How often did we hear that phrase this year?
Hyperbole is part of the rhetoric of politics, but history has a way of validating – or deflating – it.
Eight years ago today Vice President Al Gore conceded the presidency to Gov. George W. Bush. If any contemporary election deserves the moniker, it’s that one.
The loser became a Nobel laureate.
The winner? Well, 26 percent still approves. The Bushes are a big family.
How could we have so misunderestimated its importance?
I won’t catalogue the disasters and tragedies, the arrogance and ineptitude, the lies, the bullying, or even the Bushisms here. I couldn’t possibly. Anyone who’s read this far knows the list.
But Bush is more than the classic turtle on the fence post. While he deserves plenty of credit for the epic wreckage in his wake, the failures of the past eight years are larger than the flaws of one incompetent martinet. Why was he there in the first place? What did he represent?
The ideologues of neo-conservatism have two core beliefs: that government is bad and that unfettered, unlimited growth is good. They fundamentally distrust the government—and yet, they want to run it; or perhaps more accurately, they want to dismantle it from within. Like working for the competition so you can destroy his business.
Everything else is strategy, from gathering the religious right into the fold, so to speak, with a menu of enormously distracting peripheral issues to mobilizing the country around a well-marketed but poorly executed “war on terror” to invading an oil-rich foreign country.
The result would strengthen the presidency, marginalize political competition, and develop unregulated new markets. America would become the Borg. The new assimilation: “coercive democracy.” Resistance was futile.
Such a pernicious philosophy has marketing challenges. After all, people rely on government for stuff—like Social Security income, food safety, roads, or maybe to save them from the occasional deluge.
“Elect us so we can wreck it!” has limits as a campaign slogan.
So instead, you wreck those who want to do something good with it. You invent things, like “He said he invented the internet!” You nitpick personal traits, like speech mannerisms, sighing and weight loss (or gain).
You turn your opponent into a clown or a demon, or both.
One of the worst kinds of demon is an elitist.
What an incredible thing! The elusive and malleable “American Dream” always includes a bullet point about education, but now maligning the educated and intellectually curious—those, in short, to whom one might turn to solve big, complicated problems—became a campaign tactic. (Imagine what Jefferson or Adams would have thought of Bush or Palin?)
And it worked!
Elites, we’re also told, are godless, as if that should matter. But that, too, is false. Gore’s concession speech and Nobel prize lecture resonate with the centrality of faith in his life.
As an undergraduate, Gore came to understand the threat to our planet from carbon emissions. He was decades ahead of mainstream political thinking in recognizing that we can’t keep drilling and digging and burning, and that resources and markets are finite.
Arguably, this should have been the centerpiece of his campaign—but arguably, too, voters who think beer-drinking buddies make good presidents would, predictably, scoff at this issue.
Gore’s election might not have altered 9/11. But it’s stating the obvious to say that he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, nor would financial regulations have been so easily dismantled, nor would Brownie have done “a heckuva job” in New Orleans.
And we wouldn’t have known how much better off we were.
Defeat, Gore said in his Nobel prize lecture, “brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose.”
How tragically high the price of that gift was—and the price of appreciating competency, education, and genuine leadership once more.