Fear and loathing on the campaign trail
by Charles Taylor
AMERICAN NOMAD, By Steve Erickson. Henry Holt, 256 pages, $25.
"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
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.