11/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Give Unto Batman That Which is Batman's

As the nation prepares to close out the final chapter of the Bush 43 administration, it might be informative to reconsider the pinnacle of the era's popular culture. Sometimes even a box office smash can tell us things we don't want to hear. In The Dark Knight, which is really about the dark night, Batman's butler informs us, "The night is always darkest just before the dawn."

The problem with this insight, metaphorically speaking, is we can't grasp when the descent into darkness is over until dawn comes. Surely, there must be a better indicator.

To find one, we must first recognize what the darkness is, and here the movie is again helpful. Once Gotham City in the grip of panic has come to rely on men and not laws, and on one man above all, that is, one character tells us, the path that Rome took when it reached out for Caesar.

Rarely, though no one seems to have noticed, does so popular an apparent trifle tell us so much. For even if we missed the explicit message, the city's turn to martial law, universal surveillance, deceitful propaganda, and brutal criminality by those appointed to save the city tell us enough.

Could something like this have happened to our Gotham City? Mobilizing a frightened and powerless populace, the masters of image have created an ever larger enemy, as the movie indicates a Joker without fingerprints, D.N.A. or even a face, a specter without identity, a demon conjured.

Amidst the flailing and gnashing about invisible enemies, these masters have kick-started the steady descent into Caesarism. Primary evidence is of course the emergence of a unitary executive for which law becomes the assertion of its will backed by a chorus of bleating legalisms. This executive has begun to impound electoral guarantees, the attorney general's office and prosecutorial integrity, regulatory safeguards, international law, global treaties, privacy and the protection of dissent, to say nothing of the prerogatives of Congress, the Courts, and the states (Bush v. Gore). And all this by the party of limited government!

As we speak, this party of the free market has commandeered with lightning speed another sector of the free society. Its financial arm has engineered - whatever they call it - the nationalization of the market structure, demanding unlimited power with little oversight for the executive branch to manage and restructure the financial sector of the economy.

What is now all too apparent is that the limits this party historically worshiped on federal prerogative were meant to siphon power to conservative strongholds - corporate and local - in the face of liberal preeminence in Washington. What is equally clear is that power was always the objective, and that with the spread of conservatism nationally and the impact of 9/11 few limits, constitutional or popular, now stand in its way.

The public's role in this descent remains puzzling. At this point, the movie cops out with a bold-faced sop to our delicate political sensibilities: A life-or-death standoff between citizens and criminals at the height of hysteria in which no one detonates the bomb and the Joker's immediate plan is foiled. No matter, for as the ending makes clear, the Joker has won anyway. Wherever we go from here, I take the movie to be saying, we are on our own.

The current presidential election may offer some clues about those sensibilities. The party in opposition is talking about government from below, challenging the recent unilateralism, community organizing, and broad opportunity. The party in power is talking about, well, about nothing specific, for the message is, "Since we seek not power but service, and find experience complicates matters, trust us with the power, and rest assured, we will handle it, for God and for the nation."

Now, of course, the lines are not that distinctly drawn. After all, whatever is the matter with Kansas about hearing the truth plagues us all. So the first party hedges its rhetoric of crisis and change, and the second party talks about change and winks, or in Giuliani's case, laughs in derision.

Does any of this suggest when the dawn will emerge? No one will tell us that running for the bridges and tunnels only expands the Joker's dominion, and leads us further into the arms of Caesar.

What is thus clear from the election, from the commentators' business-as-usual, and the public's quiescence is that discussion of the darkness is off the table. The only reasonable inference is that the bottom of the market, however treacherous a journey, will come long before relief from the dark night encircling us.

And yet, even as we continue to run, the movie finally sets us straight: As we carom between the omnipotent Joker and the saving Caesar, we may well miss, particularly if we are too scared to look, that they are one and the same.

James Block is a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, and author of A Nation of Agents: The American Path to a Modern Self and Society (Harvard/Pelknap, 2002)