Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reflections on New England Democracy

          I awoke this morning to learn that “New Hampshire has spoken.”  Fortunately, unlike most of the candidates themselves, New Hampshire spoke sotto voce, not nearly loud enough to disturb my slumbers.  Indeed to say that New Hampshire spoke is to indulge in the classical rhetorical figure of synecdoche—the one generally known as “the part for the whole”.   My rough-and-ready extrapolation from the newspaper charts is that approximately thirty-seven percent of New Hampshire spoke (sort of)—that is, thirty-seven in one hundred of a population about that of San Antonio. 

            Still, given the anemia of our national political participation, that is a not unimpressive number.  The victories of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were not merely decisive but crushing.  And to be clear, as scornful as I may sound, this essay is more of a confession than an indictment.  For I have followed all the primary events slavishly in the newspaper and on the PBS “News Hour”.  I have attended to most of the so-called debates on the Tube, and digested column yards of posterior analysis and exegesis.  My attention has been bi-partisan, though this year the Republican “debates” have been more interesting than the Democratic “debates” rather in the way that Paradise Lost is more interesting than Paradise Regained--simply because of the raw materials of the two poems.  Milton’s politics were intense but from our point of view perhaps somewhat incoherent.  Although he was a spokesman for a revolutionary regime, and even an apologist for regicide, the actual operations of his imagined divine government are autocratic in the extreme.  On the other hand democracy of a sort does characterize the political operations of the demonic world.  Milton invented the word Pandemonium—a place bringing together all the demons—as the name of the diabolical congress or parliament in which the fallen angels meet to cook up their plot.  It is the raucous character of their debate that accounts for the meaning of the word pandemonium in ordinary discourse. 

            In the shouting match of the last Republican forum the governor of my state, Chris Christie, seems perhaps to have pulled off a successful kamikaze attack on the S. S. Marco Rubio.  Rubio is not exactly dead in the water, but he is listing noticeably, at the bottom of the mediocres, and (humiliatingly) just below Jeb Bush, who is in the middle of the mediocres.  Does anyone still read Matthew Arnold these days?  I am thinking of Sohrab and Rustum, the oriental tale that reverses the archetype of Oedipus Rex.  In this one it is the father who unknowingly kills the son.  Mr. Christie himself is way out ahead of his fellow single-digit also-rans, but the world is rarely impressed by a sixth-place finish.  It worked for Dante Alighieri*, of course.  But I knew Dante Alighieri.  He was a friend of mine.   And, Mr. Christie, you are no Dante Alighieri.  Please return immediately to New Jersey, where we languish for want of executive direction.

            Tremendous amounts of money have already been spent on these preliminaries.  It is hardly worth saying that the money could have been put to better purposes, because that is true of so many of our expenditures, public and private alike.  But the figures are staggering.  In the Iowa contest Jeb Bush received 5200 votes, less than three percent of the total votes cast and about one tenth the number secured by the “winner”, Ted Cruz.  It is hard to assess precisely how much money the Bush people spent in achieving this result because “the Bush people” include both the candidate’s official campaign workers and the administrators of an opulent Political Action Committee technically independent of that campaign.  The published figures I have seen range from a low of $2800 per vote to a high of $5200. It is probably closer to the latter than the former, though either end of that spectrum would seem to me to deserve the exclamation point that is so ludicrous in its collocation with “Jeb”.  Whatever became of the frugal good old days of the ward bosses, when you could secure a vote for a bottle of whiskey or, at most, a Christmas turkey?

            There is little faith left in what is usually called the “conventional wisdom”.  How could there be?  Wisdom itself has become so unconventional.  But I am at last vaguely apprehending what people smarter than I have noticed for some time, and that is a fundamental congruence between what superficially seem like such starkly divergent candidacies as those of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.  Unfortunately the hard part is not the egg-breaking but the omelet-making.

*See Inferno 4.102