Peter Pan said he never wanted to grow up, and pop psychology has identified that as the Peter Pan Syndrome – not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a specific mental disorder of course. But we all know guys who won’t act their age. Porsche depends on such folks for a big chunk of their profits, or so it seems looking around at the traffic out here in Los Angeles. The trophy wife in the passenger seat looks bored. There was the 1983 book explaining this syndrome – there are men who just won’t face their responsibilities – a bestseller that soon disappeared, probably because it was all so damned obvious. Life is only intermittently exciting, if that. Adulthood is the same old same old, with periods that are quite pleasant, and a lot of dry spells. You ride the wave, so to speak, trying to do the right thing and meet your responsibilities, and enjoy what comes your way, or you can maybe make come your way. But there are few over-the-top highs or end-of-the-world lows. That’s for teenagers – where, when something doesn’t work out, it is the end of the world and no one has ever felt as awful as you do – and when something goes right – maybe you unexpectedly score that touchdown in the big game in your senior year – you just know you’re going to be an NFL star and in the Hall of Fame and king of the world forever and ever. But Peter Pan can fly. You can’t. Everyone comes to realize that.
Or they don’t. End-of-the-world thinking is just too easy. We all want life to be monumentally important, not pleasant enough until you die and are completely forgotten in a few days. And maybe you have come to realize you’re simply not the most important person who ever lived – you’re not crazy after all, or Newt Gingrich. But you can still live in monumental times – the days of the final battle of good and evil, or the Golden Age of Hollywood, or America, or Pittsburgh or whatever – or you can tell yourself you do. That’s comforting. It staves off the existential despair. But of course it’s nonsense. It’s teenage stuff.
But it’s now all-American stuff, as we do seem to be a nation of teenagers – where it’s always end-of-the-world crises that no one has ever faced before. It’s just not the tragedy of not having a date for the prom. Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles discuss this in their new book The Last Myth – available in March from Prometheus Books – and you’ll find an adapted excerpt from that book in America’s Endless Apocalypse – basically contending that “over the last decade we’ve become obsessed with the end of the world – and it’s hurting us all.” It’s a bit deeper than the 1983 Dan Kiley book about shallow assholes:
Few of us can clearly make out the form of history until it is well behind us. That helps us understand why we still have not settled on a common name for the decade now receding behind us. How others will look back on this time is beyond our knowing or influence, of course, but future historians would do well to ascribe to our time a name that encapsulates not just the events of the past decade but the way in which we as Americans have come to view the world and our place within it. Such a name might be the Apocalyptic Decade or, perhaps, the Apocalyptic Era – for it is not over yet.
It was during the last decade, after all, that the belief in the end of the world leapt from the cultish into the mainstream of American society.
And these two are describing something new:
American history is filled with extended periods when the nation looked at the challenges it faced not with despair but with optimism; times when we felt with certainty that the country was not only on the right track but was traveling with great speed toward what would surely be a glorious destination. Such periods are not relegated solely to the distant past. Indeed, though we often forget it, we experienced an extended period of such optimism a little more than twenty years ago, when the Cold War came to an end.
But we had the Y2K scare – all computers everywhere were going to crash and the world as we knew it could end – and then the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union – which Francis Fukuyama said marked the End of History – and then 9/11 which changed everything forever and plunged us into two wars for civilization itself – and Hurricane Katrina which destroyed New Orleans and made us all suddenly realize that the thin veneer of civilization was just that, a disappointing and sad total fiction. Yes, people actually said those things, and inevitably we fell into a certain way of thinking, apocalyptic thinking.
But you can see how that was bound to happen. Apocalyptic thinking was an odd comfort. We were not insignificant beings in ongoing ho-hum times. We lived in important times, the most important times ever.
But then the world went on, much as before. Drat. It might be time to reconsider things. But Gross and Gilles argue that it had become too late for us to step back and see that, as the apocalypse “had become deeply rooted in the secular American mind.” It’s just the way we think about everything now – actually kind of like excitable narcissistic teenagers. And Gross and Gilles think that does us no good at all. Get serious. It’s not the end of the world. It never is. Grow up. Do the right thing and meet your responsibilities and accept that this too will pass. That seems to be the recommendation here. Keep your quite fine current wife and don’t buy a Porsche. Peter Pan can fly. You can’t.
But America is a nation of teenagers and you can’t tell a teenager – sunk in the current crises of the moment – that it’s not the end of the world. Any advice to get over it and adapt to the current situation, to the reality of what’s actually happening, gets you nothing but sullen anger in return. Parents know this. Teachers know this. And Jonathan Chait knows this of the current Republicans:
Of the various expressions of right-wing hysteria that have flowered over the past three years – goldbuggery, birtherism, death panels at home and imaginary apology tours by President Obama abroad – perhaps the strain that has taken deepest root within mainstream Republican circles is the terror that the achievements of the Obama administration may be irreversible, and that the time remaining to stop permanent nightfall is dwindling away.
“America is approaching a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the Nation will be unable to change course,” announces the dark, old-timey preamble to Paul Ryan’s “The Roadmap Plan,” a statement of fiscal principles that shaped the budget outline approved last spring by 98 percent of the House Republican caucus. Rick Santorum warns his audiences, “We are reaching a tipping point, folks, when those who pay are the minority and those who receive are the majority.” Even such a sober figure as Mitt Romney regularly says things like “We are only inches away from no longer being a free economy,” and that this election “could be our last chance.”
This is, of course, nonsense, but in a way it’s not:
The Republican Party is in the grips of many fever dreams. But this is not one of them. To be sure, the apocalyptic ideological analysis – that “freedom” is incompatible with Clinton-era tax rates and Massachusetts-style health care – is pure crazy. But the panicked strategic analysis, and the sense of urgency it gives rise to, is actually quite sound. The modern GOP – the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes – is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests. And this impending doom has colored the party’s frantic, fearful response to the Obama presidency.
We’re not talking the end of the world here, or at least the end of America, but we may be talking about the end of the Republican Party. Chait cites John Judis and Ruy Teixeira 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority – arguing that demographic and political trends were converging to form a natural-majority coalition for Democrats – and sees things this way:
The Republican Party had increasingly found itself confined to white voters, especially those lacking a college degree and rural whites who, as Obama awkwardly put it in 2008, tend to “cling to guns or religion.” Meanwhile, the Democrats had increased their standing among whites with graduate degrees, particularly the growing share of secular whites, and remained dominant among racial minorities. As a whole, Judis and Teixeira noted, the electorate was growing both somewhat better educated and dramatically less white, making every successive election less favorable for the GOP. And the trends were even more striking in some key swing states. Judis and Teixeira highlighted Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona, with skyrocketing Latino populations, and Virginia and North Carolina, with their influx of college-educated whites, as the most fertile grounds for the expanding Democratic base.
That’s the reality, and the question is what to do about it:
In the cold calculus of game theory, the expected response to this state of affairs would be to accommodate yourself to the growing strength of the opposing coalition – to persuade pockets of voters on the Democratic margins they might be better served by Republicans. Yet the psychology of decline does not always operate in a straightforward, rational way. A strategy of managing slow decay is unpleasant, and history is replete with instances of leaders who persuaded themselves of the opposite of the obvious conclusion. Rather than adjust themselves to their slowly weakening position, they chose instead to stage a decisive confrontation. If the terms of the fight grow more unfavorable with every passing year, well, all the more reason to have the fight sooner. This was the thought process of the antebellum southern states, sizing up the growing population and industrial might of the North. It was the thinking of the leaders of Austria-Hungary, watching their empire deteriorate and deciding they needed a decisive war with Serbia to save themselves.
At varying levels of conscious and subconscious thought, this is also the reasoning that has driven Republicans in the Obama era. Surveying the landscape, they have concluded that they must strike quickly and decisively at the opposition before all hope is lost.
And thus we have the current state of affairs, with all the apocalyptic talk on the right. If you’re going to lose in the long run put up a good fight now and see what happens:
Of course, both parties make use of end-times rhetoric, especially in election season. What’s novel about the current spate of Republican millennialism is that it’s not a mere rhetorical device to rally the faithful, nor even simply an expression of free-floating terror, but the premise of an electoral strategy.
In that light, the most surprising response to the election of 2008 is what did not happen. Following Obama’s win, all sorts of loose talk concerning the Republican predicament filled the air. How would the party recast itself? Where would it move left, how would it find common ground with Obama – what new constituencies would it court?
But they just couldn’t manage that:
The most widely agreed-upon component of any such undertaking was a concerted effort to win back the Hispanic vote. It seemed like a pure political no-brainer, a vital outreach to an exploding electoral segment that could conceivably be weaned from its Democratic leanings, as had previous generations of Irish and Italian immigrants, without altering the party’s general right-wing thrust on other issues. George W. Bush had tried to cobble together a comprehensive immigration-reform policy only to see it collapse underneath a conservative grassroots revolt, and John McCain, who had initially co-sponsored a bill in the Senate, had to withdraw his support for it in his pursuit of the 2008 nomination.
In the wake of his defeat, strategists like Karl Rove and Mike Murphy urged the GOP to abandon its stubborn opposition to reform. Instead, incredibly, the party adopted a more hawkish position, with Republicans in Congress rejecting even quarter-loaf compromises like the Dream Act and state-level officials like Jan Brewer launching new restrictionist crusades. This was, as Thomas Edsall writes in The Age of Austerity, “a major gamble that the GOP can continue to win as a white party despite the growing strength of the minority vote.”
As Gross and Gilles warn, there’s a real danger in apocalyptic thinking, and Chait offers this:
None of this is to say that Republicans ignored the rising tide of younger and browner voters that swamped them at the polls in 2008. Instead they set about keeping as many of them from the polls as possible. The bulk of the campaign has taken the form of throwing up an endless series of tedious bureaucratic impediments to voting in many states – ending same-day voter registration, imposing onerous requirements upon voter-registration drives, and upon voters themselves. “Voting liberal, that’s what kids do,” over-shared William O’Brien, the New Hampshire House speaker, who had supported a bill to prohibit college students from voting from their school addresses. What can these desperate, rearguard tactics accomplish? They can make the electorate a bit older, whiter, and less poor. They can, perhaps, buy the Republicans some time.
When it’s the end of the world you do things like that, to stave off disaster, just for one more moment, like a sullen teenager. But what’s the point?
The Republicans’ most audacious choice is the hyper-aggressive position they’ve adopted against Obama to sabotage his chances for a second term. Frustrated liberals, assessing the methods of the Republicans in Congress, see a devious brilliance at work in the GOP strategy of legislative obstruction. And indeed, Republicans very skillfully ground the legislative gears to a halt for months on end, weakening or killing large chunks of Obama’s agenda, and nurturing public discontent with Washington that they rode to a sweeping victory in 2010. At the same time, their inability to waver from desperate, all-or-nothing opposition often meant conservatives willingly suffered policy defeats for perceived political gain, and failed to minimize the scale of those defeats.
But they lost the fight over health-care reform. They made it all or nothing, and had to settle for nothing. And it was the same with the deficit deal, where they just walked out. If it’s the end of the world as we know it, then you do radical things, badly:
The party has bet everything on 2012, preferring a Hail Mary strategy to the slow march of legislative progress. That is the basis of the House Republicans’ otherwise inexplicable choice to vote last spring for a sweeping budget plan that would lock in low taxes, slash spending, and transform Medicare into private vouchers – none of which was popular with voters. Majority parties are known to hold unpopular votes occasionally, but holding an unpopular vote that Republicans knew full well stood zero chance of enactment (with Obama casting a certain veto) broke new ground in the realm of foolhardiness.
The way to make sense of that foolhardiness is that the party has decided to bet everything on its one “last chance.” Not the last chance for the Republican Party to win power – there will be many of those, and over time it will surely learn to compete for nonwhite voters – but its last chance to exercise power in its current form, as a party of anti-government fundamentalism powered by sublimated white Christian identity politics.
Good luck with that:
The Republicans have gained the House and stand poised to win control of the Senate. If they can claw out a presidential win and hold on to Congress, they will have a glorious two-year window to restore the America they knew and loved, to lock in transformational change, or at least to wrench the status quo so far rightward that it will take Democrats a generation to wrench it back. The cost of any foregone legislative compromises on health care or the deficit would be trivial compared to the enormous gains available to a party in control of all three federal branches.
On the other hand, if they lose their bid to unseat Obama, they will have mortgaged their future for nothing at all. And over the last several months, it has appeared increasingly likely that the party’s great all-or-nothing bet may land, ultimately, on nothing.
Teenagers make stupid bets and risk it all on something that’s unlikely – and yes, they drive that way too. Here, the future is against the Republicans. And they’re making stupid bets, and any advice to get over it and adapt to the current situation, to the reality of what’s actually happening, will get you nothing but sullen anger in return. And thus we have Santorum ripping into the whole idea of the separation of church and state, saying that Jack Kennedy’s speech about that long ago makes him want to vomit – discussed by Jan Walsh here and here if you really care. And Santorum did say this:
Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts and … want to work out there making things. President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.
This isn’t true. Obama, in fact, wants everyone to go to a university, a community college, a technical school, or a trade school. But it hardly matters. This is teenage end-of-the-world apocalyptic stuff.
But you can look at another way. As Steve M notes, someone else’s world is coming to an apocalyptic end:
You have to think about who’s running the Republican Party – and I mean really running it, which means I’m referring to corporate sugar daddies and the head of the party’s de facto media wing. Look at the group and you see that we’re talking about a lot of very rich, very old, very traditional right-wing men. Rupert Murdoch turns 81 this year. Sheldon Adelson turns 79. Foster Friess turns 71. Bob Perry (Swift Boat Vets, the campaigns of the unrelated Rick Perry) turns 80. David Koch turns 72, and Charles Koch turns 77.
These are the King Lears of the Republican Party. They’re not quite at the point of dividing up the Republican kingdom, but they want whatever power they cede (in the form of money or, in Murdoch’s case, media attention) to go to people who love what they love and hate what they hate – which means that the GOP is still the party of social conservatism, culture-war bashing of non-whites and coastal “elitists,” the Cold War morphed into the War on Terrorism, low taxes, deregulation, and petroleum forever.
Get rid of these guys and maybe you can remake the party. Problem is you can’t get rid of these guys, because they own the party.
And there you have it. These guys don’t adapt to circumstances, the reality of the situation, and move on. Why should they? And each may be on their fourth or fifth trophy wife. They never had to grow up – they’re not King Lears, but he ultimate teenagers who want nothing to change, because if it does, the world will end.
No it won’t. And apocalyptic thinking just isn’t thinking. Grow up.