Of all the statistics among all the political polls released this week, this rather obscure one, from Pew Research, spoke loudly and, to me, most unambiguously about why the presidential race stands where it stands:
"Voter interest in the campaign remains extraordinary: fully 81% continue to say that they have given a lot of thought to the presidential election, the highest ever measured at this stage in a campaign."
There you have it. Like Samuel Johnson's observation about hanging, it seems that nothing concentrates the electorate's mind like an acute recession and the threat of a chronic depression.
We tell ourselves that foreign wars are indeed a matter of grave concern, what with all their bloody loss of human life and public treasure, but let's face it: one's own pocketbook trumps other people's far more horrendous problems any old election year.
And it's then that the electorate runs home to mommy, the Democrat.
If only we had seen rude upticks in the price of gas and crashing home values and creeping layoffs and etc., etc., etc. in 2004 rather than 2008, perhaps we could have spared ourselves this needless surfeit of economic pain.
But we didn't see it then, even though virtual platoons of high financial analysts were frantically clanging the bells of alarm. Hey, as long as we had what's ours, everyone else -- including our country's sons and daughters marooned in desert or mountainous wastelands of tribal conflict -- and everything else could just by-God wait on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, half-attentively we'd stick with old tough-love dad, the Republican.
I generalize and simplify -- but not, I think, oversimplify -- to highlight a distressing but demonstrable point: Americans are "exceptional" all right, just like Sarah Palin insists we are. But our exceptionalism isn't always in the form we'd care to confess: we are, that is, exceptionally self-interested, self-centered and self-absorbed.
It takes something like this -- a gargantuan global crisis of concentric design in which we, individually, are the bull's eye -- to slap us into that greater reality. Two insanely conducted foreign wars -- three, if you count the amorphous one against a tactic -- weren't enough to quite do the trick.
By and large we were willing to just stumble along with that apodictically clueless stumblebum in the White House, he of historic inattentiveness and downright epic in curiosity. Problems? What problems? Everything was humming right along. We could take his word for it. And we did.
Which, in 2004, forever painted the American electorate itself historically and epically irresponsible.
The question now isn't whether we'll change course (unfortunately, within the inexorable constraints handed to the next president). That, it would seem, is an arithmetical given. Mommy has daddy backed into an electoral-count corner whose already narrow territory continues to shrink by the hour. Talk about your concentric circles and the ultimate bull's eye.
No, that's no longer the question, or should I say, the trick. Because the trick is going to be whether or not we concentrate our minds to learn something from all this pain -- that of the past, present, and even predictable future if we don't.
In short, we have got to grow up. We have got to accept that we are not the biggest kid on the block or the smartest kid in the class any more. We forfeited all claims to those exceptional honorifics -- if real they were -- some time ago.
In fact we threw them away. We were too engaged in self-celebratory, infantile chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" to notice that the good old U.S.A. was going down the tubes. And it was headed south because we weren't paying attention to what our leaders were doing, or, rather, what they weren't doing -- looking down the track.
Because we -- most of us -- had ours. Everything was just peachy, as long as both we and our leaders kept our eyes tightly shut and our minds hermetically closed to that blinding light of that oncoming train. Just permit us our iPhones and cable tv and toss in the occasional "U.S.A.!" and all would remain well.
Or so we thought. But as the conservative intelligentsia (such as it is) began insisting decades ago, "ideas have consequences." And now we're paying the consequential price of years of mostly its ideas, which we fecklessly signed off on, because, simply, we weren't really paying attention to anyone but ourselves.
There were many a voice in the wilderness standing athwart our unfolding history, just as Bill Buckley encouraged us to do, "yelling Stop!" Excuse me, pardon me, coming through -- can't anyone else see that big ugly train speeding our direction down the track? We heard that aplenty, but shut it out.
Maybe, this time, we'll learn. There's always hope, however much hope itself stands athwart the history of human folly.
Maybe we will grow the hell up and not need Mommy or Daddy anymore. What are the chances?
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THE FIFTH COLUMNIST by P.M. Carpenter
The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.