Reality is that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away.
–Peter Viereck, poet and conservative thinker
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.
“Every tree in the forest will fall,” said James McCord, the Watergate conspirator, as he prepared to blow the lid off the cover-up of the scandal, leading to the forced midterm resignation of President Nixon. The phrase comes to mind as one surveys the condition of the United States today. The country’s military power is evaporating in failing ground wars in two pulverized, impoverished countries, leaving its recent pretensions to global imperial grandeur in ashes. Its economic power is crumbling daily as its banking system collapses and its instruments of credit seize up in what Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has told Congress may be a “heart attack.” (To which Pope Benedict has helpfully added that the world’s financial system is built “on sand,” explaining that “only the word of God is the foundation of all reality.”) Its constitutional foundations have been weakened to the breaking point by a lawless executive branch and a supine Congress. Its moral authority has been compromised by military aggression and the institution of torture. Its ecological underpinnings (which it of course shares with the rest of the world) are being put at risk by global warming and the entire panoply of harms that the overgrown human enterprise is inflicting on the natural order. (On October 6 a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported that almost a quarter of mammalian species are now at risk of extinction.) “Change,” indeed!–not the kind “we can believe in” or even the kind we “need” that Barack Obama promises but the kind that bears down upon you like a Category 5 hurricane, whether you believe in it or not. Not change but salvage–and salvation–are the need of the hour: rescue we can believe in.
In combination, these crises form a matrix, a kind of tightening steel net, that will condition and confine all future decision-making. Any one of them could easily prove more than a match for the powers of the next president. Yet there is a choice that overlaps and connects all the others and in a sense stands before them: deciding whether the United States, until now surrounded by a deep fog of illusions, will discipline itself to perceive and deal with the world as it actually is or, taking leave of its collective senses once and for all, will make the final plunge into a world of enticing fantasy. That is the most immediate question placed before the voters in the election that is upon us.
Trust is the lifeblood of a democratic politics, just as faith and credit are the lifeblood of market economics. Each can be sustained in defiance of reality: a people can place its trust in demagogues, investors can bet their money on worthless assets. But only for a while. A day must come when the “pitiless crowbar of events” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) breaks through the wall. That day has arrived. When, as now, the market system comes to the government begging for rescue, economic credit and political trust are fused. Acknowledging reality will not in itself end the wars, put money back in the banks, lower the price of energy, repair the Constitution or restore the damaged web of life, but it is a necessary condition for addressing any of this work.