The central crisis of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice occurs when Lydia, the youngest Bennet daughter, runs off with the lying, gold-digging Mr. Wickham. Jane and Elizabeth, the two eldest Bennet daughters, discuss their situation. Jane, as always, wants to think the best. Lizzie, as often, sees more clearly. As she turns to leave the room, Lizzie says to Jane: Do you not see that more has been spoiled by this business than Lydia's reputation?
Elizabeth goes on to say that their family's respectability, not to mention the other daughters' prospects for making a good match, is materially harmed.
Following the events of our national political life since November 7, I have come more and more to hear Lizzie's question to Jane in a slightly different form: Do you not see that more has been spoiled by this business than a smooth election? Indeed. Our nation's respectability is materially harmed.
The word respectability sounds Victorian to our postmodern ears. Yet, it is one thing that has, in a deep sense, been harmed, not only by the aftermath of this November 7 but by the behavior of our political leadership for the past eight years, perhaps longer. Respectability means both respecting ourselves and being the kind of person and the kind of nation that commands the respect of others. It also means respect for the rule of law that protects our nation from tyranny and anarchy.
We could start with Bill Clinton's first act as president: the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military. It offended everyone, right and left, gay and straight, and not for the reason that it was a sound policy from either point of view. It was cavalier. It was in your face. It was I'm in power, don't mess with me.
Then came Travelgate and Filegate and Whitewater. Those were followed by Hilary Clinton declaring on national television that the release of allegations concerning her husband's sexual behavior in and out of the White House was part of a right-wing plot.
Whatever the crisis, the response, from the beginning, was the same. Seize power. Dominate the media. Badger, bully, and overwhelm the opposition. Be there first with the best sound bite. And, never mind the rule of law. It is the rule of impression, of focus group results, of polling data that counts.
It began with the mantra of "It's the economy, stupid." Well, it wasn't the economy, stupid or smart. It was about power. It was about which view of the world holds that power. But never were we Americans to hear those views argued fairly or openly. Instead, we were met with verbal and sometimes physical intimidation. Now we have Al Gore's mantra: I want every vote counted and I want every vote to count. The obvious question is which votes are "every" vote and just how do you want them counted?
From the beginning to now the approach is the same. Seize the airwaves. Dominate the discourse. Be there first with the best line. This is about rhetoric in the service of ambition.
To add to the tragedy, the opposition has embraced the same tactics. No one even tries to take the moral high ground. Those who know better are either so intimidated or so impressed by the effectiveness of the thug-rhetoric approach that they have, too often, simply joined in. As a result, the cheapening of our public life is complete.
A few days ago a friend who watches these things said he was scared by this spectacle. He is a former think tank president, now a college president, a student of Lincoln and Churchill. He doesn't scare easily. I asked: Why are you scared? He said: We could miss an inauguration. Our public life is overturned.
Indeed. More is spoiled by this than a smooth election. Over the past eight years our political discourse has been coarsened, another old word but a good one. It doesn't elevate anyone to talk about intimate sexual encounters in the Oval Office or in the army barracks. It doesn't elevate anyone to wonder why a former bouncer is taking FBI files out of the White House. It doesn't elevate anyone to have the president of the United States say under oath that he had no sexual relationship with an intern and then later say that, well, he sort of did, depending on how you define "sexual." Help me. I am old-fashioned. I came of age in the Sixties. What part of "sexual" don't you understand?
Such verbal games and sheer audacity have put us in a place where our nation is divided as perhaps it never has been before. Witness the presidential vote, the make-up of the House and Senate, the map of voting that shows one candidate taking the urban counties, the other taking the suburban and rural areas, the spectacle of a vice president so bent on winning the White House that he will string the country out for weeks, threatening a smooth turnover of government, threatening deepening those divisions even more, willing to use the law and the courts to get the end he desires uber alles.
We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. We are not in the United States of Harry Truman who went home to Missouri in 1953. Or even of Richard Nixon who conceded in 1960 and resigned in 1974. Nor are we remotely in the United States of George Washington who refused to be king or to run for a third term as president. Last, we are not in the United States of Abraham Lincoln who, though complex himself, understood something profound about people who gave "the last full measure of devotion." Who could write the Gettysburg Address today? Who could hear it?
Jane Austen ends Pride and Prejudice with a speech by Mr. Darcy, the man Elizabeth Bennet agrees to marry after concluding that he is not the proud ogre she once believed him to be. Darcy responds to her acceptance this way:
I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit...
Darcy puts his finger on the crux of the matter. The difference between what we are taught and how we behave. It's one thing to know something, another to do it.
Like Darcy, we Americans have been taught good principles the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, documents based on the Bible and the Enlightenment, documents whose principles recognize that we are but human, imperfect, in need of structures that prevent us from doing each other harm.
But, also like Darcy, our material comfort has enabled us
to follow those principles in pride and conceit. For Darcy, it was Elizabeth who showed him the path he had been following. He decided to change, to head back to the old road. We'll see if we Americans have the courage to do the same.