“…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.
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.
Have you not watched Newt Gingrich's take down of CNN's John King at the opening of the Republican debate last night? You should.
Gingrich's supremely confident critique of the media's obsession with personal issues certainly put the Republican contest back in play and may have set him on the road to the nomination. It is also fascinating in the widely divergent reactions it has spawned.
The Republicans attending the debate gave Gingrich two standing ovations within three minutes. Most commentators have concluded that Gingrich won the debate in the first five minutes. But reaction on the left has been contemptuous.
Andrew Sullivan has great coverage and collects the responses.
John Marshall marvels at his hubris: "Shameless, hubris, chutzpah, whatever. It was pitch perfect for his intended audience. He took control of the debate and drew down all the tension about when the debate would turn to the open marriage stuff."
Andrew Sprung writes of an "astounding display of the Audacity of Hubris."
PM Carpenter shouts that it was "the most despicable display of grotesque demagoguery I have ever witnessed."
Tim Stanley (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan) has the best characterization of the rhetorical power of Gingrich's answer.
To understand the full power of Gingrich’s answer, you really have to watch him give it. The former Speaker has three standard expressions: charmed bemusement (“Why are you asking me that, you fool?”), indignant (“Why are you asking me that, you swine?”) and supreme confidence (“That’s not the question I would have asked, you moron”). Each comes with its own number of chins. For his stunning “No, but I will”, Newt employed the full dozen. He looked straight down them, with half moon goblin eyes. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” By the time his chins unfolded, Gingrich was in total command of the debate.
The interesting question is: was Gingrich wrong to react the way he did? Did his angry and forceful response show hubris and contempt? Or is it the confident and powerful response of a true leader?
For years, liberals and conservatives alike have kvetched unceasingly about how the media cares more about scandal than substance.
What was John King thinking starting off the last Republican debate before a crucial primary with a question about marital infidelity from decades ago? One can of course argue that infidelity goes to character, and maybe it could have been asked about in some way. But is it really the most important issue of the debate? There are plenty of questions about Gingrich's character that are more pertinent to his ability to be President. Whether he once asked his wife to allow him to keep a mistress is not what disqualifies him to be President.
The reason Gingrich is still in this contest is because he has a supreme confidence in himself. He believes that he is the only candidate with big ideas, the only one willing to really buck the status quo. He styles himself a leader, and the strengths and weaknesses of his idea of leadership were on display in his answer to John King.
The strengths are clear. He elevated himself far above his questioner. He assumed a leadership position and pushed through without any self-doubt or self-criticism. Imagine someone like President Obama acting with such assurance? It is almost inconceivable. I can't imagine watching Gingrich and not feeling something like: Finally! someone has the courage to say what they believe and tell the media to get over their titillations and focus on the fact that this is the most important Presidential election in a generation.
Gingrich's weaknesses are clear as well. The man is imperious. He lives at times in a fantasy world of his own, one in which he is the philosopher king straining to keep calm and save the rest of us before he explodes at our idiocy. Nothing is more indicative of his hubris is his contempt for the Congressional Budget Office, the non-partisan body that Gingrich regularly assails and wants to abolish. Why that has never been asked about in the debates is a travesty, and in many ways supports Gingrich's tirade. In any case, it speaks much more to the question of character and leadership than his marital problems.