Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Fearful symmetry

Well, the whole civilized world breathed a sigh of relief last night. For some reason this election seemed incredibly important. Maybe they all do, and then we forget until the next one? This particular moment in history is unlikely to be especially pivotal just because we are in it now. 

But I don’t remember the 2004 election being this charged, and not just because my guy lost that time. Maybe it’s because Bush was something of a bad joke and so was Kerry, while Romney, despite of (or because of) his slipperiness, seemed to actually embody something coherent and terrifying. During the campaign I had him pegged as a consummate salesman, the kind of sleaze who talks you into buying a timeshare condominium or undercoating or nutritional supplement that you don’t really need. I could easily see him charming me if I wasn’t well-informed and knew to keep my guard up. Such con artists don’t survive long-term contact, and Romney was overexposed in the campaign, placed into situations where he didn’t have a sales script and so ended up looking like a woefully out-of-place automaton.

Whatever was going on with Romney, for me it had echos of psychopathy, and defeating him thus seemed to take on the color of moral necessity, or that it was fighting for something even deeper than that, for the very essence of the human. That is to say, while there were plenty of perfectly commonsense reasons to not want to see this guy as President, there also seemed to be an almost metaphysical undercurrent to him and his campaign — that the forces he represented were inimical to humanity, to knowledge, to everything I value. I can’t quite articulate what I mean here, but I wish Philip K Dick was around, since he specialized in turning the relation between the human and the inhuman, and the pretensions of the latter to the former, into fiction.

But about half the country doesn’t see it that way, far from it. To them, Romney is a fine upstanding family man, and it’s that other guy who embodies an existential threat to their values. There is some really over-the-top commentary today, as you would expect. It’s the end of America! (no links, but very easy to find this stuff [oh, ok, this is too good to resist]). I guess I can sort of understand how they feel using symmetry.

So, what about Obama? What does he signify? He is awfully fortunate in his enemies, that’s for sure. When you are running against something like Romney and the present Republican Party it doesn’t take much maneuvering to make yourself seem like the earthly vessel of intelligence, sanity, and caring. But this was a hard election to win, and he didn’t win it by laying back. He is (whatever else) a masterful politician, and he too seems to bundle up a bunch of cultural tendencies. Deliberately unspecific to allow the maximal amount of projection (remember “Hope and change”? How unspecific can
you get? Yet those one-word slogans were just right for the moment). But I give Obama credit because he takes all these inchoate longings, packages them up, reflects them back, and in the process actually gets some stuff done. Maybe not as much as I’d like, but it can’t be easy simultaneously being a synedoche for “change” and hammering out the details of 2000 page legislation.

Here’s the great Charles Pierce, who is a little more bowled over than I would like, but I agree with what I think he's saying:
The creative project of self-government — hard and frustrating but necessary — is to produce that political commonwealth that changes over time, that can change sometimes by the minute, if circumstances intervene. This whole campaign has been a referendum on that project… That was the issue underlying all the others. That was the fight that Romney and his party quite deliberately picked, reckoning that we had tired of all that hard and frustrating but necessary work the project involved. That was the question that was settled so definitively last night. The long creative project of America has been to engage all its citizens in that work. That is the history that [Obama] wears so well, and that he wields so subtly.
Obama embodies history, Romney embodied something else – not an alternative version of history but almost the negation of it. His constant etch-a-sketching of his own past is symbolic; but the party he leads has the same problem in larger form. The one thing that unites conservatives is the sense of being unhappy with history and wanting to return to an earlier time, back before everything went wrong, a time which might be biblical Rome, 1776, 1950, or the Hollywood version of the Old West. That too is an inchoate mess of feelings, a nostalgia for a time that never was. Obama has a demonstrated ability to actually harness the inchoate into productive action; the right just uses them as a sales pitch for larceny.

So, there is a symmetrical and widening metaphysical gulf between the two sides – “hatred” doesn’t quite capture it, because each side doesn’t just hate the other, they see them as a real existential threat. I can kind of grasp this symmetry in a sort of abstract way, but in fact I don’t think the sides are symmetrical at all. I’m not some detached observer, I am most definitely on one of these sides and not on the other. I do try and understand the views of the other side, but it’s become more and more difficult, and perhaps now that they are solidly on their way to becoming an impotent minority party, I won’t have to.

8 comments:

lightning bulb (aka ngvrnd) said...

Au contraire, mon frere. I suggest there was almost no practical difference in the two candidates.

In religion, the smallest doctrinal differences can lead to the most violent schisms. In the religion of democracy, we see this played out here. As Homer Simpson said, "Well, Obama promised me death panels, but Granpa Simpson's still alive ... And Romney, well, he invented Obamacare."

The real process of government is pretty well captured by the unelected bureaucrats, so the Sturm und Drang of the presidency is unconstrained by practical considerations.

lightning bulb (aka ngvrnd) said...

In re: the Coke party, I would suggest that people and perhaps institutions change when they feel the flames, not before.

Perhaps they felt them this time. If not they will eventually.

Do you really think the country is well served by having a single dominant party? Do you think the problems of government admit of a closed form solution and therefore all we have to do is get the technocrats in place and everything will be perfect?
I think this is likely not the case.

Do you really think there are no aspects of the conservative agenda that have merit? Personally, I see merit in the economic views of Hayek, and I think Thoreau was right in that that government is best which governs least.

mtraven said...

I suggest there was almost no practical difference in the two candidates.

Well, this post was more about symbolic than practical differences.

It is true that there is not as much difference as I would like -- both parties are quite happy to maintain a bloated military and empire -- but there are manifestly important differences as well.

mtraven said...

Do you really think the country is well served by having a single dominant party?

No. I think it would be much better to have a conservative party that was not in thrall to the insane, the ignorant, the intolerant, and the greedy.

It's not hard to imagine such a party in the abstract -- say, it promoted policies that were fiscally conservative, business friendly, somewhat libertarian, somewhat isolationist. This is not the Republican party we have, by any stretch of the imagination.

TGGP said...

Funny, since the folks I was reading were saying it's the least important election since 1996.

fsascott said...

Although I do not agree with Obama and did not vote for him, I voted for Romney with little enthusiasm. Obama's victory neither surprised nor devastated me. It was neither a triumph for him, nor a rout for the Republicans. What is remarkable about the election, now that the dust has settled, is how much everything is the same as it was before. Republicans still comfortably control the House, and Democrats have a majority in the Senate that is not filibuster-proof. Obama was re-elected to the presidency by a much smaller majority of the popular vote than he received four years ago - the first time such a thing has happened since 1916. It is usual for presidents to be re-elected, but much more usual for a president to achieve a bigger margin on re-election than on initial election. Anyone who claims that 2012 provided a clear mandate is kidding himself.

"Obama embodies history," What twaddle. He has been much overestimated. I find it incredible that left-wing commentators seriously believe it when they praise him as the most brilliant, eloquent, and accomplished man ever to occupy the White House, or similar hyperbole. Really? More brilliant than Thomas Jefferson, who in addition to being a politician was an author, architect, and scientist? More eloquent than Abraham Lincoln, who while holding the Union together managed to infuse even his most casual utterances with a quality of expression that Obama couldn't approach on his best day with his platoon of speechwriters and a teleprompter? More accomplished than Theodore Roosevelt (whose accomplishments are too numerous to list)?

Obama won in 2008 on a campaign of glittering generalities about hope and change. He wasted his first two years, when his party had a control of Congress it hasn't since the time of Lyndon Johnson. Instead of taking steps to restore the industrial economy, or mend the country's broken immigration policy, he spent them on a convoluted health-care bill the actual writing of which he abdicated to the Democratic Congressional leadership, which demonstrated by its work product the old wisecrack that a giraffe is a horse designed by committee. Its passage took place on a strict party-line vote that was successful only because several reluctant Democratic moderates were cajoled with concessions or browbeaten with threats to support it.

A "shellacking" for Obama's party in 2010 was the consequence, and his victory this year has been only a weak recovery from that. He did not moderate or compromise then, but redoubled his demagoguery against business and "the rich." He will continue in this vein. It wouldn't be surprising to see Republican gains in the House and perhaps a Republican capture of control in the Senate in 2014. The likelihood is that he will leave office in 2016 with approval ratings on the level of Truman in 1952 or Johnson in 1968.

@ "The one thing that unites conservatives is the sense of being unhappy with history and wanting to return to an earlier time, back before everything went wrong, a time which might be biblical Rome, 1776, 1950, or the Hollywood version of the Old West."

The best responses to the above are several of don Colacho's aphorisms -

"The reactionary does not aspire to turn back, but rather to change direction. The past that he admires is not a goal but an exemplification of his dreams."

"The reactionary does not respect everything history brings, but respects only what it brings."

"The reactionary does not yearn for the futile restoration of the past, but for the improbable rupture of the future with this sordid present."

And, to your Twittering "Dear Republicans: the culture war is over. Culture won."

The appropriate response is:

"Anguish over the decline of civilization is the affliction of a reactionary. The democrat cannot lament the disappearance of something of which he is ignorant."

mtraven said...

There was only one part of that last comment that I found interesting, because it demonstrates that you didn’t understand what the point of the original post was:

"Obama embodies history," What twaddle. He has been much overestimated. I find it incredible that left-wing commentators seriously believe it when they praise him as the most brilliant, eloquent, and accomplished man ever to occupy the White House, or similar hyperbole.

To say he embodies history is not to make any claims about his brilliance or greatness or even leadershp, just that he has managed to embody a certain part of the zeitgeist. As a very good politician, he’s created and packaged himself in such a way as to allow the hopes of a large number of people to be projected on him. In doing so, he makes himself about his times and his times about him. Reagan apparently did the same thing for the other half of the country back in his era, as did Kennedy for his times. I’m not sure Obama will be seen quite as era-defining as those two (who were also vastly over-rated in terms of their actual accomplishments, but we are talking political symbolism here). But he embodies larger historical forces than they did. He can’t help but be a landmark on the road from slavery to a truly inclusive society.

fsascott said...

@ "But he embodies larger historical forces than they did. He can’t help but be a landmark on the road from slavery to a truly inclusive society."

There's one small problem with this reasoning - Obama's ancestors were never slaves, and neither their experience nor his own reflect the usual African-American experience. Some of his former opponents and past critics within the black community, like Bobby Rush and Jesse Jackson, pointed this out long ago. All he shares with the ordinary American Negro is the color of his skin, and the phenomenon of "race" - however you define it - involves much more than that. His attempts to identify himself with the American black community, such as joining Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church in Chicago, display a rather evident element of self-serving calculation.

As for a "truly inclusive society," the welfare culture, with its housing projects, food stamps, and AFDC, has done no less, and perhaps more to segregate and ghettoize the American Negro population than Jim Crow ever did. An exponent of the programs that created the welfare culture, Obama wishes to continue the policies that have encouraged the present post-Jim Crow segregation.

What has Obama ever said or done that suggests he has any ideas how to wean the mass of lower-class blacks from their dependency on government? That's a prerequisite to their developing self-sufficiency, which is in turn a necessary condition for full inclusion in the larger society.