Last week’s post explored the way that the Democratic party over the last four decades has abandoned any claim to offer voters a better future, and has settled for offering them a future that’s not quite as bad as the one the Republicans have in mind. That momentous shift can be described in many ways, but the most useful of them, to my mind, is one that I didn’t bring up last week: the Democrats have become America’s conservative party.
Yes, I know. That’s not something you’re supposed to say in today’s America, where “conservative” and “liberal” have become meaningless vocal sounds linked with the greedy demands of each party’s assortment of pressure groups and the plaintive cries of its own flotilla of captive constituencies. Still, back in the day when those words still meant something, “conservative” meant exactly what the word sounds like: a political stance that focuses on conserving some existing state of affairs, which liberals and radicals want to replace with some different state of affairs. Conservative politicians and parties—again, back when the word meant something—used to defend existing political arrangements against attempts to change them.
That’s exactly what the Democratic Party has been doing for decades now. What it’s trying to preserve, of course, is the welfare-state system of the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the 1960s—or, more precisely, the fragments of that system that still survive. That’s the status quo that the Democrats are attempting to hold in place. The consequences of that conservative mission are unfolding around us in any number of ways, but the one that comes to mind just now is the current status of presidential candidate Bernard Sanders as a lightning rod for an all too familiar delusion of the wing of the Democratic party that still considers itself to be on the left.
The reason Sanders comes to mind so readily just now is that last week’s post attracted an odd response from some of its readers. In the course of that post—which was not, by the way, on the subject of the American presidential race—I happened to mention three out of the twenty-odd candidates currently in the running. Somehow I didn’t get taken to task by supporters of Michael O’Malley, Ted Cruz, Jesse Ventura, or any of the other candidates I didn’t mention, with one exception: supporters of Sanders came out of the woodwork to denounce me for not discussing their candidate, as though he had some kind of inalienable right to air time in a blog post that, again, was not about the election.
I found the whole business a source of wry amusement, but it also made two points that are relevant to this week’s post. On the one hand, what makes Sanders’ talking points stand out among those of his rivals is that he isn’t simply talking about maintaining the status quo; his proposals include steps that would restore a few of the elements of the welfare state that have been dismantled over the last four decades. That’s the extent of his radicalism—and of course it speaks reams about the state of the Democratic party more generally that so modest, even timid, a proposal is fielding shrieks of outrage from the political establishment just now.
The second point, and to my mind the more interesting of the two, is the way that Sanders’ campaign has rekindled the same messianic fantasies that clustered around Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in their first presidential runs. I remember rather too clearly the vehement proclamations by diehard liberals in 1992 that putting Clinton in office would surely undo all the wrongs of the Reagan and Bush I eras; I hope none of my readers have forgotten the identical fantasies that gathered around Barack Obama in 2008. We can apparently expect another helping of them this time around, with Sanders as the beneficiary, and no doubt those of us who respond to them with anything short of blind enthusiasm will be denounced just as heatedly this time, too.
It bears remembering that despite those fantasies, Bill Clinton spent eight years in the White House following Ronald Reagan’s playbook nearly to the letter, and Barack Obama has so far spent his two terms doing a really inspired imitation of the third and fourth terms of George W. Bush. If by some combination of sheer luck and hard campaigning, Bernie Sanders becomes the next president of the United States, it’s a safe bet that the starry-eyed leftists who helped put him into office will once again get to spend four or eight years trying to pretend that their candidate isn’t busy betraying all of the overheated expectations that helped put him into office. As Karl Marx suggested in one of his essays, if history repeats itself, the first time is tragedy but the second is generally farce; he didn’t mention what the third time around was like, but we may just get to find out.
The fact that this particular fantasy has so tight a grip on the imagination of the Democratic party’s leftward wing is also worth studying. There are many ways that a faction whose interests are being ignored by the rest of its party, and by the political system in general, can change that state of affairs. Unquestioning faith that this or that leader will do the job for them is not generally a useful strategy under such conditions, though, especially when that faith takes the place of any more practical activity. History has some very unwelcome things to say, for that matter, about the dream of political salvation by some great leader; so far it seems limited to certain groups on the notional left of the electorate, but if it spreads more widely, we could be looking at the first stirrings of the passions and fantasies that could bring about a new American fascism.
Meanwhile, just as the Democratic party in recent decades has morphed into America’s conservative party, the Republicans have become its progressive party. That’s another thing you’re not supposed to say in today’s America, because of the bizarre paralogic that surrounds the concept of progress in our collective discourse. What the word “progress” means, as I hope at least some of my readers happen to remember, is continuing further in the direction we’re already going—and that’s all it means. To most Americans today, though, the actual meaning of the word has long since been obscured behind a burden of vague emotion that treats “progressive” as a synonym for “good.” Notice that this implies the very odd belief that the direction in which we’re going is good, and can never be anything other than good.
For the last forty years, mind you, America has been moving steadily along an easily defined trajectory. We’ve moved step by step toward more political and economic inequality, more political corruption, more impoverishment for those outside the narrowing circles of wealth and privilege, more malign neglect toward the national infrastructure, and more environmental disruption, along with a steady decline in literacy and a rolling collapse in public health, among other grim trends. These are the ways in which we’ve been progressing, and that’s the sense in which the GOP counts as America’s current progressive party: the policies being proposed by GOP candidates will push those same changes even further than they’ve already gone, resulting in more inequality, corruption, impoverishment, and so on.
So the 2016 election is shaping up to be a contest between one set of candidates who basically want to maintain the wretchedly unsatisfactory conditions facing the American people today, and another set who want to make those conditions worse, with one outlier on the Democratic side who says he wants to turn the clock back to 1976 or so, and one outlier on the Republican side who apparently wants to fast forward things to the era of charismatic dictators we can probably expect in the not too distant future. It’s not too hard to see why so many people looking at this spectacle aren’t exactly seized with enthusiasm for any of the options being presented to them by the existing political order.
The question that interests me most about all this is the one I tried to raise last week—why, in the face of so many obvious dysfunctions, are so many people in and out of the political arena frozen into a set of beliefs that convince them that the only possibilities available to us involve either staying exactly where we are or going further along the route that’s landed us in this mess? No doubt a good many things have contributed to that bizarre mental fixation, but there’s one factor that may not have received the attention it deserves: the remarkable dominance of a particular narrative in the most imaginative fiction and mass media of our time. As far as I know, nobody’s given that narrative a name yet, so I’ll exercise that prerogative and call it The War Against Change.
You know that story inside and out. There’s a place called Middle-Earth, or the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, or what have you—the name doesn’t matter, the story’s the same in every case. All of a sudden this place is threatened by an evil being named Sauron, or Voldemort, or—well, you can fill in the blanks for yourself. Did I mention that this evil being is evil? Yes, in fact, he’s evilly evil out of sheer evil evilness, without any motive other than the one just named. What that evilness amounts to in practice, though, is that he wants to change things. Of course the change is inevitably portrayed in the worst possible light, but what it usually comes down to is that the people who currently run things will lose their positions of power, and will be replaced by the bad guy and his minions—any resemblance to the rhetoric surrounding US presidential elections is doubtless coincidental.
But wait! Before the bad guy and his evil minions can change things, a plucky band of heroes goes swinging into action to stop his evil scheme, and of course they succeed in the nick of time. The bad guy gets the stuffing pounded out of him, the people who are supposed to run things keep running things, everything settles down just the way it was before he showed up. Change is stopped in its tracks, and all of the characters who matter breathe a big sigh of relief and live happily ever after, or until filming starts on the sequel, take your pick.
Now of course that’s a very simplified version of The War Against Change. In the hands of a really capable author—and we’ll get to one of those in a minute, that story can quite readily yield great literature. Even so, it’s a very curious sort of narrative to be as popular as it is, especially for a society that claims to be in love with change and novelty. The War Against Change takes place in a world in which everything’s going along just the way things are supposed to be. The bad guy shows up and tries to change things, he gets clobbered by the good guys, and then everything goes on just the way it was. Are there, ahem, problems with the way things are run? Might changing things be a good idea, if the right things are changed? Does the bad guy and his evil minions possibly even have motives other than sheer evilly evil evilness for wanting to change things? That’s not part of the narrative. At most, one or more of the individuals who are running things may be problematic, and have to be pushed aside by our plucky band of heroes so they can get on with the business of bashing the bad guy.
It happens now and then, in fact, that authors telling the story of The War Against Change go out of their way to make fun of the possibility that anyone might reasonably object to the established order of things. Did anyone else among my readers feel vaguely sick while reading the Harry Potter saga, when they encountered Rowling’s rather shrill mockery of Hermione whatsername’s campaign on behalf of the house elves? To me, at least, it was rather too reminiscent of “No, no, our darkies love their Massa!”
That’s actually a side issue, though. The core of the narrative is that the goal of the good guys, the goal that defines them as good guys, is to make sure that nothing changes. That becomes a source of tremendous if unintentional irony in the kind of imaginative fiction that brings imagery from mythology and legend into a contemporary setting. I’m thinking here, as one example out of many, of a series of five children’s novels—The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper—the first four of which were among the delights of my childhood. You have two groups of magical beings, the Light and the Dark—yes, it’s pretty Manichean—who are duking it out in present-day Britain.
The Dark, as you’ve all probably figured out already, is trying to change things, and the Light is doing the plucky hero routine and trying to stop them. That’s all the Light does; it doesn’t, heaven help us, do anything about the many other things that a bunch of magical beings might conceivably want to fix in 1970s Britain. The Light has no agenda of its own at all; it’s there to stop the Dark from changing things, and that’s it. Mind you, the stories are packed full of splendid, magical stuff, the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to win the heart and feed the imagination of any child stuck in the dark heart of American suburbia, as I was at the time.
Then came the fifth book, Silver on the Tree, which was published in 1977. The Light and the Dark finally had their ultimate cataclysmic showdown, the Dark is prevented from changing things…and once that’s settled, the Light packs its bags and heads off into the sunset, leaving the protagonists sitting there in present-day Britain with all the magic gone for good. I loathed the book. So did a lot of other people—I’ve never yet heard it discussed without terms like “wretchedly disappointing” being bandied around—but I suspect the miserable ending was inescapable, given the frame into which the story had already been fixed. Cooper had committed herself to telling the story of The War Against Change, and it was probably impossible for her to imagine any other ending.
Now of course there’s a reason why this particular narrative took on so overwhelming a role in the imaginative fiction and media of the late twentieth century, and that reason is the force of nature known as J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m by no means sure how many of my readers who weren’t alive in the 1960s and 1970s have any idea how immense an impact Tolkien’s sprawling trilogy The Lord of the Rings had on the popular imagination of that era, at a time when buttons saying "Frodo Lives!" and "Go Go Gandalf" were everywhere and every reasonably hip bookstore sold posters with the vaguely psychedelic front cover art of the first Ballantine paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. In the formative years of the Boomer generation, Tolkien’s was a name to conjure with.
What makes this really odd, all things considered, is that Tolkien himself was a political reactionary who opposed nearly everything his youthful fans supported. The Boomers who were out there trying to change the system in the Sixties were simultaneously glorifying a novel that celebrates war, monarchy, feudal hierarchy, and traditional gender roles, and includes an irritable swipe at the social welfare program of post-World War Two Britain—that’s what Lotho Sackville-Baggins’ government of the Shire amounts to, with its “gatherers” and “sharers.” When Tolkien put together his grand epic of The War Against Change, he knew exactly what he was doing; when the youth culture of the Sixties adopted him as their patron saint—much to his horror, by the way—I’m not at all sure the same thing could be said about them.
What sets The Lord of the Rings apart from common or garden variety versions of The War Against Change, in fact, is precisely Tolkien’s own remarkably clear understanding of what he was trying to do, and how that strategy tends to play out in the real world. The Lord of the Rings gets much of its power and pathos precisely because its heroes fought The War Against Change knowing that even if they won, they would lose; the best they could do is put a brake on the pace of change and keep the last dim legacies of the Elder Days for a little longer before they faded away forever. Tolkien nourished his literary sense on Beowulf and the Norse sagas, with their brooding sense of doom’s inevitability, and on traditional Christian theology, with its promise of hope beyond the circles of the world, and managed to play these two against each other brilliantly—but then Tolkien, as a reactionary, understood what it was like to keep fighting for something even though he knew that the entire momentum of history was against him.
Does all this seem galaxies away from the crass political realities with which this week’s post began? Think again, dear reader. Listen to the rhetoric of the candidates as they scramble for their party’s nomination—well, except for Hillary Clinton, who’s too busy declaiming “I am so ready to lead!” at the nearest available mirror—and you’ll hear The War Against Change endlessly rehashed. What do the Republican candidates promise? Why, to save America from the evil Democrats, who want to change things. What do the Democratic candidates promise? To save America from the evil Republicans, ditto. Pick a pressure group, any pressure group, and the further in from the fringes they are, the more likely they are to frame their rhetoric in terms of The War Against Change, too.
I’ve noted before, for that matter, the weird divergence between the eagerness of the mainstream to talk about anthropogenic global warming and their utter unwillingness to talk about peak oil and other forms of resource depletion. There are several massive factors behind that, but I’ve come to think that one of the most important is that you can frame the climate change narrative in terms of The War Against Change—we must keep the evil polluters from changing things!—but you can’t do that with peak oil. The end of the age of cheap abundant energy means that things have to change, not because the motiveless malignity of some cackling villain would have it so, but because the world no longer contains the resources that would be needed to keep things going the way they’ve gone so far.
That said, if it’s going to be necessary to change things—and it is—then it’s time to start thinking about options for the future that don’t consist of maintaining a miserably unsatisfactory status quo or continuing along a trajectory that’s clearly headed toward something even worse. The first step in making change is imagining change, and the first step in imagining change is recognizing that “more of the same” isn’t going to cut it. Next week, I plan on taking some of the ideas I’ve floated here in recent months, and putting them together in a deliberately unconventional way.