Post-postmodern politics

The Democratic Party fell off a cliff last night. Never mind their
shiny new governorships — the `smart’ money pre-election was on
them picking up an absolute majority of governor’s seats, and at the
Congressional level they took a shellacking nearly as bad as 1994’s.
The races Terry McAuliffe targeted as most critical — notably
the Florida governorship — were all lost. And the big Democrat
losses bucked historical trends — the mid-term election and the
weak economy should have helped them.

We’re going to hear a lot of gloating from Republicans and
soul-searching from Democrats in the aftermath. The easy explanation
is that 9/11 did the Democrats in; that American elected to get behind
a president who seems to be handling the terror war with decisiveness,
prudence, and strategic acumen.

I think this conventional wisdom is wrong. I think 9/11 merely
exposed a longer-term weakness in the Democratic position, which is
this: the Democrats have forgotten how to do politics that is about
anything but politics itself. They’re a post-modern political party,
endlessly recycling texts that have little or no referent outside
the discourse of politics itself.

The disgusting spectacle they made of Paul Wellstone’s funeral
is diagnostic. We were treated to trumpet calls about honoring
Wellstone’s legacy without any discussion beyond the most superficial
cliches of what that legacy was. All the ritual invocations of
time-honored Democratic shibboleths had a tired, shopworn, unreal
and self-referential feel to them — politics as the literature
of exhaustion.

The preconditions for paralysis had been building up for a long
time; arguably, ever since the New Left beat out the Dixiecrats for
control of the party apparat in 1968-1972. Caught between the
blame-America-first, hard-left instincts of its most zealous cadres
and the bland dishwater centrism recently exemplified by the DLC, the
Democrats found it more and more difficult to be about anything at
all. The trend was self-reinforcing; as Democratic strategy drifted,
the party became ever more dependent on cooperation between dozens of
fractious pressure groups (feminists, gays, race-baiters, the AARP,
the teachers’ and public-employee unions), which made the long-term
drift worse.

Bill Clinton was the perfect master of political postmodernism and
James Carville his prophet. For eight years they were able to
disguise the paralysis and vacuum at the heart of Democratic thinking,
centering party strategy on a cult of personality and an
anything-but-Republicanism that was cunning but merely reactive. The
Republicans cooperated with this strategy with all the naive eagerness
of Charlie Brown running up to kick Lucy’s football, perpetually
surprised when it was snatched away at the last second, repeatedly
taking pratfalls eagerly magnified by a Democratic-leaning national

But Bill Clinton was also a borderline sociopath and a liar, a man
whose superficial charm, anything-to-get-elected energy, and utter
lack of principle perfectly mirrored the abyss at the heart of the
Democratic party. The greedy, glittery, soulless Wellstone-funeral
fiasco was the last hurrah of Clintonism, and it cost Walter Mondale
his last election fight.

Reality had to intrude sometime. The destruction of the WTC
reduced all the politics-about-politics rhetoric of the Democrats to
irrelevance. They stood mute in the face of the worst atrocity on
American soil since Pearl Harbor, arguably the worst in U.S. history.
The superficial reason was that their anti-terror policy was hostage
to the party’s left wing, but the deeper problem was that they long
ago lost the ability to rise above petty interest-group jockying
on any issue of principle at all. The most relevant adjective is not
`wrong’, or `evil’, it’s `feckless’.

Republicans, by contrast, forged a workable consensus during
the Reagan years and never quite lost it. They’ve often been wrong,
frequently been obnoxious as hell, and have their own loony fringe
(abortion-clinic bombers, neo-fascists like Pat Buchanan, and
the Christian Coalition) to cope with. But when Osama bin Laden
demonstrated a clear and present danger to the United States of
America they were able to respond.

They were able to respond not merely with reaction, but by taking
a moral position against terrorism that could serve as the basis of
an effective national strategy. Quarrel with “Homeland Security” all
you like — but then imagine Al Gore in charge of defeating
Al-Qaeda and shudder. He would actually have had to take the likes of
Cynthia McKinney and Maxine Waters seriously.

I think these 2002 elections are going to turn out to have been much
more of a turning point than the aborted `Republican Revolution’ of
1994. Unless Bush’s war strategy completely screws the pooch, he is
going to completely walk over the Democratic candidate in 2004. The
Democrats show no sign of developing a foreign-policy doctrine that can
cope with the post-9/11 world, and their domestic-policy agenda is
tired and retrogressive. Their voter base is aging, and their national
leadership couldn’t rummage up a better Wellstone replacement than
Walter “What decade is this, anyway?” Mondale. The Democratic
party could end up disintegrating within the decade.

This is not a prospect that fills me with uncomplicated glee.
Right-wing statism is not an improvement on left-wing statism; a smug
and dominant GOP could easily become captive to theocrats and
know-nothings, a very bad thing for our nation and the world. And,
unfortunately, the Libertarian Party has courted self-destruction by
choosing to respond to 9/11 with an isolationism every bit as vapid
and mindless as the left’s “No War for Oil!” chanting.

Welcome to post-postmodern politics. Meaning is back, but
the uncertainties are greater than ever.

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