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The Banality of Hyperbole
You know the quadrennial refrain: Americans are politically “polarized.” Half of us are ranting right-wing Torquemadists, the other half are raving left-wing Jacobins, and by implication the country faces a stark binary choice between those two approaches to government.
It’s caricature, of course. Most Americans — and I say this as a hardcore fringe radical! — are mired in the muddled middle, and this November’s presidential election presents those Americans, as usual, with a choice between two timid, ever-so-slightly right of center, non-entities whose only bankable promises are to not tinker much with the status quo.
No, you say? Obama and Romney are nothing at all alike? Well, let’s dispose of that in one swell foop and with one word: “Obamacare.”
“Conservative” Republican Mitt Romney beta-tested “Obamacare” as governor of Massachusetts — a decade and change after “conservative” Republicans proposed and backed its main feature, the “individual mandate” in 1993 (following 12 years of a Republican White House and right before the GOP’s first re-seizure of congressional control in 40 years; not exactly a timeframe in which Republicans could be reasonably described as playing defense, but rather a time when they were most apt to be out front with exactly what they really wanted).
“Liberal” Obama rammed the Romney 2006 / Gingrich 1993 proposal through Congress at the national level … and that makes him “the most left-wing president in American history.” So he must be replaced. By Romney. Some stark choice there, huh?
This alleged “polarization” between America’s major political parties is pure hooey, but it’s necessary to keeping the game interesting. After all, if the game gets too boring, people might decide to take away the Democrats’ and Republicans’ ball and go play something else.
Enter hyperbole. Whether it’s LBJ’s 1964 ad with the little girl getting vaporized in a thermonuclear explosion if Goldwater won, or Chuck and Gena Norris’s suggestion that Obama’s re-election might cue the extinction of freedom and “thousand years of darkness” which Old Testament prophet Ronald Reagan warned of, wild exaggerations about the existential importance of this year’s presidential beauty contest are the only way to “keep the skeer up.”
The hype has gotten so outrageous that it’s frankly becoming a huge tiresome bore. Every Democratic administration is “the most left-wing in history.” Every Republican administration is “trying to drag us back to the Middle Ages” (or at least to the pre-Martin-Luther-King era). But on even cursory examination, there’s so little light between the two offerings that Kate Moss would have a difficult time squeezing between them.
The prime directive for Republican and Democratic politicians — and for that matter, increasingly even among “third party” candidates” — is to not rock the boat. They’re all auditioning for the role of William F. Buckley’s archetypal conservative, seeking the job of standing athwart the train tracks of history yelling “stop!”
At 364 years of age, the Westphalian nation-state is a doddering, senile institution. It’s on its last legs. It no longer aspires to great new things, but merely hopes to hold on to what it has for as long as possible before it strokes out or just dies quietly in its sleep.
In terms of everyday exercise of power, it’s mostly been reduced in recent years to shuffling out on its front porch and yelling at the neighborhood youngsters — non-state peer networks actually doing everything the state has always claimed to do but failed miserably at — to get off its lawn.
Its elections, and the attendant hype, are the equivalent of waving its cane at said youngsters in a futile attempt to scare them out of knocking it down, breaking its hip and forcing it to listen to that new-fangled “jazz” music while it waits for an ambulance to pick it up and transport it to the nearest hospice facility.
The real question is not who runs the state for the next four years. The real question is what comes after the state. Everything else is just vaudeville, badly performed as a distraction from that question.
Thomas L. Knapp is Senior News Analyst at the Center for a Stateless Society.