All Presidential elections are at least potentially historic. But I’ve been looking forward to the 2012 election for many, many years. If you’re curious as to why, read on.
I’m a life-long science fiction fan. My passion for it comes from the large number of novels and short stories written by some very smart, and insightful, people. Those whose acquaintance with sci-fi stems only from Star Trek, Star Wars, and numerous Hollywood blockbusters can be forgiven for thinking it’s simple mindless entertainment featuring bug-eyed monsters and scantily-clad women (who nowadays wear ridiculously impractical clothing but at least can, literally, kick ass :)). Those of us who read it know better. In fact, sci-fi has produced some of the more thoughtful, reflective perspectives on the human condition in our modern hi-tech age, and how our selves and our institutions are shaped by change.
There’s a sub-genre of sci-fi devoted to exploring issues through the lens of “future history”. Its very best examples focus not on technology and gee-whiz but the interplay of politics, morals, ethics and conflict. For those interested in sampling this I can recommend Poul Anderson’s Poleseotechnic League/Terran Empire stories, H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human collection, and Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium/Empire of Man arc.
But the touchstone for all of it is the guy who first conceived the idea of writing the “history of the future”, Robert Heinlein. As a superb storyteller and a keen student of the human condition, his stories have a verisimilitude which keeps them relevant despite their inevitable failures to get the details right.
How’s this relate to today’s election? Here’s an excerpt from a piece Heinlein wrote about some stories in his future history he never expected to write 1:
As for the second notion, the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.
It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.
Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country—Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva’s Zion, Smith’s Nauvoo, a few others. The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition against each other.
Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not—but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening — particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.
I imagined Nehemiah Scudder as a backwoods evangelist who combined some of the features of John Calvin, Savonarola, Judge Rutherford and Huey Long. His influence was not national until after the death of Mrs. Rachel Biggs, an early convert who had the single virtue of being the widow of an extremely wealthy man who shared none of her religious myopia — she left Brother Scudder several millions of dollars with which to establish a television station. Shortly thereafter he teamed up with an ex-Senator from his home state; they placed their affairs in the hands of a major advertising agency and were on their way to fame and fortune. Presently they needed stormtroopers; they revived the Ku Klux Klan in everything but the name — sheets, passwords, grips and all. It was a “good gimmick” once and still served. Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election. The next election was never held.
Impossible? Remember the Klan in the ‘Twenties — and how far it got without even a dynamic leader. Remember Karl Marx and note how close that unscientific piece of nonsense called Das Kapital has come to smothering out all freedom of thought on half a planet, without — mind you — the emotional advantage of calling it a religion. The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed.
When was this written? 1952. My, how times haven’t changed.
And the election Scudder won, which led quickly to the collapse of the United States as we know it?
Now, I don’t want you thinking I believed in this as a prediction. I’m not one for “end time” stuff, be they Mayan predictions, the Second Coming or the result of a talented storyteller’s fertile imagination.
Still, I watched the growing influence of fundamentalism in politics over the course of my life with more than a little concern. While I know many good and gentle True Believers, I’m sorry to say my overall experience confirms Heinlein’s observation that “The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue”. When the global financial market collapsed in 2008, and it looked like the global economy might follow it down, I was uneasy for more than just the obvious, personal reasons.
So as you might imagine, I am very glad no one named Nehemiah Scudder — and no one who represents the “philosophy” Heinlein envisioned for Scudder — is running for President in 2012. I’m no fan of Romney’s, but even at his most pandering worst he’s not that guy.
Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say I do believe the 21st Century GOP is in hock to elements which could, given the right circumstances, run a Scudder for office. Which is one of the many reasons I switched from the Republican to Democratic party years ago.
Regardless, for this election at least, whoever wins I’ll be breathing a sigh of relief.
1 Revolt in 2100, copyright 1953 Robert A. Heinlein, published by New American Library, pages 191-192