As the Middle East slips back into Intifada mode, I thought I’d say something before it’s too late about the current election campaign.
One feature of American politics that Europeans have a difficult time understanding is the extreme significance in two-party democracy of appeals to the “center.” This encourages our presidential campaigns to become personality contests centered on the least informed and least concerned voters. Although not all swing voters are ignorant and indifferent, they surely average a lot more so than those who are ideologically committed to one side or the other. Barring the extremes of Goldwater or McGovern, you are voting less for an individual than for a party representing a set of general principles that you hope to see translated into legislation, foreign policy, and–increasingly crucial in our litigious age–judicial appointments.
The democratic process, designed by the intellectuals of the 18th century, was not designed to please those of our own day. (I’m not a big fan of William Buckley, but I certainly agree with his preference for being governed by the first thousand names in the Boston phone book rather than by the Harvard faculty.) Universal suffrage is a reality only when the politicians must appeal to each individual voter, and the great mass of undecided force them to do this far better than the well-organized and focused factions of either side who put up the money for the campaign.
This being said, some thoughts on the election.
Gore has always repelled me. His maudlin exploitation of family tragedies in past elections (not this one; the focus groups must have dissuaded him) discredits him in my eyes far more than Clinton’s sexual adventures. Telling us he created the Internet and inspired Love Story or listened as a child to union songs not yet written is not much better. (Shades of Hillary Clinton’s claim that she was named for Edmund Hillary although she was born before he climbed Mt. Everest.) On the other side of the ledger, Bush’s naming Jesus as his favorite political philosopher–without telling us a thing about Jesus’ “political philosophy”–is a bit much. (My favorite political philosopher is Hobbes, if only for the phrase “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”) Yet I guess the real importance of Jesus’ political philosophy isn’t what one can say about it in a debate, but what one does to implement it. Sanctimoniousness aside, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) is a pretty good rule of thumb.
Isn’t this personality rather than ideology? Yes, but the personality-watchers have a point. The crucial problems of the post-millennial age are not likely to be finding the best tax cut plan or the best way of “saving” Social Security. We must prepare ourselves for unpredictable world crises and perhaps domestic ones as well. Terrorists are getting smarter and the resentment that fuels them is getting no weaker. Voters are not ill-advised to observe these potential “leaders of the Free World” for indications of who would perform better in a crisis.
In such circumstances, I’d rather have a modest guy who knows how to make decisions but is willing to take advice than someone obsessed with his self-image to the point of inventing outlandish and easily refuted fictions. As to the question of how I would vote if the character traits of the candidates were reversed, my answer is that Republicans are just not like that–not even Newt Gingrich, with all his self-importance.
In the old days, Democrats weren’t like that either. No political figure is a bigger hero in my eyes than Harry Truman. Even my K.C. Republican in-laws have a grudging respect for the guy. (Truman’s Independence, MO is a suburb of Kansas City.) Neither Gore nor Bush have the grass-roots quality of this middle-class soldier, haberdasher, and small-town politician, the guy who said “the buck stops here” and fired that old blowhard Douglas MacArthur, not to speak of desegregating the military and recognizing Israel. Yet if you subject both of them to the Truman test, I think you’d know which one to vote for. No doubt Gore’s “fighting for you” echoes Truman’s rhetoric and his marriage seems as solid as that of Harry and Bess, but can you picture Truman pleading that he’s “his own man”? Bush, whatever his limitations, doesn’t have that kind of problem.
Let me not belabor this point, and, instead, attempt to define what is at stake in this election beyond the conflict of personalities and even of parties.
The disappearance of the serious third-party challenges of the past two elections corresponds to the decline of the “third way” between liberalism (in its American sense) and conservatism. Perot’s success was that of a process-oriented positivist in opposition to what he credibly labeled interest-group-centered ideologies. One way to interpret this is as a last political statement of the “middle class,” the people who (used to) shop at Sears and drink twenty-five-cent coffee. Today the candidates of the major parties have reassured their bases and are seeking the votes of the people in the middle, but being in the middle doesn’t make them a middle class. The fact that Gore, in his populist tirades, uses the term “middle-class” as a synonym for “lower-income,” signifies only that the very sense of a middle has been lost. Not that long ago, it was clear to the members of the middle class both who was above them and who below–and not just the “underclass.”
Does this mean our society is becoming more polarized? More “diverse”? I’ll just say that anyone who believes that exchange is the essential human activity can’t really be upset about the revival of a marginally more adversarial politics. Yet I would note the difference between the conflict today and that of a generation or two ago, in the days of the New and Old Left.
Although the term “socialism” is not incapable of making a comeback, the model incarnated by the USSR is dead; the people who once swore by it are now busy denouncing our Cold-War bullying of our feeble adversary. Smashing the “capitalist” social order has become a marginal stance and will likely remain so in the foreseeable future. The most extreme rhetoric on either side of the present divide is not likely to lead to violence à la 1968 or even to large-scale disaffection from the political process. It should not be forgotten that, during the Vietnam War, the Left considered socialism the superior system not only in Vietnam but also in the United States (ideally without abolishing parliamentary democracy), nor that they were convinced that socialist states would eventually surpass capitalist ones in productivity as well as social justice. Back in the 1930s, needless to say, the Left’s positions were even more extreme.
The conservative Right is by definition without utopian dreams, so without the downside of world-class disillusionments. (The Radical Right, truly represented not by Pat Robertson but by Hitler and his residual worshipers, is really much closer to the Left, notably in its disdain for the democratic process.) Republicans are far less inclined than Democrats to dream of replacing the market system with something else. Although the real base of the Republicans is in small, not “big” business, there is little clientele for withdrawal from either global or domestic exchange. The polarization of political styles between the parties, reflecting the polarization of the interest groups that support them, suggests not so much divergence on the issues as broad general agreement that permits more intense debate on the margins. This extends even to foreign policy. The fact that the Democrats have in the last few years become more activist in this area than the Republicans only underscores the lack of any fundamental disagreement on aims. Not very long ago the idea of “projecting American power” was viewed with horror by mainstream liberals; today the difference comes down to the Democrats’ marginally greater propensity for “idealism” and marginally inferior attention to the nuances of diplomatic gravitas (viz. the recent shots of Mme Albright reviewing North Korean troops with KJI).
No member of a university department is unaware of the difference between large differences of opinion and intense ones; no reader of Girard–or Dostoevsky–can be unaware that the two often vary in inverse proportion. Faculty members who have all their intellectual prejudices in common engage in impassioned conflicts over an appointment or an exam result. This sort of thing may be unhealthy in a small group, but it is not such a bad thing in the national political forum of so large, wealthy, powerful, and diverse (without quotes) a country as the USA. The more debate there is in the center of things, the better the nation will prepare itself for both the prolongation of the current prosperity in certain areas and its inevitable cessation in others. (The relative lack of debate on foreign policy, on the other hand, strikes me as rather a good thing.) It may be true that neither candidate in this election has been able to articulate, save perhaps in one area (see below), a distinctive political position–as opposed to associating himself with distinctive political symbols–but in today’s context, one’s starting position is less important than one’s contribution to the effectiveness of the political process through engaging debate and negotiating solutions.
While I am in this somewhat platitudinous vein, let me add a few words on the best-articulated issue of this campaign: that of public education. Like millions of other public school graduates of earlier times, I find it hard to relate to the horror stories about the K-12 world: drugs, guns, stopped-up toilets, terrorized teachers, disrupted classrooms. In my experience, not all that much learning went on in the old schools–I could tell a different kind of horror story, even about classes at the Bronx High School of Science–but the baby-sitting was at worst a mode of “socialization” that made us eager to absorb more concentrated doses of information at a later date.
We can forget the “cultural” explanations: the “decline of civic values,” porno on the Internet, “bowling alone,” raves, rap, road rage, whatever. Durkheim worried about suicide and anomie over a century ago and we’re still going strong. The problem of creating “solidarity” in the modern exchange-system should not, in my view, be approached from the Rousseauian standpoint of opposing what is “natural” to humanity to the excesses of modernity. By replacing the sacred by the “natural,” Rousseau created the key modern variant of that hoariest of cultural modes: telling us how much better things were in the old days. (The sign is always greater, “older,” than its referents; this is true already of the originary sign and its referent.) It is easy to repeat the Ur-cliché all the while brandishing statistics and sounding very à la page. But it always comes down to saying: “in the past, whatever innovations we permitted, there were still some basic human values that remained untouched. But now etc. etc. etc.” The only people who bother to defend modernity against this ancient diatribe are a few bohemian esthetes–unless it takes an anti-PC tack by seeming to condemn the practices of a “subaltern” group, at which point the academic masses hasten to insist, in what they fail to realize is an echo of old Durkheim himself, on the “social construction” of all values: who are we to condemn the Other’s culture? To this in turn respond the evolutionary psychologists… but at this point the debate has become too esoteric for our purposes.
How do I propose to avoid this overly-trodden path? By rejecting the Rousseauian premise along with its pseudo-Durkheimian antithesis. Things aren’t just getting worse, but it does matter if they do. I would rather begin from the assumptions that human societies all show about the same level of concern for our biological (“natural”) needs and that any ongoing society demonstrates by its very survival that it maintains a sufficient level of cohesion (“solidarity”). Along with Rousseau, Gibbon is the secret model for our apocalyptic thinkers, but the barbarians are not at the gates: they are watching our TV reruns.
Once we exorcise the apocalyptic temptation we can address the real issue, not whether American, Western, or global society is falling apart, but what kind of equilibrium it is adopting and how we can–assuming “we” agree–inflect this equilibrium. American society works pretty well with porn on the Internet and obscene rap songs; if we want to change this, it isn’t because we’re afraid of social chaos (hard to make a case for this at current crime rates) but because, like the late Steve Allen, we don’t like the kind of social stability that includes such things.
Enter the public education system, dominated by teachers’ (and their unions’) desire for “professionalization.” Just try to get a permanent position in a public school and you’ll soon discover that two PhDs and forty years of university teaching experience are mere chaff to the grain of Ed Courses and “supervised” teaching. Now the Ed courses of today, in spirit even more than matter, distill the most imbecilic strain of PC, which defines respect for human equality as refusing to do anything that risks generating a perception of invidious differences. In plain English, the worst thing is to make anyone (except those in the “majority”) feel “inferior.” Not that I’m convinced it’s really so terrible to put off reality until college–the US has by everyone’s agreement the world’s best universities. But along with plain old incompetence (arguably greater than in the past, now that the old teacher pool of intelligent young women has moved upmarket), Ed-School PC is surely the single most obvious factor in our K-12 problem. If I had to listen to the sort of inane gender-ethnic propaganda that passes for history and culture in the schools, I’d blast those rap records too; maybe I’d start cutting a few myself. These expressions of naked resentment are an inevitable reaction to the “nice” NEA-approved resentments against the “patriarchy,” “dead white males,” “Western civilization,” and the rest.
Solutions? Vouchers are a possibility; for starters, you can guess which candidate the NEA likes better.
George Sivertson informs me that on a TV debate this week, Ben Stein used the proverb of the Hedgehog and the Fox to champion Bush over his “foxy” opponent. I’m happy to give one big vote to someone who knows One Big Thing.