In politics, remarkable transformations, though rare, often come on suddenly and without prior warning.
The collapse of Communism and then of the Soviet Union itself is an example. It was clear to everyone, from Day One, that the Bolshevik Revolution could be overthrown militarily and that a successful counter-revolution was always possible. And, almost from the beginning, there were many who thought the Revolution ill advised or incomplete or betrayed. But almost to the bitter end, no one expected it to implode on its own.
It used to be thought too that fascism, once installed, could only be dislodged by revolution or war. For decades, this certainty was supported by good and pertinent evidence; some countries had freed themselves or been freed from the fascist yoke. But then, in the final quarter of the twentieth century, fascist regimes in southern Europe and Latin America, and some near cousins of fascism elsewhere, expired – not with a bang, but a whimper. In many a land, the body politic healed itself – never to the point of genuine healthfulness, but enough to be rid of a virulent affliction.
Then there are transformations that, when they occur, seem equally remarkable, even though their inevitability is plain for all but the willfully blind to see. No doubt, almost everyone will be taken by surprise when reactionary governments in the Gulf states fall or when Saudi Arabia, the linchpin of American imperialism in the Middle East, becomes undone by some functional equivalent of the Arab Spring, or when Israel’s hold over the American political class collapses. These changes are all past due, and they are as inevitable as they are desirable. But, like nuclear accidents, at any given moment the status quo seems secure enough not to be questioned at all.
However, in these matters, a sense of security is naïve at best. To take just the most extreme and timely example, consider Israel’s influence over the American government. Through AIPAC and other organs of the lobby that serves its interests, and with the active help of Protestant Zionists, Israel is now riding higher than ever; witness the abject servility of America’s high and mighty this week in Washington as they shamelessly offer obeisance at AIPAC’s annual policy conference.
But the Israeli government is also overreaching more than ever, pressuring the United States to undertake yet another self-defeating, “stupid” Middle Eastern
war – this time against Iran, a purported (but obviously contrived) “existential threat” to the settler state. If the Israeli government gets its way, the consequences will be devastating for all concerned.
To be sure, since history is nothing if not ironic, there could also be a silver lining. An Iran war could be the tipping point that will put paid on the blank check the US turns over to the Israeli ethnocracy; and the Israeli leaders, left and right, who have imposed an Apartheid regime on the Palestinian people and otherwise made a mockery of world opinion and international law could finally get the comeuppance they so richly deserve.
Or perhaps not, since even the most plausible predictions, like “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men, oft gang awry.” And so, even if Benjamin Netanyahu, ostensibly the best friend of those who fear AIPAC’s wrath, does succeed in dragging the U.S. into another Middle East war – one sure to be worse than its several predecessors — the Israel lobby could live to bully American politicians another day. Its demise is inevitable, but it could be a long time in coming; and when it does, it is more likely than not that everyone will be caught off guard.
Similarly, were a popular uprising to erupt in full force in Riyadh, or were events in Bahrain and other Gulf States to escalate, their inevitable futures might come sooner than anyone now thinks. In these cases too, when the inevitable comes, it will likely come on suddenly and to everyone’s astonishment.
There is another unpredictable inevitability lurking closer to home: the demise of the Republican Party. By all rights, the GOP should have splintered apart years ago, thanks to the success of the so-called Southern Strategy begun under Richard Nixon and escalated throughout the Reagan and post-Reagan era. The idea was to coopt white racists who, before the Civil Rights movement won the vote for African-Americans, made the Democratic Party invincible in “the solid South.” That part of Nixon’s strategy worked. But there was an unintended consequence: bringing the riffraff in drove a wedge between the plutocrats who own the party and their well-heeled friends, and the hodgepodge of socially dislocated retrogrades they recruited to their cause.
The ensuing cultural contradictions ought to have done the Republican Party in a long time ago. But the plutocrats were too greedy to mind bedding down with people their fathers and grandfathers would only have allowed into their houses through the backdoor; while their recruits, insofar as they were not just in the clutches of what used to be called “false consciousness,” were too intent on advancing their rearguard “values” to mind being useful idiots for the rich and heinous.
But lately a new factor has taken hold: the Republican base and the candidates who pander to it have turned suicidal. And so Republicans now find themselves in a situation similar to that of a deer caught in the headlights of a truck. That poor creature, like all living organisms, is, as it were, programmed to die. But it might have years left for that program to take effect. The truck will preempt that. So too the Republicans’ descent into absurdity could preempt the fatal cultural contradictions that have long riddled the Grand Old Party.
It is therefore reasonable not just to predict the eventual undoing of the GOP, but also to wonder whether it will even survive the year.
Its passing, whether now or later, will bring about an epochal transformation in the political landscape of the United States. The duopolistic regime in place today has been around since before the Civil War, when the Whigs expired and the Republican Party was born. The political scene was more fluid then. Even so, it took an issue as momentous as slavery and the prospect of an imminent civil war to undo a major political party.
Social and political divisions today are trivial in comparison. But the party of Lincoln nowadays is nothing if not “a house divided.” Add a pronounced death wish to untenable structural instabilities and the end could come indeed be near.
Of course, unexpected developments between now and November are always possible, and it would be foolish to place faith in the ability of a Democratic Party careening rightward in the reckless “bipartisan” fervor that Barack Obama has made its watchword to seize the opportunities the Republicans have handed them. But it is nevertheless likely that, at the very least, 2012 will be a dreadful year for the GOP, and that Democrats, having only recently been “shellacked” thanks to their own trademark pusillanimity, will soon, through no fault of their own, sweep the floor with their rivals.
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For lesser evilists, this is welcome news. But lesser evil arguments, the last (and lately the only) refuge of (Democratic) scoundrels, aren’t as compelling as they used to be. With Republican buffoonery way over the top – in other words, with Republicans doing their utmost to be the greater evil — the argument loses its force.
This is because people with wits enough and a sure enough moral compass to earn Rahm Emanuel’s contempt have never had less reason to fear a Democratic Party defeat, and not just because Democratic awfulness makes it is an open question which party is in fact the lesser evil.
When Emanuel and his ilk were calling the shots for Obama, the Democrats made it plain that if you have your head screwed on right, the party doesn’t need you; that it is only the “independents” in the middle who matter, and who therefore must be courted in every imaginable way.
They could get away with this, once Obama’s election was secure, because they were confident that voters to their left — that would be all but the most benighted elements of the Obama coalition — had no where else to go; that the party of vicious bullies (Rush Limbaugh) and risible cartoon characters (Sarah Palin), a party represented in Congress by the likes of John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell, is so off the charts awful that Democrats, along with those vaunted independents, would stay with Obama no matter what.
But as George W. Bush, the man who made Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 possible, might put it, they “misunderestimated” how ludicrous the Republicans would become once the 2012 primary season got underway. They never counted on Republicans making Obama’s case to moderates for them. But this is just what they are doing, and they’re damn good at it — better even than Obama himself back when he was still able to fool quite a lot of the people all of the time.
The implications are momentous. Fear of the greater evil was never a compelling reason to oppose independent candidacies or party-building efforts. And, it was never entirely clear, until now, which party was the greater evil; not because Republicans can’t always be counted on to be worse on a case by case basis, but because lesser evilists typically get the unit of comparison wrong.
Granted: John McCain is, by all plausible measures, more execrable than Barack Obama. But it is nevertheless far from clear that we’d now be worse off had he beaten Obama in 2008 – if only because, if he had, there would be a modicum of resistance in Democratic quarters against all the many respects in which Bush-Cheney policies have continued for the past three years. Instead, there is acquiescence. Arguably, this cancels out the largely cosmetic differences between Obama and McCain.
But now we have a new and unprecedented situation because it is, or ought to be, utterly obvious that the Republicans don’t stand a chance – not with Mitt Romney or worse as their standard bearer. To be sure, there are lots of unwitting absurdists out there, and the mind-numbing, assent-inducing powers of the corporate propaganda machine (Fox News is only the vanguard) are enormous. But not all the Koch Brothers’ money could lead voters with minimally functional brain cells to elect a President Santorum or a President Gingrich. And neither will the Santorum or Gingrich supporters stop hating Romney’s guts long enough to vote for him, no matter how out of joint they feel in the modern world, or how intense their racist and nativist animosities.
Poor Mittens: he is all but certain to be the nominee, but he faces a fatal dilemma. Either he recovers his Governor of Massachusetts persona, causing the worst and the dumbest to hate him all the more; or he plows on in his Tea Party guise, coming on like the phony he is — unconvincing to independents and loathsome to his own party’s base.
This is good news for Obama. It is even better news for opponents of our duopoly party system because now there is nothing this electoral cycle to fear – nothing except fear itself.
The situation is different from what it was in 2000, when Tweedledee ran against Tweedledumber. This was before the inevitable, but unforeseen, blowback from America’s machinations in the Middle East — back when George W. Bush, late of Phillips Andover and Yale, came on as a hapless bumpkin wannabe, and when Dick Cheney seemed to be the seasoned grownup who would make it all come out no worse than if Clinton-Gore Democrats stayed in power. As it turned out, Bush and Cheney were evils beyond anyone’s imagining. And so, while it was irrational to worry twelve years ago that “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,” those who did worry were not entirely wrong – in retrospect, and thanks to circumstances that, though inevitable, could not be foreseen.
But today everyone with the sense they were born with – about a half to two thirds of the American population – already knows what is in store if the Republicans win. Ironically, therefore, the worriers can count on those infernal independents to keep the GOP at bay. The Republicans have already won them over for the other side.
Lesser evilists can therefore feel it safe to vote, say, for Jill Stein, the Green Party’s likely candidate, without worrying about getting worse than they bargained for when an unforeseeable inevitability or an inevitable but unpredictable one, like 9/11, comes to pass. There is no need to worry because there is no one left for Romney — or, worse, Gingrich or, worst of all, Santorum – to fool. They already have all the fools there are on their side.
Since our system runs on the (once) almighty dollar, it isn’t clear how a new party bereft of plutocratic support could actually become a contender. But it is becoming very clear how an old party, gorged on plutocratic money, can do itself in. Once that happens, no one knows what might befall.
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More importantly, thanks to the absurdity that the Republican Party has become, it is now possible, even in an election year, to do real political work without the usual debilitating duopolistic rivalries intruding. Elections, especially presidential elections, absorb political energies, deflecting them in ways that reinforce the status quo. Inevitably, this will happen this year too; it is already happening.
But with Democrats running on empty in the enthusiasm department, and with Republicans effectively, or perhaps even literally, self-destructing, the impending election is likely to lose much of its power to debilitate.
No one thought fascism would wither away or that the Soviet Union would simply expire. But if such things can happen, then surely our duopoly party system too can succumb or, at the very least, change beyond recognition.
Like the transformations that are bound to come eventually in the Middle East, this is a hopeful prospect. It is also an unsettling one, inasmuch as the passing away of eternal verities always carries risks.
With this in mind, I would suggest that we recall a remark first voiced some sixty years ago, when absurdity was more often represented artistically, as in the theater of the absurd, than acted out in political debates or in candidates’ stump speeches. The main character in Eugene Ionesco’s masterpiece, “Jacques or the Submission” made a case for taking risks in absurd situations. His words ring even truer today in the real world of politics than they did decades ago on the stage: “Anything would be preferable to the present situation,” Jacques declared, “even a new one.”
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.