Even the weariest presidential campaign winds somewhere to the sea, and this month, as the ever dwindling number of American voters meanders into the voting booths, the sea is exactly where the political vessels in which the nation sails have wound up. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
It is symptomatic of the disease of American democracy that one of the most frequently cited differences between the Republican and Democratic tickets this year consists not in what their respective candidates say they will do in the White House but rather in who they might appoint to the judicial branch of government. Mr. Clinton has suggested that New York Governor Mario Cuomo would be a good Supreme Court justice, while Mr. Bush has pointed with pride to his record of sending to the bench such paragons of juristic erudition as Clarence Thomas and David Souter. Granted there probably would be a significant difference in how the appointees of the two candidates would vote once on the court, but in a healthy representative government, courts ought to exercise so little power that appointments to them should not be political issues at all. Moreover, there ought to be many other and much more obvious differences between the candidates, the parties, and the policies they espouse than either they or their supporters have claimed, and citizens ought not to have to grunt and wheeze painfully in order to grasp them.
In an otherwise brilliant and moving speech to the Republican National Convention last summer, Pat Buchanan endorsed President Bush and offered such reasons as he could think of to support him. But to tell the truth, this was the weakest part of Mr. Buchanan’s address; he was obliged to dwell on the President’s commendable personal war record of some fifty years ago as opposed to the still mysterious conduct of Mr. Clinton when he was of draft age in the Vietnam era. The contrast in this respect between the two candidates may well indicate an important distinction of character between them, but it’s really rather stretching to claim that the two men’s performance or non-performance in two different kinds of wars offers a compelling reason for enthusiastic support of the former fighter pilot.
Then there is the issue of “family values,” a phrase that at last begins to evoke merely headaches and nausea. It is quite true that for all the Democrats’ efforts to co-opt that slogan, they remain unduly influenced by organized lobbies of homosexuals, abortionists, womanologists, and people like Mr. Clinton’s wife who believe strengthening the family consists in facilitating litigation against parents on behalf of their children. Yet despite the fraudulence of the Democrats’ adherence to the institution of the family, it is significant that they find it politically expedient to fake such adherence, just as it is equally significant that the Republicans, for the most part, also fake it in a different way. For all the repetition and regurgitation of the slogan of “family values” at the GOP convention last summer, only Mr. Buchanan mustered the sort of authentic rhetorical anger and moral conviction that are the appropriate responses to the Democrats’ sly exaltation of perversion and their calculated support for the destruction of natural relationships between parent and child.
There are, then, at least superficial differences between the two major political parties and at least personal differences between their leaders, and the persistence of such differences will comfort those Americans who continue to think that the political system today still offers them a real choice. But the truth is that the differences between the parties are far outweighed by their similarities. Both parties are committed to further expansion of the role of the federal state in managing and regulating the economy as well as private social relationships and institutions. Mr. Bush in his own remarks at the convention chose to dwell explicitly and expansively on his accomplishments in supporting the enactment of such measures as the Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Clean Air Act, child care legislation, and hate crimes laws, and he and several other speakers boasted of his “educational choice” bill, which would in reality go far toward establishing federal control of private schools. With respect to the fundamental issue of “Big Government,” then, there is little real difference between the two political parties, and both of them now routinely invoke egalitarian and universalist ideology as the legitimizing conceptual framework for enhanced state power.
Nor is there much difference with respect to foreign policy. Mr. Clinton, if anything, is even more committed an exponent of globalism and the “New World Order” than Mr. Bush. For a few weeks prior to the Republican convention last summer, Mr. Clinton found it expedient to urge U.S. military intervention in the Balkan civil war for what he called “humanitarian reasons,” even though virtually all senior military officers and officials were attesting to the dangers and sheer impossibility of effective U.S. involvement, even if someone somewhere could discover a plausible national interest in intervening. It might be thought that, given Mr. Bush’s constant belaboring of his own foreign affairs experience and claims to expertise and his apparent good sense in staying out of the Balkans, he would have made Mr. Clinton’s amateurish bellicosity a major issue in the campaign. He hasn’t, and his silence, like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, may suggest a clue. Perhaps Mr. Bush, if re-elected, really does plan to intervene in the Balkans himself. In any case, there is little important difference between the two parties on the major issue of the proper American role in world affairs in the post-Cold War era. Both support continued adaptation of U.S. sovereignty and independence to the fictitious “global economy”; both support the integration of the planet into transnational trade zones that accrue to the benefit of multinational corporations; both support continued high levels of foreign aid and the export of democracy; both support or at least refuse to do anything significant to halt continued cultural and demographic deracination through massive immigration; and both support an expanded role for the United Nations and other supranational organizations in determining, legitimizing, and intervening in the policies and practices of independent nations, including those of the United States.
What has occurred in the two major political parties, then, is what the apostles of Cold War containment policies always prophesied would occur between the United States and the Soviet Union: convergence. Each political party seeks to emulate the more successful rhetoric and ideologies of the other, and each knows full well that the real political conflict is not determined so much by serious discussion of political principle and policy as by merely the manipulation and management of “voter behavior.” The trick by which electoral victory is won is not to persuade citizens to support one or another of the two parties so much as it is to hang on tightly to those blocs and clusters that, for reasons of habit and interest, constitute one’s electoral base, while mounting media cavalry sorties into one’s opponent’s base with the hope of carrying away some of their maidens to one’s own camp, where they will endure a fate worse than death. He who gets the most maidens while keeping his own wins the election.
It is all very well to blame the politicians, managers, media wizards, and incumbents who profit from this system, but the truth is that it is the citizens themselves who permit it to flourish and endure. It is a universal characteristic of modern mass organizations that they encourage dependency and passivity, that most of the individuals who are members of these organizations cannot possibly understand or acquire the highly technical skills that enable the organizations to exist and function, and that the role of most of their members is entirely passive and subordinate while power and responsibility is centered in an elite that does understand and perform their technical operations. Lacking any real power or responsibility, the members merely do their jobs and behave as they are told to behave. This is why you usually receive such terrible service in government offices and larger stores (it’s not the clerks’ store, and it makes little difference to them whether the customer is satisfied or not), why so few customers complain about it (they are told not to expect courtesy or help because the store is “self-service”), and also why television sitcoms have to play recorded laughter to let the mass audience know when something funny has been said or done (the members of the audience are also passive and will respond to whatever signal is sent to them). In mass politics, the role of “citizenship” is largely confined merely to passive voting for whichever of the two organizational monoliths the citizen has been enticed to support. Comparatively few citizens even do that today, and the number who hand out petitions or work for candidates or run for office themselves is a minuscule part of the population.
The result of this inculcation of passivity is that even populist revolts such as that of the Perot movement last spring and summer cannot survive apart from manipulation and managed leadership. Despite all the enthusiastic support Mr. Perot’s phantom candidacy attracted, no sooner had he withdrawn from the race than the whole bubble popped, usually in tears and whining at the “cowardice” and “betrayal” of the leader, and the only question asked of his followers, the only question they seem to have asked themselves, was which of the other two candidates would they support. It never occurred to any of them to assert active leadership of the movement themselves and fill the void that the Texas billionaire had pretended to create and fill.
Indeed, the inculcation of passivity by the managerial system and its elite is an essential foundation of its power, not only on the political level but also on the social, economic, and cultural levels as well. The entire structure of the system depends upon manipulating its members into believing (or not challenging the assumption) that they are not capable of performing the simple social functions that every human society in history has performed as a matter of routine. It is the constant instruction of the propagandists of the system that we are not capable of educating our own children, taking care of them without brutalizing them, providing for our own health or old age, enforcing our own laws, defending our own homes and neighborhoods, or earning our own livings. We are not capable of thinking our own thoughts without ubiquitous and self-appointed pundits to explain to us what we see and hear, nor of forming our own tastes and opinions without advice from experts, nor even of deciding when to laugh when we watch television.
What is really amazing about American society today is not that there is so much violence and resistance to authority but that there is so little, that there is not or has not long since been a full-scale violent revolution in the country against the domination and exploitation of the mass of the population by its rulers. A people that once shot government officials because they taxed tea and stamps now receives the intrusions of the Internal Revenue Service politely; a society that once declared its independence on the grounds of states’ rights now passively tolerates federal judges and civil servants who redraw the lines of electoral districts, decide where small children will go to school, let hardened criminals out of jail without punishment, and overturn local laws that are popularly passed and have long been enforced.
Is it any wonder that the two political parties and all their repulsive leaders, managers, speechwriters, image-makers, officials, fundraisers, vote-catchers, and candidates are frauds who are less convincing than street-corner card sharks? Why should they not be frauds? Who is there to expose their racket and hold them to account? “If God did not want them sheared,” says the bandit leader in the movie The Magnificent Seven about the Mexican peasants he is robbing and killing, “he would not have made them sheep.” The peasants in the movie prove they aren’t sheep not by hiring the seven gunfighters to protect them but by finally taking up arms themselves. Sheep don’t fight back; they wait for others to fight for them. If there remain today any Americans who are not sheep, they’ll stop trying to hire phony populist gunfighters to save them from the wolfish bandits who run the country, and in the next four years they’ll start learning how to shoot for themselves.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in November 1992.