10/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Engaging In Dubious Battle

There is nothing like getting completely off the grid to clear one's mind, and put things into perspective - and there is no place better to do just that than Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

I spent the last week at a cabin on Lake Sutherland, just outside the gates of Olympic National Park - and I'm proud to say I watched almost no television, didn't check my email, and didn't answer my cell phone. I read a few books, hiked a few trails, grilled a few meals, drank a few beers, and simply gazed out at the view in the photograph at right for more than a few hours. In the process, I hashed out a few things in my own head - something that's almost impossible in the increasingly nonsensical lyrics of the moment-to-moment death-metal ballad that is Campaign 2008.

I say it is nonsensical because when, as a political junkie, you take a full break for even a week, and then come back to the noise, that noise is almost completely incomprehensible. For example, my email is downloading 2,000 messages right now - an assortment of progressive organization's newsletters, political listserve chatter and reader mail. I'd say a good quarter to a third has the word "Palin" in the headline, followed by wild theories, personal attacks, or deep-in-the-weeds details about Alaska's municipal governments. I checked my regular list of blogs, and its much the same, sprinkled in with the usual attacks on John McCain, and defense of Barack Obama. Apparently, I'm expected to believe that the pregnancy status of a Republican nominee for an office with zero power is "breaking news" that will impact my life in a serious way.

Look, I'm as much for Obama and against McCain as the average progressive - probably more so, considering my columns supporting Obama during the Democratic primary. But that's neither here nor there. What's amazing to me after coming back from vacation is how obviously insular and silly this supposed "national" conversation really is, when you just step back for one week and look at it. Whether on blogs, email, radio or television, a small group of us is basically screaming at ourselves, the rest of the public be damned. It's quite tragic, really.

I figure it this way: Between the local billboards advertising Hugh Haffner's PUD Commissioner reelection campaign, a smattering of radio news in the car, flipping by CNN during the Republican convention on the way to a TBS movie, and glancing at the headlines of the Peninsula Daily News in the newspaper box on a street corner, the amount of political information I took in over the last week is probably equivalent to the amount the average American takes in in the same time period.

Now, when I try to go back to the supposedly most important, most attention-grabbing, most substantive election in American history (as it is always billed every four years), I feel like I have A) absolutely no idea why any of the allegedly "critical" storylines are important and B) a sense of absolute certainty that most of these storylines are, in fact, unimportant to the daily lives of most Americans. And my educated guess is that that is precisely the way most Americans feel, too.

Let me be clear: I'm not asserting that Americans aren't paying attention - lord knows, you have to almost completely cut off all electricity to your house and car (or head to a lake cabin) to avoid having the presidential race shoved in your face. What I'm saying is that paying attention to an election and actually believing its conduct suggests it truly matters to your life is as different as ogling at a car wreck on the side of the road, and actually knowing someone in that car wreck and thus truly feeling connected to it.

I know what the standard explanation of all this is: Both sides in an election tell their ground troops - and the public at large - that the silly, nonsequtur-ish skirmishes are part of a larger, more important and cohesive war, that whatever tactics can win that war are worth it, that ridiculing Michael Dukakis's tank ride or wailing about John McCain's loafers is a responsible way to try to win a presidential election, or worse that rank hypocrisy is totally acceptable as long as it has tactical value. Yes, the absurdity of ripping apart Sarah Palin's family after complaining about GOP attacks on Obama's family, or the idiocy of criticizing Palin's lack of experience after protesting attacks on Obama's lack of experience, is justified by progressives as "necessary" for the greater good of winning the election and bring about "real change."

That kind of ends-justify-the-means pablum has been around forever, and the danger of it is explained most hauntingly in In Dubious Battle - one of the more obscure John Steinbeck books that I wrestled with in the last days of my Lake Sutherland respite.

On the surface, it is a book about labor organizing, but it is really about the good and bad of human nature. Like most Steinbeck works, the book reads like a long biblical parable, with characters representing archetypes - and the most chilling passages are those from Doc Burton, the sad but sympathetic Skeptic. "The end is never very different in its nature from the means," Burton tells one organizer. "You can only build a violent thing with violence."

The line is as relevant today as in 1936 when it was first written. When progressive activists spend all their time hyperventilating about, say, Sarah Palin's teenage daughter, they not only distract from the very real - and very important - questions about Palin's extremist policy positions and alienate voters looking for a little substance to connect with, but may in fact endanger what comes out of the election, because really: if Lee Atwater proved he couldn't build any kind of meaningful election mandate with Willie Horton, what kind of election mandate do progressives really hope to build by stoking salacious speculation about private family matters?

The same - and more - could be said of the Republicans. The GOP's decision to make their campaign about indicting the very American-ness of Democrats - most recently with their authoritarian-flavored "Country First" nationalism - is undoubtedly rationalized in the same way In Dubious Battle's wide-eyed organizer Jim Nolan justifies his zealotry: "Y'ought to think only of the end," he says, dismissing Doc Burton's warning. But what kind of "end" are they really building with that kind of rhetoric? Certainly not the "change" or "reform" that John McCain is now promising.

No, we've been taught over and over again that means ARE ends unto themselves - that when, for example, politicians' primary means are corporate money, the end is corporate legislation, regardless of the campaign promises. That is to say something truly odious to a culture struggling with the plague of Partisan War Sydrome: That's right, how you win is as important as whether you win, because how you win dictates what you do with the power you get.

All of this suggests the real explanation for the increasingly hysterical, alienating, ends-justify-the-means behavior of both sides and the "objective" media in this election is summed up by Doc Burton's look at how people behave differently in crowds (aka. group-men) than they do as individuals:

"When group-man wants to move he makes a standard. 'God wills that we recapture the Holy Land' or he says, 'We fight to make the world safe for democracy' or he says, "we will wipe out social injustice with communism.' But the group doesn't care about the Holy Land or Democracy or Communism. Maybe the group simply wants to move, to fight, and uses these words to reassure the brains of individual men."

To be sure, the outcome of any given presidential election is important (and remember, every four years we are told that this election is the most important ever). But because everyone from the blogosphere, to cable news, to right and left-wing radio to lobbying firms to campaign consultants to the multimillion-dollar nonprofit world in D.C. so utterly bases their own importance (and in many cases, profitability) on the presidential race's perceived importance and moreover its partisan outcome (rather than its mandate, or - gasp! - the outcome of thousands of other critically important local races), these elections now dominate our entire culture in a way they never did, and never were intended to by our Founders.

And because winning by any means necessary is seen as the only goal, it leads those of us engaged in the quotidian battles of politics to unconsciously submit to and press a group-man psychology: an ends-justify-the-means Leninism of sorts that looks at whatever side we're on - whether Democratic, Republican or Media - as the vanguard party, that looks at the fight itself as the only thing of significance, with the majority of America only to be drawn into the bloodbath by whatever slogan the pollsters and TV admakers and Nielsen analysts say is most demagogically effective in the moment's cable-news slot.

And yet, somehow, those of us in the insulated echo chamber of "national politics" (aka. politics isolated from most of the nation) always end up wondering why about one out of every two Americans doesn't even bother to vote. It's actually more than a little bit hilarious that we even ask that question, considering the political environment that we live in - and have helped create.

For my part, having recognized all of this and having become appropriately disgusted with it, I'm going to do my best to continue adapting my own work so as to not be part of the problem. I say "continue" because looking back on the last year and a half, I have noticed something of a shift in my writing, albeit subconcious and unplanned. Whereas in 2003 I was lauded by Newsweek as a fiery partisan, my subsequent books and columns have become decidedly nonpartisan - or, to avoid being mixed up with a term ruined by the David Broders and Tom Friedmans, unpartisan.

This transition has angered many of my readers, but (at least I tell myself) has gained me new ones, and more importantly, has helped me start reaching for my own goals, rather than serving one or another candidates, parties, or interest groups. It has helped me remember what should be the most obvious principle for a writer: namely, that the main objective of writing is not to make a given audience happy, but to tell the truth.

As I move forward in this transition fresh off a vacation, you may see continued changes in my blog posts, in my writing style and in my general attitude. I hope, of course, that there is an audience for my attempts to capture unpartisan truth, in spite of the deafening noise of propaganda that promises to get louder even after the election. I hope, in other words, to be able to find ways - whether through reporting, literary nonfiction like my last book, or perhaps even fiction - to connect politics not just to a small group of us, but to All of Us.

Maybe that's a fool's fantasy. Maybe I'm engaging in dubious battle. But it's worth a shot. At least that's what I'm telling myself as I press onward into the abyss.

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