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Cheer and Loving in Washington, DC

November 4, 2010

Attending the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was, simply put, an unparalleled experience for my generation. Make no mistake; the crowd was the spectacle, not the show put on by Stewart, Colbert & Co. 215,000 souls assembled on the holiday weekend before both Halloween and Election Day. 215,000 bodies collectively representing the anonymous mass of population whose voices were slow and steady rather than shrill and shrieking. 215,000 united by positivity rather than pessimism. 430,000 feet (minus a few, probabilistically speaking) marched on Washington.

Of course, this was not an experience exclusively open to young people. There was an unpredictedly high proportion of people in their 60s; they had probably seen the Rally was a way to reconnect with the positive momentum that was simultaneously defined and thus rendered inert under the heading of “the 60s.” The spirit was an echo. People came together as people, respecting and enjoying the company of one another, that sense of inevitable victory temporarily obscuring the grim realities that Election Day held just around the corner. The palpable feeling that sanity and reasonableness could prevail shimmered across the new silent majority thronging across the National Mall. Our 215,000 cooler heads would surely prevail over the Tea Party’s 87,000 firebrands, wouldn’t it? Just look at the crowds!

The implicit hope was that all we needed was some catalyzing moment like the Rally where the practicality-minded mustered the political energy to stand up for ourselves. We needed to coordinate our silent majority to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma and stop paying the dispersed costs to the benefit of those who have both cause and budget to hire lobbyists to advance their selfish private interests. Our silence and polite company could squash those with motives and invectives. We would use humor and sarcasm to energize ourselves, rather than selfishness and fear. That’s where the show came in, but the crowd brought in plenty of their own material for self-sustaining energy:

The feat of the Rally may be all the more impressive by virtue of the fact that sane people assembled in such numbers despite the concentrated benefits/dispersed costs problem of political coordination and despite an inherent evolutionary bias toward conservative crowd-mongering. An analysis of 50 years of research suggests that conservatives emphasize stability, tribalism, and protection of their values to the exclusion of perceived threats, whereas liberals are more open to new experiences and foreign values with a live-and-let-live approach. The true conservatization and right-lurching of American politics is that we seem to have forgotten the common courtesy of coexistence and compromise; even the Democrats romanticize their vision and history of “true” American values.

In any sharply divisive times, an absolutist, winner-take-all approach to politics undermines politics as a practical art and frustrates its ends. The concept of coordination is perhaps the purest distillation of the project of politics. Whether it’s the assemblage of a crowd, the cooperation of those with conflicting interests, or merely the distribution of resources amongst competitors, politics is about humans coming together to agree on arrangements of affairs to achieve ends an individual cannot accomplish on his or her own. But there is a deeper heuristic problem with political energies around election time; we focus on narratives that emphasize who gets more of what politics controls rather than finding the best way for politics to coordinate resources for solutions to collective problems. As Stewart poignantly argued, we have forgotten what it means to accept less than total partisan victory. Sanity and reasonableness require a “You go, then I go” approach in American politics, or else any binding majoritarian decision becomes soft fascism.

That selfishness and attention to who’s getting what out of political engagement is why more people vote by their wallet than their ideals on election day, even though the economic state of affairs has almost nothing to do with politics of that time. A poll leading into the election found that likely voters by a two-to-one margin believed that taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered. Of course, none of those beliefs is true. And yet the national temper tantrum thrown by the Tea Party is treated as the national temperament.

And even if those voters were informed in their understanding of economic affairs, there is lag to fiscal and monetary policy. But there is no lag–or temperance–in the exercise of factious passions in the low democratic sense. Indeed, the outsider political movement is usually the unknowing or unable political movement.

Now, I’m not from Washington, DC. No one can say I’m part of the Washington establishment. You won’t find me at a Washington, DC cocktail party, laughing and wife-swapping on the taxpayer’s dime while the economy crumbles. No, sir. I’ve never even been to Washington, DC. Actually, I’d go so far as to say that I literally could not even find Washington, DC on a map, and not because I don’t know how to use a map.

My friends, I’ve never even heard of Washington, DC. I do not even believe in the concept of Washington, DC. And as I stand here before you today, I can promise you that Washington, DC is not even a term I understand as a proper noun. Frankly, it sounds made up.

In its unwillingness to engage its opponents, the Tea Party shares a fair amount in common with the Sanity Movement (if we can call it that). Both are echoes of revolutionary movements of the 60s too righteously convinced of their positions to treat each other decently enough to wield power in an effective and prolonged way. Note how the Flower Power generation that teed up the change that defined the 60s eventually refocused their reformist attitudes away from bettering the world and toward bettering themselves (i.e., the 70s and 80s). Note that without a sufficient structure for a sustained and impersonal force that has an interest in political cooperation, each movement forgets the point of politics in the first place. The political energy that reacted to George W. Bush by electing Barack Obama has fizzled out because the uniting utopian vision was long lost. Anything less than total victory equals disillusionment and reversion to the prisoner’s dilemma of selfish behavior. The Hippies sold out; the Tea Party takes its ideals about limited government and reduces them to the basest, most selfish and tax-abhorring interpretation of what that might mean; the Sanity Movement stares at its entertainingly post-modern navel with feelings of intellectual superiority but then fails to take or incite political action that is more sincere than making a sign and going to see a show.

There is still cause for some optimism, though. At least people have started to show up. That’s more than we could say of the rest of the 2000s. At the hub of the Sanity Movement, there is Reddit, the community most commonly associated with the incitement of the Rally, the coffeeshop for the networked society, a haven for unabashed elitists and lovers of humor and decency. Reddit is a prime example of the new ad hoc structuring of society, and while it may provide a forum for the politically put-upon, and may yet produce candidates that can be supported by positivity rather than politics-as-usual, it has not yet proven itself as a rallying pole for real electoral change. I think Tuesday proved that pretty conclusively.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Marc permalink
    November 4, 2010 7:10 pm

    I was saying exactly that just today…

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      November 5, 2010 8:24 am

      Which part?

      • Anonymous permalink
        November 5, 2010 1:49 pm

        Lack of ability to compromise. My way or the highway. I’m right, you’re wrong.

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