July 27, 2004

As I Would Not Be A Slave, So I Would Not Be A Master

I have rarely paid much attention to the party conventions, but this year is different in every respect. I’ve been finding the gosh-wow stupidity of the television journalists about the presence of bloggers unintentionally hilarious—listening to Jeff Greenfield on CNN explain the exotic idea of a “link” as if he were trying to explain superstring theory, followed by some reporter minion of his practically wetting himself over the intricacies of some strange new-fangled thing called “the Web” , was especially rich.

The more interesting thing to me was something that came out in Gore’s mercifully brief speech and reverberated occasionally throughout the night, what I saw of it. Even before 9/11, one of the things that really bothered me about Bush and his administration was their sick arrogance, their lack of respect for the thinness of their electoral margin and what that should have told them about their mandate or lack thereof. It bothered me before I even knew that it did, or why it did. It bothered me early and angers me now because that arrogance has dragged American society to a very seriously dangerous juncture in its history.

I’m not talking about my usual opinion on Iraq and the response to 9/11. If you read this blog, you’ve heard that all before. That’s reason enough to vote against Bush.

However, there’s something deeper and wilder here, a fire that will more than burn the hands of kids playing with matches—and there’s been a lot of playing with matches since November 2000.

The New York Times has lately been assuring us that ordinary Americans are not bitterly divided on partisan grounds, and in one sense, I believe it. Yes, I know that there are a great many issues on which there exists some degree of consensus, and probably many issues beyond that where there might be disagreement between Americans, but of a mild and unexciting sort. In another sense, I think the Times’ polls are full of crap. Among the Americans who actually vote, who are attuned to political issues, there’s a high-strung sense of tension and anxiety that I’ve never experienced in my lifetime. Maybe 1968 would compare: I was more concerned with my tricycle at that point, so I can’t say in a meaningfully experiential way.

I used to say, around October 2000 or so, “Ok, so what if Bush wins? It won’t be that bad. He’ll do some things I don’t like, but he’ll be fairly constrained both by the size of his victory [which we could all see would be small if it came to pass] and by a prudential need to appease the political center.” I was seeing Bush as his father’s son, and his presidency as the mirror image of Bush the Senior’s presidency.

This was staggeringly wrong. The second Bush presidency has been unprecedented in its ideological extremism and arrogance. I think that reflects very badly on Bush and his associates. If we want to talk about Bush’s lies, let’s start with his promise to govern with all Americans in mind, as a uniter and not a divider. That’s his biggest lie of all, one that can’t be qualified as an accidental error based on faulty intelligence or a modest distortion. There’s no way to argue that Bush has governed with the intent to unite, to overcome partisan division. Al Gore called Bush on this lie last night, and rightfully so.

This is about more than Bush. One of the reasons I chide people on the left for not seeking dialogue and consensus, one of the reasons I am constantly looking for the presence of reason and the possibility of connection across the political spectrum, is that if we get ourselves into a situation where 51% of the voting population or a narrow majority of electoral votes is imposing a total and coordinated social and political agenda on the almost-as-large minority who has a radically different and equally coordinated social and political vision, we’re staring at the threshold of a very scary future, regardless of whom the 51% is or what they stand for.

In this respect, we have to see past George Bush and his poor leadership for a moment, and see the people who strongly stand behind him. It is they who really matter, their choice which will shape the next four years. It to them that I make my most desperate, plaintive appeals, my eleventh-hour plea not to pull the trigger. To choose Bush is to choose to impose the starkest, most extreme formulation of the agenda that Bush has come to exemplify on a population of Americans to whom that agenda is repellant. To choose Bush is to choose Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority (or even, judging from the popular vote in 2000, tyranny of the almost-majority). To choose Bush now—not in 2000, when he plausibly could have been many things--is to aspire to tyranny, to ruling your neighbors and countrymen. That some on the left have had or even achieved similar aspirations from time to time doesn’t change things: it’s wrong whenever it is the driving vision of political engagement, for whomever holds it.

I know that there are socially and culturally conservative Americans, many of them Christians, who already feel that they live in a Babylonian captivity, that they are already at the mercy of a secular culture. But the vigor of evangelical Christian culture in the past decade—the profusion of Christian books, movies, television shows, and so on—demonstrates to me that a secular, consumerist America is one where even nonsecular or dissenting Americans are free to make their own way, form their own communities, choose their own culture. A culturally conservative crusade led from the White House is not the same thing, not a mere flipping of the coin, a karmic reversal. An evangelical Christian can refuse to consume pornography, but if pornography is outlawed, then anyone who wishes to view it is a criminal. Feeling the need to avert one’s eyes and being subject to criminal penalty are very different things. It’s the difference between freedom and unfreedom, between the Bill of Rights and a series of wrongs.

If Kerry is elected, and imposes a kind of extremist political vision root and branch upon the Americans who oppose him that is comparable to what Bush has done (I don’t see how he could, given that Congress is likely to be Republican in any event), then we’ll know that there is no possible consensus for us all, that a kind of final struggle has been joined in which every American will end as either tyrant or slave. I choose to believe and hope and trust that we’re not there yet. I choose to believe that we can have leaders who will not push us to that brink, and that we can have voters who also forbear to do so. If Bush is chosen, it may signal that there's no way out. I yet believe we can find the place where ordinary American decencies live, where most of us can go along to get along, where “don’t tread on me” and the City on the Hill belong in the same neighborhood, are part of the same love of country, are equally part of the American Dream.