The 2002 Paradox

Even though everyone says Sept. 11 changed everything in America, I’m not sure we’ve fully noticed how much it’s changed everything. And here’s a paradox: All that change may well yield a kind of stasis, at least immediately, at least in the midterm elections.

Politically, people are realigning (Pat Buchanan continues to build support on the left) and unaligning (Christopher Hitchens and Ron Rosenbaum leave the left). Culturally more people seem to be taking to their couches like Victorian virgins with the vapors, watching reruns of “Seinfeld” on new plasma TVs. If the apocalypse comes they will watch it in high resolution. Some previous couch dwellers, on the other hand—that would be you, Former Slacker—are energized, taking to the streets as an antiwar movement begins.

In New York City there’s a kind of capitalist kabuki going in which the bright people who own the great office buildings think, in their deepest hearts, that New York’s ascendancy is over, and yet continue hustling space to the bright people who buy office buildings, who buy on 57th Street for the new Armani flagship. Everyone is doing what they did, with the same old arrogance and shine. Because people do what they know how to do. Just because you’re pessimistic doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a deal.

Anyway, they’re all waiting for the next Manolo Blahnick to drop.

The whole country is.

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This weekend I watched the ragtag end of a Central Park antiwar demonstration march down 96th Street in Manhattan. They were mostly young, college age, and they seemed to me also, as I listened to their chants and watched them pump the air with their fists, like my friends at the antiwar demonstrations of 1968, passionate and confused. My friends meant to be for peace and wound up, almost inevitably, hurling bitter bile at America. It’s funny how peace movements are so good at hating.

In 1968 the Democratic Party split. Today it could split over Iraq, too. Anyone who’s seen Rep. Charlie Rangel on a cable news show the past month knows some Democratic leaders have strong convictions against the war. Yesterday the Washington Post quoted former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile launching a rocket at the Democratic National Committee: “Our liberal base wants us to stand up and challenge Bush on the war.” Members of the Democratic coalition, she said—voters in low-income neighborhoods, blacks, liberal suburbanites—are unhappy that “no one is talking to us, no one is addressing our issues” on the economy. “There is a real danger out there.” Direct-mail contributions to the DNC are plummeting. Democrats fear a low turnout on Nov 5.

Departing House GOP leader Dick Armey fears the same for his team. He said last week that he is worried about two things: the potential for Democratic voter fraud and a low turnout from Christian conservative Republicans who have yet, he said, to be fired up.

So people are realigning and unaligning, the Democratic Party could split, and the leaders of both parties worry about low turnout because voters are uninspired.

How could all of this be happening at the same time?

We have everything to be passionate about, war and recession. But the man leading the potential war, George W. Bush, hasn’t made himself very hateable. On the economy his opposition, the Democratic Party, says it has the answers to our problems, but it has not, as they say, made its case. One senses—one is taking a leap here, but one is a pundit, and therefore allowed—that Americans do not uniformly blame Mr. Bush for the recession, or certainly not in the numbers that they credited Bill Clinton for the expansion. They blame Sept. 11, market cycles and the inevitable burst of the Clinton bubble. In any other year the incumbent president’s party would be clobbered at the polls for a suffering economy. But this year one senses the rough justice of the American voter might be suspended.

A lot of people would like to love Mr. Bush because they think he’ll have the guts to fight a hard but needed war. But who, really, loves war, especially in the age of weapons of mass destruction? A lot of people seem as if they’d like to hate Mr. Bush, too, but he’s made that hard. He’s branded himself on the American psyche as a pretty good man, and a normal one, too.

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At any rate, the great 2002 paradox: Everything is changing, and not much in this election seems poised to change.

We are suspended.

We are waiting to see if there is a war, waiting to see how the world reacts, waiting to see if the war is simple and clean or long and brutal, waiting to see if the war makes us safer or less safe in the long run or short.

Until then, until the war, one can’t help but expect a continuance of suspension. That’s how it looks to me today at any rate. Movement that brings stasis, action that maintains the status quo. It seems freaky. But it’s a freaky time.