Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
9Nov/120

A Milestone Election

The re-election of Barack Obama is a milestone. Barack Obama will always be remembered as the first black President of the United States. He will now also be remembered as the first black two-term President, one who was re-elected in spite of nearly 8% unemployment and a feeling of deep unease in society. He is the black President who was re-elected because he seemed, to most Americans, more presidential, more trustworthy, and more likable than his opponent—a white, Mormon, representative of the business elite. Whatever you want to say about this election, it is difficult to deny that the racial politics of the United States have now changed.

President Obama's re-election victory and his distinguished service have made the country a better place. The dream of America as a land of equality and the dream that our people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character—these dreams, while not realized, are closer to being realized today because of Barack Obama's presidency and his re-election.

There are some who don't see it that way. There is a map going around comparing the 2012 electoral college vote to the civil war map. It is striking, and it shows with pictorial clarity, that the Republic strongholds today are nearly identically matched with the states of the Confederacy 150 years ago. For some, this is an indictment not only of the Republican Party, but also of the United States. The argument made on Facebook and beyond is that the country is still deeply divided racially; that this election brought out the deep-seated racism underlying the country.

Election Results 2012

 

There is also the fact that Twitter apparently was awash in profoundly racist commentary after the election. According to the blog Floating Sheep, the worst of the racist commentary was concentrated in states that Mitt Romney won. Mississippi and Alabama were the states with the largest number of racist tweets on election night.

This could be evidence of a real racial problem. But I don't see it that way. Of course there are some people who are less trusting of a black President. But around the country, voters approved gay marriage, Latinos voted in record numbers, women swept into office, and we re-elected a black President to a second term. To see this election as a confirmation of racist intransigence is overly pessimistic.

Yes, Mitt Romney won the white vote, but he received 59% of the white vote; not exactly a landslide given that the country has real problems. Among white voters over 65, Romney received 61% of the vote. But among white voters under 29, he received only 51% of the vote, a sure sign of things to come. And the white vote was only 72% of the national vote, a record low. As David Simon writes in "Barack Obama and the Death of Normal":

The country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. ... This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

This is all good news.

And yet, we should not celebrate too loudly. Race still matters in these United States. How it does and why is changing, and will continue to change.

Amidst the progress, one fact remains stubbornly true: black Americans still lag behind white Americans in metrics of education, employment, income, and success. Nearly 5% of black men are in prison in the United States, compared to 1.8% of Hispanic men and .7% of white men.

More than 70% of babies born to black mothers are born out-of-wedlock. When looked at honestly, the problem with race in this country remains stark. It is too big a problem to be swept under the carpet.

And yet that is what is happening. The Obama Presidency has not been kind to blacks. Here is how Frederick C. Harris puts it in the New York Times before the election:

[F]or those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.

Walter Russell Mead makes a similar point in a rich essay published in The American Interest over the summer. He writes:

Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.

The housing bubble and its crash have disproportionately impacted black and Latino Americans, who most recently achieved the dream of home ownership. And the loss of jobs in manufacturing and public unions have disproportionately impacted blacks, since these were important routes through which black Americans have entered the middle class. The results for blacks in this country are harrowing. As Mead reports:

Black unemployment under President Obama hit 16.2 percent (June 2011). The median net worth of black households collapsed, falling by 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, wiping out twenty years of progress and plunging to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term. By comparison, the net worth of white households only fell by 18 percent from 2005 to 2010. The gap between black and white net worth doubled during the Great Recession, and the “wealth gap” between the races rose; the median white household had 22 times the net worth of the median black household. Moreover, the damage to black prospects will not soon be repaired. Indeed, if we now (as seems likely) face a prolonged period of austerity and restructuring in government, there will be fewer job openings and stagnant or falling wages and benefits in the middle-class occupations where blacks have enjoyed the greatest success.

What is more, those national statistics like unemployment, exclude inmates in our nation's penitentiaries. Were we to add the 5% of black men in prison into those cumulative statistics, the situation would look even more perilous.

Mead's essay, The Last Compromise, is essential reading. He argues that race relations in America are marked by three main historical compromises. The first compromise, in 1787, is well known. Including the counting of slaves as three fifths of a citizen and the granting of slave states equal representation in the Senate, this original compromise allowed the country to emerge as a democracy without dealing with the obvious scar of slavery.

Image taken from The American Interest

The Civil War led to what Mead calls the second major compromise on Race that moved the nation forward without actually granting rights to blacks. In the compromise of 1877,

the white South accepted the results of the Civil War, acknowledging that slavery, secession and the quest for sectional equality were all at an end. The South would live peacefully and ultimately patriotically in a union dominated by Northern capitalists. White Southerners might complain about Northern banks and plutocrats (and they did for decades), but they would not take up arms. For its part, the North agreed to ignore some inconvenient constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period, allowing each Southern state to manage race relations as its white voters saw fit. In particular, the North allowed the South to deny blacks the vote while counting them for representational purposes.

As Mead writes, this compromise was a disaster for blacks. And yet, there was some progress. Denied the vote and made second-class citizens in much of the country, and faced with continued violence and oppression, blacks could, nevertheless, work to create a small and thriving middle class.

The compromise of 1877 last about 100 years until, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a new compromise emerged. This compromise of 1977 brought with it desegregation of public institutions, affirmative action, the entry of blacks into government and civil service, voting rights, and the chance for success. But it came with a dark side. As Mead summarizes:

At its core, the compromise offered blacks unprecedented economic opportunity and social equality, but it also allowed for the stern and unrelenting repression of inner-city lawlessness and crime. Blacks who were ready, willing and able to participate in the American system found an open door and a favoring wind; blacks who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to “play by the rules” faced long terms in prisons where gang violence and rape were routine.

The election of President Obama shows the promise and the limits of our current state of race relations. On the one hand, black Americans in the middle and upper classes live in a society that if it is not color blind, is at least open to success, entrepreneurship, and leadership by black Americans. On the other hand, the misery of the black poor continues, largely invisible. This is not simply a racial matter, since it is poverty in general, and not only black poverty, that is ignored. There are many impoverished white people. But it would be dishonest to deny the racial components of poverty.

The 2012 election is a milestone. It proves that 2008 was not a fluke, and it shows that most of the United States will vote for the candidate they feel is better, no matter that candidate's race. This is an enormous achievement and one to celebrate. In many ways the future looks bright. But that is no excuse to refuse an honest confrontation of the problems many black Americans continue to have. President Obama has largely avoided the issue of race, for obvious reasons. It is time to insist that we bring the issue to light.

One good way to begin is to read The Last Compromise by Walter Russell Mead. It is well worth the price of subscription to The American Interest. It is your weekend read.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
6Nov/122

Robert Frost on Thinking and Voting

"Thinking isn't agreeing or disagreeing. That's voting."

-Robert Frost

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
5Nov/120

The Election: What’s Freedom Got to do with it?

“…the enormous pathos which we find in both the American and French Revolutions, this ever-repeated insistence that nothing comparable in grandeur and significance had every happened in the whole recorded history of mankind…”

-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

Although my political memory is admittedly brief, I cannot remember an American presidential election day that was anticipated with less enthusiasm than the one that looms this week, particularly among the generation who are now my students.  It is an unfortunate sign when you overhear conversations in the lounge expressing a wistfulness for the halcyon days of Clinton v. Dole.  This is not to say that there are no strong emotions about the election – lots of umbrage weekly-renewed, considerable dread and anxiety, even a dash of hope and an occasional twist of satisfaction – but enthusiasm does not seem to be among them.  Though this blog tends to dwell more on the political world with a touch of remove from its everyday hurly-burly, as Arendt did, given the proximity of the election it seems worth it to linger for a moment on the particular phenomenon those in this country face tomorrow: a moment of decision that no one seems particularly eager to reach.

Plenty has already been said about why this might be, and there is much more to be said than can be said in this space.  I want to dwell on one particularly Arendtian concern that I have heard expressed and worried over more and more during the last few months, the simple question that a student last week pithily expressed as “what’s freedom got to do with it?” Asking the question in that way may nudge us in advance into hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth.  But I want to argue something that may seem counter-intuitive, at least to the sensibilities that I hear advanced daily: that in fact the certain grimness or reticence with which many face the impending election is not a sign of the decay of the fabric of American polity, or the slow collapse of the meaningfulness of citizenship, but a sign that the events of the opening years of this millennium have brought us into a new kind of health.  That health is precisely in the realm of freedom, a health increasingly robust even as we face terrible sickness and disrepair in other aspects of our political, economic, and cultural systems.

The great diagnostic temptation at this political moment, which one hears espoused often enough, is to say that Americans have forgotten how to experience freedom in our political process at all (if indeed it was ever there), and so we trudge towards Nov. 6 having thoroughly accepted that, whatever particular material interests we might have at stake, “freedom is not even the nonpolitical aim of politics, but a marginal phenomenon."  And there is, of course, something to this worry, as there was when Arendt wrote it; a potent part of the  dissatisfaction that so many feel and express is the sense that whoever is elected, it will make little difference in the end.  There are lots of extremely portentous “minutae” of politics to counterpose to this sense – the composition of the courts, the reversal of pre-existing condition restrictions, reproductive and marriage rights, the bearing of the federal tax structure on nation’s titanic income inequality – but if these kinds of issues could disrupt the sense that they’re taken to address, the national media would have dispelled any concern of the sort long ago.  What is at stake cannot be the literal question of whether or not there is anything at stake – otherwise the answer would be trivially obvious, that there is – but that there is a rich sense that, as Arendt puts it repeatedly, the experience of an inexorability to our political economy (to call a spade a spade) has thoroughly overwhelmed our hope for novelty, our belief in the possibility of new beginnings, of revolutionary change.

But there is something to this peculiar kind of despair, itself so different from the form of despair that dominated the part of our society in which I grew up – the sense of not only a crushing personal irrelevance but the fundamental impossibility of escaping a desperate struggle for livelihood – that actually bespeaks something promising for our political culture.  The despair of change, which in fact now unites the two ideological poles of American politics, bespeaks a renewed sensitivity to freedom, freedom in the specifically Arendtian sense that space remains in which what is might be radically replaced with what might begin tomorrow.  It is a sensitivity to freedom that can only exist in a polity that remembers what it is to feel and desire it.

Jason E. Rist/Flickr

On the contrary, anyone who doubts that Americans yet feel a sense of Arendtian freedom need only take a glance at the documentary currently making the rounds, 'PressPausePlay', to see that we have in fact again become so suffused with what Arendt called “the specific revolutionary pathos of the absolutely new, of a beginning which would justify starting to count time in the year of the revolutionary event,” that it has leapt out of the political realm and now structures our relationship to technology, to culture, and to education as well.  Where once we had to worry that the political had become inextricably reduced to the social, now it seems that we may rather be faced with the universalization of the specifically political, with the preeminence of action and spectatorship in every sphere of the human condition.  It’s not at all clear to me that that would be a terrible thing, but the point remains.

One might be inclined to blame the candidates themselves for the lack of enthusiasm, and again it would be hard to deny that there’s something to that.  But what is it, exactly, that we find worth blaming?  Certainly, those who supported him might have a number of particular political gripes with the way that President Obama executed his term in office, but I also think that most in practice most understand that Obama could never in the American political system have lived up to the messianic fervor surrounding him, and that this is not the true source of disconsolation.  I will confess to a certain lack of sympathy for feeling betrayed by Obama’s positions.  Likewise, it is hard to fault those who oppose President Obama for being unenthusiastic, to put it mildly, with having Mitt Romney as their only meaningfully available avatar, given that that concept itself entails the expectation that something is being represented.  But here, too, I think there is a perfectly resilient awareness among those who will vote for Romney that the man is in fact quite good for the role for which he has been groomed and in which he has placed himself: the consummate manager, the guarantor of the kind of freedom-as-security Arendt worried might wholly replace our sense of freedom-as-possibility, “not the security against ‘violent death,’ as in Hobbes…but a security which should permit an undisturbed development of the life process of the society as a whole.”

No, the difficulty that Americans face is neither that we have lost our “revolutionary pathos” that makes us believe in the promise of something truly new, nor that we have candidates who cannot fulfill our rather extraordinary expectations, but that we have once again come into our desire for both the senses of freedom that Arendt diagnoses, and they are senses of freedom that do not sit easily together.  The ambivalence and strain that comes with holding desires for competing freedoms is not something to be bemoaned, but celebrated, and converted into cause for engaging the immense barriers the current configuration of our political system has thrown up against those desires.  We desire both the promise of change that holds fast our belief, and the promise of a managerial excellence in navigating the quotidian ho-hummery of administration.  And this is simply the reality of, not the American political system, but political system as such: these two forms of promise are inextricably bound to each other, and though it is a tense and at time openly antagonistic partnership, it is nevertheless one that polity, at least in its Modern sense, can’t do without.  Political ambivalence, and even pessimism, is not a sign of the decay of our political capacities, but of their renewal by a decade of protest and struggle and failure on both sides of the political spectrum.  Our senses of freedom are in rude health…whether our politics can bear it is another question.

-Ian Storey

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
2Oct/120

Asking—and Answering—the Question: Does the President Matter?

The Arendt Center recently completed its fifth annual conference, which revolved this year around the past and present state of the U.S. presidency. I attended most of the proceedings, and the presentations and discussions I witnessed were worthy of close attention. Perhaps above all, the conference sharpened my awareness for the prerogatives, possibilities, and limits that currently define the office of the President.

On the one hand, I now have a better appreciation for the ways that recent Presidents are even more powerful than they were in the past. For instance, they have taken on budgetary and policymaking responsibilities that Congress has effectively abdicated over the past several decades. And, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Presidential administrations have accumulated powers of surveillance, arrest, detention, extrajudicial execution, and war-making that circumvent public accountability—not to mention institutional checks and balances—in troubling ways.

On the other hand, recent Presidents face social and political circumstances that constrain their room for maneuver. In the narrow realm of governmental procedure, the frequent recourse to the filibuster and other forms of obstruction in Congress has curtailed President Obama’s power to promote legislation and fill judicial, diplomatic and other appointments. (As a result, he has increasingly turned to executive orders that, at least in certain realms of governance, bypass the House and Senate altogether.)

In the realm of public discourse, recent Presidents contend with a media and consulting culture that inhibits their ability—and perhaps even their desire—to engage the citizenry in informed debate. And in the realm of epistemology, recent Presidents face a confluence of events which do not merely stretch their personal and institutional capacities, but challenge the very terms by which we understand the world. The current state of the Presidency, in other words, is but one part of a larger problem of knowing and thinking in the present.

The conference’s panels and presenters did an admirable job examining these themes, and I do not mean that as faint or empty praise. Yet I was still struck by how resolutely “American” much of the conference was, and not simply because most of the panels dealt in one way or another with the Presidency and the wider U.S. political landscape. To some degree, this focus was only to be expected given the conference’s stated concern with “the American age of political disrepair” and its overlap with the presidential campaign. To my mind, however, the accumulated observations and arguments ultimately betrayed a form of what social scientists would call “methodological nationalism.” That is to say, much of the conference took it for granted that the U.S. nation-state was the appropriate frame of reference for collective reflection on the Presidency, even when the contexts and effects of recent Presidents’ actions reach well beyond this country’s borders.

The guiding question of the conference takes on a somewhat different light when we attempt to think beyond the bounds of the U.S. Indeed, when viewed from a planetary perspective, “does the President matter?” is not so much a provocative query as a curious, even peculiar one. Whenever global deliberations turn to issues like the Arab Spring, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, China’s growing economic might or the consequences of global material disparities, billions of people still regard the U.S. President as the most prominent representative of the world’s most prominent geopolitical power (all invocations of a “decentered” or “multipolar” world notwithstanding). Thus, despite the innumerable perplexities of their office, recent Presidents continue to claim, and continue to be granted, a disproportionate influence in the arena of political speech and action. For many if not most of the world’s residents, the reality of their significance seems so obvious that the weekend’s leitmotiv would not, I suspect, make much sense. Does the President matter? Of course! What is there to argue about here?

I do not, however, want to suggest that this guiding question is utterly baseless. It is in fact closely tied to Americans’ particular—and particularly pointed—anxieties about the accountability, trustworthiness, and effectiveness of their political leadership. Yet the existence of such anxieties should not, I think, imply in and of itself that the powers of the Presidency have been rendered irrelevant. After all, most if not all of the conference presenters ultimately affirmed that the President mattered, even as many of them deplored the current condition of public discourse and civic engagement in the U.S. Moreover, patterns of voter participation in Canada, Latin America, Europe, Japan, India and other parts of the world suggest (however crudely) that many of the world’s other democratic citizens have not reached the depths of apathy and cynicism that characterize the U.S. electorate. This is the case even if they too express distrust of the political figures who profess to govern and lead.

In the end, then, this year’s conference challenged me to consider the state of American and planetary politics with a more acute sense of the potentials, pitfalls, and stakes. Such an outcome is hardly the “miracle” that Arendt instructed us to expect in “What is Freedom?” But it at least offers a foundation for examining—and bearing consciously—some of those burdens which our new century has placed upon us.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
25Sep/120

Thinking Challenge Winners

The winners for the Arendt Center's second annual thinking challenge have been chosen. The competition was fierce and we received a large number of high quality entries from multiple countries on multiple continents. But, these entries stood out to our judges:

Mamfatou Baldeh T.
Mathilde Monge
Daniel Perlman
Benjamin Powers

Congratulations to our winners! Click here to read the winning submissions.

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Sep/121

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.

One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.

Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.

The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:

Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.

The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."

The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!

On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:

The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:

The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.

I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.

But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all.  Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .

How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn't fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.

The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don't trust each other. We can't talk to one another. We don't share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.

Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President's citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.

There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany's problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.

There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.

For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his "Fight the Smears" website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.

But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts.  It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President's administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.

While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.

That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don't much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.

If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.

As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.

Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.

The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don't like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity.  Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.

—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Aug/121

Redefining “Liberal”

I am not usually hanging out on the Archbishop of Canterbury's website, but a former student and current Arendt Center Intern alerted me to his Reverence's recent review of Marilynne Robinson's newest book, When I Was A Child I Read Books. It turns out the Archbishop and I share a fondness in brilliant contemporary authors:

These essays are pure gold. Written with all her usual elegance, economy, and intellectual ruthlessness, they constitute a plea for recovering the use of "liberal" as an adjective, and, what is more, an adjective whose central meaning is specified by its use in scripture. "The word occurs [in the Geneva Bible] in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity" - and not a generosity of "tolerating viewpoints" alone, but of literal and practical dispersal of goods to those who need them.

Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.

Two points jump out here, besides the Archbishop's excellent taste. First, the Archbishop's desire to defend an old-fashioned ideal of liberality, one that has little to do with political partisanship. The liberalism Archbishop Rowan Williams defends has its secular antecedent in the philosophy of Aristotle. In his Ethics, Aristotle defines the liberal man as one who is praised with regard to "the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving." The liberal man knows how to give to the right people and how much. And such liberality, especially when directed toward the public, is an essential part of public virtue. In giving to the public, freely, the liberal man offers an example of public spirit and generosity that, more so than paying required taxes, affirms a belonging to something bigger and more meaningful than just himself. This is one reason for the importance of a culture of philanthropy.

The question of liberalism is much in the air today. Not only do Republicans deride liberals, but since Paul Ryan's selection there has been a raging debate about the tradition of liberal Christianity. Many Catholics have argued that Ryan's calls for austerity violate the Catholic ideals of social justice. In response, Bill McGurn argued this week in the Wall Street Journal that social justice is an optional requirement for Catholics, whereas support for human life is non-negotiable. McGurn writes:

Mr. Ryan's own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, addressed the subject with his most recent column in the diocesan paper for Madison, Wis. The church, he wrote, regards abortion as an "intrinsic evil" (meaning always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstances). In sharp contrast, he said, on issues such as how best to create jobs or help the poor, "there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the church offers."

It is hard not to see the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Robinson's book as a contribution to this debate over the requirements of liberal Chistianity. For Archbishop Rowen, and unlike McGurn and Ryan's own bishop, liberality is biblical in origin and demands an ethic of "non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity." What that means is, of course, open for debate. But the requirement of liberal Catholic generosity itself is, pace the Archbishop, indisputable.

A second point to glean from the Archbishop's review is his interest in Robinson's "striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism." The difference between thinking and rationalizing is that thinking refuses to sacrifice reality to the coherence of theory. Rationalism as Robinson has described it in so many of her essays and novels, elevates logical coherence above the factual messiness of reality.  Rationalism  "is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic."

Where thinkers shine is in their responsiveness to individuals and singular events, and few writers today are more attentive to particulars than Marilynne Robinson. Robinson has spent the last few decades showing up the world's leading scientists and theorists, exposing the leaps of faith upon which their scientific rationalizations are predicated. The effort is not to diminish science, but to warn us against denigrating the complexity of scientific knowing to simple faiths that offer easy answers to life's perplexing questions.

You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Marilynne Robinson's essays here. Better yet, download and read Marilynne Robinson's 'When I Was a Child I Read Books'.  You can also read past discussions of Robinson's work here and here.

 -RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
23Aug/120

When the Fiction Ends

Beyond all the silliness attached to the Todd Akin case this week, the only meaningful comment came from Rachel Riederer. In an essay in Guernica, Riederer writes:

The content of [Akin's] statements was, of course, ridiculous and offensive. But the comments struck me most as a rhetorical move, one that’s in wide usage but rarely gets this kind of attention. When asked to defend a difficult and extreme position—his opposition to abortion in all cases, even rape—Akin chose not to explain the values and thoughts behind his position, but to push aside the question with a bogus fact.

The Hannah Arendt Center has been highlighting the ever-increasing tendency of politicians—not to mention academics and others—to replace argument with an attack on the facts. At last Fall's Conference on "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts," we began with the premise that:

We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.

In essays like "Truth and Politics" and "Lying and Politics," as well as in many of her books, Arendt argued that the modern era is particularly vulnerable to attacks on the facts. This is because we live at a time when people have lost the traditions and customs that are the pillars and foundations of their lives. Adrift, people seek certainties that give sense to their world. In such a situation of spiritual homelessness and rootlessness, it is easy to latch onto an ideology that gives clear and simple expressions of a communal truth. And when facts counteract that truth, it is easier to simply deny the fact than to rethink one's intellectual identity.

It is hard not to think about Arendt's analysis of the desire for ideological coherence at the expense of facts as we suffer through the 2012 presidential campaign. The patent lies on both sides feed ideologically driven "bases" that watch the same TV, listen to the same radio, read the same blogs, and live in the same fantasy worlds. Akin's remarks speak to the power of those worlds, but also to their vulnerability. There are limits to fiction in the real world, and that is important to remember as well.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Aug/121

Miracles and Politics

In one of the Facebook comments responding to my post about Paul Ryan, a friend suggested I read Jon Rauch's book Government's End. The specific Facebook friendly recommendation read: "does the most cogent job of explaining why the US is stuck in rut." I tend to take such recommendations seriously, so I did.

The first quotation that stopped me was this one:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed. What you see now in Washington is basically what you will get for a very long time to come, even though many people, in fact probably a majority of people, may both wish and vote for something quite different.

Rauch presents himself, first, as a teller of hard truths. The hard truth Rauch tells is that the price we pay for stable societies is sclerosis—he calls it Demosclerosis to emphasize that it is a particular affliction of liberal democracies. He builds his theory out of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action, a book that argues "the larger the group, the less it will further its common interests." Smaller groups will out organize larger groups, which means that smaller groups will have an outsized interest in politics. As groups proliferate, these groups will succeed in pursuing their parochial interests over the national majority. This will, in the end, lead to a government fully answerable to a myriad of interest groups and resistant to any will by the majority to resist those interests.

Rauch insists that this is not because there are bad people in government. Nor is it because of liberals or conservatives. Nor is it a failure of specific policies or electoral methods. The media is not to blame. The people are not at fault. Better education and better civic engagement will not solve the problem. No, for Rauch, this is simply the fact of government in the late 20th and now early 21st century. The best thing we can do, he writes, is to accept it.

Second, Rauch argues that his point is non-partisan and that both liberals and conservatives are equally indebted to and caught up in the system of Demosclerosis he describes.

 " Many liberals have long assumed that Washington can do almost anything it puts its mind to, if only the right people are in charge." Against the liberals, he argues that more and more programs will not solve the problem. Indeed, it makes it worse. Anyone who has witnessed well-meaning efforts to fight poverty, improve education, or protect the environment blossom and fail over the last century has to have sympathy with Rauch's basic point. While countless individuals have been educated by state schools and fed by state programs, and while particular rivers are cleaner than they would be without state intervention, it is hard to argue that poverty is less or the environment is healthier. The overwhelming benefactor of the state's enormous largesse has been the state and the people who feed off it.

Conservatives are more comfortable with the idea that government cannot solve all of our problems. But conservative rhetoric about limiting government ignores what Rauch sees as the basic fact: " Demosclerosis turns government into more and more of a rambling, ill-adapted shambles that often gets in the way but can't be eliminated."  While conservatives may decry big government, they have refused and continue to refuse to honestly tell the voters what a smaller government would actually mean: "Less stuff for you." As Rauch writes,

In their eagerness to make government-cutting sound easy and fun, conservatives have helped persuade the electorate that there is no reason to support any actual hard work of cutting anything except "waste" (read: somebody else's programs). Thus has American conservatism become handmaiden to the "big government" that it so stridently condemns."

Third, Rauch argues that there is simply no realistic alternative to Demosclerosis. It is simply part of Mancur Olson's social scientific theory of the way the world works. Thus, the best thing we can do is abandon our unrealistic hope to change the system. We must expect less of government, and "reward politicians who chip away at the empire of the entrenched interests." "Real-world success means not "returning government to the people" (or whatever) but simply putting additional pressure on particular lobbies at every opportunity, a less dramatic but far more attainable goal." We need to reward incrementalism, small but determined efforts to free parts of the nation from sclerotic special perks.

Above all, then, Rauch argues that we must change our expectations of government. We should accept that government is a sclerotic and sickly beast that is poor at solving problems and honestly expect it to do less and less for us. This analytical and honest approach will bring about the "End of government," namely the end of the expectation in and hope for a government that truly reflects the will and serves the needs of the people. It is important, Rauch writes, for "Americans of the broad center not to expect miracles."

Even as I was reading Rauch's Government's End, I was also reading Hannah Arendt's essay What is Freedom? Near the end of this exceptional essay Arendt writes:

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear; for it is disaster, not salvation, which always happens automatically and therefore always must appear to be irresistible.

What Arendt reminds us is that the very kinds of automatic processes that in Rauch's telling comprise the irreversible system of governmental sclerosis are, as human creations, changeable. It is precisely at those times when the government seems most automated and when disaster seems most unavoidable that salvation appears in the form of miracles.

In speaking of miracles, Arendt does not have in mind a deus ex machina. Instead, she affirms the basic fact of human life, that human beings are surprising and spontaneous. While it may seem an inviolable scientific law that humans in large groups don't organize together in the common interest, at times they do. Such organizations happen, as they recently did in Egypt and Tunisia, and as they did in this country in the late 18th century. Social scientists will also be shocked and surprised by such uprisings of revolutionary common sense as they were in Egypt, because human beings are free. That means that humans are in the end unpredictable. What that means as well is that it is simply folly to say, as Rauch does, that our current situation cannot be reversed.

Of course it may be that Rauch's conclusion is less folly than it is a sad hope. For all of Rauch's talk of telling of hard truths, one cannot but also sense that Rauch finds the situation of Demosclerosis he describes oddly satisfactory. In his final section, titled "Why Dreams Must Be Buried," Rauch writes:

In truth, this demise [of the dream of good government] is no disaster. The Social Security checks will still go out, the budget will still be passed (most years), and patchwork reforms and emergency bills will still be approved....In some ways, in fact, the death of the dream may be to the good. Americans tend to be obsessed with government. Liberals hunt for a governmental solution for every problem; conservatives hunt for a governmental cause for every problem.... All of them are governmentalists, in the sense that they define their ideologies and social passions in relation to government.

That Americans are governmentalists could also have its root in the fact that Americans love freedom. One basic premise of freedom is self-government, the insistence that we can as a people govern ourselves wisely and freely. To turn our back on government is to abandon not simply big government, but the ideal of freedom itself.

There are, of course, different ideas of freedom. Traditional liberals like Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, see freedom as something pursued in the private sphere. Government exists simply to protect our private pursuit of individual ends. For Arendt, however, and for Americans over the last 200 years, freedom has meant as well public freedom, the dream that we can, as a people, collectively create something meaningful and great.

I have deep respect for Rauch's telling of hard truths. His book should be read. That is why it is this week's weekend read. His account of demosclerosis may be truthful. It is a critique liberals and conservatives must take to heart. But his enthusiastic rejection of the miracle of political freedom is decidedly less realistic.

Read an excerpt of Government's End here. Better yet, download Government's End on either Amazon.com or an Itunes. Or support a used bookstore and order it here.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
13Aug/125

Does Paul Ryan Matter? On the Limitations of the Rhetorical Presidency

One week ago this was the most important and yet the most boring election in history. No longer. Ryan's selection adds a jolt of seriousness and consequentialness to the next 90 days of electioneering. Or at least so we are told. Why?

Because Ryan has been, over the last year, one of the very few politicians in the United States who seems to really understand the magnitude of the crisis we are facing and who is willing to propose and support radical steps to address it. His proposed budget is draconian. It has some great ideas, including simplifying the tax code and getting rid of tax breaks like the Carried Interest provision. And yet, it is one-sided and highly partisan. Ryan calls for enormous cuts to the entitlements that will cause incredible suffering to the poor and middle classes, while providing large tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If we are to suffer to repay our debts, as I think we must, we must all suffer together.

It is hard to imagine that Ryan's budget is what most Americans want or should want. And yet, Ryan's willingness to propose a deeply unpopular budget and argue eloquently and strongly for it is praiseworthy. At times, it seems as if Ryan is the only grown up in the room, the only politician who is willing to deal honestly with our predicaments.

The opinion that the election is now more meaningful and more serious is one that many share—on both the left and the right. On the right, Ryan's selection means that the election is a referendum on the crisis of big government. Glenn Reynolds writes in  USA Today :

Romney's selection of Ryan shows that he understands the dire nature of the problem, and that he's serious about addressing it.

Paul Rahe argues that Romney's choice amounts to a clarion call for radical change:

In choosing Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has opted to go for broke, and he has indicated that he is a serious man — less concerned with becoming President of the United States than with saving the country from the disaster in store for it if we not radically reverse course, willing to risk a loss for the sake of being able to win a mandate for reform.

And in the Wall St. Journal (which ran an Op-Ed calling upon Romney to select Ryan) Gerald Seib could hardly contain his excitement:

The Ryan pick wasn’t the safest one Mr. Romney could have made—not by a long shot. But as the author of the budget plan that most clearly delineates the view of limited government that most Republicans hold, and with more specificity and crystalline explanation than most can muster, Mr. Ryan best guarantees the country will get the kind of philosophical debate worthy of a presidential campaign.

On the left as well, there is a gleeful sense that Ryan's presence on the ticket will prove President Obama's claim that this is the most important election in ages. For Democrats, Ryan's extremism is a blessing, allowing them to paint Romney-Ryan as out-of-touch radicals who will undo a century of gains in middle class benefits while giving tax breaks to the very wealthiest Americans.

John Cassidy, at The New Yorker, writes that Ryan is a dream pick for Obama-Biden because it makes the election what Obama has said it is all along—a choice between Obama's moderation versus Romney and Ryan's radicalism:

In placing a lightning rod like Ryan on the ticket, Romney appears to have decided that the best form of defense is attack. For months, he and his campaign have been trying to turn the election exclusively into a referendum on Obama’s record. That strategy has now been abandoned. Ryan’s mere presence ensures that the election will be framed in the way that Team Obama has wanted all along: as a choice between the President’s moderate progressivism and the anti-government radicalism of today’s G.O.P.

John Nichols at The Nation agrees and argues that Ryan solidifies Romney's choice to run far to the right—so far as to be out of touch with the moderate electorate. This means, he writes, that team Obama can win big.

On every issue that you can imagine, from reproductive rights to environmental protection to labor rights, Ryan stands to the right. Way to the right.  The Ryan selection moves the Grand Old Party harder to the right than at any time since 1964, when the true believers got a nominee, a platform and 39 percent of the vote. America’s more divided now. The Romney-Ryan ticket will run better than Goldwater and Bill Miller did forty-eight years ago, But by bending so far toward the base, Romney has given the Democrats an opportunity to dream not just of winning but of winning bigger than anyone dared imagine forty-eight weeks or even forty-eight days ago.

Thomas B. Edsall writes over at the NY Times, that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "a well-respected liberal think tank," describes the Ryan budget this way:

The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids.  It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history). ... Even as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget would impose trillions of dollars in spending cuts, at least 62 percent of which would come from low-income programs, it would enact new tax cuts that would provide huge windfalls to households at the top of the income scale. New analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center finds that people earning more than $1 million a year would receive $265,000 apiece in new tax cuts, on average, on top of the $129,000 they would receive from the Ryan budget’s extension of President Bush’s tax cuts. The new tax cuts at the top would dwarf those for middle-income families. After-tax incomes would rise by 12.5 percent among millionaires, but just 1.8 percent for middle-income households. Low-income working families would actually be hit with tax increases.

For the left, Ryan moves Romney outside of the political mainstream and thus offers a stark contrast with the middle-of-the-road President. They agree with the right on the basic contrast. And yet each side believes the contrast works in their favor. This is because, of course, each side increasingly speaks only to itself and has so convinced itself that it is absolutely right that it cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with it.

A new received wisdom is emerging and the pundits on the left and right agree: Ryan's place in the election makes this a watershed election that will be a referendum on the future of the country. And even from a position outside partisan pugilism, Walter Russell Mead makes the point that the selection of Paul Ryan guarantees that this is an important election. In perhaps the most clear-headed and provocative essays on the Ryan selection I've read, Mead writes:

2012 looks like an election between two united parties who will both be enthusiastic and both be convinced that the fate of the nation hangs on the November result. That’s a good thing, on the whole, for the country. Whatever else can be said about our electoral politics, nobody can argue that they are inconsequential or that real issues have disappeared. This is a serious election about important affairs and the two sides will both be offering a coherent vision of American values that allows voters to make a clear choice.

There is something hopeful and true in this consensus that Ryan will up the seriousness of this race. I remain skeptical. Here is why.

We have to question the basic assumption that sharpening the question in the election will lead to a greater likelihood that the winning side will successfully carry out its agenda. This seems unlikely for the simple reason that the stark question being posed is furthering the partisan split in the country rather than seeking a middle ground. Rather than a sustained debate, we are just as likely to watch both sides dig themselves into ever-more-fortified trenches on opposing sides of the partisan front. What this means is the Ryan's selection is just as likely to increase the partisanship and vitriol in American politics as it is to elevate the tone of the election to being one about ideas and the future of the country. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances are diminished that either party will be able to actually make the kinds of radical changes that both think are necessary.

The reason for this is the basic institutional limitations that our constitutional system places on the power of the President. For all the talk in recent years about an "Imperial Presidency," the facts are largely otherwise. Outside of foreign policy, the president is largely constrained to make far-reaching policy changes. Large bureaucracies, a resilient and skeptical media, and now the fractured political world of competing ideological realities—each with their own newspapers, news shows, and blogs—means that it is increasingly difficult to imagine a President with the power to drive through a meaningful agenda.

Just consider, if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, they will be able to negotiate major concessions in or even block entirely any Republican efforts to roll back entitlements. And even if the Democrats lose the Senate, the power of the filibuster means that they will be able to block many of the more extreme Republican initiatives. The same dynamic goes the other way as we have seen. Republicans have been able to frustrate much of President Obama's domestic agenda, even when the President had large majorities in both houses of Congress. The demands for ideological purity on both sides rewards conviction politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, but it does not necessarily bode well for a serious and deliberative approach to our real political problems.

At the root of this difficulty is the fallacy of  The Rhetorical Presidency. As Jeffrey Tulis argues, the most fundamental shift in American politics since the Founding has been the rise of a rhetorical presidency: The idea that the President should lead as a popular leader.

Tulis writes that from the Founders until the early 20th century, U.S. Presidents assiduously avoided trying to become popular leaders. As an institution, the Presidency was designed to resist the power of demagoguery and yet also to stand as a check on the power of Congress. The president himself engaged with Congress, but did not mobilize the people as a popular leader.

The role of the President changed with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson insisted that only a president could like a lightning rod call forth the will of the people "unconscious of its unity and purpose" and "call it into full consciousness." For Wilson, the President leads with simplicity. Wilson writes:

Mark the simplicity and directness of the arguments and ideas of [true leaders.] The motives which they urge are elemental; the morality which they seek to enforce is large and obvious; the policy they emphasize, purged of all subtlety.

If early American Presidents were forbidden to use direct appeals to the people, Wilson insists that modern 20th century presidents must do so. And as Tulis shows, Wilson's ideas underlie our modern idea of the president as a popular leader.

Tulis is not interested in defending or condemning the rhetorical presidency, but in exploring its possibilities and limitations. He makes an exceptional point that while 20th century presidents like Wilson and Lyndon Johnson regularly appeal to the people, "the same popular rhetoric that provided the clout for victory [e.g. in in Johnson's War on Poverty] substituted passionate appeal and argument by metaphor for deliberation." The rise of rhetorical presidency and the tools for popular leadership may at times be politically effective, but they clash with the institutional role of the President who must still work with Congress. The President's popular leadership translates poorly into legislative deliberation and thus often yields less of a change or less good change than was sought. One can see this exemplified in President Obama's attempt to mobilize his enormous popular mandate to reform healthcare.

While the modern rhetorical President can enlist the people to pressure the legislature, there are limits and consequences to these pressures. Congress can resist the power of the presidency, as the recent abuse of the filibuster shows. What is more, the increase in speeches and popular appeals constitutes, in Tulis' prophetic words,

a decay of political discourse. It replaces discussion structured by contestability of opinion inherent to issues with a competition to please or manipulate the public. ... The rhetorical presidency enhances the tendency to define issues in terms of the needs of persuasion rather than to develop a discourse suitable for the illumination and exploration of real issues—that is, problems that do not depend upon the certification of a public opinion poll to be recognized as needful of examination. It is increasingly the case that presidential speeches themselves have become the issues and events of modern politics rather than the medium through which issues and events are discussed and assessed. Subsequent speeches by presidents and other politicians often continue to elaborate the fictive world created in the initial address, making that world, unfortunately, a constitutive feature of "real" national politics.

What Tulis forces us to confront is the possibility that the very kind of rhetorical leadership that makes Barack Obama and Paul Ryan such compelling politicians leads to a transformation of politics in which passions and fictive worlds replace the sober discussion of policy. As appealing and promising as such rhetorical leadership appears, it too frequently spends its power on populist slogans that translate poorly into real legislative transformation.

There is a strange disconnect between the rise of a rhetorical presidency and the common sense of an increasingly cynical public that thinks the choice of president seems to move the needle very little. While the papers and blogs are filled with assurances that now the election is serious (a necessary belief to sell papers and drive traffic), the people don't always agree.

At a time of mediated and fragmented politics, the promise of bold political leadership is ever less likely. Given the apparent abdication of leadership throughout our politics, we must ask: Does the President Matter? This seems an absurd question as we confront what is imagined to be such a consequential election. And yet, as the country is about to elect a President, it is a pressing question.

Precisely because it is an open question whether the President can translate his popular appeal into political leadership, the Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is sponsoring its Fifth Annual Conference and asking: Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair.  The conference features Jeffrey Tulis and Walter Russell Mead amongst other speakers, including Rick Falkvinge (founder of the Swedish Pirate Party), Ralph Nader and Bernard Kouchner (Founder of Doctors without Borders and Foreign Minister of France under Nicolas Sarkozy). Paul Ryan is undeniably serious and he is raising important questions about the future of the country. But there is a question of whether our political system in the 21st century is still capable of presidential leadership.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
8Aug/120

Conference Registration is now Open

Registration for the fifth annual Hannah Arendt Center fall conference is now open.

The conference, "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair" will be taking place at Bard College on September 21-22, 2012. While it is free to attend the conference, registration is required. Click here to register.

Click here to learn more about the Conference.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Jun/1213

Roberto Unger: A Wartime Economy Without a War

"Ouch."

With that simple yet evocative Facebook status update, I was led this week on a journey into my intellectual past.

The link attached to the painful interjection led to a video by Roberto Mangabeira Unger. It is a provocative video titled "Beyond Obama." It calls for progressives to work for the defeat of Presidential Barack Obama in the 2012 election. Some will welcome this and others will decry it. Today, I want to understand where Unger's call comes from.

Unger is one of those renaissance men who continually pop up in the most unexpected and extraordinary places. He has been, for many years, a professor of law at Harvard Law School. While there he taught anHarvard wrote widely on law, politics, and philosophy. His book Knowledge and Politics called to me and inspired me to dream of the possibility of a better world. Unger was also the intellectual godfather of the school of critical legal studies. When I was studying law and philosophy with Austin Sarat in the 1980s, Unger was one of my intellectual heroes.

The premise of critical legal studies is that law and legal concepts like rights or constitutions are neither natural nor scientific, but expressly political. Unger sought a political-legal approach that permits the "loosening of the fixed order of society." If legal rights were once seen as objective and neutral, Unger sought to employ law as a tool to transform society. What is needed, he writes, is a "deviationist doctrine" that employs law to "disrupt established institutions and forms of social practice that have achieved the insulation and have encouraged the retrenchment of social hierarchy and division that the entire constitution wants to avoid."

In other words, rights and laws must be mobilized to upset outmoded institutions; what makes Unger different is that he is not an anarchist or opposed to law and government. On the contrary, he imagines his program a "superliberalism."

Tied to his legal work, Unger's general philosophy speaks the language of the imagination. Life, Unger affirms, is always fleeting, and yet is "always something higher than it was before." His work sought to "establish a new system of thought that sweeps away the difficulties" of the present. Against theoretical critiques that muster partial assaults on liberal ideas, Unger demands that we comprehend and replace the entirety of liberalism as a psychological, economic, and political system.  He thinks big and paints in broad strokes.

As ambitious as Unger is, he never loses himself in abstract theory. Thus it was not a surprise when he took leave from Harvard and became a minister of strategic affairs in Brazil. Serving under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Unger was styled a "minister of ideas." He described his role as transforming  “imagination into the possible.”

Unger is now back at Harvard Law School, but he is still engaged with politics. His mystique and renown are so great on the left in the U.S. that the fact that he had taught Barack Obama when the future was a Harvard Law student, lent imaginative left-wing credibility to the pragmatic Illinois Senator.

It thus came as a shock—to some—when a video by Unger flashed around the Internet last week, in which Unger calmly and yet mercilessly criticized President Obama. For the future of the United States, Unger argues, President Obama must be defeated. He says this starkly:

President Obama must be defeated in the coming election. He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States.

And he continues raising the stakes:

Unless [President Obama] is defeated, there cannot be a context for the reorientation of the Democratic party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.

Most on the left will ignore Unger's warning. That would be a mistake.

Unger argues that President Obama and the left (and also the right) have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the current financial and political crisis. The left and the president see the crisis as a typical recession; their doctrinaire answer is Keynsianism, stimulus to get us over the hump and return the economy to health. But the truth is very different. Here is Unger's analysis:

The country stopped producing at competitive prices enough goods and services that the rest of the world wants.  It then tried to escape the consequences of this failure by living as if the failure had not occurred. It put a fake credit democracy in place of the property owning democracy that it turned into an ever more distant ideal. The government bribed, placated, and finally abandoned the people, instead of equipping them.

Governments at all levels in the United States and also in Europe and Japan have basically told their citizens that everything will be alright. They kept borrowing and spending to support an unsustainable standard of living without ever insisting that the money be used to make goods and services that other people actually would buy. The result is that we have an economic system that simply cannot continue without government stimulus in the form of debt.  And that cannot continue indefinitely.

In three lectures on Keynsianism, Unger argues that both right and left economists have adopted a vulgar Keynsianism, which holds that,

A crisis brought on by too much confidence, too much credit, and too much spending requires for a fix more confidence, more credit, and more spending.

In his critique of Keynsianism, Unger sounds a bit like Hunter Lewis who gave the keynote lecture to the Arendt Center's 2009 Conference on The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis. In his talk, which will soon be published in September in the forthcoming volume of the same name, Lewis argued:

The policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have come directly out of Keynes’s playbook. Consequently they have that paradoxical, stand common sense on its head, flavor. For example, we are told that: The Crash of '08 was caused by too much debt. We will therefore solve it by adding more debt.

But where Lewis argues for a certain austerity, Unger's critique of Keynsianism leads in a different direction. What is needed is not mere stimulus, he argues, but massive institutional experiments in the widening of educational and economic opportunity.

The basic insight is simple. It is a mistake to think that Keynsian stimulus got us out of the Great Depression. Stimulus failed throughout the 1930s. What got us out of the Great Depression in the 1940s was a bold, broad-based, and massive deployment of resources in the association of governments with private producers to fight WWII.

The question Unger forces us to ask today is: How can we have a wartime economy without a war?

President Obama has not asked such a question. Instead, he has simplified his economic program into a vulgar Keynsian support for stimulus. In Unger's words, President Obama has done the following:

He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.

He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of health care.

He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.

He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.

He has reduced justice to charity.

His policy is financial confidence and food stamps.

He has evoked politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle.

Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a context for the reorientation of the Democratic party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.

This is a damning critique. While Unger admits that there will be costs and consequences for progressive from a Republican presidency, he calculates that those costs are worth the risk if they might lead to a truly innovative and bold rethinking of politics.

Outside the progressive and conservative calculus, what is important in Unger's message is his analysis of the cowardly approaches of both parties today as well as his call for a bold and new way forward. What Unger wants is to "broaden the gateways of access to the vanguards of innovative knowledge-based production." He argues that we must "disseminate advanced experimental productive practices among the small and medium sized business that form the backbone of the real economy." Above all, we must seek not just stimulus, but renewal.

In other words, what Unger is calling for is a President with vision and character to lead us to a new place. The way out of our crisis is neither stimulus nor austerity, but a war economy without a war, an economy driven by the collective pursuit of commonly agreed upon ideas and actions. Against the false debate between austerity and stimulus, what is needed is courage and risk, the willingness to aim high, and most importantly the preparedness to suffer and struggle in the collective effort to bring a new economy and a new nation into being.

Artist: Jacek Yerka

Such an effort to re-imagine and rebuild the nation requires a leader or leaders. It will not happen on its own through the consensus politics of Occupy Wall Street. Nor will it come from the cowardly austerity of the Tea Party or from the stand-pat conventionalism of liberal Keynsianism.

One wonders where real, unifying leaders might come from — leaders, in the words of David Foster Wallace, who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely to develop under the current system where candidates utter consultant-tested platitudes designed to offend no one. The question is: How can our overly cautious and hyper-critical age encourage the kind of bold action that Arendt saw was necessary in politics?

The Arendt Center's Fall 2012 Conference is titled "Does the  President Matter?" The title does not ask the conventional question: does it matter if a Republican or a Democrat is elected? Of course it matters, in some ways, and not in others.

Rather, the conference title is meant to provoke the Arendtian question: What would a human politics look like in the 21st century?

Hannah Arendt believed that freedom requires courage. Political leaders, she argued, are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire citizens to re-imagine a common purpose. Active leadership is unpredictable; since a leader inserts a new idea into the world, no one can predict or control how that idea will change the world. Leadership is therefore as risky as it is rare. For Arendt, freedom demands such leadership if life is to remain surprising, new, and human.

Leadership can of course be dangerous, but politics is, for Arendt, always a risky and uncertain endeavor. The great virtue of Robert Unger's recent call to turn away from President Obama's conventional politics is that he asks and challenges us to conceive and actualize a politics that is bold rather than cowardly. Given our current predicaments, that may be our only hope.

As the heat oppresses our bodies on this summer weekend, free your soul and spend 8 minutes watching Robert Mangabeira Unger's essay: Beyond Obama.  His video is your weekend "read."

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
11May/121

Moral Leadership and the New Era of Responsibility

I had the pleasure of discussing and debating at a Hannah Arendt Center event last night with John Cassidy, staff writer of The New Yorker and author of How markets fail : the logic of economic calamities as well as Dot.con : the greatest story ever sold. The topic was the presidential election.

I asked Cassidy about Matt Taibbi's recent comment that Obama was going to win the election easily. Actually, Taibbi's phrasing was more colorful:

But this campaign, relatively speaking, will not be fierce or hotly contested. Instead it'll be disappointing, embarrassing, and over very quickly, like a hand job in a Bangkok bathhouse. And everybody knows it. It's just impossible to take Mitt Romney seriously as a presidential candidate.

The view that Obama will cruise to victory is widespread. Cassidy largely affirmed it, although he rightly said that much depends on the continued economic recovery. If the economy turns south again, that plays into Romney's claim that he as a businessman is better able to right the ship of commerce.

I am no prognosticator. I think the election will be quite close and do not think Obama will win in a landslide. But where I really differ with Cassidy and Taibbi is over the question of whether Romney is an interesting candidate and on what he is running. To my mind, this election will be decided less on policy and social issues and more around a moral debate. It is here that Romney becomes interesting.

The President of the United States is not first and foremost a policy maker. He (or she one day) is the moral leader of the nation. FDR knew this well. As he once said:

The Presidency is preeminently a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.

The United States is at an inflection point. The 20th century has had three great presidential moments. In the 1930s, amidst the depression, FDR led the country down a new path and helped create the modern welfare state. In the 1950's, Eisenhower, a Republican, did not seek to roll back the New Deal and confirmed the new direction of the nation. Ronald Reagan's presidency was the beginning of an effort to resist the welfare state. We are now in a strange limbo, where much of the country has embraced the conservative credo while still remaining addicted to and desirous of their particular welfare perks. This is an untenable situation in the long run.

Obama is a defender of the status quo, but his defense is timid and pragmatic. He doesn't really believe in the welfare state as a moral good so much as a pragmatic necessity. It is all about budgets and saving money and rational arguments. We must, he tells us, spend now so that we can cut later. What will we cut later? Does he believe that everyone should have a pension in addition to social security? Should Wall Street bankers have  received bonuses in 2009 after they were bailed out by taxpayers? Should they have been fired? Should public pensions be honored or cut? Should we have unlimited taxpayer supported healthcare after we retire at 63 or 65 and then live for decades afterward? Should people who bought homes they can't afford be given new mortgages so that they can stay in their homes? On all of these questions, the President has offered technocratic answers rather than moral visions. Amidst an economic but also a moral crisis, the President has not been a leader.

If Romney wins the election, it will not be because he has better jobs policies or economic policies. It will be because people see in him a leader. His one strength, whatever you think of him personally or politically, is his history of leadership. He did build one of the largest and most successful private companies in the United States. He did win the governorship of one of the country's most liberal states and govern effectively with democratic legislators. And he did take over a failing Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and made it a success. People downplay these accomplishments and say there is no evidence he can lead as President. That is of course true.  But the promise that he can lead is the key to Romney's appeal.

On one level, this is an election between two pragmatic, centrist, technocrats. They differ on much and most deeply on social issues. They also differ on taxes (especially on taxing the wealthiest amongst us). These are important differences. But most people do not vote on policy.

The election will be decided on who makes the better claim to being able to lead the country. Obama is still searching for his theme and what he wants to accomplish. He of course is a deeply intelligent and moral man. On social issues, he can be a leader, as his endorsement (finally) of same-sex marriage proves. But the election will not likely be decided on social issues.

So what is the moral issue at stake in this election? It is clear. Romney and the Republicans are saying: we have spent too much, taken on too much debt, and lived beyond our means. Government programs, however well meaning, have not made us better off. We need to retrench. Romney has defended a very minimal welfare state to stop people from starving, but he clearly doesn't have much sympathy for people who are poor, unemployed, and homeless. His moral promise is a return to an America of individualism that promotes success and tolerates failure. It is a moral vision that galls many liberals and even some conservatives, and yet it clearly has enthralled many Tea Party enthusiasts around the nation.

Obama's moral issue is, thus far, fairness and inequality. It is simply wrong and unfair that the very wealthy are paying so little in taxes while the middle class is struggling. And he is undoubtedly right. But a Buffet Rule, as justified as it surely is, is too small an idea to build a campaign around. Obama is hemmed in by his own unwillingness to moralize the economy. He will not take on the wealthy, and his instincts are to work with Wall Street, not against them and to value individual responsibility over government support.  He is simply constitutionally unable to take a populist tack. He cannot give the speech FDR gave in 1936 where FDR said:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.

So if Obama is not going to become a populist, what option is left?

Over three years ago in his inaugural address, Obama called for a "new era of responsibility." He talked about shared sacrifice. He talked about living within our means and admitting that we were living beyond ourselves. He said:

Our challenges may be new.  The instruments with which we meet them may be new.  But those values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.  These things are true.  They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths.  What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.  This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.  This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.  (Applause.)

His inauguration is the last time that Obama really set out a far-reaching moral argument that responds to the economic crisis and the crises of our times. The vision he then hinted at was one of shared sacrifice towards a renewal of American values. One that admitted with the Republicans that we had promised ourselves too much, had lived beyond our means, and had become too entitled in our expectations. It was a vision that returned an ethic of work and grit, but also one that affirmed American ideals of fairness and justice.

It is the vision that most Americans seemingly affirm, that involves both a pullback of entitlement programs and a progressive increase in taxes. It is a moral vision of common sense. It may be too late for President Obama to embrace that vision again. And yet a meaningful articulation of a new era of responsibility is, quite possibly, the path to a vision of moral leadership open to the President.

It is worth taking a look back at Obama's inaugural speech. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Note: Matt Taibbi is a Bard graduate ('92.)

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
1Feb/120

Social Media and the 2012 Election

The Arendt Center's Director of Outreach, Bridget Hollenback, has an interesting piece on the use of social media in the 2012 Presidential race which appeared on Media Psychology Impact:

This increase in social media users skewing Republican is interesting, but an easily explained phenomenon. It is not a reflection of Democrats tiring of social media or becoming less active with its use. Rather, technology has become more of a societal norm. Case in point, since 2008, the number of active Facebook users has grown astronomically from 100 million to 800 million. A good percentage of this increase reflects older, and often more conservative voters (many of whom would lean Republican), becoming more tech savvy and comfortable utilizing social media.

So, will social media impact this year’s election? For anyone still skeptical, 2011 studies by Digitas and SocialVibe may very well change their mind:

  • 38% of responders say social media will help determine their voting choices in the upcoming election.
  • 60% of social media users expect candidates to have a social media presence.
  • 94% of respondents of voting age engaged by a political message on a social media site watched the entire message, and 39 percent of these people went on to share it with an average of 130 friends online.

As the race to choose a Republican candidate rages on, social media has become an inherent part of each candidate’s overall strategy. However, thus far the candidates are using it with varying degrees of savvy and success.

You can read the post in its entirety here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
6Jan/120

In This Political Year in Which We Will Elect a New President

Just yesterday Republican Candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich began running a television ad called "Timid or Bold."  The point is to contrast his own apparently bold leadership with Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's supposedly timid style—a style and substance the ad compares with that of Barack Obama. Only Gingrich, so the ad implies, has the courage and daring to take the steps need to right the ship of state.

Whatever one makes of their diverse policies, the spat between Gingrich and Romney highlights a basic ambivalence about leadership in modern politics. On the one hand, we crave a bold and brash leader—look at the groundswell of support for first Hermann Cain, then Newt Gingrich, and then Ron Paul.  On the other hand, we are quick to abandon such leaders as soon as their foibles, eccentricities, infidelities, and crimes are brought into the light of day. We demand of leaders today a moral probity that would have toppled giants like Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. This is of course not to compare the current Republican candidates to these leaders, but merely to point out that there is today a deep desire for a leader who can break out of the mold of technocratic political hack and, at the same time, a fear of those who shoot from the hip, take chances, and make mistakes.

The political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz writes that,

Successful leaders establish [their] persona not by describing their attributes and values to us, but by simply living them.

Leaders are like "superstars," those who connect viscerally with their people. They do so, via authenticity. Leaders must be unhesitating, direct, and assured. They must "show" their decisiveness, and not simply tell it. The best politicians are "always true to themselves." As Luntz puts it, "You cannot get away with acting in politics for too long."

Luntz is right, which is why what he says so terrifies me. For as we demand of our politicians ever more authentic leadership at the very moment when the politicians themselves have retreated behind the opacity of spin, counter-spin, and double-speak. At no time have politicians been such consummate actors; or, at the very least, at no other time have they been so clearly seen to be so. We live in a moment of unparalleled transparency coupled with an unspeakable fear of revelation. The result is that the American people vacillate between an impossible hope for a political superstar and the unyielding despair that such leadership is no longer possible.

Few people have thought so deeply about the activity of politics as Hannah Arendt. One who did, however, was Max Weber.  In 1918 Weber delivered his lecture "Politics as a Vocation" at the invitation of a group of radicalized students. Weber's lecture famously draws a distinction between two motives of political leadership, an ethic conviction and an ethic of responsibility.

Weber’s ethic of responsibility holds that while a responsible politician takes both ends and means into account, he must be willing to employ violence to fight for the good. On the other hand, Weber’s ethic of conviction is best exemplified by religious actors: “A Christian does what is right and leaves the outcome to God.”  With Thoreau, the adherent of the ethics of conviction says: let the world be damned so long as I am saved. Fiat Justitia, pereat mundus.  It is just such an absolutist ethic of conviction that Arendt condemns in her essay Truth and Politics.

Weber affirms the necessary opposition between these two ethics. “It is not possible,” he writes, “to reconcile an ethics of conviction with an ethics of responsibility.” Nevertheless, after twice reaffirming the fundamental antagonism between the two ethics, Weber qualifies his distinction. While politicians must act responsibly according to the rational dictates of the head, there is as well a need for heartfelt conviction. Weber remains skeptical of political appeals to the heart; most politicians who do so are sentimental and manipulative “windbags.  And yet, Weber writes:

I find it immeasurably moving when a mature human being—whether young or old in actual years is immaterial—who feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with his entire soul and who acts in harmony with an ethics of responsibility reaches the point where he says, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’

When a responsible politician, aware of the consequences of his actions, decides to rationally take an unbending stand, then, Weber argues, he acts both as a politician and as a human being. Such an act “is authentically human and cannot fail to move us.” There is, in the action of a fully human politician, the recognition of the tragic nature of political action. The politician takes his ethical stand fully aware of the foreseeable and even the potentially unforeseeable consequences that may follow.  In this sense, then, “an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics.’”  

The point is that politics is a difficult calling, one that requires both mature responsibility and also brash and bold decisiveness—and also the judgment to know when each is called for. And at certain times, any great politician must be willing to throw away success and popularity for a cause he believes in. Thus:

Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.

Which brings us to my favorite lines from the end of Politics as a Vocation:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. [A]ll historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.

We would do well to have some politicians meditate on Weber's account of the political calling. But if they won't, you should. Weber's essay is here for you to read over this first weekend of this critical election year.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".