July 1997

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Nomad '96

Fear and loathing on the campaign trail

by Charles Taylor

AMERICAN NOMAD, By Steve Erickson. Henry Holt, 256 pages, $25.

[Steve Erickson] "America wearies of democracy." I don't know about you, but that's the most startling sentence I've read anywhere lately. Startling because it's so obviously right. It hits you like something you know but haven't yet admitted to yourself.

American Nomad, a chronicle of the 1996 presidential election by novelist Steve Erickson (Arc d'X, Amnesiascope), is the most lucid and penetrating analysis of our current political psyche that any journalist has come up with. Less reportage than the campaign books that usually follow an election, sometimes verging on collapse into po-mo theory, American Nomad seems to me to be to 1996 what Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago was to 1968, and what Mailer's St. George and the Godfather and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 were four years later. That is to say, it's the sort of book no one imagined possible on the basis of last year's phoned-in campaign, maybe because our national concerns have come to seem puny even to the most vociferous of us.

Erickson lays out the stakes early on. We weary of democracy, he says, because we are "more concerned with freedom from than freedom to," less and less patient with "democracy's inherent inefficiency and the morass of conflicting interests that are read in democracy's results." Erickson continues: "This myth, that the process has grown hopelessly out of touch with what we really want and feel and need, is the opposite of the truth. The truth is that we are the problem with America. The process and politicians and `special' interests -- by which we mean any interest that doesn't pertain to us -- reflect us all too perfectly; and we hate them for it."

Erickson's starting point is the feeling of betrayal that grew from the hope with which Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. But something about that feeling of being betrayed seems too easy to him, a product of the rage that he sees as the true national mindset. He lays part of the blame for our rage at the extremes of the Republican Party -- the way people like Dick Armey refer to Clinton as "your president," thus claiming that democracy itself is invalid. But Erickson acknowledges ramifications of that rhetoric that almost no liberals I know (and I define myself as a liberal) would. In a political landscape defined by rage, fact becomes hostage to our need to define those we don't agree with as evil.

So, for instance, from the left, it became impossible to acknowledge Clinton's signing a Welfare bill that echoes the meanest impulses of the right or his craven cowardice on gay rights. It also became impossible to acknowledge that Pat Buchanan, while advocating policies as racist as any recent candidate, articulated an economic policy too radical for even the Democratic Party, or that Jack Kemp and even Bob Dole have taken positions -- on abortion or affirmative action, for example -- that had no place in Republican rhetoric. Finally, it became impossible for the candidates to acknowledge those positions themselves, resulting in the grotesque spectacle of Kemp and Dole reversing themselves to win the nomination.

Erickson sees the real national evil as the readiness to accede to the unreason that has American politics in its grip. He is not so cynical to the possibilities America holds out to deny the symbolic import that Colin Powell would have as president, but he acknowledges that Powell's aligning himself with a party that clearly finds many of his positions abhorrent is already a failure of vision.

Erickson's novels are the kind routinely described as "Pynchonesque," and in American Nomad he's not beyond oblique tangents like a fictional "alternative" history of the last five elections. And there is payback to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who hired -- and then fired -- Erickson as the magazine's campaign reporter, in a satisfyingly acid portrait from which Wenner emerges as a power-crazed egomaniac with the attention span of an amphetamine-gorged rat.

Erickson isn't always on the mark. Although he's pro-choice, his section on abortion is surprisingly ill-informed (when people use the term "partial birth" or "late term," it's a safe bet they don't know what they're talking about).

Mostly, though, Erickson's departures from the campaign resonate as part of his portrait of the national mood, including ruminations on the career of Bruce Springsteen and the legacy of Frank Sinatra, which is one of the best things ever written on the man. No better, though, than his brilliant, critical and yet empathetic portraits of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and an elucidation of the choice between them as the choice between generations. Erickson truly puts meat on the bones of that soundbite cliché.

It seems strange to speak of finding hope in such a despairing book, though hope is always implicit when someone has had the wherewithal to speak truthfully. Erickson has written a book that will give no comfort to either conservatives or liberals, and that may be the most valuable sort of political writing. If there's any solution, he seems to be saying, to the social problems we keep avoiding, it won't be found in compromise (which achieves nothing), but in abandoning increasingly irrelevant ideologies.