I rarely talk politics, not because I have none, but because mine are too eccentric to appeal to anyone other than myself and a few equally peregrine souls, and because my pessimism regarding political institutions is often so bitterly bleak that it annoys even me. After the 2008 election, for instance, I deflected questions about my vote by claiming to have supported “Mr. Baldwin,” by which I meant Stanley Baldwin (1867“1947), prime minister to three different British monarchs. I thought it vaguely amusing”the idea, you see, was that I was so inattentive to the race that I was ignorant of both the country and the decade in which it was being run”until I discovered that someone named Baldwin really had run for president that year, on the Constitution Party ticket. Since then, I have taken simply to arching my brows enigmatically at any such inquiry.

Even so, the presidential election is on my mind just at the moment, principally because it is only now reaching its end. One quaint aspect of writing for print, which the electronic media culture will one day abolish, is the delay between composition and publication. As I write, lachrymose Republicans sway before the podium where their photogenic Proteus will soon concede defeat, while jubilant Democrats dance before the altar of their god, awaiting his advent in clouds of glory. Hundreds of observations about the events of the day have occurred to me over the past several hours, and more will intrude upon me in the days to come, some small and specific, others immense and abstract.

One that occurs to me immediately is that, while it is disturbing that the campaigns of both major political parties were utterly devoid of any actual ideas, it bothers me more that there exists so close an accord between the factions on certain matters of constitutional governance that issues I thought rather urgent were never even gently coaxed out into the light of public debate.

For example: On December 31, 2011, President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, passed by a healthy majority of congressional Democrats and Republicans. Section 1021 of that act allows the executive branch to use the military to detain any American citizens vaguely defined as either suspected terrorists or associates of terrorists, and to imprison them in military stations, either on American soil or elsewhere, without trial, indefinitely. Habeas corpus , due process, and other such archaic notions are all perfunctorily swept aside.

A few voices have been raised in the less fashionable districts of the political spectrum, right and left”Rand Paul, Noam Chomsky, and so on”and courts have ordered a suspension of the provision on at least four occasions. But the Obama administration’s Department of Justice continues to fight fiercely against all injunctions and adverse rulings, and has defended Section 1021 as merely a confirmation of powers already implicitly conferred in the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists resolution of 2001 (which, you may recall, the president recently took as license to order the extrajudicial assassination of a U.S. citizen”killing his teenage son in the process”for allegedly encouraging and colluding in terrorist acts).

I am fairly certain that the Constitution does not authorize such practices. I am more than only fairly certain that no sane construal of the Constitution could suggest otherwise. I am absolutely certain, moreover, that no sane republic invests its executive with such powers (unless, of course, it explicitly means to instate a Princeps or Imperator ).

As far as I can tell, however, no one seems to give a damn. Just as no one seems much to care about the number of civilians killed in Predator drone strikes abroad, or about the legality of the administration’s open-ended “kill list,” or about that list’s integration with data procured in large part by warrantless surveillance in an “actionable matrix.” I cannot help but feel that constitutional order would be better served if at least one of the two parties seemed at least a little suspicious of such things, or at least a little more abashed than the other when uttering an unctuous euphemism like “collateral damage.” (I hope no one will accuse me of being “soft on terror” for expressing such misgivings.)

Another, more general observation that occurs to me is that there seems to be something so oddly arbitrary in the coalitions of interest that take shape in a partisan system. If there is any logic to the particular congelations of issues and ideals that constitute the platforms of the various parties, it seems to me it is more the logic of historical accident than that of rational coherence. With a few vigorous shakes of the cup, surely the dice could have fallen entirely differently.

Not that it seems to matter very much in practical terms. In the end, politics is the servant of cultural forces, not their master. I often wonder if it is much more than a comforting fiction that, by choosing between two parties that frequently operate like large marketing conglomerates, selling much the same product in different packaging, we thereby take charge of the future. It may make us feel free and powerful, in the same way that shopping does, but the one great lesson to be learned from the social history of America over the past several decades is that culture evolves as it will, and it is not the electoral success of a political party, but the verdict of the culture at large, that ultimately determines the shape of civic reality. A political party can hasten or delay the inevitable, volens nolens , but politics is merely an expression of cultural forces far deeper than ideology or public policy can ever reach.

It has often been noted, for instance, that over the past few decades the political “right” has won the argument on economic issues while the “left” has won the argument on social issues. In either case, naturally, things may now and then dash forward a mite too precipitously, which leads to a predictable but only partial retreat”three steps forward, two steps back”but the general drift of culture is quite inexorable. Ours is a libertarian society that rests upon an economic foundation of consumerism. Late modernity is the triumph of a kind of polymorphous voluntarism, with regard to both material and immaterial goods. Such a culture must necessarily gravitate towards an ever more indeterminate and minimalist view of civic and private morality; its morality is primarily one of toleration rather than prescription.

It may therefore be no more than a poignant paradox that, on account of the vagaries and historical incidentals of political affiliation, many of those who argue most passionately for the unhindered free market are also those who most keenly lament the decay of the moral and social consensus of the past, the rise of an ever coarser and more permissive popular culture, and the disintegration of the nuclear family. But the modern market is sustained by consumerism, and a consumerist culture thrives on the fabrication of an ever greater diversity of desires that may be guiltlessly pursued; such a culture irresistibly demands that the province of inhibition, prohibition, shame, and local loyalties become ever smaller. Not to sound too Marxist (or, perhaps, too “incarnational”) about this, but the ideological shape of a society cannot be divorced from its material basis.

The same paradox is present on the other side as well, needless to say, particularly among those who long for the redistribution of wealth, or laws that would seriously inconvenience the investment class, or a withdrawal from free trade agreements, or the abolition of inequities in the global labor market, and so on”all the while casually expecting that society will always continue to generate the kind of prosperity that makes them free consumers wandering at large through a universe of morally neutral goods.

Last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement, with its “revolution” against the corporate oligarchy (or whatever it was they were protesting), provides a perfect example of the problem. I think it safe to say that a “revolution” against the investment system that was spread by way of social media, communicated through a variety of affordable but sophisticated handheld devices owned by cosseted dependents of the middle class, was really probably no more than an ironic commentary on its own internal contradictions.

Anyway, I expect the course of things is set for the near future: a comfortable combination of authoritarianism and libertarianism; a provident, intrusive, and imperious state allied to a corporate culture that encourages, gratifies, and endlessly amplifies an amoral appetite for the trivial and ephemeral; extraordinary governmental power wielded peremptorily in the name of endless warfare abroad and of ever more perfect civil order and social justice at home; culture replaced by advertising, shared custom by private impulse, community by television; public life reduced to the bare dialectic of state power and individual rights. There may be a path open that leads beyond that state of things”a path not primarily political, but rather cultural and spiritual”but it will not be easy to find, and it will be a very long march indeed.