The Thirty Percent

As long as our elections pass for “free and fair,” there is always a chance that one or another of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” will make them interesting.  Who, after all, would have predicted Bush v Gore?

But barring what we cannot foresee, it will be grim indeed between now and November.   Polling data indicate that more than two-thirds of the electorate already wishes the election over.  It is surprising that the number isn’t higher. The problem is not apathy; thanks to Occupy Wall Street, there are significant numbers of people in motion for the first time in decades and, by all accounts, the occupations enjoy wide popular support.  But money-driven electoral politics is largely irrelevant to the changes OWS is about.  More importantly, there is a yawning enthusiasm deficit in the offing.  Unlike in 2010, this time it will affect Democratic and Republican voters alike, though for different reasons.

On the Democratic side, the reasons not to enthuse have been obvious since even before Barack Obama took office.  The case has been gone over so often that it scarcely bears repeating.  In brief, apart from his much touted health insurance legislation, which, like the Clintons’ failed efforts two decades ago, will set the cause of genuine reform back a generation, Obama has continued George Bush’s policies on almost all matters of substance — except in the one area where it was reasonable to expect that a Constitutional law professor would do better, and where he has done worse.  That would be in protecting constitutional rights and freedoms, including due process rights, and assuring legal accountability, not just for the ninety-nine percent, but for rich and powerful “persons” (corporate and otherwise) too.

Instead Obama announced at the get go that, in order to move “forward,” he’d not be bringing George Bush or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or any of the lesser war criminals who operated under their authority to justice.  And, from that time on, he has indeed moved forward relentlessly – to the point that today Bradley Manning, by all rights a national hero, after having been subjected to eighteen months of pre-trial punishment amounting to torture and having already been declared guilty by the Commander-in-Chief, is now a prop in a show trial designed to intimidate whistle-blowers and others who might embarrass the empire and its stooges; and to prepare the way for who knows what affront to the rule of law Obama & Company have in mind for Julian Assange, a man who has helped make more crucial information available to the public than all the world’s media combined.

Yes, Republican obduracy has thwarted Obama’s every move.  But only the willfully blind can still doubt that he and his fellow Democrats have been more than willing capitulators.  And yes, he and they sometimes do say things liberals want to hear.  But, when it comes down to it, they have consistently been on the wrong side of everything – to a degree that cannot plausibly be ascribed to their blundering or pusillanimity, or to the strategic adeptness of the other side.

The only reason the vast majority of Obama’s 2008 supporters haven’t abandoned him entirely is the fear and loathing the other side conjures up.   Obama understands this, even if he is more inclined to blame the economy than himself.  Thus he too has taken to falling back upon the Lesser Evil argument.  In a recent interview on “Sixty Minutes,” Obama pointed out that he’s not running against the Almighty but against the alternative.  Expect to hear that argument repeatedly in the months to come.

[To his credit, the President acknowledged that this gem of a sound bite was voiced first by the Vice President, a man famously disinclined to cite his sources].

By now, most lesser evilists understand that Obama and the Democrats are not on the side of the ninety-nine percent, and that being coopted into their electoral campaigns is not the way forward.  This was already a fact of political life before the 2010 mid-term elections; it is why many who would have voted Democratic stayed home instead, and why the Democrats got the “shellacking” they deserved.  Predictably, Obama learned all the wrong lessons from the 2010 election.  And so the enthusiasm of the Democratic base has, if anything diminished further.

But since most voters can still claim to have the sense they were born with, there is much less willingness now to give the other side a tumble.  This is why Obama will probably win in 2012, even if the economy goes south again and even if, as is very likely, Iraq and Libya come back to bite him in the ass.  He will win because he is running against the alternative.  The alternative is so God awful that, confounding the conventional wisdom of just a few months ago, Obama may even carry enough Democrats with him to hold on to the Senate and take back the House.

But, if that happens, it won’t be because very many voters like the prospect; it will be to ward off the most wretched collection of bought and paid for low lives and charlatans ever to present themselves as potential rulers of a land teetering on the edge of economic disaster and overflowing with weapons of mass destruction.

A similar fear and loathing moves sane Republicans too.  But sane Republican voters are few and far between outside the ranks of the one percent, where greed concentrates the mind.

And so all the enthusiasm nowadays resides with Tea Partiers and values voters, some thirty percent of the total electorate.  In their ranks, passionate intensity abounds – so much that most of them cannot alight for long on any single candidate.  They love them all, in series, for a few weeks at a time.

But even they understand at some level that, barring the outbreak of a pandemic psychosis, none of their love objects are electable, and so they face the prospect of having to vote for the only plausible Republican candidate running – Mitt Romney.  Since it has been clear for months that between seventy and eighty percent of the thirty percent hate his guts, this is a recipe for an enthusiasm deficit likely to dwarf the one afflicting Obama’s disaffected supporters.

Democratic voters have by now mostly resigned themselves to the idea that Obama is useless except for keeping a Greater Evil at bay.  Because Republicans hardly bother even to pretend that they champion the interests (as opposed to the “values”) of the thirty percent upon whom they count for votes, their problem is different.  Instead of having to depend on fear, they have a yawning cultural contradiction to contend with — between the plutocrats who recruited the thirty percent and who still own the party, and their benighted accomplices who nowadays run the show.   If there is a candidate acceptable to both camps – a very unlikely prospect – he or she has yet to come forward, and it’s getting to be too late to expect that one will.  And so when it comes to working up enthusiasm for their candidate this time around, Republicans are likely to find themselves at a loss.  Both parties face an enthusiasm deficit, but this time the enthusiasm gap will fall on the Republican side.

* * *

What gives with that thirty per cent?  Their educational level is said to be “above average,” though that statistic, if true, says more about American education than anything else.  But most of them are at least able to negotiate their way through life with some success.   How then can they contemplate, much less enthuse over, a Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry presidency?  How can they take Donald Trump or Herman Cain or Rick Santorum seriously?  And, to go from the merely ridiculous to the utterly contemptible, how could they let Newt Gingrich skip to the head of the class?

[Ron Paul is the outlier.  Although he is more principled and consistent than the others, particularly on matters of individuals’ rights and liberties, most of his views – on issues ranging from economics to abortion — are as awful as those of any of his rivals.   But on matters of war and peace and foreign policy, he, not Obama or any of the other Republicans, is the lesser evil.  Though hardly an anti-imperialist, he is the one anti-interventionist in the race; and also the only one in favor of holding back the blank check the United States gives Israel, though for reasons that have more to do with his understanding of Biblical prophecy than with justice or solidarity with an oppressed people.  Because many of his positions are unacceptable in the Home of the Brave, the media treat Paul in much the way that they treated Jesse Jackson two decades ago – they ignore him as much as they can.  Even so, if the one percent can’t win the thirty percent over to Romney’s side and if all the other anti-Romney candidates self-destruct, he could become someone to reckon with.   But, whatever happens, Paul’s candidacy has little to do with the enthusiasms so far evident in the ranks of the thirty per cent, and so, following the lead of those who would marginalize him, I will say nothing more about him here.]

Familiar explanations for the insanity on the Republican side don’t quite cut it.  One view, voiced by Obama himself in 2008 at a fund-raiser in Northern California, is that it has to do with identity — that at a time of social dislocation, there are desperate people who cling to their religion and their guns because that is what they take their heritage to be.  He regretted saying this, but he was not wrong: a perverse kind of identity politics does draw people into the thirty percent.  But that wouldn’t account for the enthusiasm so many thirty per centers evince for preposterous candidates who, like the kids on the old Art Linkletter program, say the darndest things.

Some fifty years ago, Richard Hofstadter drew attention to a “paranoid style” in American politics which surfaces from time to time.  Aversion to reason and indifference to evidence is not new on our shores either, and neither is anti-intellectualism.  It is telling, though, that Newt Gingrich is, by his own lights and in the view of many thirty per centers, a deep thinker and an important historian.  So much for anti-intellectualism; even a blowhard, as risible as they come, still counts as an intellectual heavy weight to those who don’t know better.

These explanations are helpful, but they don’t quite make sense of the tolerance for, indeed enthusiasm over, the absurdity on the Republican side.   To account for that, we need to acknowledge the presence in our intellectual – and political — culture of ressentiment, a phenomenon identified and discussed by some insightful nineteenth century German and Scandinavian philosophers — Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and Max Scheler, among others.

The idea is not quite what the ordinary word “resentment” suggests.  Ressentiment involves anger, but on the part of persons unaware of, though in the grip of, a sense of their own inferiority.  The phenomenon therefore  involves self-deception, and is always inauthentic – it is not what it seems or purports to be.  Ressentiment is a product of frustration brought on by a felt inability directly to express anger towards those who challenge one’s dignity.  It is indirect and distorted, and therefore inherently pathological.

As cultural contradictions in the Republican fold become increasingly irrepressible, a politics of ressentiment has taken hold among the thirty percent.  However it is directed not against those who truly do victimize the thirty percent, along with the rest of the ninety-nine, but against those they perceive to comprise America’s intellectual and cultural elites.  What better way to flip the bird at “effete, intellectual snobs,” as Spiro Agnew put it, than to endorse the positions and candidates who have won the hearts and minds of the thirty percent!

If anyone doubts this, reflect on the Gingrich phenomenon.  The man was deemed unethical even by Congressional standards; he was even forced to resign the speakership.  Since then, he has been an overpaid lobbyist who has run up astronomical tabs on cruise lines and at Tiffany’s and other purveyors of baubles to “high net worth” individuals.  He is a philanderer and not a nice one at that.  He is a narcissist.  And he is a servant of the Anti-Christ, having forsaken the old time (Baptist) religion for the Church of Rome.  You’d think all this and more would make him a non-starter in Tea Party and values voter circles.  But No.  He pisses off cultural elites, along with everyone else whose head is screwed on more or less the right way, and that’s good enough for them.

* * *

But the thirty percent are part of the ninety-nine percent, just as are the objects of their (repressed) fury.  Why can’t they all get along?

In principle, they can and they should.  But our politics has been dominated by divisive culture wars for so long that it will take more than just a dawning awareness of growing inequality to overcome the divisions that afflict the ninety-nine percent.  Convictions protected by impenetrable layers of in-your-face stupidity are particularly difficult to dislodge, especially when they serve a pathological function.

OWS consciousness is a step in the right direction, but only a step, and the goal is a long way away.  And so, for now and the foreseeable future there is no choice but to be resigned to a political landscape in which thirty percent of the population drags our politics to retrograde extremes.  Lets not bother about those hapless souls now.   One of William Blake’s proverbs of Hell has it that “if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.”  No doubt, but we don’t have time to wait.

For us now the challenge is to move OWS consciousness forward to such an extent that change for the better comes onto the agenda again – not in the meretricious way it did four years ago but genuinely.  If we succeed in that, a by-product, not to be despised, will be a change in the immediate political environment far-reaching enough to compel even Obama and the Democrats to take notice and perhaps even to change the worst of their ways.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. 

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).