November, 2004

What follows is purely political in nature, so if that is not your cup of tea please do pass it by.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

-George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1.

The coming election could be shaping up as a watershed event for both the United States of America, and Western Civilization as a whole. Whether by deliberate design of Providence or simple happenstance the American people have been placed in the position of determining what lessons the past has taught, and by extension, how those lessons ought to be applied to the present day.

To those committed to one view or another the lessons to be learned are of crystalline clarity and irrefutable. Unfortunately such fervently held positions are, in the perverse calculus of human affairs, quite in opposition. Even more distressing from the viewpoint of those caught in the grip of ideologically derived certitude, the decision as to what shall be the operating assumptions governing the policies of the world’s sole super power rests clearly in the hands of the American voter.

It is my belief that never before in the history of great decisions has such power been placed in hands more capable of wielding it. Extremists in the political realm have made a virtual blood sport of deriding the intelligence, temperament and judgment of the American voter and in perusing the assorted and mostly hyperbolic opinions abounding the web I note that such disdain has not abated, rather is has grown more intense as each end of the political spectrum begins to build a comfortable redoubt into which it can retreat in the face of defeat.

All in all, this is rather predictable behaviour. While the coming choice is certainly important, and while the assorted polities involved appear desperate, it still fails to approach the apocalyptic levels indicated by the rhetoric lavished upon it. As of yet, there are no riots, no blood in the streets, and no calls for the militia to restore order. Given these facts I find myself hard-pressed to see some desperate struggle at play.

That the polarized ideologues are in high dudgeon is a good thing. That the rhetoric is approaching the ludicrous is a positive aspect. That the outlandish pronouncements of press and pundits seem to be eschewing reality in favour of some murky and nefarious conspiracy-laden fantasy world is, in the end, something that gives me some hope for the sanity of the political process. I view such things as necessary growing pains in a process of moving American representative democracy out of the 19th century and in to the twenty-first.

For the past century the politics of democracy have been subjected to the ever-increasingly mutative effects of the burgeoning information age. American Democracy was born in the age of the pamphleteer and the private publisher, a revolution driven as much by the printing press as by the ideology of the men who would stand in defiance of a King. It seems to me that it has always been assumed that better information distribution must always yield a more informed and involved electorate and to a large degree that has been true; however, even in its nascent stages such political information, be it facts or opinions, were limited in their national exposure by the very men who sought to inform the people: it was not conspiracy, nor was it elitism, it was simple human nature. The printing press could produce only so much, and the man who decided what did and did not make its way in to print held vast sway over the ideas and ideals of his fellows. The nature of the free market served to counter this to some degree, but imperfectly. In terms engineers are fond of, the system worked “well enough”.

As the dissemination of information grew easier, the system adjusted, but again, imperfectly. The past one hundred years has been witness to what can only be described as an explosion of available information and throughout it all the political, structural and cultural mechanisms that both deal with and depend upon this information availability have adjusted in haphazard fits and starts. The result has been a political culture that can only respond easily to crisis and to extremism. Everything else fails to make itself seen amongst the sea of issues, worries and day-to-day events. Everyday people, their lives, hopes, concerns and fears, are drowned in a sea of cultural and political noise.

If the above is at all relevant, then the result is a populace that theoretically has the power to effect sweeping change in the political landscape, but which feels disenfranchised by a system unsuited to hearing and responding to individual voices and concerns. The very same information infrastructure that in theory should ameliorate this problem instead acts to reinforce the perception of helplessness and futility. In the entity of the World Wide Web we have a pamphleteer’s dream universe, where every man with an opinion can make his voice heard; however, instead it is the province of extremists of all manner and stripe with nary a reasonable voice to be heard. In short, it drives the reasonable away.

Despite this, America’s citizens are caught up in the primary events of this election season. There has been an attack upon America, and two large battles have been fought as a result, with the prospect of more to come in the future, regardless of who should win the pending contest. In the upcoming event there are very concrete decisions to be made, choices that shall impact nearly every citizen directly, whether it be in terms of their security, or the courses of their lives or their children’s lives. The war is a concrete reality. It is not some abstract entity about which people can complain, but the President can do little (such as the economy).

Most heartening of all regarding this is the fact that if victory is had with a real majority (I would hazard 55% as a tipping point, but I am hardly scientific in that choice) then it can be assumed that there has been a sea change in the electorate regardless of who is the victor. Elections won by razor thin margins are reflective of the vast middle, the disconnected and self-disenfranchised, sitting out the election. A solid majority can only be won if more of those occupying that ill-defined center find themselves moved to vote. If they do it is likely going to be the War that moves them, and if that is true, then perhaps it can finally be discerned which lessons from the past have been learned, and which have been rejected.

November 2, 2004 should tell the tale.

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