The second Republican presidential debate confirmed all suspicions that we are confronted by intellectual pygmies vying for the chiefdom of the American tribes.
The promised entry of Rick Perry into the race, and if we’re lucky (and her van stops long enough for her to make further wowsers about American history) Sarah Grizzly-Mom Palin, won’t substantially raise the intellectual ante or the tone of discussion.
What all of these aspirants have in common besides being emblematic of how easy it is to succeed in American politics is that all claim to have convictions. Lots of ’em
We’ve all seen small candidates in our time. We’ve even seen an amazingly stupid underachiever hold on to the office of president for eight interminable years, once presumably because he won the election. But we’ve never seen it this bad.
And the reason we’ve never seen it this bad is because three, at least, of the wannabes keep talking about their convictions–not ideas, but beliefs they hold doggedly and think other Americans, as Americans, should hold them too.
Some of these convictions are religious. Some are economic, and some are social. But their classification doesn’t matter: there is no high falutin’ epistemology involved in having these core convictions, because, according to this troop, convictions are what made America great and what keeps America going–one nation under God, in whom we trust.
In the Republican debate, when she wasn’t just venting gas about making Obama a One Term President, an idea overwhelming in its piscatorial crassness, Michele Bachmann said a number of times that she has more convictions than any of her competitors. “I have demonstrated leadership and the courage of my convictions to change Washington, stop wasteful spending, lower taxes, put Americans back to work and turn our economy around….”
She also has convictions about lightbulbs, fuel emissions, gays, the “unborn,” as she sepulchrally calls fetuses, the nature of marriage, and a dozen other things that flow from her weird teaology.
She’s doubly dangerous because like a lot of people with convictions, she can’t admit when she’s wrong: take the “Our founding fathers worked night and day to abolish slavery”- comment. Not only historically outlandish but perverse in her attempt to defend her wrongness. The “founding father” she tried to name (9 years old at independence and 19 when the Constitutional convention was convened) was the son of a real founding father whose views on God, religion and the Bible Michele Bachmann would find disturbing, if not incomprehensible.
On Saturday, the cast of this folies bizzare will be joined by an aging fraternity lout who is not only unimpressed by the concept of separation of church and state but frankly can’t bother to make the distinction.
That would be a scandalous posture if most Americans cared a farthing about the Constitution, but polls have repeatedly shown that if the document were up for grabs today it wouldn’t look much like the Enlightenment icon we possess, warty amendments, like the Eighteenth, and all.
No one really wants to contemplate what a President Perry would say if a committee of Pentecostal ministers suggested amending “We the People” to “We the Christian People of the United States,” or putting a tasteful cameo of Jesus in the center of our currency to mark us out as a holy nation of God-fearers, beloved and protected by the Almighty.
Two of the contenders, Romney and Huntsman, are Mormons, a group so strange in its beliefs that the best that can be said about them is that they aren’t scientologists. The remainder, in shades of ecclesial gray are simply losers, though “Rick” Santorum is also a religious nutcase and Catholic pro-life extremist who refuses to attend any Masses that aren’t in Latin.
In additon to the six children Santorum holds up as proof of his commitment to the Gospel of Life, his wife Karen in 1996 gave birth to a son (Gabriel Michael) when she was twenty weeks pregnant. The dead fetus (born with a closed posterior urethral valve) was brought home and “introduced” to the other children as their brother. The couple slept with the fetus overnight before returning it to the hospital the next day. The story is told in lurid detail by Michael Sokolove in his 2005 New York Times Magazine feature “The Believer.” In the same piece, Santorum is quoted as saying that in his view George W. Bush was the first “Catholic president of the United States,” and that John F. Kennedy “shed his Catholicism.” Convictions.
The Republican race for the nomination is not about choosing the most qualified candidate but about trying to determine who’s the least crazy.
Unfortunately, the American people have a huge appetite for crazy–prime time Jersey Shore and Biggest Loser crazy. Their political focus on winners and losers, American idol-style, is so far removed from the debates, the ideas, the burning issues that formed the republic that history is only considered a distraction, and a boring one at that. I can easily imagine viewers who wondered if, at the end of the debate, the participants would be called over in small groups by Tyra Banks. In my mind, she’s wearing something silky in red, white and blue, with dangly silver star earrings: “Jon, you’ve got a lot of talent. I really expected you to shine out there tonight. But you just didn’t come through. Your sentences were too long and I just felt you were holding back.” —Or maybe that wouldn’t be a worse process than the one we have.
As it is, in the discounted political process we’re stuck with, convictions matter more than facts and looking decisive carries more weight than being right. The media calls it optics. Winners and losers are determined by how tenaciously wrong opinions and worthless convictions can be defended. Who cares when John Quincy Adams lived? It’s my conviction that my contempt for pro-choice Americans is the real American value: end of story. The optics of conviction-holding may be the most serious threat democracy has ever faced.
There are certainly things that disappoint me about Barack Obama. But I sense that he wouldn’t lie to me about history, or claim to know something for certain that he doesn’t know. Maybe that comes from his being a college lecturer, or just a nice guy, since truth-telling and history were not his predecessor’s strong suit.
But unless history proves me wrong (and not his slanderers) Obama is as close as we’re likely to get in the twenty-first century to a politician still in touch with the spirit of the founders, still interested in the American experiment as an experiment and a work in progress. As a matter of experience he understands that America isn’t finished. As a matter of dogma, his opponents believe that America reached its pinnacle of perfection in some golden age, whose mythical history they have substituted for the far messier but real story of America’s past.
That “scholarly,” tentative view of democracy as an idea in need of exploration and improvement is a dangerous one in Rick Perry’s done-deal Exceptional America, where God is king, presidents are his stewards, and only men with strong religious convictions are entitled to serve.
The political free fall in which we find ourselves is frightening enough without the supernatural maps being offered by the Republican horde. This is too far down the road from John Kennedy’s most famous dictum about religion for any of us to feel complacent: ”I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.” Where did we make that wrong turn? And where did these guides come from?