"We have met the enemy, and he is us"
New York Sept. 27, 2004
Pundits pouring over the latest polls miss the point that everyone else seems to get: polls or no polls, the popular vote in the upcoming Presidential election is likely to be as close as it was four years ago. Though most American voters describe themselves as “moderate,” psychologically we’ve hardened into two armed camps of equal strength. In this climate, issues matter far less than allegiances. The War, the economy, the military records and personalities of the candidates, 9/11 – none of it matters as much as which side you’re on.
Seeing ourselves as on the Left or Right, liberal or conservative, has become more central to our identities than our religions or where we live. In a time of virtual rather than actual community, we feel safe with those on our side, threatened by and furious at those on the other side. Actually, we don’t even see the other side. At best, they’re certifiably insane; at worst, monstrously inhuman.
Two personal examples: four years ago at around this time of year, I heard a well-known conservative intellectual, a speechwriter for the first President Bush, speak at a university club in New York. She was relaxed and charming, felt that she was among friends and shared not only opinions, but feelings as well. “At the beginning of the campaign,” she said, “my colleagues and I felt pretty good about Gore. We didn’t agree with most of what he said, but we could live with that. He seemed like somebody you could talk to. But now we realize that he’s just like Clinton – crazy!” When I told the incident to a friend on the Left, she said, “Well, I’m not surprised. But I disagree with you on one point: there are no intellectuals on the Right.”
A few months later, I was crossing a snowy Manhattan street with my young son. A van with Jersey plates made a tight turn and missed my son by a couple of inches. I ran after the van and started bawling out the driver, who took one look at my fur hat and designer glasses, rolled down his window and sputtered: “You, you, you…liberal!”
We don’t merely disagree with each other; we hate and fear each other. What do Republicans hate about Democrats? They’re sneaky, compromising, ready to barter away hard-earned money and freedom to win the approval of decadent Europeans and perverse fringe groups. They’re effeminate cowards, unwilling to stand up and fight for their beliefs. One of the more popular Republican labels for the Left-latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberals – isn’t frivolous in the least. A fondness for lattes and Volvos is a nod to the inherently foreign and devious – a latte’s very name is Euro-pretentious, to say nothing of its price; and driving a Volvo suggests that one values safety over design, power and speed, qualities that add spice to an already over-regulated life. Worst of all, Democrats-liberals are hypocrites, professing to help the poor and spread the wealth around while making sure that their kids go to the right schools and avoid military service.
All this may be obvious, but what is more subtle is what Republicans fear about Democrats. (The look in that van driver’s eye was fear, and not just that I might turn him in.) He feared that I was of a higher class – which I suppose I was – and therefore had powers that he couldn’t even imagine. To a great number of Republicans, Democrats have come to represent privilege – the kind of self-righteous, impersonal, abstract, pseudo-generosity ready to give away rights that less privileged people have fought hard for.
What do Democrats hate about Republicans? Their stupidity and love of violence, their selfishness, aggressiveness, ruthlessness. Republicans are bullies and cheaters, who’ll use any tactic, dirty or not, to get what they want. They’re isolationists full of hate and prejudice. You can’t reason with them because they regard reasoning as a sign of weakness. They’re Mr. Hyde to the Democrats’ dedicated, humanistic Doctor Jekyll, Id to the Democratic Ego, but not a healthy, sexualized Id. On the contrary, their macho swagger masks grave insecurities about their potency. At heart no Republican has any sense of morality or decency; they’re ruled either by greed or fanaticism.
Democrats fear Republicans for much the same reason that their counterparts fear them: they fear their enemy’s superior power. High in their corporate offices, Republicans pull the strings of the country. The plebs of the radical right are merely a convenience that the elite of the Party need to get themselves elected and then redirect to hopeless causes, like overturning the right to have an abortion or passing a Constitutional amendment against same sex marriage.
In November we won’t vote for any issue or candidate; we’ll vote against those on the other side. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo, hero of a popular comic strip, put it many years ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Underneath the hate and fear, however, I think there’s an even more basic – and shared-emotion: disappointment. Disappointment in one’s public and private life, and disappointment in the democratic process. It would appear from the diminishing number of voters in European elections to the willingness of Russians to cede their just-acquired rights that this disappointment isn’t limited to the US.
Over the last 50 years the Republican/conservative vision of self-reliance and upward mobility through hard work has been clouded by everything from the complexities of foreign trade to unionism to regulatory agencies to perceived inequities in the educational and welfare systems. The Democratic vision of benevolent centralized government working for equal opportunity has likewise been compromised by corporate arrogance, lobbyists, and a sense that the gap between rich and poor has grown to unprecedented proportions. Because the solutions to these problems aren’t within our grasp – and because to a great extent we have lost faith that the democratic process can work to solve the problems – we’ve chosen to take it out on each other. Winning has become everything. If we can’t live a good life, at least we can make sure that the others don’t either.
Even on an ideological level, Democrats and Republicans have more in common than they realize. There’s nothing inherently incompatible between individual achievement and helping one’s neighbor, though it may involve a tricky balancing act requiring compromise and even sacrifice. John Locke’s “enlightened self-interest” is where America started, and where it might start again. But until we stop projecting our fears and insecurities into each other, we’ll remain in a belligerent stalemate that bodes ill for American democracy.
This article will also be published in the Turkish monthly Varlik.