unstable at best
american politics is an autoimmune disease
By KURT ANDERSEN, Published: August 19, 2011
We have a tendency to elect presidents who seem like the antitheses of their immediate predecessors — randy young Kennedy the un-Eisenhower, earnest truth-telling Carter the un-Nixon, charismatic Reagan the un-Carter, randy young Clinton the un-H.W. Bush, cool and cerebral Obama the un-W.
So Rick Perry fits right into that winning contrapuntal pattern. He’s the very opposite of careful and sober and understated, in his first days as an official candidate suggesting President Obama maybe doesn’t love America (“Go ask him”) and that loose monetary policy is “treasonous.” (“Look, I’m just passionate about the issue,” he explained later about his anti-Federal Reserve outburst, before switching midsentence to first-person plural, “and we stand by what we said.”)
Yet the most troubling thing about Perry (and Michele Bachmann and so many more), what’s new and strange and epidemic in mainstream politics, is the degree to which people inhabit their own Manichaean make-believe worlds. They totally believe their vivid fictions.
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Perry is even entitled to his opinion that states such as Texas might want to secede, as he threatened at a Tea Party rally two years ago. But he’s not entitled to his own facts. “When we came into the nation in 1845,” he’d earlier told some bloggers visiting his office, “we were a republic. We were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.” That special opt-out provision is entirely fiction, a Texas myth the governor of Texas apparently thinks is real.
Perry also believes in the fiction of intelligent design. Campaigning in New Hampshire, he said that in Texas public schools, “we teach both creationism and evolution” — an assertion that’s a fiction itself; last month the Texas Board of Education unanimously rejected creationist biology textbooks. In Iowa, Perry served up a fresh viral-Internet fiction as his what-the-hell example of federal over-regulation — a new rule forcing farmers to get special drivers’ licenses to drive tractors. In fact, the Obama administration had just taken the very opposite position, ruling that states should maintain “common sense exemptions” for tractor-driving farmers.
Sincere, passionate, hysterical belief that the country is full of (make-believe) anti-American enemies and (fictional) foreign horrors is the besetting national disease. And I’ve diagnosed the systemic problem: the American body politic suffers from autoimmune disorders.
It’s a metaphor, but it’s not a joke. I’ve read a lot about autoimmune diseases — the literal, medical kinds, also disconcertingly on the rise — because several members of my family have them. At some point, our bodies’ own immune systems went nuts, mistaking healthy pieces of our anatomies — a pancreas, a thyroid, a joint — for foreign tissue, dangerous enemies within, and proceeded to attack and try to destroy them. It’s as close to tragedy as biology gets.
Which is pretty much exactly what’s been happening the last decade in our politics. The Truthers decided the U.S. government was behind 9/11. Others decided our black president is definitely foreign-born and Muslim. Tea Party Republicans are convinced his administration is crypto-socialist and/or proto-fascist. The anti-Shariah people are terrified of the nonexistent threat of Islamic law infecting American jurisprudence. It’s now considered reasonable to regard organs and limbs of the federal government — the E.P.A., the education department, the Federal Reserve — as tumors that must be removed. Taxation itself is now considered a parasitic pathogen rather than a crucial part of our social organism.
Many autoimmune diseases of the literal kind, such as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, are apparently triggered by stress. For the sociopolitical autoimmune epidemic, there are plenty of plausibly precipitating mega-stresses: the 9/11 attacks and the resulting wars, a decade of stagnant incomes, chronic job insecurity, hyper-connected digitalism, real estate wipeout, teetering financial system, take your pick.
Exposure to chemicals or infections also play a role in triggering autoimmune disorders. My pathogenic scheme’s got that, too: the new streams of iffy infopinion, via talk radio and cable news and the Web, seeping into our political bloodstream 24/7.
Of course, metaphors are just … metaphors. Maybe in 2031 we’ll look back and smile and shake our heads and see the pathology of this haywire age as more psychological than physiological, a temporary national nervous breakdown, like the late 1960s. But what if our current, self-destructive political dysfunction really is exactly like an autoimmune disorder? They are generally permanent, chronic conditions. Only some are debilitating, and most are treatable, but they are all incurable.
Kurt Andersen, the host of public radio’s “Studio 360” and the author, most recently, of the novel “Heyday,” is a guest columnist.