THE BATTLE FOR WASHINGTON : American Weimar : The National Fury--at Government, Politicians, the Electoral Process--Is Overwhelming Not Just Bill Clinton’s Presidency, But Also Our Basic Faith in Democracy Itself

<i> Steve Erickson is the author of five books, including the novels "Arc d'X" and "Tours of the Black Clock" </i>

America wearies of democracy. Thirty years after a war that wounded its heart, 20 years after a scandal that scarred its conscience, 10 years after fiscal policies that ridiculed its sense of responsibility and fairness, the country has nearly exhausted the qualities by which democracy survives and flourishes. America feels at the end of its power, and the result is a hysteria of which we’re barely conscious, a hysteria in which democracy appears as a spectacle of impotence and corruption. As Americans we have come to act more oppressed by freedom than invigorated by it, more concerned with freedom from rather than freedom to . We divide between the vast and growing majority of us who--out of futility, confusion or indifference--are so disengaged from democracy we never vote at all, and those of us who vote not to thoughtfully resolve complicated issues but to express our rage.

History is clear that democracy cannot long navigate a sea of national rage. Untempered by rationale and open-mindedness, fury eventually consumes democracy rather than nourishes it, because it overwhelms our tolerance, our willingness to be reasonably informed, our determination to hold ourselves accountable for what we decide. Most important, it overwhelms our basic faith in democracy itself and our belief in the individual freedoms that are inviolate to the power of the majority, identified by the Declaration of Independence as endowed by God and codified in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. We display less and less patience with what we previously held to be inalienable, less and less patience with democracy’s inherent messiness and inefficiency and the morass of conflicting interests that are read in democracy’s results. We display less patience, in other words, with other Americans.

A deep freeze has settled in the American soul. The nation gets meaner and more petty until rage is the only national passion left--and then it is anger not at those on top, which is the anger America was born of, but at those on the bottom. Increasingly, we view individual freedom not as the fundamental building block of collective freedom but as an affront to collective sensibility or security. We are encouraged by talk-show commentators to regard the most basic precepts of democracy as sentimental luxuries at best or, at worst, as legalistic refuge for vicious criminals, social parasites and moral scum. We find indignant solace in the single greatest myth of the contemporary political landscape, which holds that the problem with the country is the government and the politicians and the process as a whole. This myth, that the process has grown hopelessly out of touch with what we really want and feel and need, is the opposite of the truth. The truth is that we are the problem with America. The process and politicians, the lobbyists and “special” interests--by which we mean any interest that doesn’t pertain to us--have reflected us all too perfectly; and we hate them for it.


From dismal campaign to dismal campaign, we demand “change” and then give every indication of wanting nothing of the sort and of not having the slightest idea what we ever meant by it in the first place. Confronted with change that is truly profound or revolutionary, which is to say unavoidably painful and disorienting, we scurry back to the status quo that so infuriated us to begin with, and that not so long ago we claimed was unacceptable. From angry election to angry election, we demand that politicians tell us the truth, and then punish those who do. When they speak of unpleasant realities and tell us things must necessarily get harder before they get easier--Bob Dole on the subject of the deficit and Bruce Babbitt on taxes during the presidential campaign of 1988, Paul Tsongas on the economy in 1992, Warren Rudman and Bob Kerrey on entitlements, William Bennett and Jack Kemp on illegal immigration--we dismiss them at the polls or denounce them from the streets. From political season to political season, we demand our problems be solved and then make ruthlessly clear we expect someone else to pay the price. We say we want government to be smaller, but we never name government programs directly affecting us that we would be willing to forgo. People in the cities cry for cutting farm subsidies, people in the suburbs call for cutting inner-city programs. In the American politics of 1995, welfare recipients are the sacrifice of choice, though only a maximum of 3% of the 1995 American economy will be allocated to welfare.

To suggest we are hypocrites sounds elitist. It subverts the populism on which both the Right and Left capitalize, and offends the professed egalitarianism of a news media already cowed by accusations of liberal bias. At one level we’re intelligent enough to understand our hypocrisy and that much of what we would like is irresponsible. Our common sense admits that national economic survival is not served by cutting taxes and not possible without addressing the epic components that make up most of the national budget, which one segment or another of the public has declared sacrosanct: defense, Medicare and Social Security. But if we despise ourselves for this hypocrisy, at another level we have convinced ourselves that we’ve earned our delusions. This is because we have secretly come to fear and resent that the American dream itself may be a delusion. This is the source of our rage, and of the rage that would devour democracy. It is a rage at ourselves, which we can barely stand to live with but which is the only thing that seems to pump blood through the national heart anymore.

It is a rage at contradictions that confound and beset us. Though America has won the Cold War, we grow spiritually lethargic: International triumph appears not to have so much consolidated our power as dissipated it, and perhaps revealed its uselessness. Though the economy improves, we grow financially insecure: Indeed, this “improvement” infuriates us because our own incomes stagnate or dwindle, and we feel likelier to lose our jobs than advance in them. Though the crime rate drops, we grow physically vulnerable: It is the very nature of modern crime, rather than its numbers, which bends our darkest imagination--not just because crime has become more random and bizarre, but because it is now being committed by children for reasons they cannot even name, and which confirm that an 11-year-old may be soul-dead and beyond redemption. Though our culture mirrors our vicarious desires, we grow sensually alienated from ourselves: We glamorize the very violence we find so threatening, and no matter how far we place ourselves beyond AIDS’ reach, a plague that equates the most primal life-force with the ghastliest of deaths must infect not just the body but the national psyche.

All of these contradictions conspire to make democracy senseless, and all grow out of the biggest delusion of all, the delusion that most enrages us. This is the delusion of American innocence. A virtual cottage industry of social and cultural psychoanalysis has been built on this delusion, as one historical phenomenon after another--from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the Vietnam War to Watergate to American hostages in Iran to O.J. Simpson hurtling down the L.A. freeways--is offered as the moment when the country “lost” its innocence. One of the most successful motion pictures of 1994 was about nothing less, its hero not only all the more noble but apparently all the more American for how dimwitted he is. We have not grown up enough to accept that America has never been innocent at all; it is not possible to call innocent a country where the original residents were systematically wiped out and the new tenants built a society in large part on the labor of people who were shipped over in chains from another continent in the hulls of boats. These original sins do not negate America’s idealism and romanticism. But that such an idealistic and romantic country was created out of such profound transgressions is a more complicated paradox than we can entertain.

In this growing contradiction between our false innocence and our true idealism, the argument over the meaning of America is increasingly left to those who populate the extremes of anarchy and repression: radical liberal and radical conservative, obscenely poor and obscenely rich, the over-demanding and the ungenerous, the decadent and the narrow-minded, the casually promiscuous and the Stepford Virgins who peer out of ads as role models of “the new celibacy,” and the two main political parties themselves, one representing incompetence and intellectual bankruptcy, the other bad faith and the iron hand. This pendulum of ever-widening extremes has been set in motion by the very democracy that would be sliced in two by it; and the middle ground where the questions of democracy are supposed to meet the answers is a no-man’s land where anyone who tries to occupy it is cut to ribbons. The present occupant of the White House, for example.

Bill Clinton--or perhaps more precisely, the phenomenon of Clinton--is his own contradiction. A pallid political portrait of Lefts (job training, student loans, tax credits for the working poor, health-care reform) and Rights (crime, free trade, line-item veto, welfare reform), he is curiously the most demonized figure in American politics since Richard M. Nixon, viscerally loathed by about a third of the country and apparently regarded with pitiful contempt by close to another third. Unlike Nixon’s or Lyndon B. Johnson’s, Clinton’s demonization is not about politics. Whatever baseness or vulgarity may have eventually been attributed to Nixon and Johnson, the roots of their controversy lay in politics at its most vivid: the anti-communism of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the civil-rights struggle and Vietnam War of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. What is unsettling about the overwhelming rejection of Clinton in the 1994 election is the extent to which it was personal and to which it demonstrates how, in the American Weimar of the ‘90s, Bill Clinton’s persona is the landscape across which America tries and fails to come to terms with the last quarter-century in general, and the Vietnam War in particular.

Far more than the recent Cold War victory, which cannot be measured in any immediate terms but defense jobs lost, it is a generation-old Asian defeat, still brutally measured in lives lost, that traumatizes the country’s memory. It is not unlike the way World War I haunted and formed German politics for decades. For those who hate Clinton, nothing so characterizes him as his conduct as a student during the Vietnam War, and how that conduct is emblematic of the counterculture to which the new Speaker of the House has grown fond of referring. Other matters, having to do with obscure real-estate ventures or allegations of womanizing, are peripheral. The Right that hates Clinton for not serving in Vietnam does not similarly hate Dan Quayle for the same--or, for that matter, Newt Gingrich. The difference is that Clinton’s avoidance of military service is a subtle restatement of the 25-year argument that the war was bad, while Quayle’s is a declaration that the war was noble. In the eyes of the Right, the hypocrisy of Quayle’s position--his belief that it was a fine war for someone else to die in--does not discredit but rather absolves him. In contrast, Clinton remains the embodiment of something the country still cannot allow itself to believe: that it was an entirely useless war in which 50,000 Americans died for nothing.

Thus, in its election of Clinton, the American democratic process resulted in a conclusion from which the country itself recoils. This was compounded by Clinton’s moral and political failure during the 1992 campaign to speak forcefully about his opposition to the war, though it was a discussion for which an economically preoccupied country had as little enthusiasm as Clinton, and for which it probably never would have rewarded him with election. Rather it rewarded him in part for obscuring the matter; and now Clinton cannot escape the nation’s fixed sense of him as someone who always takes the most politically expedient position on any issue and thus has no credibility, as opposed to Ronald Reagan, who is remembered as taking firm and even unpopular positions and therefore having a vision. This image of Clinton is so strong that people believe it even when it is plainly contradicted by the record. Having favored the inclusion of homosexuals in the military, having initially jettisoned a tax cut in favor of deficit reduction, having vigorously supported a trade agreement that was once opposed by the country at large and his party in particular, having proposed sweeping health-care reform that was popular in the abstract but represented such a huge political gamble no other President ever seriously tried to come to terms with it, and having put American troops in Haiti when everyone was against it, Clinton has taken more politically risky positions in two years than Reagan did in eight. Clinton is hated because, one, “he never does anything unpopular,” and because, two, everything he does is unpopular.

In all the various subconscious messages that Clinton’s election represented from the nation to itself, and for all the ways he is a metaphor for the deep-seated national conflicts we can stand to neither face nor finish, Clinton may be American democracy’s last futile and ineffectual gasp. He is neither visionary enough to transcend national rage nor depraved enough to exploit it; and because rage is exhilarating to an otherwise enervated nation, we’re not willing to give it up to anyone who can’t redeem or justify it. It doesn’t matter how often we are told by however many reliable sources that the national deficit has been reduced by a third during the past two years; national surveys show we insist on believing it has grown larger. It doesn’t matter how often we are presented the facts that less than one in 50 of us had our taxes raised in the 1993 budget, we insist on believing it was “the biggest tax increase in history.” In short, we insist on our rage in the same way we insist on our cynicism, because it is the last easy thing we know how to feel, the last simple emotion we can understand, and the last from which we can still draw a sense of power, no matter how fraudulent it may be.

“Oh, sure,” a conservative responds, bitterly and not unreasonably. “Now that we’re in charge of Congress after 40 years, it’s the end of democracy as we know it.” So it seems important to point out not only that many conservatives of integrity, from Jack Kemp to George Will, are demonstrably committed to the free and civil exchange of ideas, but also that every time the Left burned an American flag 25 years ago, every time the Left didn’t simply criticize the government’s policy in Vietnam but supported those who were shooting and killing American soldiers, every time the Left reveled in America’s humiliations, the ascent of the Right became inevitable. We can only conclude that, as surely as does the Right, an empowered Left might well exploit a rage that razes democracy in its path.

Nevertheless, since the election of a liberal Democrat to the presidency two years ago, the Right has incessantly questioned not simply his policies and his character, but his very legitimacy. The night of Clinton’s election, Bob Dole appeared on television not to congratulate the new President or call on the country to support him, but rather to point out that, seeing as how Clinton received only 43% of the vote, Dole saw it as his job to be de facto president for the other 57%. In Clinton’s first presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, Republicans openly laughed at him, something for which there is no precedence in modern memory. In remarks on the floor of the House, Dick Armey, the Texas Republican who is now the new majority leader, taunted Democrats by referring to Clinton as “ your President”--this following his description of the First Lady as a Marxist. Former Marine Col. Oliver L. North said last fall that Clinton was not his commander-in-chief, and the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, has suggested the country’s military would happily harm the President harm if given the opportunity. Without substantiation, Newt Gingrich claimed the Clinton White House is a bacchanal of drugs, and Rush Limbaugh has hinted--and the Rev. Jerry Falwell has openly charged--that Clinton has had people murdered.

In the shortest and meanest terms, all of this may be viewed as “merely” a partisan effort to destroy Clinton at any cost. In fact, it is worse. Questioning Clinton’s legitimacy, the leading spokesmen for the Right insidiously question the legitimacy of democracy itself. They speak of Clinton’s election as a kind of foreign coup--an insinuation made by the new House Speaker in ever bolder variations on Republican Chairman Rich Bond’s comments two years ago about “real Americans,” and James Watt’s jocularity of the early ‘80s that there are two kinds of people: “Americans and liberals.” If Clinton’s presidency is the product of the democratic process and that product is illegitimate, then the process that produced it is by definition illegitimate; in essence, the Right argues that a democracy that produces a Clinton presidency invalidates itself. This is more than just ruthless partisan politics, more than the “same old thing” political opponents have been doing to each other for years. No one in a much more turbulent America similarly questioned the legitimacy of Nixon’s election in 1968, when he received a percentage of the vote resembling Clinton’s. Indeed, we may not have seen anything quite like it since the election of 1860, when half the country considered intolerable any democracy that would produce the likes of Abraham Lincoln (who received a smaller percentage than either Clinton or Nixon).

During the past quarter-century, perhaps in response to the latent totalitarianism of the Left in the late ‘60s, the Right has been transformed accordingly. It has moved far beyond Reaganism, not to mention the libertarianism of Barry Goldwater. It still gives lip service to the principle of unfettered individual freedom from the power of centralized government, but it is difficult to remember when a contemporary conservative spokesman of significance has energetically, heatedly championed the rights of the criminally accused, for instance, or an individual’s freedom to express an unpopular, even arguably anti-American thought. In fact, it is difficult to remember when any significant conservative spokesman last championed any specific individual freedom other than freedom from taxes or the freedom to make a profit or the freedom to own a gun. Since the Administration of Richard Nixon, the true priorities of the Right have been not liberty but authority, not singularity but conformity. Gingrich’s celebration of the “normal American,” as opposed to the current, presumably abnormal President, is not impetuous but calculated. At both the leadership and grass-roots levels, the country’s new majority party is energized and funded and driven by people who believe that many of their fellow Americans are not real Americans, not normal Americans, but the Enemy. In the name of righteousness or patriotism or Jesus or America, these people are loyal to a vision of the country that is not pluralistic and democratic, but intensely religious or ideological or both.

The rest of us will choose whether to abdicate to them the meaning of America, if not out of rage then inertia. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison never envisioned America as either a religious or an ideological country; though Jefferson was not--as his political opponents charged--an atheist or agnostic, he had little use for organized religion, and the clergy of his time had little use for him. Ideologically, he would be a misfit in the mid-1990s, sharing with the Right its hatred of high taxes, heavy government regulation and gargantuan bureaucracy, and supporting the general divestiture of power from the federal government to the states; and sharing with the Left its hostility to religious zealots, oversized military budgets and gargantuan corporations, while belonging to the American Civil Liberties Union and generally encouraging Americans to be as abnormal as possible. Certainly no one would find Jefferson very normal, an eccentric, aging widower with a vaguely scandalous past, shuffling around in his shabby clothes in his strange house with all its weird inventions, on top of a remote, foggy Virginia hill. But no one would have to wonder if he really believed in democracy, or have to ask whether he believed in it more than his own power.

It is a question one might address not only to Newt Gingrich but also to Bill Clinton. For two men so erudite, both act as though they have drawn from the past all its rudest lessons about power’s means and none of the deeper lessons about power’s ends. In the wake of his 1994 rejection, it would serve Clinton’s best interests and the country’s if he accepted the following: that by the electorate’s prognosis he has two years to live politically, that the odds against his reelection are slim at best, and that, whether he finally decides to run for reelection, he should now pursue not the electorate’s vindication but the vindication of history. In the recent, desperate flurry of White House strategy sessions as to how the electorate might be bought--with tax cuts too small and gestures too transparent to ultimately impress anyone--one person, preferably the President of the United States, might ponder just how much his conscience is prepared to concede, and just what kind of America he really believes in. If democracy’s future hangs on the people’s capacity for expressing something better than resentment, vitriol and self-interest, it also rests on leaders who can say: There is something I care about more than my own political future.

The grand arrogance of America has always been that it would dictate its own terms to history rather than the other way around. Again and again the 20th Century has tried to say no to democracy, and again and again America has answered yes. The final American irony will be if, at the end of the century, with no foes left, having vanquished all those who laid siege to democracy, this country now turns to finish the job. If it succeeds, it will be because we forgot that ultimately democracy cannot be translated in terms of the material things it allows us to acquire, that it was always supposed to be dangerous, idealistic but not innocent, and forged of as many passions as there are voices, among which there is only one common rage, and that is the rage for justice.