The Work Cut Out for Us
Waldman looks at recent presidential elections and is dismayed to find "a progression of Democratic candidates desperately pleading with voters to eat the political broccoli of position papers and policy proposals, while Republicans respond with the red meat of fear and anger." One sees what he means, of course, and he's right. Still, it's worth pausing over this piquant formulation. For one thing, broccoli is a lot more nutritious than red meat (which isn't always really red--some factory-produced meat is so pasty that it must be artificially colored), as well as tastier (e.g., when steamed with black mushrooms, baby corn, water chestnuts and tofu, seasoned with tamari and served over brown rice... mmm). But never mind that. I have no objection to carnivores clogging their arteries and degrading their palates, any more than to smokers blackening their lungs. That's what freedom's for. As for the billions of animals (and thousands of illegal aliens) leading a wretched existence in meat factories before being slaughtered (or deported)--I sympathize, of course, but animals and illegal aliens don't vote, much less contribute to political campaigns. No, the real, unsentimental, non-goo-goo objection to meat factories (read: propaganda mills) is that they produce gigantic quantities of reeking manure, noxious gases and toxic feed additives (i.e., stereotypes, clichés and non sequiturs), which befoul the environment (i.e., the civic culture).
To put it nonmetaphorically: If we want a durably decent society, we have to improve the quality of political discussion. Yes, we will always need to address people's hearts and imaginations. But in the long run, their ability to think, to see through right-wing (and left-wing) bullshit, is even more important. After all, Rush Limbaugh is most dangerous not because he's a right-wing moron but because he's a moron. Karl Rove is most dangerous not because he's a right-wing liar but because he's a liar. Jerry Falwell is most dangerous not because he's a right-wing demagogue but because he's a demagogue. If voters had even a slightly enhanced tolerance for position papers and policy proposals, the influence of Limbaugh, Rove, Falwell et al. would evaporate, or at least be vastly diminished. Isn't that a worthwhile goal?
How to accomplish it? I don't know. Perhaps population exchanges or year-abroad programs between blue and red states. Perhaps The Nation should offer free subscriptions to registered Republicans. Perhaps Katha Pollitt and Ann Coulter (or Thomas Frank and David Brooks, or Greg Palast and Matt Drudge) should barnstorm the country, the way Stanley Fish and Dinesh D'Souza did in the 1990s. Perhaps all secular liberals should sign a pledge: Every time one evangelical reads a nonreligious book, one of us will go to church. Somehow or other, someone must sow a healthy appetite for informed, discriminating political argument across large swaths of the electorate where it now appears lacking. Otherwise, public life will become wholly (what it now is largely) a marketing competition, and nothing more.
Can Barack Obama make Americans eat their political broccoli? He's certainly gotten a lot of them to read, or at least buy, The Audacity of Hope. He seems to have struck a spark with granitic New Hampshirites recently; and Beltway reporter-chatterers are charmed--for now. His first book, Dreams From My Father, was a genuine achievement. Growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia; on the street in Chicago, organizing; visiting Kenya in search of his father and clan: It's a colorful background and he made, if not the most of it, then quite a bit. Samuel Johnson famously pronounced: "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Ditto for a politician's writing prose. Dreams had a fine loose rhythm and a nice way with dialogue. There were touches of staginess, corniness, didacticism, but the author was clearly a mensch and even, in a few passages, an artist.
The Audacity of Hope has touches of passion and vividness, but on the whole, it's a campaign document--a very, very good stump speech. Not broccoli but granola (i.e., fairly nourishing but with too much sugar). Lots of anecdotes, hardly any figures, many ringing but always carefully qualified statements of position. Just about all of them are reasonable, progressive positions. America will be very lucky if they're enacted into policy.
But Obama's no giant. In intellectual and moral stature, he comes just about up to Ralph Nader's or Barbara Ehrenreich's knee, or to Russ Feingold's or Barney Frank's navel. Nevertheless, he's probably the most intelligent, honest and idealistic of the Democratic presidential candidates.
So what? The quality of leaders matters less than the quality of citizens. President Obama, like President Hillary or President Anybody, will operate within constraints dictated by the balance of forces surrounding him, the sum of pressures brought to bear on him. For progressives, the goal should be to affect that balance, to contribute to that sum. Writing in The Nation last June, David Sirota observed: "Obama is all about the art of the possible within the system." What's possible is up to us. The main lesson of the right-wing ascendancy is: The bastards never give up; or as Yeats put it, rather more elegantly: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." The best had better get--and stay--off their asses.