I read with great sadness that lately your life has gotten you down. Thanks to the painfully diminishing political returns of your work as a master pollster, it seems you’ve been paid a lengthy visit by what a depressed Winston Churchill called the “black dog.” You’re spending a lot of time here in LA. You’re thinking seriously about a career change. A lot less Washington, a lot more Hollywood.
I know. It’s tempting. I feel your pain. And have for years. But together, we can rediscover a purpose without surrendering American politics to the Fates.
Like you, and like many of my friends and colleagues, it’s been a wearying and disheartening journey from the relative sanity and orderliness of pre-9/11 America. I remember that feeling of relief when we all learned for sure that Al Gore was not our new president. I remember that feeling of power and promise when our first guys on the ground in Afghanistan were snapped riding horses and rocking beards. I remember the same breakfast circuit of the vast right-wing conspiracy that you do.
But from Tora Bora onward, political life in America became one frustration after the next. Two failed presidencies? Endlessly failing movements for reform? For people like us whose job it is to care about politics, the past 15 years have been a recipe for a life of bitterness, resentment, and fear.
I tried. I voted for Kerry in 2004. (It was easy. I lived in California.) I voted for McCain in 2008. (It was easy. He wasn’t going to win.) I voted for nobody in 2012. Nothing helped. The disappointment of the White House races was just a symptom of a larger problem. Molly Ball summed up your diagnosis like this: “The entitlement he now hears from the focus groups he convenes amounts, in his view, to a permanent poisoning of the electorate—one that cannot be undone.” And as you observe, this isn’t a simple right/left problem. It’s endemic. It’s what’s pushed me and so many others away from the formal power structure of the Republican Party… toward art, music, and culture, and away from a career inside the Beltway.
It’s not self-entitlement in an economic sense that’s so frightening. People—all kinds of people, all races, classes, and genders—want all too often an entitlement to their hate. And, even deeper, an entitlement to their fear. This policy or that officeholder is going to ruin their lives. This administration or that talk radio host has declared an all out war against them. America itself could be destroyed. And will be, unless our hate and fear is fully unleashed. “Give me liberty or give me death” has given way to “Without absolute power, I’m dead.”
(Hitler told audiences that when someone asked them what they were against, they should answer with a single word: “You.”)
We can’t force politics to save us in the same way we can’t find our identity in what we do or who we do it with. There’s no cheese down either of those tunnels. There’s no there there.
No wonder you don’t feel up to the task of bettering politics, despite the fact that you are far and away the most prominent and successful human in your field. I’ve never felt that better polling would save us. I’m a political theorist. But a courageous political theorist will eventually discover that political theory won’t save us either—especially not now, and for the exact same reasons that you’re struggling.
And a courageous human will see that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we may be forever poisoned, but we are not doomed to fail.
Unless people like you, me, and our fellow disenchanted politicos find a substitute for trying to convince people that our arguments are right, politics will remain the realm of despair that Philip Rieff said it was in his final book, The Crisis of the Officer Class. (He’s my favorite social psychologist. Total reactionary, but he knows a lot about how not to treat anxiety.)
In that book, Rieff speaks of two kinds of despair. The first is our quintessentially modern desolation, a “falling in all directions.” The second, which he associates with the apostle Paul, requires that you “endure the world as it is in order that you may witness and practice the observances of a presiding presence without which the world itself ceases to exist.” For a lot of people, that means getting religion. God is the only way many of us can answer “to be or not to be” in the affirmative.
But any expert in public opinion knows well that religion is failing us as a shared redoubt for restoring meaning and sanity in American life. That leads more than a few observers to conclude that we really are headed for an age of debilitating, catastrophic conflict. The hate and the fear, we are told, is too ingrained to be undone by anything or anyone.
Why should we embrace that counsel of despair? Why should we acquiesce in the preparation of our spirits for the worst kind of servility—slavery to fate? Are we not free human beings? Is not our most fundamental freedom from fate among our natural human endowments?
To ask these questions is to begin to bounce back from politically induced despair. So neither polling nor political theory can transfigure the human heart or orient our minds toward the brotherhood of man? So what! We can still talk about the possibilities for the bravery of love that no amount of dysfunction in Washington can deny. All we need to do is start creating and sharing sustained moments when we can realize that we’re always already able to surrender our fears.
2013 was a hard year for me. In my personal and professional life, I lost almost all the key relationships that I wanted to define my identity. The most brilliant thing that David Frum ever said—another one of our fellow disenchanted—was that it’s hard to fight for political liberty when your life is spent in court battling a psycho ex. (I paraphrase.) Just so, my grip on politics as the site of hope fell away as my own life seemed to lose its promise.
But eventually, I realized these things had happened for the same reason. We can’t force politics to save us in the same way we can’t find our identity in what we do or who we do it with. There’s no cheese down either of those tunnels. There’s no there there.
Here on Earth, our happiness, our sanity, and our humanity can only be found in how we choose to be together. Only then can we start to agree on what being human is all about.
You know as well as I do: Right now, the country can’t seem to agree on that. The Republican Party can’t seem to agree on it. And the Democrats are kidding themselves that they’ve put to rest the left’s own anthropological disagreements. Some libertarians talk as if economics explains everything about how we are, but not even they really believe it. We’re all waiting to be guided into an authentic conversation about being human together.
Maybe not all pollsters or political theorists can make that happen in America. But I bet that at least a few, who have touched the painful quick of their own humble humanity, can have a fighting chance.