U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reality Bites.

Although I did not follow the Republican Convention closely, I did stop to listen for about a minute to a less controversial segment of Mike Pence’s speech, a moment where he was insisting that there is more that unites Americans than divides them, and ultimately, “we” are one nation. As others have pointed out in regard to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech, such sentiments are such standard fare in the political rhetoric of both major parties that they can be repeated as crowd-pleasing truisms by a politician of almost any flavor and ideological persuasion. But another striking thing about such platitudes is that even in the midst of the ugliness that is contemporary conservative politics, somehow such clichés still receive thoughtful nods and encouraging applause. Meanwhile, the liberal commentating class highlights how out of joint this is with the rhetoric of fear and xenophobia, but they, too, do so in the spirit of insisting on this unquestioned and mystical unity.

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Such stubborn insistence on the “one America” of Barack Obama’s (and everyone else’s, apparently) dreams is a striking illustration of just how out of touch our mainstream political culture is with reality. As others have also noted, one of the most disorienting things about the convention this week was simply watching the coverage – how bizarre to see anchors of every major news channel pose questions of posture, strategy, and “tone” as if we are dealing with minor details of appeal in a routine election that has not already long ago bypassed such pedestrian, petty “horse race” concerns. Watching the amusement with which such “analysis” proceeds is deeply frightening – with media watchdogs like these we will, eventually, get the government we deserve, regardless of which party occupies the White House.

Yet some of the key ideological notes that keep this Hunger Games-esque obliviousness humming have deeper origins than merely this particularly Orwellian moment. To a significant degree, we have the totems of “reasonable debate” and respectability politics to thank for our inability to respond adequately to the horror show that is contemporary American politics. Take, for example, Obama’s laughably inaccurate invocation, in an attempt to shame the Republicans a few years back, of how a thoughtful dialogue is apparently the way to go in securing labor rights. And in recent years, nothing has been more common than a call for respectability politics as the stalwarts of political decorum police the expressions, slogans, and activism of Black Lives Matter. Although long the norm, such finger wagging is particularly unbearable when the legacy of the civil rights movement is so frequently abused. Obscuring that in the days of Martin Luther King, sitting down at a lunch counter, organizing a march or simply going to a public school were also derided as anti-democratic and “extremist” strategies, the mainstream deployment of the liberal civil rights movement as the “right” way to do anti-repression politics propagates the lie that it was reason and moral suasion alone – rather than political pressure and calculus, in the context of urbanization and the Cold War – that led to the victories of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

Yet as I write this, I can hear the fair objections of the stalwart defenders for nearly unlimited tolerance and free speech: if we embrace a cynicism that views politics mostly as a battlefield rather than a space of public debate, are we are not willingly reducing politics to brute power struggles? And if that’s the case, how are we to aspire to something even remotely resembling democracy? I register these concerns and they worry me, as well. It is necessary to begin with the clarification that I don’t imagine – nor would I want to engage in – a politics bereft of what we can broadly designate as “rational” argument. However, the way that the dogmas of political tolerance and respectability function in our society is to render any such debate impossible.

And that is simply because the current rules of mainstream political engagement actually require participants to deny, ignore, or obscure reality. Americans are not united – we do not all share the same values, and we certainly don’t all share the same interests. If we can’t acknowledge this, we certainly cannot have a genuine debate – in all the various forms it takes – that comes anywhere near being “rational” in the sense of being based on reality. This is part of the value, for example, of insisting on calling “racial conservatives” racists; whatever the future of the American republic, we cannot struggle our way to social justice while participating in a political discourse that denies that a conflict is even occurring. All such a strategy has reaped, since the 1960s succeeded in at least making racism socially unacceptable, are multiple holders of privilege who leverage superficial acceptance of “equality” and unity as a means to collectively deny their real positions and interests as holders of power. Little progress can be made – at least in a “respectable” way – when the majority of the population is either invested in, or duped by, such bullshit.

Conversely, however, I cannot claim that seeing our political divisions and enemies for what they are will necessarily lead to a political process most of us would regard as “better” than the one we currently have. On the contrary, it would likely lead to a level of polarization and conflict which the more liberal minded among us might find terrifying and deeply unsettling. Yet one thing I can guarantee is that any hope for breaking through to the other side – to a place where we actually win this struggle for social justice and begin the hard work of reconstructing a society based on better values – is hard to muster as long as we remain so committed to the political norms of a make-believe matrix. By doing so, we ensure that the majority of us are unable to identify, name, and understand the mechanisms and holders of power; and if we can’t at least do this, I’m at a loss to see how we will ever be able to defeat them.

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