Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

"Change" and American Democracy  

John Bedell

A bunch of political commentators had extravagantly praised Obama's victory speech in Iowa, so I found it on YouTube and watched. It was, I grant you, a pretty good speech, better than anything I ever heard from either Clinton or either Bush. Sometimes it seemed to me more like a series of separate applause lines than a coherent argument, but then he was speaking to a gathering of supporters who really wanted to cheer. But the thing that struck me more than anything Obama said was the sea of signs in the background that all spelled out one word: CHANGE.

Change what, I wondered? And how?

I like Obama, and if I get the chance I will vote for him. One of the reasons I support him is that I expect him to change some policies that I find abhorrent, like the torture of detainees and the criminal expansion of "executive privilege.".  

But I hate those signs.

The moment captured for me my ambivalence about American democracy. I believe deeply in democracy, and sometimes I can get choked up just watching elections unfold. I was watching a Presidential candidate I admire talking about things that are important to me. Obama is highly intelligent, he seems to have some good ideas, and he sometimes comes across as thoughtful. I am pleased that I may have the chance to vote for him. And he might even win, which I think would be a great thing. But if does win, he will do so by turning his political philosophy into stupid slogans, 30-second ads, and clever sound bites that he will figure out how to introduce into those bizarre parallel appearances we call "debates." He will fine-tune slightly different messages for each state and each interest group, so they can all hear whatever it is they want to hear. He will promise things he will almost certainly not achieve, like a less partisan America and a more peaceful world. He will, in short, make a fool of himself.

And what is it with "change," anyway? Progressives are supposed to want change, I guess, but the slogan isn't limited to them. Mitt Romney and John McCain have lately been calling themselves the candidate of change, too. Bill Clinton made it his mantra in 1992. Why this deep longing for unspecified change? Why does the very idea of a candidate saying "I support the status quo" seem ridiculous? Are we a nation of whining, restless malcontents? Or is our system really so broken that fundamental, radical change is always called for but never happens? When people get past their general grousing and list some specific things they would like to fix, their lists are mutually contradictory: "We need a less partisan country, we need politicians who stand up for what they believe in instead of following polls, we need politicians who listen to the people, we need to do something about the environment, we need less government red tape," and so on. So what's the crisis?

I used to think that the problem with democratic politics is that most people aren't paying attention and aren't very well informed. But the internet is populated by people who pay a lot of attention to politics, and from my perspective they are no better than the apathetic multitudes. Heck, half of them support Ron Paul. Instead of engaging in some kind of reasoned discourse, net denizens just pat their allies on the back and scream insults at their enemies.

When I first got online I threw myself into political argument. But once I had discovered that nobody's mind was ever changed, I gave it up. After seeing how strongly people cling to their opinions even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that they are wrong, I have decided that nobody's politics are really based on reason. Our politics are expressions of our characters, and they are much more emotional than rational. That is why our discoursed is carried out through catch phrases like "change", "values," "socialized medicine," and "support the troops." These code words are like keys that fit into carefully prepared locks, triggering the right emotional response in the target audience. That is why campaigns have theme songs, slogans, and color schemes.

At first the realization that politics has little to do with reason depressed me, but it no longer does. I think we should remember, first of all, that running the government is only part of what politicians do. Another part is trying to connect emotionally with people. Skillful politicians can help people feel better. They can make people feel like someone is listening to them and taking their concerns seriously; they can help people feel proud of their communities and their country. They can excite people and make them feel relevant, like Ron Paul has for libertarians. In our time JFK and Reagan were the greatest masters of this, that is why they both still have such huge followings.

Of course, after the election somebody has to run the country, and the various disasters W has inflicted on us are proof enough that it really does matter who wins. But my desire for a rational discourse will not change the fundamentally irrational nature of politics, so there is little reason to lose sleep over the quirks of our current election. I am reduced to hoping that the people I support will have sloganeers as capable as those I oppose, and that people who don't pay much attention to what politicians actually do will find appealing the same sort of "vision thing" that appeals to me. Because that, I think, is what democracy is and always has been. It is an amazing creation, one of our greatest, but it is still a human institution, and as such it embodies our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Because we are emotional, our elections are basically about our feelings. Everything has its downside, and the whole slag heap of slogans, consultants, buzz-words, attack ads, push polls, and phony debates  is the price we pay for governing ourselves.

January 9, 2008

From the 
Commonplace Book

Criticism as I understand it differs entirely from attack or complaint. Its difference from complaint is especially important here, for I am persuaded that complaints against the machinations of culture today have become as poisonous as the things complained of. This is not surprising. Resentment and indignation are feelings dangerous to the possessor and to be sparingly used. They give comfort too cheaply; they rot judgment, and by encouraging passivity they come to require that evil continue for the the sake of the grievance to be enjoyed.

--Jacques Barzun


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