Last night I was reading the always magnificent Isaiah Berlin, from a 1951 essay, on Tolstoy's "despairing" historical approach to literature, or rather his literary approach to history, when Sir Isaiah suddenly seemed to speak to the 2010 midterm elections:
"[W]e never shall discover all the causal chains that operate [in history]: the number of such causes is infinitely great, the causes themselves infinitely small" -- a point to which I'll return momentarily.
Since at least 2006 Congressional Democrats have known what was coming: a massive, retaliatory attack by the GOP; an orchestrated assault infused with withering propagandistic lies delivered by withering propagandists, and yacht-loads of corporate and special-interest cash, all in the service of retaking power, for power's sake.
Four years. And throughout one of those years -- the last one -- the GOP has been mobilizing its ground troops, largely through a mercenary alliance with the tea party. "We would crawl through broken glass to vote," a reactionary English teacher from Texas told Politico. "We would stand in the pouring rain ... to make our point. We would do anything. We would contribute money we hardly have."
Now, here at the crescendo of those four years, where do Democrats stand?
"In the last six weeks," reported the NYT yesterday, "Republicans have outspent Democrats $20 million to $13 million in television advertising, according to an analysis by The New York Times of 56 of the nation’s most competitive House and Senate races."
And, picking up on yet another of yesterday's NYT pieces devoted to leftward and looming disaster: "For months, Democratic leaders have tried several ways to rally their voters in hopes of closing the enthusiasm gap with Republicans." But so far, not much luck; nothing much but GOP enthusiasm ruthlessly crushing that of Democrats' in virtually poll.
How to explain this? How to explain the lack of spirit, the shortage of funds, the evidently profound absence of long-term strategies on Democrats' part? How to explain Congressional Dems appearing to sleep throughout four, GOP-scheming years, and only at the eleventh hour comprehending that the GOP's bankably corrupt scheming would come showering down on them? And how could rank-and-file Democrats fail to self-motivate against such a vividly pernicious enemy?
Political commentators have been asking those questions for as long as the Democrats have sat stunned and dazed. No shortage of competing answers has resulted: party apathy, overconfidence, wrongheaded priorities, corporate and GOP villainy ... on and on. Yet still -- not that the electoral party is decidedly over, mind you; there's still time for the Dems to pull together on an emergency basis, out of sheer terror -- the multitude of answers remains intellectually unsatisfying. There must be something more.
We all, all of us, want to get at the pit of the problem and thus triumphantly emerge with some grand, explanatory and unified theory of Democratic doltishness. Yet that's a fool's treasure hunt, per Isaiah Berlin: "We shall never discover all the causal chains that operate [within classic Democratic ineffectiveness]: the number of such causes is infinitely great, the causes themselves infinitely small."
In fact, the causes number in the millions, each with a private and unknowable address. Tolstoy intuited this, nevertheless he insisted on dying in an agonized, futile pursuit of one underlying explanation, one just inches away from the reach of human striving. Isaiah Berlin suggested a philosophical relaxation about such things: we can't know, we'll never know, it's just too damned complicated for this supremely messy species of ours.
I'm with Isaiah here. There was a time when I wasn't. But the 21st century and, especially, 2010, with a rare intensity, are proving to be a real, recalibrating reset of an eye-opener.