My remarks on that second point --the vital missing piece in Hirsh's picture-- follow this excerpt from his essay.
What a glorious couple of centuries it has been, all held together by this great string of luck. "The Lord looks after drunks, children and the U.S.A." went the old saying, and it seemed true. But the thing about luck is that, eventually, you run out of it. Everybody craps out in the end. And that is what has happened to us. As Americans go to the polls Tuesday we must confront the fact that we have become a luckless people, all across the political spectrum.
Was there any more mind-boggling bit of historic bad luck than what happened after Election Day 2000, when those 537 votes in Florida wobbled, then stayed in George W. Bush's column? Never mind what kind of president Al Gore would have been-he would have been adequate, I suppose, but so would have most Republicans-it is hard now to avoid the conclusion that Bush was precisely the wrong man at the wrong time. Perhaps Bush would have been OK fighting another kind of war, a Jacksonian Battle of New Orleans-type war. But at a moment in history when we faced the most subtle sort of global threat, when we needed not just a willingness to use military force but a leader of real brilliance-someone who would carefully study a little-understood enemy-we got a man who actually took pride in his lack of studiousness. No surprise: Bush never once presided over a grand-strategy session to divine the nature of Al Qaeda, and he ended up lumping Saddam and every Islamist insurgent and terrorist group with Osama bin Laden. He ensured that a tiny fringe group that had been hounded into Afghanistan with no place left to go-one that could have been wiped out had we focused on the task at hand-would spread worldwide and become a generational Islamist threat.
And at a time when we needed a world leader who understood the nuances of burden-sharing in the international system, we got a president who so badly wanted to be a cowboy and not his father (offending even some Texans: "all hat and no cattle" is the term they use down there) that he proudly declared he doesn't "do nuance." Bush stomped around huffily in his first term, talking loudly and carrying a big stick, in the process all but trashing a half century of carefully nurtured American prestige. No surprise: he alienated a world we desperately needed on our side, thus leaving America alone with all the burden and generations' worth of bills to pay. Now we face two serious rising threats, North Korea and Iran. And having squandered our attention, resources and prestige on a trumped-up threat, Iraq, we are simply too weak and friendless to confront them as they should be. That's what I call bad luck.
I acknowledge a bit of truth in the "bad luck" idea. In a piece some months ago entitled "The Butterfly Effect: Reflections on Chance and the "It Might Have Beens" of History" (at http://www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=167), I contemplated how different things might have been but for the tiny and fortuitous happenstance (the figurative "beating of a butterfly's wings") of a woman in Palm Beach County Florida inadvertently designing the ballot for her county so that thousands of people who intended to vote for Gore ended up voting for Buchanan.
In that perspective, the presidency of GWBush did not HAVE to happen, and America might have been spared this dark time.
Some, I know, believe the American power system to be so deeply enmeshed in corruption that this darkness was inevitable. I do not agree, but I will concede this much: that these Bushite forces were clearly gathering well before 2000, as revealed by the increasing viciousness with which part of the American body politic waged its political battles (refusing to grant the legitimacy of a president not of their choosing when he was elected in 1992) and by the profound dishonesty of the right-wing media system that was rising to dominance in the 1990s.
So even had the ballot in Palm Beach County been rightly designed, and thus even if we'd been spared the election of Bush in 2000, the challenge of facing down these dark and destructive forces would have remained. And it is uncertain whether a President Gore would have had the ability to turn those forces back, and whether the American system, buttressed by a period of simple good government, could have pushed these viral threats into remission without succumbing first to a health crisis of the body politic to bring the battle to a head.
But I am inclined to believe that this darkness was not a historical inevitability. Bad luck did play a part.
Even granting that, however, Hirsh's argument is more notable --presented as it is in 2006-- for the truth to which it seems blind than for the bit of truth it captures.
Bush's ascension to the presidency might be laid to bad luck. But what about the way he and his gang were able to lie and manipulate and bully their way across the national and world stage and maintain a preponderant base of political support among the American electorate?
Is it bad luck that the Bushites could politicize the issue of homeland security as shamelessly as they did --sundering the national unity that 9/11 had given them, smearing the likes of Max Cleland as Osama's man-- to gain political advantage, and be rewarded at the ballot box for their unfair and dishonest tactics?
Is it bad luck that Bush could lie and swagger and manipulate his way into his chosen war in Iraq, and not be punished by an outraged public for the manifestly shameful way he was leading us into war?
Was it bad luck that these Bushites could degrade presidential communication to mere propaganda, could systematically distort and ignore science, could routinely contradict the facts right before our eyes, and still be regarded as credible by half the American public?
Even if it was bad luck that Bush gained the presidency in 2000, did Hirsch not notice that Bush was returned to office by the election of 2004? Second terms are not automatic. And whether or not there's validity to those suspicions that the election of 2004 was stolen, either way, we know that this president had the support of roughly half of Americans.
Even after all the signs of evil had been paraded before our eyes during the first term, the Bushites remained AT LEAST within striking distance of winning an election. Even after all the manifestly pervasive lying and manipulation of those four years, on the eve of the 2004 balloting TWO-THIRDS of the American people BELIEVED THIS PRESIDENT TO BE A MAN OF INTEGRITY.
Where does luck enter into THAT?
No, it is not so much a matter of "our luck has run out" as it is one of "character is destiny." When a nation's character degrades, the consequence of that bad character is a bad destiny.
It was not just a string of good luck that made American history brighter than that of most civilized societies (a rather dismal standard, to be sure). There was also a national character (a "republican virtue) that our Founding Fathers understood to be the foundation on which the American constitutional democracy would have to stand. And it was not just that our string of luck ran out, but that over the past couple of generations the structures of our national character --the support beams of "republican virtue"-- have been degraded.
As for the forces behind this degradation, I have written about them elsewhere. (See, for example, "America's Moral Crisis," at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?page_id=2, and "The Challenge of Affluence: A Root of Our Moral Crisis," at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=151.)
But regardless of the reasons for this degradation of national character, Americans have become a lesser people than we were. And that has now proved dangerous, for Bushites like Karl Rove have been masters at exploiting the growing defects in the American character structure.
We have become a people less able to differentiate between reality and an effective story that someone (whether in the White House or on Madison Avenue) has concocted to manipulate us. We have become a nation deficient in the the intellectual tools on which good understanding must be based. We have become good marks for a capable con artist.
We have become a people less willing and less able to differentiate between impulses that are worthy and those that should be held in check. We have become a nation lacking in devotion to the greater good than the indulgence of our own desires. We have become a nation that feeds its soul on degrading fantasies (more movies about serial killers than about truly admirable people), and has lost its vision of an ideal toward which to strive.
All this is not a matter of "bad luck." But neither is our national degradation irrevocable and irremediable. The possibility of redemption always remains-- with a nation as with an individual-- starting with repentance for past wrongs to clear the way for a new beginning.
On the eve of the election of 2006, it appears that Americans are poised to begin, in an important way, that process of repentance. This could be a step toward that new beginning. May we bottom out now, start aligning ourselves with higher things, and reject the idea that this disease will govern our lives.
The renewal of America will take more than luck. It will take the kind of hard work, courage, humility, devotion, and sense of responsibility that are the hallmarks of good character.