Shockwaves from the Lieberman fallout continue. Public officials, pundits, and pollsters keep trying to predict the political meaning of the public’s mood. We’ve been here before, they got it wrong then, and I’m afraid they will again. Political observers and handicappers can’t control themselves in analyzing the Lamont-Lieberman results. They tell us that the Iraq war will be the defining issue in the 2006 mid-term elections; that an air of anti-incumbency is sweeping across the nation; and that politicians must now choose between a politics of civility and a politics of hard-edged partisanship if they are to win.
What utter nonsense. Where have they been?
Indeed, on Friday, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne on National Public Radio said that the only real reason political shockwaves are moving through America nowadays is because of people’s increasing disgust with the Iraq war. No war, he said, no discussion of citizen unrest!
And yet, there have been a series of such shockwaves in recent memory, which would serve us well to remember. They’re all part of an important emerging narrative about American politics and public life.
For instance, one can go back to Ross Perot in the early 1990s, when people said they were fed up with politics and public life. Remember, Perot promised to check under the hood to find out what was wrong and fix it! Fast forward then to 9/11; then to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; and now to the war in Iraq, not to mention what is happening in the Middle East.
In each instance, we Americans were told that as a result of these shockwaves our politics and public life would change for the better. And in most cases, individual Americans stepped forward to help pitch in at the time.
But nothing changed over time. In fact, with each passing shockwave, people could see our politics and public life further deteriorate. People were left holding dashed hopes from a series of broken promises. Thus, people began to retreat from the public square into close-knit circles of families and friends; there they could exercise a modicum of control over their lives; there, they could turn away from the mess we call politics and public life.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that the arc of this retreat, and its causes, are detailed in my book Hope Raveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back. Take, for example, 9/11, after which all sorts of pronouncements were made that the tone of our politics would become more productive, news media coverage would become more serious, and more citizens would become more involved. When I interviewed people across the country on this matter, many said that after an initial surge of activity, conditions had only worsened. It was a “false start” to something better.
After Hurricane Katrina, we experienced about eight days of a discussion about poverty, education, rebuilding communities, and other underlying issues. That discussion quickly fizzled, degenerating into finger pointing and blame placing.
Indeed, what we are seeing in people’s unrest today is not simply about the shockwaves from the Iraq war or the Connecticut primary results; nor is it anything new. Rather, what we are witnessing has been emerging for some time now and has become deeply ingrained in our body politic.
If we are to address people’s real concerns, then we must see and understand this larger story. We must come to terms with its underlying meaning. And we must decide that it’s time to take a different path in politics and public life – one fundamentally guided by a notion of authentic hope, not false promise.