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.