It is a popular charge. The Republican Party has “evolved” from “proponents of radical policy changes to a gang of saboteurs who would rather stop government from functioning at all.” In that respect, writes Jonathan Chait, they are comparable to “the radical left of the sixties, had it occupied a position of power in Congress.” Of course, if the old Savios wished to prevent the proverbial machine from working at all, it was only because they believed they had no positional or institutional power within that machine. Had they an effective hand in governing the machine, that may have annulled their impulse to destroy it.
But what would have qualified to them as a sufficiently effective hand in governance? Would the old Savios had settled for half measures and partial successes? Or was it all or nothing? Protest and demonstration are the forms of political action that remain for those who have been excluded from governance. They are also the forms of political action chosen by those who cannot imagine — or cannot suffer — obtaining a sufficiently effective hand in governance. That is perhaps one difference between the old and new Savios: what the old did for lack of choice, the new do by choice.
If it is all or nothing, and all is unobtainable by conventional means, then nothing remains. Nothing is not always inert absence. It can have its own peculiar creative energy that finds expression in at least two directions: active nihilism or counter-cultural utopianism. The nihilist wishes to abolish this world, the utopian to depart from it. Though the former destroys and the latter escapes, the negative impulse to forsake this world and shun all responsibility for it is the same. Longing to relieve themselves of the burdens of this place, they both yearn to deliver themselves to a more perfect no-place.
The old Savios never identified their all with nothing. For them, all and nothing were mutually exclusive alternatives. If they once sought to cast this world aside, it was because they thought this world had already done the same to them. The modern Republican Party, however, identifies all with nothing. It is their all to propagate nothing, and when they wield political power they use it exclusively to create nothing. Bent on obliteration, theirs is a derelict crusade of abandonment.