American Politics as Lord of the Flies

Piggy and Ralph in "Lord of the Flies"

Yesterday I was reading an Andrew Sullivan column (in The Daily Dish) expressing despair over the Republican Party, and it prompted me to draw comparisons between the current American political scene and the battle in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Needless to say, it’s not a pretty picture.

First, here’s an excerpt from Sullivan’s article, which examines Obama’s declining poll numbers.  Remarkably enough, a blogger who considers himself a conservative and who once supported George W. Bush has become one of the president’s most stalwart defenders:

Yesterday, the IMF all but endorsed Obama’s sensible embrace of stimulus-now and more debt-reduction later. But the GOP’s total intransigence seems to be paying off politically.

I think it’s now fair to say that they are even attempting to intensify the slowdown by intimidating the Fed from doing its job. Their logic, as [former George W. Bush speechwriter] David Frum notes, is from another planet, another time and another set of facts. And their motivation? Purely their own power, regardless of the effect on the American and global economy . . .

Every time you think the ultras in the current GOP won’t go there, they do. They’ll sabotage economic growth for short-term political advantage. They’ll sabotage their own president in negotiating with allies. They’re happy for the US to default if it means they can damage Obama. Their own plan for immediate, drastic austerity would be catastrophic for the global economy. Their pre-Arab Spring belligerence would shut America out of a critical opportunity to ease tensions with the growing and burgeoning Muslim world. And they have no problem treating the world economy as a partisan plaything.

If they claw their way back to power this way, our system really will be broken for a long time. And the great possibility of an adult conversation on pragmatic grounds to help the economy will be lost. And this is emphatically not Obama’s fault. He tried. They threw it back in his face again and again. Which means, I believe, that we should double down in backing him, instead of the ear-splitting whine coming from the left.

To Sullivan’s list of “ultras” I would add pushing Senate filibuster rules and other obstructionist tactics to the breaking point (not only with regard to legislation but also cabinet and judicial appointees); regarding waterboarding as a legitimate interrogation tactic rather than as torture; passing repressive anti-immigration laws in states like Alabama and Arizona; aggressively going after public employees’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio; facilitating ever easier access to firearms throughout the country; and the list goes on.

Now let’s apply Golding’s novel to how the Right is clawing their way to power. In this scenario, Obama is either Piggy, the nerdy kid who likes to make systems work, or Ralph, the principled but naïve leader who can’t imagine the lengths to which Jack is willing to go.  Piggy and Ralph know that, if there is to be any rescue, they must keep the fire going, but Jack is not interested in responsible governance.  He just wants to play warrior games on the beach. Here’s a Piggy interchange with Jack’s gang that is noteworthy for how it falls on deaf ears:

“I got this to say. You’re acting like a crowd of kids.” The booing rose and died again as Piggy lifted the white, magic shell.

“Which is better—to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”

A great clamor rose among the savages. Piggy shouted again. “Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?” Again the clamor and again—“Zup!” Ralph shouted against the noise.

“Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”

There’s no doubt which choice the savages will make.  By the end of the book, they have started a fire that, while it may root out Ralph (they’ve already killed Piggy and Simon), will also burn down their own fruit trees. Which is to say, their future.

Of those candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Perry seems to revel in playing a Jack figure, as do Michele Bachmann and “Rogue” Sarah Palin. Mitt Romney tries but isn’t convincing enough for some fire-breathing right wingers. Jon Huntsman appears to be out of the running because he looks too much like Ralph.

And what is the Lord of the Flies, the pig’s head on the stick? Call it Fear. Whether the result of economic downturn, globalization, or having a Kenyan socialist for president, Fear causes reason to shut down and people to stampede.

In the novel, the situation is righted when adults show up and restore order. Unfortunately, we ourselves are the adults we long for. If we don’t grow up, the fighting will intensify.

Which is Golding’s point as well. After all, the adult who shows up to rescue the boys is a Naval officer.  The so-called grown-ups are engaged in their own insanity. Here’s how the book ends:

The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.

Whatever the limitations of Ralph and Piggy, the boys are still better than Jack. Compromisers never look as glamorous as hunters, and slash-and-burn tactics look potent in the short run. But those who are grounded in a higher vision ultimately determine the future. The novel, pessimistic though it is, enforces that higher vision within us. It reminds us of the importance of keeping the fire burning.


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