by Daniel A. Kaufman
American politics is dead, or at least, it’s so completely fucked that it would be better off dead. What we call “politics” today, when compared to the genuine article, is a little bit like UFC when compared to boxing. At some level, everyone knows that beating to a bloody pulp someone who is already down is not sport but a street fight, sans switchblades and baseball bats, and we also all know that what Americans are doing today in the civic arena isn’t politics, but rioting, absent the smashed windows and burning cars. And just as the half-hearted gesture towards rules in UFC reflects our reluctance to admit that we’re terrible people who really do want to watch folks beat and choke each other to death, our ongoing pretense that we’re civically and politically engaged with one another in the project of self-governance indicates that we’re too ashamed to own up to the fact that we actually hate each other and want to drive our opponents into ruin and despair.
Politics, in a civil society, fundamentally relies on arguments and persuasion. To pass tax cut legislation will require changing the minds of some of the people who don’t want taxes cut. To take marijuana off of the criminal drug schedule will require persuading some of those who think it should remain there. To pass open-carry gun laws will involve convincing some who are opposed to people packing heat in Wal-Mart that it’s not such a terrible idea after all. There is no and never will be a political party or group whose views on everything enjoys majority support and will do so in perpetuity, which means that at some point, in order to get what one wants, one will have to persuade someone who doesn’t want it.
What this means is that activity in which there not only is no effort to persuade, but which renders persuasion impossible is not political activity, as understood in a civil society. And it seems to me quite clear that neither those active on the contemporary Right, nor those active on the contemporary Left have any interest in persuading one another or doing anything that would facilitate persuasion under any circumstances. They just want to stick it to their opponents and the semblance of a process, like the rules in UFC, simply shows that they retain enough of a sense of shame to not want to admit it.
Rightist politics today has nothing to do with conservatism of any variety (or any other coherent ideology, for that matter), so I find myself searching for metaphors. When I think of contemporary Rightism in the US – and unfortunately in a number of other places as well – I always think of this guy from the last presidential campaign –
— who then makes me think of Brutalist architecture —
— which perfectly captures the horrible spirit of the thing. The rude ugliness. The vulgarity. The sense of besiegement. The constant inflection of violence across the landscape of issues, whether the infatuation with guns, militarized policing, war, or pitiless deportations. A pervasive, crude machismo and proud know-nothingism. Trump is the face of this Brutalist Rightism, which usurped right wing politics in this country with startling speed and ferocity, leaving the principled conservatives bewildered and adrift, even as the craven and unprincipled caved and enabled it. It is, at its core, rabble politics that when it passes – and such a thing isn’t really sustainable for any significant period of time – will leave those on the right with a terrible, political hangover and an enduring sense of shame that I hope may inspire their return to genuine politics.
Leftist Denunciationism (not a word)
And then there’s the wretched state of contemporary Leftist politics, which has nothing whatsoever to do with liberalism or progressivism as traditionally understood and which seems to me aptly characterized by these two characters:
The endless accusations and name-calling. The moral preening and posturing. The never-ending search for new sources of offense and resentment that otherwise might be thought a parody of Nietzschean slave morality. The Orwellian manipulations of language and breathtaking hypocrisy, commonly manifested in an unprincipled asymmetry of concern. With a few exceptions, Leftist Denunciationism eschews physical violence in favor of the social, professional, and legal destruction of its opponents (and insufficiently pure allies). It is simultaneously more dangerous than Rightest Brutalism and less so: more because it has so deeply penetrated our educational and cultural institutions and potentially has a greater capacity to influence public mores through media and popular culture; less, because of its penchant for eating its own and presenting such a sour, unappealing countenance that it has the capacity to drive people into the arms of its enemies. Unlike Rightist Brutalism, Leftist Denunciationism is not of the rabble but of the intelligentsia and cultural elite, so it is not at all clear that it will inevitably and quickly burn out. Genuine liberals and progressives will have to fight a bitter internecine war to rid their movement of these toxic people and in that sense, I actually think we might see a quicker return of a healthy right wing politics than of a liberalism and progressivism worthy of anyone’s allegiance or respect.
In truth, the two sides are as similar as they are different. Beyond their common rejection of politics, both overstate risks and harms beyond all proportion in order to justify their terrible behavior. They are equally defensive and thin-skinned. Ruthless, pitiless, dishonest and heedless of the destruction they cause. If only the rest of us who are not activist Rightists and Leftists – a substantial majority it should be noted – could summon up the energy and will, we might rid ourselves of these miserable shitheads once and for all. Banish them together to some deserted island in the middle of the ocean somewhere. They deserve one another. That we can’t or won’t, alas, suggests that we deserve them too.