The Benjamin Button Election

Photo: Tom Schierlitz; Prop Styling by Jared Lawton

During election season, we sometimes give ourselves permission to regress. Not so often, perhaps, when times are good. But in bad times, we frequently suspend what we know about politics—most crucially, how difficult change is—and choose to believe that this time, by pulling a lever or touching a screen, the choice we make will have a magical effect.

In 2008, the magical thinking was primarily happening in the minds of those on the left, or the center-left, and in this election they are suffering the consequences. Progressives who pinned extravagantly high hopes on Barack Obama to marshal the powers of government are now devastated to discover that he is far from perfect. The decisive figure who seemed to radiate adult authority—he’d play fair, keep his cool, provide—couldn’t deliver, so now it’s back to the old Democratic intra-family squabbling. The president has been called a “sellout” for his uncomfortably close ties to Wall Street; he is accused of “fecklessness” for escalating the war in Afghanistan. Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, went so far as to say that he’d vote to kill the health-care bill if he were in the Senate.

During the 2010 cycle, meanwhile, the magical thinking has belonged to the right. The tea party, and those who share its values, think the solution is to destroy as much of government as possible, like a sullen teenager who believes that all would be fine if his parents simply dropped dead, and it has punished anyone in the GOP who may have seen a role for Washington, apart from waging war. The Delaware Republican Mike Castle, who’s served in public office for the better part of 35 years, was called “the King RINO”—Republican in Name Only—by his Senate primary opponent, Christine O’Donnell, for supporting TARP, and she became the nominee. Bob Bennett was cast out of office in Utah, Charlie Crist was run out of the GOP primary in Florida. In the words of Rand Paul, the Kentucky tea-party candidate who bested a far more reasonable choice in the GOP Senate primary: “Government is the servant, not the master.” It was an unfortunate comment from a man who’s expressed disdain for the Civil Rights Act. But also quite representative of where we are generally. We are thinking in fanciful, binary choices. Obama and his government must save us; he and his government must disappear. Neither option is especially real.

Politicians have always recognized and exploited these fantasies. This is, among many things, what the Obama movement of 2008 and the tea-party movement of 2010 have in common: Their candidates ran grassroots campaigns that made participants feel like they were empowered to enact those dreams, whether they were about electing a superhero or destroying one. Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, a center for psychiatric research and clinical care in Manhattan, remembers watching Obama at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Fund Dinner in 2008, when the then-senator was a candidate. “It was truly extraordinary how much we expected Obama to do,” he says. “He was going to end war, end the recession, improve education, improve our image to the world, and provide universal health care. Whether or not he could actually do it wasn’t important. It was the belief in him that was.” Obama at least knew to joke about our mythmaking, while still profiting from it. “Contrary to the rumors you have heard,” he told the crowd, “I was not born in a manger.” Beat. “I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth.”

While catering to this kind of thinking is as old as the country, the country has been especially receptive to it lately. The question is why. “As a child psychiatrist, I do wonder, after watching what’s going on, Can I write a prescription for this?” says Koplewicz. “Unfortunately, you can’t. These feelings aren’t logical.”

Anger in politics is not always infantile. But whenever political rage has an overtly fantastical quality—i.e., Obama is a Kenyan socialist whose sinister regime must be destroyed—and whenever adults’ laments are not entirely rational—i.e., I would like to win two wars on terror and collect every nickel of my Social Security and Medicare … all while balancing the budget and preserving my tax cuts—it’s worth at least considering these responses in a context. Often, it’s happening for a reason.

In children, and in toddlers and adolescents in particular, acts of rebellion are the result of two conflicting forces: a sense that they are in total control, and a sense that they aren’t. Toddlers revel in their newfound mastery over their bodies, yet promptly discover they’re not always allowed to come and go as they please; adolescents revel in their newfound adult bodies and aborning intellectual maturity, yet promptly discover they can’t vote, drive, or legally determine anything for themselves. “And when a child or adolescent’s need for independence collides with a parent’s need for safety, control, and conformity,” Koplewicz explains, “those conditions are a recipe for a revolt.” This may help explain why there’s been such a proliferation of tantrum metaphors to describe the electorate these days. (Typified, say, by Eugene Robinson’s observation in the Washington Post this fall: “Americans are in a mood to hold their breath until they turn blue.”)

Photo: Tom Schierlitz; Prop Styling by Jared Lawton

When children act this way, we say they’re simply acting like children. But when adults behave with this same paradoxical mixture of self-importance and insecurity, we call it something else: narcissism. By definition, narcissists are impatient, vainglorious, easily insulted, and aggrieved; they’d never dream of making sacrifices on anyone else’s behalf, unless it simultaneously advanced an agenda of their own.

But the fact is, everyone is capable of narcissism in times of crisis. It’s a very typical response to feeling out of control—especially if you’ve had plenty of control before (or at least the illusion of it), and especially if you still have some means to express your dissatisfaction. And control has been a defining theme of this election cycle. With record unemployment and foreclosure rates, everyone across the system is feeling deeply disempowered. As Obama recently said at a fund-raiser (and was immediately criticized for it afterward), “We’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared.”

Similarly, one could argue that, if the conditions are right, an entire culture can plunge into narcissistic behavior. In fact, we’ve been here before. In TheCulture of Narcissism, the 1979 classic about the spread and normalization of self-absorption in the United States, historian Christopher Lasch suggested that seventies rebellion culture was at once the result of too many constraints and too few. On the one hand, people felt powerless in the face of a changing economy and the expanding impersonal complexity of the modern world, a world that “made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.” At the same time, a sexual revolution was taking place, the mass media was replacing the church and the family as the main source of culture and values, and Madison Avenue was “undermining the horrors of indebtedness”—all of which gave people a sense of lawlessness and dizzying personal freedom.

The result, in other words, was a culture where people felt the same paradoxical combination experienced by angry children: powerlessness and a destructive, deceptive sense of might.

This still very much describes people’s experience of life today. Our world combines extreme complexity with dehumanizing, tumbling-down institutions and fast-dissolving social mores. As in 1979, there’s a foundering economy, an energy crisis, a hostile lunatic running Iran, and an Asian supercompetitor threatening to overtake us … all of which the public is trying to banish from its mind with sex, drugs, and lots of yoga.

The difference is scale. The boomers, it turns out, were just the beginning of the Me Generation. At least, this is the argument that psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell make in The Narcissism Epidemic, published last year, 30 years after the publication of The Culture of Narcissism. It sparked a big debate when it came out, but at its core are data sets and cultural indicia that are hard to ignore. Based on dozens of surveys, the authors found that college students have been scoring higher and higher on the Narcissism Personality Inventory since its debut in 1979. They unearthed a study of 11,000 teenagers that was done once in 1951 and once in 1989, in which only 12 percent agreed with the statement “I am an important person” the first time around, whereas 78 percent agreed the second. This was attributed at least partly to a rise in self-esteem curricula in schools, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but when self-esteem is no longer linked to hard work and achievement, it’s not a good thing, either. Perhaps most memorably, the authors highlighted the disparity between the overwhelming confidence of American students and the underwhelming nature of their test scores. One study noted that 39 percent of American eighth-graders feel good about their math skills, compared with just 6 percent of Koreans. Guess who’s better at math.

A good reason for this, the authors argue, is the exploding number of vehicles our culture provides to promote feelings of entitlement and habits of self-regard. In other words, half of the recipe that Lasch described—the idea that narcissism thrives in cultures with a certain level of lawlessness—has increased exponentially. We have an entertainment industry that promotes the Kardashians as much as it does Meryl Streep, which disentangles success from talent and suggests we are all potential celebrities. We have all manner of personal broadcasting systems at our disposal—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube—which lead us to believe that whatever we have to say has value, whether it does or doesn’t, and make all our opinions heard at once. (In the seventies, people poured their hearts out to their analysts; now it’s into their status updates.) For years, we’ve lived off unlimited credit, believing that we’re entitled to things we can’t afford and that the value of whatever we own—homes, 401(k)s, derivatives—can only go up. (Indeed, it was the overconfidence of Wall Streeters, one could argue, that caused the financial crisis; the psychologist Joshua Foster has shown that narcissists are far more likely to bet aggressively in the stock market, running it up when it’s booming and running it into the ground as it’s falling low.) We have customized entertainment (my.nbc, my.nytimes,, which makes us see the world as a child does, a place that curves to fit our needs and desires and opinions; the Internet has become less a portal into other worlds than a mirror of our own, or what Nicholas Negroponte at the M.I.T. Media Lab famously calls “The Daily Me.”

Photo: Tom Schierlitz; Prop Styling by Jared Lawton

At the same time, the other half of Lasch’s recipe—a feeling of tremendous confinement, of helplessness—has also increased. This recession has been protracted and extraordinarily bleak. The unemployment rate is 9.6 percent, and 16.1 among African-Americans; there have been, in the first three quarters of this year alone, more than 930,000 foreclosure filings. Even before the recession, industry was declining, technology was outpacing skill sets, and the common retail job wasn’t paying for health insurance. For a long time, two incomes have been required to run most households, while the paternalistic protections of most companies, including lifelong employment and stable pensions, have become things of the past.

“I tend to think of what we’re facing as a twin crisis of intelligibility of the world and agency,” says Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class As Soulcraft, the New York Times best seller about the virtues of what he calls “manual competence,” or working with one’s hands. His book is filled with examples of how powerless we’ve all become, from opening the hoods of our cars and finding computers where mechanical parts once were, to bursting into the world with liberal-arts degrees and discovering we’re not qualified to do … anything. “And they’re very much connected,” says Crawford. “If the world’s opaque to you, you don’t feel like you can have an effect on it, and if you don’t feel like you can have an effect on it, you don’t feel like you can take responsibility for it.”

Complicating matters further, the government has become ever more complex since 1979, with armies of lobbyists deployed to protect various interests, which gives voters the impression they’re up against the twin behemoths of Big Brother and big business. Philip K. Howard, vice-chairman of Covington & Burling and a former adviser to Al Gore on his efforts to reinvent government, says a great deal of this problem stems from a basic flaw in the Constitution: “Our Founding Fathers,” he points out, “never really considered how to unmake laws.” These laws, he notes in his book Life Without Lawyers, have generally accumulated for righteous reasons: workplace safety, social safety nets, civil rights. But with each turn of the wheel came an extra bucket of sand in the gears.

Every successful modern campaign is the one that best appreciates a voter’s sense of self-importance and vulnerability.

“And when people become more powerless,” says Howard, “they become more distrustful of those who have power or authority, so they want systems that protect them against someone else—and that, in turn, paradoxically, disempowers them more.” This feeling affects everyone, no matter what their politics. The health-care bill dragged on for well over a year, and in the end, it displeased everybody: To the right, it’s 2,000-plus pages of regulations and a staggeringly intrusive government mandate; to the left, it’s a Rube Goldberg scheme to protect moneyed stakeholders when a public option would have been simpler and more popular. Either way, people didn’t feel that they had any agency in the process. It was written by either big government or big pharma—and then grafted onto a million preexisting legislative conditions that the public had never heard of.

A sustained recession would, on its own, be crippling and frightening. But when you combine it with the additional sources of personal empowerment that Twenge and Campbell describe, the result is a particularly acute heightening of Lasch’s paradox. And one doesn’t have to squint very hard to see how this paradox might have political manifestations.

“I remember in the Carter campaign we had this fax machine, and it was a miracle,” says Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who’s involved in a number of House and gubernatorial races around the country. “People were like, ‘Whoa, come see this thing! You can send this piece of paper from Atlanta to Washington!’ ” He thinks. “Now there’s this expectation among voters that elected officials and candidates are going to answer every question, and they’re going to do so on the spot.” This is what happens when citizens can instantaneously air their grievances on Facebook, and candidates can notify their base about their vice-presidential selections by text, as Obama did two years ago. “You have bloggers who want fifteen-minute video sessions to put on their blog,” he says, “and campaigns say yes.” Many of his candidates, he adds, are also physically running themselves ragged in ways he’s never seen before. “I’m seeing this a lot with Lincoln Chafee,” he says, referring to the former GOP senator from Rhode Island who’s now running as an independent for governor. “There are people who won’t consider endorsing him unless they’ve personally met him, and this just wasn’t as true in the past.”

But it’s more than instant gratification that voters expect. It’s identification. The images of the voter and the candidate have blurred, and candidates have reacted accordingly. Famously, Christine O’Donnell, who’s dabbled in witchcraft and opposes masturbation, ran a pair of ads ending with the slogan “I’m you.” On the web page of Sean Duffy, the GOP congressional candidate from Wisconsin’s Seventh District, if you click on the MEET SEAN button, you get a page that looks oddly similar to a Facebook page, with a long list of “favorites” (Braveheart, Toby Keith, banana-cream pie). “What he’s saying is,” says Clay Shirky, a new-media scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “ ‘By voting for me, you are effectively friending me.’ ” Or, in another sense, sending yourself to Washington. This is not, needless to say, the spirit in which Congress was designed. It was designed at a time when news traveled no faster than a man on a horse, and the best voters could do was pick a person whose qualifications, reasoning, and worldview they admired. “But since the media environment has gotten faster and faster,” says Shirky, “we now believe these people are there to vote exactly as you would. There’s this expectation of a direct democracy.”

Photo: Tom Schierlitz; Prop Styling by Jared Lawton

The combination of self-broadcasting systems with recession panic also begets an exaggerated emotionalism. Shirky points out that the Internet is already inherently an enabler of anger, because it combines group activity and speed. (“As a species, we’re bad at thinking quickly,” he notes, “but we’re good at feeling quickly.”) Would the viral video of Mike Castle getting lectured by a birther last summer have been quite so viral if times were comfortable? (“I want my country back,” she screamed, to which Castle responded, “Uh, if you’re referring to the president there, he is a citizen of the United States.”) This anger and despair are also what makes it possible for Ron Johnson, the GOP Senate candidate in Wisconsin, to declare, “I don’t believe this election really is about details.” Facts don’t matter here, as Stephen Colbert would say. Feelings do. (Johnson’s currently up in the polls against Russ Feingold, who’s fluent in details.)

The Daily Me is also responsible for a huge amount of parochialism, making voters feel informed even when they are not. This is what Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, was really objecting to when he irritably complained about the “professional left” in August. He wasn’t putting it diplomatically, but he was basically trying to remind his base that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in their Google alerts, and without appreciating that fact, they were less likely to tolerate the messiness of governance. And at its worst, this parochialism lurches into plain misinformation. Read only far-right websites, and you’ll soon be convinced that TARP was the most costly, fiscally irresponsible maneuver of the Obama administration—and not that it has already essentially paid for itself.

Add this all up, and we are experiencing a pandemic of electoral innumeracy. Lulled by years of bottomless credit, we cannot shake from our heads the idea that we are entitled to certain comforts. We expect quicker fixes to this economy than may, alas, be feasible, and we believe intractable problems can be solved without sacrifice. If these are impossible demands, we would prefer not to know. The depth of entitlement out there is best exemplified by the bankers. “When are we going to stop whacking at the Wall Street piñata?” asked Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge-fund manager, at a recent town-hall event on CNBC with the president. Never mind that Obama bailed out Wall Street to the tune of $700 billion, or that bankers are about to get massive bonuses. That these people can’t understand how they’ve become piñatas is naïve. I don’t use naïve as pejorative here, either; it’s descriptive. These people are not a part of the reality-based community.

Reality-based thinking is generally a positive attribute in the electorate. But not reality-television-based thinking. And in many ways, it’s reality television that’s had the most interesting—and discernible—influence on this election. Specifically, it has set the stage for candidates like Christine O’Donnell, by far the most surreal figure in this year’s Dalí-like landscape of cracked eggs and elephants on stilts. Establishment conservatives are trying hard to minimize her significance because she lags by double digits in every poll. But as a cultural phenomenon, she’s the opposite of a freak occurrence. She’s exactly what you get when you have a culture that promotes gratuitous self-admiration, encouraging everyone to think of himself as a potential giant. People laughed when she released the “I’m you” ads. (As Kristen Wiig put it on Saturday Night Live: “I’m you, and just like you, I have to constantly deny that I’m a witch.”) But “I’m you” could just as well serve as the tagline for every reality show on TV. In fact, congressional candidate Duffy is an actual alumnus of MTV’s The Real World: Boston (and his wife was on The Real World: San Francisco). The glorification of amateurs is exactly what propelled Joe the Plumber—who wasn’t even a licensed plumber—to celebrity status two years ago, earning him a slew of motivational-speaking gigs, a Nashville-based publicist, and, at one loopy moment, a possible record deal.

At almost any tea-party rally, you’ll now find people wearing Joe the Plumber T-shirts. It’s their own image, not the Capitol’s, that the ralliers see in the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. “I cannot tell you how many local candidates I have met along the campaign trail who have told me that my race, my candidacy, has inspired them to run,” O’Donnell told a tea-party rally in Delaware two months ago. “That you don’t need to be part of the Establishment, you don’t need to be an anointed one. You just need to be passionate, you need to be able to sacrifice for a cause and have principles that you are willing to defend.”

Passion and a few principles: That’s all you need to run for public office. Not experience, intellect, sound judgment, humility, or leadership skills. Charles Gibson isolated this same quality in Sarah Palin, shortly after she earned herself an improbable spot on McCain’s ticket. “You didn’t say to yourself, ‘Am I experienced enough? Am I ready?’ ” he asked her.

“I didn’t hesitate, no,” she told him.

“Doesn’t that take some hubris?”

“I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink,” she said.

Her answer was the same as O’Donnell’s: I have the confidence; therefore, I’m qualified to serve. “It’s this infantile and grandiose sense,” says Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, “that desire equals competence equals expertise. It would be like me saying, ‘I’ve seen someone do an appendectomy. It’s simple. Just put a knife in and cut here.’ ”

Friedman points out that he’s not diagnosing O’Donnell and Palin with narcissistic-personality disorder, which corresponds to a very specific set of symptoms, displayed over a certain length of time. Such a diagnosis would require a psychiatric evaluation. But as Friedman wrote two years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it’s perfectly fair game to look at public figures and say that their symptoms or behaviors are consistent with certain psychological dynamics and traits—which is to say, that they’re behaving narcissistically.

Of course, it’s often a fine line that separates the ambitious from the megalomaniacal in politics. About three years ago, I asked Gary Hart which extremes of personality make a great presidential candidate. “Whatever the sane side of messianic is” was his answer. As a rule, politics disproportionately attracts narcissists, because the field rewards charm and self-promotion; they’re required currencies to ante in. (In 1998, Current Psychology published a study by Robert Hill and Gregory Yousey comparing narcissism levels in politicians, clergy, college professors, and librarians using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The authors hypothesized that the first three types would score substantially higher than librarians, because their jobs involved both more prestige and more visibility; instead, the clergy, professors, and librarians all clustered together, while the politicians broke away from the pack.)

“When people become more powerless, they become more distrustful of those who have power, and that, in turn, disempowers them more.”

If we had a political system that valued leadership, or the actual job of legislating, this selection bias wouldn’t really be a problem. But we don’t. Instead, we have a system that rewards those with a boundless capacity to self-promote. Before this moment, Christine O’Donnell was purely a media phenomenon, the founder of a grassroots Christian organization that in fact was a shrewd media movement, landing her on Bill Maher’s show 22 times and even once on the Sex in the 90s docu-series on MTV. The main headliners of the tea party aren’t politicians but performers—and that includes Palin, whose passion for actual governance lasted only two and a half years before she chucked her Alaska governorship for a more lucrative media career, in which she could exist in perpetual opposition and with no accountability. At a fund-raiser for combat veterans in San Diego three weeks ago, she admitted as much: “I get to say some things that maybe some of you can’t say because I have no title, I have no uniform, I have no office,” she told the crowd. “I get to say what I feel.”

“The most provocative thing you say gets attention,” says Brian Baird, a Democratic congressman from Washington State who’s retiring at the end of the year, after six terms in office. Baird had his own unfortunate experience with this phenomenon this election cycle, though he isn’t running for anything. He was addressing an auditorium of 3,500, many of them tea-party enthusiasts, when a Marine veteran named David Hedrick grabbed the microphone and bellowed, “Stay away from my kids,” declaring that Obama’s health-care bill authorized compulsory training in child-rearing for parents. The video became a viral sensation, earning over 1.3 million hits. Hedrick appeared on the Fox News circuit and became a congressional candidate in the primary in Baird’s district, where he finished second out of three GOP candidates. Three weeks ago, he was arrested for allegedly striking his wife in the back of the head twice. You can, however, still purchase a “Stay away from my kids” tote bag online.

In his old life, Baird was a psychologist, counseling cancer patients and chairing the psychology department of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. He’s still inclined to view politics as a psychologist would. By far the most problematic trend, as he sees it, is how national politics retains show horses, not just attracts them. “Politics has always required that you communicate who you are,” he says. “But now it’s become such a strategic necessity that people come here thinking it is their job, rather than just part of their job.” Hence an army of elected tweeters, a seascape of BlackBerrying congressmen during the State of the Union. “So the people who are focusing on policy, rather than twittering, kind of look bad,” says Baird. “That’s the irony.” Baird doesn’t tweet. “But I must tell you,” he says, “I hear from activists all the time: ‘I get tweets every day from so-and-so, but I never get them from you.’ And I want to say to them, ‘That’s because I’m working.’ ”

Every successful modern campaign is the one that best appreciates a voter’s sense of self-importance and vulnerability. The most successful, actually, was Obama’s campaign in 2008. It made its supporters feel as if they were an immediate part of an important movement through tweets, e-mails, motivational announcements by text; its slogan was “Yes, We Can,” and the candidate’s Super Tuesday rallying cry was “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Organizing for America, the successor organization to Obama’s 2008 campaign arm, still sends messages with metronomic regularity to its contributors. The subject line of one of them, recently forwarded to me by a friend named David, said, “I want to meet David.” It’s flattering. The political is personal.

That the left doesn’t recognize the similarities between the Obama and the tea-party movements is probably a function of just how good the Obama movement was at making its supporters feel special. But the fact is, this cycle, Republicans are taking advantage of this same desire for reempowerment, and they’re using the same tools. The tea-party movement is propelled by Facebook activity, copious tweets, and rallies celebrating the power of the audience. At the inaugural tea-party convention in February, Palin described the movement as “a ground-up call to action that is forcing both parties to change the way they’re doing business, and that’s beautiful. This is about the people.” In other words, Yes, we can.

Yet Yes, we can is seldom real. We need people to say it—we needed Martin Luther King Jr. to say it, and perhaps we needed Obama to say it, too; it is the plainspoken, uncorrupted calls to arms that power our idealism. But King wasn’t in elected office, and, at the time, neither was Obama. Once you’re on the inside, the prospect of continual change looks bleaker. This is what Mario Cuomo meant in his 1985 speech at Yale University, when he famously told his audience, “We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected, we’re forced to govern in prose.”

This is Obama’s paradox. He actually did try to brace us for this eventuality in his inaugural address, when he quoted Corinthians, saying we had to set aside childish things. But we haven’t heard much about it since. He wishes that we would act like adults, yet he has not yet figured out a way to translate the giddy, starry-eyed enthusiasm that swept him into office into something that would sustain our interest in—for lack of a better phrase—the common good. It may be that that’s impossible. It may be that he hasn’t the temperament to make the effort or the imagination to sell it—which would be a shame: Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are telling Britons that it’ll be necessary to cut popular entitlement programs. But then, Britain is a different country from America. It’s older, for one thing.

Or it could be that Obama’s simply haunted by the ghost of Jimmy Carter, who got pilloried for discussing “the erosion of our confidence” in his famous “malaise” speech. Six weeks before addressing the nation, Carter invited a special guest to the White House to talk his ideas through. It was Christopher Lasch.

One underappreciated fact about modern Washington is that the experience of public office can be quite demoralizing. Elected officials discover fairly quickly how little latitude they have. Philip Howard would argue there’s a connection—a causal effect—between how powerless politicians feel and how powerless voters feel. “The president can’t even appoint a presidential commission without complying with the presidential-commission law!” he blurts out at one point in our interview. “Which itself requires that it have so many different groups that they could never be effective.” And of course, Obama knew this. That line he uttered—“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!”so frequently ridiculed for its messianic fervor, was, as Andrew Sullivan pointed out at the time, also the candidate’s way of saying, Look, you’ve got to take control here of your own lives. There are limits to what one guy can achieve.

And that’s the problem. “If the principal in an independent, crowded society doesn’t have the authority to balance the needs of everyone,” says Howard, “people start waking up and demanding things for themselves. Pretty soon, the culture starts to degenerate in the way that anarchic cultures degenerate: alternating between exploitation and defensiveness. Selfishness becomes the operating vocabulary of public debate. Give me this, provide that.”

When the president and the nation he leads both feel powerless, that’s the moment that real revolutions, or at least third parties, are born. Obama was supposed to offer the same promises as a third party—a true break, both intellectually and generationally, from how business was done. The tea party is promising to do the same now.

But these revolutions are hard to sustain if we all insist on being lied to—if facts are less resonant than perceptions. The best the opposition can do is fight in dramatic confrontations. As Lasch pointed out in The Culture of Narcissism, this is exactly what happened to the New Left 40 years ago. A “politics of the media” supplanted a politics of policy and substance. “Yippie is gestalt theater of the streets,” he quoted Jerry Rubin, one of the founders of the Youth International Party, as saying. “Entering a congressional hearing room in a Paul Revere costume or wearing judicial robes to a court proceeding is a way of acting out fantasies and ending repressions.” Sound familiar?

The Benjamin Button Election