Sunday, April 13, 2008

Antipolitics and Empty Platitudes

Politicians in the United States are forever assailed for "spinning" and sticking to safe platitudes in support of motherhood, the flag, hard work, fairness, baseball, minivans, dogs with floppy ears, etc. The recent flare-up over Barack Obama's use of the word "bitter" perfectly illustrates why. Here is what he said last week to a group in -- gasp! -- San Francisco:

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Within microseconds, candidates Clinton and McSame issued statements professing shock and outrage that Obama had dared to deploy the forbidden adjective "bitter," with both candidates aligning on the slapdash half-thought that the forbidden adjective evinces "elitism." How dare Barack Obama suggest that Americans -- the noble, hard-working, common-sense-rich, good-hearted beings featured in countless Chevrolet ads set to the songs of Bob Seger -- sometimes harbor cynicism!

And yet there's something about Obama's statement lost in this analysis: namely, it's the truth. People in this country -- and not just people in rural areas and small towns -- have become bitter and cynical about the disparity between campaign promises made and public policy delivered on economic matters, and they have, as a consequence, retreated to safer, surer, simpler themes where they feel in greater control: tough-on-crime, tough-on-immigrants, anti-gay, flag waving, etc. This form of antipolitics is very well established and very much alive.

I defy anyone to watch an hour of Lou Dobbs railing against immigrants or view an hour of Pat Robertson sputtering about "family values" without detecting a pronounced strain of bitterness. These presentations are calculated to conjure, focus, and redirect resentments and frustrations. And they work.

Obama dared to notice this in public. That's his "transgression."

If we as voters insist on vaporous bullshit by joining in on the political media's fake outrage over remarks like this, then we can be assured that political discourse will feature nothing but vaporous bullshit.

I suggest, instead, that we step back and take care of what we seem to be asking for. Who would truly prefer a presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney? Both are masters at calculating every syllable so as not to offend the "target audience" as identified in endless polling and focus groups. Both, consequently, say anything and everything, which is the same as saying nothing. Both are masters of empty platitudes.

Part of the audacity of hope is the audacity of telling the truth. It should sound jarring to the American ear accustomed to endless self-congratulation and glad-handing buttressed with phony scapegoating and cheap diversion.


Sis B said...

I've spent the greater part of two days trying to figure out what was wrong with what he said. All I could think was... but I agree with him! He's right!

I certainly hope the majority of the American public is fed up with the platitudes and wants to hear some real "straight talk." Funny that McCain's group is all over Obama for (gasp!) telling the truth.

Dale said...

True, Sis B. The contest between Democrats and Republicans comes down to whose version of populism makes the most sense to the most voters: economic populism or values populism. Too often, Democrats try to wish this aspect of the contest away, and thus cede all of populism to the Republicans, which is absurd.

Obama needs to be smarter and I think he will be. He needs to be an economic populist and reach out on values as well. He needs to remind people of the ways that McCain is an elitist: a millionaire hobnobbing with other millionaires who has made a career out of pushing policies that favor the rich.

thepoetryman said...

Obama needs most of all to remain true to himself if what I think of him is an indication of who he really is as a person. If he remains true to himself and continues to merely inspire through his voice and doesn't get too sucked in to the politics of fear and divisiveness he will draw more votes than ever imagined. I don't think he will have to try too hard to be smarter although I certainly understand your point. It is a very serious game he's playing and needs to be sharp if the rhetoric of the attack machines from either side are any indicator.

Anonymous said...

Obama did nothing but lie during his campaign and he continues to lie as a president. What a hilarious blog.