I try to follow politics, I really do. And I try to get information from varied sources. Each morning, I spend half an hour with the San Francisco Chronicle, which is very liberal in its news coverage as well as its editorial and opinion pages, then another half to three quarters of hour with the Wall Street Journal, which is just as deep into conservative coverage, but I give it the edge in time because this is when I’m eating my breakfast. I watch the PBS News Hour on the local public channel, KQED, slightly more often than I tune in to Fox News. I read the political posts of Facebook friends on both sides of an issue. But, truth to tell, I spend more time on conservative websites than liberal ones.
When I take those little online tests of political leaning, I turn up on the right side of the line by about three points out of a hundred. So I am slightly right of center, being an atheist, somewhat libertarian, somewhat fiscally conservative, and a person who believes in treating everyone like a lady or a gentleman until proven otherwise, keeping out of other people’s bedrooms, keeping most of my own money for my own maintenance and support, taking care of my loved ones, satisfying my own desires, and getting on down the road as best I can. For the rest, I quote the catchphrase of my Vietnam War generation: “Get out of my body bag.”
In this election year, as the two national parties draw even further apart—I mean, not from one side the legislative chamber to the other, not one side of the country to the other, not even at planetary distances, but now approaching the interstellar reaches and diverging at the speed of light, faster even than the expansion of the cosmos—I find that the rhetoric, the arguments, and the statistics hurled on one side or the other are not even directed anymore at the opposite party, its favored positions, and its particular shibboleths. We no longer have enough shot and propellant, let alone the means of navigation and aiming, to ever reach that far.
How far apart am I talking? Well, for a boy who grew up admiring the qualities of both Adlai Stevenson or Daniel Patrick Moynihan among the Democrats and Everett Dirksen among the Republicans, whose first remembered president was Eisenhower—the war-winning general who looked like God and who apparently didn’t choose his political party until the summer of the election—a boy who didn’t much like the political positions of John Kennedy but found him powerfully inspiring as a political figure, it would seem that the two national parties these days are not even from the same culture. The Democrats have settled into a proto-socialist groove that would make Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg feel right at home and would only annoy Lenin because they weren’t moving his way fast enough. The Republicans have reverted to some kind of 19th-century, antebellum whiggery that favors big government, big business, an economy managed by the Federal Reserve (in lieu of a true National Bank), and globalism only when it suits them but otherwise wants tariffs and trade deals that send all the goodies their way.
If these two groups inhabit the same earthly space bounded by the borders of the District of Columbia, it can only be through the effects of some kind of Fairy Mirror that divides their realms. I am reminded of the “London Above” and “London Below” scenes in Neil Gaiman’s wonderful story cycle Neverwhere. These are places superimposed on the same geophysical space but touching only in odd corners and at odd times. Otherwise, two political orders, two value systems, two monetary systems, two systems of belief and knowledge, two ways of being carry on side by side but have no relationship with or meaning for each other.
In this Fairy Mirror, every person, every question, every value casts two separate and distinct reflected images. Consider the following questions that diverge in our current political discourse:
Is America a force for good in the world, a beacon to people who want a better life with personal freedom and opportunity? Or is America a force for imperialism and oppression, where even the middle class is faring badly and losing hope?
Is Barack Obama the smartest, most erudite, most effective president we’ve ever had? Or is he feckless and inexperienced, the Affirmative Action president, who was created by a party machine backed by international money, and whose “national transformation” is driving this country right over a cliff?
Is Congress in its current configuration our last, best hope, standing across the path of this national transformation and yelling “Stop!” Or is Congress a hotbed of petulant, obstructionist, racist goons who simply cannot tolerate a black man in the White House?
Is the economy today the best it’s been in years, with indicators far ahead of and above their early 2008, pre-Recession levels? Or are we in the middle of a prolonged slump, with worse actual employment figures and more stagflation—but without the ’flation part … or not yet—and no good end in sight? Are we eighteen trillion dollars in debt? Or is the national debt now the lowest its been in years through prudent government management?
Is the Federal Reserve a council of the great and the wise who have their fingertips on the pulse of the economy? Or are the Board of Governors and the Open Market Committee just dancing along the edge of the precipice, making up policy as they go and staving off the inevitable collapse of our economic system due to debt service on that eighteen trillion?
Is our military a strong, lean, technically advanced, competently led force that can control the world’s trouble spots and keep America safe? Or it is an over-funded but under-procured, bloated but hollowed out, contracted-out, comic-opera group of strutting, misogynistic, one-rampage-short-of-a-PTSD-episode oafs who can no longer be trusted to police the border?
Are our local police the good and true men and women in blue who “protect and serve” in our communities? Or are they racist thugs in tactical armor who shoot teenagers at the slightest provocation?
Is our environment at a tipping point, on the verge of runaway collapse from too many greenhouse gases, too many landfills, too many pesticides, pollutants, and plastics? Or are we managing our technological development pretty well, so that the air and water in this country are cleaner, the land greener, and life better than they were fifty or a hundred years ago?
Are we headed toward Utopia or Apocalypse? And is the answer more or less government? More or less business activity? Do we need more regulation to curb the greedy appetites of rampaging Wall Street financiers and corporate robber barons? Or do we need more stimulation to boost a flagging economy into providing more loans, more jobs, more goods and services, and more of the good life?
Don’t look to the two national parties and their staunchest adherents to answer these questions. Of course, you will get answers, along with reams of statistics, facts and figures, anecdotes, home truths, memes, and comic posters filled with clever sayings and references to Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, mouthed by pirated images of Captain Picard or Willy Wonka. Some of the statistics you get will be so flatly and sincerely stated that you will tend to believe them. Some of the aphorisms will be so succinct and clever that you will accept them as definitive … as truth and a kind of wisdom.
But we are way beyond “truth” these days, and “wisdom” is a parking orbit that we broke out of and left, oh, decades ago. Today, everyone, on both sides of the aisle, immersed in their own fantasies, looking into their side of the Fairy Mirror, is playing purely for advantage. The question is not what is, in and of itself, real or true or provable, but only what will sell to the undecided and support my side, my view, my reality, my narrative on Planet Social Democracy or Planet Conservative Values.
It’s a wonder that both sides of the Fairy Mirror still speak and use the English language. But when a term or a referent means, in the words of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, “just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less,” then does the language really matter? When two national parties are not just on different sides of the same question, but now inhabit two different realities to which the questions themselves are merely tangential, we are beyond hope of a reconciliation, let alone the resolution of any particular issue or question.
I fear that, from this point forward, if the Fairy Mirror ever breaks, the currently acknowledged “culture war” and the “cold civil war” will become something palpable and hot. And then we will begin to entertain thoughts of division, partition, separation, and secession—with a shooting war to follow, but only if one side really cares to bring the other back into the Union, if union is still possible.
Here endeth the ranting.