Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Tragedy of the Will

Twenty years ago, while I was talking politics with my friend Mike, he said that Reagan's great achievement was what he called "the Nietzschification of the Right." I didn't grasp what he meant at first, since I typically encountered Nietzsche quoted by leftist literary critics. Mike's point was that Reagan had transformed American conservatism from a stodgy, rationalist enterprise into an emotional, charismatic movement like the New Left of the 1960s. Main Street conservatism gave way to Movement Conservatism, founded upon passionate emotion and conviction. I've thought of that conversation a lot over the last two decades, through the rise and fall of Newt Gingrich, the second Bush Presidency, and the flood tide of the Tea Party. Mike's case has gotten stronger year by year. Mike himself has been furloughed in the government shutdown; he's now a government regulator.

Part of the right wing's Nietzschification has been its emphasis on the will as the decisive force in events. The current version of conservatism has become convinced, more and more thoroughly, that any reality can be reshaped by a sufficiently powerful imposition of one's will. Nothing is impossible if you just believe. But this turns out not to be true. In the actual world, reality takes belief's lunch money on a regular basis. Movement conservatism as practiced by Reagan was still largely the art of the possible; he was empowered by his movement's fervor, but mostly did what he could get through Congress and what his military forces could manage. When he did unrealistic things, like raising the deficit sky-high with tax cuts that were sold as likely to pay for themselves, the consequences either got shunted to the future (because Reagan's huge national debt would eventually be someone else's problem, i.e. ours) or borne by people without any political muscle to fight back, such as the mentally ill or the homeless. He ignored the consequences he could afford to ignore. But when he lost some Marines in Beirut, he pulled the Marines out. He didn't try to will the situation to his preferred result.

By the second Bush presidency, much of the Republican party had lost its ability to make that distinction. The Iraq War is nothing if not the disaster of policy makers who felt they could reshape the world simply by willing it. This is the period during which a White House source talked derisively about the "reality-based community" and ranted about how the Administration was "creating new realities." That's the force-of-will worldview right there. And you heard an enormous amount about will during the Bush II years. Military strategy was often cast as about demonstrating sufficient amounts of will, as if once our enemies realized we were serious, nothing else would matter. (This of course leaves out the possibility that our military enemies might themselves bend intense willpower toward achieving their goals. Since our primary enemies were hardened religious fanatics, that was more than a possibility.) This led Matt Yglesias to coin his phrase "the Green Lantern Theory of Foreign Policy," after a comic book superhero who could do anything with sufficient willpower. The last decade demonstrated just how poorly that theory worked.

Now the conservatives in the House are not merely trying to impose their will over policy realities, but over the reality of the political process itself, as if they could guarantee a victory over Obama simply by being more committed to the goal. They have made demands and not gotten what they demanded, and they have no plan but to stick to those demands. That's it. They ultimately believe Obama will cave because the power of their belief itself will make him cave. They don't have any other plan, and they have no endgame. Recently, some Republican senators from swing states angrily asked Ted Cruz what his strategy was, and he answered, apparently unconcerned, that he did not have a strategy. When this provoked his fellow Republicans to vocal rage, Cruz allegedly responded by calling them "defeatists." Think about the mindset that reveals. Someone with no game plan at all, someone who has no idea of how to try to win, takes the suspicion that he will therefore not win as a sign of a character flaw. Those who expect to lose simply because they cannot see any possible way to win are defeatists. Winners, evidently, do not need plans in Cruz's view of the world. They just need to believe in themselves.

That the Republicans, and especially the Tea Party wing of the Republicans, might actually suffer a political defeat seems to strike them as inconceivable. Their plan is to will themselves to victory. The fiscal and political health of our nation is in the hands of people too unrealistic even to calculate their own selfish chances. They are not unrealistic by chance, but by design. They are not simply poor gamblers, bad at estimating their odds. They are opposed to realism on principle. Realism is just defeatism. They are committed, more than anything, to the primacy of will over reality. That is the beating heart of their value system. To accept facts that they cannot change would be a betrayal of their most important principle. To do so would leave them lost and rudderless. Of course they can't make concessions to reality, let alone to Barack Obama. They cannot bring themselves to concede that "reality," as we know the term, even exists.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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