Louis René Beres is a professor of international law in the department of political science at Purdue University.
With the approach of another presidential election, one thing is perfectly clear. At its heart, America is plainly a broken land. Whether one looks to our airports, our roads, our hospitals, our schools, our homes, our prisons, our banks and corporations, or, especially, our demeaning entertainments, the evidence of deterioration is unassailable. Still, every four years, we look blithely beyond logic, acting as if these insidiously reinforcing circumstances were somehow remediable in politics.
This year, we will experience the same predictable cycles of misjudgment. From the standpoint of creating serious change, our voting will remain largely reflective. It's not that the two candidates don't display tangible and meaningful differences, but rather that each presidential aspirant is structurally incapable of reversing the core sources of societal destruction. These critical underpinnings lie in the generally dreary and desperate daily lives of the citizenry, not in its formal institutions.
Unless we can begin to fix America at the "molecular" level, within the palpable sphere of alienated, downtrodden, and unhappy individuals, there will be no fix at all. The "cliff" that we now face is not just fiscal; it is also deeply personal. No nation that can draw primal satisfaction and comfort from watching The Kardashians can reasonably seek any improvements in politics.
Let us be candid. In the poet's genre, "This is the dead land." Recalling T.S. Eliot's prophetic reference to "The Hollow Men" (1925), we now prepare yet again to receive "the supplication of a dead man's hand." What we require, instead, is a far-reaching and enthusiastic return to genuine thought, and, as indispensable corollary, the warming hand of "aliveness."
No president can ever halt the progressive withering of heart and mind that steadily diminishes these United States. No matter how uplifting or authoritative, the candidates' carefully-dried voices can offer us only a misshapen pretense of improvement. For America, hope still exists, of course, but it must now sing softly, in a consciously prudent undertone.
In any deeply serious sense, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are beside the point. This is because national renewal can never come from such candidates themselves. Every society is essentially the sum total of individual souls seeking some form of redemption. Those who pull the electoral strings can never truly mend our manipulated and beaten-down American souls. Ironically, in view of prevailing current complaints, the real problem is not about the candidates' negative campaign ads, but the delusionary visions of their more "positive" ones.
Let us be candid. Every shame can have a patina. We Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false, that even our melancholy is gloss.
Wallowing in the dim twilight of visceral imitation, we display infinite forbearance for empty promises and shallow witticisms. Our lonely American crowd, moreover, harbors a shameful truth. Here, in this substantially broken and pathologically violent land, our expanding debility is largely self-inflicted.
How, then, shall we correctly situate ourselves in an all-promising political universe? What sort of redemption can we ever hope to discover in the "free" or "democratic" exchange of gibberish, clichés, and platitudes? In a world of abundantly dead routine and ubiquitously glorified commerce (what here is not for sale?), why do we insistently waste time seeking salvation at the moldering margins of what is important?
By now, as Emerson and Thoreau had anticipated back in the 19th century, the presumed requirements of buying and selling have utterly supplanted individual dignity. Oddly, the central edifice of American well-being is now based upon a fully addictive hyper-consumption. Ground down by the humiliating babble of pitchmen and politicians, "we the people" are motivated not by any balanced life search for authenticity and meaning, but by the hallowed numbers on retail sales. These sacred numbers are the valued testaments of our truest state religion. In this respect, our floundering American economy, like the flagrantly disjointed society from which it springs, is built entirely upon sand.
An authentically individual American is very hard to find. After all, our omnivorous mass society has absolutely no intention of encouraging personal self-actualization. To the contrary, a soulless American herd now marches in largely uncomplaining lockstep toward further fragmentation, growing isolation, and a glaringly stark inequality.
It is possible for us to be lonely in the world, or lonely for the world. Sadly, in America, the literally mindless celebration of mass society has managed to produce both.
What about higher education? Most American universities are now more or less expensive training schools, offering jobs, but not learning. As a university professor for more than 40 years, I have personally witnessed the incremental and vulgar transformation of intellectual life into commodities and raw commerce.
Once upon a time, America's universities still prided themselves on being more than an adjunct to the wider corporate worlds of manipulation, thievery, and contrivance. No more. Today, once capable professors, cowed by a barely literate university administration, struggle mightily against a veneered but unhidden ethos of intellectual surrender. Today, even in our so-called "major universities," the life of the mind is a very scant and undistinguished volume.
Let us be candid. We Americans are generally driven forward not by any identifiable nobility of purpose, but by a great collective agitation. Now, our signposts are found in cycles of inane commercial repetition, and in the synergistic momentum of easily purchasable diplomas, endlessly dehumanizing entertainments, and corrosively bad foods.
In principle, at least, we may wish to slow down a bit, rise courageously above the barest minimums of societal expectation, and declare honestly that "life is good." But, we remain blocked by an incontestable reality. Stubbornly, our country now imposes upon its legions of exhausted people the deadening cadence of ritual conformity, and the breathless rhythms of a non-stop machine.
The end of all this concocted delirium is easy enough to see. It is to prevent us from remembering who we are, who we once were, and who we might once have become.
In 2012, we should finally ask, What does it mean to be an American? We pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but almost no one really cares about these musty old documents. Invoked only for ostentation, the legal and philosophical foundations of the United States are today the provinces of a tiny handful of people. For the most part, we now lack any sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, sports team loyalties, and the peculiarly comforting brotherhoods of senseless and unwinnable war.
Let us be candid. In spite of our claim to "rugged individualism," we Americans are shaped by the mass. Our battered society bristles reassuringly with seductive jingles, shameless hucksterism, crude allusions, and rhyming equivocations. Surely, we think, there must be something more to this country than surviving and fitting-in. "I celebrate myself, and sing myself," once wrote the Transcendentalist poet, Walt Whitman, but today the American self is seemingly content with accepting a progression of personal surrenders, and with securing a deliberately calculated refuge of insignificance and anonymity.
Any inclination to believe that change and improvement must still lie in the coming presidential election is sorely mistaken. No doubt, key campaign issues do need to be addressed, but so too does our willing absorption in the shapeless and unremarkable American mass. Only the few can ever redeem our deeply troubled nation, and this excruciatingly tiny cadre of seeing individuals will never be found among presidential hopefuls.
To be sure, the coming elections are not inherently damaging, or fundamentally misconceived. Rightly, we still believe in democratic ideas, even when they represent a convenient masquerade for plutocracy. What is harmful and wrong for us to believe is that elections somehow represent an independently promising path to citizen growth, prosperity, and fulfillment.
Even in our most enthusiastically advertised civic culture, presidential elections are always a consequence of the prevailing distributions of political power. They are never a true cause for needed change.