Two months ago, a CBS News/New York Times poll asked respondents: “These days, what kind of impact do you think the government has on most people’s lives–a positive impact, a negative impact, or doesn’t the government have much impact on most people’s lives?” Thirty-four percent of Republicans said it had a negative influence; the same percent said it had a positive influence; and 22 percent said it had “not much” influence. By contrast, only 19 percent of Democrats said it had a negative influence; 44 percent said it had a positive influence; and 26 percent said it had “not much” influence.
These results aren’t surprising. It’s well known that people have little faith in government nowadays, and that Republicans have less faith than Democrats (though, apparently, not quite as much indifference). Belief in the essential futility of government is a cornerstone of modern conservative thought. What had never occurred to Chatterbox before reading An American Story, Debra Dickerson’s bracing memoir (due to be published in September–click here to order it), is the logical inconsistency between this reflexive nihilism and the religious fundamentalism that is another cornerstone of modern conservative thought. Here is how Dickerson puts it:
They could accept that Jesus walked on water, they could accept that He had risen from the dead, and they could accept that He was coming back to lead them all to glory. But they couldn’t accept that we would clean up the corner of Fifth and Elm, that we could show a little initiative and provide quality education and health care to every kid in America–that was pie in the sky.
Chatterbox is an atheist who believes government has a mostly positive influence on people’s lives and could have a more positive influence if the public could get energized around realizing its potential. In other words, Chatterbox doesn’t believe that Jesus walked on water, rose from the dead, and will lead humankind to glory. Doesn’t that make Chatterbox a selective nihilist, too? Well, yes. But Chatterbox’s nihilism, unlike that of conservatives, is logically consistent. Cleaning up Fifth and Elm is, after all, much easier to pull off than walking on water. You can believe in the first while still regarding the second as a too-tall order. You can also, of course, believe in both. The richness of the Dickerson Paradox is that it exposes the oddity of not believing in the first while believing fervently in the second.