the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 November 8


To begin with, I suggest that the most appropriate and most advisable response to the recent elections in the United States is despondency. They have exposed to us the methods and even the names of those who will be working against us in the next contest; but that intelligence, coupled with a better understanding of ourselves, should only serve to convince us that any win we might have next time will at best be illusory.

Though the Republicans did take a number of formerly-Democratic or traditionally-Democratic seats in the election, they knocked off only six incumbents. Four of them: Jim Hodges, governor in South Carolina, Jean Carnahan, senator in Missouri, Karen Thurman, representative in Florida’s fifth district, and Bill Luther, representative in Minnesota’s second. Well, redistricting rendered each congressional district a new constituency, and Carnahan was never actually elected, so that leaves only the South Carolina Republicans as having managed once what the Georgia Republicans did twice. The last two defeated incumbents: governor Roy Barnes, and senator Max Cleland.

I worked in politics in Georgia for a while, and I remember the phenomenon that was Roy Barnes. He worked the legislative process as a master. There was a long run where he passed every single legislative initiative. He forged a compromise that pulled down the Confederate Battle Flag in Georgia ― no small matter given his constituency. And I had thought he was fairly popular. So I had to ask for help in understanding how he could have lost. One friend offered a very thoughtful list of contributing factors, all of which sounded about right ― the world is a complicated place. But just as interestingly, another friend replied instantly with a single name ― Ralph Reed.

Reed was the executive director of the Christian Coalition in its glory days, when it controlled the Republican Party and much of the United States. His next high-profile political move was to become chair of the Georgia Republican Party. He began in politics in Georgia, so that made sense. But I thought it to be a big step down. How could this new job compare with being kingmaker in the national party and advisor to the president? But Reed has now enhanced his national stature, not diminished it. In addition to taking off the two most significant incumbents nationally, Georgia’s Republicans also defeated the speaker of the state house of representatives and the majority leader of the state senate. The speaker, Tom Murphy, the country’s longest-serving legislator, had been controlling the chamber for twenty-eight years, and was turned out by constituents who apparently did not care that they were probably represented by the most powerful lawmaker in Georgia’s history.

Barnes was helped into office by the fact that the governor of Georgia had been a Democrat since 1872, the end of Reconstruction. That streak resulted from a hatred by conservative white southerners of the Republicans as the party that originally imposed Reconstruction in the south. Georgia was the last place in the south where southern traditionalists had yet to make the big switch to the Republicans, their natural home on the national stage. Aside from Ralph Reed’s heroics, one reason cited for Barnes’ defeat is the flag issue. Opponent Sonny Perdue, who made the party switch in 1998, campaigned on a referendum on the flag change. So the Battle Flag, which was added to the state flag in 1956 in an act of overtly-racist Jim Crow defiance, could conceivably be restored. And this, of all things, has helped the Republicans overcome the legacy of Reconstruction.

Beyond that, Georgia, particularly the half of the state that is metropolitan Atlanta, is increasingly populated by characteristic white suburbanites, the kind who live all over the country. They aren’t tied to the politics of the old south. They are Christians, but more likely mainline Protestant than Baptist. Their nostalgia is for the 1950s, not the 1850s. And so while their favoritism of Republican candidates is at least partially a matter of social conservatism or even mild reactionary thinking, we must cite another reason as well. That other reason is economics. Suburban conservatives vote for Republicans because Republicans increase their personal wealth, primarily by offering tax cuts that target the middle and upper classes, with spending cuts, if there are spending cuts, that target the lower class. Middle-class entitlements and corporate welfare soldier on, the poor are abandoned, the expense is passed off to our children and grandchildren, and we can afford a few more options on the new SUV. And, tangentially but not coincidentally, gas prices are held down through ridiculously-low taxes and even subsidies, including opening up even the most sensitive federal lands to oil drilling, to say nothing of the robust defense of oil supplies from the Middle East, a subsidy if ever there were one.

And this comes to the same thing. What the dominion, whose work the GOP does, primarily offers the masses is not rule, for that is an ideology that directly favors just a few, but comfort, which all can partake of. For some, material comfort is the chief desire. For some it is intellectual comfort, the relief of never having to think or deal with a challenging idea, of never knowing doubt or mental insecurity. And some take the comfort of both.

We know what is lined up on the agenda. The grossly-irresponsible tax cut of last year will be made permanent, will undoubtedly be augmented, and we will resume our descent into inescapable debt. The value of nature will be set at nothing, so we will raid our wilderness for ten-cents-more-than-nothing’s worth of oil. The judicial adventurism of liberal judges will be replaced with the judicial adventurism of conservative judges. The fundamentalist shopping list ― abortion restrictions, school prayer, school vouchers ― will be reproduced. Trent Lott, in itemizing the goals for his new-won power, and apparently not kidding, said: “Let’s look at what we can do to target some tax cuts that would help the economy. Let’s have fiscal restraint.” He could just as well have said: “Let’s look at what we can do to have our cake. Let’s eat it.”

Since I understood the alternatives, since I knew what was at stake, I stayed up all night watching election returns, as I always do; and that meant watching a place I used to believe in get further and further from anything that I could ever understand. And then, the next night, I watched “The west wing”, Aaron Sorkin’s parallel United States, where the presidential election was being held this year. In the real world, when a dumb-as-tuna conservative governor from the south ran against a wonky left-of-center patrician, the conservative won. Not so in Sorkinland. His Jed Bartlet gave the Bush stand-in a good pasting. Another of Sorkinland’s fantasy leaders, in “The American president”, rejuvenated his re-election drive by defending his liberal-lobbyist girlfriend and, better still, his membership in the ACLU. “America”, he said, “isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.” Well, that is fantasy for you. Electoral success goes to someone we can believe in, who says courageous things, and we can all be proud of ourselves for living and participating in such a challenging polity.

One of the great tricks of rhetoric is flattery. It is used in advertising to sell everything, of course. Some of it is straightforward, like implying that Volkswagens will only be sold to those who are already Drivers on the Road of Life. But much of it doesn’t make any connection with the product. The ad flatters the viewer and, seemingly as an afterthought, mentions or depicts the product. The mere association is supposed to make the sale. And this sort of flattery is common in political rhetoric, especially when the candidate itself is speaking. The candidate needn’t say, You’re great and you should support me and my policies. The candidate need only say, You’re great. Flattery is so effective that we’ll draw the appropriate conclusion.

Advanced citizenship? Advanced self-indulgence would be more like it. It would be refreshing if the citizens of the United States would accept that they are not heroic, just ordinary, self-interested, self-gratifying creatures. But that would lead towards an institutionalization of pandering. I am still undecided about that. Of course there is pandering and nothing but pandering in electoral politics now. But if individuals stopped responding to the flattery and just called for an outright provision of loot, would we be any better?

Such is my belief in the power of truth, and not a faith either but a belief based on a study of history, that I am convinced we will succeed in the end. By ‘we’ I of course mean the stewardship; but I more specifically mean that central element of the stewardship that is most devoted to the truth, that is rationalist and opposes all that opposes the truth, including the dominion and its allies nationalism and fundamentalism, and opposes their methods, especially those that disregard or directly attack the truth.

The stewardship can offer something in the way of material comfort, if our intentions are ever carried out, but nothing compared to what the dominion offers, since we will not offer opulence to part of the world at the expense of the rest of the world, or of the future. And the rationalist core of the stewardship can offer nothing in the way of intellectual comfort, just more questions and more doubts. Rationalism isn’t easy. Rationalism is advanced citizenship. And in the real world, that won’t win elections. So in the short term, at least, we will always lose, and are fortunate to have lost so little this time.



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