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A Plague on Both Their Houses: Self-Deception in Politics


“Never get high on your own supply.”
—Biggie Smalls, “The Ten Crack Commandments”


Writing in in September, Jeremiah Goulka observes, “An old saw has it that no one profits from talking about politics or religion. I think I finally understand what that means. We see different realities, different worlds. If you and I take in different slices of reality, chances are we aren’t talking about the same things. I think this explains much of American political dialogue.” The problem becomes acute in an election season, and I want to explore it as a source of self-deception within the parties. Neither a Republican nor a Democrat— though I vote and urge everyone to do so as well—I take the part of Romeo and Juliet’s Mercutio, who curses the clans of Montague and Capulet with “A plague on both your houses.” So, in that spirit, first the houses and then the plague.

This summer’s Democratic National Convention spread the news that “We’re all in this together,” or Welcome to the New Normal. If politics mirrors high school, Democrats are the Glee kids who seat the outcast at the cool table. They observe that, in the course of our history, the category of citizen expanded to include women, former slaves, and landless immigrants, all of whom were disenfranchised at the founding of the republic. The New Normal celebrates diversity and the sharing of power among many kinds of people. Michelle Obama related the president’s reliance upon student loans to complete his education. Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, aspired to national prominence despite a past marred by poverty and racism. Speakers proclaimed the freedom to love as shorthand for gay marriage. Fairness and generosity reigned as the heart of a free people.

The way we talk about politics makes some people invisible.

The New Normal descends from 19th-century Progressive ideals and the Social Gospel, wherein the kingdom of God was understood as achieved social justice. The convention marked the road to that great good place. Nonetheless, Normal had its limits at the D.N.C. There would be no talk of queer folk outside of marriage and military service. Morality was vetted by parenthood: Obama is a good American because he is a “family man.” The expanded executive power to wage war went unmentioned. The desperately poor remained faceless. Despite two-thirds of the country in drought and a year’s crop ruined, there was hardly a mention of climate change. The first lady, who was once the president’s boss, took a bathetic turn as mom-in-chief. (In fairness, Tami Winfrey Harris, writing in Clutch, thought that was revolutionary.) The New Normal makes other worlds and their possibilities unconventional. It excludes in a higher key, and Democrats should not deafen themselves with the sound of their own applause.

All that self-congratulation met its match in the Republican National Convention. Republican bile echoed Democratic pomp. In the last year, G.O.P. state legislators and governors championed the end of collective bargaining for unions, voter identification laws as the new poll tax, and vaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. Meanwhile, they decried the role of activist government and the creep of “socialism” in the current administration. They condemned the Environmental Protection Agency for interference with free enterprise and said nothing about government fossil-fuel subsidies that amount to corporate welfare. Where some smell hypocrisy, I see consistency in the Republican platform. It is animated by the contrast between virtue and vice, good people and bad. On Survivor: Republican Island, competition is all for the best.

Gender equity provides an example of this consistency. There are many powerful Republican women, from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. As virtuous people, they have no need of government control; rather, they control the government. Women who want abortions seek an immoral solution to a problem pregnancy; therefore, government must intervene. Where Democrats see “women’s rights” inconsistently applied, Republicans see standards of virtue applied consistently. The principle at work is ethical aristocracy: nobility has the right. The idea of a moral elite finds a long history in a nation that sees itself as a city on a hill; deep in our Puritan past lurks the gulf between saved and damned. However, the premise that personal virtue should bestow political power contradicts the Enlightenment notion of the rights of the citizen. If one believes in an aristocracy of virtue, one should admit that democracy—the rule of the people—is not what one is after.

The aristocracy of virtue may be inimical to democracy, but Normal boasts a bitter aftertaste. Too much remains outside the shining city—author Toni Morrison’s “unspeakable things unspoken” —and slums breed plague. Because of the madness of the R.N.C., the gaps in Democratic rhetoric go unchallenged. This is unsustainable in the long term: the destitute and drone-struck, the melting ice will have their day. In The Nation, Rebecca Solnit complained about her “dismalally,” Eeyore: “If I gave you a pony, you would not only be furious that not everyone has a pony, but you would pick on the pony for not being radical enough until it wept big, sad, hot pony tears.” I do not require any pony tears.

I am grateful for the good of the last four years. It required the effort of millions. By no means do I consider the election irrelevant. Everyone should vote. But the way we talk about politics makes some people invisible, some problems intractable. As citizens, we cannot let the parties’ blindness limit our vision of the good. In pursuit of that good, we should never, as rapper Biggie Smalls said in “Ten Crack Commandments,” get high on our own supply.

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