Saturday, May 15, 2010

Tea Party as Symptom

Basic, boring Foucault: language is necessary to express points of view, and indeed, its something like the condition of the possibility of points of view existing. Within our political milieu, there are certain discourses that are accessible to us and others that are not. Somewhat tautologically, those that have force or effect are those which are capable of operating differentially within what Foucault in the Archaeology of Knowledge a "discursive formation"--a cluster or cloud of notions, discourses, rhetorics, all of which only meaning in relation to the other. The upshot is: for a discourse to be intelligible it has to "make sense" in a particular discursive formation.

One quick historical example-in a powerful essay on the potential of civic resistance, Ken Cmiel points to the way in which members of the civil rights movement in the 1960's swung public sentiment in their direction by behaving in overwhelmingly civilized ways despite the abject violence directed at them by racist authorities and citizens. The result was a humanizing effect that enabled something like identification between the American public and these victims. To borrow from Kenneth Burke: its quite possible that these scenes transformed the African American victims of violence, previously dehumanized through rhetorical and social techniques into something fundamentally "Other", into fellow citizens by something like a "perspective by incongruity" in which the incompatability of competing frames (traditional notions of race vs. traditional civic belonging) is pointed to and eventually one is discarded in favor of the other. We might say that in this moment, African Americans became intelligible as "civic" actors--that is capable, of asserting themselves and behaving as someone who had the full understanding of what it meant to be a member of a polity was. This occurred in contradistinction to acts of violence on the behalf of police and racist authorities, which also simultaneously demonstrated that mere formal characteristics of citizenship (full access, total officialy recognition) were also not necessary OR sufficient conditions for a person being a citizen; after all, their actions had to be read as indexes of personal/individual/geographical biases rather than an entire national malaise for the frame "America" to persist undisrupted.

Why do I bring this up? In the 1960's the civil rights movement utilized the available means of persuasion within a political system to point to the ways that such a system operated with some measure of arbitrariness. Because the exposure of said arbitariness would threaten the coherence of the system as a whole, the system moved to address these concerns. The point is that the existing "discursive formation" provided the tools/mechanisms for this demand to be produced. When we turn to the Tea Party, I think we are seeing a symptom of a peculiar structural particularity: the tools available within our political system today for the Tea Partiers to produce arguments seem much less rich and ample than those provided to the social movements of the 1960's. Take one of the major arguments the Tea Partiers push on a regular basis--that the president and Congress are a bunch of socialists. Jonah Goldberg pushed this argument pretty hard in a recent Commentary piece titled "What Sort of Socialist is Barack Obama?" He and the rest of the righties aren't wrong that the government is displaying socialistic tendencies--but this is only because they broadened the meaning of the word socialism so far that it ceases to possess any meaningful utility for social critics, referring as it does to basically anything that the government might do that gets in the way of anything approaching a free market. However, rejecting something "because the government is doing it" isn't much of an answer to an awful lot of policy proposals. And it's not particularly persuasive either given that history still has a force--no matter how hard Rush Limbaugh tries we can't just forget about FDR and the New Deal.

It seems like the reductio about any governmental action turning into tyranny, fascism, etc. has been too played out. But the argument is hysterically repeated ad nauseam, in the faint hope that it will somehow make more sense. During the Cold War you at least had an existential threat to connect the fear of socialism too--the elements in the government behaving somewhat "socialist" could at least be linked to an alien force locked in cold combat with the United States. Today, however, its difficult to draw a link between Al Qaeda forces and the "socialist" elements of the Obama administration. So instead of being a socialism that successfully threatens the fiber of America (connecting healthcare policy to an enemy is easier, when you, know that enemy still exists and still seems politically viable) it instead seems like a nettlesome poke from some angry children. So I guess today I'm optimistic--it seems like the available resources in our "discursive formation" don't provide the conservatives with very many intelligible/persuasive arguments. There will need to be a shift that acknowledges that the Cold War is over, to allow for arguments to coalesce broader arguments now that the clarion call of "Terror! Freedom! Liberty!" is becoming less effective.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Another Democratic Paradox

Bonnie Honig's recent book Emergency Politics points to a logical problem that has plagued political theorists since Aristotle--if democracies produce good citizens and good citizens are needed to produce democracies, then we face something of a chicken/egg conundrum--which comes first, "the people" or the people? There is an indisputable gap between the "general will" in Rousseau's sense and the elected representatives of said will, not least because if the two were completely coterminus the display of unity would obviate the initial desire to have a split between "the people" and the government because aggregated interest would be a pure and properly total index rather than a partial snapshot of what "the people" want.

One popular move of late in political theory is to grab a Schmittian matrix and decide that some form of decisionism is inevitable, if not desirable, in politics. Following this tactic most visibly in the political tradition is Chantal Mouffe, whose book The Democratic Paradox seeks to resucitate some form of decisionism from postmodern indeterminacy while simutaneously refusing to engage in the sort of fascist violence the philosophy of Carl Schmitt typically produces. The solution is to think in terms of horizons rather then borders, in terms of agonism rather than antagonism, and to produce a shared space where friends and enemies share something like a mutual, begrudging respect the projects itself in some share conditions of intelligibility between arguments.

I routinely find these inside/outside explanations of political identity formation persuasive, not least because they seem to soundly explain certain recurrent political trends. One need look no further than two presidential terms each for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom parlayed rhetorics about existential threats into political power that persisted despite political decisionmaking that was certainly questionable, if not unpopular. Moreover, as Robert Ivie has neatly formulated in his book Democracy and America's War on Terror, these distinctions operate not merely external to the physical borders of a nation but also work in the national imaginary to produce individuals who might be cititzens of the nation from a formal standpoint who nevertheless constitute enemies to "democracy" for their refusal to support the troops, the war, or acts of civic protest.

What interests me is--how is the American population protected from confronting this paradox? I will look at the example the 1960's New Left. I've been reading several pieces on this subject (if you're interested, check out the work of Ken Cmiel, Michael Kazin, Robert Cathcart, and others) and what stands out to me the way in which violence and dissent are mostly framed in political discourse as irrational outbursts of unreason that refuse to submit or kowtow to dominant political and institutional logics. This evidence can be found in our contemporary political discourse--even conservatives wholeheartedly embrace the safe and hopeful rhetorics of MLK, while liberals and conservatives alike rushed to condemn the violence of the Weather Underground as Barack Obama struggled to distance himself from sixties radical Bill Ayres.

This point has been made well by Kevin DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples--the way in which violence's appearance in public is figured is an extremely important factor in determining how "public opinion" will come down on the side of a particular movement. After all, kids in school all read MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech while being consciously pushed away from considering say, Stokely Carmichael's speech at Berkeley that attacked the silence of white privilege. Ken Cmiel, in a sharp reading of the sit ins during the civil rights movement of the sixties, points to how the tactic was effective because it performed a form of civility instantly recognizable to a moderate audience, enabling the generation of a bond of sympathy between those protesting and a broader audience--because civility is the norm, they who are the most civil will draw the most love, and sympathy.

Violence can be viewed as legitimate, of course. The vast majority of Americans view the violence used by the American government of the Union in the Civil War as legitimate because it struck out against an illegitimate human monstrosity (slavery). The violence of the Revolutionary War was scene as necessary to counter the tyranny of the British, who sought to rule and control that which they had not properly mixed enough of their labor with. But of course, those acts seem more legitimate in hindsight because they helped to produce the modern polity that we currently reside in--a United States of America produced in opposition to Britain, and rebirthed in the wake of the Civil War, cleansed of the sin of the 3/5 clause.

So long as a vocal minority is seen to be illegitimately using violence or threats thereof, a democratic population is prevented from encountering the fact that what is produced politically reflects themselves. That is, it produces a distance between the population and the unruly "people" in need of democratic regulation. Therefore, those who were part of Richard Nixon's "silent majority" in favor of a continued presence in Vietnam were given a tactic to tell themselves that they were part of a democracy (participating in the civic process of voting, casting judgment upon the violent and unruly war protestors) while also asserting that they were the "right" part of the democratic population--the part that understood what being in a polity meant in terms of personal responsibility and knowing that what it DID NOT mean was the rioting and violence thought to characterize the New Left. So in at least this case, it seems like any encounter with Honig's civic paradox is prevented. Instead of being able to apprehend that they are part of "the people" and thus in need of regulation (justifying the split between the people and the government), "the people" are projected as being the unruly protesting political masses while the "silent majority" are those people who know what it means to be civic, and also do not need to be subject to the actions that the government may take.

On the other hand, if for example you find the activities of the Weather Underground to be legitimate, you are fully embracing the problem posed by Honig's paradox--you are pointing to how "the people" are untrustworthy, and demanding an escape hatch from the circular/tautological ring of people and government who are mutually producing violence and injustice in ways that are invisible to the dyad by virtue of the non-ironic or non-distanced relationship between people and government.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Political Incoherence

Been doing some remarkable reading--I strongly advise you check out Mark Lilla's recent New Yorker piece on the Tea Party movement. He has an amazing eye and ear for history, and the way in which he contextualizes the Tea Party movement as an extension of his 1998 article "A Tale of Two Reactions" is fascinating. Essentially, the argument is that the New Left of the 1960's shares with the Reagan democrats (and now, the confounding subjects of the Tea Party who want to defend their individual selves from governmental tyranny) a strong belief in the power of individuality to echo and exercise force for good.

Why this argument seems so precisely correct to me is that it explains how something like the Tea Party is capable not just of appearing in public but also maintaining its own internal coherence in the face of a rather sizeable amount of American history that contravenes a lot of the reductios circulated by the Tea Party in the name of limited government. I'm thinking particularly of the small rightist cottage industry set up around writing books about why the New Deal was bad, or the way a creeping form of originalism is beginning to do more than just legal work, rewriting the national imaginary in a way to prohibit anything like governmental involvement in social issues (ignoring momentarily the ways in which this government is supposed to intervene temporarily to return the country to how it was, in a form of regulation and intervention whose temporary acceptability is indexed by reaching into our past for a fictive shared fantasy of purity and natural greatness).

FDR was one of our greatest presidents. Nixon coopted George Wallace's voters and then enacted what amounted to progressive, liberal policy initiatives at the federal level. Dwight Eisenhower warned about the "military industrial complex". It's not all peachy keen for liberals--we're saddled with Woodrow Wilson, JFK (it seems like he was really bad, if attractive), and Clinton dispirited the former elements of the New Left as much as he pleased centrists. But as Frederic Jameson said, "history is what hurts". History, especially, must hurt the Tea Partiers, tethered as they are too a historical signifier of America's refusal to bow to something like "authority"--nevermind that what defines that authority, and one what terms, is ineffably contestable in a way that can point to the incoherence of the Tea Party's politics. Since they are for less government, and so much less of it that it would render an awful lot of our already existing political establishments, we need to account for how those arguments can appear. That, for now, can wait. But Lilla is right to point to something like a clash fostered by the contradictions of liberalism. More later.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Tea Party and Violence

In a recent dust-up between David Brooks and Jonah Goldberg, the two went the rounds over the true character of the Tea Party movement. Brooks took the position that the movement represented a radical break with the existing system, in much the same way that the student led New Left of the 1960's demanded radical social justice based on the existing system's inequality. Goldberg comes back at Brooks to make the point that what distinguishes the Tea Partiers is that the "New Left had no interest in restoring America's founding vision."

The clash, then, is between interpreting the Tea Partier's relationship to American history--Goldberg seems intent on reading for a continuity, seeing the parties emrgencies as a natural reaction to a Leftist political agenda that has taken the country away from its founding principles, while Brooks wants to interpret the group as sharing with the New Left a radical distance from on-going politics. Indeed, I hope I am not stretching to say that Brooks attempts to pull off an argument that would make Foucault proud--he points to the Rousseauian optimism at the heart of both the New Left and the Tea Parties in his view. Of course, this optimism generates different policy suggestions--the New Left wants an increased governmental role in the social so that forms of equality might be produced that let this basic human goodness flourish, while the Tea Party view wants the government out of markets especially, holding that a world unencumbered by heavy governmental regulation will produce the greatest good for the greatest number, owing to the way that market forces testify to man being "born free".

Why does this matter? Well, few political movements (and even fewer successful ones) publicly mark themselves as being against the words and principles upon which their public is founded. Witness, for example, Obama's attempt to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright's rhetoric of "God damn America!" It is bad politics to set yourself up as being against the political structures you inhabit. The Tea Partiers certainly do not do anything like this in their rhetoric, which is peppered with words like freedom, the Constitution, liberty, and of course the signifier "Tea Party" which we tend to imagine is articulated to what America stands for. However, it is a messy business to disentangle this "Tea Party" signifier from its association with revolution and violence. This is why, while I largely think Goldberg's analysis is more persuasive than Brooks's, I find myself recalcitrant in the face of the former's suggestion that the Tea Party movement proposes no break with the American tradition. After all, the Tea Party most commonly might signal for one of two things: the slogan "no taxation without representation", or the beginning of a revolution. Certainly the Tea Partiers consistently claim that they are not represented in Washington but this lack of representation is of a different character than that experienced by the colonists--it is temporary, democratically authorized, and legitimate, even if it is not experienced as such.

It requires some interpretive charity to believe that the "Tea Party" as a signifier floats around with absolutely no affective or signifying force linked to its associations with revolution have an effect on the subjects within the movement. In 1988, Gustainis and Hahns pointed to what they called a "negative reference group" problem, which posed issues for 60's era war protestors. The risk was that the more moderate elements of the group risked being linked in the public imaginary with the worst and more excessive elements of the anti-war movement, delegitimating the entire group effort. The Tea Partiers are conscious of this problem as well--a recent New Yorker article depicts participants at a rally kicking out people for bringing racist signs and being on the lookout for radicals who would promote a negative image. I am quite sincere when I say that a major motive for kicking these people out is also the participants taking offense at offensive messaging--I do believe that the Tea Partiers as a whole are well intentioned individuals (for more on this point see Jonathan Raban's piece in the New York Times Review of Books from a few months back).

Nevertheless, I cannot shake the suspicion that the historical event of the "Boston Tea Party" hints at a threat of violence. After all, we could settle on any number of different signs around which to organize our anger with the government--conservative PAC "Freedom Works" gathers constituents around the less revolutionary and depoliticized "freedom", "Americans for Prosperity" gathers folks around with a message of optimism in the market, and "The Next Right" is another conservative PAC that could produce a new political movement that insists on its continuity with the past. No, there is something in the notion of a Tea Party that makes it a vibrant rhetorical site around which to constitute a movement. It ineffably signifies not only dissatisfaction with a contemporary state of affairs, but also a willingness to promote action to change that state of affairs.

All well and good, you might say, but are not political protests a legitimate way to promote action through legitimate political channels to contest the status quo? Quite right. And we've seen a number of conservative movements that protested publicly over certain issues (abortion and gay right, for example). Those groups often united themselves with a rhetoric of defending "their way of life" or "defending their country and values" against a force externally constituted. And indeed the Tea Partiers continue this tradition, demanding often that they "take their country back." Besides some isolated incidents, however (Eric Rudolph and the Eightmaps controversy over Proposition 8 in California come to mind because of the work of my colleague Sarah Spring) these movements mostly appeared in public as movements defending a certain already American status quo (Lauren Berlant elegantly details this in her collection of essays The Queen of America Goes to Washington City). Because social space was already configured with a presumption or hegemony in favor of the conservative arguments, there was little need to associate the movement with revolutionary imagery (and the privilege of being an unmarked public plays into this as well). So for me, the move to the Tea Party as a signifier of conservative discontent represents not just continuity with America's past, but also a tacit acknowledgment that when things get bad, resistance and recalcitrance are legitimate. Why else move to this imagery that secures the legitimacy of revolutionary violence in a polity that spent much of the 20th century using rhetorical strategies to delegitimze violent resistance and depoliticize political space itself? Words like "freedom" and "liberty" do not quite do enough work right now for conservatives, because while everyone is for them, they are fundamentally hegemonic terms whose possible rearticulation is made concretely threatening to conservative privilege through the electoral victory of Barack Obama. Subjects need a vocabulary to disagree not just with the content of the President's policies but also a means of symbolic compensation to assert that no matter how much the government does not represent their views, they will always have some kind of voice, even if it is a violent one.