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Politics as Unusual
The kaleidoscopic gyrations of current events continue to create a dizzying array of patterns and hues

Politics as Unusual

The kaleidoscopic gyrations of current events continue to create a dizzying array of patterns and hues

The kaleidoscopic gyrations of current events continue to create a dizzying array of patterns and hues, to the point where it has become almost impossible to discern either firm ideological reference points or consistent political philosophies. Now, we have the so-called left escalating wars and privatizing health care, while the erstwhile right is out breaking windows in a fit of anti-corporate and anti-government mania. The irony here is palpable; the dangers are real and the mainstream media is laughing all the way to the bank. This is the “new normal” of our politics in America, where black is white and left is right and may the better-funded side win.

To take an example uppermost on people’s minds right now, consider health care reform (if it can be called that) and the vitriolic reaction to it from some quarters. One point that has escaped much notice in all the furor is how the vituperative right-wing response, which includes not-so-veiled threats and actual property destruction, has somehow managed simultaneously to make the Democrats look comparatively sane and their corporate giveaway health bill seem more palatable in the process. You can almost hear the tape playing in some moderates’ minds: “If those FOX-watching kooks are that up in arms (literally) about this, then maybe it’s not that bad after all.”

This is the danger when demagoguery replaces principle and sloganeering and agitprop supplant dialogue and alternatives. The political right has succumbed to the tendency toward becoming a fringe movement precisely because it has turned into a caricature of itself by embracing vapid standard-bearers like Sarah Palin and scrupulously avoiding any new ideas or constructive counterproposals. And this just plays straight into the hands of opportunistic Democrats, who for their part have cleverly adopted many of the right’s platforms and now occupy an ostensible political center that could hold sway for the foreseeable future.

Again, look no further than health care for evidence of this cagey Democratic ploy. The bill that was just passed, that so-called “socialist government takeover” of our lives, was actually a Republican-inspired piece of legislation that should have been a bipartisan no-brainer. Richard Nixon supported employer mandates in the 1970s, the Heritage Foundation has advocated individual mandates and both Mitt Romney and Scott Brown backed the requirement that people must purchase insurance coverage while serving as Massachusetts state lawmakers, with the former even calling it “a personal responsibility principle.”

Yet now, despite its strong Republican pedigree, that aspect of the bill in particular has touched off a mounting “don’t tread on me” backlash that has the potential to spawn more reactionary violence in the days ahead. In this manner, we may be experiencing an ironic scenario in which the right has embraced a revolutionary posture against its own platform, which can only become an express path to self-consumptive oblivion.

But wait! The right lives on, only now they’re calling themselves Democrats instead of Republicans. From passing the conservatives’ own health care bill and propping up Wall Street to expanding adventurist wars and Big Brother homeland policies, the Obama-led Democrats have done a fair impression of Bush-Cheney so far. Despite the soaring rhetoric and feel-good potential inherent in Obama’s ascent, one would be hard-pressed to locate even a single meaningful progressive act taken by our charismatic president and his fledgling administration.

The true genius in this – a tack begun in earnest during the Bill Clinton years – is a form of political cannibalism, whereby the rightward movement of the Democrats serves to: (a) push the Republicans further to the right and thus into the extinction-bound fringes, (b) allow the Democrats to please the same masters as the neocons did so as to retain financial backing and reify the true powerholders and (c) effectively dismantle the political left with the knowledge that most of them will hold their nose and back the Democrats when push comes to shove, especially if the only viable electoral alternative is the far-right freakout faction.

No matter your inclinations, this is surely some well-played (albeit surreal) realpolitik, and while it does seem quite cynical on many levels we can still admire the theatrics. In an era where principles are passé, all sorts of unusual outcomes become possible – with the right packaging, of course. Agents of change can slip seamlessly into office as extenders of the status quo. Forced-choice corporate health insurance is coded as a form of socialism, despite lacking any actual social component. Movement tactics and language most often associated with progressive aims like civil rights, environmentalism and anti-corporate globalization are now deployed for tortured-logic purposes of taking back government so that it can be immediately handed over to the free market and, thus, keep America true to its original principles of liberty (to enslave) and justice for all (some, actually).

Meanwhile, “green” proposals include a new generation of nuclear power plants and a market-based approach to emissions that could further solidify the inherent inequalities of who gets to pollute and who is most affected by it. Wars expand under the tutelage of antiwar candidates cum representatives and constitutional protections continue to shrivel at the behest of administrators brought in on a tide of “restoring rights” rhetoric. And so on.

It’s a confounding era in which the unusual has become the usual and the society of the spectacle is in full force. I’m not inclined to offer bold pronouncements about what is to be done, although one can hear the groundswell of talk about third parties coming from many corners. More fundamentally, and in the spirit of nonviolent action, a nascent movement based initially on withdrawal of participation seems to be percolating in the margins. Local initiatives around food, education, health care and other “public goods” are being experimented with nearly everywhere, yet exist under the radar of news and politics alike.

Even more to the point, breaking out of the standard binary patterns of thought and practice – in which a flawed “enemy of my enemy …” and “us versus them” zero-sum logic pervades – could in fact offer the prospect of working across lines of apparent division despite the best attempts of the power elite to keep us divided and conquered. This might even hold promise toward establishing a shared sense of “people power” that views none as adversaries and all as part of a common humanity. It may seem quixotic, but frankly no more so than hoping that the same destructive patterns now in place will somehow bring about a positive result.

It has often been said that “the personal is political,” but today we might consider inverting that mantra and rendering our politics as personal instead. Indeed, recent events have demonstrated, yet again, that politics are simply too important to be left to the politicians.

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