I’m voting for change. But I’m playing the long game.
Short term issues can be important — petty overseas wars tend to freeze progress at home and tax policies can feed growth or failure — but I am keeping one eye further down the road. I believe the fundamental issue facing the United States is economic inequality. It controls everything else.
You know the numbers. Over the last three decades wage inequality in the United States increased substantially. CEOs in 1965 made 24x more than the average worker, whereas in 2009 they made 185. Some 21 percent of American children live in poverty. Households in the top 10 percent own 90 percent of the stock market. We are two different nations.
This is a long-term trend, untethered to Republicans or Democrats. It exists independent of Roe or trans rights, and while you can tease out racial and other factors (blacks remain the poorest of the poor, women fare worse economically than men) those are distractions, misdirection a magician uses so you’re looking the wrong way when he hides the card. The real action is the accumulation of more capital by increasingly fewer people, who acquire it from those below them. Stock ownership was at its peak in 2002 when 67 percent of Americans owned equities. The 2008 Great Recession reset that to where the typical household now owns essentially zero assets. Many who once owned now rent from those above them.
Until slavery ended human beings were considered capital resources, just like stock today. Now we’re “human resources” so everything’s better. Bringing up race hides the real story of how long this has been going on and how deeply it is a part of our way of life. The line between controlling someone with a whip and controlling someone through debt, dependence on government handouts (cough, COVID), and ever-lower wages gets finer and finer over time. The perks are still better on one side of the line than the other but the fundamentals continue to narrow the gap.
We are on the threshold of a fully disengaged sub-society, one so rich it has its own schools and airplanes, lives hundreds of feet above us in apartment towers built like castles for defense, has its own health care system and private security, and its own tailored political and tax structure to allow it to hold onto the money. It has the ability to abandon the rest of us for self-sustaining yachts and private islands when something like COVID arrives suddenly. Maybe they didn’t intend for us to become subjects of mass medical experiments to save them, it just worked out that way.
Absent a few hobbyist-celebrities and so-called philanthropists who emerge like cicadas to scold us, or offer solutions they profit from emotionally if not financially, what happens to roughly 90 percent of Americans is irrelevant to the other 10 percent. The ratio is headed toward 99.9 and .01 percent. That is not a democracy or even a good way to run a fantasy sports league. It is an apartheid of dollars.
The only mainstream modern-times candidate to emerge since perhaps Henry Wallace who understands this would have made a poor president. I voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016, and would have liked the chance to do so again; his being crudely swiped left offstage twice by the Democratic party is as much proof as anyone needs to see how none of what is happening to our country is by accident. It is as scripted as a soap opera.
Bernie might have beaten Donald Trump in 2016, and gone on to fail nearly completely. Bernie has spent his entire career being a pain in everyone’s political buttocks, the guy when everyone is tired and just wants to vote and go home and the chairperson says “So if we’re all in agreement…” stands up to play devil’s advocate. Bernie had no mechanism to enact much of anything beyond some showpiece legislation along the likes of Obamacare, looks good on paper, does little in reality. Sanders would have been overwhelmed by foreign events, crushed in his midterms, left bitter at the end of his single term. He would have been an imperfect, maybe terrible, president, but a necessary step, same as those awful nights that lead to redemption in detox.
Instead the desire for change bubbled to the surface with Donald Trump. A privateer who knew how to tell injured people who to blame. You choose, it doesn’t matter because it is all symptoms not disease. Mexicans, blacks, liberals, the Chinese, whatever. It wasn’t your fault, and I see you. Trump is the ultimate politician, zero ideas and 100 percent commercialization of people’s rage. He is selling Anger instead of Hope, but selling selling selling a myth nonetheless. Talk about being the right guy in the right place (remember Obama 2008?) He wasn’t a fluke, he was the next in line.
Though the media’s abandonment of any commitment to objectivity has clouded the reality of Trump, history will see him as remarkably mediocre. Not much happened. Not much changed. All the essays about America at a breaking point will be forgotten. Trump will get some credit for dialing back war abroad. Picking three Supremes will matter. Perspective will show there wasn’t really all that much absent some nicer messaging anyone could have done with COVID, a global phenomenon with over 40 million cases in countries not presided over by Donald Trump. On the fundamental issue of economic inequality, Trump was Obama who was Bush who was… Faced with an economic crossroad, each made the rich richer and widened the gap.
But I can’t vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They would not be a bad president in the sense that Trump, Obama, et al were not bad, just status quo. Biden, either by dying in his term or not really giving a whit, will allow bad decisions on feel-good identity politicals. There will be lots of posing, lots of chest pounding defenses of settled things like various civil rights, constant accusations of racism without any resolution, intellectual Sudoku to pass the time. Oh the earnest op-eds which will be written!
But a Biden/Harris win would more than anything else confirm not changing, locking in forever the current spiral of economic inequality. A reset to 2015, 2008, or 1980. One-term Trump will forever be dismissed as novelty act in favor of Biden, the same as it ever was pol, Harris the Gumby of not-so-strongly held beliefs and a cynical nod to identity politics. It’ll be a long four years for anyone still thinking about when it used to be wrong to judge people by the color of their skin. I otherwise have no idea what Biden/Harris stand for or will try to accomplish and that’s a poor grounds for my support.
Some 60 percent of Americans tell pollsters the nation needs a viable third party but then turn around and won’t vote for one because, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, voting third party somehow means the worst two party candidate ends up winning. Third party fails because we don’t trust it enough to give it the votes it needs to succeed. Democrats, from the Obamas on down, tell me I would be wrong to vote third party again, naive, a closet Putin supporter. The wrong guy will have the nuclear codes, so I will literally be responsible for Armageddon. Hard to build a movement around possible responsibility for ending life on earth.
I guess I can stay home, the functional equivalent of hiding out in the monastery coloring in manuscripts while medieval society devolves around me. Hmm, smells like another plague out there, better close the window. But if I vote Biden/Harris I am endorsing the rally call of the Democratic Party against change.
If I vote Trump I am telling the Democrats they failed, again, and they may realize they must become something like a third party in 2024 or they will functionally no longer exist, pretend opponents like those teams who played against the Harlem Globetrotters years ago. A Trump win could be a wake up call to the Democratic establishment that they have to deal with real desire for change, not ignore voters, or try to scare us into abandoning our conscience by trading again short term goals for long term progress. Dismissing such a vote as only sending a message dismisses the importance of the message.
For those who support Biden for some perceived short term gain, please, vote that way. But don’t disparage others of us for believing we can do better. Too many have accepted, election after election, the long con. Give an even longer view a chance.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.