Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Saturday, February 16, 2008

On Siegel On Barack

Kate Marie recently linked to an article by Fred Siegel lampooning Barack's candidacy and the insubstantial nature of his campaign. Siegel is an intelligent and sophisticated writer (more so than James Kirchik, who initially recommended Siegel), but the persuasive glamor of his case can be dispelled by a little logical scrutiny. The first thing one must note is that though Siegel denigrates Obama's campaign as banal and exclusively rhetorical, much of the polemical force of his piece resides in rather banal rhetoric. He notes that "aging boomers who hope for a revival of Camelot" have thrown Obama their support and that the "Grateful Dead, which disbanded years ago, will reunite to perform a concert for him." These images minimize the stature of Obama's supporters- old hippies who have no sense of perspective. Elsewhere Siegel describes Obama as a "matinee idol" who will run a "musical comedy administration" and as "Oprah's candidate." These descriptions artfully trivialize Obama, reducing him to a figure whose merit resides exclusively in his own celebrity or the borrowed light of an (as Siegel implies) even more banal pop-culture icon.

One cannot say that these characterizations are logically demonstrably "false," but neither are they provable as "true." Like all rhetoric they rely for their effect on their appeal to the predispositions and preconceptions of particular audiences. In logical terms it is interesting to note that aspects of Siegel's rhetoric work at cross-purposes to one-another: Obama is ridiculous for both cultivating the popularity of a matinee idol and for having a band as "unhip" as the Grateful Dead throw him their support. If one had to identify the predispositions to which Siegel panders, the most obvious ones are intellectual snobbery and elitism. But rhetoric's utility resides in its capacity to compress exposition and carry multiple valences simultaneously. For some audiences Siegel's imagery will make Obama look ridiculous for his banality, but in other quarters his choice of symbols will subtly feminize Obama, and in others it will sketch him as reducible to his racial identity ("Yeah, he's Oprah's candidate- what do you expect?"). Rhetoric is at basis an appeal to feeling rather than logic, thus its wielder has only to provide the image, each audience member will fashion the meaning upon it that most closely expresses his or her emotional proclivities.

None of this is to say that Siegel refuses to treat substantive issues. But if one of his principal indictments is that Obama trades in banal rhetoric, he stands guilty of the same infraction. Moreover, the polemical force of the piece as a whole is utterly dependent on these rhetorical flights. To the extent that Siegel treats substantive issues he does so in a way that is plausible rather than rigorously logical. For example (to cite only one- the same exercise could be performed on every substantive critique he makes of Obama's policy proposals), he notes that "In the recent Hollywood debate, [Obama] insisted, contrary to the evidence, that the problem with American education was that it was underfunded. But education funding has increased dramatically over the last 20 years to no good effect, as student performance on content-based tests continues to decline." This seems quite damning, until one realizes that however much education funding has increased, Obama may be right- it still has not reached the level it must (Obama addresses this issue in his most recent book). Performance on "content-based tests" may or may not contribute to proving Siegel's case- maybe there are other types of test scores that have improved with increased funding, or maybe variables other than the absolute amount of money spent are in play. This is not to suggest that Siegel has no point- only that (as I think even he might admit) he has not proven it. This is where rhetoric becomes helpful- if one lacks either the time or the empirical ammo to prove one's case, making the object of one's criticism appear ridiculous is a shortcut to winning the audience's assent to the criticism itself.

This is demonstrable in what is perhaps Siegel's main (and most interesting) point, which is laid out with statistical data as if it were a logical proof, but that is in fact an almost wholly rhetorical assault. Obama, says Siegel, runs as a "post-partisan" candidate who can heal the divide of America, but his candidacy is in fact driven by his appeal to both far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats who are united only in their hatred of Hilary Clinton. In this respect, implies Siegel, Obama's rhetoric about being "a uniter not a divider" is either naive or insincere.

Siegel makes his case by citing statistics compiled by various watchdog organizations (Americans for Democratic Action, the National Journal) ranking Obama as one of the most liberal members of the Senate. This, says Siegel, is the root of Obama's appeal to "ageing boomers," and proof that "his candidacy is as much about the liberal past as about the country's future." Such assertions rest on a historical fallacy, however. The fact that Obama ranks as a "liberal " today is no proof that he would have done so in 1975 . Siegel is discounting (deliberately, I suspect) the extent to which the center of American politics has moved right as a result of the Reagan Revolution and the Clinton Realignment. Liberal as he is, Obama has embraced positions that would have put him on the far right fringe of the party in 1975. For example, his acceptance of a voluntary, market-oriented approach to health-care reform bears no resemblance to the "liberal" option of a former era (single-payer socialized medicine). Moreover, his refusal to endorse universal mandates makes his stance more conservative than that of Hilary Clinton.

Obama is undoubtedly a liberal, but that does not make his ambition to pursue a post-partisan politics empty or cynical. Ronald Reagan was arguably as right of center in 1980 as Obama is left of center today. That did not prevent Reagan from forming a broad governing coalition that transformed the political culture of the nation as a whole, largely because the country was disenchanted with Democratic governance after a long period of incumbency. Now those polarities are reversed, and an opportunity exists for a liberal to realign the electorate in parallel fashion to that of the conservative realignment of the Reagan era.

This structural parallelism finds expression in the similar rhetorical strategies pursued by the Reagan and Obama campaigns. Reagan employed the same secular-religious aspirational language, the same appeal to emotionalism, and the same themes of change and redemption being adopted by the Obama campaign, and he incurred the same complaints from Democrats of being an insubstantial demagogue that are currently being leveled against Obama from Republicans. Neither campaign was essentially naive or cynical in its deployment of rhetorical tropes, rather they spontaneously hit upon the political idiom that most resonates with American voters during a period of uncertainty and anxiety.

The narratives that Siegel weaves- "Obama is a demagogue," "Obama is a liberal wolf in post-partisan sheep's clothing"-are plausible and will no doubt persuade many, but they are no nearer the "truth" than the average story about celebrities in a tabloid magazine. They are political constructs keyed to alter or control the public image of a candidate. Both parties are spinning such narratives around their respective opponents. The Democrats have already begun to paint John McCain as a warmonger who is too cranky (read: old) to be President. If and when such narratives gain traction in the general public they can turn the tide of a political campaign, but any individual that allows oneself to get swept up in that kind of game is surrendering one's franchise to pundits and marketeers.

A lot has been posted on this blog about the outsize rhetoric that characterizes the Obama campaign. Such may be the case, but this story, whatever its empirical merits, is a red herring. One might pause to consider that the Obama campaign is currently so focused on symbolism because it is geared to defeat Hilary Clinton, and the substantive differences between the two candidates are small (besides being technical and rather boring). If Obama wins the nomination his campaign will inevitably be compelled to shift tone to more substantive issues, as the policy differences between he and Senator McCain are quite wide. On that terrain, if polls are to be believed, the Republicans are competing under a handicap. Their best hope for victory thus lies in attempting to undermine Obama's own projected public image (make his campaign seem embarrassing/alarmingly "messianic"/ridiculous) and replace it with one that will repulse voters (demagogue/cynic/novice). As I wrote in an earlier post, this is smart politics. But anyone who pretends that it is anything other than politics is trading in platitudes, not truths.


Blogger stewdog said...

McCain v. Obama. . .Mom and Dad are drunk and have to decide whether to give the car keys to the teenager or Grampa. I look forward to the debates between McCain and Obama so we can compare the substance of the candidates' ideas, how their proposals would effect the US Economy, and weigh their experience and qualifications for the job of POTUS. (But don't count Madame out yet!)

February 18, 2008 6:39 AM  
Blogger Madman of Chu said...

I actually hold out hope that the tone of an Obama-McCain matchup would be more civil than any campaign we have seen in a long while, but I may just be kidding myself (it wouldn't be the first time). I haven't counted Clinton out yet, these are how I see the odds:

Obama wins 30%
Clinton winds 30%
The whole nominating process descends into a fracas so bitter and divisive that it throws the election to McCain, no matter who heads the ticket 40% (feel free to snicker- I would if I were a Republican)

February 18, 2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger stewdog said...

I'm not a snickerer, Mad of Madness. I must say that the political junkie in me has been awakened. Obama is riding a wave, but will many Dems realize that they might be just drinking the Kool-Aid with this guy? Never count out a Clinton. That is for sure. As an elephant I certainly wouldn't mind seeing the Donkey convention thrown into turmoil. This super delegate potential fiasco, and the issue of the disenfranchised voters in two states, is a black eye for Democratic Party professed principles. As long as the party doesn't self destruct, the Dem will have the edge on McCain going in. A civil campaign would be nice, but I'm not betting on it.
Happy Presidents Day.
Stewdog (praying for a 44 behind the name of Senator McCain)

February 18, 2008 1:19 PM  

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