Oct 21, 2003

Apocalytic politics
Confessions of a disgruntled young politico
sillimanThe end of the world! Apocalypse! The holocaust of every good and decent thing you've ever cared about! The final battle in the great war between all that is right, good and honorable against the dark and depraved beasts that oppose us.
But your gift of $25 today, committed supporter, can save us.
This is American politics.
You may not believe me but on my desk sits a small stack of fundraising letters, all of which follow this formula: 1) Terrible things will happen if those terrible people win the next election; 2) You are important and can stop terrible people and all things terrible by supporting us.
Some of the letters are more vitriolic and some are less.      President George W. Bush's letter only mentions stopping the liberal agenda once while the state GOP's letter speaks of a liberal invasion intent on destroying what you've worked so hard for.
It's a peculiarly American method because there is this constant underlying vision, a vision driving the style of every writer of political mass mailings: Common American people care, and think they have the power to shape the world.
The staple of United States politics on every wing is that the enemy is out there and the enemy is among us. This paranoid apocalypsism weaves through American history, showing strong in the Cold War, in the political competition between Nixon and Kennedy, in World War II, even in the Civil War and the Revolution.
We believe, with our best Puritan theology gone political, the greatest evil is from within. We believe-cue John Wayne pulling up his boots-we have the power of good and strong men to win.
But politics are like that. If one recasts the allusions to Puritans and cowboys to something Russian, one has a pretty good picture of Russian politics. Maybe we write about reactionaries, maybe about Commies, Fascists, Rush Limbaugh or Diane Fienstein, but it's all the same: stir and rally, allude to the horrific baby-eating opponent, show an image of a golden city, and tell the dear committed supporter what to do.
Politically, I came of age in the Clinton era and my political résumé is strong. I was the head of my county's Young Republicans, at 17 I was the youngest Bush delegate in my state convention, worked on conservative campaigns from the county to state to the national level, held office in the county party and was asked to consider running for a state seat.
I was a young and rising politico. Then I fell off the wagon. Because you know what? After eight years of Clinton the world didn't end. It didn't even get very bad.      

"Oh," said the radio I'd listened to for four years of intensely followed politics, "but if Gore gets in… If we don't stop them… Did you hear about the liberal-homosexual-Clinton-Communist-U.N. agenda?… If Hillary gets a shot at power…"

I saw that the world of politics is a world of ghosts and bogeymen.

In the real world things are never indubitable. In the real world no one sits in a dark tower and plots evil. In the real world $25 won't stave off doom. The political spectrum is a violent simplification of the real world.

George Bush's biggest fan in the world is my little brother, who has every picture of him the local paper ever saw fit to print cut out and pasted on his bedroom wall.      

George Bush's biggest opponent in the world is my cousin, of the same age as my brother, who has learned every snide remark and every G.W. joke. Which makes sense, because the world of 8-year-olds is a world of characters, a simplification of heroes and villains, cowboys and Indians, us and them.

But then another letter asking for a donation from my formerly political self is delivered and I realize I'm being asked to believe in a ghost, a wicked witch and a monster under the bed.

Every election campaign is like the War to End All Wars all over again and I'm a veteran. I'm a little shattered and a little frustrated at my former naiveté and little cynical about the whole system.

Every election cycle has the kick of Y2K-all the lights are on and all that chatter is just giving me a headache.

Originally published in the Hillsdale Collegian