Saturday, October 30, 2010

On De-politicizing Politics; Or, More on Enthusiasm

You cannot report on politics neutrally. To think that you can do so is naive, to declare to others that you are, in fact, doing so is disingenuous.

There are many reasons for this, but one of the more obvious is that reporting on politics requires that you have an idea of what it is that you're reporting on. That is, reporting on politics presupposes some view or other about what politics is, and what it is not. And deciding what politics is requires that you allow some possibilities in and exclude others, which cannot but be a contentious move.

Now, the mainstream newspapers and cable TV stations in the US all purport to "cover" or "report" on politics. Some of them even, laughably, purport to do so neutrally (which is always a sure-fire way to spot underhanded political maneuvering).

But all of them, without exception, have an idea of what it is their reporting on. That is, they all have some tacit conception of what politics is. What is it?

If we go on what's said in the big newspapers (e.g. NYTimes, WaPo, etc.) and TV stations, I think we get a definition of politics something like the following. Politics is a game of rhetorical strategies and public relations. This game is only to be played by one or other of two well-defined and recognized teams: the Democrats and the Republicans. Thus, when we analyze "what's happening politically" in this society, we look at various institutionalized "matches" between the two teams, who compete by hurling different rhetoric and P.R. tactics back and forth at one another. Of course, it is acknowledged that money also plays a role, so perhaps we could add that another element of the game being played is that one team has to try to out-fund-raise the other (by, presumably, constructing a more cleverly packaged P.R. game plan, etc.). [Sidenote: this is where the ideology of "apathetic voters" emerges from... perfectly rational people feel excluded and alienated by this stupid PR game, and they are subsequently penned as "apathetic" cynics who don't see the point of "making freedom count".]

I'll comment on why this conception of "politics" is deeply conservative and delusional in a moment. But first, I want to say something about how this conception is tied up with all the blathering about enthusiasm of late.

Most of the coverage of "democratic disillusionment" or the "lack of enthusiasm" takes the form of clueless hand-wringing: how is it that people are so unenthusiastic? What's wrong with them? Why can't the Democrats effectively "mobilize their base"?

But although these aloof questions are posed often enough, they are not answered forthrightly. The idea that Obama campaigned to the left and has governed from the right doesn't appear as a possible explanation. Why not? Because the conception of politics at work in mainstream coverage, as I noted above, reduces politics to the narrow PR maneuvering of corporate candidates for the major parties. So the question is not: what is it that people wanted to see happen and why didn't Obama do it? The question is: what PR strategies are the Democrats failing to employ here? Why can't the Democrats put together the "right message" to get their "base" energized? How can Obama effectively reduce high expectations?

These are bullshit questions to ask. And whatever else they are, they sure aren't political questions. They are questions relevant to the inner-circle of paid campaign bureaucrats working to get their blow-hard of choice in office. But they are not salient questions for the vast majority of us. What the fuck do I care, in itself, whether Harry Reid stays in office or not? The only question should be one of means and ends: is supporting Harry Reid an effective means of winning the progressive changes we need so desperately? The answer is quite obviously: absolutely not.

Politics is not about the narrow PR maneuvering of blowhards funded by the ruling class. I much prefer Alain Badiou's definition: politics is "collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order". And, as he points out, if we take this extremely plausible definition seriously, we see, in fact, that our present electoral mechanism is basically apolitical. What's therefore needed is struggle and organization outside of the ossified system of electoral politics. We need to rebuild Left political culture, be part of existing movements and build new ones. It's not that the Democrats are already doing this, but simply failing to do it well. They are flatly opposed to this strategy: they are obstacles rather than vehicles for change.

No comments: