Saturday, January 05, 2008

2008, Part IV: On Denial, Collapse, and the Laws of Physics

-- by Sara

A few more thoughts this fine windy Saturday about denial, the GOP crackup, and what might yet emerge.

If I Close My Eyes, The Monsters Can't See Me
In the previous post, I talked about the way the management class tends to go into denial when deep structural failures start to appear in the systems they're responsible for managing. Most of us who've endured corporate life have dismal stories about this; but willful cluelessness has a long history at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as well.

The whole narrative arc of the Hoover administration can be told in the White House's ongoing denials that anything untoward was happening to America. A fifth of the country was out of work. Millions of middle- and working-class families were being thrown into bankruptcy, homelessness, and starvation. And despite desperate appeals from all corners of the country, all they got -- from October 1929 through Hoover's last day in office in 1932 -- was an ongoing stream of sunny reassurances that "prosperity is just around the corner." (Hoover also kept up his heavy schedule of sumptuous entertaining at the White House, believing that the American people found inspiration and reassurance in seeing things go on "as normal." The American people, of course, took it as proof that he was a cold-hearted bastard.)

The gap between what Hoover saw from the White House balcony and what average Americans saw from their own front porches was so wide that it constituted two separate realities. The frustration that built up over just three years of willful non-comprehension was so great that it our great-grandparents not only tossed the Republicans out of office -- they kept them on the outs for the next 50 years. Never underestimate the power of denial to create a backlash.

A similar denial has been at the root of the entire Bush Administration. We understand now that Bush seized office on the essential proposition that America must control the world's oil taps at all costs; and that military means are the only effective way to accomplish this. Every other policy, every statement, every priority of the country is subservient to this belief. Global warming is not an issue. Terrorism is not an issue. Alternative energy is not an issue. The economy is not an issue. The health, aspirations, and well-being of the American people is not an issue. The opinions of the rest of the world never entered into it at all. The Bush cartel's entire reason for being is to maintain a status quo that most of us knew was cracking dangerously under our feet. They are managers, put in place by enormously powerful people making one last-ditch attempt to prop up an oil- and consumer-based system even they knew was headed toward failure.

And that, at the root of it, is why the Bushies lie. People in denial always lie -- first to themselves, and then to everyone else. To concede even one error is to open the door to the awareness that everything they know is wrong, and everything they've done has only made things worse.

However, it's obvious now that denial itself compounds the problem by several orders of magnitude. Companies, communities, and countries that make the effort to spot trouble while it's still on the far horizon usually find they have time to think through their options, and make well-reasoned preparations for the transition. (Most of what we're facing now isn't news; almost all of it was well understood the day Clinton took office 15 years ago.) Those whose leaders choose to hunker down in denial, using distraction and distortion and scapegoating and whatever else they can think of on the fly, are doomed to face the full fury of the storm without plans or preparations of any kind. The longer they live in denial, the more catastrophic the actual change process will be when it does come. When Bush stole the election, he also stole from us eight critical years of prep time. The price we will almost surely pay for that loss may ultimately be beyond reckoning.

The deep and growing contempt Americans -- left and right -- have for the Bush White House, the Democratic Congress, and the mainstream media is rooted in our fury that we still can't even get the people in charge of managing the status quo to talk about the problems we face in any kind of open and honest way. The environment, working conditions, foreign policy, health care -- whatever we care about most, these so-called "leaders" will almost mechanically distort, distract, dismiss, evade, elide, spin, ridicule, or simply ignore it. It's not a democratic dialogue; it's ossified elites issuing edicts that the lumpenproles will obey to their own detriment. As long as the conversation goes only one direction, we have ample reason to fear that whatever changes lie ahead will have very little to do with restoring the common good.

Nature Abhors A Vacuum
The conditions leading up to the moment of crisis change both who we put in power, and the means by which they get there. Consider, for example, the plight of the GOP this year.

Ever since the late 70s, they've been intensely focused on priming their political pump with a rich flow of potential candidates. To this end, they've been hand-picking preachers and PTA presidents, packing school boards, sending people off for elite candidate training courses, hooking them up with money people, and generally doing far more to cultivate their native leadership talent than the Democrats even thought about doing until Paul Wellstone came along. This aggressive candidate-building infrastructure has been a core source of the GOP's power for about 30 years now. They take it very seriously -- and they're very, very good at it.

Given all this, how did we end up with that sorry passel of White Christian Males parading across the stage at the GOP debates? All those years, all that money, that whole infrastructure -- and this is the very best their party can offer us now? I mean, really? Mussolini-wannabee Rudy Giuliani, with his nasty divorces and a record that makes him one of the most despised men in New York? Unctious, officious Mormon good-boy Mitt Romney? Ron Paul, who stands tall for the essential liberties of everybody who doesn't happen to be brown or female? Reverend Huckabee, who thinks some Americans are more equal than others and doesn't believe in evolution? And Fred Thompson? FRED THOMPSON? In what universe is this man a serious presidential candidate?

This Pale Male circus is only possible because the GOP's superbly effective candidate farming efforts also included the germ of an ecological disaster. To wit: they spent those same 30 years doggedly hunting RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) to extinction, eliminating the party's moderate wing. Now, at the moment the country is craving someone reality-based who can find common ground and talk some sense about the stuff that really matters, all it has left in its pockets to offer us is a strange fistful of ideologues.

Four years ago, if you'd asked a GOP strategist who the front-runners would be going into 2008, you might have gotten a earful about Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, and Sam Brownback. These were the guys who'd followed the far-right script to the letter, and were emerging as the party's leading lights as a result. John McCain would have figured prominently, too -- war hero, straight talker. Right.

But it all changed so fast. The Abramoff scandal. Terry Schiavo. Mark Foley. And, yes, the war. Three of those 2004 golden boys are now completely out of Congress; Brownback's campaign never made it out of the starting gate. McCain, in the end, really is simply too old and out of touch. Something terrible has happened. And the GOP can't even find words for it, because they're just this moment finally coming out of their long denial that anything's gone wrong at all.

And, in a better world, even if the GOP hadn't hunted their RINOs to extinction -- even if a few Goldwaters still lurked in their midst -- none of those folks would be stepping forward now. Instead, they'd be proving just how smart they are by sitting this one out. If they ran, and won, what would they win? The honor of being the next GOP president in charge of the GOP's war? The glory that comes with raising taxes to cover the bills? The joy of explaining to the religious right, once more with feeling, that they're not going to get their stem-cell bans and prayer-in-school bills?

No, all a GOP candidate stands to win this time around is full inheritance rights on Bush's failures. A Democratic president will be expected to make a fresh start; a Republican can only deliver more of the same. Any sensible candidate would look at those prospects, and decide to spend the next four years playing golf instead.

And so the GOP is dealing with a big gaping void of its own, which is simply a smaller symptome of the larger one that's opening up under all of us. Unfortunately, political vacuums -- for all of history -- have always, always, sucked in the worst sort of rank opportunists, forcing the absurd, the corrupt, and the unqualified to the front of the field. Enter then, stage right, Mitt and Huck and Ron.

It's striking how many of this year's GOP hopefuls were guys who would have had zero chance, who wouldn't have even made it through the money primaries, in any other year. The very motliness of the crew is a testament to the fact that the center is no longer holding -- because if it were, they wouldn't be there. A functional Bush regime would have picked a successor, and used the past four years to position him for a win. The fact that that didn't happen is yet another testament to their looming failure. Nobody's interested in continuing their policies. Nobody even wanted so much as their blessing.

Not even Wall Street will fund the GOP now -- their money's flowing into Hillary's war chest instead. Not even the Religious Right, finally having reached the limits of their forgiveness, will suck up and take another compromise. On January 20, 2009, the GOP as we've known it since the mid-70s will pack up their ball and go home to patch their wounds.

But let's not get cocky. It doesn't necessarily mean we'll have the field all to ourselves.

Filling the Void
The upshot of all this is that we're at a point where it's all up for grabs. When the center fails to hold, the right to define the new reality belongs to whoever can move in their first with a big, compelling idea, and get people to start organizing around it. It's a moment of creative chaos that's bursting with new energy and tremendous potential -- for those who are ready to jump in there and lead.

These have always been the moments when progressives throughout history were able to make their biggest gains -- to seize entire nations, and drag them off in radically new directions. The future belongs to the group that gets there first, with the best plan and the biggest vision. If we miss this one, none of us are likely to live to see another chance like it again.

But, as usual, opportunity comes with the potential for crisis. The churn of change also leads to vast economic and political dislocations that provide perfect conditions for authoritarian movements, too. Alongside all the other problems bearing down on us, that's a very real risk that we need to keep at the front of our minds. If we don't step up and fill that yawning hole with something that brings out the best in people, inspiring them toward hope and progress -- well, then, you can bet that somebody else, selling a very different future, will get there first with something that will bring out the worst, and drive them toward madness and death. Either way, our grandchildren will be living with the consequences a century hence. It's not a moment we can afford to screw up.

The next post will look more closely at the opportunities and risks of this moment -- at the differences in worldview that can serve to tip this moment one way, or the other.

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