Fear and Loathing in Fort Collins

In thinking about today’s election, it’s worth turning to HST’s classic work of political journalism, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.  The parallels between then and now are marked.  The political figures to which progressives have hitched their wagon – McGovern and Obama – were both once underdogs deemed too far to the left, who rose to prominence rapidly…along with the hopes of the downtrodden.  Swept up in this enthusiasm, Thompson proclaims McGovern’s candidacy a “high water mark” insofar as the radical ideological shifts of the sixties seemed, if only for a fleeting moment, like they might not only continue, but actually be institutionalized in the formal power structure.  However, the wave crested, the potentially revolutionary floodwaters receded, and leftists were faced with the realities of living in the reactionary, conservative swampland in which we’ve collectively wallowed over the better part of the past forty years.

Today I find myself wondering if the 2008 election season was a similar high water mark – progressives were excited at a level that we hadn’t seen since the sixties (particularly young people!), African-Americans and racial minorities were feeling enfranchised (even if this was largely symbolic), and a platform of radical change was close to being institutionalized (with a candidate pushing for universal health-care, structural economic reforms, action on climate change, alter-globalization, etc.).

Was the symbolic victory of 2008 all we’re gonna get out of all that emotional intensity?  Even controlling all of the formal institutional power, we got half-assed healthcare and financial reforms.  Now that the House has flipped sides, do we console ourselves that in two years voters miffed at Republican obstructionism might just be angry enough to give us power back, and then, finally, Obama – not facing the politics of reelection – will act as we had hoped?  The past two years have seen revolutionary sentiments fade away yet again…this time a hell of a lot faster and after having accomplished a hell of a lot less than in the sixties.

The following is Thompson’s commentary (with my slight amendments to bring it up to date):

“Due to circumstances beyond my control, I would rather not write anything about the 2010 campaigns at this time.  On Tuesday, November 2, I will get out of bed long enough to go down to the polling place and vote for Democrats.  Afterwards, I will drive back to the house, lock the front door, get back in bed, and watch television as long as necessary.  It will probably be awhile before The Angst lifts – but whenever it happens I will get out of bed again and start writing the mean, cold-blooded bummer that I was not quite ready for today…Words are no longer important at this stage of the campaign; all the best ones were said a long time ago, and all the right ideas were bouncing around in public long before Labor Day.

That is the one grim truth of this election most likely to come back and haunt us: The options were clearly defined, and all the major candidates were publicly grilled…By mid-September both parties had staked out their own separate turfs, and if not everybody could tell you what each platform stood for specifically, almost everyone likely to vote in November understood that the Tea-Partying Republicans and the Democrats were two very different parties: not only in the context of politics, but also in their personalities, temperaments, guiding principles, and even their basic lifestyles…

There is almost a Yin/Yang clarity in the difference between the two parties, a contrast so stark that it would be hard to find any two better models in the national political arena for the legendary duality – the congenital Split Personality and polarized instincts – that almost everybody except Americans has long since taken for granted as the key to our National Character…[I]t is the Tea Party itself that represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.  This lily-white, middle class “Party,” with its Barbie doll wives, and minivans full of Barbie doll children is also America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde.  They speak for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string warts, on nights when the moon comes too close…

At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and the head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the South Wing of the White House and leaps fifty feet down to the lawn…pauses briefly to strangle the Chow watchdog, then races of into the darkness…towards the Watergate, snarling with lust, loping through alleys behind Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Thompson’s analysis of the downfall is both poetic and remarkably precise.  His imagery captures the contradictions that are “America” in a concise, powerful fashion; at once critiquing the powers that be, while revealing to us that these supposed power-brokers are merely the effects of our collective “dark side.”  While the Tea Party hasn’t claimed the White House – as Nixon did – some of its monstrous incarnations will soon be roaming the halls of Congress.




~ by iamtomjoad on November 2, 2010.

One Response to “Fear and Loathing in Fort Collins”

  1. I think it comes down to a few things. One is simple economic metrics, not ideology. There’s alsoa sense that congress isn’t doing anything, but if you look at it, the House has had a tremendously successful two years. Senate has, however, been worthless, due to a set of rules that, if anything, stifle democracy and make the process even more beholden to elite interests – and when I say elite, I mean, the lousy with money. Then there’s a useless media class that isn’t ideological so much as what Jay Rosen calls the “church of the savvy.” (as in “it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.” See Tom Friedman’s infamous “suck on this” comment, or David Broder’s stunningly insane column this past week about bombing Iran, or Maureen Dowd trying to peg any male Democrat as a girly-man unfit to strap on George W. Bush’s girdle.)

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