February 18, 2008

The Tale That Might Be Told

Perhaps they will recount the tale many years from now. Perhaps an old man or woman will tell the grandchildren the story once more, as they try to speed the descent of peaceful rest. It's one of the children's favorite stories.

Decades earlier, the two major political parties in the United States had torn themselves apart in what turned out to be the last presidential campaign. The nominee of one party was determined fairly early, but he was viewed as unacceptable by a very vocal segment of that party. Many individuals tried to reconcile the disputing groups, but such efforts only made the problems worse. By the time of the fall election, the disagreements had deepened beyond repair. Everyone was very bitter and angry. Many people threatened not to vote for president at all.

The struggle for the other party's nomination went on for months. There were fights about technicalities, about which rules should be followed and which should be disregarded or revised; supporters of the two major candidates traded criticisms, smears and finally vicious rumors. When the party's nominee was finally selected, everyone was disgusted. Everyone agreed that the nomination wasn't worth a damn. Many people threatened not to vote for president at all.

When election day finally arrived, no one knew what to expect. The answer quickly became clear. Voter turnout was the lowest it had ever been in memory. Almost no one went to the polls. When all the results were finally counted, a total of slightly less than five million votes had been cast for president. Very few votes were cast for other offices. One candidate for president had clearly won, although the popular vote totals for the two major nominees were within 10,000 votes of each other. With less than a 10,000 vote margin, and with a total of only about two and a half million votes, what was such a victory worth?

Could any individual claim to represent an entire nation of over 300 million people in such circumstances? There was no victory speech. Commentators struggled to find something to say about what it all meant, but no one listened to them any longer. No one knew what would happen.

People went to work. They enjoyed time with their families and friends. Nothing fell apart. Life went on.

Finally, January 20th came. Because they didn't know what else to do, the political class had made the usual preparations for the inauguration of a new president. Almost no other Americans even noticed the date. In the cold winter air, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stood on the platform, surrounded by the usual dignitaries. The few people who wandered by on the street, on their way to work or perhaps to a movie, thought all those people in their fine clothes probably didn't have any better way to spend their time, which seemed terribly sad.

The Chief Justice and the others on the platform waited for more than an hour past the appointed time. No one appeared to be sworn in as president. One or two cameras carried the day's events to the nation and to the world, although not many people watched. They were busy with other activities. Finally, the Chief Justice put the Bible down -- he had dutifully held it all that time -- and he turned to one of the cameras. He attempted an unconvincing little smile and said, disbelief and bafflement in his tone, "Well, I guess that's it. You're on your own."

People went to work. They enjoyed time with their families and friends. Nothing fell apart.

Over the next few months, people slowly realized how their lives had changed. No new bills would be enacted; there was no president to sign them. The federal government wouldn't be involved in more and more areas of their lives, and the government's enforcement mechanisms were gradually falling apart. People understood they would be left alone now. They began to make other arrangements. They formed new communities, most of them fairly small. Many local farms sprang up. The communities traded with each other, and eventually people figured out new ways to get most of the things they needed and wanted.

Another change happened later. A lot of Americans were stationed all around the world on various military missions -- in more than 130 countries, in fact. But since there was no president and no bills were being enacted, none of them were being paid any longer, and no new supplies arrived. Slowly, all these people abandoned their military jobs. Some of them settled in the countries where they were stationed and made lives for themselves there; others returned to their families and friends in the United States.

Life went on. In the following years, people all around the world saw that no calamities or disasters occurred because the United States had ceased to exist as it once did -- except that more and more people seemed to be happy. To be sure, many aspects of Americans' lives were very different, but everyone liked those differences. People ate well, better than they had in years; people received excellent medical care, many for the first time; people still had fun, more than they had for a long time. People actually knew their neighbors and many of the members of their communities now.

As people throughout the world watched all this, the same changes began to occur in other countries as their elections took place. Almost no one voted. There were no new national leaders, and the national governments slowly dissolved.

Life went on. People were content, and their lives were full. There were conflicts from time to time, but only on a very small scale. They were quickly contained. Most of the time, the world was at peace. People had seen death and suffering on a terrible scale, through endless agonizing years. They wanted something new. Finally, they had it.

The story is done. The grandparent looks down, and smiles. The children sleep peacefully now.