Last year when I was in my big Steve Erickson phase, I read most of the guy's novels (highly recommended, particularly The Sea Came in at Midnight and its sequel, Our Ecstatic Days) and a few political essays he wrote. The mere fact of these surprised me, as Erickson the novelist is pretty far from topical--but his perspective turned out to be pretty close to mine. He articulated something that I've been thinking since at least 2004: one way to characterize American politics over the last 20-odd years is that we're in the midst of a Cold Civil War, where the cleavage isn't geographical but cultural and ideological. (Rick Perlstein's Nixonland--another great read which I wrote about here a couple times this summer--takes this ball and runs further back into history with it.)
Writing in February 2004, Erickson put it this way:
Ideology for both right and left has become an irresistible way of viewing the truth through the prism of philosophical biases. By its nature, ideology not only is at ease with intellectual dishonesty but thrives on it. Liberals with an expansive view of the Bill of Rights suddenly become strict constructionists when it comes to the Second Amendment, citing the maintenance of militias over the amendment's clear principal concern with protecting the individual from disarmament by the state. Conservatives with an abiding mistrust of civil liberties suddenly become champions of the First Amendment when it has to do with campaign-finance reform and the power of the very rich to influence how others vote. In a confused and weary America where the political center doesn't have the energy to take control of the most troubling issues of the time, ideology is a power base not so much for ideas — because original thinking is anathema to ideology — but for the passion that electorally moves the great non-ideological unwashed. Thus a debate as ethically, even metaphysically disquieting as the one over abortion, which involves nothing less than the unknowable answer to when humanity begins, is dominated by polar positions that will defend every "life" from the moment of conception and every "choice" up to the moment of birth, and that finally will reject one notion of humanity for another, whether it be that of the mother in whose body the fetus grows, or that of the child whom medical science has proved can now exist after a five-month pregnancy.
"Everyone says liberals love America, too," writes [Ann] Coulter. "No, they don't," and probably nothing is more indicative of the ineffectuality and incomprehension of secularists in this civil war than that they would argue. Because of course Coulter is right; it's not her America that secularists love. Secularists love the America of Tom Paine, not Cotton Mather, but they keep trying to reconcile the two, since both are part of America's story and since in fact such a reconciliation always has been the dream of America and those who invented it. The secular center won't accept that there's a culture war going on. In the desire to reach accommodation, secularists acquiesce to the right on the very meaning of Americanism, not to mention definitions of character. "At least he's a decent man," someone recently protested to me about George Bush, by which she meant in comparison to the last guy, of course, even when as a matter of public policy such "decency" means the abandonment of AmeriCorps programs, which allowed college students to pay off loans by teaching underprivileged children to read, in contrast with the expansion of the earned-income tax credit by the morally vitiated Clinton, who raised millions of people out of poverty as a result. It's a decency that impeaches a president for lying about a sexual affair but not about a war.
I am a traitor: When will we say it? As the gauntlet is hurled before us in the name of traditionalism, how often will we pick it up and offer it back, so we can be mugged with it? We should say that we are traitors of one America, patriots of another...
What he's talking about, of course, are two worldviews within one country, essentially irreconcilable.
I had hoped that this election year wouldn't primarily be about the clash of those two worldviews. Arguably the core appeal of both Barack Obama and John McCain is that they've shown the capacity to transcend those views: Obama's 2004 convention keynote speech was the most powerful call for American unity that I can remember, and McCain's undeniable political courage at many points in his career--and, until this year, his resolute insistence upon regarding Democrats as human beings and full Americans--both offered grounds to support this hope. But a week into the national political career of Sarah Palin, and particularly after watching her speech last night, that hope pretty much is gone.
Palin's rise and her "choices" offer both a highly disturbing window into that mindset on the other side, and a confirmation that ideology remains supreme on the hard right. I wasn't particularly moved either way by the revelation that Palin's daughter was pregnant and that she's going to bear her child; the episode offers a reminder that teenagers do irresponsible things and that their families are primarily obligated to support and love them. It's a brave and honorable choice (putting aside, for now, both that the Palins have the resources to make this a less painful choice than many other families would face, and that the governor would prefer to deprive all Americans of that choice) and, for the nothing it means, I wish them the best with it.
What stunned my wife and me was that the daughter, age 17, is getting married to the young man who knocked her up, and that nobody seems even interested in what this decision tells us. Call me cynical or hopelessly secular or whatever--and I absolutely agree that it's their choice to do this--but how can these two incomplete people have any notion of what a lifetime commitment through marriage even means? How can they take that seriously? But it hasn't even come up, as far as I can see. Evidently the mere fact that they're having the baby and getting married is enough on the right to end the conversation; the well being of all three individuals is something of an afterthought.
Palin's speech last night, particularly its mockery of "community organizers" but also its multiple untruths and distortions, was another stunner. In theory, Republicans should honor community organizers: they're the shock troops of the "armies of compassion" George W. Bush has called upon to take on some responsibilities previously considered within the public purview, and many of them--like Barack Obama in the late '80s--were and are affiliated with religious institutions, which enjoy greater trust and credibility within their communities than most other institutions. So why the hate? Is it coded racism? A broader sneer at the poor and neglected?
Opinion on the speech seems to follow this same divide: Republicans found it energizing and inspirational, Democrats nasty and substance-free. This too seems to confirm that, after all the hope for a better politics stirred up by Obama and McCain earlier this year, we're in for more of the same in the last two months of this race. The country deserves better, or so I'd like to think.