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Simple Question
Bentley - 10/2/12

"Are you better off today than you were four years ago?": Innocent, simple and neither. Can we get real? Shouldn't this question have failed in 1980? Why, because it was and remains an invitation to a non sequitur.

When Reagan asked this in the echo of 70's stagflation the groundwork for recovery had already been laid. In short, and regarless of all possible niggling about Volker's import, etc, the situation was profoundly different than Obama coming to power in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008. Obama's starting point is not only an economic coronal mass ejection, which still charges the global atmosphere, but the death throes of the Reagan Revolution - the harrowing consequence of deregulatory fetishes and "Voodoo Economics"; and, hence, a political environment where the GOP now finds itself in contortions of exquisite, ever ramifying, permutations of denial.

We can dispense with analyzing the equivocal 'you', trading on the personal, the national and their interlacing. We don't have to finger the obvious and pregnant "than what" nor the portentous "for what" which are connected to any number of normative construals of "better off". It's not the question that's so much simple as the non sequitur it aims to conjure.

Answering "no" never logically entailed a vote for Ronald Reagan over Carter. Yet, at least then, many investor class Republicans could answer thusly. Compare today's scene of a stock market well above 2008 levels and many can answer the question with a big fat "yes". They can say they're "better off" insofar as that finds meaning in a reduction to personal, financial gain - and many of them will not vote for Obama.

But we know that yesterday's, limited sense of "better off" doesn't resonate amidst today's deeper crucible of evaporating certainties. Hence, team Obama can't really talk about the stock market - especially when it's hoped that even the Occupy Wall Street mind will recognize Obama as a far lesser evil. Team Romney can't talk about the Dow or the Nasdaq for fear of too blatantly negating the suggested import of their simple question.

It's not so much that the question exposes incompetent reporters, which Dean Baker argues regarding Bob Shieffer and George Stephanoploulos, as it is a case of an American public seemingly exposed as oblivious and susceptible to sophistry. That's what invites team Romney to repeat the question with a straight face. It's the same terrain that prompts endless "analysis", as if Kevin Nealon's Subliminal Man schtick on SNL could go from joke to standard fare, reducing today's Islamic unrest to "a scene right out of 1979 :: Carter :: and the hostage crisis." In the end, with the truth of Reagan's legacy splattered all over the world economic scene, instinct returns to the earliest bag of tricks. Are we still primed to be pumped by this concoction?

Permit me to unpack the point here. When we hear "The Republicans are the problem" or ask "When did the GOP lose touch with reality?", I think we should pause to consider whether or not the real rot runs much deeper, that traffic with reality is a problem more common than we care to admit. If we're looking to ascertain how political discourse has veered into scenery where one expects Rod Serling walking into frame - just before an episode where Jerry Springer shows up as a debate moderator - we have to go deeper than the mere surface manifestation of the GOP whackosphere.

When we see the GOP unraveling in a torrent of narrative absurdity, basing "arguments" at every turn off palpably obvious evasions of context, it seems to reflect a lack of cognitive integrity as well as a feverish denial of just where Republican ideology landed us (with our tacit consent) in 2008.

In the aughts, Republicans held more power for longer than at any time since the twenties, yet the result was the weakest and least broadly shared economic expansion since World War II, followed by an economic crash and prolonged slump. Along the way, the GOP suffered two severe election defeats in 2006 and 2008. Imagine yourself a rank-and-file Republican in 2009: If you have not lost your job or your home, your savings have been sliced and your children cannot find work. Your retirement prospects have dimmed. Most of all, your neighbors blame you for all that has gone wrong in the country. There’s one thing you know for sure: None of this is your fault! And when the new president fails to deliver rapid recovery, he can be designated the target for everyone’s accumulated disappointment and rage. In the midst of economic wreckage, what relief to thrust all blame upon Barack Obama as the wrecker-in-chief. - David Frum

And yet, heuristically extending the principle of charity, why not view the managers of this narrative as more or less aware of its absurdity - and very aware of the susceptibility of not only the rank and file but the general public to the spell of drama and misdirection? It doesn't matter if Karl Rove and company may be ironically trapped in a situation where the rubes are now waging the charlatans - masters having become slaves to fantastical and preposterous rhetoric to the point where they start "smoking what they're dealing". What matters is the horror of a general public haze where vast numbers of us become prey, where relative competence and intelligence seemingly evaporate on contact with political terrain.

The GOP, then, is not so much the problem as an avatar of something more troubling. Whatever it is - and I really think we fight hard to resolve a bigger picture - it's not merely the GOP nor conservatism per se, regardless of whether the GOP shows itself as the most problematic and mainstream reflection. Mike Lofgren, a Republican veteran with 28 years of government service, who left the party over the "transparently needless" debt ceiling brinkmanship of late 2011, sees it this way:

"...both parties are not rotten in quite the same way. The Democrats have their share of machine politicians, careerists, corporate bag-men, egomaniacs and kooks. Nothing, however, quite matches the modern GOP."

Just what is the situation where a political party in the U.S. could veer into such patent Mad Cow pathology? Obama's "you didn't build that" gets torqued, bent and whipped into the Hannitized froth of an "unparalleled attack on the free market system". This decontextualized madness gets put into Romney's ads alongside another, where 1998 Obama comments on "redistribution" are again ripped out of all intelligibility for the sake of malevolent caricature. The new ad concludes with a ludicrous but familiar refrain that Obama hates success - as if this could possibly follow. Everywhere we are invited into drinking non sequiturs and dunked into the ad hominem elixir where secret, Manchurian motivations must lurk behind the presidential surface.

The mode of rhetoric, no doubt styled predominantly on the basis of focus group research, works on the assumption of an audience's abject stupidity. There's no fear, apparently, that the inherent weakness of conspiracy theories (explaining everything and, thus, being non-falsifiable) will be recognized. Logical leaps and ad hoc constructions spew forth as if uttered by a child totally naive to a parents higher order smell testing. At the same time, one is at a complete loss to discern any hint of doubt, of tentative proposals suffused with any recognition of the need for continued inquiry. Rather, all the answers are "obvious" and simply need to be mechanically implemented. It's the certitude Bill Maher once noted as the "hallmark of unbright people".

Slavoj Zizek compares this phenomenon to "communists when things obviously didn't function... they reasoned exactly in the same way. We were not pure enough... This is the fundamentalist answer." Even the ostensibly secular gets caught in a puritanical double-down of quasi-Hegelian proportions, charging at windmills with virtuous verve. Pure entrepreneurship partnered with its imaginary friend, pure capitalism, pimp themselves like Euclidean figures crashing into the mundane all poised in mock combat as the tip of the spear over and against the quirky, unseemly and irregular way of the world.

But if this fateful trajectory of the GOP is the problem, it's the problem of the canary in the coal mine. Our susceptibility as a people to wholesale delusion and fervent fabrication appears to be an alarming by-product of several decades of baptism in consumer society where the consequent premium of an Age of Marketing is forever reaching for back door hacks to the forefront of our intellect. Put off, resigned, and bored with the superficial scent of modern politics, yet reacting all the same as disappointed consumers, many opt for the vapid posit that both parties are the same. If this stems from some muted intuition that the problem is bigger than either party, fine. However, we can still make a distinction regarding levels of pathology - just as we would between conditions as different as Fibromyalgia and Ebola - while asking a bigger question about the state of general, national immunology.

We walked on the moon. We split the atom - and fashioned that power into a trigger to light an even bigger nuclear fusion bang. We landed on Titan and presently orbit Mercury, Mars and Saturn; we watch eclipses of the Sun by Phobos from the Martian surface. Voyager transgresses the furthest limts of our solar system. We speak of Higgs bosons, dark energy, and over 300 extrasolar planets. We decode the neurological, electromagnetic noise of volition into real world action, merely thinking cursors (and soon prosthetic limbs to war machines) into movement. Exponential and exorbitant information technology reworks social and economic realities faster than we can take stock. Our ancestors would, no doubt, fall on their knees in awe.

Imagine their stupification, especially as it doubles over the state of our political pulse - say - trying to take in our having also ushered in the Anthropocene era. "How can your politics have remained the same?" Easy to imagine a dumbfounded question like that, perhaps suppressing shock and rage. Harder, perhaps, to answer when things look actually worse than before. How do we explain a growing infection of retrograde politics, a disease that leaves us shrinking before the world we've made, betraying a cultural failing threatening every promising episode of technical wizardry? When it comes to the challenges and opportunities we face, yesterday's level of bullshit begins to look preferable. The intuition flashes us with temptation, an invite to irony whereby naively trying to reboot old formulas oddly hastens our descent.

If concern here prompts asking instead "Are we better off than we were four decades ago?", the upshot of a negative answer forces no automatic conclusion that Obama has to go but, rather, a mass confrontation with a difficult question. Pointing at the GOP, as if to absolve ourselves over and against a cartoon universe, comes too easy. We can't afford to plume ourselves with the teeth of yet another non sequitur - not if we wish to seriously confront the wild consequences and negative feedbacks of our national success, not if we wish to face up to non-GOP complicity in abdicating the demand for political imagination and healthy narrative. Politics remains an immature science and a high art, a conundrum challenging us at the center of the universe. However ugly it has become, we can still see bright points and clues to the possibility of noble function. Take Bill Clinton's DNC speech where, underlying any specificity or ideological bent, we were shocked to remember the style of an adult conversation. One almost has to go back to Jimmy Carter in 1979 to experience such genuine candor and respect for an audience. If we are still worthy of being extended the courtesy of such respect, we can't go AWOL up against the duty of difficult questions. For if we are not careful, merely banking on privileged exceptionalism won't cut it up against the indifference of lone and level sands stretching far away from the colossal wreck of a shattered national visage.

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