I had wanted to write this around the Inauguration, but time and travel intervened. Still, the State of the Union speech makes a good time for a similar point.
There's a moment in the first Lord of the Rings film - and I get to wear my "Honorary Geek" badge with pride here - where Galadriel explains to Frodo why she shouldn't have the Ring of Power he is transporting to Mordor. She explains how having so much power would convince her that what she was doing right and good, even as she turned herself into an omnipotent godlike presence, willing and able to destroy non-believers. Cate Blanchett does marvelous things with the speech, and the visual effects are striking, but I loved the scene for reminding us that the real danger of absolute power is not what you do with it so much as the fact that you feel that you are entitled to do it.
I was struck at the Inauguration, and with the politics that have unfolded in recent weeks, by the fact that, in many ways, we are a nation with one operating, successful political party. While Republicans did manage (weakly) to continue with a majority in the House, and have control of in a umber of states, this past election was a rejection of Republicans and conservatism by a new working majority that prefers Democrats. And the implications of consolidating that power - demographically, it appears to be harder and harder to imagine a route to national GOP victory - force some consideration of what it means to effectively have one party rule.
Take on banal example - the Inauguration Ball, which the Obama team consolidated into one monstrous, 40,000 person event in the DC Convention Center. Where there had previously been as many as 17 elitist, small events scattered across hotel ballrooms, now we have the equivalent of a keg party in your neighbor's field. That's liberals for ya, and my own sense of gay good taste cringes, but that's really beside the point of the optics , when the President and Mrs. Obama made three very theatrical, identical, and largely meaningless "first dances" on stages at different ends of the enormous venue. The effet was less elegant than carefully choreographed, meant to establish distance, not intimacy. And that distance and control, really, is a good indication of having the kind of power that cannot be questioned, and the impression of deserving it.
Republicans have a chance, after Obama's State of the Union, to present there own list of proposals for governance. There's lots of talk that Marco Rubio (!) will offer a thoughtful challenge to the President and a full throated defense of conservative ideas... but really, at this late date, what are they? On health care, the right has offered a "not that" argument against the Affordable Care Act and little more; they oppose any discussion of taxes that involves raising revenue; they support "spending cuts" but offer no specifics on where to cut, and on and on. On issue after issue, year after year, Repub;icans have offered less and less in terms of concrete proposals and almost no fresh ideas that get ahead of any politicla discussion. Gun controls? nope. Immigration? Not much beyond fences and arresting people.
Lately, I find myself watching panel discussions and Congressional hearings on C-Span - the other half of my "Honorary Geek" badge - and I'm struck, repeatedly, by the lack of substantive ideas, questions, or proposals coming from anyone on the right. Almost always, if the President proposed it, or the left supports it, it's simply bad. And the alternative is... doing nothing, or rolling back what's already been done (and is often already working). This is not any kind of approach to serious policy. And it's the deeper reason why, by and large, most Republicans and movement conservatives aren't being taken seriously. Including, for instance, Marco Rubio, whose jump to the front of the National GOP line has everything to do with the image he projects (of bright eyed, right wing Hispanic) and not the ideas he proposes. Rubio vaguely proposes to "do something" on immigration, but it's really too little to impress the most active Latin Americans on this issue, and his bravest notions won't really fly on the right. Moreover, he projects just the kind of youthful inexperience and naivete that defines right wing stardom these days - the more he has to chase approval on the far right, the less attractive he'll be to the mainstream. Or he'll defy the right, and marginalize himself to the fringes.
All of which is fascinating, I suppose... but as a leftie, I'm more concerned about being in the party that won. It's a far cry from my youth in the depths of the "Reagan Revolution," when our extinction seemed more imminent and our ideas seemed hopelessly out of fashion. But, well, at least we had ideas. And we kept having ideas, and rethinking and reshaping those ideas, until we adapted into the party of today. I don't love everything we've become, but that ability to adapt and rethink is the only way conservatives can survive. And right now, I think their ability to do any of that is dubious, at best.
But what has "being a Democrat" become? In one sense I think "winning" has become the goal that defines us most, but not best; we've figured out how to win national elections, we've built a new coalition of engaged voters across a variety of interest groups, a "majority of minorities" who see that we do best when all of us have a chance. As long as we don't rock the boat, stay silent about poverty in any substantive way, and soft pedal areas of disagreement. The overt and covert silencing of dissent, the weakening of our ability to criticize our own, the papering over of internal tensions... it's these growing failures that signal the rot that starts from within. We can win another ropund of the Presidency (and her name is Hillary), we can hold the Senate, we can, even, retake the House, no matter how negatively its dismissed; but those victories, a return to one party dominance better than 2008, will mean little if all we do with them is perpetuate a new status quo. We need dissent, we need the tension of competing ideas, we need better answers than the ones our leaders just keep coming back to on their own.
If Republicans can't pull it together - and more than ever, I'm convinced they can't - than the question becomes whether One Party Can, in fact, Rule Us All. My own guess is, it can't, that we will, somehow, devolve back into two parties (at least), even if those two are drawn from a deep split within the left itself. Yes, the health of our democracy almost requires it, but it's more than that. At some point, we have to learn the lesson of, well, Galadriel: however well intentioned, it is never good to concentrate too much power into one hand. I don't know if this new feeling of Democrat ascendancy can handle knowing that, or handle dealing with it. But if we don't... the disaster that follows will, in some sense, be entirely of our own making.