The election is over and the results are depressing, much as expected – it was not a good night for anyone who believes that the most important work of government in hard times will be protecting ordinary people. This is a stretch to imagine at the best of times, and this was not them.
There’s a larger question, however, that emerges out of the ashes of our usual political self-incineration – what will ordinary people will do with their fear now that the election is over?
Over the last few weeks, a series of articles have emerged that observe that the language of voter anger, so ubiquitous in the culture, was wrong. They argued that in fact, what the voters were was depressed, frightened, worried, anxious, unhappy – not so much angry, but lost and terrified. Indeed, I think fear is what made the outcome of this election so certain – the right overwhelmingly tried to shift the narrative into anger, and because fear and anger often go together, this wasn’t an entire failure. On some gut level, most people realized that the inchoate sense of fear they feel that their lives are not getting better, but worse is probably not due to gays and Moslems, but with a semi-plausible target provided, at least their feelings of worry and discontent were legitimized in some way. At least they were told they were right to feel something.
The fundamental narrative of the Democrats came down to “it really isn’t as bad as you think it is and we’re trying and just give us more time, and you don’t really need to be this worried, it will all be ok soon.” But the problem with anything that de-legitimizes the real experience and real emotions of ordinary people is that it feels *false* – the Tea Partiers may have been lying about immigration and mosques as central issues, the traditional Republicans trying to blame Obama for a recession that started firmly on their watch, but their lies weren’t as big as the one that said “it is all basically ok, you are over-reacting.” Given a choice between two lies, one immoral but at least marginally plausible (scapegoating has a long history and the dubious charm of familiarity to many), the other viscerally, obviously false, it isn’t too surprising what the outcome was.
Now comes one of two things – the first possibility is the race for the bottom – in which both left (which is really a shorthand in the US for “moderate right-center – we don’t actually have a left) and right try desperately to place responsibility for the continued failures, the continued falling apart of people’s lives on other causes – the Democrats will blame the Republicans, insufficient borrowing and mean people, the Republicans will blame the Democrats, taxes and the stimulus package, and we’ll all go down to hell together, with no one ever getting close. The already frustrated, frightened, angry and depressed populace will become more frustrated, frightened and depressed, and probably more angry. They are already disgusted with both parties, and are likely to create a superb opportunity for something worse than we presently have to emerge, along, possibly with a great deal of civil unrest.
The second possibility is that we give fear a real target – because it isn’t going away anytime soon. This isn’t easy, but there’s an opportunity here – most of the government is about to be busy with trying poorly to live up to their claims and to make the on-the-ground realities of governing sound nearly as good as campaign promises, even though it isn’t. While there certainly will be some fear whipping and plenty of partisanship, we have a limited space, the better part of a year, in which to do what neither party can do – acknowledge the fear.
Give it a name. Tell the truth about it. And when people notice that “throw da bums out” works about as well as it always does when the alternative is a new set of bums, that gives them something to explain how what they *know* to be true. That things are falling apart around them.
The thing is, most people have better bullshit detectors than we think they do – the problem is that most of the time, they don’t get anything *other* than bullshit, it is tough to sort things out. But honesty, well, that has the virtue of novelty. So you can tell people that it isn’t really going to get better – that the things that would have allowed us to grow our economy in the past are banging against limits, that the reality of the world is that we have to use up more and more of our money and time and energy just keeping pace.
Whenever I say this, people observe that this is politically impossible – which leader would tell people “it isn’t going to magically get better?” And this is true – at this moment – and it is more true because people who really should have known better have kept the lies alive as long as possible. But we are headed inevitably towards a moment in which it is not only politically possible to acknowledge *what is really happening* but politically necessary to do so. Because the people aren’t idiots. I know it feels that way, but people aren’t idiots for the most part – they are vulnerable, easily led and afraid, not stupid.
When we begin to tell the truth we can tell better stories than anyone who has to tell lies. It is a story about heroism, and responding to dreadful odds, about courage and self-sacrifice for the betterment of the future – all the things that everyone actually gives a damn about that are never asked of them. It is so easy to say that other people are fools when those people have never heard anything but lies and they have never been asked to be more than consumers. Time to ask. Time to tell the truth.
The moment will come when someone has to play Churchill in a collapsing society to repeat and repeat the hard truth. Consider Churchill’s duty to speak after the evacuation of Dunkirk, at which point it seemed not unlikely that the Germans would invade Britain, when the military’s equipment was destroyed and uncountable wounded and killed:
It is hard, in retrospect, knowing how history unfolded, to understand how clearly this was an articulation of limits, an acknowledgement of possible failure, and also, an acknowledgement of what was possible with courage and commitment. You can tell those stories, you can tell the truth – it isn’t easy, but it can be done.
Our own “fight them on the beaches” speech will be different – as Pogo said, we have met the enemy, and he is us. But the merits of truth, the value of acknowledgement of what everyone knows and feels in their guts, the telling of a true story, those things don’t change. The election is over, but the fear is here to stay. Tell the truth and shame the devil.