It’s All Relative

The Politics of Possibility
October 16, 2008, 4:01 pm
Filed under: Political Opinion | Tags: , , , , ,

In Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review there was a short piece about the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York Harbor. The museum has been tasked to expand the focus of its’ history beyond the years of 1892 to 1954 in an effort to tell the full story of how this nation was founded and peopled.

Efforts like this one demonstrate that our understanding of history is not static. Like all meaning, it is created in the moment by our view of the present; from where we stand today, yesterday changes shape and tone. American politics has long advocated a return to the past, a re-grasping of the essentials that made this country great. The GOP, in particular, has drawn fervent and committed support by evoking a set of imaginary values that produced greatness and now stand threatened. Fear of loss has ever been a stronger and more emotional motivator than progress towards uncertain rewards (the current decline of the stock market is evidence of that) and so this imaginary narrative of declining greatness has dominated American politics and led its’ favored beneficiaries to dominate the political spectrum.

The white conservative privilege that has dominated in one form or another since the 1950s values tradition, unity, and duty. These values have often functioned as another way of saying: “what’s ‘necessary’ over what’s right or wrong,” with no discussion of how necessity be determined. But these are not the values that have made America great. They are rather what has led to the very privilege that white conservatives have enjoyed and what constitutes the defense against its’ erosion.

Consolidation cannot grow power, it can only protect it (even as the attitude itself suggests that its’ decline is eminent and in progress). The central advantage of this politics of restoration is that it fosters an image of decline and engenders the fear that comes from a need to defend. Democrats have looked clueless and slow through decades of Republican dominance because of this biological tendency to overvalue fear. Better to fear mistakenly than to risk losing what you possess.

And so it is perhaps not so strange, considering America’s dominance in this century, that politicians should be successful in fostering the belief that closing up, conforming or returning to any past is what ensures the continuation of such preeminence. Fear of loss over future rewards is an instinctive calculus.

Yet, America’s dynamic economic power and its’ decades of dominance in innovating business, technology and entertainment (among other things) have come always from our ceaseless jettisoning of the past. It has come from our welcoming of new ideas and the embracing of possibility. It has come from the people that an attitude of possibility attracts.

Our nation has been redefined and reborn over and over from the minds and hands of people who believe that they can do and be whatever they want. And from the idea that somehow continues to thrive: that America is a place to do just that. And so it is also understandable that this dialogue of restoration has for decades failed to motivate the majority of American voters to the polls. The present requires passionate defense mostly from those enjoying its’ sweetest fruits.

In the meantime people the world over have voted with their feet. They have crashed in waves upon these shores in hopes of freeing themselves from circumstances and structures in whose construction and operation they had no stake and at every turn they have shaped America’s power and image on the world stage. Athletes, artists, and scientists have come here for the singular opportunity our nation provides: to define yourself in your own terms, to create your own existence.

And yet politics has continued to function as though it was composed of an electorate from the very subsection of history that the Ellis Island Immigration Museum has, up to this point, focused on. A post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights set of values. America as the Marshall Plan: the world’s savior and protector; the sole power able to introduce a moral order. A personality so clearly and concretely defined internally that its’ only logical role in the world was to push its’ imprint on its’ neighbors. And yet the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War demonstrated how clearly in flux the composition and self-image of this country has been.

9/11 sharpened the anxieties of Americans struggling to cast off the idea of scarcity as hand in hand with plurality. America was under attack, just as the politics of fear had always said. The backlash and terror that carried us into Afghanistan and Iraq has been a final flash of that logic. We have once more taken our easy and confident, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing self-interest onto the international stage and really seen – perhaps for the first time – how inadequate it is to the circumstances of today’s world.

A focus on unified message and loyalty to a party line created a government of rubberstamp cronyism that has led us into unnecessary war and a financial crisis of historic proportions. Today, even the most privileged beneficiaries of this system find their livelihood at risk. The policies that flowed from this system have finally done as much harm to us as they have always done to others.

The fear that has dominated politics in America for so long has finally backfired, by creating an even greater one: that such politics will continue.

The distinctions in policy between John McCain and Barack Obama are real, but not drastic. In the full spectrum of political values from Anarchy to Autocratic Socialism, Democrats and Republicans have never been more than consecutive steps without even enough space between them for a comprehensible third party. It is the incredible stability of such non-variation that has allowed our economy and currency to be one of the most stable in the world. Even as world markets tumble and the word ‘depression’ is being bandied about with casual regularity, the world continue to hold its’ money in American currency.

The real difference between the two is the base of their message and direction of their gaze. McCain’s “tinny echo of the 20th century” remains backward looking. Of late, his rallies are devolving into historical caricatures of themselves: all-white mobs boiling over with violent and desperate anger. Obama’s platform is that we have failed only because we haven’t included everyone. Our ideals are sound, but our practices have soured as we have allowed fear to divide us. We can come together and in so doing, be better. Obama’s vision suggests that he stands for the honest source of America’s strength: the idea that we can be whoever we want to be; at this moment, the idea that we can be better than we have been.

It is seldom in life that someone asks us to do and be more without intending to instruct us in how useless and worthless we already are. As Obama’s personal biography testifies, the best parts of America are alive and well. What remains is to show that face to the world; to finally match our actions with our most enduring and inspirational ideal.

We stand for possibility, for doing all the things that must be done to ensure that people have their own right to choose and the opportunity and strength to do so. This is our nation’s essential and most basic hope. This is the backbone that has held us together through the petty and greedy power plays of the last 50 years. For a long time, no matter how disconnected politics got from the people that composed and joined this nation, the circumstances that made possibility a reality were never fundamentally threatened. They are now and we have less of an election to vote in and more of a national character to be tested.

We can choose to hold these faltering and decomposing artifacts of what we’ve had – of who we have been told we were – or we can reach for something bigger. We can try for something that tests us on more than an encyclopedic dogmatism rooted in an imagined past.

Whatever the result, it’s no less than we deserve. In fact, it’s exactly that.

Our status in the world as viewed by others and as manifest by our wealth, by our power – these rise or fall on this moment and this choice. We can choose a future of embraced possibility or a past whose shadow is shrinking as the bright light of the present bears down. We can reinvent ourselves in the face of these new challenges or we can aspire again to a failure of imagination.

This reference to a fictional and perfect past is what fuels the idea of back to basics. “We can return to glory,” they say. But it was not glory for all. It was only glory for some. And the gradual degradation of the privilege that characterized that “Golden Age” has driven white conservatives to the polls with an insistency that has ruled American politics for decades. Against this historically entrenched force, the rest of us have summoned only tepid enthusiasm for contesting them and the mechanism that they have put in place. Using the system against itself seemed an unlikely action when those who might wish to do it were already significantly disenfranchised from that system’s day-to-day construction and operation. In our private lives, the safe space carved out by patriots and martyrs has always seemed tenuous; better to be happy with your lot than contest and lose the little we hold. It’s a scarcity built of fear.

The odds are no better today; the structure built by decades of focused special interest stands untouched. The difference this time is the challenges that we face and their fundamental and frightening newness. But in the life-shaking momentousness of these challenges there stands an opportunity to regain our own integrity. We have a chance to truly stand by our own mistakes and to celebrate our own successes. We have a chance to regain ownership of whom and how we are in the world. We have a chance to choose courageously and honorably, to choose a new future rather than yet another version of some past. In so doing, we may be able to begin to earn the possibility that life as an American provides, possibility that we have for so long neglected to acknowledge, treasure and defend.