America's Alternate Political Universes

America's political options are four-fold: 1) tinker around the margins, 2) elect a strong man, 3) gut government and embrace an uncompassionate god, or 4) look ourselves squarely in the mirror, take stock of the real evils, and roll up our sleeves.
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The Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire Primary, and South Carolina GOP Primary are now in the rear-view mirror. Jeb Bush has bailed from the presidential race. It's time to pause and take political stock.

Of the four leading candidates -- Donald Trump and Ted Cruz from the GOP, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders from the Dems -- three are anti-establishment.

Only Clinton is an establishment candidate. The others surf a giant wave of voter anger that rises from a sense of betrayal.

The establishment narrative states that America, although troubled, remains sound. We can fix what ails us by tinkering at the margins.

The anti-establishment narrative howls that our democracy is fundamentally broken. Only by a political sea-change -- some say "revolution" -- can we right the floundering ship of state. If the aggregate support for anti-establishment candidates indicates our plight, get out the life rafts.

-- Three anti-establishment candidates --
-- Three competing political universes --

Trump: Trump appeals most to Americans who favor authoritarian leaders. He struts about as a strong man who will make the trains run on time and America great again. But history's strong men have always needed scapegoats. Trump will bring to heel those who have dragged America down. He'll deport 11.3 million illegal immigrants who are stealing our jobs, "bringing drugs, ... bringing crime," and "raping." And he'll ban all Muslims from entry to the US. Once elected, he won't need our help. To hear Trump talk, most of us are losers anyway. He's a billionaire, by definition a winner. Like Russia's Vladimir Putin -- his political soul mate -- Trump floats above the rules. Rules and decency -- and facts for that matter -- are for losers.

Cruz: Cruz' mottos are "government is the problem" and "to God be the glory," making him the darling of the tea party and the religious right. Cruz proposes to eliminate most of the regulatory and safeguard functions of government. Corporate income taxes? End them. The IRS? Abolish it -- along with the Departments of Energy, Education, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development. The Environmental Protection Agency? Gut it, if not kill it. Net neutrality. No. Regulations on carbon to combat climate change? No need; climate change is a "hoax."

What does Cruz stand for? The death penalty, fiscal austerity, "free" trade, carpet-bombing ISIS, and anything to do with extracting oil or gas: the Keystone XL pipeline, expanded fracking, and offshore drilling.

The world according to Cruz is eerily familiar: it conforms to the extreme libertarian agenda of fossil-fuel magnates the Koch Brothers. Not surprising. Since 2011, Cruz has received more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, and his super PAC "Keep the Promise" has netted a whopping $15 million from Texas oil billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks.

The god Cruz glorifies is a strange one, devoid of compassion. Immigration or sentencing reform? Not a chance. Affordable health care? Repeal it. A minimum wage? Absolutely not. And a Texas-sized prison-industrial complex to warehouse illegal immigrants.

Sanders: To social democrat Sanders, we're in trouble because our politics and economy have been hijacked -- by Wall Street bankers and corporate billionaires (like those funding Cruz). The system has been rigged to benefit a handful of oligarchs. America has become the richest third-world country on the planet. Only those at the very top -- the 1% -- enjoy the wealth.

Electing the "right" candidate, in Sander's view, will not by itself right the ship of state. Wresting control of our democracy from the clutches of the oligarchs will take all of us -- engaged in non-violent political revolution.

Which alternate universe is closest to our reality?

Forty-nine years ago, at New York's Riverside Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his most important, stinging, and controversial speech: "Beyond Vietnam." In it, he held a mirror to the American soul, asking us to confront our nation's "triple evils": racism, militarism, and extreme materialism. Many of King's followers turned against him. A year later he was dead, his message too disturbing to the national psyche.

Echoes of King's "Beyond Vietnam" linger in Sander's stump speeches. Racism, Sanders acknowledges, is institutionalized in America, which incarcerates more citizens per capita -- predominantly people of color -- than any other country in the world.

America remains constantly at war, feeding the insatiable appetites of the neocons and military-industrial complex while draining its economic resources and life's blood. The result of such sacrifice? The complete destabilization of the Middle East, giving rise to ISIS, and the militarization of municipal police forces.

Big banks, deregulated during the Clinton presidency, succumbed to greed and developed predatory lending practices. The result: the "Great Recession" of 2008, from which we have yet to recover. And in the guise of "free-trade" pacts like NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), multinational corporations scour the globe for the cheapest labor and the lowest taxes, driving down wages worldwide and offshoring American jobs.

Sander's meteoric rise suggests that King's disquieting message about America's evil triad -- racism, militarism, greed -- is finally taking root, almost 50 years late. Why now? Since 2008 America's white lower and middle classes have felt the economic oppression to which people of color have long been subjected. During a riveting moment in the last Democratic debate, Clinton and Sanders both eloquently discussed a disturbing new trend: uneducated, middle-aged white Americans are dying at unprecedented rates from suicide and substance abuse, ostensibly from economic uncertainty and stress. Neoliberal capitalism has turned cannibalistic; it is feeding on our lower and middle classes.

America's political options are four-fold: 1) tinker around the margins, 2) elect a strong man, 3) gut government and embrace an uncompassionate god, or 4) look ourselves squarely in the mirror, take stock of the real evils, and roll up our sleeves.

Of these options, the fourth is by far the most difficult. It's also the only option that has a remote chance of saving us from ourselves.

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