by Ralph Benko
Dedicated to Jamie Raskin, Congressman, Maryland’s 8th District
The collapse of the metanarrative caused by the Cold War’s end eliminated the framework that gave meaning to politics from 1947 until 1991 and for some time thereafter. As reported in 1988 by the LA Times:
“’Our major secret weapon is to deprive you of an enemy,’ said Georgi Arbatov, director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Institute for U.S and Canada Studies.”
The LA Times continues:
“’Moscow no longer wants to wear the black hat,’ Arbatov said during a frank speech before Soviet and U.S. scientists at the University Club.
“’It’s historical, it’s human, you have to have an enemy,’ he said. ‘So much was built out of this role of the enemy. Your foreign policy, quite a bit of your economy, even your feelings about your country. To have a really good empire, you have to have a really evil empire.’”
Call what now besets us Arbatov’s Revenge. It goes a long way toward explaining the currently incomprehensible state of our national politics. Our post-WWII enemy vanished, anti-climactically, imploding the armature of meaning that sustained us.
Our very human need for an enemy has conjured us a new one. Unfortunately, it is a dysfunctional one, a political Armageddon converting our domestic political rivalry into guerre a outrance partisanship. With that comes a Little Dark Age.
Armageddon, of course, was the ultimate battle prophesized in the Book of Revelation, the dystopian apocalyptic caboose to the Christian Scriptures. As summarized colorfully and in good doctrinal fashion at the Billy Graham website:
“The armies of the world will focalize on a point known as Armageddon, the Mount of Megiddo, and there the final world conflict will take place. The extent of this conflict is indicated in the ninth chapter of Revelation, where the army that is to cross the Euphrates River is described; and in that chapter the immensity of this final world war is carefully described. … We are aware of the shuffling of the stage in preparation for the greatest battle of all time that will certainly take place in the years ahead. The crisis of the present hour should shatter the optimism concerning human nature of every person listening to my voice.”
This Christian projection of such an ultimate battle isn’t unique.
The Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the climax of the epic Mahabharata, recounts the comparably monumental Battle of Kurukshetra wherein two clans fight for hegemony to the point of mutual near-annihilation. Pivoting to Greece there is the 10-year siege and conquest of Troy as recorded for posterity by Homer. Moving from Greece to Rome one recalls the utter destruction of Carthage in 149 BC in the Third Punic War. And lest I forget thee … let us call to mind the destruction of Biblical Israel by the Neo-Assyrians, the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians, and the razing of Jerusalem by the Romans.
Arbatov was shrewd: “It’s historical, it’s human, you have to have an enemy. …” Even the apolitically optimistic technocrat Bill Gates observed, at TIME Magazine, that “It’s human nature to zero in on threats: evolution wired us to worry about the animals that want to eat us.”
We made a brief post-millennium detour on 9/11, an attack we understandably mistook for Pearl Harbor II. On September 10, 2001 America was on a hair-trigger after a century of world wars, hot and cold. We were vulnerable to what Nicholas Lemann, reviewing the movie Vice in the New Yorker, astutely called “threatism.”
America made a bipartisan decision to dub “Terrorism” the new Enemy. In reality Al Qaeda (and its successor Daesh) turned out to be fatally weak political death cults seeking to restore the Caliphate, not existential threats like the Nazis and Commies.
Upon that flimsy metanarrative we wasted trillions of dollars, spilled oceans of blood, engaged in the longest and possibly least gratifying war in American history damaging or destroying several states in the process. Adieu, Libya! Eventually Terrorism, as horrific and melodramatic as it is, became transparently insufficient a villain to sustain a credible new metanarrative.
So, we pivot to demonizing one another.
As an aside, one can trace the evolution of the American narrative from Hollywood’s output. In the ‘30s you had frontier Westerns with heroic sheriffs fighting brutal outlaws. The ‘40s gave us heroic soldiers fighting evil Nazis and imperial Japanese troops. The ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s gave way to heroic fights against Communist agents. All gave way to noir anti-heroes, dystopian futures, Imperial Storm Troopers and, eventually, Zombies.
A great, non-phantasmagorical enemy is now hard to find. Meanwhile, what really happened down here under the rockets’ red glare?
The left and the right, embodied in the two national political parties, dubbed one another mortal enemies instead of spirited rivals. Back in the more innocent age of my youth nobody knew and nobody cared whether a character played by John Wayne was a Democrat or a Republican. The metanarrative of fighting Western outlaws or the Nazis or the Commies rendered party affiliation irrelevant.
Fast forward. The WWII and Cold War narratives collapsed. In their place our politicos weaponized the instruments of politics previously designed, however imperfectly, to resolve our social and economic problems. Our candidates and elected officials beat their ploughshares into swords and used them, and are using them, to injure their political rivals rather than to promote the general welfare.
But endless outrage turns tedious.
There are signs of Armageddon fatigue setting in.
Meanwhile, over the past decade I appropriated for myself the exorbitant privilege of personally engaging with every progressive thought leader who proclaimed a principled openness to cooperation with principled conservatives and open to meeting me. I actually discovered a few actually operating in good faith.
And discovered zero willingness to cooperate by those of the left with real power and money. A comparable truculence is endemic within the right.
I undertook a political odyssey of comparable duration to that of the vastly more polytropic Odysseus. Therein I had the pleasure of encountering almost as many epic supernal beings, metaphorically speaking (and fabulous monsters, names suppressed to protect the guilty), as did Odysseus in Book One of the Odyssey.
Hello Patrick Reinsborough. Joan Blades. Raul Yzaguirre. Larry Lessig. Andy Stern. John Delaney. Jim Turner. Shaul Praver. Debilyn Molineaux. Mary Gaylord. The entourage of the late Saul Alinsky. Several others, not many. What a privilege to get to party with such fabulous enemies! In the course of my quest it proved possible to identify areas of hot political dispute where the left and the right readily could work together without compromising ideology or principle.
Working together, however, is contrary to the ethos of mutual destruction. Thus, to cooperate would be, thematically, at best a non sequitur, at worst treacherous. Our governing mutual purpose is to destroy our political enemies rather than to promote the general welfare. As economist Paul Romer once said (and which subsequently entered the political discourse): “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
Areas which revealed themselves as obviously tractable include: providing affordable, truly universal state-sponsored health insurance; protecting and restoring the ecology; advancing non-carbon-based energy production, storage and distribution; dramatic reduction of gun violence without infringing Second Amendment rights; generating a rising tide of bottoms-up economic growth to lift all boats; restoring merit-based economic equity; slashing world nuclear weapons stockpiles by another order of magnitude; and paving a path to earned citizenship for otherwise law-abiding, tax-paying undocumented aliens.
But as Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun once wrote, “if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, and we find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet.” Today “all the ballads” are about destroying our rival party rather than about what Fletcher called the “right regulation of governments for the common good of mankind.”
An Armageddon metanarrative makes even tactical cooperation for the common good virtually impossible. Strange, but true.
Absent Armageddon, some of the tractable matters would be easier to resolve than others. However, most show the prospect of significant popular support in ways that can be ideologically palatable both to right and left. This declaration may sound implausible, even impossible. In practice, though, it is surprisingly practical.
The chief propagandist for Supply-Side economics, Jude Wanniski, an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, was a self-proclaimed Marxist. The Supply-Side’s political quarterback, Jack Kemp, was a former labor leader as was its premier wide receiver, Ronald Reagan. The man primarily responsible for propelling the reduction of the top marginal income tax rate from 50% to 28% was self-described Democratic Socialist US Senator Bill Bradley. He did so in partnership with center-left leader Democratic Representative Richard Gephart.
Ronald Reagan’s greatest tax-rate cutting triumph got more of its impetus from the left than the right, resulting in a Senate victory margin of 98-2, bringing widespread shared benefit. This is how transformation happens.
On the day Reagan declared for the presidency in 1979 the Dow was at 814. Adhering to and extending the Supply-Side policy mix propelled it to well over 20,000. As my colleague Peter Ferrara observed in Forbes.com:
“During this seven-year recovery, the economy grew by almost one-third, the equivalent of adding the entire economy of West Germany, the third-largest in the world at the time, to the U.S. economy. In 1984 alone, real economic growth boomed by 6.8%, the highest in 50 years. Nearly 20 million new jobs were created during the recovery, increasing U.S. civilian employment by almost 20%.”
Transformation can happen again.
Transformation can happen now.
Transformation just cannot happen under a metanarrative that calls for the extermination of the opposing ideological camp and the eradication of the opposition national political party. This manic ambition is shared by the core of both ideological camps, conservative and progressive, and by both parties.
Over-the-top partisanship, not ideological differences, is the insuperable obstacle.
Being myself an archconservative I would, of course, love to eradicate the left. But let’s get real. That would not necessarily be a great thing. There can be much to learn from a rival’s perspective.
Moreover, the left is more likely to eradicate the right than vice versa. To oversimplify: the left is crazy, not stupid. I have found the converse to be generally true of my beloved right. The left is better at framing issues, thereby gaining enormous tactical advantage. The left has a far better grasp of narrative as more powerful than the right’s beloved argumentation. And the left has the benefit of having assimilated Gramsci and the “long march through the institutions” as phrased by left-wing strategist and martyr Rudi Dutschke.
That said, plenary victory by the left will likely prove Pyrrhic. The left’s political triumph is unlikely to lead to the socialist workers paradises we see in ethnically homogenous Social Democratic (or Christian Democratic) Scandinavia. A plenary progressive victory is more likely to lead to more murder-plagued Chicagos, environmentally tainted Flints, and catastrophic Venezuelas than to Utopias.
The looming public employee pension crisis in blue states and Democratic-controlled municipalities does not bode well. It was not communism, nor socialism, nor well-meaning government aid programs that dramatically reduced dire world poverty during my lifetime to less than 10% of the world’s population. It was free enterprise.
Even assuming naïve idealism, rather than bait-and-switch cynicism, in most rank-and-file leftists, plenary victory would doom to dystopia their utopian romanticism. One yearns for the wisdom of the late Pete Seeger, a socialist icon who at his 90th birthday celebration stated with distinctly conservative overtones: “Normally, I am against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big. …”
Of course, the left does not share my pessimism. Some people just have to learn the hard way. That said, there is a strong argument to be made – one that can be appreciated by those of good faith on the left — that we are far more likely to bring about positive and sustainable progress through good old Hegelianish Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis.
There is a better candidate for “Enemy” than one another. Let’s call off the Battle of Armageddon. Follow along.
The real enemy is the Sanctimonious. Sanctimony means making a show of moral superiority. Sanctimony is intoxicating, addictive, and in its own way as dangerous as fentanyl. Many on both the left and right are hooked on it. Let’s name and shame them.
It is possible to create an “Anti-Sanctimony Crusade” to search out and destroy those — on both sides — who have been terminally infected and who serve as vectors to infect the rest of us. The Sanctimonious are the real perps fomenting Armageddon and conjuring this Little Dark Age in which we are stuck.
The handmaiden of sanctimony is dogma. Saul Alinsky was by word and deed a classical liberal, anti-communist, anti-fascist, anti-Big Government figure. He indicted LBJ’s War on Poverty as “political pornography.” He is now thought of as a man of the left mainly because of his lifelong commitment to social justice not because of any connivance with socialism. The right has fumbled the ball on social justice. We used to have firm possession of it. The left has recovered the fumble, if mainly rhetorically, forgetting what Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals:
“Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement. The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice. Those who enshrine the poor or Have-Nots are as guilty as other dogmatists and just as dangerous. To diminish the danger that ideology will deteriorate into dogma, and to protect the free, open, questing, and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare.’”
“Promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” It’s right there in the preamble to the Constitution. Could be the cool new Credo.
The indictment of sanctimony and dogma is somewhat different from the call for “transpartisanship” to which the noble Transpartisan Review is dedicated. As I understand it transpartisanship is dedicated to expanding the political analytic beyond “left vs right” by adding a strong dose of “libertarianism vs authoritarianism” into the political algorithm. Follow that with a chaser of pragmatism.
The transpartisan political cocktail emits a heady bouquet of optimism. However, it lacks an Enemy and, thus, lacks a necessary ingredient.
Transpartisanship has merit. That said, it seems to me to present a technocratic solution to an existential problem: the collapse of the old Cold War metanarrative and its replacement with a political Armageddon metanarrative.
Ending the Armageddon demands more than an analytic. We need, rather, an excellent new Enemy!
Hitler and Stalin were authentic Supervillains. They, their allies and their minions gave us a perfect Enemy around which to write our story. Meanwhile let’s get real. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do not even come close to Supervillain status. Our yearning for an enemy makes us enthusiastically exaggerate their villainy. The ensuing pudding has no theme. Politics descends to jabberwocky.
Transpartisanship, as I understand it, also overstates the power of ideology in politics. After having walked and stalked the corridors of power for decades I am persuaded that most of those in power, irrespective of party, view policy as a not-very-interesting amenity. Most view ideology as a mere check-the-box nicety.
Idea-people tend to write books and articles and to teach rather than kiss babies, slap backs and run for office. Politicos and government officials tend to be people-people. (Crave a deep dive into the workings of politics as actually practiced? Read George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War.)
However, there is a perverse structural dynamic inhibiting putting an end to Armageddon. Unless there were such a sticking point such an inane narrative would have collapsed of its own obvious absurdity years ago. The metanarrative is one of eradicating a loathsome enemy – You! vs Us! We equate our political rivals with Nazis or Commies.
Thus, it would be politically dangerous for an intrepid political figure to try to call it off. Smacks of connivance or even surrender. Political suicide!
Also, there’s no glory in averting Armageddon. Nobody ever got elected to higher office by preempting a crisis. Political glory comes from waiting for the crisis then resolving it. Voters hardly ever celebrate a politician who preempts a crisis, however deftly. A crisis that never happened does not make the evening news. No drama….
Thus, the political incentives we voters give to our candidates and officials perpetuate this inane Armageddon. Voters simply cannot justifiably blame the pols for avoiding our wrath and seeking our favor.
This is not exactly a new predicament. As the idealistic George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address:
“Let me now … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
“This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. …
“And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
All very well to write such high-minded sentiments if you are the retiring Father of your Country, First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of your Countrymen, upon leaving the presidency to grow hemp and distill whiskey.
John Quincy Adams – minister, senator, president, congressman, a great if underrated statesman — took a far more realistic view. In a private diary entry penned in 1803 (20+ years before assuming the presidency) John Quincy recorded thoughts as applicable today as then:
“The County is so totally given up to the Spirit of party, that not to follow blind-fold the one or the other is an inexpiable offence – The worst of these parties has the popular torrent in its favour, and uses its triumph with all the unprincipled fury of a faction; while the other gnashes its teeth, and is waiting with all the impatience of revenge, for the time when its turn may come to oppress and punish by the people’s favour.”
His grandson, Henry, once defined politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds.” So … here we are mired in a tedious, nonsensical, bitterly counterproductive Armageddon. Perhaps we can do no other.
And yet, I make bold to diffidently nominate the Sanctimonious as the better Enemy. Sanctimony really is the main culprit for the horrid state of politics today.
Sanctimony may not have sufficient glamour to serve as the Mortal Enemy we need. The Sanctimonious don’t have edgy sigils like swastikas or hammers and sickles.
But it is possible, in principle, to tart it up into sufficiently fiendish status to allow it to serve our need for an Enemy. And the pretense of moral superiority really is the bedrock enemy.
An attitude of moral superiority truly is far more devilish than it casually appears. Connoisseurs of sin, among whom I count myself, consider it the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins: Superbia, a/k/a/ pride. Pride, Wikipedia trenchantly observes,
“is considered, on almost every list, the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins: the perversion of the faculties that make humans more like God—dignity and holiness. It is also thought to be the source of the other capital sins. Also known as hubris (from ancient Greek ὕβρις), or futility, it is identified as dangerously corrupt selfishness, the putting of one’s own desires, urges, wants, and whims before the welfare of other people.
“In even more destructive cases, it is irrationally believing that one is essentially and necessarily better, superior, or more important than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, and excessive admiration of the personal image or self (especially forgetting one’s own lack of divinity, and refusing to acknowledge one’s own limits, faults, or wrongs as a human being).”
The escape route from this false-consciousness Armageddon lies in conducting a full-blown search-and-destroy mission for those who are triggering it: the Few, the Proud. To the barricades, mes enfantes!
If we can bring ourselves to do the hard work of purging our own Pride-ridden partisans we will cast off our political paralysis. One party’s good example is likely to prove popular and compel its hated political adversaries to exile its own fanatics. By cunningly destroying our enemies by transforming them into spirited rivals we all benefit. There is no other way.
So, let us steal the secret weapon revealed by Comrade Arbatov and let us steal a march on our enemies by depriving them of their enemy, fatally weakening them. Then by the light of the burning effigies of the Pashas of Pride let us restore politics to the mission for which America was originally chartered, to:
“form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
© 2019 Ralph Benko
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ralph Benko, a former deputy general counsel in the Reagan White House, is the principal of the public affairs firm of RalphBenko.com. He serves as editor-in-chief of the Supply Side Blog, was short-listed as Nonprofit Blogger of the Year for his work for the Lehrman Institute, is a member of the Advisory Board of The Transpartisan Review, and is a political columnist and professional blogger for a variety of outlets including Forbes.com and Townhall.com.
His cult classic on Web-based advocacy, The Websters’ Dictionary: How To Use The Web To Transform The World, won the Trophée du Choix Des Internautes from the Paris-based World e-Democracy Society. He is a member, in retired status, of the Bar of the State of New York and is based in Washington, DC.