In November, None of the Above


Rock Island, IL

Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote that there aren’t any names for our great absolutes, only for “trivialities like politics and economics.” [1]

If a boy were to read this at a young enough age he might believe that he has been given permission to ignore some of his lessons. In some cases he might studiously ignore them. But the consequences of this, if not entirely salutary, will hardly amount to an absolute personal catastrophe. Can no good come of a lifetime of cynicism toward, if not mild contempt for, the obsessions that turn men into beasts?

I can easily see a boy who has been persuaded by Muggeridge committing himself in adulthood to a life of principled abstention whenever a general election comes around. You might hear him say that casting a vote every four years can hardly be called a man’s right, much less his duty, if he has made no attempt to execute the offices of citizenship on the other 1,459 days. He might say that voting is a citizen’s last and least significant act. And I think he may have a case.

If he came of voting age while watching his country emphatically reject Carter for Reagan, chances are good despair routinely sets in pretty early for him in the whole electoral process. Inevitably he’ll find that he has stopped paying attention altogether right about the time someone says something really stupid, as, inevitably, someone will: Newt Gingrich, for example, allowing that Sarah Palin would make a good secretary of energy. “I can’t imagine anybody,” he said a couple of weeks ago, “who would do a better job of driving us to an energy solution.”

For what purpose did St. John pen the imperative “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” if not for this?

But not paying attention doesn’t always work. Someone finds a way to sneak things in the back door.

Take the lead pieces in the recent New York Times Book Review, which bear the joint title “Bipolar America” (January 8, 2012). In one of them Michael Kinsley, reviewing Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire, writes:

Evelyn Waugh complained that the British Conservative Party had failed to turn back the clock by a single second. Have the Republicans done much better? (Waugh was speaking long before the Margaret Thatcher revolution, which really did change British society enormously.) Conservatives have dominated the debate, and usually the government, for three decades now, yet they haven’t managed to abolish a single cabinet department or eliminate a single major entitlement program. Nothing big has been “privatized.” Somehow or other, against all expectations and despite a conservative Supreme Court, abortion rights and affirmative action have been preserved. Gay rights are advancing so fast that the Republican Party itself is probably ahead of where Democrats were a generation ago. The Constitution has not been amended to require a balanced budget or forbid flag-burning.

True, they’ve pretty much killed the union movement. While they are not to blame for the effects of globalization and technology on income distribution, they’ve done nothing to mitigate these. And then there are tax cuts—especially tax cuts for the wealthy. That we have had. In spades. Actually, all this tends to confirm Frank’s contention that what Republicans really care about, politically, is money, and all that other stuff is just prole meat. [2]

I don’t expect everyone to take every bit of that sitting down, but I think we’re going to have to agree that its contours are essentially correct. If we want to quibble with it, we should quibble with its principal mistake: conflating Republicans and Conservatives, as if the two were synonymous. What feature of a Palin secretariat in energy would be conservative? Her wardrobe? Her preference in cocktails?

Kinsley’s otherwise fairly intelligent review is evidence of how muddled our political discourse is at a fundamental level, so muddled that any attempt to think clearly in its key terms and phrases is damn-nigh impossible. No wonder that four years ago all the McCain-Palin stickers were on SUVs and all the Obama-Biden stickers were on hybrids. This year, when the same wave of incoherence engulfs as drowned us in 2008, we won’t hear any democrats of consequence saying that they wish Republicans were conservatives. If any did, it would certainly qualify as a breakthrough in the discourse, but it would horrify the left as much as it would confuse the right–or horrify the right as much as it would confuse the left: take your pick. It wouldn’t bring us single step closer to coherence (though it might make me pay attention into, say, February).

For I did read Muggeridge at a young age and, for better or worse, decided he was onto something. There is, finally, an abiding triviality to politics and economics, certainly to our desultory ways of doing them. They are mediate and not ultimate things, necessary but not vital, and to give yourself to them wholly seems to require something like a character flaw.

I’m not saying their being otherwise would protect them from incoherence. We’ve rendered the great things incoherent as well. We’re a sorry lot. We prefer slogans to sustained articulations, and our bullet points do aught but invite a few well-aimed bullets.

Amid all the political radioactivity a man inclines to say he doesn’t want to be implicated in the presidency of anyone vying for top dog. “None of the above,” he’s tempted to answer. For, once again, there is nothing to be especially excited about. Come November there will be no one worth spending a vote on. Who can blame the best for lacking all conviction when the worst are full of passionate intensity?

The good want power [wrote Shelley], but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.

(Prometheus Unbound 1.625-28)


[1] Muggeridge also included “science” among the trivialities, but at the moment I’m not in the mood for evoking the ire of scientists, only economists and politicians.

[2] Kinsley isn’t entirely kind to Pity the Billionaire, in which, he says, Frank argues that “President Obama has betrayed the voters who elected him. He ran like a populist . . . but he has governed like a plutocrat, or at least a friend of plutocrats.” Kinsley is quicker to speak favorably of Frank’s previous book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, in which Frank had argued (says Kinsley) that “working people continue to be duped into supporting measures manifestly against their own self-interest” because of a “clever bait-and-switch by conservatives [that wrong word once again], who appeal to middle- and lower-class voters on the basis of social issues like abortion and gays in the military, and values like patriotism and religion,” but who “govern on the agenda of traditional Republican groups like businessmen and bankers.”

It isn’t my purpose to pass judgment on Frank’s books or on Kinsley’s review. I provide this simply for context—and because I’m a nice guy.

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