Whence the worship of “real” candidates?

I have often criticized the new regime of personalism that dominates today’s politics, among Republicans as well as Democrats—the increasing occurrence of multi-generational family political dynasties; the extreme focus on a candidate’s spouse and children, especially at national conventions; the emphasis on a candidate’s “compelling story” as a primary reason for supporting him; and, now, the unseemly embrace by conservatives of Sarah Palin’s candidacy because she’s “real,” with her “realness” consisting of the fact that she hunts and fishes, and has five children, and has a five month old, special-needs baby in her arms, and has a 17 year old daughter pregnant out of wedlock.

I’ve explained this personalism as deriving from our loss of a belief in the public sphere of society as the common locus of our loyalties, and its replacement by the private sphere. But perhaps that is only a description, not an explanation. In the below comment, Philip M. from England provides an insightful—and distinctly traditionalist—explanation for the contemporary rule of personalism.

Philip writes:

I thought the comment by the Editrix was interesting—that rather than being conservative, Palin is merely “unconventional,” hunting and being a happily married career woman and so on. Editrix is right—a few traits and hobbies do not equate to a consistent ideological defence of conservatism, or indeed any position.

Has there ever been an election before in which so much store has been set by the candidates being “outsiders”? As I mentioned before, Obama (black, Hawaii) has said in speeches that he is from outside the political system. It seems to me that Palin (woman, Alaska) has received a great deal of support for the same reason. McCain—unconvincingly in my opinion—has also sought to play the same card by claiming to be outside the political establishment.

What does it say about the America that those who seek to head its government distance themselves from it? What group in America feels that it is represented by the government?

This of course is the reality of the propositional nation. Cut off from any racial or religious connections between the ruler and the ruled, the only thing you all have in common is your loyalty to this sacred “proposition.” If liberals are correct, and diversity and tolerance make America stronger, then right now everyone should be coming closer together, since, for the first time all Americans should be feeling like insiders. But instead there is a gaping hole at the centre of American political life, a hole which derives its highest virtue from claiming to represent no one in particular, and drives the candidates to say, “I’m not part of the hole, I’m a real human being with a real black/hunting/POW/messy family life to prove it.” The absence of any archetypal “American” is pushing people further toward personality and identity politics—personality politics being the identity politics of Republicans and whites. Is this part of the appeal of Palin?

Also, there is no need for you to apologise for the Palin coverage. You have justified it.

- end of initial entry -

Philip M. writes:

I trust and hope that your readers have enough sense to realise that when I critisise America I am not being a condescending Limey. I realise that many British people take this attitude to Americans, and it irritates the hell out of me as well, I find it really embarrassing, and a sign of deep-seated insecurities on our part. When I critisise America I am doing so as someone who loves America and finds her fascinating. As a child, I actually learned all the American states by heart, (in alphabetical order, of course) which by my reckoning means I have more knowledge of American geography than presidential candidate Barack (“How many states are there in the Union”) Obama.

Such was mine and my mother’s obsession with all things Yankee that we even badgered Dad into trying to move to America. He actually applied for it in some way that I was too young to understand. I just remember my mum saying that we should not get our hopes up, because “It is easier to get into heaven than it is to get into America.” Such exclusivity, Lawrence! But that only made me love America all the more. I didn’t realise at the time that it is actually criminally easy to get into America if you aren’t white and hate America. Again, oh well. I’m actually pleased we didn’t get into America now. I was too young to appreciate the richness of belonging that comes from being part of a definite ethnicity with its own history. There is a trade-off to be made. The sad thing about America is that you should have come to terms with your youth and attempted to build something permanent, so that in 500 years America really would be an ethnicity. Instead, you have fallen in love with your youth, and actually take pride in the temporality and shifting sands of American identity. I’m sure shifting sands are all very clever and creative in their post-modern kinda way, but you wouldn’t want to build a house on it, would you?

Dale F. writes:

I think Philip M. is right. Identity politics is at the forefront of this election, because everyone realizes we are at a demographic crossroads. Liberals spoke sneeringly of the “monochrome” Republican convention, and of the last gasp of a fading, soon-to-be American minority. Apparently 24 percent of the Democratic delegates were black, 12 percent Latino. The Democratic party is the party of an ethnic spoils system, and as they see it, the party of the future.

The Republican party lacks the philosophical coherence it had in 1980, when it was led by a literate, well-spoken, experienced leader. But it seems the country’s eroding white majority judges a Marxist, black liberationist a greater threat than a liberal old soldier. Palin is a “right feminist,” not a conservative, but her appeal is cultural, not philosophical.

Philip M. replies:

It was kind of Dale F. to say that I was right about identity politics in this election, when in fact what he was saying was far more interesting. He is right that the Democratic party is the party of racial spoils, of milking the system for maximum benefits to you and yours. And I think this goes some way towards explaining the problem of Republicans and conservatives in America.

In a solid, united society, the health of the body politic, the health of the nation, is axiomatic. When you are engaged in a debate over policy, or whatever, and you are arguing from the position of what is best for America, what do you say to someone who turns around and says “I don’t give a damn about your country or your history, I just want what I can get out of America.” How can you argue that they are “wrong”? There is no point wagging a pious finger and trying to shame them, because shame only operates within the fixed boundary of a community, and in their community there is no shame in what they are saying. How can you try and convince someone that selfishness is wrong, unless you can explain to them that their selfishness will cause suffering to them, and our people? Immigrants and racial minorities, at least ones who cannot compete for top jobs, have nothing at stake in America, and have nothing to lose. If America really became so backward that even Mexicans didn’t want to live there any more, then they can just move back to Mexico. You can’t.

Republicans can only hope to win this argument in one way. By pointing out to white America what I have just described—that these people are cultural outsiders, who do not have any affiliation with our culture, and therefore their opinions regarding American policy are worthless. But Republican cannot say this, because this isn’t a very nice thing to say, and will get them labeled as racists. So instead they go on trying to build bridges and find common ground with people who have zero interest in bridge-building and common ground finding.

I sensed a real desperation at the Republican convention, a relief that by finding a woman they had found someone that the left-wing media could not critisise them for. This is a sign of the defeatist mentality and insecurity within the Republican party. They have conceded the moral high ground to the left, accepted the Marxist definitions of right and wrong, accepted the leftist stereotype and critique of Republicanism. Until Republicans find the moral backbone, even if only out of fear, to represent white America, they will remain, as will their people, like so many fish floundering in a fisherman’s net, trying to convince the other fish that their interests can coincide with that of the fisherman, if only we will let them be the civilised middle-men.

LA replies:

What I do, when encountering someone with whom there is no common ground of loyalty to America, is simply to point out the fact that we have no common ground, and that that person has no standing in a debate on how to protect our country.

An argument I’ve sometimes used in speeches on immigration is: if your house is burning down, you wouldn’t seek the help or advice of someone who is against houses, and thinks we should live in the open air.

This is why I always try to identify people’s implied but unspoken leftist and anti-national premises.

In a radio exchange some time after 9/11, when the topic was protecting America from terrorists, the two guests were myself and someone from some immigrant rights organization. After it had been going on for a while, I said: “Your only concern is for immigrants. With every issue that comes up, your only concern is to maintain immigration and to make sure that no anti-terror measures will lessen immigration. Protecting America from terrorists is not even on your horizon. Therefore you have nothing to contribute to this discussion.”

That’s the kind of thing that’s never said. Because it’s not “civil.” The American “conservative” way is always to maintain good relations with the other side, to pretend that there is common ground of loyalty to America. But what if there isn’t common ground? The conservatives are stymied, because they are unwilling and unable to point that out. They have to keep pretending that an enemy is a fellow citizen, and so they are ultimately unable to protect America from enemies.

I should add that such an argument can’t consist of mere name-calling: “you’re anti-American!” We need show, through our opponent’s own words, that he’s not on America’s side.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 06, 2008 11:37 AM | Send

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