Karl Marx vs the Zeitgeist, or The Concept of Momentum Applied to Politics

I have always thought that the Hegelian/Marxist notion of historical “inevitability” was one of the silliest aspects of that supremely silly intellectual phantasmagoria. If history has lessons for us, one of the chief lessons concerns the certainty of uncertainty. Pace Hegel, the domain of history is the realm of the contingent, not the necessary. Caesar crossed the Rubicon; he might have decided not to. History woulfd have been different. Chamberlain came back from Munich declaring “Peace in our time”; he might have done otherwise. History would have been different.

Still, there is no doubt that there are times when a mood washes cataract-like over a people. The year 2008 witnessed one such emotional tsunami with the campaign of Barack Obama. The Germans, who were as enthusiastic about the international man of mystery as anyone, might have spoken of the operation of the Zeitgeist. Outside the province of German philosophy, there is nothing ineluctable about the operation of the Zeitgeist.  It names a tendency, not a necessity. The English essayist William Hazlitt congregated a group of biographical portraits of representative figures under the title The Spirit of the Age.  It was the fact that the figures really were representative that justified the denomination of the age’s spirit. In 2008, though I did not see it myself, Obama captured  or represented the mood of the moment.

How long ago it seems now. I did not, as I say, vibrate to that magic. Obama’s charm was lost on me.  But in retrospect, it should have been clear that he was riding a powerful current of emotion. Again, his victory was far from inevitable. But he enjoyed the moment’s momentum: a huge advantage. What were the elements of that momentum? Here are some of the negative elements:

1. A deeply unpopular incumbent. Fairly or not, George W. Bush’s had lost the elixir of efficacy.

2. An economic crisis of bone-rattling proportions. (It was the crisis that Rahm Emanuel famously didn’t want to “waste.”)

3. An anemic campaign by his opponent. Has there been a worse campaign performance than that delivered by John McCain?

4. An unfortunate VP pick by John McCain. Unfortunate, I mean, in terms of the moment’s momentum. I have never understood the virulence of the hatred, especially among women, of that admirable woman. Whatever the explanation — snobbery? jealousy? some combination? — it is clear that the music that set hearts throbbing at the name “Obama” wasn’t working with “Palin.”

And here are some of the positive elements:

  • Novelty. Barack Obama emerged from nowhere, close enough, presented the freshest of faces on a tired campaign scene.
  • Melanin. The prospect of America’s “first black president” (that’s to say, America’s “first half-black president”) warmed the cockles of every liberal heart.
  • Mystery. Who was this young, articulate, half-black man?  We didn’t — we still don’t — really know. He had no record to speak of and his past was shrouded in a veritable library of sealed documents.
  • Showmanship. Obama is a mean man with a teleprompter, no doubt about that. He and his team constructed an inveigling persona. The Greek columns were the least of it.  It was a reassuring air of reasonableness, what one liberal friend of mine refers to as Obama’s “pragmatism.” (Yes, in the same sense that Lenin, for example, was a pragmatist.) And fianlly,
  • Promises, promises, promises. Obama was going to be
    • America’s first post-racialist president.
    • He promised that we would cut the annual deficit in half by the end of his first term.
    • He promised that unemployment would be under 6% by the end of his first term.
    • He promised that his $50 billion bailout of GM would restore the flailing carmaker to profitabilty.
    • He promised that the $800 billion “stimulus” package would create “millions”of jobs.

Out of such stuff is momentum made.

We didn’t know in 2008 (although some of us suspected) that Obama’s promises were hollow. We didn’t think that he would add more than $5 trillion to the federal debt in less than four years. We didn’t know that he would run a deficit of $1.4-$1.5 trillion. We didn’t know that the credit rating of the Untied States would be downgraded for the first time history. (Perhaps that is part of what Obama meant when he said, just before the last election, that he was only a few days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”) We didn’t know that the government’s takeover of GM would leave the car maker in the same uncompetitive hole from which the taxpayers' money was supposed to rescue it. We didn’t know that $800 billion in stimulus money would be spent primarily to line the pockets of Obama’s union supporters. We didn’t know that, after nearly four years, official unemployment would be at 8.3%, or that the more comprehensive “U6” unemployment would be at nearly 15%, or that the U.S. economy would be growing at a sluggish, job-killing 1.6%. We didn’t know that the man who promised a “post-partisan” administration would contrive to pass a deeply controversial and far-reaching package of legislation to bring some 20% of the economy under government control in the name of “health care reform.”

Obama describes it as a “bipartisan” effort, but that is a joke: the two Republican votes, and a good many of the Democrat votes, were obtained by coercion or bribery. Has there been a similarly radical piece of legislation ever passed with such slender legislative support, to say nothing of widespread unpopularity among the electorate? Not Medicare or Medicaid and not Social Security.

I do not want to present a one-sided picture here. Obama did keep some promises — or, rather, he kept one: to make the price of energy “skyrocket.” But how does all this figure in the momentum sweepstakes?  It bodes poorly for Obama. It is said that being an incumbent is a powerful advantage. It is true that it has some advantages, especially for the unscrupulous. It allows you to blur the distinction between ruling and campaigning, for example, to jet around in Air Force One on fundraisers masquerading as official business.  But the incumbent also, as George W. Bush discovered to his chagrin, is blamed for things that have gone wrong.  And a lot has gone wrong on Obama’s watch.

I have been saying for some weeks now that I think Mitt Romney will not only win but will win by a significant margin. As I said in this space two days ago, the announcement of Paul Ryan as his choice for vice president increases Romney’s momentum and suggests that his victory may be by a landslide. Why? As in 2008, there are negative as well as positive elements. But this time around, Obama will have to deal with the vast accumulation of negatives, some of which I’ve touched upon above. By any dispassionate measure, his term in office has been a disaster, at least on the domestic front. On the positive side, Romney has experience, competence, and a communicable understanding of the way business and the economy work. Beyond that, he has a deeply appealing fundamental philosophy, one that he has hitherto been only moderately successful in communicating.

The choice of Paul Ryan changes all that. Romney now has a super-articulate, likable partner, one who not only understands the numbers (cf. Iowahawk’s great observation that Ryan represents Obama’s worst nightmare: math) but also understands what he calls the “big difference” between conservatives and Democrats. Democrats want the government to determine everything from your health care to the sorts of light bulbs you are allowed to buy. Conservatives, said Ryan in a riveting presentation in the debate over ObamaCare, “want people to be in control.” Take a look at that video. It’s notable not only for Paul Ryan’s stellar performance but also for Obama’s look of stony loathing. It’s not, or not only, that Obama has met his match in Paul Ryan: it’s that he has met in the Romney-Ryan team a force of gathering momentum that will sweep them to victory, leaving the Hope & Change brigade back plotting their socialist takeover in the hovels of Chicago. What happened yesterday — cheering crowds of 10,000 or more for the R&R team, while Obama presided over a cut-rate fundraiser that played to 51% capacity — is a token of things to come. Expect a lot more scenes like this from the Romney camp: