Notes from Underground


The three stigmata
of modern American democracy




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In a previous installment, I made clear my thoughts regarding the superstition known as "democracy." As we are now in the midst of another presidential election season, I have recently had occasion to revisit my September 2004 column, and I've realized that as thorough and direct as I was there (as revealed in the very title), I didn't address many particulars of the current state of things. That is to say, I mainly critiqued the abstract and theoretical underpinnings of democratic thought: namely, the specious notion that majority opinion determines or confers legitimacy. I also expressed my disdain for the ubiquitous democracy-cheerleaders of the media and elsewhere, who seem to get pushier and more self-righteous with each passing election year.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that the intensity of loathing I feel toward the democratic system results in large part from its contemporary manifestation in this country and time. That isn't to say that democracy in itself isn't an illogical and highly unpalatable proposition wherever and whenever it is practiced but that among all of the democracies of recent and ancient history, the 21st-century American brand strikes me as especially obnoxious.

As I see it, there are three unmistakable stigmata of the peculiarly contemporary ideology and practice of democracy, all of which are on display whenever candidates pimp and plump for votes in the United State of America today, and all of which in my view tend further to degrade an already degraded, irrational, and corrupt system of rule. I will attempt here to identify and describe these stigmata.

The first stigma is persistent ALARMISM, bordering in fact on apocalypticism. While many segments of all democratic societies, past and present, have been seized with rancor and bitter partisanship around election time, modern American democracy ups the ante on the usual disharmony or "bad vibes" on display. For those who become partial to the candidacy of one politician or another, it is the norm to be manipulated into hating that candidate's opponent, to be swayed into seeing that opponent not merely as the less preferable of two choices but as a debased, demented villain who must be kept out of power, at all cost.

Ironically, of course, such feelings are usually justified — toward anyone who runs for political office. After all, democracy tends to encourage the ascendance of disreputable and unscrupulous characters, eager and willing to do whatever they can get away with in order to obtain power. Politicians are quite often, if not always, brazenly sociopathic narcissists and shameless demagogues. But the tendency in our society is to believe deeply in the character and integrity of one candidate, the one you support, and to feel outrage and ferocious, nearly homicidal hatred for his opponent. (A bumper sticker I glimpsed recently comes to mind: "Bush: the only dope worth shooting.")

The atmosphere of relentless bitterness and endlessly spewed invective between the two sides is bad enough. In our society, however, things have become even more unsightly. For now, the prospect of the "other guy" winning isn't viewed just as a significant and deplorable victory of evil over good; it is the end of the world as we know it — the apocalypse for sure! If your candidate doesn't win, it means that decency and goodness have vanished from the earth, that freedom is abolished and sinister, totalitarian forces are poised to take over.

To the contemporary American Left, a Republican victory means the advent of a Christian-Right fascist theocracy; for the mainstream American Right, a Democratic triumph means the empowering of weak-minded, spineless appeasers of radical Islam. The lefty envisions a near future where he'll be forced to recite the Lord's Prayer at gunpoint and will risk being burnt at the stake if he commits sodomy or fornication (the typical lefty being very hung up about perceived encroachments on sexual permissiveness). The righty, meanwhile, anticipates a nightmare tomorrow where, owing to the treasonous machinations of jihadi-fellow travellers, America will lie supine before Talibanesque Muslim invaders, who will make him warble "Allahu Akbar" and cut his head off if they find him drinking beer or eating a McRib sandwich (the typical righty being sensitive about his alcohol and meat).

The partisans on both sides have lurid and vivid, if unimaginative, visions of a future society ruled by religious zealots who threaten the lifestyle they hold most dear. The cosmopolitan liberal simply fears the homegrown American faith, while the nativist conservative dreads the notion of an alien faith taking hold. For both, however, the "end of the country as we know it" is but one lost election away, and the very possibility of such a crushing loss in the near future inspires terrible and intense consternation, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Because of that mindset, elections themselves have assumed a freakish significance in the mind of hard-core partisans and all whom they manage to recruit to their misbegotten cause. This tendency ties in with the second stigma of modern American democracy: GRANDIOSITY.

How often in recent memory have we heard words to this effect: "This year's election is the most important election ever; there's so much riding on who wins; it's so crucial that you get out there and vote!" The hysterical subtext of that is, "The safety of yourself and your children, the future of truth, justice, truth, kindness, compassion, honesty, liberty, and every other noble-sounding quality, depends on your choice to push the right button in the voting booth on election day."

The grandiosity of that point of view is evident on a couple of levels. First of all, it is grandiose in its appraisal of the power of the individual voter. No election (save minor, local ones involving extremely low turnout) has ever been decided by anything close to a single vote. More important, the "most important election ever" hype has always been scandalously inaccurate, no matter the circumstance. Ask yourself: would things truly be different today in any appreciable way if Kerry had won in '04, or Gore in '00, or Dole in '96, or if any loser had been a winner anytime before that? Would our nation, our society, really be any better or worse than it is now? Many active partisans on both sides of the red-state / blue-state divide act as if politics determined culture, when the plain fact is that it's always been the exact opposite.

I am deeply sympathetic to the notion of restoring all the staples of traditional morality that have steadily disappeared since the destructive cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s, and I am equally aware that the GOP has exploited that similar healthy inclination in others, to the hilt and with much success. Somehow, many people have become convinced that if Republicans win enough elections, they'll be able (not to say willing) to "fix" such entrenched social ills as the breakdown of the family and the accompanying crass, permissive, and oversexualized atmosphere that permeates modern American society, from rap videos to computer games to Super Bowl commercials. But canny propaganda aside, statesmen — that is, men of the state — are not the men for this job. Even a monstrous crime such as abortion can be overcome only through the defeat of the Culture of Death, and not, as most anti-abortion Republican stalwarts seem to think, by the election of the candidate who might best be expected to appoint pro-life Supreme Court Justices.

The first two stigmata, ALARMISM/APOCALYPTICISM and GRANDIOSITY, are characteristics that often mix and merge with one another; it's not always clear where the first ends and the second begins. The third stigma in some ways undermines the very nature of the first two. After all, people become alarmist and grandiose when they perceive a danger that must be overcome or else it may destroy us all. You'd think that under such circumstances a partisan would give a very low priority to taunting the other side when he won or when his opponents suffered a blow to their credibility. After all, aren't the stakes too high to indulge in such childish behavior? Yet it is undeniably true that SCHADENFREUDE, the enjoyment of seeing an enemy in pain or difficulty, is the secret animating force behind the ugly spectacle of partisan politics in America today.

I will admit to being no stranger to Schadenfreude myself. I still retain a contempt so powerful for all things Clintonian that I relished that brand's recent failure; it was particularly lovely to see Mrs. Clinton's mounting disappointment and panic as she slowly realized she was being upstaged by an upstart.

Perhaps to some extent it is permissible to enjoy seeing bad people fail, which makes politics — loaded as it is with both bad people and failure — an ideal setting for Schadenfreude-ish indulgences. Still, there is something unseemly about reveling in such sentiments; it seems ultimately to make one debased and small, if not plain cruel. One thinks of Eric Cartman, of "South Park," licking up the "tears of infinite sadness" from a former bully on whom he took revenge by tricking him into eating his dead parents as chili. (Please don't ask me to explain if you haven't seen it.)

It's my belief that, deep down, most Americans know that not much will change no matter who is elected; they simply want to see "their guy" win because they know it will upset the other side, whom they hate. There is, finally, a sense of flailing, impotent rage about this behavior that is most unbecoming and disheartening. It is one thing to feel anger; nearly everyone has a right to be mad about something in his life, and many people have multiple legitimate motivations for rage. But anger isn't an end in itself. Anger, if you wallow in it, will do nothing but lacerate you from the inside. Whatever your bitter heart causes you to do or say to hurt your enemy, languishing in bitterness actually does more to hurt you than anyone else. I know that from experience, and I am still in the process of learning my lesson. Others who strike me as farther gone than I ever was apparently haven't even begun to learn their lessons yet, and show no indication that they ever will. It is both frustrating and saddening.

That is why one feels particularly inclined to look the other way when a political discussion amps up today, whether on TV, in the office, or on the street. Most debates today are between people who aren't listening to one another. Each of the participants seems disposed, if not determined, to believe the very worst of the other. You get the feeling they're just looking for an excuse to shout "In your face, bitch!" before slapping a high-five with their supporters. It's less important to know what you are talking about than it is to be "right" according to a particular ideology. Smug self-congratulation and grating self-importance abound, as does brutal and blistering and totally unoriginal ad hominem invective.

Gee whiz. All democracy is bad, but this is dreadful and appalling. Let's get this blasted election over with already. It's driving me nuts.

August 18, 2008

© 2008 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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