Dear Dirty America


Fear, Loathing, and the Last 40 Years

February 22
16:00 2012
Los Angeles

(originally posted at Rants and More)

In Hunter S. Thompson’s political classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, he details the Democratic Party’s (ultimately futile) attempt to produce a candidate capable of beating Richard Nixon in his re-election bid.

As one of the least-apologetic Nixon-haters of his time, Hunter took a deep and personal interest in this campaign from the beginning, endorsing McGovern early and roundly criticizing the other front-runners, Edmund Muskie (whose campaign HST said had a “stench of death”) and 1968 Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey (whom Thompson famously called a “hopeless old hack”) while covering the race for Rolling Stone. (To hear Hunter discuss Muskie and Humphrey in greater detail, click this link to his 2000 interview with The Paris Review.)

Though George McGovern would go on to secure the nomination, Democrats failed to jell around him, dooming his efforts. Running as a progressive, anti-war candidate he went on to lose by 18 million popular votes, the worst margin ever in a U.S. presidential election. The whole campaign left Nixon in the White House and Hunter Thompson burned-out on the American political process.
(Thompson with McGovern, photo by Annie Leibovitz 1972)
Forty years and ten general elections after Thompson’s take on it, I was curious what had changed in the U.S. and the world of American politics. After all, in that time have we not progressed through the civil rights movement, learned from Vietnam and the Cold War, and been taught by Nixon’s abuses the importance of transparency both in campaigning and in office? Haven’t we become more enlightened on social issues and more aware of the importance of education? Haven’t things gotten better?
A surface level answer to these questions may very well be yes. No sensible person wants to trivialize the gains of the civil rights movement, and the hysteria of the Cold War era is most commonly dismissed these days as a joke. It was Nixon’s egregious abuses of power and sloppy trailof shady donations in 1972 that led to some of the first campaign finance reforms. The number of women in congress has increased from 15 to 93 in that span. Inflation-adjusted, per-student government education spending more than doubled between 1971 and 2008. Roe v. Wade, first argued in 1971 and finally decided in 1973, was one of the greatest forward-thinking successes of the early ’70s, allowing for expanded women’s rights and improved social conditions.
(Art by Ralph Steadman, friend & associate of Hunter)
But you only have to look a little bit deeper, it seems, to question whether those gains are as substantial as they seem on the surface. Yes, the civil rights movement that continued through the 1970s opened many doors for women, minorities, and others, and we are all better off for this, but is the federal government’s current refusal to recognize same-sex marriages not an issue of civil rights? Is the calculated use of legislation (particularly regarding drug, immigration, and other nonviolent crimes) by politicians* to keep minorities profiled, incarcerated, branded felons and stripped of their rights–all so they can appeal to white voters and/or pump money into a privatized prison system–not a step backwards?
The increase in the number of women in congress, from 15 to 93 over the last 40 years, provides some evidence for what most of us feel like we know, which is that things have gotten better. And while I think it’s true conditions have improved, 93 out of 535 representatives (senate and congress) is still only about 17% women. As troubling, the number of African Americans in the current senate is zero (yes, ZERO: compared to 96 white, 2 Hispanic, and 2 Asian. Breakdown: this website). Overall, gains for women and minorities in private industry have significantly outpaced their gains in elected government since Hunter followed McGovern’s ill-fated campaign. This, I think, speaks to a truth about the slowness of government to change, and reinforces the idea that the people, rather than the government, are the driving force behind social change.
The seventies, eighties, and beyond held other lessons for us as well. Over-the-top Cold War parody has been beaten to death in this day and age and we’re all at least somewhat aware of the rampant stupidity that seems to have reigned over American life during that strange time. Joseph McCarthy was a first-class fuck and I can honestly say he is the most embarrassing person for me to have to co-identify with as having hailed from Wisconsin (and I say that fully aware of the multiple prominent cannibalistic serial killers also from our great state). Despite the cavalier attitude with which we dismiss the people of that era as reactionary sheep, we mustn’t forget the “War on Terror**” fervor that not so long ago swept our elected establishment (save for Feingold, who represents the very opposite end of the spectrum as McCarthy when it comes to WI co-identification) into voting away rights via The Patriot Act.
The Cold War and Vietnam will forever be linked not simply by overlapping time periods but also through Richard Nixon and his involvement in the politics of both. His re-election in 1972 came despite some major unrest regarding Vietnam, particularly by those on the left and by those who favored non-interventionist military policy. This bears strong resemblance, of course, to what we went through not all that long ago with George W. Bush, who also went on to win re-election despite similar public concerns regarding the war in Iraq. The circumstances surrounding these world events, of course, are entirely unique, but the patterns in both the public and political responses to them are worth keeping in mind.
(Watergate Hotel)

When it comes to learning from another of Nixon’s mistakes, well, I hope nobody sincerely thought we were much better off today in regards to campaign finance reform. Two years after the passing of legislation that allowed Super PACs to function as they currently do, we’re now starting to see how much of a thinly-veiled joke this whole thing is. Just a few weeks ago casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson (worth about $23 billion) wrote a $5 million check to the Super PAC representing his friend Newt Gingrich. Most of that money–at least $3.5 million– was immediately dumped into advertising time in South Carolina, and no doubt helped spur Gingrich to his comfortable victory over Mitt Romney. Another $5 million just came in from Adelson with Newt still running well in the polls, all of which could be used for adverts in Florida, the site of the next primary. Now, call me a pessimist, but I think it’s pretty fucked up that a billionaire can still single-handedly alter elections this way. (If you think about it, $20+ million is a potential steal to a billionaire to have the President of the United States in his back pocket.)
Regarding our enlightenment when it comes to social issues, certainly credit has to be given to the many men and women whose combined efforts have gotten us where we are today. We do have many freedoms relative to some parts of the world, and, though it sometimes feels rare, occasionally common sense does still prevail here in the United States. One shining example, which just happens to be from the era in which Hunter followed the the ’72 campaign, was the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.***
Roe v. Wade was a breakthrough in that it signified a break with long-standing, church related ideology on the matter. By giving women the alternative to pregnancy and childbirth, we allow women who’d rather choose to continue to climb the corporate ladder, for example, to do so legally and safely. In cases of very young and/or low-income mothers, an abortion can be an essential break in maintaining independence while trying to raise themselves into a higher standard of living. In addition, access to abortion almost certainly has other positive social impacts, such aspotentially lowering crime.
I met two young men at my apartment a couple nights ago, both 22 and guests of a friend who, while we were smoking and conversing, revealed that they had both gotten girls pregnant and that they had both been beneficiaries of legal abortions. These were young single guys, both working (one managing a Pizza Hut and the other working at a hospital), trying to maintain a standard of living, and they were both definitively better off (especially, and most importantly, in their own minds) because those girls had access to abortions and had the foresight to choose them.
For all of the strides legalizing abortion has allowed us to make over the last 40 years, I think it is important to keep in mind how tenuous this (or any) legislation can be. Food for thought: At 78 and with health issues, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is likely the next justice who will leave the bench. As a liberal she represents an extremely important vote in the current conservative-leaning Supreme Court. For this reason, it’s no stretch to say that Roe v. Wade is something we could see overturned in our lives if the socially out-of-touch right (i.e. Tea Partiers) were to come to power and have their way. I point this out not to be an alarmist or to say it will happen, even if the court does get more conservative, but simply to make the point that even some of our biggest strides over the last four decades are not necessarily set, and to make sure we remember that unless we stay vigilant, we’re never that far from slipping backwards.
No social concern, I don’t think, is as important overall today in the U.S. as education. As a nation, we have undoubtedly made education progress since the ’70s, at the very least in terms of expanding awareness of its importance. Education as a political issue is rarely far removed from the minds of voting Americans, and for that reason it has remained a consistent hot-button topic in elections. No candidate can dare ignore it. For this reason, many education policies have been enacted since 1972 and spending overall is up, but I–and many others–question the efficacy of continued spending without direction.
In a survey conducted every three years by the OECD (read all about this here), last done in 2010, the United States placed, out of 34 OECD countries in the world, 14th in reading, 17th for science, and 25th in mathematics. As someone who studied engineering in college with help from a math scholarship**** and as someone with a great deal of passion for seeing science taught more extensively to our youth, I’m intenselydisappointed with our results in every category, but the lagging science and math performance is particularly saddening as well as frightening in an increasingly competitive technological world.
In addition, skyrocketing college costs in the U.S. represent a severe education problem today. While more federal funds are available to students seeking a college degree here than ever before, these increases have succeeded only in further driving up tuition costs nationwide. (For a detailed explanation from the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey on the subject, clickhere.) While at the University of Minnesota, I had the benefit of meeting many international students, and I made note of the fact that, regardless of their country of origin, they seemed to remark without fail on the exorbitant cost of a U.S. college education when the opportunity arose. As we continue to stress the importance of higher education, and as that education becomes increasingly important to compete in the global economy, this is one of America’s most glaring current shortcomings.
After examining a few of the important issues to have faced the nation sinceFear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 was penned, we arrive now at the question, “Have things gotten better?” In order to address this properly, I want to re-frame it as two questions. The first is, “Have things gotten better,in general?” Second, “Has the government/have politics gotten better?” The answer to the first question is yes. The U.S. is a better place today even if you base that answer solely on tolerance, equality of opportunity, and civil rights advancement (to say nothing of many additional improvements), though we are still behind where I believe we could and ought to be.
The second question, in my mind, is answered as easily as the first: No. Very little has changed at all since ’72 when it comes to government and the political process here in the United States. The composition of our elected leadership has changed slightly, yes, to at long last come closer to representing its people. Even this, though, has lagged severely in government compared to other sectors of society. Most other changes (at least those appreciable to those of us observing from outside), however, seem negative. Specifically I am referring to what some, myself included, see as the excessive–and growing–polarization between our two parties. The gap between Democrats and Republicans (even more so than any gaps between the people they represent) feels as large as ever, fueled by individual politicians’ inability to break from party lines or strive for compromise for fear of being characterized by opponents and colleagues (and, hence, viewed by the electorate) as weak.
This gap is a natural result of a system limited by having only two functionally legitimate parties on the national scale. Democrats and Republicans have combined for generations to monopolize the votes of anyone who wants theirs to matter and they, in turn, are the only people who benefit.
Going back as far as Kennedy in 1960 (who, as a Democrat, replaced Republican Eisenhower) these are the politicians who’ve held our highest office:
1960-Kennedy (D)
1964- LBJ (D)
1968 & 72- Nixon/Ford(R)
1976- Carter (D)
1980 & 84- Reagan (R)
1988- Bush 1 (R)
1992 & 96- Clinton (D)
2000 & 04- Bush 2 (R)
2008- Obama (D)
It can also be represented like this: 8 years Dem, 8 years Rep, 4 years Dem, 12 years Rep, 8 years Dem, 8 years Rep, 4 years (so far) Dem. Total years: 52. Dems in power: 24. Repubs in power: 28. If Obama is re-elected, we’re looking at a dead heat over a 56 year span.
I think from this it’s pretty clear how, after forty years, we can be left with the sense that our government and the political process is significantly unchanged. As power is volleyed back and forth on waves of reactionary support, we are left with little discernible progress as each party-swap sees the new administration (as they’ve usually promised in their campaigns) strive to undo any gains made by the previous one. True progress, when it happens, is usually driven by a principle and/or knowledge that supersedes the pettiness of career politics and happens in spite of, rather than through, politicians.
So… what can we do?
My intention in this examination has not been to suggest that I know exactly how things should be done or even that there exists any singular correct way to do things. My intention, rather, has been to find and point out some of the ways our government has failed to be the great engine of progress that it’s politicians would have you believe. I am of the opinion that third (and fourth, fifth, etc) parties, and viable ones, are going to be essential if we are ever to see serious systemic change in our lifetimes.**** Alternately, removing party labels entirely and allowing each candidate to campaign based on personal, rather than party, views could have the desired effect of offering more choice to voters and allowing for greater long-term government effectiveness. One thing is definite, though, and it’s this: If we do nothing but continue the current trend, those of us in our twenties will look back in our sixties on yet another 40 years of cycling between the same old parties while falling well short of our national potential.
Ultimately, as always, getting what we want and need will be up to us as the electorate. We have to be aware of the patterns going on around us and, when we sense stagnating progress, be willing and able to reverse those trends even if it means going outside our personal or political comfort zones. If we want to push America to the heights of its potential as a fair, free, and responsible world power, and we want to reap the benefits in our own lifetimes, we had better get started, because shit around here doesn’t exactly change quickly or easily.

Jeff Neuman is a freelance writer living in LA. Despite his current status as a wage-slave, Jeff is strongly committed to eventually earning the entirety of his income through his writing. He has covered myriad topics as a freelancer and in his personal writing, some of which can be found on his blog, Rants and More, at You can reach Jeff Neuman at:

**-Neither the Cold War nor War on Terror are/were actual wars of course, but rather are just examples of politicians/historians using the word war to incite strong feelings.
***-Nixon stayed silent on the matter, OF COURSE, privately commenting that he supported abortion for rape victims and in cases of mixed-race babies. Fucking Nixon.
****- For two years, at least.
*****-This is why I am a general fan of Ron Paul. He has many views with which I agree, and probably about as many with which I ardently disagree. The bottom line though is that we can’t afford to marginalize Ron Paul or other third party candidates simply because he chooses not to align strictly along party lines. It will be those who blend ideologies and accept that there are more than two ways to look at issues who will make the greatest impacts going forward if we support them.

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