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The politics of anti-politics

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
15 January 2004

The brontosaurian length of American election campaigns is not a tribute to our collective fascination with politics. To the contrary, such is the political lethargy of the world’s oldest democracy that the campaign must elongate itself if it is to have a chance of roping in even half of the electorate by the time the day finally comes for the people to make known their collective will.

The roughly two-year-long campaign is evidence of a perverse American disdain for political life and government. What a peculiar thing! This grandiose nation-state with planetary (indeed, interplanetary) reach and colossal global consequence is governed by a government held in contempt by most of its citizens.

In popular parlance, “politician” is a curse-word. “Politics” – as in “that’s just politics” – is synonymous with pettiness, corruption, unreliability, and warped reasoning.

One striking feature of the Democratic campaign is how much competition rages over who will succeed in being the non-political outsider-in-chief. Senators John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joseph Lieberman, and Representative Richard Gephardt, all suffer from being experienced in Washington. They are thus identified with “the Establishment.” In the eyes of many Democrats who vote in the primaries, this means that they’re both neutered and defeated. They’re not dead yet, but they’re stymied.

Howard Dean, Vermont’s ex-governor and (at this writing) still the frontrunner, zoomed to the front of the Democratic pack on the strength of his claim to be an outsider — a Vermont guy, not a Washington guy. Wesley Clark, polling second to Dean in New Hampshire and tied with him in national polls, comes from a military career, and seems not to have been deeply involved in politics until the past year: He gains more from his late start in politics than he loses. John Edwards, the personable first-term Senator from North Carolina, announced early on in his unpromising campaign that, if he lost, he wouldn’t return to the Senate. What would he do? Go back to practicing law. “Remember,” he told an interviewer the other day, “I’m not a career politician.”

The last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both came on strong as outsiders—Southern Democrats untainted by “the mess in Washington.”

To excite his Republican base, George W. Bush relishes sentences like, “It’s your money, not the government’s money”. In 2000 he bewildered (or amused) pundits by claiming that Social Security was not a government program. He often speaks of “Washington, D. C.” as if it were the capital of a foreign nation. In 2000, he campaigned as the man who could “change the tone in Washington”. (No one disputes that he did that, though scarcely in the manner he promised.)

His prototype is not his father but Ronald Reagan. In 1984, Reagan ran for re-election as an outsider even though he had already served one term as president. George I – our first President Bush, who had headed the CIA and been Ambassador to China – could never muster such outsider vigor. As the onetime Republican strategist Kevin Phillips points out in his new book, American Dynasty, generations of Bushes have been intimately knit into the military/industrial complex. George I was, and more important, sounded, more Washington than Texas.

George II, however, simulated outsider status much better because he talked Texas, invested (badly) in oil, and failed upwards. Building on Reagan’s underestimated political acumen, he is heavily dependent on a political base that publicly despises government (all the while lining up for favors from it).

Today, the Republican Party’s center of gravity discredits the federal government except for its military and security apparatus. The influential right-wing lobbyist-ideologue Grover Norquist is fond of saying that his goal is to shrink the federal government “down to the size where you could drown it in a bathtub.” This is no marginal kook: this is a ringleader, whose weekly invitation-only strategy meetings in Washington were recently said by a Washington Post reporter to be suffused with a mood of “incandescent assuredness”.

Then too, the weird ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship of California was nothing if not a tribute to the low repute of politics. The Terminator was chosen by his fans to terminate politics. The recall of Governor Gray Davis was aimed at the state’s entire political class. No one who had made a career in politics was a plausible successor to the failed Davis. Anyone who’d ever spent time around Sacramento was tainted. When, during the campaign, Schwarzenegger declared that he wouldn’t feel it necessary to take up residence in the state capital, but would commute four hundred miles from his Los Angeles home, his bravado didn’t hurt him.

California’s anti-political populism is far from unique in America. The term-limits movement of the past fifteen years now counts victories – which limit the length of time state legislators can serve – in sixteen states, almost one-third the total. There is, of course, no limit on the longevity of lobbyists. The term limits movement is in effect a campaign to free corporate wealth to have its way.

But this anti-political whirlwind is a peculiarity with a deep history entrenched in America’s twinned traditions of government and anti-government. Having successfully fought a revolution, the 18th century founders were at first reluctant to establish a national state at all. Their foundational premise was closely aligned with John Locke’s philosophy, which, a century earlier, emphasized the link between liberty and private property. Their battle cries were “Don’t tread on me” and “Give me liberty or give me death.”

At the same time it is as transparent as daylight that those who consider government “the road to serfdom” are busy making sure that it lines their route with gold. Americans have long tried to perfect a formula whereby they could have their government and kick it at the same time. The refusal to face the useful realities of government is a grand illusion.

An illusion, however, to which all contestants for the most powerful governing position on earth must pay obeisance. They will compete with each other in a race to persuade the public that they are the best qualified to have power because they know least about it, do not believe in it, and it is the other guy who is a politician. Little wonder that it takes so long to arouse people to come to the polls at all.

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