Obama’s Irony and the American Political World — R. Ward Holder and Peter Josephson

Essays

In our last post, we noted that Barack Obama was the willing victim of a particularly delicious moment of irony. The very framework that has given sophistication and moral purpose to his governing – a Niebuhrian Christian realism – could cost him the 2012 election. While Christian realism allows a statesmanlike distance between the goals that can actually be achieved and the pretensions to virtue and excellence that may be desired, very few in the American electorate wish to hear about that. In other words, to win American elections, one must be a cheerleader, or a political evangelist.

In our last post, we noted that Barack Obama was the willing victim of a particularly delicious moment of irony.  The very framework that has given sophistication and moral purpose to his governing – a Niebuhrian Christian realism – could cost him the 2012 election.  While Christian realism allows a statesmanlike distance between the goals that can actually be achieved and the pretensions to virtue and excellence that may be desired, very few in the American electorate wish to hear about that.  In other words, to win American elections, one must be a cheerleader, or a political evangelist.

This is significant not only for Barack Obama, but for America.  At both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, lofty words were spoken.  Both Republicans and Democrats were long on imagery and pageantry, but short on specifics and substance.  Congressman Paul Ryan talked time and again about how the Romney-Ryan ticket would not duck the tough choices, but would lead.  But when Mitt Romney has been asked which loopholes he will cut from the present tax code, he has demurred from supplying specifics.  The Obama team has adopted a similar strategy: simplify, do not specify. Even liberal economists do not believe Obama can achieve his goals simply by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

The bitter lesson for American politics is that significant issues simply cannot be considered as part of the process of elections.  This is actually true in most countries, where difficult discussions of problems that do not yield to simple solutions remains unpopular.  But the American version of this truism seems particularly acute.  The gospel of American exceptionalism that seems to come in mother’s milk in this country demands a certain reverence for American possibilities, and an aversion to difficulty outside of the context of a declared war.  Actually, the country may be putting even that exception behind it; while “the greatest generation” bonded through shared sacrifice, for over a decade America has simply refused to pay either the costs of war or the price of expanded social programs (prescription drugs and the like).  There is no serious discussion of America’s debt and deficit problem; even Paul Ryan admits that his proposal will not achieve balance for at least a generation.  And if there can be no discussion of the difficult issues that face the electorate, then elections disintegrate into calculations of the factors that contribute to candidates’ likeability.

This story will come as no surprise to readers of the ancient Greeks. Thucydides treats the problem of the democratic belief in exceptionalism and its consequences in his History, and Aristotle describes the problem of political rhetoric in a democracy in his Rhetoric. Aristotle explains that people in large groups think and behave differently, and are more responsive to emotional appeals and less interested in listening to the complexities of reasoned discourse or dialectic; in short, political thought fails to attract a public audience because the audience wants to be told what it already believes. We insist on hearing an emotional appeal. More recently cognitive psychologists have developed empirical support for Aristotle’s theoretical argument. It turns out that when conservatives and liberals listen to political candidates, the area of the brain that lights up is the area that psychologists believe governs emotion; the area of the brain that psychologists believe is responsible for reasoning is largely left out of the equation. In short, there is increasing evidence that we flatter ourselves when we declare that human beings engaged in politics are governed by reason.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s cautions ring as if from an alarm bell, rung by a solitary watchman who brings news that the town refuses to hear.  In other words, Niebuhr speaks prophetically.  His warnings of the lure of our own righteousness, the temptation of our own justice, and the enticement of the power of our rationality to justify our actions against all arguments from others fit our time.  Niebuhr cautioned that the morality of nations simply cannot consider the goods of the other – as collectives, we lack the ability to see the needs of the other as significant as our own.  A poignant example is Dinesh D’Souza’s movie, 2016: Obama’s America, (based on his book The Roots of Obama’s Rage), that suggests that Obama’s wielding of statesmanship as a tool in the community of nations is a betrayal of the founders’ ideals.  But D’Souza’s belief in an American imperial ideal is for Niebuhr a form of idolatry that denies the moral standing of other nations.  For Niebuhr, only the judgement by God from a place outside of history supplies the vantage point to rescue humanity from its self-justifying and ultimately self-defeating strategies.

Obama, and Romney too, give us only the campaign we deserve. In Niebuhr’s terms, both are campaigning as self-anointed children of light. On the one hand we are presented with a candidate who promotes the potential of progressive social science to solve political problems and produce social harmony; on the other, a candidate who argues that laissez-faire capitalism itself is productive of such harmony. The basic, enduring, and natural problem of politics – the problem of interests, factions, and contending theories of justice – are treated by both sides as though they are finally and easily solvable (if only our opponents would see the light). The candidates take this tack because American voters of all stripes insist on being told these stories. We are a nation of optimists, and on both the right and the left we reject the voice of the prophetic realist. This problem has always plagued democracies (though it is only made worse by the internet culture of “discourse” and the 24 hour news cycle). There is no solution. But the prophetic voice, whether religious or philosophic, has a responsibility to point out the emperor’s nudity. This is an act of courage, because in a democratic republic the emperor is us.

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Peter Josephson is Associate Professor of Politics at Saint Anselm College, where he holds the Richard L. Bready Chair in Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good. He teaches in the Politics, Humanities, and Philosophy departments. He received his B.A. in Russian and Soviet Studies from Oberlin College, his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire, and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston College, where he was a recipient of the Boston College Excellence in Teaching Award. He is the author of The Great Art of Government: Locke’s Use of Consent, and co-author with R. Ward Holder ofThe Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft, as well as works on politics and popular culture, and the writings of Henry Kissinger. His current research explores the relation between philosophy and classical political liberalism.

R. Ward Holder is a historical theologian, and Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College.  A graduate of Cornell College and Princeton Theological Seminary, he did his doctoral work at Boston College.  Among other works, he has authored John Calvin and the Grounding of Biblical Interpretation: Calvin’s First Commentaries, Brill, 2006; and Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the  Reformations, Westminster John Knox, 2009.  Most recently he has co-authored  with Peter B. Josephson The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft.  His current work focuses on the intersection of faith and politics.

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