Existential and Cultural Politics
There are two different ways to approach government and political life in general. One is to treat them as versions of a different form of social life. Governments are like communities and families because what is collectively decided creates allegiances to the entity as an ongoing enterprise. A family grows stronger, presumably, because it has weathered a financial crisis and a nation grows stronger because it has prevailed in a war. Government and politics are also understood as a version of economic life. There is the same give and take that takes place whenever people bargain about the selling price for a commodity. And in this modern age when so much of life is conducted vicariously, including political campaigns, government and politics is a kind of culture and all the rules that apply to that apply here. There are narratives striving for domination; there are dramatic moments; and there are heroes and goats.
Taken that way, the current Presidential campaign is a cultural event in which the public is supposed to size up the characters of the main protagonists. Newsweek thinks Romney is a wimp and you can’t trust what he or his aides say because they will clarify whatever was said within twenty four hours so as to make it different. Romney didn’t think the Brits were ready for the Olympics until he did. Romney said through an advisor that he would respect an Israeli decision to hit the Iranians until he didn’t, whatever it means to “respect” such a decision. Give military support? Admire them from afar?
NBC may seem to be piling on in that they pay too much attention to the remarks Romney made in Israel because they want to repeat yet one more time what Romney said about the Olympics when he was interviewed by Brian Williams. It may also be that all journalists love to be in on a kill, the first to point out that a candidate is going down in flames. How much more can they do than to make this a narrative about Mitt flailing in the wind? Fox News is doing the same thing, so this isn’t just liberal media bias.
Actually, however, there are other gaffes that could be cited about Mitt that the networks have chosen not to exploit. The Associated Press had a story on July 23rd about Mitt meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr. Romney told a donors dinner that Carr had said “America is just one budget deal away from ending all talk of America being in decline” and added that Carr “led the talk of America being in decline.” Now, of course, that doesn’t follow; if anything, it says that a solution to America’s woes are within easy reach if Republicans would just go along with some sensible plans. So Mitt, once again, had taken a comment out of context to make a point. Can this guy tell the difference between what is said and what he interprets it, incorrectly, to say? There is another issue. Why is Romney embarrassing Carr, a man he will have to work with in the unlikely event that Romney gets elected President? The Australian ambassador to the United States had to step in to clarify what was said.
And this is the trouble Mitt gets in with our allies. He really offended the Palestinians with his remarks about the entrepreneurialism of Israeli culture. Mitt may have thought he was just engaging in heart-felt flattery. Mormons have long thought that they have much in common with Jews. But Mitt does not get that people can see things differently and therefore feels sorry for himself because everything he says and does gets nit picked to death by people whose only excuse for doing so, he thinks, is that they are opposed to him. He is therefore, by definition, not circumspect. What is he going to say when he gets to Poland, another American ally? Tell Polish jokes?
The Obama camp, for its part, is engaged in a negative campaign less negative than that of the media. It merely wants to portray Romney as unreliable on the issues and secretive about his personal finances and his career in finance. The media may be more to the heart of the matter because they are discussing whether Romney is someone a voter wants to root for or would feel embarrassed if he were their President. You just can’t let Romney wander around in public.
The other way to approach politics and government is to think of them as something quite distinct, institutions and processes unlike any others because they deal with the allocation of power to people who can make major decisions that effect the lives of everybody in the nation, whether by going to war or by raising taxes or putting into place a new health care system. The aura of majesty pervades everything that is political even if there are few kings anymore who exert much power. In that world of power politics, you are for a policy or a candidate or against them. Choices are existential rather than mere matters of preference or of relative interest. I am for or against a candidate based on however I come to that conclusion, whether through reason or previously held opinion and whether or not I have a sound basis of knowledge about the candidates, which is very different from the way one approaches cultural events, where you can have strong or weak opinions about an opera or about opera as an artistic form, and have an imagination which is more or less given over to baseball or Matisse. In the world of culture, people who know more are generally more appreciative of the form or artist under discussion, but in the world of politics understood as existential, you can’t say that your political opinions are good enough or informed enough or are as sophisticated as you care to work to make them. They are either true or not, and what you think about politics is a judgment on your moral character and not just a matter of taste. The person who supports a racist politician is by definition a racist and a Republican is by definition these days someone who doesn’t care a hoot about the poor and the middle class, or at least that is what the Democrats are trying to say.
Romney and Obama look very different if looked at from the existential point of view rather than from the cultural point of view. Whatever his deficiencies as a candidate, Romney is the candidate of the financial investment community which still doesn’t understand what it did wrong during the financial crisis that resulted in the Great Recession. Romney’s policies are clear cut enough. He wants to do what the Europeans are doing: engage in austerity economics, however foolhardy that may seem to Keynesians, and Obama is a Keynesian, however lacking in vigor he has been in pursuing Keynesian policies because of an anti-Keynesian House of Representatives. So as far as policy is concerned, the divide between the parties couldn’t be deeper or clearer. What do you want voters to have to do: memorize macro-economic formulas? The public understands full well what the candidates are saying and have to make their choice whether or not they have taken an economics course in college or subscribe in their gut to one or another macro-economic platitude. The federal budget is like a family budget or then again it is not. Take your pick.
Moreover, the nature of the candidates is clearly out there even if we do not consult economic policy issues. Mitt wants to be down home even if that is quite a stretch and Obama can’t shed the fact that he is a product of Harvard more than a product of a single mother. The choice between elitists and anti-elitists is not that old in American politics, in that Rockefeller and George W. H. Bush were upper crust and Reagan was Hollywood royalty, and Bill Clinton was more Georgetown than Arkansas, but that is the way it is now, ever since aw shucks Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. We have gone back to the division between the party of John Quincy Adams, which is now the Democratic Party, and the party of Andrew Jackson, which is now the Republican Party. That is a mighty deep existential divide, the one between populism in the sense of the wisdom of the people and elitism in the sense of the wisdom of educated people. Voters are asked to make up their minds, regardless of their education. The uneducated can believe the educated know better and the educated can believe that they can manipulate populism. These are deep characterizations of politics, there so long as there have been politics, by which I mean going back to the time of Socrates and Deuteronomy. You can’t get more existential than that.
Journalists confuse these two different views, the existential and the cultural. Some think this is a silly season where nothing serious is being discussed and some think just issues matter and some even think that personality matters. But personality is an existential issue and not just a cultural issue. You are electing to the Presidency someone who will have his finger on the atomic button, even if it is less and less likely that he will need to even hint at that option. He will be in a position, though, to unilaterally exercise drone warfare and cyberattacks. No declaration of war is required for either of those. And on the domestic front, he can do what was previously unthinkable: get the bond rating of the United States further reduced by being recalcitrant about raising the debt limit.
What sort of person do you want to vest with these responsibilities? It isn’t just what he does or doesn’t believe in or even what forces he will cave to. It is whether he takes his own responsibilities seriously enough so that somewhere or other he will draw a line between what he will and will not put up with. We are aware of numerous governors and senators who never stand up for any principles other than those that are already popular with their constituencies. They never raise themselves beyond thinking of an elected position as just a way to make a living, and so always look at politics from the outside, whatever their skill at negotiating with state legislatures and constituencies. But we expect more of a President. Liberals criticize Obama and Clinton for having been too flexible in their dealing with the other party, but at least we know where they were starting from.
The only President I can think of who never thought about where he was apart from what circumstances permitted was George W. Bush, who believed whatever he was told until even he was forced to recognize that Rummy and Cheney might be wrong, and by that time he was just trying to ride it out to the end of his second term. Not even Richard Nixon was that negligent of the difference between what in his mind the country needed and what were the machinations that suited his interests. Romney is a combination of both. He has the awkwardness of Nixon and the cluelessness of Bush. That, as I say, is an existential issue because it strikes fear and terror into any person who considers whether this person might indeed become President.