Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

The Naked and the Daft

Norman Mailer's chronicle of Chicago '68 points up the pitiful state of contemporary political commentary.

Thomas Frank


First time tear gas, second time robo-polls: If Karl Marx were on hand today to record the progress of our long cultural civil war, one suspects this would be the law of history he would coin to describe its bewildering phases. The novelist Norman Mailer was physically present for the tear-gas part—which is to say, at the famous "police riot" during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. His classic account of the proceedings, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, has been reissued in a fortieth-anniversary edition this year, and in it we can find him sneering at the Republicans, whom he regarded as the party of "the Wasp"; cheering on the hipster left, the culture war's original instigators; and booing the old-style machine Democrats, who would soon defect to the right. The certainty that we were heading into many decades of political idiocy grows larger and larger in Mailer's consciousness until by the end he is in a funk of resignation and dread. "We will be fighting for forty years," he writes on the book's final page. As indeed we have been.

Here at our end of the forty-year war there are no Norman Mailers. Only pollsters. And consultants. And political scientists. The interpretation game is theirs now, and with the solemn mystifications of their profession, they guard it from befouling by mere "reporters," as Mailer always referred to himself. The pollsters' findings and the scientists' graphs are what we are to consult should we wish to make some portentous comparison of this year's mood to, say, that of 1976 or of the odds facing this year's Republican standard-bearer to the chances of the one nominated in 1988.

It is a facile thing to say that the evolution from Mailer-style reporting to the works of these present-day wise men represents a decline, or even a catastrophic plunge, in the nation's understanding of itself, but it has the virtue of being true. We are accustomed to thinking of history as a story of progress, but the replacement of observers like Mailer by superstar pollsters and consultants engagés is something very close to the opposite. Yes, Mailer was unbearably egotistical, given to exaggeration, and forever fleshing out a pet theory of history—the war of the hip and the square—that seems farcical in retrospect. But in his description of virtually any person, scene, building, or event, or even in his casual comments about the decor of a room where an event is about to take place, we learn more about what it's like to be an American than we do from all the pollsters' statistics put together.

Here, for example, is Mailer introducing us to the foot soldiers of the GOP, which he conceives as the political arm of "the Wasp," assembling at a Miami Beach party as they prepare to nominate Richard Nixon:

Here they were, the economic power of America (so far as economic power was still private, not public) the family power (so far as position in society was still a passion to average and ambitious Americans) the military power (to the extent that important sword-rattlers and/or patriots were among the company, as well as cadres of corporations not unmarried to the Pentagon) yes, even the spiritual power of America (just so far as Puritanism, Calvinism, conservatism and golf still gave the Wasp an American faith more intense than the faith of cosmopolitans, one-worlders, trade-unionists, Black militants, New Leftists, acid-heads, tribunes of the gay, families of Mafia, political machinists, fixers, swingers, Democratic lobbyists, members of the Grange, and government workers, not to include the Weltanschauung of every partisan in every minority group). No, so far as there was an American faith, a belief, a mystique that America was more than the sum of its constituencies, its trillions of dollars and billions of acres, its constellations of factories, empyrean of communications, mountain transcendent of finance, and heroic of sport, transports of medicine, hygiene, and church, so long as belief persisted that America, finally more than all this, was the world's ultimate reserve of rectitude, final garden of the Lord, so far as this mystique could survive in every American family of Christian substance, so then were the people entering this Gala willy-nilly the leaders of this faith, never articulated by any of them except in the most absurd and taste-curdling jargons of patriotism mixed with religion, but the faith existed in those crossroads between the psyche and the heart where love, hate, the cognition of grace, the all but lost sense of the root, and adoration of America congregate for some.

Indeed, by the time Mailer has described the chaos at the Democratic Convention, the act of reporting itself has become his central consideration. He is no longer observing the action; he is participating, or at least debating with himself about doing so. He tells us about his struggle to understand what is going on, mulls his own conflicted class position ("a revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke), describes his abundant recourse to alcohol and the peculiar thoughts that occur to him while he is under its influence. He longs to join the protestors in some kind of violent action, even goes to the park where they have gathered to give a speech, but finally chooses not to because he doesn't want to get beaten or arrested while he's on deadline. When eventually he does get hauled in by the police—there is simply no way Norman Mailer could show up at a world-class beat-down like Chicago '68 and not get arrested—it's for trying a little too hard to take down the details of a Jeep that is festooned with barbed wire, a move that looks suspicious to the adrenaline-happy Chicago cops.

Mailer's premier subject, here as everywhere else, is tough-guy Mailer himself, navigating a world of other tough guys, and this is sometimes annoying, as are the Hemingwayisms with which he tackles it: the constant references to bullfighting and boxing (better those than George Will's baseball obsession, I suppose), his fear that the clean-living liberals, who stage an impromptu march at one point in the proceedings, might turn out to be braver than he is.

But that's the price the reader has to pay for the many passages of incomparable description and insight that Mailer tosses off along the way. Take, for instance, this view from an upper story of the Chicago Hilton as the cops begin their assault on the demonstrators:

The police attacked with tear gas, with Mace, and with clubs, they attacked like a chain saw cutting into wood, the teeth of the saw the edge of their clubs, they attacked like a scythe through grass, lines of twenty and thirty policemen striking out in an arc, their clubs beating, demonstrators fleeing. Seen from overhead, from the nineteenth floor, it was like a wind blowing dust, or the edge of waves riding foam on the shore.

To turn from Miami and the Siege of Chicago to contemporary political reporting is inevitably a letdown; indeed, reporting of the kind Mailer did is virtually impossible nowadays, given the constraints that the species "reporter" has adopted in order to establish its professional claims. (A small example: In one inconsequential passage, Mailer poses as a member of Ronald Reagan's security detail in order to enter a GOP banquet to which he was not invited. Pulling such a stunt today would get you fired from any major newspaper.)

To go all the way from Mailer to the books produced by celebrity pollsters and big-name consultants, though, is to plumb the gloomy depths of our blindness. Even with Mailer's misfires—his absurd equation of Hubert Humphrey's initials with the barbed wire of a concentration camp; his belief that people of Irish ancestry are naturally tough and that "the Wasp" is naturally self-denying; his choice of the Mafia to illustrate high financial sophistication—even handicapped by all of these dumb ideas and a fifth of bourbon, the man gets it righter in his 224 pages than the entire political-science department at your local university, toiling around the clock in teams for a year.

While Mailer's prose brilliance has disappeared from political writing, the trademark self-absorption of the novelist is still most emphatically with us. Consultant Douglas Schoen and pollster John Zogby have given us books that really are advertisements for themselves—or, rather, for their respective consultancies and polling firms. In all fairness, these authors should have to pay us for taking these titles home from the bookstore.

Zogby, for example, is an incurable braggart. In The Way We'll Be, we learn about how incredibly right he was about something or other in 1992. About how big-time politician Al Gore once hung on his every word. About how he just finished hiring 150 people at his "globally driven information company." And when it comes to that company's business, he tells us, "I don't mind saying that nobody does such work better than Zogby International."

Plus, Zogby announces, political information like the stuff he comes up with is also valuable as marketing information. He tells us not only about "the way we'll be" and about the clever way he has figured out the way we'll be but also about how to sell stuff—"everything from automobiles to political candidates"—to that we that is to come.

As for the coming we itself, it turns out to be a jumble of marketing clichés that you half-remember from the past twenty years or so. You've got the heroic "First Globals," the idealistic kids who like things that are really globey. You've got the "Investors Next Door," tired retreads of the market-populist nostrums of the '90s. You've got the "Secular Spiritualists," who sound from Zogby's description like the questing suburbanites of the '70s. Then there are Zogby's helpful marketing tips, not one of which will surprise the reader. Companies should be nice and make an effort to seem green. The kids don't like "overproduced cookie-cutter ear candy" music, and they don't trust network-TV news. They want iPods and microbrews and—get this—blogs. They choose truth over fakeness; indeed, they inhabit an authenticity-driven marketplace. And all this matters, because "to get them to listen to whatever you're selling, you have to get down to where they are."

(Along the way, Zogby mounts another broken-down '90s hobbyhorse, the notion that "job hierarchies have been flattened," which makes you wonder how this supremely tuned-in observer missed all those stories about the riches of hedge-fund managers and CEOs and the stagnant wages and sky-high gas prices that afflict everyone else.)

On this heap of marketing clichés, Zogby builds a tower of political stereotypes. Wal-Mart shoppers and nascar fans like President Bush. Macy's shoppers vote for Democrats. The 2004 elections, which pitted these two worldviews against each other, resulted in what looked at first like a terrible division, with some states red and some states blue. People disagreed about things! Woe, apparently, was us. But no: "Armageddon didn't arrive," Zogby writes. Americans came together, and—he approvingly cites the wisdom of political scientist James MacGregor Burns—"the vital center began to reassert itself."

At the pinnacle of all these trite formulations, the pollster places the sleepiest, most shopworn cliché of them all, the cliché to which Zogby has dedicated his book and apparently his life: the "American Dream" and its "Transformation." To me the idea is so thickly meaningless, so impenetrable, that I would rather just forget the whole thing. Zogby insists, however, that the American people get it and even adore it. Yes, "the public understands the new American dream just fine." Apparently, what he means is this: Americans used to want merely to get rich, but now they understand that there are limits, and so they want greenness and authenticity and all the other aforementioned clichés, clichés that (by the way) powered countless similarly banal books all through the 1970s and beyond.

I mock, but the American Dream is a banality that apparently never requires definition and yet is capable of launching our pundit class on endless expeditions to the shimmering El Dorado of . . . the center.

Ah, the center! Now there is the place to be. The existential radical Mailer wouldn't be caught dead there, but at least he was willing to identify its coordinates correctly: In 1968, "the center" obviously meant the Great Society liberalism that was shared by Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Nelson Rockefeller alike. Corporate liberalism was simply the logic of the nation's political machinery, and everyone knew it—although plenty of people hated it. These days, of course, the proper political writer is no existentialist, and he dares not locate himself anywhere but the almighty center, that omphalos of triangulated righteousness. It is simply understood that you cannot possibly have anything worthwhile to say about American politics unless you can see the error of "both extremes" and know in your heart that the two parties behave in every situation as precise mirror images of each other.

There's another telling difference: When our contemporary pundits take up the banner of centrism, they never mean Great Society liberalism, even though it's easy to find polls that show the public still strongly approves of, say, national health care, safe workplaces, equality, the public financing of Social Security, and so on. To them, "the center" always seems to mean a sort of soft libertarianism: free markets, free trade, low taxes, and no more of that infernal bawling about moral values. The center, in other words, always turns out to be a perfect reflection of the political longings of the white-collar class.

(There is, incidentally, more than a little bad faith at work when this version of the center is being propped up. Take the issue of trade. The public has long opposed nafta and similar treaties, and by overwhelming margins. But the centrist likes them. Ipso facto, the public must, too. Here is how Zogby goes about proving it: with a poll question that reads, in its entirety, "Do you agree or disagree that free trade is good for America?" Twelve simple words, and you can guess the result. Three pages earlier, on the other hand, Zogby has dazzled us with a survey question on the future of Jerusalem. The thing is ninety-seven words long and as complicated as one of Mailer's famous run-on sentences.)

Pollster Zogby loves the center, naturally—he celebrates it as what he calls a "new American consensus" and even tells us how to go about "marketing" to it—but political consultant Douglas Schoen, author of Declaring Independence and one of the principals of Penn, Schoen & Berland, loves it even more. (The "Penn" in his firm's name, by the way, is Mark Penn of Hillary Clinton fame, a heroic interpreter of the demographic political lodestar known as the microtrend.) In fact, Schoen loves the center so much that he has come to believe it is ill served by the two-party system. Instead of pushing candidates to the center, as the system seems by all appearances to do, Schoen says it drives them to extremes—both, apparently, in precisely equal measure. This will come as a surprise to anyone who has read a newspaper and noticed that the United States, like other Western countries, has been moving to the right since Chicago in '68, not bouncing back and forth between an alternating succession of radicals. It will likewise shock even casual followers of political strategy, who can't help but note the wholesale realignment of both major parties—but especially the Republicans—to the free-market right. And Schoen's sober centrist clucking at a mythical extremist left will be especially befuddling to readers in any number of left-leaning Western polities, who can readily ascertain that, thanks to the destruction of the labor movement, there really isn't a left in America anymore outside some college campuses and a few blogs.

But then, who really cares? The main business of Declaring Independence amounts to a litany of CV entries. In 1998, Schoen got Evan Bayh elected to the US Senate. In 2001, he helped the billionaire centrist hero Michael Bloomberg capture Gracie Mansion—and by using the Internet, no less! But the great moment came in 1994: He got to talk to Bill Clinton privately, revealing to him his focus-group findings and persuading the president to dump his own party and support a balanced budget. And what a triumph that was: "It was very clear that our approach worked extremely effectively."

Well, to borrow a phrasing made famous by Schoen's client, it depends what the meaning of worked is. To be sure, the deal Clinton cut to balance the federal budget was an unalloyed boon for investors, who showed their gratitude by launching the great mid-'90s stock bubble. It also worked for Clinton himself, who after the seismic shock of the 1994 Gingrich revolution was able to cruise to reelection two years later as a free-trade Democrat in the mold of Grover Cleveland. But the logic behind the move was, like most of the Schoen-approved talking points here, a gnat-straining piece of backward political reasoning, pivoting off a maxim Schoen reels off in pure pollsterese: "If you have to balance your budget at home, there is no reason the federal government should not have to do the same thing."

That nugget of wisdom may indeed faithfully reflect the opinions of Schoen's 1994 sample of focus-group subjects, but the claim itself is simply mistaken. The federal government doesn't have to balance its budget, and there's a very good reason why it shouldn't have to: Deficit spending is one of the basic tools of Keynesian economics.

But such matters of reasoning don't detain Schoen: He's too busy exhorting his readers to rush to the center, in a blaze of glory. Centrism isn't boring and unprincipled, in his breathless telling; it's a "revolt of the moderates," or a potential "centrist revolt" speaking a "new language of consensus." And like Zogby, Schoen has a pet term for the demographic that's going to put this revolution into effect: the "Restless and Anxious Moderates," or rams, a population of down-to-earth middle Americans just waiting to be harvested by the right candidate.

Also like Zogby, Schoen heaps up the centrist clichés with tireless glee. We are "too polarized and divided," he moans. Americans "need to come together and cast aside ideologically driven, partisan considerations." People have "had it" with "business-as-usual governance." People are sick of the "partisan bickering and name-calling" in Washington. Most tragically, "61 percent of Americans say they are not living the American Dream" while a full "75 percent say the American Dream is no longer realistic, with just one in four saying it is 'alive and well' today."

Weep for your lost Dream, America! And understand that to achieve the magical centrist state that will restore it, your politics must become very, very stupid. Schoen warns candidates to avoid talking about the past. Inequality, like history, is a subject better avoided, since "Americans want opportunity for all, rich and poor, not class warfare." While the book is superficially a call for a centrist third-party candidate to rise up and fix everything, it sometimes feels like a plea for a no-party system. The big takeaway from Schoen's diatribe is "Deliver us from politics!"—a message that, come to think of it, amounts to a decades-long business plan for any professional pollster or consultant.

The funny thing is, I agree with Schoen about the need for third parties—it's the idea of a third party as a way to get us even more centrism that drives me up the wall. That's a commodity we've got enough of already, as Schoen's innumerable quotes from Washington pundits attests. Give me third parties like the Populists back in the 1890s, who ran not only presidential candidates but candidates at every level. Or like the Working Families Party in New York State, which has had a noticeable impact on state politics even though it has never run a candidate for president. (Incidentally, it seems peculiar for a book about third parties to omit the whole issue of state laws against "fusion," the tactic by which multiple parties nominate the same candidate for office. The Populists used this mechanism to achieve victory in a number of places—and the Oregon branch of the Working Families Party is presently laboring to overturn the law barring fusion tickets.)

Let us make Schoen another concession: He knows how hard things have become for working-class people, and he states it plainly, at least for a political consultant. There are "serious issues," he writes, adversely affecting the "well-being of all but upper-middle-class and wealthy Americans." But why he believes this, of all issues, is an argument for putting politics on quaaludes must remain an unsolved mystery of the pollster mind.

To me it seems—as I think it would to Mailer, were he still with us—like just the opposite. What we are observing is not the breakdown of "politics as usual," it is the end and final failure of something very particular: the forty-year ascendance of conservatism. And totting up the catastrophes that have attended that reactionary generation—not least among them the quisling counsels of our pollster-and-consultant caste—is a moment not for tranquilizers, but for outrage.

Thomas Frank's most recent book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, was published by Metropolitan Books in August.

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