U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward a Genealogy of Anti-Politics in the U.S.

In the latest London Review of Books, David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, published an oddly scattershot, but interesting, appraisal of President Obama following the Democrats’ recent electoral “shellacking.”

Intellectual-historical assessments of our current president have been a recurrent theme of this blog (most recently in relation to James Kloppenberg’s keynote address at our recent conference), so Bromwich’s piece (which ventures in other directions as well) is likely of interest to our readers.

Among the issues that Bromwich discusses is what one might call Obama’s metapolitics:

Obama’s largest rhetorical miscalculation – and it bears part of the responsibility for 2 November – was to suppose he could move people to admire and sympathise with government even as he encouraged them to disdain and deprecate politics. By holding himself above politics he cleared a path for an insurgent movement that put itself below politics. Obama echoes Reagan in speaking often of ‘Washington’ in a tone of assumed displeasure. The difference is that Reagan had so little grasp of the details of his administration that the disavowal in a sense showed consistency. For Obama, the same posture is transparently inauthentic. And in a democracy like the United States, as in any representative government, a contempt for politics whets the people’s appetite for sudden remedies. Even now, when Obama owes the Democrats in Congress the vote that ended the careers of many, he seeks to displace the blame for public resentment on ‘Congress’ (without specification of party). Burke gave a memorable warning against this anti-political fallacy in a letter published in Bristol in 1777. ‘Such as you are,’ he wrote to a set of constituents,

sooner or later, must Parliament be. I therefore wish that you, at least, would not suffer yourselves to be amused by the style, now grown so common, of railing at the corruption of Members of Parliament. This kind of general invective has no kind of effect, that I know of, but to make you think ill of that very institution which, do what you will, you must religiously preserve, or you must give over all thoughts of being a free people. An opinion of the indiscriminate corruption of the House of Commons will, at length, induce a disgust of Parliaments.

From any such ‘general invective’ in America in 2010, Republicans stand to benefit most. The election has proved that beyond a doubt.

I”m not sure what to make of Bromwich’s description of the Tea Party as “below politics”; to me it just looks like politics.* But his description of Obama’s view of politics seems just about right to me.**

It’s a bit hard to characterize Bromwich’s overall understanding of Obama…other than to say that he finds the President idiosyncratic: “The president on whom so much depends is a peculiar person, stranger than any of us realised when we voted for him.” But though I may disagree with Bromwich in saying so, I think Obama’s combination of a sympathy for government and disdain for politics is anything but peculiar. Indeed, it’s related to the same deep strain of elite opinion in this country that reflexively calls for bipartisanship.

A number of Democratic presidential candidates in recent decades have been undone by their disdain for politics. Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry, each in his own way, tried to stand above the kind of politics practiced by his Republican opponent and all lost.***

Sketching a rough history of this strain in our politics is fairly easy, starting, I suppose, with Gilded Age goo goos, up through Progressivism, to Vital Center liberalism (with its suspicion of mass politics), the New Politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s (with its utter rejection of politics as usual), and Jimmy Carter (who practiced his own variety of anti-politics). And yet that rough history is just that…rough.

And it doesn’t quite explain Barack Obama, who, unlike Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry–all of whose disdain for politics resulted in lackluster presidential campaigns–oversaw a brilliant campaign in 2008. Maybe he is peculiar, after all.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman, yesterday:

In retrospect, the roots of current Democratic despond go all the way back to the way Mr. Obama ran for president. Again and again, he defined America’s problem as one of process, not substance — we were in trouble not because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas, but because partisan divisions and politics as usual had prevented men and women of good will from coming together to solve our problems. And he promised to transcend those partisan divisions.


* Though interpreting the Tea Party in media res has become something of an intellectual parlor game, I really do think–as Zhou Enlai said when asked by Nixon about the impact of the French Revolution–it’s too soon to say.

** The right has, on occasion, attempted to portray Obama as a corrupt Chicago machine politician. This seems about as accurate to me as those other conservative chestnuts: Obama as revolutionary socialist, Obama as secret Muslim, and Obama as secret Kenyan. Say what you will about the Daley machine, it never disdained or deprecated politics.

*** Well…all but one. But don’t tell the Supreme Court!

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    Several thoughts:

    1. You wrote: “I think Obama’s combination of a sympathy for government and disdain for politics is anything but peculiar. Indeed, it’s related to the same deep strain of elite opinion in this country that reflexively calls for bipartisanship.”

    So you’re in the same camp as the Tea Partiers–Obama as elitist—except how you get there (i.e. intellectual locution rather than as knee-jerk reactionary)?!

    For my part, I think that Obama is less about being ~above~ the process, or disdainful of it, than being quiet about it. So I agree with Andrew’s observation that “anti-politics…always serves as cover for [real] politics.” What else are we to make of all this car/walking diplomacy—meaning hosting meetings and shuttling significant Republican figures to the White House?

    I think Obama dislikes the (necessary) public posturing. But maybe this is the essence of politics? I always thought that politics were about the art of compromise—assuming that government could do some good.

    2. I just love the 1777 Burke quote. Congress is indeed us. When we hate “the Congress,” we’re hating ourselves. When we elect dysfunctional presidents and representatives, I believe it’s representative of our social dysfunction—or a dysfunction of ideas about government.

    3. Ben, you’re spot on about Daley politics in Chicago. Politicians inspired by Daley–at least R.J. Daley—relish the engagement and posturing. This indeed shows how Obama is not a true son of Illinois politics. …Except, I’ve noticed recently that IL House Speaker Mike Madigan craves—cannot function without—the cover of at least one Republican vote to demonstrate “bi-partisanship.” This trait of Madigan’s, reminiscent of Obama, irritates me to no end.

    – TL

  2. So would we say that Reagan’s genius was built on a disdain for government and an adroit use of politics? Of course, Reagan used government to further defense policies, foreign policies, and tax policies, but at least his rhetoric made clear that there were differences in politics. He didn’t make many public gestures to ‘work with’ the Democrats.

    Why is it that Republicans seems so much better able to define themselves politically against the Democrats? In other words, why do the Democrats, Obama included, fear ideology?

  3. Could you say that the modern political area is so full of fake-populists and neo-libertarian that even if the president appears disdainful of it that is because he prefers actual politics – i.e., negotiation and discussion followed by action.
    It has been the Republican Party (since Reagan) that has cast itself as the anti-Washington party. Most current serving Republicans have campaigned against politics. For Obama to campaign against this anti-politics is to be in favor of the lost political art of rational debate.
    Kloppenberg makes the point in his book that Obama is a pragmatist who seeks input, debate, discussion, and action. I agree. I would not characterize his rhetoric as anti-politics but as pro-functioning politics.

  4. Democrats use the anti-politics rhetorical slight of hand as often as Republicans–but it works much better for Republicans. It was a miserable failure for Carter, and the same seems to be true for Obama in his whole bipartisan blather.

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