October 1, 2019
Author: Chilton Williamson
Journalists, notably H.L. Mencken, used to complain that ninety-nine percent of American politicians, ninety-nine percent of the time, had the habit–deplorable in a democracy–of giving speeches in which they said precisely nothing. Today, at the end of the second decade of the 21stcentury, politicians—like children–will say absolutely anything, as we’ve learned over the past summer as they hone their weapons for the 2020 presidential campaign. (It occurs to me as I write this that 2020 may have some deeper spiritual, or at least political, significance given its evocation of the ocular formula 20-20, indicating perfect human vision. Will the candidates exhibit signs of unprecedented political insight, foresight, and wisdom next year? We shall see.)
The Democratic hopefuls have been somersaulting over each other to top the promises just made by the last one leapfrogged. Free universal health care, free college tuition, reparations for slavery, the immediate extermination of corrupt CEOs, the instant termination of mass shootings by the seizure of all “assault” weapons, an end to global warming and the start of a process of re-cooling by the first Earth Day after the election, all billionaires plundered and broken to the ranks of corporate America—all on “Day One,” of course. (What would an American politician’s promise be worth without that very specific assurance?) Already Mencken would be half-satisfied. Today, politicians are actually saying things. He’d be fully satisfied if the things they said made sense, but Mencken’s journalistic career was confined to the first half of the 20thcentury. His successors, whether in what remains of print journalism or the audio-visual media, are perfectly happy with that first half alone. Modern journalists don’t make sense either, and it wouldn’t do for politicians to best them in the attempt to do so.
What can be the explanation for the political class’ sudden mastery of what “Millennials,” the verbally oriented side of their brains clotted by techno-jargon, call the learning curve? I don’t know, but I suggest that the radical splintering of current political opinion, the widespread defection from established parties, and the multiplicity of news media and the digital gadgets developed to deliver their “product” go a long way toward offering one. Sixty or seventy years ago, candidates for political office stood for one of the two major parties, plus maybe one or two minor ones, typically not in a single election. The audiences they addressed on the hustings, or on radio or television, were thus far more heterogeneous than those they address today. Politicians had to show sympathy for, endorse in the vaguest terms, or at least not attack the variable views and concerns of big-tent audiences. Their aim was to offend as few potential voters as possible by saying nothing that anyone within the broadest imaginable range of partisan political opinion would likely disagree with. In our politically polarized age, candidates try to restrict their campaign events to bespoke audiences, comprised of people they need not mince words with and indeed are expected not to. In doing so, of course, they run the risk of being overheard by members of rival factions within the wider party, and that risk is a very real one. They trust their friends in the media—which is all of the media–to reduce that risk so far as it is possible to do so.
All intra-Left disagreements will be worked out in the end, in the cause of defeating the Great Satan, the Right.
1 October 2019