Thursday, October 13, 2005

Governing from Beyond the Fringe

Getting back to the NYRB, Garry Wills has an excellent article in that issue too (unfortunately not available online except for a fee). His thesis is that there are many connections (which he lays out very carefully) between Karl Rove and the new Pope, connections both personal as well as political and, shall we say, "philosophical." Some of those connections are fascinating: I had no idea, for instance, that American evangelicals were now making common cause with an institution they used to regard as the "whore of Babylon" (I had an old friend of an earlier generation once tell me, quite seriously, that Catholic priests slept with the nuns, aborted the offspring, and buried the corpses on the cloistered grounds of the convents. He was quite serious.). That revelation alone was worth the price of the issue (now, alas, off the newstands).

But what was more interesting was Wills' assertion that the Pope and his "Gang of Four" (as Wills dubs them) followed, if only inadvertently, Karl Rove in another matter: both govern from the fringe.

Wills' thesis is this: in both the Catholic church and in America, certain conservatives (Wills names Michael Novak, George Weigel, Joseph Fessio and Richard John Neuhaus, as well as Pope Benedict XVI among the Catholics, Karl Rove and George W. Bush among the governmental conservatives) have decided the entire institution (or nation) is apostate, and must be ruled for its own good. And since the nation (or church) is rotten to the core, only the fringes (where "good" is preserved; consider the American iconography of the "small town," and just set aside for a moment any knowledge of Sherwood Anderson or Edgar Lee Masters or John Cheever while you do so) are fit to save the institution from itself.

Thus we now have George W. Bush and Karl Rove or, if you are Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI, the former "enforcer," following Pope John Paul II.

It's a compelling argument, and undoubtedly a very accurate one. It ties in with Lewis Lapham's observations about fascism. and like Lapham's essay is no less accurate for having been somewhat superceded by recent events. But, as even a cursory review of recent news articles and polls would show, events are changing the political scene so rapidly now, it's hard to keep up.

So I think Wills' is right; but I think the political philosophy of Karl Rove has finally run headlong into reality. It is all well and good for the Pope, as Wills quotes him, to say that the Catholic church may have to shrink in order to maintain its integrity (an interesting ecclesiastical problem on many levels, some aspects of which I am actually sympathetic to); but that is not an option for a President. The Church, even the Catholic church, is still a voluntary organization (which is at the heart of Mr. Wills' analysis that the majority of Catholics simply don't hold with the rigid views of the Pope and his four staunchest supporters), but it is not, ultimately, a political one. It can shrink, or even suffer schism. For a democratic republic, the only solution is political, and that is: throw the bums out.

Which, if polls are any indication, may be what is about to happen.

In a sense, then, the two articles at the NYRB, the one on New Orleans, the essay by Garry Wills, are time capsules: reports on current events already displaced in time by even more current events. Rove's governance from the fringe is failing, and it is failing for the very reason it prevailed: the complacency of the majority is gone.

If Bush has been a fascist in any remotely metaphorical sense of the term (if not in actual fact), he has been one in the model of Il Duce: a small man trying to make himself over as a "big man." And he has failed signally in the one area where Il Duce can never afford to fail: he has not protected the people from disaster. Not Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster no one can prevent; but from the bungled recovery, which bungling still goes on. This diaspora has opened deep wounds which will not heal quickly, nor quietly. For every story about lobbyists poised to make money off of this tragedy, there are a dozen more about the problems that Katrina exposed. It is being noted that no legislative agenda for the recovery of New Orleans has been proposed. It is being noted that, while everything should have changed, nothing has changed. If we are not recognizing that is it the fringe which has been governing us, we are recognizing that something is indeed rotten in the nation's capital.

Governing from the fringe relies on the indifference of the majority, or at least the assurance that their needs are being met. That assurance, and indifference, are over. Does anyone really take Pat Robertson's threat against Harriet Miers' critics seriously? Does anyone think his fringe represents real power anymore?

The fringe will always be there; but it has lost its claim to moral superiority, and the right to have its hands on the levers of power.

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