I can’t really let this whole mess go, much as I want to turn my attention to a couple of other issues and ideas that are on my radar screen. Much as I did before the Iraq war started, I’m having trouble sleeping. Even more than the political leadership, it’s the punditocracy that’s on my mind.
I’m simultaneously fascinated, vindicated and irritated by the near-total inability of expert commenters, political journalists, talk show hosts and other purveyors of the conventional wisdom to grasp what’s going on here. This is not just a case of blind men feeling their piece of the elephant: they’re not even groping the right animal.
Most of the talk, like on WHYY’s Radio Times this morning, is about what “the public” or “the American people think” on one hand and on the other, it’s the usual sports-style color commentary on what Washington insiders are thinking, doing and planning. At least in the second hour, Stuart Diamond and Julian Zelizer got pretty close to breaking out of that discourse to the real point. On other shows in the 24/7 news cycle across various media, I’m hearing a few experts and pundits make fragmentary moves to shift the conversation, often pulling back to more familiar tropes.
I suspect that a lot of Washington insiders, including older, established Republicans, are further down the road to recognizing the new shape of things, but it must be hard for them too to grasp what’s happening.
In a nutshell, what’s going on is something that hasn’t happened in American politics for 50 years: an ideologically coherent social movement with clear political aspirations has taken shape out of murkier antecedents and disparate tributaries and at least for the moment, it has a very tight hold on the political officials that it has elected. The movement is not interested in the spoils system, its representatives can’t be quickly seduced into playing the usual games. And the movement’s primary objective is to demolish existing governmental and civic institutions. They’ve grown tired of waiting for government to be small enough to drown in a bathtub, so they’re setting out with battleaxes and dynamite instead.
Social movements that aren’t just setting out to secure legal protection and resources for their constituency, but are instead driven to pursue profound sociopolitical transformations are unfamiliar enough. What makes this moment even more difficult to grasp in terms of the conventional wisdom of pundits is that this isn’t a movement that speaks a language of inclusion, hope, reform, innovation or progress. It speaks instead about restoration of power to those who once held it, the tearing down of existing structures, about undoing what’s been done. This movement is at war with its social and institutional enemies: it has nothing to offer them except to inflict upon them the marginalization that the members of the movement imagine they themselves have suffered.
Even the left, whatever that might be, is having a hard time bending its head around the situation, because for decades it has been accustomed to thinking of organizations on the right as fringes or cults that need to be monitored or controlled, or watched for their infiltration of legitimate politics. It’s very true that the Tea Party and its cognate organizations are not by any means a majority of the electorate, but the point is that they’re a very coherent plurality that can win majorities in enough districts and localities to block votes and prevent business as usual, and that preventing business as usual is a political objective in its own right for them, not just a means to some other end.
On Radio Times, Stuart Diamond, who specializes in the management of negotiation, began to grasp the nettle when he recognized that you can’t find a compromise with a group that’s not seeking a compromise. Everybody who is still talking in those terms about deals and compromises really doesn’t get what’s happening. Even if there’s a compromise or agreement by Tuesday, it’s not going to have any long-term meaning. There is a sufficiently large political bloc inside the political system and a sufficiently coherent social movement outside of it who are unafraid of economic chaos, welcome the federal government’s inability to meet its obligations, and hope that the President is stuck with a major national crisis that he can’t fix because that’s what they want. Michele Bachmann isn’t ignorant about what might happen next week if there is no deal: the voters whose endorsement she seeks are hoping for the worst-case scenario.
Of course, the other reason that the punditocracy doesn’t know how to talk about a real social movement is that it isn’t the kind of thing that lends itself to political management or policy formation: it takes them into the unfamiliar discursive spaces of history, anthropology, culture, political theory, which don’t lend themselves well to punditry and don’t produce smugly self-contained recommendations and conclusions.