Here, for instance, was CNN host Jake Tapper's first question of the second Republican debate: "Mrs. Fiorina, I want to start with you. Fellow Republican candidate, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, has suggested that your party's frontrunner, Mr. Donald Trump, would be dangerous as president. He said he wouldn't want, quote, 'such a hot head with his finger on the nuclear codes.' You, as well, have raised concerns about Mr. Trump's temperament. You've dismissed him as an entertainer. Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump's finger on the nuclear codes?"
And the event only went downhill from there as responses ranged from non-answers to (no kidding!) a discussion of the looks of the candidates and yet the event proved such a ratings smash that its 23 million viewers were compared favorably to viewership of National Football League games.
In sum, a citizen's duty, whether in time of war or elections, is now, at best, to watch the show, or at worst, to see nothing at all.
This reality has been highlighted by the whistleblowers of this generation, including Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and John Kiriakou. Whenever they have revealed something of what our government is doing beyond our sight, they have been prosecuted with a fierceness unique in our history and for a simple enough reason. Those who watch us believe themselves exempt from being watched by us. That's their definition of "democracy." When "spies" appear in their midst, even if those whistleblowers are "spies" for us, they are horrified at a visceral level and promptly haul out the World War I-era Espionage Act. They now expect a demobilized response to whatever they do and when anything else is forthcoming, they strike back in outrage.
A Largely Demobilized Land
A report on a demobilized America shouldn't end without some mention of at least one counter-impulse. All systems assumedly have their opposites lurking somewhere inside them, which brings us to Bernie Sanders. He's the figure who doesn't seem to compute in this story so far.
All you had to do was watch the first Democratic debate to sense what an anomaly he is, or you could have noted that, until almost the moment he went on stage that night, few involved in the election 2016 media spectacle had the time of day for him. And stranger yet, that lack of attention in the mainstream proved no impediment to the expansion of his campaign and his supporters, who, via social media and in person in the form of gigantic crowds, seem to exist in some parallel universe.
In this election cycle, Sanders alone uses the words "mobilize" and "mobilization" regularly, while calling for a "political revolution." ("We need to mobilize tens of millions of people to begin to stand up and fight back and to reclaim the government, which is now owned by big money.") And there is no question that he has indeed mobilized significant numbers of young people, many of whom are undoubtedly unplugged from the TV set, even if glued to other screens, and so may hardly be noticing the mainstream spectacle at all.
Whether the Sanders phenomenon represents our past or our future, his age or the age of his followers, is impossible to know. We do, of course, have one recent example of a mobilization in an election season. In the 2008 election, the charismatic Barack Obama created a youthful, grassroots movement, a kind of cult of personality that helped sweep him to victory, only to demobilize it as soon as he entered the Oval Office. Sanders himself puts little emphasis on personality or a cult of the same and undoubtedly represents something different, though what exactly remains open to question.
In the meantime, the national security state's power is largely uncontested; the airlines still fly; Disney World continues to be a destination of choice; and the United States remains a largely demobilized land.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
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Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt
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