Life is sufficiently puzzling that sooner or later one demands an answer to what it’s all about. Of course not everyone demands an answer. William Shenstone famously noted that the world may be divided into people that read, people that write, people that think, and fox-hunters. On this side of the pond that last category would be those who watch American Idol and then the Real Housewives of Wherever. Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living – or Socrates said that Plato said that, or it was the other way around – but that was a long time ago and for the last three or four generations America has been out to prove that Plato was dead wrong. The wealth that followed the big war that took care of Hitler and the pesky Japanese led to scads of available leisure – actual spare time for almost everyone – but that leisure didn’t exactly lead to contemplation and deep thought. It led to entertainment – and a vast industry to provide it. It led to Hollywood. Those of us who live here thank you for that. The ten million dollar glass houses out back in the Hollywood Hills are really cool, as are the new Ferraris in the streets. Thanks for all the bucks.
Contemplation and deep thought are overrated anyway. The answer to what it’s all about is illusive, or impossible, and the question itself may be absurd. Life can be just cold and brutal. At least it was in the late seventies up in Rochester, New York, in the deep of winter, grading high school essays on Hamlet’s issues with his mother or whatever. At least the local public radio station was playing the new BBC absurdist radio serial at the time, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – and that hit the spot. The whole tale hinged on a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who built a computer named Deep Thought to calculate the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. The answer turned out to be forty-two. No one knew what to make of that. After ten million years of massive computer calculations no one remembered the question in the first place.
That about sums it up – and by the way, that massive supercomputer was Earth itself, destroyed by the mindlessly bureaucratic Vogons to make way for a hyper-spatial express route, five minutes before Deep Thought came up with that odd Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. These things happen, so maybe the answer wasn’t really forty-two at all. Asking big questions can be a silly business – and the snow kept falling outside, and the last of the student essays was graded, and it was time to move to Los Angeles. It wasn’t the answer to anything. It was just another place – but warm and sunny, with palm trees. There’s no point in overthinking things.
That doesn’t mean that people don’t think about things, about what it’s all about. That’s unavoidable. Why do bad things happen to good people, and specifically to them? Yeah, when good things happen folks do assume that’s what should have happened, because they deserved that good thing happening, or that they even earned it, because they had somehow done this or that. The idea is that things cannot be random. That’s unacceptable. Everything happens for a reason, but then God does allow evil, which is puzzling. Crime does pay, after all, or there would be no criminals. What goes around seldom comes around, in spite of what you see on television and in the movies. The best that the religious folks can come up with is that God works in mysterious ways, which are ways we can’t understand, so sit down, shut up, and hang on – which is one definition of faith. Alexander Pope put it more elegantly in his Essay on Man:
All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
So shut up. Pope was finishing that up around 1731, and people still quote those lines now and then. Pride and reason (thinking too much) are bad for your soul. Of course Pope was grumpy about the fairness of it all – he was all of four foot six with a spinal problem that left him a bit of a hunchback, even if he was a brilliant poet. It wasn’t fair. He needed a grand unifying theory to explain life, the universe, and everything.
Everyone does. Physicists hunt for that God Particle – the Higgs boson, that little bugger that may be what gives all objects mass and explains how everything fits together, and also shows that the universe is doomed, billions of years from now of course. It’s good to know such things. Others just wonder how their asshole boss got the job, and why he keeps it, or why they can’t lose weight, or why they’re getting old and nothing worked out the way they thought it would. Others look at the shape this country is in, and look at the politicians in Washington at each other’s throats while nothing gets done, and wonder what all that’s about.
There must be a grand unifying theory that explains dysfunctional politics, and explains where the Republicans ended up – losing the presidency, again, and not retaking the Senate as first thought, because of a number of strange candidates talking endlessly about legitimate rape and how women’s lady-parts really work in spite of what mere science says. They held onto the House only because they got to redraw the districts’ lines this time. Their approval ratings are at record lows and now everyone agrees with Obama’s positions on everything – so only their dwindling base loves them, but not all that much. No one likes losers. Republicans will say it’s just not fair that Latinos and blacks – and Asians and lots of women and young folks, and folks with college degrees and folks who live in cities or on the coasts – don’t vote for them. In theory all these groups should vote for them, but they haven’t articulated that theory very will yet, if there is one. Everyone Kind of Liked Ronald Reagan is not a theory. The best they can come up with is Everyone Hates Government and We Do Too. That’s a problem when more and more people see that a fully functioning government can be quite useful – everyone chips in and problems can be solved. Saying that no one believes that, when far more than a majority of everyone now clearly believes that, is surreal. No one wants Salvador Dalí writing tax code and regulations about gun control.
This leads to some odd places, as Ed Kilgore explains:
One of the weird things about Benghazi is that it’s an issue discussed endlessly on the Right and barely at all on the Left (this is one of several ways in which the “scandal” resembles Fast ‘n’ Furious, the last big conservative freak-out that made little or no sense to anyone else). After we got beyond the actual events and the immediate follow-up, the mainstream media, best as I can tell, took it seriously when conservatives brought it up in other contexts, from the end-game of the presidential contest to the Hagel nomination.
Otherwise most everyone saw this as a nothing-burger. This was handled badly, but directly, and the result was awful, but it wasn’t exactly a scandal, but Kilgore cites NPR’s Ari Shapiro, discussing what Republicans made of this:
Benghazi has become a sort of catchword. To Republicans, it symbolizes everything bad about the Obama administration. It’s not the first word to fill that role. At the start of the president’s first term, it was Obamacare. Later, Solyndra. …
Data from the Pew Research Center suggest not every voter is following this story equally. In November, Pew found that Republicans were twice as likely to follow Benghazi closely as Democrats or independents.
That could be because conservative media hammered the story nonstop. But the discrepancy suggests that this rallying cry could be effective at ginning up the base without driving away people on the other side, which may not be paying attention.
Kevin Drum digs into that:
I guess that’s obvious. It’s obvious after someone points it out, anyway: If you’re going to make fundraising hay out of a pseudo-scandal, it’s actually better if you focus on something that the rest of the world thinks is too ridiculous to bother following. Not only does this help with the fundraising pitch – the liberal media is part of the cover-up! – but you don’t lose independent votes since non-wingnuts have simply tuned the whole thing out.
This helps solve a mystery: why do congressional Republicans spend so much time obsessed with such palpable nonsense. Aren’t they embarrassed? Answer: Maybe, but it’s actually safer not to stray outside the fever swamp and take the risk of independents realizing what you’re spending your time on.
Drum seems to have stumbled on a grand unifying theory that explains the behavior of the Republicans these days. The Grand Old Party has turned so far inward it has become entirely self-contained. It’s self-reinforcing and wholly autonomous. If so, the GOP is also wholly irrelevant. There’s no need to listen to them, other than they control the House and can screw up everything, and will. It’s just that no one outside the party will ever understand them. As Pope said, what seems like chance is direction which you just cannot see, and all discord is harmony not understood. Sit down, shut up, and hang on.
That won’t do, unless you’re authoritarian-minded and like just accepting whatever is – but Michael Gerson, one of the George W. Bush’s speechwriters, says that’s not it at all, as the party has long been torn between two grand unifying theories about how things are and how they should be, and he starts with a story:
In the summer of 1999, George W. Bush chose the first major policy speech of his presidential campaign to pick a fight with Grover Norquist. Bush flatly rejected the “destructive” view “that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved” – a vision the Texas governor dismissed as having “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than leave us alone.”
Norquist had proposed to define conservatism as the “leave us alone” coalition – a movement united by a desire to get government off our backs. Bush countered that “the American government is not the enemy of the American people.”
Ed Crane, then the president of the libertarian Cato Institute, said the speech sounded as if it had been written by someone “moonlighting for Hillary Rodham Clinton.” I can formally deny that charge. But the Bush campaign was purposely attempting to alter the image of the Republican Party. And the party – rendered more open to change by eight years in the presidential wilderness – gave Bush the leeway to make necessary ideological adjustments.
So there were two grand unifying theories of government. There was that “leave us alone” coalition, arguing that government is always the problem and never the solution – the folks who think the only two legitimate functions of government are national defense and enforcing private contracts – and Bush saying that a fully functioning government can be quite useful – everyone chips in and problems can be solved. Well, one must take Gerson at his word, that Bush said that. It is on record after all. It’s no wonder Bush has been hiding for more than four years. That “leave us alone” coalition took over the party for a time. Gerson wants his party back, because the current party’s Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is pretty lame. Forty-two would have been a better answer. There’s no need to have Deep Thought work on that for ten million years. The situation is obvious:
Out of the past six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 211 for the Republican. During the preceding two decades, from 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to Democrats’ 113.
This stunning reversal of electoral fortunes has taken place for a variety of reasons: changing demographics; the end of a GOP foreign policy advantage during the Cold War; a serious gap in candidate quality; the declining relevance of economic policies that seem better suited to the 1980s; and an occasionally deserved reputation for being judgmental and censorious.
A full Republican appreciation of these disturbing fundamentals was delayed by the 2010 midterms, in which an unreconstructed anti-government message seemed to be riding a wave. Just two years later came that wave’s withdrawing roar. The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, lost by five million votes – to a beatable incumbent presiding over an anemic economy. The explanation is not purely technical or personality oriented. At the national level, Republicans have a winning message for a nation that no longer exists.
As before, Everyone Kind of Liked Ronald Reagan is not a theory, nor is Everyone Hates Government and We Do Too. That was an eighties thing, like Garfield car window ornaments and that Rubik Cube, back when Moon Unit talked like a Valley Girl. Gerson just sees these guys stuck in an odd place:
In retrospect, last year’s Republican primary process was entirely disconnected from the actual needs of the party. One candidate pledged to build a 20-foot-high electrical fence at the border crowned with the sign, in English and Spanish, “It will kill you – Warning.” Another promised, as president, to speak out against the damage done to American society by contraception. Another warned that vaccinations may cause “mental retardation.” In the course of 20 debates and in tens of millions of dollars of ads, issues such as upward mobility, education, poverty, safer communities and the environment were rarely mentioned.
This was indeed surreal, so Gerson offers this:
A Republican recovery in presidential politics will depend on two factors. First, candidates will need to do more than rebrand existing policy approaches or translate them into Spanish. Some serious rethinking is necessary, particularly on economic matters… ideas such as ending corporate welfare, breaking up the mega-banks, improving the treatment of families in the tax code, and encouraging economic mobility through education reform and improved job training. Whatever form Republican proposals eventually take, they must move beyond Reagan-era nostalgia.
Second, Republican primary voters, party activists and party leaders have a choice to make, ruthlessly clarified by recent events. They can take the path of Democrats in 1988, doubling down on a faltering ideology. Or they can follow the model of Democrats in 1992 and their own party in 2000, giving their nominee the leeway needed to oppose outworn or extreme ideas and to produce an agenda relevant to our time.
It’s time to choose a grand unifying theory of government, but choose wisely. If you choose the theory that there should be little if any government, well, maybe you should not be running to run the government. Elect us and we’ll prove that government doesn’t really work at all? We promise to screw up, on purpose, to prove a point? The absurdity of this has been pointed out before. It bears repeating. A theory of government that posits little or no government is not a theory of government.
Carter Eskew offers an item with a cool title, The Insiders: Irrational Panic in the Republican Party:
The opposite of irrational exuberance is going on today in the Republican Party. Let’s call it irrational panic. The party is taking it from all sides: Its campaigns are run by Luddites; its policies belong in the 20th century; the demographics of the GOP now translate as “grumpy old people.”
Now we can add Michael Gerson to the list of Republican Cassandras. He argues this morning that Republicans are finished at the national level unless they overhaul their message. I think Mr. Gerson is correct but perhaps did not go quite far enough.
Heck, a grand unifying theory might as well be grand:
There have been two political realignments in my lifetime but with some important distinctions. The Reagan and Clinton eras came about because a governing philosophy – the New Deal and then Reaganomics – was spent and a charismatic leader came along with a plan. But there was an important difference between these two political shifts. Reagan’s was more lasting because its leader had a coherent and consistent philosophy. Clinton’s was more temporal because it was more tactical and poll-driven in nature.
This is one way to look at the Republican’s Party’s future: Do they need a Clinton, someone who will, as Gerson suggests, steer the party toward some new ideas and a “third way” approach between the orthodoxies of the two parties? Or do they need a Reagan, someone who more completely and coherently redefines what it means to be a Republican. My guess is, given their current status, Republicans would welcome either alternative.
There’s a reason Obama angered the Clintons when, in the summer of 2008, he said he wanted to be a transformative president like Ronald Reagan – not a master tactician like Bill Clinton. Obama actually had a grand unifying theory of government, and he knew the nation was ready to accept it. There would be no nibbling around the edges. The government of the people and by the people and for the people was not its enemy – it was the people’s government after all. That’s why he kept saying that we are the change we’ve been waiting for. Deep Thought had spoken and the answer wasn’t forty-two. He was the one with the answer. Hillary, also, like her husband, a master tactician, never knew what hit her.
That was her mistake. Now it’s the Republicans’ mistake. Don’t assume that people don’t think about things, about what it’s all about. That’s unavoidable. Maybe everything does happen for a reason.