Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Tale as Old as Time

One of the great fallacies of this campaign season has been the widely-held notion that we are witnessing something entirely new, that both candidates are aberrations within their own parties and thus practice a "different kind of politics." But once all the self-congratulatory, pre-fabricated cliches fade away we are left with the same script that has been used since the time of Jefferson.

Putting the policies aside for a moment, at least those that have even been put forward, these two supposedly unconventional candidates have conducted a campaign that is as conventional as it is mundane. Obama may bring a flashy grip of his native tongue into the fold, and McCain may be buoyed by the illusion of his independent-minded past, but in the execution there is nothing to separate 2008 from 2004, 2000, or even 1800 for that matter.

The script is well-known by now. Americans are made to reject intellectualism as effete and feminine, out of touch with real Americans, and arrogant, a picture that has been applied to every Democratic candidate for decades and continues to find traction. What Americans want -- real, masculine Americans that is -- is a President like Grandpa John or Uncle George. A real man. A man who thinks with his gut, not with his head. A man who has no need for nuance, real understanding of world affairs, or that flashy education. No, when a real man looks at the world, he sees the clear lines separating the good from the bad, the light from the dark. Intellect simply renders those that possess it ineffectual. Americans want a man of action, a man of toil and sweat, not a sheltered college boy.

It is in this framework that a man such a George Bush, truly a man born into luxury and good fortune if ever there was one, can be presented as anti-elite. It is how Bush, though he embodies the very definition of 'elite' if the word is to have any meaning, can be transformed by the performing simple tasks on his quaint little ranch, dressing in simple clothes, and using simple language. Only then can a man with opportunities well beyond the dreams of most Americans be portrayed as a cowboy and a real American.

If rational thought ever makes its return to our shores, the scheme will be seen instantly as a farce, but for now the window is still wide enough for John McCain to climb through. Although I am no fan of Obama's foreign policy, it is painfully clear that he offers an understanding of world mechanisms that McCain has never even approached. McCain is in the vein of Bush, in that he sees what he needs to see -- good and evil -- and nothing more.

Words like 'victory,' 'freedom,' and 'democracy' provide him with all the understanding he needs. Any attempt to define those terms will be met with resistance, as it is much more beneficial to him to have the listener paint his own image of the word than for McCain to be boxed in with a constrictive definition. If 'victory' was defined, McCain wouldn't be able to declare it when he felt the time called for it. If we had clear aims, people might start asking questions about how they could be achieved.

Where contemporary liberals fail in their analysis of this pervasive motif, though, is in presuming that it began with their favorite straw man, Karl Rove. While Greenwald is correct in his assertion that the McCain campaign has been forced to diverge from discussion of the issues by a public that widely rejects his stances, he is wrong in assuming that this is an entirely new phenomenon. Karl Rove presents a bugaboo to Democrats looking for a scapegoat, but he merely represents the man most able to tap into prevailing themes in American politics that have been around since the early stages of the Republic. Rove didn't create the notion of ineffectual, effete intellectuals, he merely used it to greater advantage than anyone else.

William Loughton Smith wrote a pamphlet attacking Thomas Jefferson in 1796, the tone of which should be immediately familiar:

The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician, are, timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain abstract theories formed in the recess of his cabinet, and not on the existing state of things and circumstances; an inertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.

Smith compares Jefferson disfavorably with Washington, who "was, thank God, no philosopher; had he been one, we should never have seen his great military exploits; we should never have prospered under his wise administration." Smith illustrates that even in the late 18th Century, military virtue was a good test of political leadership, a virtue that Jefferson, although one of the most important figures in American history, did not possess and was therefore unfit to lead. The parallel to the 2008 campaign is at once obvious.

In 1800, as the attacks against Jefferson continued, another typical American stalking horse appeared, animosity toward Europeans. Joseph Dennie writes:

At the seat of government his abstract, inapplicable, metaphysicopolitics are either nugatory or noxious. Besides, his principles relish so strongly of Paris and are seasoned with such a profusion of French garlic, that he offends the whole nation. Better for Americans that on their extended plains "thistles should grow, instead of wheat, and cockle, instead of barley," than that a philosopher should influence the councils of the country, and that his admiration of the works of Voltaire and Helvetius should induce him to wish a closer connexion with Frenchmen.

The language is of a different era, but the themes are familiar. Karl Rove, far from creating his attacks, merely represents the most recent bearer of arms that were developed centuries ago and have served politicians ever since.


Chasing Straw Men, July 29

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