The most unnerving passages in Joan Didion's Political Fictions, the passages that come closest to replicating the skin-crawling paranoia of her 1983 book Salvador, appear in the foreword and in the final essay. Both address the events surrounding the 2000 presidential election that "came to be known as 'Florida'." In typical Didion fashion, the writing style is characterized by a cool restraint underscoring an inexorable logic. The seemingly shocking and anomalous events of one year ago, the reader learns, are neither. To the contrary, Didion situates the election and its aftermath in the context of presidential elections since at least 1988.
"The events in question were in many ways not only entirely predictable but entirely familiar," Didion claims. The conventional wisdom circulating last fall--close numbers meant every vote counted--was dead wrong. The true lesson, Didion counters, was "the immateriality of the voter against the raw power of being inside the process." She concludes that Florida was "a perfectly legible ideogram of ... a process that had relentlessly worked ... to restrict the contest to the smallest possible electorate."
Taking on the much-vaunted explanation that "apathy" accounts for declining voter participation rates, Didion deconstructs data that the Washington Post cited in fall 2000 to support the apathy rationalization, and finds that attitudes toward politics held by those who intend to vote and those who don't are quite similar. She notes that 51 percent of non-voters were either "alienated" or "disenchanted," not apathetic. Didion's attention to detail and unflinching prose are difficult to deny: Could it possibly be "apathy," for example, that explains why only 20 percent of registered voters--around 36,000 people--cast ballots in Raleigh's recent mayoral primary?
The 2000 election may appear remote, or perhaps irrelevant, at this time, and the airing of our political system's dirty laundry may seem even treasonous. A case in point: the recent decision to delay releasing the results of the recount of 180,000 disputed Florida ballots, a project sponsored by a consortium of media companies including The New York Times Co., The Wall Street Journal Co., The Tribune Company and CNN. Seth Mnookin, in a Sept. 25 inside.com article, claimed that the release of the data was delayed because of "a sudden lack of resources to analyze the painstakingly collected data ... and ... a queasy sense that now is not the right time to publish information that could well question the legitimacy of the nation's commander in chief."
But U.S. electoral politics are neither remote nor irrelevant. They are relevant to the recent attacks, to our choice and mode of military retaliation, and to legislative changes being fast tracked through the system to protect the "homeland." The passage from Didion's book excerpted here, for example, recounts then Vice President George Bush's 1986 junket to Jordan. The selection ends on a note far more ominous than Didion could have imagined: President-elect Bush's post-election trip to meet with the Afghan resistance--Mujahedin we supported against the Soviets. In what seems a great leap, the remainder of the essay is concerned with the Reagan administration and with El Mozote, the Salvadoran village where, in 1981, U.S. Special Forces-trained troops massacred 700 civilians. But Didion uses the collage to point out that we always expect our leaders to "use other nations as changeable scrims in the theater of domestic politics." The timing of the book's publication, unfortunately, prevented Didion from asking whether that theatrical history returned with a vengeance this fall.
Another salient observation emerges from this essay when Didion highlights a phrase Mark Danner uses in his recent book, The Massacre at El Mozote. Danner calls the incident "a parable of the Cold War," a phrase that haunts current events as well. In the passage below, Didion elaborates that parable; it is worth quoting at length given our apparently infinite supply of such Cold War parables:
Just six years after Vietnam and in the face of what was beginning to seem a markedly similar American engagement, El Mozote, by which we have come to mean not exactly the massacre itself but the systematic obfuscation and prevarication that followed the disclosure of the massacre, was the first hard evidence that we had emerged a people again so yearning to accept the government version, or again so angry, as to buy into a revision of history in which those Americans who differed ... were again our true, and only truly sinister, enemy.
No, internal politics are far from irrelevant now, despite the ability of the "political class," as Didion has it, to thrive on an alienated electorate. The point that unifies this collection of eight essays is Didion's contention that the U.S. political process works only for those on the inside. The political class, "self-created and self-referring," does not know "Americans at large" and only "occasionally [hears] from one in a focus group." The political class showed its contempt for an electorate that refused to support the impeachment of Bill Clinton, for example. During the Clinton-Lewinsky episode, citizens were treated as co-conspirators, as "recalcitrant children." "When these people on the political talk shows spoke about the inability of Americans to stomach 'the details'," Didion writes of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, "they were speaking about ... the minority to whom recent campaigns have been increasingly pitched"--in other words, the "values" and "pro-family" voter. The values agenda, Didion writes, narrowed the category of the "most-likely-to-vote" because it eliminated discussion of issues that concern the country at large. A system in which "both parties are committed to calibrating the precise level of incremental tinkering required to get elected" does not give rise to a meaningful political process, but rather to scenarios in which a few hundred votes decide elections.
In the final essay, "God's Country," Didion fleshes out her sketch of the political class. The essay focuses on "compassionate conservatism." To the uninitiated, it sounds like mere rhetoric, "a construction without intrinsic meaning." But the phrase belongs to Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas and George W. Bush adviser since 1993. Compassionate conservatism is "a deeply radical experiment in social rearrangement" involving the role of religion in the U.S. and faith-based organizations. Despite Olasky's rhetoric to the contrary, "faith-based diversity"--the notion that the faith associated with government-funded social programs need not be Christian--is a fiction. "Perhaps because the theological imperative to convert nonbelievers runs with considerable more force among evangelical Christians than among Buddhists or atheists, most of the programs described in [Olasky's] Compassionate Conservatism are nonetheless Christian and, to one degree or another, evangelical," Didion notes. During the Republican revolution of 1994, this agenda became, in the hands of William Bennett and Newt Gingrich, a "utilitarian thesis that government should fund the faithful because faith 'works'."
In 1995, under Governor George W. Bush, Texas became the first state to redirect state funds into faith-based programs and to dismantle state regulation of those programs. By 2000, the "origin myth of the neoconservative right"--that America is deeply religious--became the official story of the political class as a whole. Didion begs to differ, however, pointing out that the phrase imprinted on U.S. currency, "In God We Trust"--cited by conservatives who reject strict interpretations of the separation of church and state--was added during the 1950s as "home front ammunition in the Eisenhower administration's cold war arsenal." She reminds us that only 17 percent of Americans belonged to churches during the American revolution.
This last essay is deceptive in its apparent remove from contemporary events. In fact, it could be argued that "God's Country" offers an invaluable addendum to Didion's analysis of the political class by documenting its increasing entanglement with evangelical Christianity. Perhaps the essay seems timely because Didion makes a startling comparison the impact of which could not have been foreseen. "Olasky inadvertently opened a window on a view of women not far from that of the Taliban," she writes. The essay is useful because it provides the appropriate context for evaluating the anti-secular statements of our home-grown extremist clerics, Robertson and Falwell, who held that the attacks on the WTC resulted from God's anger toward feminists, gays and lesbians, and the ACLU. But mostly, Didion's analysis of our shrinking political arena affirms the irony of an increasingly evangelical Christian political class in the U.S. condemning an undeniably brutal regime in Afghanistan because it is not representative, and because it adheres to a fanatical brand of an otherwise peace-loving religion.