I recently received the following excerpted from a long comment from Justine Parkin, a reader and a recent college graduate from the University of California, at Berkeley. Justine wrote:
The question posed in the 2012 Hannah Arendt conference “Does the President matter?” remains on my mind. It is, I think, related to another important question, namely “Does voting matter?” I know and have met several people who have decided not to go to the voting booth this election season. This is of course not an entirely unordinary decision, particularly for people who, like me, live in states like California and who because of the electoral system seem to think that their vote matters little and thus can with an undisturbed conscience decide not to vote. Yet it seems that in the case of this election, there are many, who even if the electoral college were to be replaced by a popular vote, would nevertheless remain firm in their decision not to vote. I admit sometimes that I myself have had a similar conclusion after recognizing little difference between the candidates, thinking everything they say is just “rhetoric” with few direct answers and little real substance and feeling that my vote is merely a decision “between the lesser of two evils.” All of these observations have at times led me to conclude that choosing not to vote may in fact be the more truly political act. And yet, I wanted to probe my choice to inaction further. I wanted to think not only “does voting matter?” but “what if voting did really matter?” In other words, if my participation in politics, or lack thereof, is to be one that is not just a confirmation of what politics is, but rather what politics should be, how would I act? I make no claim that one’s participation in the voting booth is the most important or the only form of political action that we must participate in. To think that merely casting one’s ballot is the ultimate and most necessary political act, I think, is a severe relinquishing of political responsibility. The act of voting is highly limited, not just in the sense of the construction of ballots which provide a particular formatted set of options with a certain illusion of choice, but voting is always a highly individual and closed act, not the “public” or “political” sphere of engaging a plurality of individuals which Arendt praises. Thus not only our political participation but our more essential human identity should stretch beyond the confines of the voting booth. Nevertheless, I wonder if this current form of apathy towards politics is itself a dangerous relinquishing of the human responsibility to thought.
These thoughtful reflections from a young voter—and Justine tells me in a future email that she will indeed vote—are apt reminders on election day of the extraordinary place of voting in our lives.
Quite simply, voting is our national civic exercise, as weak an exercise as it may be. It is the act by which we affirm our belonging to the democratically structured constitutional federal republic that is the United States of America. I have to admit that as cynical as I can be about voting—and having voted primarily in New York, Massachusetts, and California where my Presidential votes have never mattered, (I can be pretty cynical)I get goose bumps every time I line up with my fellow citizens and wait to vote. I remember once waiting hours to vote in a polling station in Berkeley, Ca. It was by far the most inconvenient voting experience of my life, and yet also it was the most meaningful. I stood on line, talking with fellow voters, thinking that we lived in a country where people cared enough about their country to stand in line for hours to cast a ballot that, statistically speaking, meant almost nothing. Weirdly enough, that was one of the days in my life I felt most proud of being an American.
There is no doubt that our political muscles are atrophying. With the loss of town councils we have lost the main educational experience of politics that nourished American democracy for nearly a century. We still have such an institution in law where the jury system teaches citizens to engage meaningfully and solemnly with the fundamental issues of right and wrong. But our political system now largely functions without the participation or engagement of citizens. All we have left for most of us is voting.
And the activity of voting is changing. There are early voting drives and get out the vote marathons. The benign goal is to increase the vote. But one side effect of such efforts is the weakening of the public and communal experience of voting together at polling stations on Election day. The risk is that in making voting so bureaucratic and easy and private and unobtrusive we further expel it as a communal experience and a public ritual.
So Justine is right. Voting is an extraordinarily weak expression of political activity. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. In voting, he understood, the "character of the voters is not staked."
Hannah Arendt also saw that voting was a deeply circumscribed approach to politics. She once wrote: “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” But the voting box can be a public place if and when it is a place where people congregate to vote. I admit it is still a weak space of politics, as the majority of the people who stand on line to vote are firm in their convictions. And yet the public act of standing in line, waiting, mingling with one's fellow citizens, and casting a vote, is a deeply symbolic affirmation of at least one important part of one's responsibility as a citizen. It can also be, as it often is for me, deeply moving.
Books by some of our speakers at last week's "Does the President Matter?" conference.
Steven Mazie over at Big Think has a good essay reflecting on day one of the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair." Mazie looks at three reasons to be skeptical of the claim that the President matters, or that it matters who is elected president.
1. Mitt Romney and President Obama are uncannily similar in a host of ways.
2. Structural constraints on the presidency radically limit the ability of chief executives to act in the domestic arena.
3. Presidential campaigns do not attract candidates with true leadership skills.
In each case Mazie offers thoughtful comments on the way that president does and does not matter. Above all, his essay explore the paradox at the heart of last weekend's conference: That the President is ever more powerful and certainly has enormous political and symbolic power, and yet, on the big questions that matter most to many people, the president seems powerless to change the culture of politics in Washington. Just last weekend President Obama, campaigning in Florida, said: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
Mitt Romney jumped on this statement to condemn Obama and make the case that Obama had abdicated leadership. That was not Obama's point, which was that the President is not able single handedly to change the political culture. Whether Obama is correct or not, his statement reflects a frustration that many in and outside Washington share.
Read Mazie's take on the conference. You can also watch all of the talks from the conference on video here.
As the father of an introvert I have been truly grateful for Susan Cain's recent mission to raise awareness of introversion and also the power of introverts. From her TED Talk to her book, Quiet, Cain has shown that our traditional bias towards extroverts can be both damaging and misguided. While children are prodded and rewarded for fitting in and playing gregariously with others, it is often the children who prefer the quiet of an imaginary friend that develop the independence, conviction, and clarity that may one day blossom into the surprising creativity of bold leadership.
In an essay in last Sunday's New York Times, Cain responded to recent comments that President Obama is hobbled by the fact that he is an introvert, that he does not like people, and that he is "concealed inside “a layer of self-protective ice."" She makes the important point that introverts often do like people, they just prefer intimate conversations and social situations to back-slapping expressions of outward gregariousness.
Cain also points out that both Obama and Mitt Romney are introverts, which means that whichever candidate wins the election, we will soon live through our second consecutive introverted presidency. That, writes, Cain, is a good thing. For Cain, introverts can be and often are excellent leaders.
Many of this nation’s finest leaders have been extroverts — but plenty have not. Jim Collins, in his study of the best-performing companies of the late 20th century, found that they were all led by chief executives known primarily for their fierce will and dedication — and were often described with words like “reserved” and “understated.”
Cain adds as this quote from management guru Peter Drucker:
“The one and only personality trait the effective [leaders] I have encountered did have in common, was something they did not have: they had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or what it signifies.”
I fully accept Cain's basic claim that charisma is overrated and that the charisma of ideas can trump the charisma of social grace. That said, what the introverts Barack Obama and Mitt Romney share also is a technocratic faith. Romney believes, seemingly above all, in data. This is why he drives conservatives crazy and why he seems so fake in his attempts to appeal to the faithful of the right. Obama believes in nothing if not experts and commissions, which is why he surrounds himself with Ph.D.s and technocrats who continue to advise him on this program or that program. Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, Romney and Obama are nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of pragmatic optimism, that with a bit of hard work and rational analysis we can master our situation and make it better.
The problem with Romney and Obama is not that they are introverts, but that they are so struck by the power of expertise that they lack the power of ideas. At a time of crisis, when technology and globalization are bringing revolutionary changes to the fundamental assumptions of the way we live, people have lost the faith that our political leaders understand these transformations and have a vision of what our future might be. This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations, and how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This should be both a scary and an exciting election. Instead, it is small-minded, ugly, and boring. Introverts or extraverts, these candidates are not the leaders we need.
This weekend the Hannah Arendt Center hosts a conference “Does The President Matter?" The conference ask public intellectuals, thinkers, artists, and business people to reflect on what kind of Presidential leadership might matter in the 21st century. Speakers include Ralph Nader, Bernard Kouchner, Rick Falkvinge, John Zogby, James Zogby, Jeffrey Tulis, Eric Liu, Todd Gitlin, Anne Norton, Walter Russell Mead, Bernadette Meyler, Richard Aldous, David Greenberg, Kevin Gutzman, Wyatt Mason, Leon Botstein, and many more. Please join us for the conference at Bard. You can also watch the conference via live simulcast on our website.
Asked in July if Occupy Wall Street has been successful, Todd Gitlin—renowned social historian, former President of Students for a Democratic Society, and author most recently of Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street—responds:
"OWS has been successful because we are talking about it. You now see bumper stickers that say 99%. I was just in upstate NY and I saw a candidate running for office with a sign that says: The candidate of the 99%. It is now legitimate to talk about inequality and the domination of American by a plutocracy, by an oligarchy of the super wealthy. No it is not successful in the sense that it has not delivered concrete results."
As the election has heated up OWS has faded even further from consciousness. At a time when we are about to pick our next leader, the leaderless rhetoric of OWS is out of step.
That said, Gitlin is right that many of the pressing issues underlying the OWS movement have insinuated themselves into public discourse. It is unlikely that without OWS President Obama would be focusing so clearly on raising taxes on those he calls the wealthy (by which he means those who earn over $250,000 per year). Indeed, if there is one core issue that seems to demarcate President Obama and Governor Romney it is the question of their differing attitudes towards wealth and taxes.
Gitlin, who is speaking next week at the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference “Does The President Matter?", is clear-headed about the movement's failures but remains optimistic about its future. Gitlin’s optimism, his hope for a movement that many other see as dead, is heartening. There may also, surprisingly, be a grain of truth in his rosy scenario.
Gitlin understands that the future of OWS is not in what it has been, but in what it has not yet imagined. After a lull in the movement, OWS, he writes, may well birth “individual initiatives combined with community spirit, assisted by technical ingenuity and the ability to learn from experience,” to shift the values that caused the crisis in the first place. If OWS is to bring about change, it will be because against its own anti-leadership rhetoric, it has and continues to produce new leaders.
"Leadership," Gitlin writes in Occupy Nation,
"is not abolished when movements don't designate spokespersons and leaders refuse the label, any more than prisons are abolished when they are designated as correctional facilities. In all social groups, leaders emerge. They emerge in the course of action when acts of leadership take place. Leaders prove themselves. Some are labeled leaders, some are not. Some accept the label, others reject it. Those who get the reputation for leadership get treated as leaders. It is as simple (and as complicated) as this: Leaders are persons whom others follow—admire, heed, recognize."
In imagining the fecundity of Occupy Wall Street's birthing of new leaders, Gitlin focuses on that aspect of OWS that was most surprising, new, and wonderful: Its determination to open up a space for being together, thinking, and talking in public. He quotes one OWS member as saying: "Something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed." There was, in the encampments, "a public place to go to, where attention could readily be paid, and individuals had faces and stories." Above all, Gitlin writes, the Occupiers were "creating a space where leaders and ideas could emerge."
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries."
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the presence or lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.
What Gitlin's account of Occupy Nation makes palpable is that amidst all the excesses and competing narratives, there are still some people who aspire to be real revolutionaries. Whether that small group will produce leaders of revolutionary potential is, of course, something we cannot know. But at a time of political paralysis amidst the political, economic, and ecological crises of our time, any movement that might give birth to new leaders is something to be welcomed.
So this weekend as we prepare for next week's conference "Does the President Matter?" pick up Todd Gitlin's Occupy Nation. You can also here him speak at Bard College on Friday, Sept. 21. And you can have him sign your book then.
For those of us who believe that the U.S. and much of the world must make major changes, the presidential election can be little other than frustrating. Neither candidate is expressing a meaningful version of where we ought to go and how we can get there. The result will be that we abdicate our human responsibility to think collectively about our future and try to bring ourselves there. We will, then, give ourselves over to the social and technological trends that operate outside and to some extent beyond political control. This is precisely the worry Arendt expresses in her prologue to The Human Condition.
Walter Russell Mead, who will be speaking at the Arendt Center's conference "Does the President Matter?", has a good post today on the inconsequential nature of the presidential election. Here are the core last two graphs.
Our problem is that the time isn’t ripe: the real work of our society right now isn’t about political competition. It is about re-imagining, reinventing and restructuring core institutions and professions. Our health care system is wasteful and poorly organized and if in the next generation we don’t fundamentally reorganize it the country will go broke. Our educational system from kindergarten through grad school needs a variety of upgrades and innovations. Mass employment through manufacturing cannot support the kind of middle class society it once did; conventional big box retail cannot do it; government employment and subsidies can’t do it. Americans must find new ways to organize themselves for work and production, and we must learn to produce different (better and more interesting) goods. We must complete the transition from a late stage industrial society to an early stage information society and it’s something that nobody has ever done before in the history of the world.
Neither party, it must be emphasized, knows what to do about these issues. To a very large degree the solutions are outside politics. Policy and therefore politics will play a significant role ultimately in either furthering or retarding the changes we need, but so much of the shape of the future is still unknown that nobody can really tell us what should be done and in what order to create the best possible conditions in which a brighter future most quickly and most stably emerge.
You'll do well to read the rest.
I spoke with my daughter this morning. She is seven. I asked her what she thought of Mitt Romney's speech. She answered: "Both he and President Obama tell lies simply to get elected." Now I know she is to some extent parroting what she hears around our dinner table and the playground. But there is something deeply disheartening in her seven-year-old cynicism. There is a deep sense not only that our politicians lie, but also that the Presidency is a broken institution. That the President is captive of interests special and not-so-special. That the President is trapped in a bureaucracy impervious to change and that the President, whomever he or she may be, cannot really change the perilous course on which our nation is headed. This indeed is the topic of an upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
There are myriad sources for this pessimism that one hears from seven-year-olds, college students, and adults. It is markedly different from the idealism that swept the country four years ago personified in Barack Obama. More so than any time I know of, there is a sense of total hopelessness; a feeling that neither party and no potential president can possibly change our course for the better.
To understand this ennui, one must take President Obama's failure seriously. That failure is simple. He became President amidst the perceived failure of the presidency of George W. Bush. The Country desperately wanted a change. At the same time, the financial crisis threatened to overwhelm the nation. The President offered hope. He embodied all of our dreams, offering a way forward, out of the excesses of the Bush era and towards a re-enlivening of basic American values of freedom and fairness. There was, in the President's own words, a demand for a "new era of responsibility."
The force of Mitt Romney's Convention speech on Thursday was his expression of disappointment in the President. This strikes me as a non-partisan statement and that is its strength. It is hard to find even the most stalwart of President Obama's supporters who will disagree with this assessment. Where does it come from? Why has Obama disappointed us?
One answer comes from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the leading thinkers of Presidential rhetoric of our time. Jamieson has given analyses of many of President Obama's speeches, and his found them deeply wanting. In her 2010 address to the American Political Science Association, she says:
In other words, Barack Obama was never as eloquent as we thought he was. A person matched a moment with rhetoric in a context in which the audience created something heard as eloquence. Widely labeled as eloquent, he creates expectations for his presidency that he cannot satisfy in the presidency barring that he is Abraham Lincoln with the Gettysburg Address or a Second Inaugural in his pocket.
So on the one hand, Obama set the expectations for himself too high. That may be, but it is also the case that he became President at a time of great crisis. Maybe it wasn't a Civil War, but the financial crisis does threaten the future of the United States. One fault of the President is that he has continued to describe the financial crisis as a temporary setback, one that will cause some pain but will pass. He has not taken the financial crisis seriously enough, and categorized it for what it is, a crisis. By refusing to do so, he has lost the opportunity to become a crisis President.
In a recent post, I discussed Roberto Magabeira Unger's insistence that we need a wartime President now without a war, one who rallies the nation to change and sacrifice towards a future goal. What Obama has refused to do is present his vision of where we should go. He speaks about change, but doesn't offer a sense of what that change might be. In Jamieson's analysis, he has failed to provide a rhetorical speech that offers us "a digestive sense of what this presidency is going to do."
A digestive statement for Jamieson is something like John F. Kennedy's question: "Ask not what your country can do for you..." As Jameison writes, such statements "sound as if they're sound bites until you realize that there's a definition underlying a presidency in those kinds of statements." Kennedy meant something with his question, something he backed up with the idea of the Peace Corps and public service.
The problem with President Obama's rhetoric, and thus his presidency, is that he has yet to find such a digestive statement that defines what he cares about and what he believes this country is about. As Jamieson writes, there is nothing like Kennedy's invocation of the Peace Corps or communal sacrifice that defines or articulates Obama's vision for America. There is no theme of "transformation of generational identity." She writes: "Indeed, I would challenge you to give me a phrase that is memorable at all, that defines who we are and where we're going under this presidency."
Jamieson's critique of the President is harsh. But I think it is accurate. That is the reason why Romney's claim of disappointment strikes me as powerful. Whether Romney offers an alternative is hard to know, since he himself seems to change his opinions and views weekly. That said, President Obama has his work cut out for him. He must show us that he can articulate a response to the disappointment people feel and provide the hope that he can still get the country back on track, even after three years of failing to do so.
The crises the President inherited are not his fault. It is disgusting to hear Paul Ryan and others blame the President for every problem in the United States. And despite Mitt Romney's impressive past history, his willingness to change his positions regularly and disavow past achievements raises serious questions about his own ability to lead. And yet, it is undeniable that after three years, the financial crisis is still with us and the political crisis is worse than ever. At some point, the President must take responsibility for his failure to address these crises and offer hope that he has a plan to address them in the future. That is the President's challenge during his convention speech next week. To somehow try to answer the criticism that after three years, we still don't know what it is that President Obama believes in and how he wants to respond to the financial and political crisis that he inherited.
In thinking about what the President will say on Thursday, I encourage everyone to read Jamieson's analysis of the past failure of Obama's rhetoric. It is your weekend read. And if you want to think further about the challenge of the president to lead in times of crisis, think about attending the Hannah Arendt Center's upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter?"
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.
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.
It is cliché to say that a presidential election is important. And yet, the 2012 presidential election may be one of the most decisively meaningful elections in recent history. The world is now in year four of the global financial crisis. In addition to economic retraction that may last decades, there is social dislocation and political unrest. The level of frustration and cynicism is reaching all-time highs. And as Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, Universities, and businesses record their lowest levels of public trust and integrity, the only major U.S. institutions that continue to be well respected in public polls are the army and the police. If we do not somehow elect a President who can begin to halt or reverse the descent into political paralysis, the risks to the United States are enormous.
We are in need of a political genius, as Peggy Noonan wrote this month in the Wall Street Journal:
Why do people think we need a kind of political genius? Because they know exactly how deep our problems are and exactly how divided our nation is. We need a president who knows and understands politics because he knows and understands people and can galvanize them. When he speaks, you listen, in part because you believe he'll give it to you straight, in part because his views seem commonsensical, in part because something in his optimism pings right into your latent hopefulness, and in part because he's direct and doesn't hide his meaning in obfuscation, abstraction, clichés and dead words.
As much as we need an inspired political leader, it is clear beyond a doubt that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is such a leader. The result is that this election is as depressing as it is boring.
The promise of a Romney-Obama matchup is terrifying not simply because one of them will win; but more, because it is so obvious that these two politicians who actually are so similar in temperament and worldview would never actually engage in a contest of ideas. We have two candidates who are, quintessentially, moderate technocrats. Both are products of Harvard professional schools. Both candidates are essentially risk-averse technocrats. One worships data. The other worships experts. And both will do and say anything to win.
It is hard not to wish that Newt Gingrich had won the Republican nomination. At least his promise of hounding Obama to debate the core issues of American governance promised a consequential and engaging campaign.
Instead, this is a campaign not of ideas but of consultants. David Brooks, who writes today that the upcoming election is "incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time," gets this right:
Candidates know that they’d be punished for saying something unexpected — by the rich, elderly donors and by the hyperorthodox talk-show hosts. Instead of saying something new, now they just try to boost turnout within their own demographic niches and suppress turnout in the other guy’s niches.
Hannah Arendt taught that politics is about action that is spontaneous and surprising. Political action needs to be courageous and new, since only unexpectedly bold action can galvanize and unite a people. The political actor is one who can inspire, but inspiring action must above all be risky and extraordinary. For Arendt, freedom demands such leadership if life is to remain surprising, new, and human.
As Roberto Mangabeira Unger argued recently, we need a political leader who brings a wartime mentality to our contemporary crisis. Peggy Noonan from the right agrees. From all sides there is a longing for just such political leader, one that candidate Barack Obama promised to be four years ago. The falsity of that promise has hardened people against hope. The cynicism and dishonesty of both candidates is numbing. It is further diminishing our political culture, at a time when we hardly thought politics could sink lower and we can hardly afford to allow it to do so.
What would it mean to elect a leader who could revive American politics? That is, in fact, the question asked in the upcoming Arendt Center Conference, "Does the President Matter? Reflections on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
On the most obvious level, the President does matter. Of course some will benefit under President Romney and others under President Obama. But on the level that matters most—the regeneration of the political life of the United States—it is hard to see how this election means anything. Neither candidate is speaking to the whole country and neither has the ambition or the spark to inspire us to overcome the limitations of our selfishness, weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder, and more common things than we can do on our own.
Is the economy like a garden that must be well tended by human hands? Or is it machine that, once turned on, runs mercilessly by itself? This is a question Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer ask in their NY Times Op-Ed piece, " The Machine and the Garden."
Liu will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Fall Conference "Does the President Matter?" on September 21-22. He is the founder and CEO of Guiding Lights, a network of citizens working to create new ways to restore community, compassion, and active citizenship in our world. He is also a former speech writer and domestic policy analyst for President Bill Clinton. Along with Hannauer, Liu recently published The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government.
In the NY Times today, Liu and Hannauer write:
In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity.