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Smoke-Filled Rooms

David Cowles

Jan 30, 2024

Have we come full circle? Have we traded smoke-filled rooms for media green rooms? Are we once again willing to subcontract the so-called democratic process to others?

For 150 years, America’s political parties chose their Presidential nominees in smoke-filled rooms. For the most part, voters at the grassroots level had no direct impact on the process. What few primaries there were (e.g., NH) were just beauty contests

1960 was the first election where primaries played a significant, but still not determinative, role. It was still possible to ‘run for President’ without participating in any primaries (Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, and Adlai Stevenson). 

But in 1964, Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination by defeating Nelson Rockefeller in the winner-take-all California primary in June. 4 years later (1968), the New Hampshire primary ended Johnson’s reelection campaign (even though he won it), and the California primary would have sealed the nomination for Robert Kennedy, but for Sirhan Sirhan. 

From 1968 on, primaries (and caucuses) were the main drivers of the nomination process, but in concert with the conventions. After 1980, however, conventions became less important; they took on an air of well-scripted political rallies. Their function was now simply to put a stamp of approval on the results of the primary process.

Early primaries (March) were always interesting to ‘trend-spotters’ but the'money primaries’ came much later (e.g., CA and NY in June). Gradually, however, the spotlight moved to earlier and earlier contests. In a desperate effort to remain relevant, 14 states banded together to create a Super Tuesday primary toward the front end of the calendar.

But that didn’t work either. In this century, the nominees have largely been determined after South Carolina, typically in late February. Sure, the process still has to play out, and there’s bound to be tons of drama to keep us junkies glued to our screens, mais les jeux sont faits (game over).    

That was 2020. Now on to 2024: an unpopular and ‘aging’ incumbent is slated to run against an unpopular and ‘aging’ ex-President. People on both sides will tell you that this is a ‘nightmare scenario’. So, the stage was set for a highly contested nominating process that should have made the full schedule of primaries relevant, but it didn’t happen. 

On the contrary, people are already saying that ‘nominations are locked’…and it’s still January. What’s going on? 

First, we have an insatiable desire for certainty. “I’d rather know now who my two choices will be, no matter how flawed.” This is understandable. So little is certain anymore. Ironically, our society has beatified people it labels 'disruptors', and true to their name, they are disrupting…everything.

Rapidly evolving technology, real wage stagnation, changing gender roles and sexual norms, and ever-new healthcare and childcare best practices—we feel the sands constantly shifting under our feet shifting. Whatever I can know, I must know, now, regardless of the consequences. “Give me something I can hang on to; tell me something that is true.”

Second, and much more disturbing, we are ever more reliant on others to do our thinking for us. 50 years ago, the philosopher Jacques Derrida estimated that only 3% of what we think is our own – 97% is the thoughts of others, regurgitated. 

Here’s a sentence you’ll never see in print anywhere else: “Jacques Derrida was an optimist.” This ‘scourge of academia’ was actually a Pollyanna. If only 3% of our thoughts were original! We could move mountains. Assuming Derrida was right at the time, I can confidently assert that that 3% has eroded significantly over the intervening years.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being Editor of Aletheia Today Magazine (ATM) is the marvelous cloud of contributors we’ve been able to attract. They give us fresh, relevant content on a regular basis. Thank you! But to get to that, I have to read through stacks of welcome submissions from others.

Most of these submitted articles are ‘on point’ and well enough written, but we reject 80% of them for one reason only: no original content. They are often ‘uncritical surveys’ that do not meet ATM’s bleeding-edge editorial standards.

Recently, I’ve had conversations with a couple of people that left me wondering whether they even understand what original thinking looks like. I grew up in the ‘60s when we questioned everything, including questioning itself; today, it seems folks are more willing to rely on authority. “Follow the science,” we’re told. Our generation is desperate for a Theory of Everything.

This is an example of the Cognitive Dissonance that characterizes our culture. On the one hand, we know as never before how corrupt authority can be – how facts are shaded by ideology, e.g.; On the other hand, we lack the tools and the incentive to conduct our own research, so we are more and more reliant on ‘facts’ that we know are biased.

Sidebar: An offshoot of this Cognitive Dissonance is the proliferation of conspiracy theories. The bath water is murky, so we have to throw it out…along with its ‘contents’. If nothing is certain, everything is possible. Birds could be drones. Pizza shops could be fronts for pedophiles. The President of the United States could be an agent of a foreign power. When nothing is certain, everything has to be entertained.

Back to politics. We are willing now to let the media determine the parties’ nominees. Prior to the Iowa Caucus, 50% of Republicans backed Trump. After Iowa, 70% backed Trump. After NH, 80%. Did 30% of the country’s registered Republicans have a Damascene moment in the 8 days between Iowa and NH? Or were they simply willing to accept the media’s determination that ‘the race is over’?

Have we come full circle? Have we traded smoke-filled rooms for media green rooms? Are we once again willing to subcontract the so-called democratic process to others? 


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