“Dear MoveOn Member,” began an e-mail sent out by the progressive PAC the evening of Kerry’s concession, “we’ll admit to being heartbroken by the outcome of yesterday’s election.”
By the time I got MoveOn.org‘s message, I’d gotten scores of others, and they generally read like this: “My heart aches,” “This feels like a breakup,” “I’m utterly broken-hearted,” “I don’t remember feeling like this since my wife left me” and (my favorite), “The atmosphere in my office today feels like everyone was dumped on the way into work.”
Politics is frequently characterized as a science or an art, or even a game, but seldom as a love affair–so why, in the aftermath of last week’s elections, did so many progressives turn to the metaphor of heartbreak? One possible explanation is that “heartbreaking” and all of its various iterations were just synonyms selected at random from the universe of equally morose adjectives: miserable, wretched, despairing, depressed, abject, inconsolable.
I don’t think that’s it, though; I think our use of the language of heartbreak was deliberate, and suggestive. Most of us who are old enough to vote are also old enough to have had our hearts broken, and so we know whereof we speak. We are familiar with the emotional progression: the shock, the disbelief, the deep and disorienting anguish of an anticipated future falling away. We recognize the particular way that heartbreak, for all its immensity, inheres in minutiae–in a T-shirt, a voice mail, a notation on a calendar. We know that it will look in on us while we are brushing our teeth or going for a run or trying to read before sleep (or not sleeping at all, insomniac); that if it seems to abate briefly it will return just as fast, dropping a dark scrim over our day.
So we progressives are heartbroken, metaphorically. The function of a metaphor is to explain one thing in terms of another thing–typically, to clarify an abstract concept by comparing it to something concrete. So what are we to learn about our politics from our sudden resort to the metaphor of heartbreak?
First, there is this: Despite all the “Anybody But Bush” rhetoric, this election was not just about the left’s abhorrence of George Bush. (If there is a potential causal relationship between hatred and heartbreak, it is that the latter can lead to the former, not vice versa.) Nor was this election about our love for John Kerry, heaven knows, although many of us believed that he would be an honest and able leader.
What we loved, of course, was our country. And not just loved it, as it turned out: loved it desperately, to the point of heartbreak. Not that you would have known this from the language used by the left before the election. For a long time now, progressives, myself included, have been afraid of the language of love of country, for a number of pretty decent reasons.
First, we choose not to forget that many of the things we love most about our country–its liberty and bounty, for example–were won at the expense of other people’s liberty and bounty, not to mention their lives, and that these goods continue to be inequitably distributed today. Second, we refuse to embrace a love that does not permit of criticism. “Love it or leave it” has to be the stupidest sentiment ever borne into immortality on the wings of alliteration, yet it has never dropped below a low murmur in the American political chorus; these days, in the shadow of war and ever-increasing official and unofficial sanctions on dissent, it threatens to reach its highest pitch since the Vietnam War. Finally, we have seen how love of country slips so easily into xenophobia, and we turn from any patriotism that ignores or injures the 95 percent of humanity beyond our borders.