Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Monster Mash

“Clinton Derangement Syndrome” is an accurate description, but it's still a bit opaque. That’s probably because we haven’t really grokked the phenomenon.

Certainly, lots of people really are nutso when it comes to the Clintons. They have a visceral reaction to both Bill and Hillary that is borderline psychotic. What’s even weirder is that this is not a niche phenomenon. Many people suffer from it – though even more don’t.

This schism was the most fascinating epiphany of the whole impeachment imbroglio – the profound gap in basic feeling among Americans. A solid majority liked (and still like) Bill just fine, and a sizable minority thought and think of him (and his she-devil wife) as evil incarnate. This, say, 65-35 split doesn’t neatly arrange itself along party or ideological lines – as is painfully evident in this year’s Democratic primary. In the past I have explained it to myself as a function of Bill’s sexuality – his Falstaff-like quality, which always drives Pillars of Society crazy. But now I’m having another thought.

That thought is this: The Democratic Party is not yet fit to govern, because it doesn’t yet want to govern. It used to. Under FDR and Truman, it wanted to, a lot. It still wanted to under Kennedy and Johnson. But since Vietnam – and perhaps Vietnam was only the pretext – the Dems have self-defined as people who think power is ipso facto wrong. They are, by and large, at least skeptical of -- and usually actively opposed to -- anybody who wields it. They self-experience as those who critique, who analyze, who speak up against. They can be Congresspeople and Senators – because there’s no real accountability there. But they can’t be Presidents, because Presidents have to act, and live with the consequences.

Thing is, Bill and Hillary do act. They do want power. They are imperfect – but their sins are generally sins of commission rather than omission. And they are anomalies in the modern Democratic Party for precisely this reason -- and the Party knows it. Half the Party is in awe of that… can’t exactly imagine how they pull it off, but love that they do so. And the other half of the Party is appalled… can’t figure out why these freaks call themselves Democrats, and feel personally sullied by the association.

When Samantha Power (sic) called Hillary a “monster,” she was actually expressing very precisely what the power-hating branch of the Democratic Party feels. They feel that all power is monstrous, and that anyone who seeks and wields it is a monster, a freak, not One of Us. “She’s tearing apart the Democratic Party,” they lament. Well, yes, she is – if by “Democratic Party” you mean some kind of wonderfully pure Suicide Salon.

The people who supported Bill, though, and those who support Hillary, by and large, need someone in power. These are women who are assaulted by a male-dominated society and need protection from it. These are poor or nearly-poor people for whom a recession will mean life-threatening privation. These are people for whom the dysfunction of the healthcare system has a very direct and often catastrophic impact on their lives.

In contrast, the people who support Obama, with the notable exception of one population, can weather a recession, a crappy healthcare system and a misogynist society pretty safely. African Americans, of course, are supporting him for obvious and emotionally compelling reasons. But the rest of Obama’s base is, by and large, well-off, young and well educated. They self-experience as post-racial and post-sexist. They are the Children of Stewart (Jon). They live in a deconstructed world, worship Irony (which is why Wright generated a bit of cognitive dissonance) and have a quasi-libertarian distrust of institutions and those who lead them.

These people have the luxury of being theoretical and aesthetic, of treating politics as theater. And they only go to the plays that express the metaphors and abstractions that make them feel the most special. They sure as hell aren’t turned on by someone who seems to embody specific thoughts about what he or she will actually do. That’s wonkery. That’s boring – even kind of icky. Yeah, yeah, policies, positions, programs, whatever. The main thing is how you get there. The main thing is “approach,” “mindset,” style.

In fact, in some ways these people are like the right-wing think-tankers of the ‘90s, the post-history, American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Sullivan crowd – also well-off, academic, libertarian, distrustful of all institutions, culturally hip and disdainful of the values (and often the persons) of the unwashed… whether those values had a right-leaning (theocratic) or left-leaning (welfare-loving) bent. It doesn’t seem even a little bit surprising that Francis Fukayama just endorsed Obama.

For both of these groups, there is a longing for conflict to be over, for racism and sexism to be reduced to the “identity politics” of our tribal past, for the human trip to graduate, finally, to the broadband-enabled Jane Jacobs-urban, creative-class utopia that is its destiny. I share this wish. But I know we ain’t there yet.

The Democratic Party is gradually emerging from its anti-power phase… and the fact that Hillary has even made it this far is testament to that. But the Party is still a bit pathetic. It’s still unable to marshal any real opposition to radical assaults on America – from outside the country or within. It’s still unable to gather itself around any principles long enough to leave a tire mark. It’s still unable to work up the adult determination to serve and protect. And it’s still fatally attracted to Anti-Power, especially in the person of such a cool, effete, seductive emblem, this figure from central casting who helps them preserve their own narcissistically Hippocratic self-image.

So, while I believe the view of Lambert at Corrente is right as far as it goes -- “it’s control over the party machinery that’s the have-to-have [for the Obama campaign], and the election that’s the nice-to-have” – I am inclined to take the thought a bit farther. It’s not just that they’ll take the loss, but at an unconscious level they actually seek it. The winners may write history, but it’s the losers who get to write the poetry.

Anyway, to these people, Hillary is an aberration, an alien, a monster – even worse than Monster Bill. She’s like Grendel’s mother, she’s Monster Squared. Or like the double-mawed beast in Alien – the devouring woman-monster emerging out of the multi-fanged pol-monster. Her Terminator-like determination – and the concept of her actually winning – is making these people’s brains explode, like in Scanners. No wonder they want her to drop out, or off the face of the planet. No wonder Keith Olbermann fantasized someone taking her into a closed room and finishing her off.

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