Blogging will continue to be light for a while as I keep trying to wrestle real life into submission.
Go to the newsstand, though, and buy this month’s Atlantic. It’s chock-full of chewy things to think about, not the least of which is Bernard Henri-Levy’s article “In the Footsteps of Tocqueville” (subscribers only, I think – but check).
In addition to a wonderful expansive view of America, he elliptically raises a crucial point – and leaves it there (in anticipation of the book, I imagine) for us to mull.
What is the role of ideology in American politics? And what should it be?
I, among many, have beaten up the Democrats (a lot) and the Republicans (a little) about their ‘fantasy ideologies’ among other things. I certainly meant to suggest that a ‘real ideology’ (whatever that might look like) would be a Darn Good Thing. Democrats should stand for something. That’s the solution to the current political malaise. Some irreducible core of belief.
But Levy tosses a bomb into my notion.
What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat? Does this division of the two Americas exist, the blue and the red, the progressive and the conservative, which Barack Obama challenged but in which Jim Harrison seems to believe?
On the one hand, I keep meeting Democrats who think like Republicans and who without any qualms, without thinking for a single second of leaving their original party, go and vote for George Bush (the former mayor of New York Ed Koch, the former CIA chief James Woolsey).
In the same vein, I keep seeing Republicans who—also without a qualm, and even without understanding my surprise—go and vote for John Kerry (Ron Reagan, the son of President Reagan) or abstain (that association of conservative gay men, the Log Cabin Republicans, one of whose leaders, Chris Barron, I interviewed in Washington, who don’t want to “endorse” Bush’s stance in favor of a constitutional amendment that would forbid gay marriage).
On one hand, then, a novel system of membership, which has no comparison to what we know in Europe, and in which one’s attachment to a party is both very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty: an essentialist attachment, if you like (Koch, for instance, wouldn’t renounce it at any price, and he proudly shows me, in his Fifth Avenue office overlooking his beloved New York, hanging next to sacred images of Anwar Sadat, Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Kollek, and Mother Teresa, his photos with Hillary Clinton), yet devoid of all content and even of direction. (When I ask him what it can mean, when you vote Republican, to declare yourself a Democrat, he hesitates, becomes a little flustered, looks at the photo of Hillary as if she could whisper the answer to him, and ends up blurting out, “Stubbornness and nostalgia—a mixture of stubbornness and memory, habit and loyalty, that’s all.”)
But on the other hand, for three days I attended the Republican convention in New York. I listened to speeches given by Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki. I listened to Bush. I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger tell us, with an emotion that didn’t seem entirely put on, about his experience as an immigrant coming from a socialist country (sic) to discover this America that opened its arms to him. But mostly I interviewed crowds of delegates from Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Kansas, Arkansas, each of whom I asked what being Republican and being there meant to them. And the surprise, the big surprise, is that the answers they gave me had nothing to do with the old French—but also American—cliché of a political spectacle reduced to its purely festive, playful, carnivalesque dimension, and thus without anything at stake.
Some talked to me about abortion and gay marriage. Some explained that nothing seemed more important to them than reinforcing the role of the churches or reducing the role of the urban elite. Others advocated a return to Main Street instead of Wall Street, the rehabilitation of the values of rural America as opposed to those of interventionist and cosmopolitan America, the defense of a concept of human rights that embraces the right to bear arms to defend one’s freedom and property. For others, hatred of the Clintons was a good enough reason. And for still others, the senator from Massachusetts and his plutocrat wife, Teresa, were embodiments of a France that was likened to an uneasy mixture of “femininity,” “decadent immorality,” “snobbish intellectualism,” and “chic radicalism.”
You can think what you like about these issues. You can deem them naive, retrograde, indefensible, contradictory. You can find it amusing to hear the same virtuous people condemning Teresa’s millions and defending, in the same breath, the hedge funds against the welfare state. But what you can’t say is that it’s a question of a weak or half-hearted position. Or one that’s purely pragmatic, and reduces the ideal government of the United States to a glorified board of directors. What you can’t claim is that you were present here at one more bazaar, another level of the circus, a second summit of the same nihilism that offers its two symmetrically standard Democratic and Republican versions. What you can’t argue without bad faith is that between the position of these people and that of the delegates in Boston who gave standing ovations to Howard Dean and Senator Ted Kennedy there is no difference in content or ideology.
For you can take that word, “ideology,” in whatever sense you like. You can understand it in the ordinary sense of a representation of the world. You can understand it in the sense of an illusion that conceals from people the reality of their situation. You can think about the grand philosophical “systems” and other “utopias” that Tocqueville thought Americans “mistrusted.” Or, on the contrary, you can think of this mania for “general causes,” this submission to ideas and broad social forces that act “on so many men’s faculties at once”—a tendency, he warns, that can paralyze individuals and societies. We have reached that point. These people who say “values matter more”; these activists for whom the struggle against Darwin is a sacred cause that should be argued in the schools; this blue-collar man from Buffalo to whom I explain that the promise of the current president to reduce federal taxes will have the automatic effect of impoverishing his native city even more, who replies that he couldn’t care less, because what matters to him is the problem posed by inflation in a quasi-Soviet state. These are men and women who are ready to let the questions that affect them most directly take second place to matters of principle that—in the case, for instance, of the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts—do not have, and never will have, any effect on their concrete existence. Aren’t they reacting as ideologues would, according to criteria that have to be called ideological?
A curious affair. And a curious reversal. It surprises me as a Frenchman, coming from a country that has lived under the rule of ideological passion brought to white heat—and yet has recovered from it. But I can clearly see that it is all the more disconcerting to the most careful analysts of the evolution of a society in which each person’s appreciation of the just dividends he can get from the social contract seems to be the first and last word in politics. What’s the matter with Kansas? Since when has politics stopped obeying the honest calculation of self-interest and personal ambition? How can knowledgeable, reasonable, pragmatic men work for their own servitude, thinking they’re struggling for their freedom? That, Thomas Frank, is what is called ideology. That is precisely the mechanism that La Boétie and Karl Marx described in Europe, which we, alas, have experienced only too often. Now it’s your turn, friends. And as we say in France, À votre santé! —To your very good health!
This is a tough question.
Because we want to believe that there is more than self-interest soup tying us together as a people – in fact, as the social-historical bounds that tied us are slowly loosened, we need some robust beliefs to connect us as a polity. But are we really at risk for a European-style descent into the madness of absolute belief?
Schaar points us at Lincoln and suggests that it is a belief in our unique Founding that ties us together, and the obligations we take forward in time from it which represent our patrimony. That seems to me to be a resolutely non-ideological position.
But for the life of me, I’m not sure how to tie it to contemporary politics without becoming ideological. And, reading Levy, I’m not so certain that becoming ideological – in his sense – doesn’t risk more than I’m willing to bet.
More for me to think about late at night.