A Clockwork Orange Democracy
by P.M. Carpenter
Anyone with a lick of common sense and a penchant for prophecy could easily call the 2004 presidential election without further ado: a Democrat, almost any Democrat, will mop up the floor with George W.
Forget Iraq. Today's ill-reasoned hoopla over that wagged dog will be long forgotten tomorrow. And let us even grant that America's greatest foreign policy blunder -- otherwise known as Operation Iraqi Freedom -- doesn't blow up in our face till at least 2005. The economy, our commonsensical prophet would reason, is always the key to electoral success and in that arena W. couldn't be doing more to ensure victory for the opposition. A massive loss of jobs, unprecedented federal deficits and 50 crumbling state governments are but 3 of the president's accomplishments so far. What's more, he has ample time before the close of electioneering to make matters even worse. This he is doing by pushing yet more fiscally traumatic tax cuts.
Yes, by 2004 we'll all be hurting like nothing we recall; excepting, of course, the top 1 percent of income earners. Those lucky few will sit out the sociopolitical revolution -- "Perhaps the Bahamas, my dear?" -- that is sure to come, just as it landed with crushing weight on Herbert Hoover in 1932. More recently the mini- and one-term presidential administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush I suffered as well from dismal economies and politically hapless responses. One reminisces their respective Whip Inflation Now (WIN), the frozen-deer look in the "Are you better off ...?" spotlight and the courageous but self-annihilating act of raising taxes when needed.
All the indicators are there not only for W.'s loss, but huge Republican losses and Democratic gains in both houses -- no matter how typically your average Democrat tries to screw things up. Above all, though, Bush II is toast, our prophet would comfortably forecast with excellent historical reasoning.
But he or she would be wrong, or at the very least standing on precariously shaky ground. For these once-sound indicators of defeat neglect what has become now-s.o.p. politics for the Republican Party at large and George W. Bush in particular: the grotesque exploitation of public deception, better known as sheer demagoguery.
Whenever a fact can be distorted or reality obscured for political gain, Bush, led by his handlers, is light-years ahead of any known Democrat in skillful deployment. From grossly distorting his actual education policy to mountainous fiscal lies and to duping the public on a war’s necessity, W. wields Herculean demagogic powers. He deceives not just willingly, it seems, but eagerly. Barely a White House policy is left untainted.
You want a better education for your children? Fine. Bush publicly touts reform while silently undercutting its called-for budget. You want lower taxes? Just name a price and Bush will meet it -- more bogusly than Boss Tweed, more shamelessly than Huey Long. Don't like massive deficit spending which leads to higher interest and mortgage rates? No problem. His latest economic "growth" package -- still more tax cuts for you-know-who -- will soon offset those dangers. Honest. Forget what his own metaconservative advisors say otherwise: that their fiscal intent is to wreck social programs by driving headlong into a wall of catastrophic national debt. And, of course, as both a debate-stopper and political cover for violating international law, the administration's cynical manipulation of patriotism will go down in demagogic history as an epic achievement.
As one might expect, Bush's preternatural use of deceptive rhetoric didn't simply materialize one day in 2000 or 2003. Rather, it built on the New Right's groundbreaking demagoguery of the 1970s and 1980s, whose artificial populism mirrored its Platonic ideals of Joe McCarthy's smugness and Barry Goldwater's 1964 holy conception of "morality" politics. Quite ingeniously, the New Right movement ditched any sober discussion of complicated social problems and opted instead for the rhetorical glitz of message simplicity (our cultural values were headed to hell in a handbasket) and constant scapegoating (only elitist liberals were at the helm).
The ploys worked well enough for Republican Machiavellis to occupy themselves ever since with refinements. Based on political expediency, the party subjected its message contents to overnight reconstruction -- for example the evil, then goodness, of deficits -- and over time conservatism inverted to radicalism. Hence today's ever-pliable Boss Bush, consiglieri Cheney and Rove and assorted underbosses such as Rummy and Perle. Lumped together these anti-conservative creationists have delivered unto us a doomed Pax Americana with accompanying domestic ransacking -- all courtesy the latest in demagogic fashion.
So what is to be done in the way of opposition? The brutish answer is to match demagoguery for demagoguery. The noble answer is to remain above it and pray for a saner day. The winning answer is probably somewhere betwixt -- yet therein lies the deeper problematic of closing the demagoguery gap through an escalating rhetorical arms race, a foul but real prospect. The outs may decide that two can play at any-means-to-an-end, and that'll be all she wrote for any hope of a thoughtful democracy. Perhaps then, the enlightened answer will entail expatriate status to avoid the whole scene.
For now, though, sit back and marvel at W.'s extraordinary aptitude for demeaning honest politics and thus beating the odds. We may never see the likes of such demagogic mastery again.