We all need a story to live by. We need a narrative to center our lives, provide reasons and justifications and even excuses for what we believe, what we value, and what we do. We need to be part of a grander scheme of things, adding our voice and our actions to a commonweal that makes what we do seem to matter. Or at least to matter more than it would otherwise. As the philosopher Alistair MacIntyre once put it, "if you want to know who I am, ask me what stories I am part of."
In America we have two competing national narratives. They are deeply political, which is as it must be for a people and a nation born in a people's revolution against a King and hardened by years of democratic debates, where, for four years at a time, those out of office tolerate but argue strenuously against the other side of the story, if only in the hope of defeating it next time around. In America, we and the politicians who represent us perform a battle of narratives that simultaneously unites and divides us. On a daily basis, we are not only such stuff as these stories are made of, but we endure their consequences.
So it is that as we bring 2010 to a close I am fully prepared to declare the obvious: The Republicans/Teapublicans narrative is this year triumphant. Their simple story of an America defined by individual liberty, low taxes, limited government, and deregulation of industry aimed at producing an American Dream that John Boehner could cry over beat out our more complicated and less compelling story of an American defined by the public good, taxes that promote it, a government that does good things for all of us, and re-regulation of industries that recent evidence has taught us require a stern disciplinary task master to ensure they don't do stupid, greedy things and as a result destroy us and the ecosystem.
Our American Dream, the Obama version back when he was still a liberal Democrat and was running for the presidency and not necessarily the version that by his actions and inactions he stands for now--which is that of a standard fare Washington politician willing to do anything to remain in office--was all about using government creatively to inspire us not only to individual success stories, but to a common story of success of Americans as a great people.
It was a fine tale. It was a story powerful enough to elect the first African-American president despite his lack of decades of experience being corrupted by lobbyists or much in the way of a record compromised by a lack of integrity. It was a story of hope and it worked so well that we believed hope would be translated into swift and certain action. We expected him to deliver fully on his campaign promises, which included ending two wars we can no longer afford and that we also can't win; ending the open discrimination against gays and lesbians as a simple matter of civil rights; and reinstating taxes on the richest Americans, while rebooting a deeply troubled economy with a jobs program in addition to a massive bailout of Wall Street that came without strings and that clearly hasn't encouraged them to change.
That was then. In the interim we find that we are still engaged in two wars, because I don't know about you, but I count the 50,000 troops still in Iraq as troops still in Iraq, and the 130,000 in Afghanistan as still in Afghanistan, which means to my simple mind that we are still engaged in two wars in the Middle East. I also find the new costs estimate of $4 - $6 TRILLION for these unwinnable wars to be unspeakable. Discrimination against gays and lesbians is still in place; they cannot marry who they love and they cannot tell the truth about who they are while in the military. There is no jobs program despite a nearly 10% unemployment rate and record profits and more million dollar bonuses on Wall Street. And the massive, unprecedented tax breaks for the wealthy are, with the Obama-sponsored tax bill, more firmly in place.
This isn't the change I voted for. This is the storyline I wanted to follow. And this certainly isn't the national narrative that I want to live with or endorse.
But as I say, we lost this year's narrative battle. Those on the right coerced, cajoled, and misguided voters using all of the usual means of Republican persuasion--fear of this or that, promises of low taxes and less government interference in our lives, and more fear of this or that if the government does interfere in our lives, namely in health care. People wearing funny revolutionary hats and old costumes, who clearly knew nothing about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights but wholeheartedly believed--and feared--that the country had turned socialist, provided the necessary spectacle that mesmerized us into believing that there were a lot more of them than we thought and that maybe there might be something to what they said. Propaganda works exactly that way. It's called the "bandwagon effect."
Politicians who have no business representing us were elected to high office, including Rand Paul, who doesn't believe in civil rights and says so, and Allen West, who clearly doesn't believe in free speech or a free press, and says so. At least we didn't elect the witch, but she's already formed a political action committee to explore the next election and her chances of continuing to make a substantial living by running unsuccessfully for office. Nor did we elect the woman who tried to unseat Harry Reid, whatever her name was, so forgettable to me that her name is already forgotten. But I do remember her calling for an armed insurrection against the government. But hey, for Republicans, that's a pretty standard speech line these days. Michele Bachmann did the same thing and, backed by wealthy neocon fanatics and "left behind" evangelicals calling for "end times," she was nevertheless returned to Washington by a wide margin.
America, you are large enough to contain such contradictions. So said the great poet Walt Whitman. But I have to wonder at what point playful "contradictions" become blatant "hypocrisy?" When does saying one thing in a campaign promise and doing exactly the opposite once elected count as a violation of the public's trust? Not that I'm splitting hairs or cherry-picking arguments. I admit the other side won. But when you campaign on not taking earmarks, as did Senators John Thune (S.D.) and John Cornyn (Texas) other Republicans, and then you immediately write $8 billion of them into a last minute tax bill, doesn't that mean you have moved over from "conservative politician" into the pork-eating faux crusaders' camp of "lying, greedy hypocrites?" And shouldn't someone--like the voters who elected you--call at least a foul you on it?
Oh, sure, these porkers say they are against it. They say they will do something about it. But they don't. And they won't. Neither did President Obama, who promised to take a "hard line on earmarks" during his own campaign. That's just how Washington works. Which is to say, only, that is just how corrupt Washington is.
I don't know about you, but I'm ready to close the door on 2010. It was not a good year for Progressive politics. Not a good year for our loser storyline. We have to regroup and do better telling our story in 2011 and 2012. To do that, as I have repeatedly pointed out, requires a core narrative that we don't yet have and a communication campaign from the White House capable of selling it to the American people.
I say these things with much the same honest enthusiasm I always have on December 31st, when I make New Year's resolutions. As is usually the case with these end-of-the year promises of more exercise, dramatic weight loss, and purifying my mind next year, I don't have a lot of confidence in actually seeing it happen. But it's always a good fight, it's a necessary narrative battle, you and I are truly on the side of the angels, and so I am willing to give it a try, once again.
I mean, really, what other choice do we have? I don't want to live out my life in the cold and fearful America of the Teapublican/Republican's selfish and racist narrative, nor see our children suffer lives of lowered expectations afforded them by what James Agee, writing about the voiceless, tired, and hungry lives of sharecroppers during the Great Depression correctly saw as "the cruel radiance of what is."How about you?