01 November 2010

The Stewart Doctrine:does democracy take itself too seriously?

Having just read a book about the Founding Fathers, I couldn't help feeling a little scandalized while reading Kathleen Parker's weekend critique of the President's appearance on Comedy Central's Daily Show. While from a Founding perspective Obama had already debased himself almost beyond recover by appearing on John Stewart's talk show, Parker complained that the President was still taking himself too seriously during his appearance. After an admittedly embarrassing (if not telling) moment when Obama used the exact same awful phrase that his predecessor used to praise his FEMA chief -- "heckuva job" -- to describe Larry Summers' work for him, his recovery to Stewart's chiding -- "pun intended," -- seemed hopelessly lame to Parker. She felt that the President should have gone for a broader punch line to admit that he'd made a rhetorical goof (if not a Freudian slip). For Parker, this was another failure of Obama to connect on a gut level with the American public.

[I]t is imperative that leaders not take themselves too seriously. What should Obama have done instead? How about saying: "I can't believe I just said that"? Or, "Oy!"? Whatever. Anything to signal to the audience that, "Oh, well, I'm human." But Obama isn't very good at human.

To the Founders, the idea that a President should make a fool of himself to win public favor would have seemed insane. On the other hand, many Americans of minimal historical literacy may assume that Lincoln would have gone out there and topped Stewart with one-liners without really trying. American notions of political dignity and popularity have evolved -- if that's the right word -- over time. For many observers, casual or not, we've reached a point when taking politics and politicians less seriously is an imperative, regardless of what the politicians themselves think.

Parker's column appeared on the morning of John Stewart's big rally in Washington DC. Stewart is the man of the moment for people who want a de-escalation of partisan and ideological invective. That he has the potential to sway multitudes was acknowledged by the President's visit to his show, but he is an unusual demagogue in his apparently passionate advocacy of political dispassion. If I understand him correctly (and I've only seen second-hand reports of Saturday's rally) he actually has the right attitude for a liberal democratic republic. As I've been writing recently, representative democracy flourishes in an environment of reasoned indifference to the outcome of elections. Under ideal conditions, each person votes for whomever seems best qualified for an office, but no one assumes any candidate to be so unqualified that his or her election would be an intolerable threat to the republic. There can be least favorite candidates, but not "worst" ones. Once some candidate or party is perceived as a threat to the republic, there's a dangerous tendency toward a Bipolarchy as demagogues declare themselves the sole bulwark against the threat. Our present Bipolarchy evolved as the Republican party emerged as the sole bulwark against the "slave power" that remained identified with the Democratic party for decades after the Civil War ended. Twenty years after the fact, Republicans still warned that Democratic victories would put Confederates in charge of the Union. The same attitude prevails today among Republicans who cry "socialism" against Democrats and Democrats who cry "racism," etc. against Republicans. Stewart counsels, in satirical fashion, against since bipolarizing invective, and for his trouble he's been criticized by the right-wing talkers of Fox News and the liberal talkers of MSNBC alike. For Stewart's fans, that may be the most persuasive proof that he's onto something. They claim to share his view that these are "hard times" but not "the End Times," -- but what follows practically from that viewpoint?

While Stewart's anti-ideological stance may be the appropriate attitude for representative democracy, the discussion can't end there. It still doesn't follow that liberal democracy is the answer for the present socio-economic crisis, or the global crises that loom on the horizon. In crisis times it may not be a matter of indifference who wins elections, while from a more challenging perspective the crises may be so grave that resolving them should not be left up to popular deliberation. To say that "freedom" solves all problems could well be wishful thinking. If so, who wins elections and who holds power should be a matter of severe importance to everyone. For some Americans, that sense of crisis is only exacerbated if neither of the officially "viable" choices available seems suitable to the tasks at hand. In that case, Stewart may be perfectly right to dissuade people from taking the feuds of Republicans and Democrats as seriously as partisans themselves insist. But it would not follow that politics itself should not be taken most seriously or debated with the urgency of the times. Some of us feel it necessary to attack the two-party system as a whole with as much vehemence as the two parties aim at each other; would Stewart say that we are wrong? His answer could determine the usefulness of whatever movement he calls into being.


d.eris said...

Stewart's call for moderation (saying we are in "hard times" not "end times"), and the relative/reasoned indifference to the outcome of elections, may be a function of the fact that the primary object of Stewart's criticism and critique is not the Democratic or Republican party as such, but rather the Democratic-Republican party echo chamber and the talking head sleaze fest on cable news and commercial political ads. In other words, the bi-polarized media machines and industry that serve to prop up the two-party state.

Anonymous said...

As always in a system devoted to the aquisition of wealth, it's all about the money. How much profit do these purveyors of mass media rake in during elections? Yet do we, the "consumer" see any benefit? Do we see fewer commercials or better programming coming out of the profit? Of course not. But I'll bet more than one media mogul just bought a new manor or a palatial yacht.

This is not so much a democracy as a thinly disguised feudal system with local politicians instead of earls and barons, corporate execs and hedgefund managers instead of dukes and princes. In time of war, we serfs are still expected to provide the bulk of the king's army - to bleed, kill and die for their wealth. We may no longer toil long hours in fields of wheat and potatoes, but little else has changed.

Freedom in America is little more than a buzz word. A lie told to children to convince them that we are somehow "better" than our enemies. Slaves we will remain until we rise up as one and throw of the yokes of our erstwhile masters. I vaguely remember a quote I read some years ago. I can't remember it verbatim, nor can I remember who to attribute it to, but to paraphrase:
"As long as one man wears chains, we cannot be free."