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Visitors to a celebrated new production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV in New York this winter will recognize something in the tale of a carousing son following in the footsteps of his ruling father. At one point, the ailing king tells his son about the political value of Middle East conflict: “Be it their course,” he advises, “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, may waste the memory of former days.” The resonance between Henrys and Georges represents the latest concern of the anti-Bush movement: the relationship of dynasty to democracy.
That’s the focus of a new book by Kevin Phillips, one of a growing number of lifelong Republicans and conservatives unable to stomach the present administration. American Dynasty, argues that the Bush Restoration is particularly sinister, representing not two but four generations of parasitic behavior from a family whose business has focused on profiting from oil, defense, intelligence work and investment banking since World War I.
Gleaning this much from the book jacket, I was on my way to the cash register to buy it when I set it down again, realizing that I just don’t want to know. As much as it feels necessary to learn the details of the depravity of those in power, the time has come to face the fact that in politics, such knowledge is not enough to dislodge them.
While the left stands aghast at public ignorance on critical matters (like the wide acceptance of a phantom Saddam 9/11 link) it often forgets that for every disturbing fact the public doesn’t know, there are several that the public does know and simply doesn’t care about. For example, the fact that Bush was not elected president by most of the people and arguably not by the electoral college either the existence of some shady business dealings in Bush’s past, the fact that he is the first president with a criminal record (drunk driving) and that there is something really, really funny about the way this war was put together, have all been aired and seen by the public. But right now, the public would re-elect him anyway.
Democrats who feel emboldened by weaknesses in the administration are right to look forward to developments in 2004 like the special prosecutor investigation of the CIA leak from the White House, or a forthcoming report by the 9/11 commission that will likely embarrass the President. But those who count on it to bring down the administration are urinating on the wrong tree.
That all the dirt on the Bushes is true is not the point; the trouble is that tearing down the President is not enough to elect a new one. We need look no further than the regime changes of Afghanistan and Iraq to see signs that the public is justified in regarding “Out With the Bad” as an incomplete proposition.
That there remain nine presidential candidates among the Democrats, and that voters widely complain that none has swept them off their feet, hints at this problem. Anyone can criticize Bush (he offers plenty of material to work with), but a clearly articulated, positive vision for America is the sort of thing that would distinguish a candidate, and we can’t seem to find one. Howard Dean, who defines himself by opposition, is as dependent on Bush as the other major candidates, who justify themselves in terms of who can be best one to beat him in November. The result is that in either strain of Democratic campaigning, Bush gets all the attention. To make a compelling case, the left must talk about what it stands for.
Democrats, who are gradually coming to appreciate this, seem daunted by the prospect of developing a vision, but it’s not as monumental a project as it sounds. In this case, the task is less a matter of invention than articulation. The point is not to abandon outrage and invent a vision to replace it—in fact, the positive vision already exists beneath the Left’s complaints, and a formula for bringing it out lies within the outrage itself.
A positive idea is already contained in every complaint and objection raised by Democrats today. Dems can look beneath their outrage at the tax cut to find the sense of justice and mutual responsibility that it offends, and see their anger about the deficit in terms of the kind of future that it sacrifices. How about a catalog of things that we could do if the government only had the resources? We can point out afterwards why, with this crew in power, we can’t afford them. Instead of railing against the way the war has been handled, they can articulate the international order that it has destabilized. Instead of complaints that obscure a positive vision, Democrats can offer a vision in which the cost of continued Republican rule is implied. A real discussion of how much better off we’d be without oil dependence would go a long way in making clear the cost of Bush’s backwards energy policy. Attacks on bad ideas, policies and practices would mean more if the alternative were clear.
Bush-haters often complain of the Orwellian quality of this administration’s approach to the truth. I agree, but the next time the White House announces that two plus two equals five, it won’t be enough to gasp, “You’re lying!” Someone has to give the right answer.
Peter P. M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears regularly.
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