THE unfolding political contest is a window into America's soul. The nation is arguing with itself. The candidates embody separate impulses. As voters choose sides, a red state-blue state polarity again takes shape. Within the Democratic Party, the dispute is narrower, but still sharp. Yet in truth, each citizen carries within herself or himself the structure of the conflict: hard versus soft, experience versus change, programmed versus spontaneous, self-interest versus empathy, hope in an open future versus lessons from the past. Politics, by isolating these positions and attributing them to one candidate over against another, parodies the interior struggle of every American.
In this era, humans have been cut loose from ancient moorings of meaning and purpose. The context within which this condition is most manifest in the United States is the debate - or, more precisely, the lack thereof - over what is called "national security." The phrase is potent because it promises something that is impossible, since the human condition is by definition insecure. When candidates vie with one another over who is most qualified to be "commander in chief," and when they unanimously promise to strengthen military readiness, they together reinforce the dominant American myth - that an extravagant social investment of treasure and talent in armed power of the group offers members of the group escape from the existential dread that comes with life on a dangerous planet. That such investment only makes the planet more dangerous matters little, since the feeling of security, rather than actual security, is the goal of the entire project.
Military power, that is, functions in America the way state religion has functioned in other societies. The Pentagon is the temple of this religion. It has dogmas, rituals, high priesthood, saints, cults of sacrifice, sacred language, and a justifying narrative - what theologians call "salvation history." Last week, John McCain, in his victory speech after Wisconsin, warned that his Democratic opponent would take "a holiday from history," implying that the past is only a warning of terrible things to come. McCain, alert to "moral monsters," sets the standard for national security discourse lately, but the Democrats must echo it. The political debate, which seems so defined by differences, actually puts on display the unquestioned orthodoxy of the deeper American consensus.
When politicians invoke the rote formulae of martial rhetoric, banging the drum of dire prediction, and promising best protection, they are only fulfilling the requirements of set rubrics, which produce in the electorate not the anxiety one would expect, but enchantment - the enchantment of the pew. Preachers warn of hellfire to offer rescue from it, which is available to those who submit. This feedback loop of damnation-salvation-submission serves the people by offering meaning, and it serves the elite by protecting the structure of power. In religion, all of this is overt. In presidential politics, it is implicit.
Thus, the entire electoral process has become centered on establishing the candidates' "toughness," as if the only "virtue" a leader must fully possess is unflinching willingness to declare war. Never mind the question of whether, since 1945, war makes sense. No surprise, therefore, that no presidential candidate questions the current Pentagon budget, which surpasses every record set during the Cold War. That would be apostasy - and political suicide.
This is not the candidates' doing, but the nation's. Barack Obama, in character as a liberal Democrat, manifests a certain skepticism toward the cult of military power, but, also true to that character, he cannot propose the elimination of the underlying ideology of power. Obama can suggest, as he did in his post-Wisconsin speech, that "it is time to write a new chapter in American history," yet he must not revise the familiar chapters that already exist. But "history" is not a mere record of past events and choices; it is an interpretation of those events and choices. In today's America, the "national security" interpretation is sacred.
When that consensus assumes, for example, that World War II was "good," or that the United States arms build-up "won" the Cold War, it protects the militarized economy, the status of the military-industrial elite, the iron lock of incumbents on office. Any reinterpretation of this salvation history, it is feared, would undermine the economy, disempower the elite, unsettle politics - and deprive the citizenry of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Voters may want change, but not change at this level. Yet "national security" is bogus - part ghost story with which the nation scares itself at bedtime, part nightly prayer with which it then goes to sleep.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.