“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies” – Groucho Marx
The rest of the world is watching the 2016 U.S. Presidential race and wondering if we’ve lost our damn minds. This is a relevant question, but a little disingenuous. I mean, have you met the rest of the world? There is a slim chance of paradise on earth emerging or an overabundance of political sanity erupting anywhere else either. Almost half the world’s wealth is owned by one percent of the population, and that one percent generally thinks you would be at your most useful as Soylent Green. At least 80% of humanity lives on less than ten dollars a day and reside in countries where income differentials are widening. The vast majority of our species would say they are more or less collectively screwed.
Then there’s the violence. War in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Darfur, and Northwest Pakistan. Insurgencies in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. The Kurdish-Turkish conflict. Civil War in Somalia, Yemen, Libya and South Sudan. A drug war in Mexico. Unrest in Kashmir, Balochistan, Myanmar, South Thailand, Northeast India, and Burundi. Terrorists blowing up targets of opportunity wherever they get the chance. The Arab Spring has become the Arab Winter. And this is just to name a few of the most notable hotspots that I could jot down before my hand got tired.
And ostensible democracies all over the globe are dipping their toes into fascist (or nationalist, if you want to be generous) ideologies from the U.K. to Austria to France to Denmark, and yes, to the United States. Some bemoan the failure of neoliberalism, the past decade of economic collapse across the global market, the predations of the global elite, or even the basic human propensity for not being able to get along with our fellow man. We certainly don’t blame ourselves or our willingness to suspend disbelief that the powers that be consider us anything but simpletons and sheep.
Has our historical experiment in representative democracy finally failed? The world is not safer, saner, or more equitable. Are we thus doomed to live under absolute monarchs, theocratic madmen, or follow demagogues down dubious paths? After a few drinks, I had a disturbing revelation. Well, two really: (1) Whiskey should be considered a breakfast food, and (2) No matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, Capitalist or Socialist, Liberal or Conservative, Team Jolie or Team Anniston, you are inevitably going to throw your support behind a monster. The reason for this is simple. All politicians are monsters.
Harsh, you say, voice in my head? Don’t worry, we’re not rolling out the guillotines for as Alexis de Toqueville (or possibly Joseph de Maistre for those OCD folks who care about accurate quote attribution, as if plagiarism ever starved anybody to death or committed mass genocide) said, “In a democracy, people get the government they deserve.” Now, I’m not saying you’re a jerk. I like you. You smell nice. It’s just that monsters at the level of their most basic sociological explanation (I’m not saying they aren’t out there in the dark forest waiting to feast on your innards, just playing someone sober and thoughtful on TV) are reflections of our insecurities precipitated by category crisis.
Let me rephrase that so I don’t sound like a post-modern egghead. Whenever we encounter something that calls attention to cultural or aesthetic differences from what we’ve been let to expect, we freak out. Academics write dissertations on this stuff, but that’s all it really boils down to. Take the whole transgender bathroom non-issue that’s a popular bogeyman in the Southern U.S. these days. Apparently, should you fall below the Mason-Dixon Line, men are men, women are women, and never the twain shall meet. When they do, people have conniptions about possibly having to pee in the presence of someone whose identity, in the minds of the observer is liminal. Dude looks like a lady. And when the category doesn’t make sense to us, we feel there is something “uncanny” (in the Freudian sense, of something strangely familiar, yet incongruous) about the whole matter. We don’t like uncertainty. And when faced with uncertainty, we figure there “ought to be a law”. Enter the politician. The person who is going to quiet our fears and re-establish the boundaries of our comfortable categories is the master of the dissonantly liminal.
The foundations of civilized society really aren’t that different from what we learn in Kindergarten. Don’t hurt others. Don’t steal stuff. Don’t eat the glue. If we follow those precepts we can generally get along with our neighbors and avoid visits to the emergency room. As society got more complex, the category crisis exploded and it became increasingly important that the guy pulling the rope next to you as you built the ziggurat wasn’t too weird and didn’t make you too uncomfortable. That’s where things went sideways. Discomfort became legislatable or actionable. Along comes a leader to assure us that our discomfort is understandable, justifiable, and more importantly, subject to control. That is, the liminal can be harnessed and serve to prop up our worldview. This was the birth of the politician. Sure we had to transition from God-Kings to elected representatives, but they’re all selling the same thing.
Consider what it means to be a politician. Find what folks fear the most, be it plagues of locusts, barbarians, or gingers. Declare a plan for what must be done to protect us from the ravages of those red-haired bastards, garner an upswell of popular support, and tell everyone that if only they follow you, their righteous anger and discomfort will be assuaged, and life will return to a comprehensible state, where the liminal knows its proper place.
In short, politicians stare into the abyss, and as Friedrich Nietzsche wisely warned, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”. The politician is in the business of intentionally creating monsters, and thereby becomes a monster. Who was more ethically monstrous, Dr. Victor Frankenstein or Frankenstein himself? Our politicians, like our monsters, are mirror reflections of our own uncertainties, and they comfort us, be it with braggadocio and bombast, or with expertise and intellectualism, but make no mistake that by their nature, engendering monsters with which to threaten us, they are no doubt themselves unavoidably monstrous.
We elect monsters to fight monsters, and in the world of 24 hour news and social media, can validate our opinions on what we find uncomfortable with the push of a button, measured in retweets and likes. And then choose the monster we prefer. Perhaps this is because beneath it all, our own individual, monstrous natures are eternally locked in combat with our longing for a better world. We can find room in our hearts for those close to us, for those things that are familiar, but when we find ourselves awash in ambiguity that fuels our rage. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein captured the global zeitgeist of 2016 when he said, “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”