[The following is a reprint of something I published in 2004, which is significant because it came about during an election eventually won by the Republicans. In other words, it arose in an environment that is different in many ways from the one in which we currently live. I found myself thinking about this essay many times in recent months. I'm reprinting it because I think it is critically relevant in all elections (please excuse my arrogance).]
What will be the deciding factor in the neck 'n neck presidential election? So many people have been spending so much energy saying so many of the same old slogans to so many habitual "undecideds” that a lot of really important stuff has got to be getting lost in the rhetorical shuffle.
1. The election will be decided on issues and substance (if "our" guy wins)
2. The election will be decided on illegitimately funded deception (if "their" guy wins)
Those are the two main schools of thought. I’d like to add one more, one that gets virtually no attention at all in the world of public policy hype. It is at least worth considering the possibility that this election, as well as several if not all previous ones, will be decided by - please! I beg for your brief indulgence - spirits.
That word is cumbersome because, like the words flu and religion, it has far too many possible definitions. It appears in front of liquor stores as in, "Wine and Spirits." It is heard at high school pep rallies, which are now called "spirit rallies." Or we hear that someone has a lot of "spirit," as in spunk or energy. Then of course, there are the TV preachers with their Holy and various unholy spirits.
But spirits in presidential politics? Strange, indeed.
There are some provocative common threads in the examples I just gave. The booze drinker becomes, in various combinations, looser, sillier or angrier, less bothered, more confident, and eventually, sleepy. Significantly, the condition is not simply physical, emotional or intellectual. The effect of drinking alcohol, and especially of drunkenness, is what we might call a wholistic one. Alcohol gets to your essence, wherever that is. We might say that alcohol changes one's "spirit" - one’s indefinable center of gravity. That is why it is called a spirit. To drink it is to, let us say, invite in a new spirit (often along with a new year).
Likewise with a pep rally. What is going on there? Through various chants, called cheers, mildly ritualistic bodily movements, and inspirational speeches, students drum up a sort of group identity and group focus which motivates them toward some action, often defeating the other team (!). Much of the affect is conscious and planned, but as with alcohol, there is a great deal going on beneath the surface as well. Though pep rallies are usually harmless, it is worth noting that, down through history, similar behaviors have often created volatile mobs.
In short , the affect is not unlike that produced by alcohol, except that the energies or forces are of a different kind, and there is perhaps more group reinforcement. Still, the general tone of the psyche is changed: thoughts are gathered and focused in a certain direction, strong feelings are stirred, and certain inhibitions are dispensed with. The level of rational objectivity is lowered, or sometimes eliminated altogether.
With all this in mind, let me offer a possible contemporary definition for the word spirit, one that accounts for the whole range of nuanced meaning, whether refering to alcohol, pep rallies, energetic children, TV preachers or psychologists.
Spirits are any of various powerful, largely subconscious attitudes or impulses within people, whose sources are to some degree sub-rational, that cross ordinary physical, psychological or social boundaries and express themselves inevitably in behavior.
What will decide the election? I want to suggest the subject of spirits as a possible direction for analysis. Honestly, I do not see the election of a president as all that rational or conscious a process - for anyone. If it is so rational, why do most people say they hate negative campaigning - even though the professionals know negative campaigning “works”? Why would it be so important, as it clearly is, for media types to repeat the same talking points over and over again long after we can repeat them in our sleep?
How could there be so many undecided voters when the two candidates seem so diametrically opposed? What makes otherwise normal people stand in the rain on freeway overpasses, waving and holding up signs, when almost all of us, no matter who we vote for, almost always end up disillusioned a year later? How can we get so excited about lawyers, who we despise and ridicule on a daily basis, just because they want to run for office and become even more unaccountable?
The answer, I think, might be - spirits. Largely without our conscious or rational participation, we are imbibing some mind altering beverage; we are surrounding ourselves with some mysterious covert pep rally; we are driven by invisible ghosts of one sort or another.
Is there a better way to explain the most disturbing fact of every election season - that far too many of us become certain that our own point of view is clearly superior, and that all the over-simplifications, half-truths and bogeymen are on the other side? Would we allow ourselves such blatant stupidity in any other area of our lives (except sex perhaps)?
I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, not in the usual sense of the term, because I think everyone - everyone - is being fooled by it. Through our choice of television shows, films, magazines, websites, books, music, school and church, through our chosen friends and social environments, our workplaces and who knows what else - we are spirited in a certain direction.
It starts out as a somewhat rational and objective process. Some conscious choice is involved. But eventually it becomes a train with an unearthly momentum. You could not get off, even if you were able to consider that possibility - which most can not. The more minds it controls, the more out of control the train itself becomes. And everything else is just the necessary habitual distraction we call our daily lives.
What if blind self-righteousness is as much a political as a religious thing?