For a less faddish, more challenging account of the parlous state of American politics, it's apt to begin with remarks made by Mike Lee at the Heritage Foundation back in April.
The Tea Party senator, a key agitator in the shutdown and ongoing ObamaCare saga, took aim at Washington elites for investing their faith in government-appointed organizers, champions of fashionable ideological grievances, in preference to the living, breathing individuals who constitute society. "Progressives believe the only valid purpose of 'community' is to accomplish the agenda of the state," effused Lee. "But we know from our own lives that the true purpose of our communities is instead to accomplish everything else."
OK, but what of this Everything Else? Well, it's impossible to categorize, which is its nature, existing as it does beyond all method and theory. It's instinctual, bound up in the artistic aspects of life -- the doing, how we personally relate to others and take responsibility for choices made in a slippery, contingent world that refuses our conceited efforts to master it.
Lee throws into relief the perilous ambition of political modernity. How does liberal democracy prevail if what truly matters, what inspires and moves the spirit, is a unique, localized experience unsecurable by rational means?
Charles Krauthammer flirts with the metaphysics in his new book, Things That Matter. An organized approach to human affairs is an ethical duty, each generation tasked with the unending work of maintaining a sound constitutional order. All things eloquent and beautiful need a foundation to thrive. But "get your politics wrong and everything stands to be swept away."
Right enough, though it's also true that this platform, however impressive, is ultimately insignificant. A Kalahari bushman, uneducated, lacking material trappings and a sophisticated body politic, has the same inward moral capacity to advance Everything Else as a cosmopolitan type at a Park Avenue soirée. Spectacular achievements notwithstanding, the mediating power structures of late-capitalist society cannot satiate the human longing for transcendence. As Krauthammer notes, the lasting glories of a successful politics "lie outside [politics] itself."
Properly understood, politics is thus something of a paradox, crucial and yet also utterly impotent. Though not necessarily in that order.
Personal flourishing owes a great deal to the supporting architecture of collective life. This debt, however, can't be repaid by deference to third parties convinced that human nature can be transformed using a Byzantine array of threats and incentives consistent with a mechanistic understanding of reality. Or, more bluntly, problems arising from the limits of a political system are not, in logic, political problems. And to deny such renders government action prone to becoming part of the disease government purports to be curing. The social contract must, at some point, become self-executing, its sublime goals achieved by elevating the liberty of personal conscience above the vanity of instrumental politics, however righteous or pressing the lingering cause.
The thing is, the unironic political mind is loath to entertain the ineluctable leap of faith. Identifying with absolute individualism -- indeed, being constitutionally obsessed by it -- is one thing. It's another for a culture to embrace its elusive character and, in so doing, potentially undermine the authority and civic consensus required for orderly progress. New Yorkers would be without stunning Central Park vistas, from which to bemoan the injustices of an existence bereft of literal solutions, had the governing elite consciously and consistently acknowledged, throughout America's remarkable development, that what was being forged was politically ineffectual.
The Tea Party senses the historical subterfuge, its members aware, though in an inarticulate way, that the animating self-deception, the garbled centralism that insists that freedom and a coercive state can be "balanced" out indefinitely, has finally come home to roost, in the form of socialized health care.
Modern democracy can be both crucial and impotent, but only if and when it affirms and exemplifies its status as necessary but radically insufficient. The October shutdown -- and those to come -- represents a fraught attempt to expose the irony, to have it resonate as actuality, something more than the rhetorical hype that cloaks political overreach. It didn't break the trance, of course, as the chattering pundits, themselves attached to the messianic mission, critique events within a reductionist framework that cannot sensibly accommodate -- let alone value -- the Everything Else that exceeds political calculation. Alas, even erudite conservatives fail to grasp the subtleties.
What purpose did it serve? Didn't Boehner, Cruz and others foresee the political damage of their intransigence? After observing that "much is wrong with Washington these days, including much of what is said about what is wrong," George Will rebuked Tea Party anarchists for disdaining "the practice of politics within the Framers' institutional architecture." Ross Douthat compared the conduct of House Republicans to that of Cornel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: "such self-evident folly, so transparently devoid of any method."
To admire America, as I do, is to be honest with her. To borrow from G.K. Chesterton, liberal democracy has not been tried in the United States and found wanting; it's been found difficult and left untried. While understandable, the gig is now up, the innate faithlessness of authoritarian politics no longer forgivable.
Krauthammer tells of finding his political home "in a vision of limited government committed above all to guaranteeing individual liberty." This view, though superficially appealing, misconstrues the ethereal nature of freedom. In the end, the institutions are merely clever scaffolding, power a tantalizing ruse. Continue to invest in any form of safeguard, and all that America has created will be swept away in a vast confusion.
And it won't be the Tea Party's fault. Its uncanny thoughtlessness is a vital lived reminder of our political limits, that what matters most is not methodical, but existential, happening here and now, between real people in real communities.
Mark Christensen is an Australian political and social commentator. You can find his writings at www.intempore.com.au.