A dissenter will call it hyperbole, an opponent hysterical, some of its targets sensational. We will all or we will not find out – any of us today, I mean, for confirmation may take far longer to receive than the length of our short lives. Rome, you know, word is, was not built in a day, but it did not decline in a day either. Likely, there was no Roman in 290 CE who felt the shift, a start in the earth’s movement or a diminution of the light, and said, “This is the moment,” even though Rome would not be sacked until 410 or Romulus Augustus deposed until 476. The Eastern Roman Empire survived another thousand years, and no doubt its leading lights thought not that a fall had occurred but only the inevitable transformations, in continuity, over time. Which is to say that such a “fall” is really a matter of understanding, not an event – an insight, a recognition, a knowledge acquired that historical developments have left more behind in their occurrence than whatever may have been gained.
I say the election of Mitt Romney to the Presidency, if it occurs, will be that moment for the United States, when the shift could be felt if one cocked one’s head to attune for the vibration. I say it for two reasons. One reason is the programmatic effect on the American nation that Romney’s policies will have, both in representing the values and policies of the contemporary GOP and in extending the “Reagan Revolution.” The other reason, more emblematic, is what it would mean that such a man as Mitt Romney could be elected to the Presidency and that he could be elected in the manner by which Romney will have gained the office.
Of course, there are those to the left and right, different from those who would belittle what they think my excess, who will snort their contempt at so late a recognition. For them, the neoliberal corruption, and the plutocratic charade – the fundamental capitalist crime – were committed long ago, or the opposing loss of our liberty to the unchristian alien socialist hordes suffered just as far back in time under a conspiratorial eye of providence. These contradictory contentions are the curse of unruly democracy – the perpetual confusion of claims with conclusions, of intricate phantasms with arguments. The speaker’s corner of the public square is the think tank for loopy autodidacts and distempered experts. In a healthy system, the vocalizing of these crackpots and agitant spirits demonstrates the breadth and depth of our liberalism. But what Mitt Romney will lead, should he come to lead it, will be no healthy system.
What a Romney presidency will finish, especially were it to extend to two terms, as most presidencies do, is the comprehensive reversal of the liberal American polity that has its roots in the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and that was firmly established by Franklyn Roosevelt. By the time Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society seemed to cement that liberalism into the bedrock of the nation, the reaction against it that has ruled the country since was already mounting toward the Reagan presidency.
As I wrote in “From the People Who Brought You Richard Nixon & George W. Bush,” when considering the historic significance of the Richard Nixon win over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, from 1968 until Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans held the presidency for 28 out of 40 years. Were Romney to defeat Obama and serve two terms, those numbers would extend to 36 of 52, an overwhelming preponderance and duration of Republican presidential power lasting more than half a century. The only domination in the history of the country exceeding it is the 72 year period from 1860 until 1932 – from the election of Abraham Lincoln to that of FDR – when Republicans held the presidency for 56 years against the Democrats’ 16 years (counting Andrew Johnson’s term as a continuation of Lincoln’s). This was the period that made the New Deal necessary.
For this era of GOP domination the numbers are everywhere available – I do not need to repeat them. The three decades of mushrooming income inequality, of wealth inequality. The stagnant wages for the middle class. The dismissal from pragmatic political calculation of any discussion of poverty. The sweeping assault on, and decimation of, organized labor. The increasing political rule, via unchecked lobbying power, judicial decision, and massive wealth expenditure of corporations. The bureaucratic government rollback of legislated environmental protections. The present open concentration – even as liberal America is pleased by the rapid advance in Gay rights – on undoing four decades of progress in women’s and reproductive rights. The conservative transformation of the Supreme Court that will extend this conservative reaction for decades past any end to its domination of the presidency.
Internationally, the United States has remained strategically unreoriented to the end of the Cold War. Over two decades after communism’s demise, the U.S. has retained the worldwide bulwark erected against it transformed into an uncritical and arrogant assumption of imperial right. Finally, President Obama has made the first genuine moves to alter this course in response to world currents. But Romney’s GOP would reassert the claims of unchecked American prerogative – confirming the claims of many of the nation’s critics – even in the absence, into another century, of a Cold War enemy.
After George W. Bush and with only a four-year Obama interregnum, a Romney presidency, at home and abroad, will produce a nation many of its inhabitants will neither recognize nor embrace as theirs. A hard truth is that in its moral pride the United States has been living off only a few very great accomplishments, beginning with its founding ideals and documents, for a very long time. The last of them, the American lead in winning the Second World War and in rebuilding Europe is now over six decades old. What followed, the resistance to the world communist movement was a moral, was a necessary struggle to engage, but in its countless lesser and greater particulars, was not remotely ennobling.
Any continuing claim to American Exceptionalism, residing not in nature or God, but in the enactment of national ideals, rests in the liberal social progress of the American twentieth century – a progress more than equaled by many liberal democracies. And this is precisely what the Republican Party, since Ronald Reagan and through the election of Mitt Romney, seeks completely to undo.
There is more, however.
Wise critics of democratic charades, with their dog and pony shows of free elections never again repeated – in Venezuela or Gaza or Russia, and of which, in fact, there is a horrific history – properly instruct us that democracy is not a single event, a performance of a script – but a spirit and a process, of repeated performance institutionalized and revered over time. To believe that, in the end, how one pursues and gains political power is separable from how one exercises it is a fool’s self-deception. It is a fool’s self-deception to believe that our democratic nature is untouched by a corruption of the republican spirit meant to adhere to a democratic process and the liberating enactment of free and genuine debate.
Against all this, Mitt Romney is the Orwellian candidate of Newspeak, of RomneySpeak. In RomneySpeak, Anti-Obama is pro-Obama. Opposition to unfettered reproductive rights is support for women’s rights. Advocating letting the auto industry fail was advocacy for saving it. Championing universal health coverage is demonizing it. Pro big business is pro middle class. Moderate is “severely conservative” is moderate again. War is peace. “Etch-a-sketch.”
Beyond the lies, however, and the complete absence of any authentic public identity and character (it matters not to the culture of the polis how much Mitt Romney loves his family and gives to his church), the willingness to say anything and alter his identity the way a snake shucks off skins, is the astounding reality that Mitt Romney has told us and shown us on every day of his pursuit of power exactly who he is. He has run for the Presidency of the United States like a wolf with a chicken feather sticking out of his mouth – and the farm hands all the families have relied on to protect the livestock – our self-important and self-satisfied political media – have thought it their meaningful work to marvel at his speed, analyze his stealth, and consider the odds of his making it into the main house without getting caught.
The sad truth is that while politicians as a class are cynical opportunists in the pursuit of power, the journalists who cover them make the same short sale of democracy for the modest reward of a little recognition and inclusion in the game. They have acquiesced to the cynical rules of the game, and beyond the casual obligatory nod to the game’s essential lie, they proceed to analyze policies they know are fake and dress political lies in the cover of acceptable tactics and strategy. When they should be blowing the lid off Romney’s whole, stinking long con of the electorate, they review it, instead, like legitimate theater.
It’s all a show, and everybody’s an actor, don’t you know. Grow up.
Mitt Romney did not invent political opportunism and evasion. The history of the political lie told in a handshake to gain a vote is the history of politics. But the merger of politics with lobbying and billion-dollar, third-party advertising and polling and consultancy and spinmeisters from Dick Morris to Frank Luntz, and all of those with journalists who cover them and consider their hands around the tables they now share has degraded the process and the outcome beyond all worthwhile democratic recognition.
The truth is captured in the final scene of the Mike Nichols film version of Primary Colors. In it, the Bill Clinton character offers the essential argument in defense of his career and of the fundamental dishonesty of the campaign process. It is all the “price you pay to lead,” he tells his young aid, who is still susceptible to conscience. “You don’t think that Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a President,” he argues. But once you’re President, he claims, ah, but once you’re President, “that’s where the bullshit stops.”
Then you can do good, because you are better than the others who would not stop bullshitting and would not do good, and you know you are different from those who would lie their way to power and then not do good because, well, you are you, and you know you would never bullshit the people, not when it really counted, not like when looking them in the eye at a news conference and shaking your finger, or on a witness stand contextualizing the presentness of the present tense – or when running for President of the United States in lying theft of every vote you gain.
Mitt Romney did not invent what he is, and, in part, it does not matter what his policies are. If he wins the presidency, he will have been what he is better than anyone who ever came before him. He will have gained the leadership of the greatest democracy the world has ever known on the basis of a complete fraud, by lying without restraint about not only his opponent and the nation, but about himself, who he is, and what he believes. He will have corrupted the very meaning of democratic debate and contest and rendered the process that gained him office a meaningless pretense from which the nation will likely never recover.