Thursday, August 18, 2011

"You are too shallow, sound the bottom of the after-times"*

There is a certain strain of conservative British fantasist that pits the folly of the common people, Coriolanus-like, against the beleaguered wisdom of leaders. George MacDonald, in The Princess and Curdie,  portrays a benevolent king gradually worn down by the recalcitrant foolishness and greed of his people.  In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, battle-hardened chieftains keep the faith and hold the line against the encroachments of Mordor as their people weaken.  C.S. Lewis has more of a feel for the ways in which the powerful and ruthless deceive and enslave common folk, but he too betrays a weakness, in the Dawn Treader vignette of the Dufflepods ruled by a fallen star, for the vision of the wise ruler bemusedly enduring the follies of his simple subjects  (though Lewis is more consistently smitten by the fantasy of a contented and submissive populace willingly ruled by wise and benevolent monarchs).

Perhaps it is in this spirit that Sir Max Hastings laments that voters in the western democracies will punish at the polls leaders who tell them the hard truth about "the scale of upheaval and the sacrifice necessary to meet it."  Suggesting that "we get the political leaders we deserve" -- which may in some ultimate sense be true -- Hastings seems blithely unaware of the first axiom of political science: economic conditions (absent all-encompassing catastrophe) shape the dominant public perceptions of leaders everywhere. There's not much point in excoriating "pampered European and American voters" for blaming "bad news" on leaders currently in power. All electorates everywhere do that, to the extent that they're free to choose at all. 

In the same vein, Hastings complains that "Mr. Obama seems unable to achieve an emotional docking with the American people, such as former US president Ronald Reagan made, by telling a sunshine story."  This dig at the credulous rubes ignores the fact that the U.S. electorate only responded to that "sunshine story" (morning in America....) when it started to come true. Reagan's approval rating stood at 35% in January 1983, when unemployment was over 10%, and only snapped back when a sharp economic recovery began making itself felt about 16 months prior to his re-election. In July 1983, unemployment dropped from 10.1% to 9.4%; by October 1984, it was down to 7.4%.  If Obama were to be blessed by anything like the same movement -- which looks highly unlikely -- we'll all be sucking at the teat of professorial poetry once more.

And yet -- let me confess to thinking as I go here -- there's something not entirely off-base about the full sweep of Hastings' indictment:

How much bad news will pampered European and American voters take? Not that much, I suspect, in the absence of bombs raining down around their heads, figuratively or literally. We get the political leaders we deserve. Recent evidence suggests that in America, especially, charlatans prosper on the hustings, while good people flinch from exposing themselves to the humiliations and deceits essential to secure public office. Unless or until electorates become more rational, I doubt we shall see leaders much better – though, please God and the Tea Party, no worse – than today.

At a time when one of the United States' two major parties --the one that traditionally represents moneyed interests -- has given way to total intellectual corruption at the behest of a fanatical base, conditioned in large part by a commercial propaganda machine, it's hard to think clearly about how we got here, the sense in which we are collectively responsible for the corruption of the GOP, which could yet destroy American democracy.  Are we being done in by flaws in the creaky machinery of our Constitution? The malevolent genius of Murdoch?  The metastasizing of lobbying interest, powered by new concentrations of wealth wrought by globalization?  Or the old-fashioned religious hucksterism to which this country has always been so prone, amped up by modern megachurch marketing innovation? 

Or is this all a normal and passing fever accompanying a quasi-depression, far milder than the pathologies of less rooted democracies under economic stress?   

*No dig on Hastings intended by the headline quote, from Henry IV Part 2.  It's aimed at me, really, in "part 2" of this post. He just happens to have the right name!

No comments:

Post a Comment