Over the past year I’ve frequently returned to Alana Newhouse’s essay on what she calls “brokenism.” For Newhouse, the crucial political divide today is not between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, but between “those who believe there is something fundamentally broken in America . . . and those who do not.” I find this clarifying, not least because I recognize myself as some kind of brokenist. This is often what separates me from some friends on both left and right, while joining me with other friends on both right and left.
I suppose it’s mainly as a brokenist that I’m attracted to RFK Jr.’s campaign. No doubt Americans with brokenist tendencies will always be drawn to independent or third-party candidates, since the inevitability of their defeat can be taken as proof of just how broken things are. But Kennedy’s appeal seems more specific. Brokenists are not flocking to Cornel West, whose platform is similarly radical (if not more so) but more identifiably left-wing (though he too can mix it up with the other side).
For example, both Kennedy and West want to “unwind” (in Kennedy’s case) or “dismantle” (in West’s) the American empire. But it is Kennedy’s relentless attack on the empire’s “complexes,” military-industrial and otherwise, that really speaks to brokenists because they lay the blame for the wreckage squarely at the feet of those complexes. The central brokenist belief (in Newhouse’s words) is that “the American establishment, rather than being a force of stability, is an obese and corrupted tangle of federal and corporate power threatening to suffocate the entire country.” When he announced he would run as an independent, Kennedy put it like this: “For decades, Republicans have railed against Big Government, and Democrats have complained about Big Business. Behind the scenes though, they have capitulated to both. The result is that we now face something much more dangerous: a combination of Big Government and Big Business. . . . My mission is to dissolve this corrupt merger of state and corporate power.”
I think it’s this clearly stated mission, more than sheer name recognition, that best explains Kennedy’s poll numbers (currently at 22%). But there’s a deeper layer to his appeal. When there’s so much corruption that it starts to make more sense to talk about the emergence of a whole new regime—call it the “corporate state”—things are dramatic enough. But the idea of “corruption” itself is pretty ho-hum. Corruption is about people breaking rules. It invites calls for “good government” and other boring things. If Kennedy’s pitch was just “let’s enforce the rules!” (or make new ones), he might get the Elizabeth Warren vote, but he probably wouldn’t get the brokenists. For brokenists, the new regime is not just a matter of garden-variety regulatory capture, and “the rules” are just as often a symptom of the problem as a solution to it. This “merger of state and corporate power” comes, like all regimes, with a legitimating ideology, a cultural vision. And there seem to be quite a lot of rules involved in that vision. It’s technocratic, to say the least. To say much more—to say what Teddy Macker says, tellingly invoking Yeats—it feels like “some rough beast.”
In short, there’s an apocalyptic aspect to brokenism, a sense that what we face isn’t just a set of broken institutions but a diminished human spirit. As Paul Kingsnorth often insists, it’s a spiritual crisis, not just a political or economic one. There’s something at the root of things that’s wrong, and it has to be fixed not only by “fixing the institutions,” or (as brokenists might prefer) building new ones, but by living differently—more humanly.
This is what Macker is talking about. Macker sees in Kennedy not just a lawyer fighting Monsanto, but a man fighting to stay human in a Brave New World that turns citizens into Roundup-ready consumers, coddled and addled by various forms of soma, monitored and surveilled and propagandized for their own good, reliable fodder for imperial wars and ad campaigns. For Macker, Kennedy speaks to a “mounting revolt against the shallow orient of life these days,” and appeals to Americans who want “a president with an authentic spiritual connection.”
Now, I’ve said that I’m some kind of brokenist, and that as a brokenist I can feel the force of this appeal. I too think that the accelerating fusion of the state with the market is The Problem, and I too think The Problem is best understood as connected to a deeper Problem which certainly is a spiritual, or at least cultural, crisis. I too have my apocalyptic moods. (I’m not sure how else I ought to feel about the fact that people now have “AI girlfriends” and feel sad when they “die.”) Yet I also distrust those moods. There’s something too easy about the apocalypse, too entertaining, too delicious. I often regret what I say or write when I’m feeling that way. I find myself wishing that instead of playing the gloomy prophet, I’d played the jester. I find myself wishing I’d had more fun, or maybe even just changed the subject (a good motto: “and now for something completely different!”).
I distrust my apocalyptic moods not only because they’re very entertaining and not very fun—a lot like a Marvel movie—but also because I can never quite tell if they’re an appropriate response to the situation, or a symptom of the situation’s hold on me. The key feature of our broken culture, with its suite of broken institutions both private and public, is the ubiquity of spectacle. Everywhere there is the reduction of depth to surface, virtue to signal, repentance to public relations, argument to sound-bite, word to image, practices to best-practices, truth to method, knowledge to certification, education to schooling, healing to medication, justice to access, freedom to choice, choice to desire, desire to impulse, impulse to chemical, persons to bodies, bodies to parts, and politics to a theater of signals and bytes and images methodically arranged by experts who have been to all the right schools and taken all the right drugs and made all the right choices that will get them what their assembled parts want, which is just the power to get what they want. (How’s that for “apocalyptic”? I could do this all day.) Everywhere there is the reduction of a problem to an emergency. Everything is the apocalypse (everything is broken!) because everything is entertainment. (“Are you not entertained?”) But in this “society of the spectacle,” as Guy Debord puts it, few things can be more spectacular than a public crusade against it. And of course, few crusades are already more spectacular than an American presidential campaign.
When everything is broken, what do we need? Should we look for the Great Man of History? Or are we waiting for Dorothea Brooke? As often as I think of Newhouse’s essay, I think of the final sentence of Middlemarch: “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Even if what we need is the Great Man, there is of course the question of whether Kennedy is him. Macker tries to avoid hagiography, and I especially appreciate his sensitivity to the obvious problem of looking for “greatness” in politics, where it has so often led to toxic cults of personality. Macker suggests that Kennedy’s “vulnerability,” his experience of and openness about his own weakness, and his reliance on spiritual discipline to protect him from relapse, is what keeps that slope from getting too slippery. But I would observe that in our culture, “being vulnerable” is praised ad nauseum, to the point where my students will confess their deepest sins on a first meeting because they’re used to being honored for it. Surely there is genuine humility and there is feigned humility, and I must say that Kennedy’s doesn’t seem feigned to me; it seems earned. But it’s always hard to tell the difference when the confession is made on the stage, not in the booth.
I’m not trying to be cynical (rather: I’m trying not to be cynical). Cynicism is yet another symptom of a broken culture, of life lived in institutions where words and actions never seem to meet up, and it never seems to matter that they don’t. Maybe I’m not so much cynical about Kennedy as I am skeptical about what any politician, especially one running for president (smaller, less visible offices are less prone to the distorting effect of the spectacle) can do in this context. I have far more hope in the hidden lives than in the public ones.
Macker would say that it’s not an either/or. The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; perhaps the other part depends on bigger things. We can value the small, we can believe that the local is “where it’s at,” as Macker himself clearly does, without denying that a president can make a difference. A president who really was able to “dissolve the corrupt merger of state and corporate power,” even a little bit, would surely make a difference to our freedom and ability to “cultivate a small field,” as Macker says, quoting Basho.
Granted. I guess I’m asking, not so much how we ought to think about Robert F. Kennedy Jr., or about any other candidate, but how we ought to think about politics itself in our broken society. Maybe it’s not an either/or always and forever; but maybe it is an either/or in our society of the spectacle. So I’m wondering what an “un-spectacular” national politics would look like today. Is it even possible for anyone to run for president, or any major office, without by necessity feeding the beast? If it’s not, what do we do with that? How much can we citizens sustain an interest in the necessarily spectacular without diminishing or corrupting our capacity to live a “hidden life”? Can spectacle be a means to unspectacular ends, or will it always consume us in the end?
Maybe it’s just a question of where I ought to invest my own political energy. I could vote for Kennedy, sure, and maybe I will. But I don’t want to get too excited about him. I’d guess I’d rather change the subject.
Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons