When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
I am a neural matrix of roughly 80 billion cells each charged with the potential for action, firing out in multiple patters of synchronicity towards a seemingly inexhaustible order of calculations -- I am the system that emerges, I am its apex, I am sentience -- therefore I am.
This, I imagine, is what Descartes would have to say today of what remains of the self under the scope of examination, though I will admit this sounds less poetic then his original statement.
Galileo’s telescope, the atom, the space age, the tech age, the Human Genome Project, and now the BAM project, all can be seen as a succession of strivings towards a new perspective through which we could gleam a greater understanding and synthesis of Man. The BAM project is the newest manifestation of this urge. It is an exciting endeavor, and yet as with any new attempt of science to probe ourselves, it is a frightening one too.
Recently I learned about the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) initiative sponsored by the Obama administration. I have a baseline knowledge of neuroscience and have been long fascinated by its hoped for implications and speculative repercussions. I wanted more detail. I found what I understand to be the source paper for this project, The Brain Activity Functional Connectomics, by Paul Alivisatos, et al. This is hot stuff, and I am not being glib. Obama thinks so too, that’s why 3 billion governmental dollars are slated to go into the project. Microsoft and Google are throwing in real money too. So what is really going on?
BAM follows the model of the Human Genome Project. In the proposal paper, as well as Obama’s state of the union address, reference is made to the fact that each $1 put into the Human Genome Project brought back $140 to the economy. I will leave alone the implications of this being economy driven. Should science be economically driven? This question, in our society, is mostly moot. Everything must now at least appear to be economy driven. Knowledge, transcendence, self-discovery, can only resonate in conversation with the economy.
But what are the human as opposed to the economic implications of the Brain Activity Map? BAM is a 15-year plan to create a non-topographical map of the brain the repercussions of which reach into the medical, commercial, educational, and technological fields. Until now our neuro-understanding of the brain has been limited to compartmentalized thinking, or to the study of individual ingredients. The brain simply cannot be understood this way and thus Alivisatos’ paper argues that “no general theory of brain function is universally accepted.” BAM seeks to create an “emergent systems” model, something akin to the rules of complex systems. This stems from the knowledge that brain function arises from the interplay of the electrical impulse grid (the action potential of all the neurons). The best way I can state this is that brain activity is a symphony rather then a carpenter’s graph. It is the interplay of notes, tones, and pacing, and sound rather than a combination of these individual elements. The point is not to isolate and combine but to mimic the complex yet structured electrical impulses of the brain in a way that allows higher order brain function to emerge in an artificially intelligent being. To quote Alivisatos: “An emergent level of analysis appears to be critical for understanding the most compelling questions of how brain functions create sentience.” The most exciting effort, in other words, is to create a sentient, thinking, and autonomous entity.
The project calls for an investment into new technologies that could make recording the action potentials and coordination of their impulses more feasible. This can be accomplished by investing in nano-technology: nanotubes and wires, quantum dots, nano-particles, neural probes, shanks containing optical waveguides, and tiny microchips that can pass into the brain.
The brain mapping project could likely entail human testing, which “we do not exclude,” though it would not take place till the last phase of the project.
Microsoft and Google have signed on as partners and possibly fiscal contributors, because clearly the repercussions of such of project could be ground breaking for the tech industry: Computer chips that replicate the emergent systems model; search engines that could graph society by treating each user as if they are a neuron and their googling activity as action potential. The source paper acknowledges some possible paranoia at such an endeavor and thus states that it is essential that this project be a public one, thus allowing for transparency in all findings. It also encourages a public relations campaign to reassure any party that may be susceptible to conspiracy theory making. That’s me!
I hold both, a fear of repercussions and a sense of excitement for this project. I tend to think that conspiracy theories are healthy. All great science fiction is fed by the conspiracy model, but it also tends to foretell future technological and social revelations. And there exactly is my point, or fear, or observation -- the irrelevance of social relevance. We don’t really care, unless it scares us.
I found myself facing this in writing this post. I am excited to tell people about this project, but as a writer I have a constant mechanism at play in my head as I write, to present a story or topic in a light that will make people interested. As much as this mechanism comes from within me it is also a product of cultural observation, a consistent tracking of what stimulates popular dialogue. What stimulates popular dialogue is conspiracy, not excitement or optimism. This itself is worthy of examination.
Ultimately the fear is of what we are losing in the race to understand ourselves through science and technology, of what we leave behind. I do not mean to gesture towards a conservative approach on science. Rather, I am fascinated by the anxiety that accompanies the prospect, and propose that our fear is that of isolated parties traveling at quite different speeds. We can investigate the self intrusively or/and reflectively. Reflectively, we evaluate and discuss our culture, ethics, the relationship of groups and individuals to one another, we pause and contemplate the grace of being. Intrusively we probe into the elemental makeup of ourselves and the world we inhabit. As one practice outpaces the other, something feels askew, as if a key organ in the symphony of being human is muting in the distance.
"Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world."
-Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education
In the central and perhaps most provocative passage of her essay on The Crisis in Education (1958), Arendt thrice repeats the same word: to preserve. This should not be surprising, in the context of her presentation of the thesis that “education must be conservative.” Education must be carried out with a “conservative attitude” in order to preserve the possibility for something new to arise.
Arendt thinks little of educators and professors who issue directives to their pupils about what actions they should undertake to change the world. The responsibility of the educator is more to bring a “love for the world” into the seminar room. Whether the tutor wishes the world to be different, better, or more just should be inconsequential. It is his job to represent the factual world as frankly as possible. One cannot do more and should not do less. This love for the world forms the basis for “newcomers” to take the chances of their new beginning into their own hands. Seen in this way the tutor must be “conservative” (in relation to the state of the world), not in order inspire “progressive” action but rather to enable new beginnings that cannot be planned or calculated. And so says the full quote about education that must be conservative: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world.”
A few lines earlier Arendt distinguishes between this innovative “conservative attitude” in education and conservatism in politics. Political conservatism, “striving only to preserve the status quo,” ultimately leads to destruction: if people do not undertake renewals, reformations, the world is abandoned to decay over time. Immediately after this second use of “to preserve” Arendt uses the word a third time. Since the world is shaped by mortals, it is at risk of becoming as mortal as its inhabitants. “To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” Arendt writes, “it must be constantly set right new.” The “capacity of beginning something anew” appears according to Arendt principally in action, which is the capacity that has “the closest connection with the human condition of natality”—“the new beginning inherent in birth,” Arendt writes at the same time in The Human Condition (1958).
Aren’t these three very different meanings of “to preserve”? Can this single word really convey all these nuances? Only when one consults the original German version of Arendt’s essay does the scope of distinctions become clear. The Crisis in Education is the English version of a lecture Arendt gave in 1958 in Bremen, Germany, translated by Denver Lindley.
The conservative stance in politics, which is “striving only to preserve the status quo” is said in German to seek to “erhalten.” This is very similar to the English to preserve, to conserve, to maintain. Yet in the next part, where education is said to be the way “to preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” this protection of the world against mortality is called in German “im Sein halten,” literally “to hold or to keep in the state of being.” The point here is not any physical preservation of the world, nor any quasi-metaphysical or Heideggerian elevation of the “world.” Arendt’s German wording rather suggests that the philosophical is to be found in the world, which she understands as something that emerges from the space in-between people: the in-between of the many and diverse. Finally, the task of education to be conservative and to “preserve” the revolutionary in every child is called “bewahren” in the German version, i.e., to retain and perpetuate, literally: to keep true—to keep the newness true.
“Erhalten,” “im Sein halten,” “bewahren”—these differentiations of the “conservative attitude” of education that Arendt develops in German on the conceptual level must be conveyed through context in English. This does not mean that the English is deficient. Rather, it demands that the reader reflect on the particularity of each appearance of “to preserve.” Arendt’s German text lends the direction of these reflections important impetus.
Likewise, a decisive conceptual impetus for Arendt’s German lecture comes from the English. In the middle of the passage on the conservative attitude in education, she quotes an English line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.” The literary citation is not tasked with illustrating a theoretical reflection. Arendt thinks and writes with the poetic thought of this verse. In the German lecture she uses an unusual construction, saying that the world must be (newly) “eingerenkt”—it is the German equivalent of “to set it right,” if one reads “joint” literally as the joint of a body; the usual translation of “out of joint” is “aus den Fugen,” where “Fuge” has more the connotation of “seam,” “interstice,” or “connection.” In this way Arendt answers the English literally and therefore newly in German. She gives her text a “figurative posture,” which advocates for a plurality of languages. This can also be understood as a political gesture against the totalizing assertion of one homogenous language (of truth, of philosophy etc.).
All of this is possibly less revolutionary than the “newness” that each child brings into the world. And yet a reflection of it is brought “as a new thing into an old world.” In addition, Hamlet’s line “that ever I was born to set it right” being placed in the charged context of Arendt’s thoughts on natality (the human condition of being born, which equips every newcomer with “the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting”) challenges both perspectives on action: Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet more capable of taking action than we usually think? Is Arendt’s “newcomer” more bound in his or her actions than we typically assume? Arendt’s mode of writing preserves an educating esprit for her readers.
—Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten
A U.S. District Court Judge ruled late yesterday that college students from Bard College, Marist College, and other local colleges could indeed vote, even though the local Dutchess County Elections Commissioner had refused their registrations, because they left the Room number of their dorms off of their registration forms. Here is the short story in the Mid Hudson News:
Poughkeepsie area college students, who were denied the ability to vote in the election by Dutchess County Elections Commissioner Erik Haight, may so do after all. Haight maintained they did not properly list their campus addresses on their voter registration forms. But, US District Court Judge Kenneth Karas ruled late Monday they may, in fact, vote on Tuesday. The students from The CIA, Marist College and Bard College filed a class action lawsuit against Haight and the Dutchess board of Elections maintaining they do have the right to vote. The students were represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and their law firm. “This is a victory for voting rights,” said NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg. “The right to vote is preservative of all other rights in a democracy, and deserves the strictest constitutional protection possible.”
That college students vote is important for many reasons, above all because acquiring the habit of voting early will increase the likelihood of someone's voting throughout their life. Voter participation rates for young voters are pitifully low. We should be encouraging young people to get involved and vote. Instead, county commissioners around the country pull out every trick in their power to prevent students from voting.
In Dutchess County, where Bard is located, there are two arguments against student voting. Most cynically, the county is heavily Republican. College voters are thought to be Democrats, although this is not always as true as one believes. In any case, these towns are often small and the presence of a large number of students can at times tip the balance in close local elections.
The less cynical and more principled reason for limiting the student vote comes down to a question of community. Locals argue that students are not actually part of the local community. They have not decided to make their lives there, but are simply visiting the community for four years on their way somewhere else. They resent the fact that these young interlopers who often have little connection to or understanding of the community will have an outsized influence on local politics.
The mistake in such reasoning is that the students are part of the local community. Bard students, to take just one example, live in Dutchess County. They use the buses, drink the water, and shop in the stores. These students bike on the roads and walk the streets alone at night. They also work in the bakeries and babysit the children of many locals. They have a strong stake in the flourishing and safety of the community and as young adults they have a right and an obligation to be involved. They also have a choice to vote with an absentee ballot from their home or to participate in the local politics where they are spending four years. Many do care about the community and to deny them that civic right of participation is wrong.
There is, however, one crucial difference that separates young voters from other voters—most first time voters do not and have not paid taxes. It is much easier for young voters to demand services from government, to vote for school bonds, to support tax increases, and to generally support big government because they have not yet had the experience of looking at their paychecks and seeing how much money is taken out for taxes. I do understand why locals can be resentful of a large block of young and idealistic voters who, from the perspective of the conservative community members, don't understand the struggles and values of the working people in the community. But that is not an excuse to exclude them from the ritualistic practice of self-government.
You can read more about the lawsuit at the Bard Free Press.
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.
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.