The End of the 00s: The Experience of Dishonorable Debates, by Seth Colter Walls

by The End of the 00s

Not us

“’The world is my idea:’-this is a truth which holds good for everything that lives and knows, though man alone can bring it into reflective and abstract consciousness.”
-Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will-we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
-Anonymous Bush 43 aide, to Ron Suskind

2000, Presidential

While recording My Aim is True, Elvis Costello cut a song titled “Imagination is a Powerful Deceiver.” More chastened than vengeful in its approach to dealing with romantic loss, it didn’t fit with the album’s other gleefully snarling comebackers, and was left off the 1977 British LP. In 1993, the Rykodisc CD reissue tacked the tune onto the album’s running order, along with a few other b-sides. This pressing had run out of print by 2000, though, which meant I didn’t know the song at a time when it might have saved me and a few of my fellow college students from being seduced by Ralph Nader’s third-party presidential campaign. Most of the Naderites I knew had been involved in a citizen lobbying group, like a PIRG or somesuch, and so had at least some firsthand knowledge of what it was like to do grassroots progressive advocacy that meant fuck-all to a centrist Democratic administration. (That roadless policy for federal forest lands that green lobby groups spent three years pushing? Clinton only got around to signing the conservation rule mere days before leaving office in 2001, which left Bush an opportunity to subvert it. Amazingly, Clinton’s was a political action that failed to create its own reality.)

Many of the things some of your harder-core progressives are saying now about the health care reform bill-that it’s such a fraction of a loaf so as to objectively anti-nourishment, etc.-were being said in 2000, back before most people understood how formidable an enemy of liberalism the younger Bush could ever turn out to be, as an unintended consequence of ideological purity. I listen to that Costello song now, and hear somebody lamenting a friend/lover who allows righteous indignation over a particular powerlessness to overwhelm any remaining feelings of common cause. “Well, did I see you in the circus, in the ring without a hand,” Elvis asks an unnamed individual in the song’s second verse, before adding: “Now you think that you can curse us, steal the show, and stop the band.” As a description of what happened to the left in 2000, few pop lyrics compare favorably.

Nader’s imagination-his conception of a political candidate who could draw crowds by talking about corporate crime and financial sector abuses years before these topics were fashionable-was a powerful deceiver. But his wise-ass “tweedledee and tweedledum” formulation, used to describe major-party candidates Bush and Gore, remains the easiest way to critique the Green Party candidate’s irresponsible debate argumentation. Obviously, very few of the 10,000-plus liberals in attendance at each of Nader’s various “Super Rallies” actually believed that the then-vice president’s brainwave chart was as desert-vista flat as the Texas governor’s. And yet, thinking ourselves smarter and too good or noble for the straightjacketing political entities we had inherited-a two-party system, the winner-take-all assignation of electoral votes in most states-young (and old) Naderites found on their ballots the equivalent of an angry, kiss-off breakup note addressed to these paltry realities. This willful confusion of unresponsive political institutions with blame-worthy lovers was, in its way, more dishonorable than any lies we heard about the cost of tax cuts. And this unconscious will to see the world as an extension of our ideas-the reality we thought we could create-ended in an entirely new kind of heartbreak. Or, as the singer threatens in the song: “I’ll go out of my mind, if I’m losing your touch.”

But when it comes to successfully creating your own reality in politics, the prize for this cycle goes to the majority of the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, which handed down its fantastically consequential decision to stop the Florida recount based on debate reasoning that was “limited to the present circumstances” only, and was thus officially, in the parlance of the law, no-countsies with respect to all future cases. Forget “hope.” This was the most audacious political act of the decade.

2002, Midterms

So maybe you thought you owed the Democratic Party something, after all that. You graduated from college in New York the summer after 9/11, and, one week later, found yourself working as a field organizer for the challenger to a GOP Senator up for reelection in a Blue State on the other side of the country. Once there, you swore to eat whatever rhetorical bags of shit that were necessary in order to prove that you were all growed up. Now you knew how real politics worked; the only advantage to feeling hard bitten like this was the certainty that you were ready to fight back.

And then the Republican president called on members of Congress to authorize a straightforwardly ill-considered war, and everyone around the candidate-all the consultants, and the campaign committee honchos from DC-counseled against taking anything resembling a clear position belonging to a recognizably liberal candidate. Naturally, this course of la-la-la-can’t-hear-you silence in the face of neocon swagger was settled on because to do otherwise might seem-imagine it!-weak or fearful somehow. You argued for another course in the meetings you were invited to, until you realized you were just meant to be a token ornament, a (preferably silent) mascot for the youthful enthusiasm that was supposed to manifest itself without any kind of assistance from on high. In September you watched while overpaid ad men attempted, with the comically predictable impotence of octogenarian Romeos sans Viagra scrips, to court voter interest via talk of budget deficits and health care, well after the White House Chief of Staff had already gone on record with the straightforward, let’s-sell-this-war line: ‘’From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” When the people you supervised came back from the field, they asked: “What do we say about Iraq when people ask?” You say: “Tell them we’re taking it very seriously.” Then you went home and cried during the moments you and the candidate’s niece weren’t fucking to forget all that was going so wrong.

You were losing to a vulnerable, one-term incumbent by a 2-to-1 margin by late October. Once you reached the point where the candidate decided there was nothing left to lose by being honest about his position on the most important topic of the year, you attended a press event in a conference room that was only halfway filled with media to hear this objection to the war resolution. This is how far away the election was from being competitive. The dishonorable debate was the one that was never joined in good faith. You bailed from this kind of work after that. You decided to go into a more emotionally practical field. Like, er, journalism. You bought a one-way ticket to Beirut with the money you made in the last political cycle that was funded by soft money.

2004, Presidential

It’s 4 a.m. in Lebanon. You are the only American in your retinue of expat colleagues staying up late to watch the debate live. It’s to be Bush + Kerry + reg’lar ‘mericans in a Town Hall setting. It is interminable. Toward the end, the camera focuses on a 30’s-ish woman with sensible blond hair. No highlights, no bangs. She has a question for Senator Kerry. “Uh oh,” you say to everyone. “This question is going to be about abortion.” You are right. The Norwegian and the Canadian in the room are incredulous. Later, they ask: “How did you know that?”

It’s hard to explain. The woman, whose mainstream attractiveness easily overcame her quotidian indifference to fashion, suggested a shine of fertility that no one could block. Of course she’d been picked by the producers to ask a question about the normative will to reproduce.

“American politics are so predictable,” is all you say, contrasting it to the country where you’re now living-where you and your colleagues are constantly debating the finer points of unregulated militias, the usefulness of UN resolutions, and the like. While being made to answer for his vote against the partial birth abortion ban, Kerry, still reeling from his Iraq War funding malapropism, had fallen into another explanation of why he’d voted against something in the particular that he supported in principle: “I’m against the partial-birth abortion, but you’ve got to have an exception for the life of the mother and the health of the mother under the strictest test of bodily injury to the mother. Secondly, with respect to parental notification, I’m not going to require a 16-or 17-year-old kid who’s been raped by her father and who’s pregnant to have to notify her father. So you got to have a judicial intervention. And because they didn’t have a judicial intervention where she could go somewhere and get help, I voted against it. It’s never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe.”

Bush replied: “Well, it’s pretty simple when they say: Are you for a ban on partial birth abortion? Yes or no? And he was given a chance to vote, and he voted no. And that’s just the way it is. That’s a vote. It came right up. It’s clear for everybody to see. And as I said: You can run but you can’t hide the reality.” The reality of simplicity, created by someone with precisely that idea of the world.

After the debate, Bush went over to chat with the questioner. The woman beamed back at him. No one was congratulating Kerry on his world-as-idea regarding complexity. The election in the U.S. was pretty much over, you figured. More interesting was the bomb site, around the corner from your apartment in West Beirut, where someone had recently tried to assassinate an anti-Syrian politician, but managed only to kill his driver. Up the road a little bit from that charred stretch of concrete was an odd reminder of America’s contemporary influence: a sole piece of graffiti among the Druze-party tags that read, simply, “G-Unit.”

2006, Midterms

Daytime cable news hours are littered with uncomfortable transitions. Half the fun in watching is waiting for the horrific pile-ups of mood, fenders all bent. In 2006, during your average A-block, you could have an Iraq report running headlong into an update on Anna Nicole Smith’s legal fight to inherit her dead husband’s fortune. Anchors sometimes try to navigate this by acknowledging a “hard turn” from the serious to the inconsequential. Though when MSNBC, my employer during the midterm elections, re-christened itself “The Place for Politics,” it seemed able to do this, in part, because the politics of that year did a lot of the work in bridging this divide for cable news producers.

Foley was sex. Abramoff was money. Iraq was guns. Less talked about was the Israel-Hezbollah war, though its blip on the MSM radar at least complicated one of the Bush administration’s supposed achievements on the freedom agenda tip (since Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005 was supposed to have been a jewel in the crown of neoconservative pressure against rogue states like Syria). Also, we learned about Rahm Emanuel’s near-constant blue streak-which proved that Democrats were finally learning how to be tough, or something. If this constellation of issues was less coherent than the narrative of a “nationalized” midterm cycle suggested, it was, at least, good for ratings.

To fill hour after hour on these topics, all the cable channels started turning more and more often to a new two-headed creature-the functionally anonymous, ever-eager pair of partisan political analysts-to eat up the hours with predictable debates. One head talked GOP points, the other Democratic ones. The end of the segment almost always ended with the host throwing up his or her hands, thanking both heads for the discussion, and promising to revisit this issue later in day, though without holding out much hope for synthesis or meaning-making. (“This discussion will continue, I’m sure.”) The great perversion of potential when it comes to cable news is similar, in some ways, to that of the blogosphere: with a seemingly limitless capacity to cover everything of note (say, with 24 hours in a day, or an unlimited amount of digital column inches), the desire to brand one’s output and build an audience can result in a blinkered repetition of theme and content every bit as provincial and ass-numbing as that of a regular ol’ small town newspaper. To the extent anyone can actually be said to have won a campaign in this environment, it is also, inevitably, a victory won on behalf of torpor.

2008, Presidential

Even in the most intellectually honest cycles, political campaigns ought to make all decent people at least contemplate the benefits of suicide. 2008 was not the most intellectually honest cycle. As Ryan Grim recently pointed out, the current version of health care reform championed by this White House incorporates ideas from the Clinton and McCain campaigns that Obama criticized at various points during 2008. Of course Obama received more than his fair share of incoming demagogic fire during the primary and general elections, as well-from guilt-by-association hits on Rezko and Wright and Ayers, as well as obscure academics with foreign-sounding names, like Rashied Khalidi. (No matter that McCain also had ties to the latter.)

What’s astonishing about this is how effortlessly liberal America was able to congratulate itself-think of the sheer number of glossy special edition magazine editions sold-once this process resulted in the election of Barack Obama. Among the quarters where this event was celebrated, it was as though-after Joe the Plumber’s populist babbling was taken for straight-shooting profundity by nearly half the electorate, and after “palling around with terrorists” came to be a legitimate way of framing foreign policy ideas in a campaign-the election of a relatively mild-mannered former law professor instead of something closer to what our discourse deserved (and here I’m thinking of a hypothetical, rakish serial rapist with a hit reality show) was allowed to overshadow our culture’s disturbing preference for fetishizing outcomes over process.

This is the same reason why passing a health care reform bill out of the Senate will, for some people, take air out of the argument that the Senate is a body in desperate need of institutional reform. How bad could it be, if we’re doing kinda sorta okay? How bad could our elections really be, when other countries select chief executives after a drawn-out spate of car bombings?

The answer is that things are terrible for us now, and still somehow better than the worst they could possibly be. Conceiving of the world as your very idea of it-”Obama is a closet anarcho-syndicalist, because that is how my eyes perceive him”-is a process that’s rife with opportunities for all sorts of human error: the ability to think that “we create our own reality” when we, strictly speaking, cannot. Which is probably why Schopenhauer also conceived of suicide as something other than the emptying out of the will to live, but rather as an expression of one’s damnably willful intent not to live under a set of particularly disheartening conditions.

It’s probably because humans enjoy being lovesick at some level that our political confusions-between bureaucratic institutions and individual candidates as vessels of our affection, or between objective realities versus our own rudderless perceptions-remain an easily identifiable part of our politics at this very moment. While Tea Party Republicans promulgate a GOP purity test of nearly carnal glee as their response to violated conservative passions, and as the progressive left mourns the difference between Obama the suitor versus Obama the mate, what’s clear about our politics at decade’s end is that its language of rational behavior and its language of virtue, though not strangers, still refuse to be in anything other than a maddeningly open relationship.

What’s most dispiriting about campaign reporting-and by this I meant the act of doing it, not the total body of work which we may consume as citizens-is not when one fails to get noticed, or “picked-up.” The worst thing about political reporting is when you debunk a lie whose speaker never believed any part of it, not even for a second, and all the coverage of your scoop focuses on how all this reporting might make the liar look. Not whether the liar will cease to be believed tomorrow. Not whether the lie actually does pernicious damage to the entire prospect of uttering complete sentences in the hopes that it will allow for some faithful measurement of popular will. When the effect of the campaign scoop becomes entirely about optics-about how the smart money will regard this latest development, and what kind of reality the smart money may choose to create from it-this is when you may decide to give up the game for some unspecified period of time.

Seth Colter Walls is a culture reporter at Newsweek. Previously, he wrote about U.S. and Middle East politics for a variety of outlets.