The most important change of this decade in American politics has gone largely unnoticed: the end of the apocalyptic style.
Apocalyptic politics begins with a sense of imminent demise. It sees history not as a progression of ups and downs, but as a line on a graph headed toward some abysmal discontinuity.
In the '70s and early '80s, one favorite abyss was nuclear. Remember the great freeze debate of 1982? "I support the freeze because I do not want to die," said Rep. Barbara Mikulski on the floor of the House. "We are coming ever so closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation," said Rep. Edward Markey. "It is as clear as anything. We are going to have Armageddon at any moment," said Rep. James Weaver. And so on.
The other favorite end of the world scenario had the industrial world running out of resources. Remember the prestige and weight accorded the Club of Rome report? The Club, a committee of wise and breathtakingly shortsighted men, predicted (in 1974) that we would soon be wracked by waste, economic stagnation and scarcity. By now we should have run out of practically everything -- gold, tin, silver, mercury and, in a few more years, oil.
In fact, apocalyptic thinking reached such a pitch that it no longer took bad news to set off the doomsday bell. Too much good news could do the trick. First, it was oil running out. Then, in 1983, the first cracks in OPEC occasioned an avalanche of warnings about how free-falling oil prices would cause a global economic catastrophe.
Even those who welcomed lower oil prices warned that if it happened too quickly, collapse was in store. First Mexico, then Citibank, then the world. The doomsayers overlooked the obvious fact that any sudden cut in oil prices would produce a windfall for the industrialized world that would far exceed -- and thus, if necessary, easily cover -- any shortfalls in oil-producing debtor countries.
The apocalyptic era is over. Look at the past week. The United States conducts a nuclear test, exploding a Soviet- imposed moratorium, and draws back- page coverage and a yawn. The United States shoots at Libya, Nicaragua invades Honduras, Iran pushes into Iraq -- and the financial markets yawn. Five years ago, a rifle shot in the Persian Gulf would have sent gold (and oil) prices skyrocketing. In 1983, there was panic at the prospect of oil prices suddenly falling to $20 a barrel. In 1986, prices drop from $28 to $12 -- in three months. No Armageddon. No panic.
What has happened to the apocalyptic sensibility? First, it was mugged by a reality that proved too mundane. False prophecy engenders doubt. The Millerites (now Seventh Day Adventists) predicted that the world would end on March 21, 1843. Then again on Oct. 22, 1844. Then they stopped predicting.
Second, apocalyptic fever cannot be sustained forever. It is too psychologically taxing. Helen Caldicott announced in 1983 that "If Ronald Reagan is reelected, accidental nuclear war becomes a mathematical certainty." After a while, prophecy so smug takes on the aspect of misanthropy. People then give up marching and return to jogging.
Third, apocalyptic thinking owed a lot to a Galilean shift in consciousness, which occurred at the beginning of the '70s. That was when, for the first time in history, we saw Earth from space. The stark image of a small fragile planet suspended in space evoked feelings of global fragility and vulnerability. That image is now almost two decades old. Its shock has been absorbed and its force dissipated. It is by now too clich,ed to evoke millennial dread.
What follows apocalyptic politics? Regional politics. Apocalyptic politics implies that one cause fits all, dooms all. Regional politics recognizes that the world is a mess of problems, if not totally discrete, then distinguishable. And certainly not all hanging from a single thread.
The oil price crash and the attendant disinflation, for example, has not led to a general collapse. It has led to a painful, but manageable, contraction in certain regions: the "oil patch" (of the American Southwest), the farm belt and some oil producing countries. Real problems in real places. But not the end of the world.
In foreign policy, too, the stage has been scaled down from global to regional. The nuclear issue, which a few years ago wholly dominated the national consciousness, has been displaced by regional conflicts. Small uprisings in small places: Afghanistan, the Philippines, South Africa, Nicaragua, South Korea. Not one-world, but pointillistic, politics.
In fact, one of the reasons the president failed to arouse the populace with his recnt televised Nicaragua speech was its tone. It was apocalyptic, in a era when we have returned, largely due to the president's own lulling influence, to normality.
Three years ago, the idea of a Soviet nuclear warhead landing in Lawrence, Kan., elicited high ratings and higher anxiety. Today, the idea of a red tide lapping up imminently (two days' driving time -- when you're excited, the metaphors mix) at San Diego elicits only derision. The post- apocalyptic era is no time for alarums.
Popular uninterest in red tides and evil empires should come as no surprise to the president. It is no longer four minutes to midnight. It's morning in America -- remember? -- and morning is the time you reach for the butter, not for guns.