Over the last few years Americans have made a habit of portraying our politics as a stand-off between two incompatibly divisive parties. True as that may be, these depictions often carry an implied premise: this is the tipping point for our nation, and if we don’t fix something now, we’ll initiate some sort of political Armageddon.
The rightwing version of the argument makes it most clear: Obama is the communist anti-Christ set to irrevocably destroy the American way of life. Somehow, the Right can’t fathom that Obama’s grand transgression may simply be the continuation of decades-old US policies. As important as Obamacare is, it’s no break from the FDR-flavoured past that led directly to the apogee of US world power. Yet to them, Obama is the sign of the end time.
But the Left is guilt of a similar fallacy, and although it’s more understandable, it’s also more problematic. It’s common to hear Missouri senator Todd Akin (above left)’s fantastical biological theory and ‘legitimate rape’ comments used as a sign that the Republican Party has reached a level of misogyny that is entirely unstable. Ex-vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (above right)’s fuzzy budgetary maths is used to the same end in economic matters.
But as horrifying and extreme as these developments are, they are not particularly new: Akin and Ryan are, at most, a marginal step beyond their colleagues from 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But it seems probable that segregationists like Governor George Wallace and Senator Strom Thurmond represent something at least as extreme. And that means our particular brand of terror doesn’t tell of some profound new political trauma that will decide the fate of our nation – these aren’t the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. They’re the demons that have plagued us throughout the entirety of our history. Akin and Ryan (and Mourdock and Beck and Limbaugh) are an ever-present part of this country.
The apocalyptic undertones to these debates deny the darkest shadows in our past by making it seem as though the US will either be destroyed by the Tea Party, or arise victorious with an equitable and open society. Much of the post-election commentary argues the Right will correct to centre after their sound electoral defeat, but that thought is only possible if we pretend that we haven’t always been fighting these regressive trends. By discussing Akin and Ryan as if they’re dragging us to the brink of utter destruction, we’re losing sight of the facts.
The truth of the matter is much tamer – and more difficult. Today’s Right does not make an existential threat to women, minorities or the nation. It makes the exact same threat it’s always made. If we can remove the apocalyptic fanaticism from the current debates, we can recognize that the Right will not collapse under its own weight, nor will there be some eternal victory if Ryan is voted out of office (as Akin just was). If we approach these issues a little more soberly, we’ll be able to remember the painful struggles of the progressive and civil rights eras so we can continue that long, slow, and absolutely necessary work to productively fight for the policies we need.
But as long as we maintain the fiction that Obama’s re-election was the victory of good over evil, the decisive moment in which the US chose definitively against Akin’s misogyny and Ryan’s anti-public services stance, we are unable to effectively resist the Right’s regression. As long as we think about our problems in apocalyptic terms, we are unable to understand effectively what needs to be done. The Tea Party, as bad as it is, is not the movement that will ruin the US. It is just another of the long list of battles we have left to fight.
Matt Hartman studied philosophy and economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holds an MA in the humanities from the University of Chicago. He has presented his academic work at Princeton University and writes at The Digital Combatant.