Political dysfunction should point us to the disease
“Real Time” with Bill Maher has become one of the last, if not last, American television talk show to air political commentary from a left-wing perspective that is not under the guise of political correctness. While the host, American comedian Bill Maher, views political events through a progressive lens, he does not hold back from criticizing his political tribe. He exclaimed during an episode, “I follow what’s funny,” as a way of distancing himself from far-left ideological movements like woke progressivism. Even conservative and libertarian-leaning media outlets pay homage to Maher’s open defiance against his own political leanings. The Daily Wire published an opinion claiming “Bill Maher may be the most rational voice in American politics.” Maher’s Foucauldian refusal to have his language governed by the threat of cancel culture certainly makes him one of the most interesting figures in political commentary today.
Despite Maher’s own political preferences, he clearly aims to have open discourse whereby a diverse set of political views are welcome to exchange ideas and debate issues. This became apparent during an “Overtime” episode that featured American entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy as one of the panelists.
An audience member had asked, “how does our nation overcome [the Big Lie], is it even possible?” and a lively debate between Maher and Ramaswamy followed. The Big Lie refers to Trump’s claim the 2020 election was stolen.
American journalist Jonathan Lemire, who was also a panel member on the show, in his response, took the perspective that “the Big Lie” was a conspiratorial effort by Trump and Republicans going back several years before the January 6th insurrection. Lemire believes when Trump was attacking media outlets, calling them fake news, he was laying the groundwork to orchestrate a major power-seizing moment which Lemire believes was the January 6th insurrection. Lemire maintains that Trump and Republicans’ election-denying rhetoric will continue to undermine “the American people’s faith in the government.”
Ramaswamy responds to Lemire’s argument that Republicans are undermining our democratic institutions with a tongue-in-cheek remark. Ramaswamy stated, “Stacy Abrams is a bit of a Republican…[she] has not yet conceded the last race.” Abrams ran for governor in Georgia in 2018 and lost to Brian Kemp but refused to concede, believing Kemp engaged in voter suppression. Maher counters by claiming Ramaswamy is taking a whataboutism position to avoid addressing Lemire’s argument.
While I think Maher is making a fair charge against Ramaswamy, I believe a more charitable reading of his remark would highlight a deeper point. Ramaswamy is trying to say there is a kind of disease impacting our political system, and Maher is pointing out that the degree of symptom severity is different. Both are correct; however, Ramaswamy wants to discuss the kind of disease that has infected our political system, whereas Lemire and Maher wish to discuss the severity of a particular symptom, albeit a very problematic symptom. But at the end of the day, Trump is a symptom, not a disease.
Going after Trump will not address the disease. This is what Ramaswamy is trying to highlight in his response. These kinds of politicians and activists weaken our institutional immune system, which allows the disease to continue to affect our body politic. If this is not addressed, another symptom will manifest down the road, likely soon.
Where I concede to Maher is on matters of priority. Abrams’ 2018 election episode is of little consequence to the national body politic. Trump’s 2020 election stunt is of immediate and serious interest to our democratic institutions. However, Trump’s accountability is a legal matter at this point. The debate should be about the underlying disease that has infected our body politic.
Ramaswamy also makes another poignant remark when he mentions that the two parties have been engaging in a battle of escalation for some time now. For instance, Ramaswamy suggests the Democrats amped up their election undermining efforts by suggesting the 2016 election was illegitimate because they believed the Russians helped Trump win. The GOP takes revenge by leading a campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election while Trump incites an insurrection.
The point of this little dramatization is to demonstrate that with the swing of the pendulum, there seems to be a 2x multiplier applied against the other side for perceived grievances caused by the prior swing when the other side was in power. Ramaswamy believes our politics has become highly petty in this regard, and this is eroding trust in our democratic institutions.
We see misleading narratives concerning the so-called threat to democracy and false narratives about the pervasiveness of fraudulent activity at the ballot box. Because politicians and activists have eroded trust in our institutions, there is no way to pivot on an agreeable foundation that can be trusted by all to distinguish fact from fiction. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt reminds us that when a society struggles to distinguish fact from fiction, that society is primed for a totalitarian takeover.
While Ramaswamy and Maher do not make the claim directly, no doubt they would agree that 21st-century America is fertile ground for a totalitarian takeover. Once a significant amount of the politically active population has committed themselves to pettiness, grievance, indignation, victimhood, and distrust of narratives not derived from their interiority, our democratic institutions are under siege—we are past the point of threats.
Accordingly, I agree with the Democrats that our democratic institutions are under siege. Still, it is difficult to believe that they will be the savior of democracy when they are also scaling the walls to burn the city. Democrats are also part of the problem, which is Ramaswamy’s main point.
Maher underestimates the incredible frustration one can experience when they witness a virtual signaling performer advance double standards. And this is a unique problem on the political left.
I agree with Maher that the political right has its own share of problems; however, the political left has the unique tendency to undermine the rule of law and bring about social chaos—and New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago are exemplars of what happens when a culture of indifference to law and order takes over a city. Couple that with their other unique set of qualities, e.g., self-entitled, narcissistic, self-imposed victimhood indignancy, and extreme pettiness. We have an extremely problematic situation when it comes to left-wing politics today.
The old adage that crime starts with opportunity is relevant here. Because of the efforts by Democrats to weaken our institutional immune system, would-be authoritarian politicians and ambitious totalitarian bureaucracies have to reach deep into their corrupt souls and seize power for themselves. And because political agents and performative activists have become deeply partisan, they will almost certainly try to justify their betrayal of the American Project as an attempt to “save American democracy.”
Political analysts like Lemire are correct when they claim darker days are ahead of America. Yet they are wrong because their “side” does not currently offer Americans a cure but rather the opportunity for assisted suicide.