This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Walker Percy’s death, and the eminent philosopher-novelist repays our attention and thought more than ever.
Or, Why we as Americans are Obsessed with Presidential Elections and Though we Hate Ourselves for it Cannot Get Enough of 2020 Coverage Despite it Still Being 2019 and Our Day-to-Day Troubles Being Plenty Preoccupying:
We as Americans have been told that certain truths are self-evident, namely, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Moreover, the Declaration of Independence goes on to say, governments are instituted to secure these undefined rights. While, in the spirit of English common law, the Declaration then enumerates the injuries and usurpations perpetrated by King George III, Jefferson’s prologue is a masterwork of modern Enlightenment rhetoric.
In Lost in the Cosmos, the novelist Walker Percy wrote:
The Self since the time of Descartes has been stranded, split off from everything else in the Cosmos, a mind which professes to understand bodies and galaxies but is by the very act of understanding marooned in the Cosmos, with which it has no connection. It therefore needs to exercise every option in order to reassure itself that it is not a ghost but is rather a self among other selves.
Percy lays out what is perhaps the fundamental problem animating his work, and, indeed, perhaps life in general:
The fateful flaw of human semiotics is this: that of all the objects in the entire Cosmos which the sign-user can apprehend through the conjoining of signifier and signified (word uttered and thing beheld), there is one which forever escapes his comprehension—and that is the sign-user himself.
We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves, and so we have made democracies, to know ourselves writ large.
In a post-religious technological society, Percy finds there are in general but two options for being a self: the immanent, consumer self, who lives in mass society; or the transcendent self, in membership with a community that transcends the world by means of universality, usually art or science. In practice, most people oscillate between these selves.
Participatory governance, partisan national elections—really modern politics—offers immanence and transcendence both, and in a time and place where traditional resources of the self are no longer available, electoral contests have become increasingly integral to identity.
Research by Gallup found that in 1958 only a third of Democrats wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat, with just a quarter of Republicans wished their daughters would marry someone of the Grand Old Party. In 2016, however, Gallup found 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans wanted their child to marry someone of their party.
The American voter, a citizen of the United States and putatively part of one of those same states, a member of a party and a consumer of media, derives an immanent sense of self from participating in elections, actively or passively. She finds a transcendent self in national politics in particular, making, as it does, a claim about American identity and the American idea, which, with its proposals of self-evidence, lays claim to universals.
So, presidential politics especially have become an act of immanence, of consumption and entertainment, the integration of the self into a system by way of participation and fanship, but also of transcendence, with choosing the national executive, a head of state, being totemic—a descriptive, prescriptive, and aspirational representation of We the People, the United States of America.
Question: What kind of people, and what kind of country, and what kind of life, liberty, and happiness is represented by the 2020 candidates for president?
(a) Are we, as President Trump suggests, a once great nation in need of restoration? Have craven elites chosen immigrants and foreign, frontier members of a foolish American empire over their fellow citizens, an existing American people?
(b) Is America an idea, first and foremost, above material conditions? Should Americans join Biden in affirming a restored belief in equality, faith in liberty, and hope in the pursuit that will summon a bright future, where all people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, perhaps with a little help from Uncle Sam?
(c) Or do we, like Sanders, believe that the structures and institutions American workers built have been captured by a global elite, that the system as it currently exists is unjust, and that it is time for payback and for those enriched by the system to pay up?
(d) Does that seem too radical? Do you agree with Warren, that machine politics and too-brazen-to-be-noticed corruption has let Wall Street financialize the economy and capture Washington? That reform can forestall revolution?
(e) Would electing Harris, an African-American woman, bend the arc of history back toward justice—justice being something she presumably knows about as a former prosecutor?
(f) Does the country need a consultant-in-chief to provide vision and innovative, disruptive solutions? Would Buttigieg as America’s first openly homosexual president restore an increasingly female, increasingly minority electorate’s confidence in white men?
(g) Or is it time for white men to take a seat, and the problem with front-runner Joe is that he’s one of them, and it is actually Booker who can deliver the needed message, that if the United States chooses to believe in itself there’s nothing it can’t do?
(h) Are you tired of politicians? Might Yang’s universal basic income of a check for $1,000 a month—along with all his other anti-anti-anti-ideological, technocratic patches on a post-work future—give you space to breath?
(i) Maybe Biden’s too old, and Buttigieg is, somehow, too gay, and O’Rourke is the white man for the job? Does America miss an orator, a first mourner? Do you want a tall skinny guy to keep reminding you this—you know, all this, America—is f*cked up?
(j) Is Gabbard right that the problem under all the other problems is we failed to heed Eisenhower’s warning, and the military industrial complex holds sway in Washington, spending blood and treasure abroad for its own enrichment?
(k) Do demographic changes in the United States mean that someone like Castro is needed to better integrate Hispanic and Latinx citizens and non-citizens into We the People? Do we need a Chicano Obama?
(l) Do we need a Midwestern Hillary? Can Klobuchar bring no-nonsense Midwestern practicality to the White House along with a feminine touch?
(m) Are billionaires fine if they spend money on the environment and other nice social efforts? Is Steyer the right billionaire to take on billionaire Trump? Is the United States a country that makes billionaires? Are we just missing old WASP noblesse oblige?
(n) Is America a real, progressive—yes we don’t like the word, but—empire? Couldn’t that require Empire City and Empire State experience? After all, Trump was elected. Are we the Biggest Apple in the world? Could de Blasio actually be the good emperor we want?
(o) Are we deeply, deeply ill? Depressed and bigoted and violent and scared and in so, so much pain we don’t understand? Can Williamson help us raise our national consciousness, to pray to God to save us from the dark psychic—that means of the soul, originally—forces oppressing us? Can she help us love?
Thought Experiment: Imagine that a man emerged in the public eye who was truly of the people, who knew the brokenness of the world but also saw it someday whole. He spoke truth to power and messages of hope and love to the desperate and the hurting. For the rich he had nothing but warnings and admonitions; to the poor he reached a healing hand—in fact his health care plan was perfect. He promised a rod of iron to break the armies of injustice, but for the humble a tender caress and joyful laugh of peace on earth and good will to all men. He saw us as we really are: God-imaged creatures who might become splendors, but also twisted. He saw into the deepest darkness of our fear and our shame and our evil. To be seen like that, shown like that—would you be comforted? Would you be terrified? Is hope in a world to come enough for you? Do you need your kingdom of heaven now?