Saturday, October 20, 2007

We're Done with Democracy
The big political news of the weekend is coming out of the Values Voters Summit, a gathering of far-right Christianist groups to which all the Republican candidates have made pilgrimmage to pander. The utterly shameless Mitt Romney and Rabid Rudy Giuliani have taken shots at each other, and TV's Fred Thompson evidently seemed even less interested than usual; remember, TV's Fred's only in the race because his hot harpy right-wing wife really wants to be First Lady. I think it's probably about 50-50 that the marriage ends within a year of his campaign ending, and that's absolutely no more than four months off. Oddly, I sort of admire Thompson's refusal, whether from sloth or principle, to deliver the Hate in a cause he's not really feeling. Gail Collins nicely captures the rage-addled essence of these "Christians" in her op-ed column today.

This is a miserably depressing time for American politics. The large minority of the electorate represented, to a greater or lesser extent, by the people at the "Summit" live in a self-defined world where any resemblence to objective reality is purely coincidental--a world in which Iraq was a heroic (and successful!) undertaking, all taxes are confiscatory gambits of a malevolent polity determined to enrich non-white welfare recipients and leftist libertines at the expense of God-fearing families, and the only thing to fault George W. Bush for is not pushing hard enough to amend the Constitution to discriminate against homosexuals. Meanwhile, a plurality of the majority that rejects this insane worldview seems set to empower a woman who seems to have no guiding principle except power and shares most or all of the core assumptions that have informed the Bush administration these last seven disastrous years. Her election will do nothing but ensure that the awful politics of the last sixteen years--characterized by zero-sum partisan fights over generally small matters, viciously personal and blind to the larger issues--continues for at least another four.

Actually, I suspect Hillary Clinton will unite the country much as Bush has--in rejection of her governance--but to an even greater extent: while the 30 percent or so who still support the Deciderer have proven themselves far more loyal to ideology than empirical input, categorical Clinton supporters will prove to be far fewer in number. It's almost impossible to be ideologically bound to someone who has no ideology. She similarly won't be able to count on a cult of personality following, because she also has, or at least shows, no personality. The liberals who find her tolerable or even likable now will have defected inside two years; they'll cheer Russ Feingold in his noble and doomed attempt to primary her in 2012, and a lot of them will sit at home or vote third-party when Jeb Bush wrests away the Crown and Scepter that November.

I've spent a lot of the last two months or so reading books by a novelist named Steve Erickson. He's probably best characterized as a post-modernist in the style of Don Delillo, though he adds obsessions with sex and pop culture to Delillo's mix of time, historical pivot points and official and personal violence. Erickson also shares Delillo's ongoing fascination with the meaning of America, and for about fifteen years from the early '90s to 2004 he popped up from time to time as a commentator on the intersection of politics and culture. One piece he wrote that strikes me as especially resonant appeared in early 1995, shortly after the Gingrich takeover of Congress. It's evidently gone from the interwebs now, but here's the key bit:

History is clear that democracy cannot long navigate a sea of national rage. Untempered by rationale and open-mindedness, fury eventually consumes democracy rather than nourishes it, because it overwhelms our tolerance, our willingness to be reasonably informed, our determination to hold ourselves accountable for what we decide. Most important, it overwhelms our basic faith in democracy itself and our belief in the individual freedoms that are inviolate to the power of the majority, identified by the Declaration of Independence as endowed by God and codified in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. We display less and less patience with what we previously held to be inalienable, less and less patience with democracy’s inherent messiness and inefficiency and the morass of conflicting interests that are read in democracy’s results. We display less patience, in other words, with other Americans.

A deep freeze has settled in the American soul. The nation gets meaner and more petty until rage is the only national passion left -- and then it is anger not at those on top, which is the anger America was born of, but at those on the bottom. ... This myth, that the process has grown helplessly out of touch with what we really want and feel and need, is the opposite of the truth. The truth is that we are the problem with America. The process and politicians, the lobbyists and “special” interests -- by which we mean any interest that doesn’t penterain to us -- have reflected us all too perfectly; and we hate them for it.

From dismal campaign to dismal campaign, we demand “change” and then give every indication of wanting nothing of the sort and of not having the slightest idea what we ever meant by it in the first place. Confronted with change that is truly profound or revolutionary, which is to say unavoidably painful and disorienting, we scurry back to the status quo that so infuriated us to begin with, and that not so long ago we claimed was unacceptable.

I've maintained for years that rage is the biggest, arguably the only, motivator for those on the right. The unhinged hatred of "liberals" on display every time a Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter or Dick Cheney or Clarence Thomas gets in front of a camera isn't extraordinary; it's reflected in the filler speech some right-wing functionary is probably giving right now at the "Values Voter Summit." One major difference I perceive between the left--at least, this particular left-leaning guy--and the right is that I wish they'd just go away, while they seem to wish me dead and burning forever in a Hell I don't believe exists.

"Spite voting" is the reason why so many millions of people who didn't particularly like George W. Bush in 2004, and certainly didn't think he was doing a very good job, voted for him anyway: to stick it to John Kerry, and to stick it to you and me.

This is America, not Denmark. In this country, tens of millions of people choose to watch FoxNews not simply because Americans are credulous idiots or at the behest of some right-wing corporate cabal, but because average Americans respect viciousness. They are attracted to viciousness for a lot of reasons. In part, it reminds them of their bosses, whom they secretly adore. Americans hate themselves for the way they behave in public, always smiling and nodding their heads with accompanying really?s and uh-huhs to show that they're listening to the other person, never having the guts to say what they really feel. So they vicariously scream and bully others into submission through right-wing surrogate-brutes. Spending time watching Sean Hannity is enough for your average American white male to feel less cowardly than he really is.

The left won't accept this awful truth about the American soul, a beast that they believe they can fix "if only the people knew the Truth."

But what if the Truth is that Americans don't want to know the Truth? What if Americans consciously choose lies over truth when given the chance—and not even very interesting lies, but rather the blandest, dumbest and meanest lies? What if Americans are not a likeable people? The left's wires short-circuit when confronted with this terrible possibility; the right, on the other hand, warmly embraces Middle America's rank soul and exploits it to their full advantage. The Republicans know Americans better than the left. They know that it's not so much Goering's famous "bigger lie" that works here, but the dumber the lie, the more they want to hear it repeated.
The reason is simple. The underlying major premise of humanist-leftist ideology states that people are intrinsically sympathetic. If people are defiantly mean and craven, the humanist-left structure falters. "Why the fuck should I bother fighting for Middle Americans," they ask, "if they're just as loathsome, in their own petty way, as their exploiters, with whom they actively collaborate?"

But we on the left are, increasingly, guilty of the same thing. For one thing, it hurts to be told, by the President and his Men (and women), that we aren't really Americans. Erickson shrewdly observes that this was probably the biggest reason why so many people became enthusiastic about Howard Dean in 2003-2004; he was the one Democrat of that time to stand up and scream (literally, alas) that, yes, we are Americans and we're damn well entitled to be treated as such. I admit that the only reason I could even consider voting for Hillary Clinton--hell, the only reason I voted for her in her first Senate campaign, the same year Bush stole the presidency--is to stick it right back to them. The mania of spite voting is real, and increasingly it's bipartisan.

There's probably a cultural/societal component to this as well. I also believe this is the Age of Selfish Pleasures, and that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The rise of mass media in the 20th century created a somewhat unified culture for the first time: suddenly, people in Iowa and New York and Alaska and Louisiana were listening to, then watching, the same things, and the differences between those places and the people who lived in them began to diminish. Then, as mass media diversified--a thousand cable channels, then uncountable millions of websites--the newly coherent whole fractured to a greater extent than ever before. We could make our own amusement, and those personalized entertainments are so engrossing that now many of us, certainly myself, couldn't tell you what the highest-rated TV shows even are. Suddenly people in New York, or Iowa, or Alaska, or Georgia, had as little or less in common with those a hundred yards away as with those a thousand miles away. If you don't feel community with those even within shouting distance, it's unlikely that you'll feel a national sense.

In the long run, it's not hard to see how this could be a good thing. It's probably not that hard to chart a path from self-entertainment to self-fulfillment, and anything that helps break down hierarchies of control--the sort of hierarchy in its full glory at the "Summit"--is ultimately good for democracy. But for now, we're far from that, and there seems little to be done except to surf the web, play some video games and hope something good is on TV or at the movies. The public sphere is a no-man's land.

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