How the Democrats and the Republicans follow the cult of the self

Alex A. writes from England:

My assiduous reading at VFR during the convention season has provoked the following thoughts:

Critics of Obama’s presidential campaign complain about the lack of specifics in his message of change. But old-fashioned policies are beside the point in an age of emblematic politics. The Obama ticket isn’t based on an agenda of practical measures that will address economic, social, and other questions. Electing Mr. Diversity as president is an end in itself. So to get elected, Obama doesn’t have to promise to do anything, he merely has to be something. The American electorate is being persuaded to vote for what he symbolizes rather than what positive differences, if any, he might make to individual lives or to the national interest. That’s why his “life story” is pertinent to his quest for power. The Obama family narrative should be understood as a kind of political allegory—its “hidden meaning” teaches a lesson peculiarly congenial to many people in our time.

Doesn’t Sarah Palin’s “family story”—with pregnant unmarried daughter, “hunky” husband, and son about to deploy to Iraq in the rank of private, etc., also have a symbolic resonance in modern America (though it would take an Auster essay to elucidate it adequately)?

Emblematic politics isn’t confined to the Republican and Democratic parties in the USA: it’s an expression of the spirit of the age and, as such, observable in all Western democracies. It’s just at a more ingenious stage, or perhaps heightened by the media, in American society.

LA replies:

I think this emblematic politics that you speak of is a typical expression of modern liberalism as I have described it: the rejection of any truth higher than or external to the self. In the modern age, truth is not seen as residing in God, or in objective morality, or in the natural order, or in the order of society, or in a constitutional system, or in the rule of law, or in anything external to the self; it is seen as residing only in the self. Therefore the self of the politician—e.g., his “compelling story,” his “faith” (as a personal expression of himself, not as an expression of truth), his wife and children and how they feel about him and how he feels about them,—becomes the most important thing about him politically. Politics consists not in a shared idea of the good of society and a shared allegiance to the society, but in a shared identification with the person of the politician. So the politician who has the most symbolically rich personality wins.

Which leads us to the startling challenge to Obama’s pre-eminence that has occurred over the last nine days. Barack was the unquestioned king of personalist symbolism, the man with the “compelling story” than which there was none more compelling. With his “father from Kenya” and his “mother from Kansas”—his parentage that was not only multiracial and multicontinental, but alliteratively so; with his tall, thin physique betokening a James Stewart-like cleancutness; with his mild, thoughtful manner and excellent speaking voice; with his impressive poise and eloquence; and with his Negroid features combined with his essentially “white” personality traits, he seemed designed by fate and nature to be the incarnation of an acceptable version of American diversity and the first nonwhite U.S. president. Then, barely 12 hours after Obama had finished his speech to the 80,000 and had receded behind the classical columns of his stage-set White House from which he was to be elevated to his destined seat in the real White House, suddenly, out of the blue, there appeared a woman whose story was even more compelling and whose person was symbolically even richer and more exciting than his—a woman who hunts and slaughters moose, singlehandedly defeats corrupt good old boys’ networks, raises five children (the oldest of whom is a G.I. about to depart to Iraq), holds her infant baby in her arms as she governs a state, is happily married to a hunky yet recessive man (the ideal mate in today’s feminist advertising and television shows), and who, all at the same time, is amiable and competent, shrewd and idealistic, charmingly ditzy and awesomely self-confident, impressively tough and highly attractive in a female—not a feminist and mannish—way. Talk about diverse qualities being combined in one person! For the Obama team and the Democrats, the advent of Palin must have been like a comet striking the earth! Their world was upended. Obama was no longer the unchallenged king of personalism.

Which, by the way, would explain the unprecedented malice in the left’s response to Palin.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 07, 2008 03:08 PM | Send

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