Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The GOP's "America Speaking Out" Program

Something that I've been focusing on a lot (and blogging about some) is the fundamental tension that drives the American political scene, the tension between Republicanism and Democracy that is woven into our own founding myths. Jennifer Mercieca's book Founding Fictions examines some of the ways that the contradictory character of the American political system has been forgotten, as we find ourselves in a political scene that is discussed as a democracy but functions mostly as a Republic.

What makes this tension interesting from a rhetorical standpoint is that the democratic narrative overdetermines much of the popular and media reading of governmental action. There are a lot of potential reasons for this explanation but perhaps the one that makes the most sense to me is this: individuals (particularly individuals sensitized and raised in a liberal culture that promotes individualism as a central value, if not a sinthome that helps a whole social narrative cohere), do not like to be told that they are wrong. Because at any moment as individual imagines their understanding to be one intelligible to a broader audience (this is the act of imagination necessary to formulate something like "the people", unless we are talking about an avowed polemicist) individuals are not encouraged to approach their own viewpoints with humility: instead, they conceive of their own thoughts and opinions as brilliant flowers that deserve to bloom.

Indeed, a democracy that purely celebrates "the people" encourages us to imagine that these opinions can explode in full bloom. We don't, of course, have to go very fall down the ol' linguistic turn to see that there is a problem with this belief: Chantal Mouffe, for example, argues in The Democratic Paradox and elsewhere with Ernesto Laclau that interpreting political discourse as a product of agonistic conflict is preferable to interpreting conflict as a clash between competing truth claims that are resolvable by some objective judgment. This is because there is no external arbitator capable of resolving the competing truth claims--we are, to some extent inhabting a relative space. This is somewhat liberating, however, because the understanding that we occupy a space where "everything is permitted so nothing is permitted" at least frees subjects to make arguments/produce opinions that are not "determined in the last instance" by some calcified or hardened social structure whose force or power masquerades as an essential or guaranteed truth.

To return to Hannah Arendt in On Revolution, it may be that out task in a rhetorical democratic republic is to figure out how citizens might begin to understand themselves as humble combatants rather than figures who posess an absolute truth. One might counter this assertion by pointing to The Human Condition's aggressive defense of agonistic political space to prove that humility is not a desired trait because it might act to discourage individuals from attempting to write their name into history by producing a lasting force. To put it into Mouffian terms we might ask the question: how do we facilitate the transition from antagonism to agonism without abolishing the difference that drives both?

The benefits of highlighting the republican aspects of our government are clear in light of this objection: republican governments affirmatively defend that some kind of line must be drawn between the people and their representatives while democratic modes of thinking defer the willingness to make a judgment, relying instead upon an inchoate/spectral idea (for example, a Rawlsian "public reason") to tie up any loose ends with regards to harmonizing the social. Bringing this back to Arendt's argument in On Revolution (as explicated by Andreas Kalyvas) we see the danger in promulgating something like a theory of public reason: public reason, because it refuses to claim to be made out of a decision and instead to constantly aid and abet public formation, might be the source of just as much violence as forms of acknowledged decisionism, but rather than humbly acknowledging this decisionistic character of thought and action, something like public reasons consistently denies that it is the product of decisionistic thinking because its virtues arise from its ability to exist external from critique/the social--if it were revealed as decisionism, the reasons to prefer it would fade to black.

Recall how the roots of rightist populism are in the mid 20th century anti-Communist movement: McCarthy, the Birchers, the "get out the vote" Goldwater crowd, and the general creeping suspicious of liberal management as an intellectual tactic that relies on a docile and unthinking public--these roots are visible today in something like Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism for example, which is something of a modern bible for the NRO crowd.

The GOP's new "America Speaking Out" program operates according to democratic principles but does on a democratic/republican plane of battle. The program, intended according to Senator John Boehner is intended to give the American people "a megaphone" so that their voice can be heard amidst the hustle and bustle of Washington. The website features a fair number of comments (although some quite clearly are not from conservatives, and instead are both sarcastic and genuine liberal suggestions) and the comments touch on traditionally conservative political positions: reducing federal support for abortions, solutions for illegal immigration, cutting taxes, banning the IRS, etc.

The genius of the plan is, of course, that no one likes to be told that they are wrong. And so with a handy vox populi that generally supports conservative positions, we see an organ for the GOP to position its arguments as unassailable: how dare you disagree with the people! Moreover, this program boxes the Left into a difficult argumentative position: if they don't wish to argue with "the people" they must prove that the voices present on the website are NOT the people or attempt a more nuanced argument that takes into account the plurality of voices in a democracy and then claims to properly sort them. The former argument risks tapping into a sort of intellectual elitism that haughtily disregards "average Americans" (a particularly risky situation given how effectively "elite thinking" has been critiqued by American conservatives since people were skeptical about The End of Ideology etc.) while the latter demands a certain complexity that may not function properly in our digital Twitterverse.

You might say that the mad genius of the "America Speaking Out" initiative is that it continues to insist upon the fundamentally democratic character of America while denying its opponents access to the inventional resources available in a republic. Following Mercieca's work in Founding Fictions, we might hazard that the frame taken up by the conservative strategists behind this initiative is a solidly romantic one--one that believes that a committed people can have their will properly represented by the system. This abolishes the possibility of any ironic distance from the system because of how these discourses circulate: it is never "the President judged the will of the people and found them wanting" but instead it is "the people's voice has again been trampled".

The task for progressives, then, is to figure out just how we might encourage a humility rather than an arrogance in our democratic subjects. How might we encourage people to take a comic perspective about everything that is happening in the political world? And for now I say: how might we do the impossible?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Curious Case of Journolist

If you're not up to date on your scandals and media memes, the recent kerfluffle over Journolist, a message board set up to enable communications between left leaning media types, might have missed you. The list first came into national prominence when Dave Weigel, the man on the beat for the Wapo's coverage of the conservative movement, was outed as having said some relatively liberal things on this list. He shortly resigned from his position at the Washington Post, forced out presumably because of the oft-understood and regularly repeated mantra that we expect those people who produce our news to be objective.

Since Weigel's departure, conservatives have taken to this Journolist controversy more and more, pointing to it as evidence of how the media persists in perpetuating forms of liberal bias. At The Corner for example, Daniel Foster points to some leaks from Journolist taken from November 3rd and 4th, 2008, when Obama won the presidency. You can look at them here. (It should also be noted that Weigel's reporting on the Tea Party movement was top notch stuff).

Foster's comment sounds an interesting echo back to a previous topic taken up on this blog: the dispute over who are the true Jacobins on the contemporary American political scene, the progressive liberals who support Barack Obama or the Tea Partiers who want a limited state and lower taxes. Foster says that the revelations from the Journolist "make him feel sad" for the people, because they naively believe that what is occurring is something truly momentous rather than just another banal changing of the guard.

Of course, Foster's own sense of pity (how charitable of him!) only makes sense to an audience capable of refusing to identify with the comments from Journolist. What strikes me in Foster's comments (and indeed, much of the conservative reaction to the Journolist controversy) is that their sense of what journalists ought to be like approximates something like a demand that people in the media ought to function a robots, with a set of opinions and sense of judgments that are completely separate from whatever own personal viewpoints they have.

Imagine engaging in an imaginative reversal: what would the react have been on the right to a McCain victory? Do we imagine they would have shrugged their shoulders and gone "well, we've got another Republican president, but I am not very excited about the victory because it's just another president". I have a feeling that most would admit to, if not a euphoria, a sense of satisfaction and happiness that individuals whom they genuinely believe would make America worse off did not control the Presidency.

I contend that the most important rhetorical marker of the difference in the Right and Left responses is that the left responses reek of a kind of individualism that conservative responses to victory annhilate by couching the legitimacy of a conservative victory with recourse to the rhetoric of "the people". For example, in a 2004 NRO column Victor Davis Hansn celebrates the victory of George W. Bush because it represents the victory of the will of "real Americans" over a media and academic elite who tried to load the dice in the election. Conservative celebration of the win is allowed but only if it does so by suboordinating the importance of the victory to the role of "the people" in producing it, as in this passage, where he argues:

"The East and West Coasts and the big cities may reflect the sway of the universities, the media, Hollywood, and the arts, but the folks in between somehow ignore what the professors preach to their children, what they read in the major newspapers, and what they are told on TV. The Internet, right-wing radio, and cable news do not so much move Middle America as reflect its preexisting deep skepticism of our aristocracy and its engineered morality imposed from on high."

Hanson's comments track appropriately with the old right wing populist meme that "the people" should be championed because they know better than an elite and technocratic will which emerges from some higher power. This is the theory that drives Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism and has animated conservative political activism since Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstader were writing in the 50's. What is curious is that this positions that desire of "the people" to continue as they always have been as the sort of conservative break on the overreaches of progressivism (Goldberg's "Democracy of the Dead", reference in a previous post makes sense here). The central tension that informs the conservative desire to turn the comments found in the leaks from Journolist into comments that come from a liberal media elite rather than a series of thoughts that represent something "American" is that an implicit criteria for what are and are not acceptable political viewpoints must operate. So what really troubles me about Foster's comments are not that he opposes the presidency of Barack Obama (which is fine, democracies are full of disagreement) but the pity that he feels for those who believe in Barack Obama, especially given the content of some of these leaks.

Two examples:

"HENRY FARRELL, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I had to close my office door yesterday because I was watching YouTube videos of elderly African Americans saying what this meant to them and tearing up."

"HAROLD POLLACK, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO: I am awed by the responsibility we have taken on. Tomorrow a desperately ill African-American woman will present at my university hospital for care, and she will be turned away. She will expect us to live up to what we feel tonight. So we’ve got a lot to live up to."

What, exactly, is so sad about these comments? One possibility is that they Foster believes they are disingenuous--but of course, if Journolist is full of disingenuous comments then the media is less "left leaning" than most conservatives hold. Another possibility is that Foster finds it sad that people have channeled important civic feelings/sentiments through the figure of Barack Obama, rather than expressing them concretely in some other mechanism. Due respect to Foster, but the president plays a disproportionately important role in America's symbolic economy. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan remain considerably more common targets for left leaning pols than say, the grim spectre of Trent Lott or Tom DeLay. Similarly, most Tea Party rallies focus on the ills of Obama rather than pursuing scathing critiques of Harry Reid or Russ Feingold. To imagine that people should not invest themselves in who the president is demands of citizens a way of thinking about politics that is almost alien, if not entirely foreign.

Additionally, many of the people presented in these dispatches are writers who never claim to be non-partisan. Ezra Klein is a progressive, Alyssa Rosenberg acknowledges that her private sentiments defer from her public performance, and even Spencer Ackerman's "YES WE DID!" presumes that journalists shouldn't be allowed to have a rooting interest in politics.

Essentially, I think Foster wants our journalistic community to be a bunch of robots. This robot media would reflect objectively upon politics, and would never take time to have a separate person that reflected or thought about politics. I understand that there is a separate argument, which is that Journolist was a forum where people intentionally speculated or strategized about how they could bend certain stories to the left. That is its own issue, and deserves a separate post. But you know, it shows a remarkably lack of faith in democracy to operate in an environment where you trust that people with viewpoints are incapable of bracketing those viewpoints when telling stories or presents issues. Democracy is, in fact, founded upon our ability to persuade others of our viewpoints by understanding that there is a difference in perspective that must somehow be bridged through persuasion or argument. Foster assumes that the beliefs of the reporters are a material and ideologically guaranteed barrier to the formulation of anything like a Perelmanian universal audience. Such a belief has the effect of calcifying political difference and making it function like a natural given rather than a constraint that a rhetor is capable of manipulating.

Many sports journalists comment that covering sports makes them incapable of having a rooting interest anymore--that their job and the demand for professionalism ultimately covers over any latent fandom they may be dealing with. In politics, of course, the stakes are not wins and losses but rather lives and security. We are, it seems, in danger of demanding of our reporters that they should do things that they cannot do. Foster is pitying these people for being human, for being invested in something that gives them meaning. That says something curious about the right's monopoly over reason/rationality in public political forums.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Why Lebron to Miami Is So Infuriating (To Some)

When it comes to tonight's much ballyhooed Lebron James announcement, the internet tubes are afire with vitriol and vengeance when it comes to James. Sifting through the objections, I find two of them to be fairly legitimate:

1. Lebron is screwing Cleveland, an economically ravaged and sports-abused city whose history is so depressing that its lake once caught on fire. If you wanted to sleep with a Cleveland sports icon before Lebron you might have to choose this guy. The Drive, The Fumble, the team leaving for Baltimore unceremoniously, Mike Fratello's boredom infused offense, several years of Tyrone Hill, Joe Table's blown save. You've heard it all before (and probably today in Bill Simmons' column @ ESPN).

2. Lebron is somehow turning his free agency into even MORE of a ridiculous media spectacle, holding the world hostage to "The Decision" show tonight in what amounts to a form of highway robbery committed ad nauseam on the nation's attention span.

I find the first objection appealing but ultimately unpersuasive. Top athletes should want to win titles. We all mourn the loss of teams in their prime that lost their shot at immortality because a key player left elsewhere to pursue a better income (as a Titans fan this is how I feel about Albert Haynesworth, but more paradigmatic examples include any number of college sports teams that see players leave early for the pros, the departure of Barry Bonds from the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to the 1993 season, or even Tracy McGrady's departure from what was a completely loaded Toronto Raptors team almost ten years ago). But we rarely mourn players that leave their established teams to win titles (Ray Bourque, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and even the hated Alex Rodriguez was somewhat redeemed by winning a title with the Yankees) because the idea of wanting to win is so intimately connected to the sporting ethos. Ultimately, Kevin Garnett wanted out of Minnesota and we got that: playing with Gary Trent, Ervin Johnson (no, not that one!), and Trenton Hassell gets old because you know you're not going to win the big one. The space of sports does not give us a coherent argument against Lebron James unless we are judging his decision to depart outside of the realm of sport, by making something like a political judgment about his role in Cleveland's economy. Within the frame of sport, the only objection we might have relates to something like an idea of "loyalty" to your institution or franchise but this language is unintelligible in a sporting world where free agency has now been a fact of life in the four major sports for at least 25 years, if not more. Sports are more about winning then about location.

The second objection is correct, but does not relate to the content of James's decision. We all agree he is making an egostistical spectacle of himself. Fine, but thats not a reason to be angry he leaves for Miami. Its a reason to be mad that the 24/7 media cycle and your twitter feed and the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich Connecticut, or whatever, keeps coming up.

No, I think the anger is mostly a result of how, if the "Miami Thrice" rumor is true, the element of luck has been abolished by the agency of the athlete free agents. What I mean is: we consume sports because there is an intrinsic element of chance at almost all levels of the endeavor (this is especially true of basketball, with the draft lottery). Injuries can occur--thats chance. You are born in a certain place and root for a team--thats chance. Some players pan out, others don't (this is in actuality a lot more like skill at judging talent, at least in basketball, but we often think about it as chance unless a number of decisions pile up so high that we feel comfortable calling it numbskullery). Always, in sport, we are presented with indestructable forces and moveable objects. The Greatest Show on Turf against the Patriots. Namath's no-chance Jets against the Baltimore Colts. The plucky Detroit No-Names (relatively) against the Los Angeles Lakers Pu-Pu-Platter of doom in 2004. The Buffalo sabres repeated attempts to ride hot goaltending to a Stanley Cup. The Marlins agains the Yankees in 2003. Boston's incredible win against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS is noteworth, because it indicated that no matter the material equality's seeming insurmountability (3-0 lead) we expect the impossible, and it can still happen (interesting, of course, how easy it was for the narrative to whitewash Boston's own incredible payroll and resources, far dwarfing those of a team like the Milwaukee Brewers).

We consume sports so that we might see the exceptional happen. Unless we root for the Yankees, the Celtics, the Lakers, the Jordan-era Bulls, the Belichik era Patriots, or the Detroit Red Wings, we are hoping for the unexpected to occur. We are hoping that what occurs will not be what we think will happen. "That's why they play the game" is the ultimate trite statement about a sporting event but in its essence it gets to why we consume sport--we do so because what it provides to us is not guaranteed by anything except for the ingeneuity, talents, and skills of those involved in the contest.

The problem with this assemblage of talent is not that it is unprecedented (some of the loaded Cowboys teams of the nineties, or say the Showtime Lakers or eighties Celtics all had as much raw talent) but that it has been assembled but through shrewd GM dealings (at least, not in our imagination) but instead is simply the product of the will of the players. That's it. There is no natural barrier to this occurring. No trades, draft dealings, nothing short of either Toronto or Cleveland winning a title could stop it (if it happens). It creates a sense of inevitability and a foreboding about the future of sports on an era no just of free agency, but FREE AGENCY, a truly meaningful possibility for players to unlock all of their potentials with the players they want to play with. And we have no tools to attack this decision in our existing sporting vocabulary because the most important thing in sports is winning. When an amazing player doesn't win a title he's in some ways a failure (Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, and countless others). But now that we see a player willing to do whatever possible to win we are confronted with the seedy underside of our demand that the players focus only on winning: that winning is at the end an individual goal that occurs within the framework of a team, rather than a team goal that suboordinates the individual at every step. Yes, egos and individuality must be suboordinated within a team for a championship victory to happen, but we call them the Jordan Bulls and not the Pippen Bulls or the Rodman Bulls.

So the "Miami Thrice" option presents a problem not just because of how this Heat team might dominate (which they quite possibly would), but also because the idea of competition is itself threatened in a world where all athletes unite in order to win the big one. We are frightened by the prospect of seeing only All-Star games from the conference semis on, in no small measure because it seems unlikely that the stars would ever choose to go win in a place like Sacramento or Cleveland instead of Miami or LA. Rather than equally distributing chance amongst all the teams in a league (Wait til' next year!) the probabilities of victory are pre-ordained to only include a certain few teams. There are, after all, only a certain few superstars and you need them to win a title. When their finite numbers are concentrated rather than dispersed we become afraid that the possibilities, the potential for victory and surprise and upset are now scarce, and will be forever scarce because there is nothing irrational (an economic protection in the local or nationalist sense, an emotional bond so strong that a player stays AGAINST his own interests) to stay the existence and production of a super-rational and highly efficient sports market where winners win, losers lose, and Ray Bourque would have left Boston in 1993.

Because ultimately, star athletes in their prime stay where they are for a tautological yet fulfilling reason: their presence where they are makes the team they are with, in some ways, a conceivable championship contender. With James, Cleveland is a contender but not overwhelmingly so. In imagining James to Miami with Bosh and Wade, we see an athlete calculating not in totalities (some chance vs. no chance) but instead making a calculation at the margins--that while Cleveland might offer some chance of a title, Miami's is better. Of course, we always want our stars to want to win. Why else do we hate players like Monta Ellis, and what better explains a lot of the vitriol towards Allen Iverson (well, that and race), players who put up great numbers but can't win? We consistently indict these players for not putting their team first. The assumption, of course, is that the team they need to put first is THEIR team, and not some other one. But when the desire for a championship that has been created by a demand that ANY great athlete "win the big one" is so great that a player finds themselves criticized on that front, we fans and commentators who worried that "Marino just didn't know how to win the Super Bowl" should not be surprised that we are now being hoisted on our own petards. Because ultimately, these guys are competitors. And with the prospect of this decision, that is what we're getting.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Thoughts on the Hudson Institute Symposium on Conservative Populism, Vol. 1

The Hudson Institute, a conservative leaning think tank, hosted a symposium on the prospects for a conservative populism in America. As you might well imagine, this was like Christmas in June for me, and the transcript is finally out. So hopefully in my next few blog posts I will go through the transcript of this report and see what I can see. First, we begin with something of a benediction from Jonah Goldberg, National Review editor and columnist, as he reflects on the possibilities of a populist conservatism:

"Now, it is true that it’s a difficult position for me to take, because for a long time I have been very anti-populist. I think populism as a historical phenomenon is fairly anti-conservative. It is rooted in this idea that the people can demand whatever they want right now. William Jennings Bryan had this great line where he said, “The people of Nebraska are for free silver, so I am for free silver. I’ll look up the arguments later.” Conservatism is supposed to be, as Chesterton would say, democracy for the dead. There is this idea that we are bound by constitutional order; we are bound by tradition; we are bound by certain eternal truths and eternal verities and conceptions of how things should be done. And populism tends to just want to sweep all of that aside. But I don’t think that that’s the populism that we have today. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a contradiction that conservatives embrace the populism that we have today. The populism that we have today, as Mr. Armey was saying moments ago, is dedicated to not demanding that their immediate passions be satisfied by government, but they’re in fact demanding that government be reoriented back to its proper role and scope. And that is a very different thing than the populism that we saw lead to national socialism or fascism in Europe. It’s very different, in fact, from the American populist movements that began in 1870s and moved on. It is in many ways a weirdly anti-populist populism, sort of saying that the government should get out of the people’s business and stop trying to satisfy their immediate passionate desires and instead go back into the proper oriented role. "

Goldberg's read here seems fairly spot on. He positions the current wave of conservative populism in opposition to the traditional populism of say, William Jennings Bryan, noting that the character of previous populist movements in America was of a sort where the movement understood that the government was to engage in a sort of mimetic play with the will of "the people". Following Goldberg, traditional populism arises from a disjuncture between what the people want and the government is doing. Typical and straightforward--populist movements arise when popular sentiment wants the government to do something different. Nothing rocket sciencey there, although Goldberg is properly associating populism with the Left.

Indeed, one need only look back to our friend Richard Weaver to see that Jonah Goldberg, unknowingly, agrees with Weaver on the characteristics of conservative vs. liberal arguments--that the conservative argues from eternal values while the liberal argues from circumstance. This is why Goldberg, borrowing a neat formulation with which I was unfamiliar, notes that conservatism is a "democracy for the dead", a structure that enables the people that have come before to perform in the same manner as the people who currently exist. In this manner, the conservative populism we see today is no contradiction, to Goldberg, because, as he implies, what these new populists are arguing for is merely a return to the old state of affairs rather than a radical change from some long established understanding.

Whats important to secure the persuasive force of Goldberg's arguments is that the conservative populism have a monopoly on the true story of American history, and their relationship to as its avatars or vanguard. The idea is that we need to return to a truly imited government. In the abstract, I could see Goldberg's argument developing in some pretty interesting ways (indeed, elsewhere in the piece he name drops Rand Paul as a figure whose actual conservatism is rather threatening when it appears in public). The problem, of course, is that even a charitable reading of Goldberg falls apart when we try and square it with much of the actual content of the Tea Party movements rallies and demands. The generic demands (less government, fewer taxes, more freedom) can only be understand as "conservative" if one uses an especially literal interpretation or understanding of time to argue that the things which came before should be privelged simply because they came before. In this way, something like the New Deal can be sidestepped when its existence proves that the body of history is somewhat less than friendly to the most polemical aspects of the Tea Party cause.

One of course need only refer to something like Arendt's understanding of the political to see that its not the linear march of time that most important maps existing political hegemony, but rather it is seeing what deeds continue to live on in the works of humanity that testifies to what tradition really is. After all, in On Revolution Arendt is saddened that America has lost the revolutionary spirit, and what she means by this is not that we have lost the literal notions produced for us by the founders but rather we have lost the sense of comic humility that accompanies the possibility for constant criticism that ought to be attached to all foundings, and was found at the time of the American revolution.

To me, what's interesting is not to differentiate this current wave of conservatism populism from previous "leftist" populist movements in the U.S. Instead, I think its more interesting to read them for their similarities, for the way that both sets of movements register a sort of discomfort with the existing political landscape, for how the positions of the aggrieved are not naturally occupied by one class or sort of people but can instead be taken up by whomever want them if they are willing to fashion an argument about being on the wrong end of a political hegemony.

Also striking, of course, is Goldberg's argument about how the government needs to stop kowtowing to the passions of the people. All well and good, I think, theoretically. But of course one cannot deny that the Tea Party movement is very passionate, and that signifiers of the Revolution carry with them a certain emotional or affective charge that seems rather disinterested in depoliticizing the public. What I mean is: with limited government, the passions of some people will still be allowed to make hay, because the government will still remain responsive to those of "the people" who want the government to do less rather than more. So I guess my open question to Jonah would be: if the proper role of government is to do less, how much "less" is enough" Tax rollbacks? Ending social security? Eviscerating infrastructure programs? No more stimulus packages? At what point do major chunks of America's history need to be read as "improper" and at what point are they justified?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Richard Weaver, the Argument from Circumstance, and the Tea Party

Richard Weaver is a curious figure in the history of rhetoric. A rare academic figure in the humanities, for sure, owing to his conservative political commitments, Weaver is considered to be a somewhat influential figure for 20th century conservatives in America. His Ethics of Rhetoric has an awful lot to offer students of the discipline, and his political leanings should not obscure the positive and useful content found in his work.

His excellent essay "Edmund Burke and the Argument from Circumstance" found in the Ethics provides an interesting intellectual and rhetorical history with which we might read the contemporary machinations of the Tea Party. While Edmund Burke is typically considered a father figure for modern conservatism, Weaver seeks to indict Burke's politics as something far more liberal. The most important index, he argues, of a person's worldview can be found in the type of argument they make.

Weaver points to 3 different types of arguments: arguments from genus, arguments from similitude, and arguments from circumstance. Arguments from genus make claims about the nature of things, and moving from these facts, then proceed to produce and persuade about choices given such facts. Arguments from similitude make comparisons between like things: these arguments are an important space for rhetoricians particularly to examine because in making a meeting of reality to the imagination we engage in this process of figuration, of making like things like. Finally, the argument from circumstance argues that what is to be done must be determined by the urgent and clear reality of the situation.

Weaver tracks Burke's work, and concludes that Burke often favors arguments from circumstance. For example, in the case of the American revolution the best solution he can provide is one in which England lets the colonies go but hopes and encourages them to pay some sort of voluntary fee back to England. Similarly, his famous indictment of the French Revolution operates by presuming that the already existing conditions of France were of a noble sort of stability that ought to be respected and honored. Both of these are arguments from circumstance, rather than arguments which proceed from figuring out what the "real nature" of humanity of political organization is.

Weaver makes the claim that the argument from circumstance is a properly liberal argument, because it does not rely on the strength of calcified essences or established institutions. The less well established political actors should tend to make arguments from circumstance because the strength of institutional history and collective memory (articulated to something like a Platonic form for Weaver) are bedrocks of conservative thinking. It is the job of the liberal (this corresponds somewhat with the leftist or social radical in Weaver's writing) to articulate why the conditions of the moment are so disastrous that they warrant a break with the history and tradition embodied within conservative thought.

Standing within our contemporary political milieu, Weaver's further analysis of the American Whig party and the collapse of the Republican party after Lincoln's assassination are hauntingly prescient. As Weaver argues, "a party whose only program is an endorsement of the status quo is destined to go to pieces whenever the course of events brings a principle strongly to the fore" (p. 79). As the early Whigs stood for nothing more than a vague kind of elite "political awesome" 20 years after America's founding, so the reformulated Republican party after Lincoln succeeded for a bit owing to the good will it accumulated from having ended slavery. But both politics ultimately stood for nothing, and without a content were doomed to lose out to opposing politicians who could articulate their vision of American to what Weaver calls "charismatic terms" (these charismatic terms are basically ideographs, by the way, and it is easy to see Weaver's influence all throughout Michael Calvin McGee's work) like freedom and liberty.

In the next chapter, Weaver makes a powerful case that argument from definition is the most powerful political argument, because it owns a sort of ontic (his word!) status that enables it to control the vision of the world espoused by its rhetor. Seizing on the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, Weaver argues that his persistent committment to insisting on a broad definition of human (to include blacks) facilitated a confrontation between the ideal reality of slavery's ideology (a simple hierarchy and human and non-human) and the everyday entailments of slavery's real enactment (slaves could follow orders, complete complex tasks, and perform very human acts generally). By situating his argument within an institutional tradition (the committment to human equality found in the Declaration of Independence) Lincoln's argumentative savvy helped to win the day (along with a war).

The campaign narrative produced by Obama and his staff, and the fallout from his electoral victory presents itself to us in the form of a kind of libertarianism that cannot speak its own name. After all, the Tea Partiers want less government, fewer taxes, fewer handouts, more freedom, and "their country back". It is not hard to detect in their canny references to revolution, in the signifiers of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin that show up in their campaign ads, and in their visible and public showing of selves, a strong discontent with where the country is at this moment. Their discontent, however, struggles to articulate itself in much more than a demand for lower taxes or a series of negative arguments against the Obama administration. Republicans who actually produce policy proposals (Paul Ryan's budget, or Bob Bennett's bi-partisan health care reform proposal) do not find their specific proposals often taken up by the Tea Partiers. Even if the rejection of these proposals is principled (and I hold out the possibility that it is) the principles underwriting these rejections are closer to a form of libertarianism than George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism", whatever that was.

Weaver writes that there is a principled form of conservatism that could exist, but in the 1950's it does not appear. What appears in its place is a general fear of communism, and a host of related arguments from circumstance that suboordinate principle to place. Moving out of this space, into one where "principled" arguments may be made is crucial, in his view, for conservatism to become a powerful and legitimate political force again. It must have a "moral idea of freedom" or defend a certain "vision of a nation". But in a world where the New Deal is a known fact in collective memory, where people want their Medicare once they understand what it is, what sort of national vision have the Tea Partiers produced? I submit that it is a negative republic, one built on a resentement and fear of the Other, either internal or external. All republics, of course, are founded on such fears. But not all of them are negative, some at least augur the possibility of a day when a positive something or other might mean for the movement. For whatever reason, however, the version of libertarianism that animates the Tea Partier's spirit has not yet appeared as a fully fleshed Being in public. Can it? Or has American social space been so radically reconfigured by the collapse of the "Southern States" electoral coalition that sustained, along with the fear of Communism and terrorism, conservative political primacy since 1968 that a seriously radical ideological restructuring is coming down the pike? Richard, Weaver, despite his conservative leanings, might say yes.