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?

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