Last December, in a critique in this magazine of the reactionary response of many on the left to the events of September 11, 2001, Christopher Hitchens noted that one of the most determined impulses of human beings confronted with the shock of the really new is to translate the event into the language of the old debates. This seemed like an important observation at the time, and by now it is clear that it is the essential observation.
The great running tension now in policy and politics, and in the public discussion of policy and politics, is not so much between left and right or even between Democrat and Republican as it is between those who understand 9/11 as a dividing line and those who do not. The former (and, to emphasize, these include many of the left and of the Democratic Party) more or less accept the idea that the world has radically changed and that policies and politics, and the public debate that advances policies and politics, must change too. The latter prefer, for various reasons, to stick with the policies and politics and debate that obtained prior to September 11.
For some months after last September the great weight in this dynamic was almost entirely on the side of what might be called the new conversationalists. That changed this summer, when it became clear that for now, at least, the old conversationalists have triumphed. We are back in familiar territory. Europe is over its uncomfortable spell of pretending that it supported America in its war aims. "We're not available for adventures," sniffed German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, speaking of any attack on Iraq. (Germans not available for military adventures —well, you can't deny that's progress.) In Europe and in America, or at least among the opinion-shaping elites in Europe and America, the necessity of prosecuting the war against anti-American terrorist groups and their state sponsors (the next critical step being war against the regime of Saddam Hussein) is no longer obvious. And much to the relief of the establishment press of both continents, it is fashionable again to denounce George W. Bush as a fool and a lightweight and a not-really-President who does what Dick Cheney and big business tell him to. Home, sweet home.
There are several reasons why this happened. The first is the very
nature of the war that began on September 11. It is, as Bush seemed to acknowledge in his defining speech nine days after the attack, a war that poses a particular challenge to our nation's greatest societal weakness—that of attention span. Most Americans have been reasonably steadfast in their support for a conflict that takes to the extreme war's traditional reality of endless tedium punctuated by brief terror. But this doesn't mean they have to pay attention to it. You can ask a lot of a nation raised on television, but one thing you can't ask is that it not switch channels when it is bored. The boredom is compounded by the fact that the first phase of the war, the battle of Afghanistan, was won quickly, and the second phase, the battle of Iraq, has not started. This has been a period of lull: this war's first, but not last, sitzkrieg.
Second, the eruption of widespread violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, unavoidably, confused focus while redirecting what had been a new conversation concerning the Middle East into the patterns and divisions of a very old argument. Third, the various interests that prefer the old conversation to the new, for reasons of ideology or politics or prejudice, have been persistent and creative in their shifts and feints, whereas the Bush Administration (apart from the White House's first-rate speechwriting office) has in this regard been fairly ham-handed. (Was there ever a less fortunately named federal endeavor than the Department of Homeland Security?)
Finally, and most important, the spectacular implosion of the telecom bubble and the related collapse of the media-synergy bubble, combined with the related nightmare on Wall Street, have naturally resurrected one of the oldest and most popular conversations in American politics. We are back in the beloved land of Powerful Interests giving The People a right royal screwing, aided and abetted by a government of Corrupt Politicians that those Interests have bought with their Ill-Gotten Gains.
This is the ur-storyline of the Democratic Party, the one that emerged as soon as the party coalesced, in the early 1820s, around the nation's first true and complete populist in national politics, the Tennessee legislator, war hero, enthusiastic killer (his opponents credited him with causing eighteen deaths other than in combat), and fervent man of the people Andrew Jackson. Jackson's legislative aide Major John Eaton literally wrote the party script, in a series of eleven political articles for the Columbian Observer of Philadelphia. With detailed analysis and supercharged rhetoric Eaton argued at length that the Washington elites and their eastern paymasters ("The Great Whore of Babylon," Jackson called them collectively) had betrayed the revolutionary republic into the "Hands of Mammon." This proved the stuff to feed the troops—or, rather, the masses—and Jackson won the terrifically low and vicious election of 1828 on a wave of popular fury. Ten thousand common people (and in those days "common" meant something—such as illiterate, unwashed, toothless, armed, and drunk) descended on Washington for the inauguration. Daniel Webster wrote, in apparent amazement, "People have come 500 miles to see General Jackson and they really seem to think the country has been rescued from some general disaster."
You cannot blame the Democrats for wanting to stick with a script, and an ending, like that one, and you cannot blame them for seeing in the present moment dramatic potential of the highest order. WorldCom! Enron! Five trillion dollars in paper wealth wiped out in less than two years! On the watch of "The MBA President"! Now, there's a Whore of Babylon you can get your teeth into.
And so we have a new conversation that is the oldest of the old conversations. The Democrats know their lines by heart (varied expressions of moral outrage at the perfidy of Republicans), and the Republicans know theirs (incoherent, impotent, furious sputtering at the unfairness of it all), and the press is as happy as it always is when life conforms to storyline. This is working out fine for everybody.
Except, in what may turn out to be footnote territory, for that latter-day populist from Tennessee, Al Gore. On August 4 The New York Times ran on its op-ed page what was clearly intended to be Gore's re-entry, after a long and sometimes bearded silence, into battle, presumably with an eye to 2004. It was perhaps unfortunate that Gore, who was raised to succeed and exceed his father, the U.S. senator Al Gore Sr., chose to open his manifesto with an implied denunciation of "those who believed they were entitled to govern because of their station in life." At any rate, Gore's call to the people won a rather extraordinary reception in the very place of its birth: a sound savaging by Maureen Dowd and a second op-ed battering by Bill Keller, which ran under the headline "We Love You, You're Perfect, Goodbye"—not to mention a front-page news article quoting various Democrats to the effect that they don't much care for Gore anymore.
The thing about politics (that is hardly fair) is that everything comes around again, but not everything comes around for everybody.