And now at last we get back to normal. Now we can all reunite and hold hands and buy the world a Coke, right?
No. When Walter Mondale took a pasting, half the nation didn't convert to Ronald Reagan's stare-down-the-Rooskies approach. Bill Clinton's victory in '96 didn't make conservatives think, "Gosh, he's popular. Let's give him that nationalized health care, eh? It would mean so much to him."
Normal is normal only in retrospect, when you've forgotten the love-him/loathe-him dynamic that has ruled the political culture since Richard Nixon. (With a brief time out for the halcyon, let-grandpa-drive mood of Bush 41's first two years.) We're back to deep polarization, which isn't new in our history, but seems so different from the gauzy era of I Like Ike and the beloved reign of FDR.
Of course, FDR won the '44 election by fewer than 4 million votes, approximately 25 million to Dewey's 22 million. Even then we were split.
So the wars go on. There are two.
The first is the culture war. The issues run the gamut from important, chewy ones like gay marriage and embryo cloning to incredibly important ones like the number of times Howard Stern can say naughty words over the air. Will we sell legal drugs to adults and thongs to kids? No God in the public sphere, or just a savory morsel?
The conservatives will lose this one. To paraphrase O'Brien at the end of Orwell's "1984": I have seen the future, Winston, and it is a wardrobe malfunction pressing eternally in the viewer's face. The media want the culture war; it's good for business, pesky fines aside. There's no profit in going back to the old values. The people who run the media are either young, cheerful quasi-nihilists who see the world through the cracked lens of irony and disdain, or they're older members of the coastal elite, terrified of being unhip.
Again, it's not new. There has always been a culture war, from the movie codes of the '30s to the mainstreaming of porn in the '70s, from the bawdy, suggestive rhythms of rock to the blunt, shouting rants of rap.
But somehow it seems as if the next line we cross is different. It's either the border between this country and some different sort of America, a place Glen Miller, Elvis, Mae West and Little Egypt would barely recognize. Or it's the line between the cliff and the canyon. Maybe we already went over the edge; maybe we're in full Wile E. Coyote mode, not yet aware of the plunge ahead. In which case you should make a little sign that says "OUCH" and prepare to hold it up when, in 2017, "America's Funniest Proctology Exams" debuts at No. 1 on ABC.
Then there's the War war. In a way, it was nice of Osama bin Laden to pay us a visit. We'd been so worried. Even those of us who thought he was an indistinct smear on a cave wall were somewhat heartened by his jack-in-the-box impression: Hey, now we can get him for certain. But bin Laden's return was remarkably anticlimactic. After Sept. 11 we imagined we would seem him on the TV every other week as we huddled in the smallpox quarantine centers, wondering if the firestorms of L.A. and Washington had died down yet.
Do you recall those emotions, how it seemed like the war had just begun? Turns out it had just begun for them, and after three years bin Laden could offer nothing more than a hectoring harangue that sounded like a poorly translated summary of a Michael Moore movie. He did promise to attack only those states that voted for Bush as if he's some Bond-movie supervillain looking at a giant map, pointing a remote control at the states he's chosen to vaporize. In his dreams. Not in our nightmares.
So we're winning. But there's more to do success in Iraq, the end of the Iranian regime and the marginalization of Syria. For starters. Anything else hastens the day when another nightmare arrives in New York. All this is still ahead division as far as you can see, alas. Elections don't settle anything.
Five more elections in the same direction by larger margins? That's a start.
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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.