Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Religion of Politics?

Since the dawn of time humans have yearned for something that transcends this mortal sphere. From an anthropological viewpoint, elements of religion are found just about everywhere you look. Even after the culture wars have diminished the commonality of traditional religion, the “non-religious” among us still hew to religion. They don’t call it that, but their devotions share all of the characteristics of religion.

Kathleen Parker writes in this article:

“Thus, in post-Judeo-Christian America, the sports club is the new church. Global warming is the new religion. Vegetarianism is the new sacrament. Hooking up, the new prayer. Talk therapy, the new witnessing. Tattooing and piercing, the new sacred symbols and rituals.”

Parker’s words strike a chord. This church of secular narcissism also has its gods to worship. Parker writes that for this crowd, “apparently, Barack Obama is the new messiah.” Parker quotes a 20-year-old Obama-ite as saying that Obama is “like, whoa….” She then goes on to opine, “Whatever the Church of Obama promises, we should not mistake this movement for a renaissance of reason. It is more like, well, like whoa.”

There is no doubt that Obama’s campaign is working hard to package him as a messiah-like brand. And it is true that some of Obama’s supporters do a fine impression of tent revivalists. But according to Stephen F. Hayes, articles like Parker’s miss the point. Hayes notes in this article that Obama is able to disarmingly articulate his positions “in ways Americans can understand.”

Hayes’ article brings to light a rather odd thing. Republicans have spent the last two decades looking in vain for the next incarnation of Ronald Reagan. Democrats have spent the past three decades detesting Reagan. But now the next Reagan is leading the nomination race in the Democratic Party.

Of course, the policies of Obama and Reagan stand in sharp contrast to each other. But, like Reagan, Obama has a talent for using the power of words in a way that appeals to people and gives them a sense of something beyond mere politics. The critics of Obama’s airy rhetoric sound a lot like Reagan’s detractors of a quarter century ago. Like those Reagan detractors, claims Hayes, today’s Obama critics are underestimating the target of their scorn.

Isn’t Obama the U.S. Senate’s most liberal member? Yes. Isn’t he very short on executive, federal legislative, and foreign policy experience? Yes. But none of that will matter to a lot of voters if they get the sense that Obama can, to use Reagan’s words, “make America great again.”

For those of you that fear that Obama is the devil, Russ Roberts offers some consoling (although not very comforting) words in this NPR commentary. Roberts says that we like living in a fantasy world where we think that our candidate is going to be different by actually following through on campaign rhetoric.

“But,” says Roberts, our politicians “always break our hearts, don’t they?” Why? Because once they are in office they “respond to the political winds, rather than the rhetoric that got them elected. And when they break their promises because it’s politically expedient, they always have a justification.”

“The good news,” Roberts opines, is that the “evil candidate from the other party that you hate, isn’t nearly as dangerous as you think. Once in office, he or she will listen to the public rather than to principles. It happens every time.”

This might seem like a rather cynical view, but it is not terribly far off from reality. In a democratic republic the public doesn’t let any chief executive get too far away from what the mainstream wants for very long. We can be grateful that our Founders designed a system with this kind of strength.

Despite harsh rhetoric that claims otherwise, our relatively weak chief executive office won’t support a dictator. The curtain will soon be swept aside on any politician elected as a messianic figure to reveal just another fallible human — just another politician.


Anonymous said...

Isn’t Obama the U.S. Senate’s most liberal member?

Depends on who you ask. National Journal always ends up ranking the Democratic nominee as the "most liberal." That's quite the coincidence, isn't it? However, Keith Poole, an actual political scientist, ranks Feingold, Dodd, Sanders, Whitehouse, Kennedy, Boxer, Harkin, Brown, Reed, and Biden as more liberal than Obama.

In a democratic republic the public doesn’t let any chief executive get too far away from what the mainstream wants for very long.

That's true -- 4 years is the minimum we'll put up with.


Anonymous said...

" Once in office, he or she will listen to the public rather than to principles. It happens every time."?

Partly, yes, but there's more to it than that. Once in office, one is exposed to a much broader range of discussion and much higher levels of information/data/research, and is responsible for a much broader range of consequences. This can (and should) cause political views to mature (shift).

It should further be understood that not every political decision comes down to principles, while other decisions cause principles to conflict. It's not that the principles have changed, but the understanding of impact may have increased.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Lucidity, the NJ article also discusses Obama's 2006 record, which is less liberal than his 2007 record. Yes, it does depend on who is doing the ranking. Poole's criteria obviously differ from those of the NJ editors. But the NJ rankings are based on consistent criteria. The reason that the Democratic candidate is usually the most liberal is that they are usually positioning themselves to appeal to the base of the party in the year prior to the election.

Tom, I fully agree that perspective changes dramatically once in office, and that this is completely proper. However, it remains true that those that run for re-election often still pander to the voters, promising stuff they will never deliver. So I think some cynicism is completely appropriate when considering any politicians' campaign rhetoric.