist rhetoric is brought to bear on virtually every subject, simultaneously mirroring and reinforcing Americans' sub-rational belief that we are not just one nation among many but in fact the nation, God's nation, the predestined leader of humankind; economic growth is presumed to be both vitally important and infinitely sustainable; China is cast as the perennial big-bully against whom we define our Western liberalism and from whom we defend our freedom and pocketbooks; government and corporations are forever bemoaned as too powerful, the ever-elusive People too controlled; business is said to have too much influence on government; government is said to be too inefficient, and needs to be run like a business; the environment is said to be important, but not as important as present economic concerns; health care is said to be vitally important, but (like immigration reform) nobody does anything about it. And  so on.

All of this suggest to yours truly that, as much as style has changed in the past two decades, substance hasn't. Whether the candidates politely say "You wanna field this question, Bill, or should I?" or shout each other down, they're still representing the same positions on the same subjects. Not to say that nothing has changed: queer rights, for example, have rocketed forward in my lifetime. And queer rights are important. But integrating an oppressed caste into the ruling mainstream (as has happened with LGBT people) is a whole different kettle of fish from changing or disassembling the ruling mainstream itself. In the twenty-first century, people come out of the closet in middle school; but the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the healthcare-industrial complex are all still solidly in place.

A lot has changed in the past twenty years, but not the essential form of power in America and the world.

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