Anne Having read each new newspaper story about the impending war with Iraq, I'm familiar with (and not entirely unsympathetic to) the Bush administration's rationale: We need to prevent Saddam from deploying biological and nuclear weapons. But I think a real, if only semiconscious, reason for invading Iraq is the administration's deep yearning to turn the amorphous, foggy, ghost-chasing, post-Afghanistan struggle against Al Qaeda into a normal, winnable war. A war against a single dictator, against fixed enemy fortifications, against an enemy capital. There is one thing I'm sure of: An Iraqi invasion, when it comes, will reengage Americans in a political discourse that we haven't had since the Vietnam War.
Kurt That's the domestic silver lining of a war with Iraq? It will be so monumentally galvanizing -- and divisive -- that politics will matter again? Could be. Washington has seemed dull and irrelevant to me for at least a dozen years. I always thought that Clinton's approval ratings remained so high post-Monica because the stakes in the 1990s seemed so low: His antics were entertaining at a time when national politics had evolved into a form of reality entertainment. I spent the 1990s predicting that they would stay that way until we got into a serious economic crisis or a big, long war.
Anne Or both. But how will this reawakening translate into real electoral action? There are millions of politically quiescent yous and mes waiting to reengage. Any thoughts on the form it will take?
Kurt For starters, we need to encourage almost anything that busts up the Republican-Democrat duopoly. Both parties are dominated by constituencies that are frightened of change. Both parties are fundamentally reactionary.
Anne I know that I'll sound like an earnest fool, but I'd like the change to be more than just politics becoming chic or the government setting up new New Deal programs. The way to rinse out the bad taste left over from the go-go 1980s and 1990s is to stop being arm's-length critics and -- as you say, for starters -- commit to mandatory service for all adults.
Kurt Even, um, middle-aged adults? Do you think this would turn America into Israel, in the good sense, with everyone intimately reconnected to the commonweal?
Anne Absolutely! If Bush and Congress created a practical system in which each of us had to commit one year of service to the country, I'd sign up tomorrow. Right after September 11, I was ready to work for a Giuliani-led antiterrorism task force. Today, I'd gladly work for a year in health care, or in education, or in the EPA.
Kurt That's it! We want to feel unambivalent about politics again.
Anne Unambivalence: the grown-up version of idealism.
Kurt I unambivalently loved politics as a kid. As a little kid, I was very eager to please my Goldwater-Republican parents. As a 13-year-old Nebraskan, I attended teenage-Republican summer camp, hung a portrait of Nixon on my bedroom wall, and even performed minor dirty tricks at the behest of a Nixon advance man. Now it can be told: I pasted Nixon posters over Hubert Humphrey posters in downtown Omaha in 1968. But then came my countercultural apostasy: As a 17-year-old Nebraskan, I was organizing draft-resistance seminars and campaigning for George McGovern. I wonder if the reason why we don't cotton to Al Gore or George W. Bush is because they never rebelled against their parents' politics, as baby boomers had a generational obligation to do.
Anne So that was the last time you felt invested in politics?
Kurt More or less. I realized that the Progressives' great legislative project -- the New Deal, civil rights, equal rights, and environmentalism -- was pretty much done. After the 1970s, nearly every program of the left seemed tediously incremental, or ineffectual, or misguided. Today, if some kind of serious, truth-telling, "radical middle" third party could arise, I'd be a charter member. The Greens could take the left half of the Democrats, and some new Christian Right party could take the antiabortion, culture-warrior half of the GOP.
Anne You want a real-life Bulworth?
Kurt Exactly. A Hollywood fantasy, no doubt. Although I feel slightly hopeful about possible tectonic shifts right now, given the economic and geopolitical messes. These are, in the Chinese-curse sense, interesting times.
Anne Like I said, silver linings really can appear out of the most- horrid events. Sometimes the law of unintended consequences can work for you.