In 2008, I was joyful that Barack Obama had been elected president. Not that I voted for him; that was out from the moment I learned he had supported the PATRIOT Act. But -- in addition to dreading Palin and the bellicose McCain -- I had become fascinated with popular political movements, direct action, direct democracy -- the politics of people congregating in mobs and forcing the government to respond to them, as with the Civil Rights movement. Obama's language indicated that he believed in that, too; his best political speech to date was one given after he was beaten by Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary; he told a story of America that featured ordinary citizens as the agents of change, the central actors in the drama:
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
Save for the mention of JFK's enterprising vision, , the people in this story were not civic leaders, and certainly not politicians; they were ordinary people effecting changes themselves. Maybe he had voted for the PATRIOT act so he wouldn't be criticized as soft on terrorism, I thought. In view of his emphasis on grassroots campaign financing, I dreamed: maybe the man and the vision were one, maybe he was a leader who wanted to empower people to help themselves. The president of the last six years hasn't been that man, however; he has instead been like the last man to sit in the big seat: frightfully comfortable with its power. The chair in the oval office is one that molds the occupant to its contours, rather than being molded by theirs. I do not believe Obama is malevolent; I believe the NSA scandals and the like simply bear witness to the fact that power is corrosive. People weren't meant to wield the power a president has; there's a reason lawmaking was supposed to be the province of a Congress that would spend its time arguing instead of doing things, because our brains can't handle the rush. Although I am woefully disappointed in the dream, the failing is in the system and not the man. Simply put, I do not believe Obama, Bush, or any congressman is actually in charge. The systems controlling American politics -- banking, economics, etc. - aren't under the control of any one man. Perhaps these systems aren't even under the control of a group of men, perhaps they're plowing along under their own inertia.
We look to the President or to the Prime Minister to do stuff because at heart we are chimpanzees whose idea of a leader is an alpha who can take direct, immediate, precise action. He can say "move", and the troop moves; "attack", and the troop attacks. Modern political leaders aren't in that position. Even if they sit in the big seat and amass power, , they can't do it because the things they're trying to do are too vast. A president can't dictate food prices, or alter the atmosphere. They can try -- they can pour enormous subsidies into agriculture, for instance -- but they won't necessarily get what they want. At that level, they're using so much power they can't predict what will happen. Nixon wasn't trying to create a nation where obesity and diabetes were more common than health, or where the life of rural and small-town American had been destroyed by agribusiness, but that's what he did. The politics of the modern state put a leader in a position of having to exercise enormous power that he can't really control; he is made captain of a runaway locomotive. The tracks dictate his course; he can blow all the whistles he likes, but the machine is moving on its own inertia. This brings to my mind -- my SF-addled mind -- the image of someone trying to drive an AT-AT.
The AT-AT, introduced in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, is the largest, most stupidly-contrived war machine one might imagine. They are enormous and under the direction of men sitting in their heads, who are somehow expected to move four clanking legs and direct fire from the head while being unaware of anything happening behind them. In the movie, the machines are not destroyed by weapons, but by their own clumsiness: the rebels trip the legs and the great terrible machine falls down. Imagine how destructive these machines would be in action, even without their guns; the clumsy 'feet' would constantly smash things on the ground even if the drivers weren't aiming to. AT-ATs are too big, too removed from the action, too sluggish to respond -- they are doomed by their own size, either to blundering or to eventual destruction.
For this reason I have lost interest in national politics, because it doesn't matter who is captaining the AT-AT: it's going to ignore important matters, crush life underfoot, and stumble ever-forward intending destruction. The state, I think, is a machine that answers to no one's direction, and takes would-be commanders of it along for a ride. National politics, because it seems to be an exercise is spending money, and arguing, neither of which fascinates me. What I am interested in, what I think we need all over the world, are healthier places and more fulfilled people. My politics are local, limited to my home, my neighborhood, my city. Beyond that governance is too abstract to bother with. I don't know how this emphasis will be expressed in my life; presently I am researching local, sustainable agriculture. There is a great deal of interest in that in this area, for we are an agricultural region and still peopled by those distrustful of those in power, from corporations to the state. Whatever the expression, I believe localism is going to be at the heart of my thinking, and both the end and the means have to be local. Living in a town with the painful history and lingering problems, I know we have to effect its healing on our own. Industrial agriculture can't restore topsoil and heal the land; that takes the careful husbandry of a few people on the ground, people with a stake in restoring it. The same is true of other political problems; we have to build on personal, civic responsibility. I am no longer interested in people forcing the government to respond to them; people ought to effect the changes themselves and let the AT-AT stumble about as it will. We have to create our own pockets of civic health everywhere.