If I took one thing away from the past two weeks of national theatrics, it was the incredible smallness of the American political imagination. We have two parties, one center-right and one far right, that differ only in degree: both are wedded to manifest falsehoods about merit and social mobility, and both are comfortable with a society that derives an enormous amount of its meaning from aggressive war. Geopolitical domination is an unquestioned good if not a God-bestowed right, and delusions of divine chosenness echo about the way they must have in medieval throne rooms. Worst of all, both are steeped in an ideology—an ironically anti-Christian one, for a nation with so much Christian pablum on its lips—of striving, of earning, of getting what one “deserves,” as if there were any coherent way of measuring such a thing. One party serves this cocktail to a motley assemblage of privileged intellectuals, ethnic minorities, and underclass strugglers; the other delivers it, in a rawer and more potent form, back to the reactionary gentry from whence it came.
If, let’s say, you were to believe in a society that is not structured around dubious notions of economic deserts and God-given rights, or one that does not dramatize external enemies and romanticize combat against them, or one that is committed to radical inclusion both domestically and internationally, you became painfully aware the past two weeks that you have virtually zero political representation in the United States, and little hope of ever having it. Even in the party that contains many who think of themselves as European-style secular intellectuals, there is an endless parade of cheers for murder and bestowals of glory on those whose children threw away their lives in meaningless battle. I’m sure John Kerry and Joe Biden think of themselves as committed secularists, but their enthusiasm for chasing infidels to the “end of the earth” shows just how primally zealous our political mainstream remains.
It’s very tempting to hold all of this in contempt, like so many radicals have done in American history. To do so is to let a natural defense mechanism do its work, to point the monster in the direction of others it might consume first. But I can’t do it; as miserable as it can be to remain engaged, it seems to me to be the only way one can be justified in hoping at all. It’s easy to be all in or all out, but difficult to acknowledge that the Obama administration, as the current incarnation of the American executive branch, is a destructive institution headed by a man who is probably as good as they come. Even if the president’s basic decency is no match for the history and structure of the government he runs, it is impossible to pretend it doesn’t matter at all. Obama vs. Romney is life and death to no small number of Americans, a reality can’t allow myself to discount no matter how slight the improvement might be.
And so we have a duty not to avert our eyes from the horror show of politics, however miniscule the ultimate import, however mistaken the president is about himself and Mitt Romney having “fundamentally different visions.” There are lives at stake in these matters, and there are men who are individually much less evil than the apparatuses they lead. But the duty is paradoxical: not just to participate, but to critique, to proclaim the deep inadequacy of our candidate and of our country’s political thinking so that participation cannot be mistaken for consent. I will vote in November out of humanitarian concern, not out of support for Obama or the American political system. But the much more important project is to imagine and describe how much better it could be.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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