Politics here consists of hating the East


WASHINGTON, D.C. - As the leaders of the world's great powers prepared to meet in the American West last weekend, events of great import, perchance even of historic significance, were occurring in some nations' capitals.

But not in this one.

Western civilization may be at a turning point, but Washington doesn't care. Washington is sex-obsessed. Sadly, this is not the good kind of sex obsession which leads to joy and rapture and the propagation of our species. This is the gloomy sex obsession of the neo-Puritanical mid-'90s, and is part of the decline of both our politics and our literature.

Politics in a democracy is a discussion about matters that affect people's lives. Having abandoned that discussion, semi-official Washington and its televised chatterers have nothing to engage their interests except prurient revulsion at the thought that somebody, somewhere, is having fun.

Americans conversant with literature might be aware of the great American poet who wrote that "Life is more delectable/when it's disrespectable." And anyone who ever read a war novel would be less than shocked to learn that soldiers sometimes take their pleasure where and when they can.

'Cluck-cluck moralizing'

Absent their revulsion and shock, folks around here might have to talk about schools or health or income inequality or other matters about which they neither know nor care. This way they can sit around and do their cluck-cluck moralizing. It's light work.

The heavy lifting we leave to places such as France, Germany, Britain, and even little Ireland, which just elected a new prime minister who is separated from his wife and openly living with another woman. The Irish, being grown-ups, don't care.

This new prime minister, Bertie Ahern, is slightly to the political left of the man he defeated. Across the Irish Sea sits another new prime minister, Tony Blair, who is substantially to the left of the man he defeated last month. Hop over the English Channel to the next capital and there is yet another new prime minister, Lionel Jospin, who is even farther to the left of the man he defeated at the start of this month.

These are not inconsequential changes. Some new guys are running the world, and they aren't conservatives. At the Denver, Colo., meeting of the leaders of the world's wealthiest nations, the only conservative was Germany's Helmut Kohl, and he could lose the next election.

A few caveats. First, if all politics is not local, it is national, and in seeking common themes one can too easily see connections which do not exist. Second, the election results are not an embrace of the Left as much as a rejection of the incumbents, who happened to be conservatives.

And the Left ain't what it used to be. French Prime Minister Jospin's party still calls itself Socialist, but it is really social democratic, as is Blair's New Labor Party in Britain. Socialism is an idea whose time has come and gone.

But so has 1980s-style free marketism. The parallels which really do exist among all the European countries - and, yes, North America - are plain enough. On both continents voters have made it clear that the economic vision installed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has gone far enough, if not too far.

That vision was based on the following deal: If people would agree to lesser public services, fewer regulations and less job protection, everyone would win in the long run. With lower taxes and higher prospective profits, financiers would invest, businesses would expand and millions of good new jobs would be created.

It half worked. Investors and stock-holders have prospered. Millions of jobs have been created, mostly in Asia, or on the low end of the wage scale in the United States. The free-market global economy, in the words of economist Robert Heilbroner, has led to an "unprecedented shift in the distribution of incomes between capital and labor." What the average person got from agreeing to fewer public services was ... fewer public services.

After a while, a great many average persons figured this out, which is why much of the world has moved from the right to the center, even the center-left.

But what about "American exceptionalism?" Aren't we different?

Different, yes. Immune to forces affecting the rest of the world, no. It might be helpful to look at another recent election, right next door in Canada, where, on June 2, Jean Chrétien and his Liberals were re-elected, but by a slimmer majority. The Liberals swept Ontario, and did well in the Maritime Provinces, though there they lost seats, mostly to the left-of-center Social Democrats. Between Ontario and the Maritimes lies Quebec, where most people speak French and many of the French-speakers want to secede. They voted for their separatist party.

And so did the West. Tapping Western resentment against the attention paid to Quebec, Preston Manning's Reform Party won 60 of the 91 seats west of Ontario, and not a single seat elsewhere. Part of Reform's appeal to Westerners is its conservatism. But the real secret of its success is regionalism. It played to the Western Canadian's sense of being apart from the rest of the country. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, people don't always vote their economic self-interest; sometimes they vote their subcultural tribalism.

Some idealogues have adjusted

Now we're getting close to home. America really is different. And one of our political differences is that we don't have to have new elections to ratify change. Here, even ideologues tend to get co-opted by reality. While established Washington peeks into bedroom windows, the great unwritten story of this year is how the congressional Republicans are the latest ideologues to make this adjustment.

For all their rhetorical antipathy to government, the GOP leaders have learned that modern societies have to be governed, and that among government's responsibilities are providing health care, protecting the poor and preserving nature. Early in June, the House Republican leadership proposed a $16 billion plan to provide health care for uninsured children.

What? Does this mean that they believe everyone should have health care and government should provide some of it? Obviously.

But not all Republicans accept this new realism, and most of the dissenters are from the West. What really inspires their dissent is not health care but environmental matters. Last month, enough Republicans joined most Democrats to stop a measure that would have weakened the Endangered Species Act. The Western conservatives who lost this fight were not simply angry about the result; they became unhinged. They demanded a meeting with Speaker Newt Gingrich and insisted that he "rein in" moderate Republican environmentalist Sherwood Boehlert of New York. Some of the Westerners threatened to vote as a bloc on procedural matters, blocking progress on all legislation.

The emotionalism of this response shows that, like Western Canadian voters, some Western American congressmen (and presumably their constituents) are more motivated by regional resentment than by policy differences. People don't get that frenzied about policy differences. There is, it seems, a similar feeling of separateness from the rest of the country.

Because culture is as important as economics, many a Westerner whose real income has stagnated blames not the global economy but the "New World Order," so he keeps voting against his economic self-interest. This could keep conservatism here stronger than it is elsewhere.

Still, Westerners might bear in mind that in this country, there are practical limits to regional resentment. British Columbia and Quebec might actually secede one day. We closed that option in the 1860s. Secession is impossible. Isolation is not.

Lustily, Jon Margolis covers Washington, D.C., for High Country News.

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