Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, March 26, 2010

Junk Politics

A voter's guide to the post-literate election

by Benjamin DeMott

Harper's Magazine Essay (November 2003)

Bobbing placards. Bunting. Stray balloon. Cheering crowd. Trombone glissando. The candidate speaks, then descends from the podium to work the line:
Thanks. Thanks so much. You're great. Thanks.
You guys are just great. Thank you. Thanks so much. You guys are great.
Voice in crowd:

Remember the income gap.

I will. Thanks so much. You're great. I was born here.
You're just great. Thank you.

-- As recorded by C-SPAN August 26 2003, at a Howard Dean rally in Bryant Park, Manhattan.

Watch a campaign rally virtual or "real" nowadays and few birds sing. Beamish faces, meet-and-greet cliches, candidates leaning in, head bending and squinting to suggest deep dread of missing a syllable of The People's Response ... A steady flow of gratitude to the "folks" who have "come out", praise for the folks' quality (great people), sideline pepper talk (Go get 'em, man), oddball, off-camera sound-bite admonitions ("Remember the income gap"). Following immutable protocols, candidates and supporters resemble the procession in Keats's urn, fast fixed in timelessness.

Bemused or bored, you tell yourself: Junk politics, always and ever the same.

But that's wrong, as it happens. The hogwash quotient of political panegyric may vary little from age to age (Nathaniel Hawthorne's nineteenth century book-length tribute to Franklin Pierce isn't a lot more vapid than the nominating speeches that will soon thrill partisan New York and Boston). But the content of junk politics and the styles of self-mythologizing that drive home the messages - the key metaphors and tropes - constantly evolve. And, as the great twentieth-century scholar-critic Northrop Frye used to insist, changes in metaphor are fundamental changes.

Religious history in the West bears Frye out. Ten centuries ago metaphorical elaborations were beginning to sex up Christian worship. New playlets allowed hitherto silenced voices to speak. (Jesus' captors shouted taunts at the tortured Savior.) Hitherto undreamed of themes, conflicts, and human ambitions inserted themselves into church services. Charges that liturgical and other corruption was muddling the mind of the faithful sharpened into wars, split a powerful church in two, and opened the revolutionary paths we still travel. Obviously trope changes matter.

The case is that both the essential planks and the elaborating tropes of today's junk politics are troublingly underexamined, yet they've been functioning for some time as major agents of public confusion. They advance beliefs and values that are connected only superficially, if at all, with the best in this country's past. Democratic principles are obscured. Rising mists of patriotic fustian erase the memory of honored American pledges ("liberty and justice for all"). What's needed for civil security is a new kind of primer - call it a tropological guide, call it a twenty-first-century political shit detector - aimed at fostering recognition of and effective contention against the stories threatening to undo us.

The right starting point is with broad questions: What are the defining characteristics and content of junk politics in our time? What key tropes serve basic junk-political ends? Some bare-boned answers:

1. Junk politics personalizes and moralizes issues and interests rather than clarifying them. It's impatient with articulated conflict, enthusiastic about Americans' optimism and moral character, and heavily dependent on feel-your-pain language and gesture.

2. Junk politics takes changelessness as a major cause - changelessness meaning zero interruption in the processes and practices that strengthen existing, interlocking systems of socioeconomic advantage.

3. Junk politics introduces new qualifications for high political office, and in the process redefines traditional values. It tilts courage toward braggadocio, sympathy toward mawkishness, humility toward self-disrespect, identification with ordinary citizens toward distrust of brains.

4. Junk politics miniaturizes large, complex problems at home while maximizing threats from abroad. It's also given to abrupt unexplained reversals of its own public stances, often spectacularly bloating problems previously miniaturized.

5. Junk politics seeks at every turn to obliterate voters' consciousness of socioeconomic and other differences in their midst.

The politics just skeletally summarized isn't sold by argumentation and analysis but rather, as I say, by anecdote, tone, and trope, and by kindly eyes and genial grin. The price the nation pays in consuming this politics is a dangerous weakening of the substructure of democratic citizenship. Voters' prime enemy as elections approach isn't, in short, the opposition's slate; it's junk politics itself and associated tropes. The old rule applies: Know Your Enemy and Resist It Intelligently.

Love Heals All

Junk politics personalizes mainly through tropes of heart - feel-your-pain chatter and touchy-feely personal testimony. The implicit message is that leadership's chief concern should be with setting an upbeat tone and demonstrating a sensitive response to hardship, rather than with homing in on injustice, spelling out practical correctives, arguing for the correctives in public forums, working for their ultimate enactment.

Standard warmups for salutes to "heart" spotlight narratives by or about the once injuted and insulted. Let me tell you my story, said speaker after speaker during the opening sessions of the quadrennial party conventions in the year 2000 and on the campaign trail thereafter. For years my church had few members, could not get a loan ... I was a foreigner, the child of immigrants, had no standing - yet here I am on this platform ... I was a welfare mother, but now I take home $200,000 a year... As a child I played on a toxic-waste dump, but now ... At the conventions, displays of heart involved figures of larger consequence. Hadassah Lieberman spoke affectingly about her parents tortured in concentration camps. The departing president mentioned his humiliation but reported he was now "at peace". President-to-be Bush remembered his visit to a juvenile jail in Texas during which he talked with "angry, wary" young inmates who had committed grown-up crimes. (When he looked in their eyes, Bush told audiences, "I realized some of them were still little boys".)

The new president also remembered an activist minister in Minneapolis who labored tirelessly for the homeless:

I think of Mary Jo Copeland, whose ministry called "Sharing and Caring Hands" serves 1,000 meals a week in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Each day, Mary washes the feet of the homeless, then sends them off with new socks and shoes.

"Look after your feet", she tells them. "They must carry you a long way in this world, and then all the way to God".

During the 2000-01 campaign, experiential reminiscence pushed one-on-one goodness, positive thinking, and prayer forward into the spotlight. A similar pattern is now emerging in the 2003-04 cycle. The personalizing media contribute round the clock (George Stephanopoulos inquiring as to whether Joe Lieberman is just "too nice" to be president). But Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt - and the Liebermans - all deal extensively in heart-baring personal history, personal pain. Hundreds of audiences learned about Gephardt as a man of feeling through his words regarding his mother ("she gave me everything I have"), who died in the summer of 2003. Gephardt further revealed that his twenty-six-year-old daughter is an underpaid schoolteacher, that his thirty-year-old daughter lately endured coming-out-gay anxiety, that his father suffered a back injury ending his days as a milk-truck driver, that his son, at age two, was diagnosed with terminal cancer (a tumor "the size of a volleyball"), and that Gephardt and his wife "went home that night [of the diagnosis], knelt down by the bed, and prayed that we could find an answer to our horrible problem". Happily a doctor called in the morning and advised them about a new experimental therapy, and today the toddler, named Matt, is a thirty-two-year-old married resident of Atlanta, Georgia. ("I get warm all over when I see this young man", Gephardt reports. "He is a gift from God".)

Heart tropes employ personal testimony to create an experience of intimacy, sincere and authentic; the feelings and thoughts aren't easily dismissed as abstract, predictable, partisan mouthings. Let me reveal to you in passing that l am a man of prayer ... Quiet accents of candor bring a sense of closeness between speaker and audience, Republican, Democrat, whatever. The impression strengthens that heart - heart alone, not records of accomplishments, not positions on issues, not argued-for priorities, not expressive, persuasive talents - must be the electorate's pivotal concern. At the 2003 NAACP convention in Miami, Julian Bond excoriated no-show would-be presidential candidates, declaring that it was "as much by their presence as by their words" that the missing would be judged. Supporting that view, Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president, gestured at an elderly woman in a wheelchair, claiming that the candidates' failure to appear was "an affront to people like her who came to this convention to see the presidential candidates". (Lieberman and Kucinich raced to Florida to apologize for their absence, demonstrating heart. The former declared: "I was wrong. I regret it, and I apologize for it", and the latter announced: "I'm very sorry I wasn't able to be here. Amazing grace, how sweet it is, once was lost, now I'm found.")

Leaders need prove only that they can feel ... a child's or parent's or stranger's pain. Problems aren't as difficult as Phi Bete wonks claim. By shedding a moral defect, by being the buoyantly admirable, minority-sensitive, elder- and cripple-cherishing people that we necessarily are, Americans can make problems disappear.

But can Americans thereby reach basic terms of injustice - fundamental discontinuities between affirmed democratic values and standards and officially approved rules, practices, laws?

The revered historian R H Tawney warned almost a century ago against addresses to "humanitarians whose feelings are more easily stirred by hardships than their consciences are by injustice". He contended that the voices rousing American colonists against the Crown and American abolitionists against slavery had staying power less because they talked hardship than because they clarified rights and wrongs. This is even truer of the noble voices of the civil rights struggle. Great causes - they still exist - nourish themselves on firm, sharp awareness of the substance of injustice. The country's very foundations, indeed, lie in clearly defined understanding of injustices. Blunting such understanding is a major project of junk politics. And tropes of heart are among the projectors' key tools.

I'd Rather Be Cutting Brush

Junk politics is shrewdly yet passionately pro-changelessness; it promotes this cause with tropes encouraging the belief that the words "political" and "politician" are synonymous with "inconsequential", "mean", or "ludicrous". The tropes do dirt on political ambition by doing dirt on the entire political arena. Again, the media contribution is crucial. Pundits and columnists deprecate the political calling by obsessively reminding readers, in impressed tones, that this or that officeholder isn't "just" a career politician but a professional. (David Yepsen, Des Moines Register columnist, on Dean: "He is presidential ... Unlike the Gephardts and the Kerrys of the race, Dean's not a career politician. He's a doctor who got into politics.") Ordinary citizens echo the pundits' views. The New York Times quotes a businessman attending a Wesley Clark rally: "Best yet", says this fan, "Clark's not a tainted politician".

Large corporate campaign donors dismiss, as jokes, differences between themselves and their employees regarding the positions of candidates whom the donors support. (The countercultural millionaire who invented Urban Outfitters, Inc, a major contributor to Senator Rick Santorum's gay-baiting campaigns, first denies then acknowledges the contributions, later says that his workers hold "all kinds of political views", and finally adds that he and his employees "joke about our political differences".) Talk in this vein evokes political seriousness itself as a kind of half-amusing, half-pitiable disfigurement.

And leaders themselves play a variety of corroborative diffidence games. Persons in mid-political career voice scorn for politics. Hillary Clinton refuses to answer reporters' intelligently prepared questions about the "political content" of her Living History (2003). Tyro politicos shrug at their own contradictions and eschew consecutive thought. Arnold Schwarzenegger asserts that his tales of pot-heavy group sex were made-up publicity ploys and that he no longer behaves as he once did - because now he's a family man.

Others contribute to diffidence-shows by behavior attesting their own inconsequentiality. The president's contribution comes in part through unexplained reversals of position - issue-vaporizing veerings that signal the absence of coherence and depth in the thinking on which momentous opinions rested in the first place. George W Bush vigorously denounces on television in January 2003 the University of Michigan's affirmative-action admissions policies; a few days later the White House submits a brief to the Supreme Court against those policies; in June 2003 the Supreme Court upholds the policies; at once the president praises the court, hails its recognition of "the value of diversity on our nation's campuses", and declares that, "like the court", he "look[s] forward to the day when America will truly be a color-blind society".

And then, beyond all this, there's the diffidence-show implicit in leaders' own mucker-posing speech, rich in solecisms, truculently stubborn mispronunciations, non sequiturs, plain absurdities. A Cabinet member links oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with nursing and doctoring. (Interior Secretary Gale Norton says her department aims to "heal our landscapes and restore health to our national forests".) A US senator descants on the Glorious Fourth in a "debate" on increases in the low-income child tax credit. ("You've got twelve million children this year that will be celebrating the Fourth of July", says Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas, "that will be left out of the advantages of additional tax relief that could go for getting them ready for school, or other things their parents need. It's sad that the president didn't think this was important enough to do something about it.") By intent or otherwise, such speech reflects lack of anxiety about appearing stupid to colleagues or constituents and thereby disses the political calling.

The American democratic ideal called for universal, informed participation in the public square: acquaintance with skills of argument, familiarity with standards of coherence, brains. The embrace by those in high office of dim-bulb diffidence tropes - macho brandishings of ignorance - trashes that ideal and draws down added contempt on political vocation.

Stand Up, Stand Up, For Jesus!

Junk politics redefines qualifications for high political office; the chosen tropes celebrate pugnacity and eagerness to take on bullies. By any measure the most popular current political gesture is that of defiance. Defiance of what? Excessive specificity not required. To attract voters, leaders and would-be leaders posture pseudo-heroically at generalized opposition - perpetrators of offensive budgets, chicken-hearted competitors in election races, corporate Satans, whomever. The playacted contests are structured as self-mythologizing engagements pitting good against evil; stress falls on the leader as isolato, facing multiple bullying enemies whether in the California state legislature or at the United Nations or on the other side of the aisle - facing them alone, proudly, grimly, fearlessly, in duels destined to end in absolute victories or defeats.

Religious overtones are audible (the David-Goliath myth hovers near); allusions to conversion and rebirth experiences are common, as are echoes of gospel hymns ("Stand Up, Stand Up, for Jesus!"). "Somebody has to stand proud [against Gray Davis's budget] and say enough is enough!" -- California State Senate Republican leader James Brulte. "Let us stand up [against the Dixie Chicks and other foreign threats] and let us be the human shields of prayer ... for the President!" -- Alabama's state auditor, Beth Chapman, at the "Stand Up for America" rally that put her on the Deep South political map. 'The only hope Democrats have ... is to behave like Democrats and stand up [against wishy-washy candidates for the nomination]!" -- Vermont's Howard Dean.

Had the stance of the country's Founding Fathers when addressing opponents in constitutional debates been that of crusaders struggling against the odds to conquer pure evil, had they defined themselves as heroic isolatos utterly oblivious of the need for (and the satisfactions of nurturing) alliances - had they, moreover, not strongly committed themselves to the belief that true politics consists in the giving and weighing of reasons - the United States of America wouldn't exist. But junk politics rides on defiance of reasons; a stagy habitual truculence is its pivotal energy resource.

At The Lilliputian Bazaar

Junk politics miniaturizes domestic problems; the aim of the downsizing is partly to persuade voters that no major issues exist, partly to establish diffident leaders as - despite the diffidence - persons of range, command, and mastery. Trope-polishing miniaturizers shuttle daily from medium to medium - reductive apothegms, arresting redefinitions, poll questions, photo ops, most-unforgettable-character sketches, choose your genre. Large-size, long-range public causes shrink to impulsive individual New Year's resolutions (Vice President Dick Cheney: Energy conservation is simply "a sign of personal virtue" ). The often monumental, often selfless labor that produces enactable legislation is likened to psychotic sexual assault (Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform: "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape"). Pollster miniaturists drop issues in favor of "mood and attitude" love-me/love-me-not non-questions (Does President Bush care about problems of people like yourself? A lot? Not much? How much?). Damage-control miniaturists cut an entire section from an EPA report detailing scientists' estimates of harm caused by rising global temperatures - and soothingly rewrite another EPA report alluding to possible post-9/11 air pollution in lower Manhattan. Promotion for tax cuts is windy and teary about checks - minuscule checks - for "folks". Signing the tax bill, the president introduces not millionaires whose booty starts at $10,000-plus a month but an Air Force sergeant's wife named Jenny Tyson. Jenny and her mate, says Bush, modestly proud, "will keep an extra $1,300 a year of their own money".

The miniaturizing instinct manifested itself at many moments in the runup to war. Questioned about giant, worldwide, antiwar protests, the president downsized them: "The size of protests is like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based on a focus group". When protests moved from the streets to prestigious editorial pages, miniaturists downsized the president's own exaggerations of the Iraqi threat; the Leader's "mistake" wasn't a matter of a dozen speeches over months but of a "tiny" (Paul Wolfowitz), "insignificant" (Condoleezza Rice) "one sentence" or "sixteen words".

But on the foreign-affairs beat, as already indicated, miniaturizing and maximizing impulses often become entangled in each other's coils. The most striking recent performance in the maximizing mode was that of Secretary Powell at the United Nations. Powell simultaneously miniaturized doubt and maximized threats with hot rhetoric about imminent peril, comically overplayed "readings" of photographic images (see this tractor trailer, look at this hole in the ground), and paraphrases of translated passages of intercepted conversations that expunged their dense ambiguities. (The secretary re-translated an Iraqi headquarters command to "inspect" for ammunition as an order to "clear out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.")

The record confirms that miniaturists are most comfortable working the domestic front. The administration argues for solving the poverty/literacy problem by allowing the states to run Head Start and shrink it. The administration holds that American wage earners would be better off if fewer had a shot at overtime pay and more were recategorized as "managers"; accordingly, Congress is asked to approve new rules that reduce by hundreds of thousands the number of workers eligible for overtime-pay benefits. Seemingly convinced everybody would be better off if they heard no upsetting economic news, the administration seeks to kill the Mass Layoff Statistics program - a Bureau of Labor Statistics report that tracks and publicizes factory closings. The administration moves ahead, through executive order, with its faith-based enterprise, finding solutions in the story lines of selected, contemporary, urban saints' lives for socioeconomic troubles diminished to "trouble spots".

From the hospitable Miniaturizing Party big tent nobody is excluded. Republicans invented the most notable figure of speech in miniaturist jargon - "points of light". But John F Kennedy was miniaturizing when he proposed to cure Africa with a Peace Corps, and so was estimable Jimmy Carter when he lent his weight to the volunteer Habitat for Humanity project (solving the huge national housing problem one sawhorse at a time) - and the first head of the White House's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Office was himself a Democrat.

And neither party forswears personalizing rubbish during controversy. Republicans battling to pass a bill capping malpractice jury awards reduce the complicated issues to a choice of whether or not to reward cynical opportunists. (Mort Zuckerman repeats in US News & World Report a long-ago discredited myth about a "woman [who] throws a soft drink at her boyfriend at a restaurant, then slips on the floor she wet and breaks her tailbone. She sues. Bingo - a jury says the restaurant owes her $100,000!") Democrats counter with heartbreak - the story of young Jesica Santillan, killed by doctors who gave her a heart and lung of the wrong blood type.

It follows, obviously, that sound critiques of junk politics and supporting tropes don't center on relative party guilt. They concern how to draw fair lines between melodramatic arias and responsible efforts at measuring accurately the scope of problems; how to animate the real-life consequences, for the majority, of political action purportedly coping with large problems.

The Day Will Come When We Will All Be One

Everyman is who we see down Crawford, Texas, way when George W Bush heads out, with or without entourage, toward the press. The details mostly cohere. Jeans all around. No dress shirts or ties. Real dust rising from the hoots and a pickup in the middle distance support the blazing big buckle in the Bush belt. The dog needs fixing, admittedly. (An authentic ranch or farm dog is a mud-'n-shit rolling mother with an eargutting voice; the Bush dog looks lappy and overbathed.) But the rest of the scene reads plain folks and country, as it should, and when the president speaks up in his g-dropping, gonna-gotta vein, the themes radiate out: bunch of regular guys and gals here, nobody uppity. Across America's length and breadth the same story: good buddy equal pardners talking gonna-gotta together, everybody on earth more or less Crawford kin.

Like a Crawford photo op, junk politics is interested in obliterating consciousness of differences. And at moments in the recent past, that objective hasn't been cursed with cynicism. Immediately after 9/11 the national need was for reassurance - proof of solidarity and goodness, proof that the hijackers and their backers were mad to believe anything in this country's nature deserved such monstrous loathing. And at first the need was met creditably, with respect for the gap separating the fearful suffering of the victims and the bereaved from the anxieties of the unwounded. Reassurance came in the form of guarded hope that the sacrifices of rescue workers and the demonstrations by public leaders of unfaked grief at the slaughter of innocent thousands could be read as evidence of the moral worth lying at the American core.

Much in that period possessed dignity: the forthright advocacy, in pulpits and elsewhere, of a reassessment of values, the many restrained but deeply felt expressions of belief in the feasibility of recovering the national best self. But realizing the promise of solidarity turned out to be a project easily coarsened. Outrage and despair that initially stimulated thought and awakened consciousness of forgotten meanings of fraternity came quickly to be treated as clinical conditions. The authority-preferred nostrums included an escalation of heart tropes, ever more extravagant salutes to American character, sympathy, and essential sameness, ever more hostility to the exchange of reasons in political debate. And ever more piety as well. Prayer was proclaimed a significant element in the deliberations about attacking Iraq. Asked at a press conference, "How is your faith guiding you?" the president, eyes moistening, replied that he "pray[s] daily" that war can be averted. Self-questioning metamorphosed into self-cosseting. And the glue holding together the sentimentalities and contradictions - the erratic overnight reversals of policies - was commitment to the abolition of awareness of difference and enthusiasm for wish-fulfilling fantasies of unity and sameness.

Nothing more bolstering to such fantasies, of course, than standard wartime tropes on the theme of shedding "partisan differences" (Support Our Troops) and standard patriotic anointing of America as international moral arbiter. For a moment the post-9/11 psychology had seemed in process of begetting a politics aware at least in some measure that optimistic faith in the goodness of our kind would be stronger if founded not on delusory self-celebration but on fair public policy and thoroughgoing debate about substantial public issues. But myths of holy war overmatched the nascent psychology, pitting homeland courage and righteousness against pusillanimous evil, simultaneously flattering and medicating the upper-middle-class electorate out of its short-lived leaning toward self-critique and holding aloft - even higher than the flag - the great banner of optimistic American togetherness. Placed high on the list of officialdom's patriotic duties was that of recharging citizen faith in shared moral eminence (the president delivered paean after paean on our mutual characterological excellence - the "goodness" of the American people, America as a nation of "kind hearts").

The war itself quickly became the setting for fresh campaigns against difference. Command decisions embedded war correspondents in combat units, eliminating space for objective criticism of commanders ("we're all in this together"). Personalizing flacks bent themselves to the work of putting a likable human face - symbol of American togetherness - on combat defeats and horror. A single charmingly candid, humbly born West Virginian and a (possibly staged) rescue mission displaced issues of lost lives, lost treasure, lost international standing.

No need to fret about finding or not finding weapons of mass destruction, said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. What counts is that licking Saddam made all Americans "feel good about ourselves". No need to be exercised about the difference between planned per capita expenditure for Homeland Security in Wyoming and in New York (seven times less in the Empire State than in Vice President Cheney's Wyoming). Homeland Security resources were spent in an attempt to shut down redistricting disputes in the Texas State Legislature. Junk togetherness seeped into congressional argument about deficits and tax policy. Floor debate dwindled into close-harmony cheering for equality, both parties joining in denunciations of "the class-warfare crowd", both parties competing for a title only extreme dimness could covet (Top Proselyter for Classless America).

To repeat: terror attacks, the Iraq war, and their aftermath had intensified the public need - heartless to mock it but wrong to pander to it - for compelling images evoking the promise of democratic happiness: companionship, solidarity, expectation, street fairs (not wrangling) in the public square. The refashioned, reenergized politics of self-esteem and unifying moral distinction met the need, defused fear and bewilderment with a winning grin, mirroring American content in less troubled rimes. We like ourselves, said the trusted tropes. We trust our neighbors - lessers, betters, kids, whitetops, bleacher folk, skyboxers, leaders, followers, the lot. You couldn't tell them apart, the commander in chief and those kids - not, that is, in the restorative, difference-abolishing footage shot on the carrier flight deck: the genius-trope that led the news shows. Leader and followers fanning and laughing together as equals, at ease, down to earth, same suits, same helmets, no side.

And critical response to the images rarely struck the target - witness media coverage of the gentrified saturnalia aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Much hostility in newspapers to the repositioning of the ship, the risky landing, the swaggering progress across the deck, the cued cheers - objections that this was a staged, made-for-TV event, lacking authenticity. (At the journalistic high end, Norman Mailer stepped forth as lecturer on modesty to complain that Bush's donning the flight suit ranked as a cowardly act by a poseur who, having bought out of combat in youth, shamelessly claimed an exalted hero's stature in middle age.) But the theme of the flight-deck drama was sameness not heroic difference, palship not leadership, and the contribution that truly counted was to the broad cause of issue erosion. The staged event - flight suit, shore-slighting carrier, the rest - were (like "nukular", "Bring 'em on", the ranch, the Rangers, et cetera) elements of an act of identification with "folks" that produced intimacy and erased distance. No difference and distance ("they're all in this together out there"), no issues. No issues, no change.

In the ideal world the buried issue of the hour - national infantilization: the babying of the electorate, spoiling of voter-age "children" with year-round upbeat Christmas tales, the creation of a swelled-head citizenry, morally vain and irremediably sentimental - would have made its way in time into public discourse. Candidates competing for a chance to mount an effective challenge to the sponsors of infantilization wouldn't have allowed the issue to become inexpressible. They would have helped us grasp the mix of elements - mucker-pose manners, bitty legislative initiatives, phony underdog empathy, Celebrities-R-Us equality - which, in managed coalescence, were once again marginalizing substantial issues. But the post-9/11 world wasn't ideal. The old rule - Know Your Enemies and Resist Them Intelligently - had rarely been more pertinent, but resistance simply didn't begin.

Suppose it never begins, or begins and fails. Suppose distinctions vanish between foundational democratic principles and decorative pleasurable tropes. What happens then? Very little at first. The familiar apparatus of constitutional government and party organizations survives seemingly untouched (campaigns, elections, ostensible checks and balances, et cetera).

In time, though, the language of justice and injustice comes to strike ordinary ears as Latinate and archaic - due for interment - and attachment to old forms weakens. Heart tropes grow harder-edged. On debate nights aspiring candidates, wired, sit on podiums attending to personal-hardship tales narrated by audience members; electronically recorded data on candidates' moment-to-moment sympathy levels flash on viewers' screens; spinners facing post-"debate" questions abut victory and defeat serve up biographical details of candidates' lives that "explain" high or low affect-ratings.

The idea of qualifications is reconceived. Persons seeking high office certify mediocrity or incompetence rather than the opposite. (They produce evidence of significant academic failure, or proof of longstanding contempt for polylingual aesthetes and scientific prodigies, or other pertinent bona fides.) No longer obliged to perform as gifted miniaturizers - the concept of social problems has been irretrievably lost - political advisers are judged by new standards. Their reputation depends on success at creatively updating the gentrified saturnalia - producing spectacles that revitalize the grand myths of sameness, melding rich, poor, powerful, and powerless.

Scenarios comic, nightmarish, or far out, to be sure, but consider: the richest and most influential moviemaker in America, Steven Spielberg, has already created box-office triumphs - including the startlingly unironic A I (2001) - encouraging popular belief in the essential sameness of humans and machines. Large capital resources plus stars with clout can easily be commandeered for superprojects aimed at abolishing consciousness of difference across the board. Given present indicators, given the pace at which tenderness hype, brushcutter selves, defiance-mongering, and sameness and miniaturizing shows settled in as norms of our campaign discourse, who would bet that "product" advancing this basic junk-political cause isn't now in development?


Benjamin DeMott's last article for Harper's Magazine, "Put On a Happy Face", appeared in the September 1995 issue. His fourteenth book, junk Politics: What It Means, Why It Sells, How It Grew, is due out in January (Nation Books / Thunder's Mouth Press).

Bill Totten


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