I have always been trying to be observant and curious while residing in the US if for not other reason than to have something to tell my compatriots in the unlikely event of my deportation. It is an ultimate narcissistic exercise because it makes me recount certain events that I encounter to myself as if I was telling a story to my distant and intrigued descendant. A kind of self-reflection that inevitably leads to self-importance and arrogance, but I am willing to take the risk.
One of the fascinating things about American political culture (and maybe general cultural as well) that I have noticed very early on is the complete disdain for changing your mind (“flip-flopping”) that permeates everything: the best thing is apparently to always say the same thing, because, even if one admits to having an incorrect view, one must consequently disappear from the public eye. “You’ve been wrong before, how can we trust you not to be wrong again?” – this is a strange logical position. My first exposure to this type of discourse was occasioned by my early interest in crime shows like “Law and Order” – yes, there was a time when that show was pretty good. Everyone knows that story: a person is on the witness stand, she is being questioned about a matter at hand, it is revealed that she has lied about a similar or even the same matter before, respective lawyers panic/celebrate, the jury announced the verdict, the case is lost/won because the witness is untrustworthy. Very simply observation: why can’t a person who lied before change her mind and actually tell the truth now? Clearly, in the legal setting where the jury decides it is simply pragmatic to assume that those who lied before cannot appear to be reliable. However, there are more complex cases in which a person is presented as having changed her mind – again, we can’t trust you because you’ve changed your mind on the issue, you were mistaken before and you will be mistaken again.
In the political arena the same logic seems to work in a way that actually discourages the engagement with the issues and encourages commitment, “values,” and certainty of one’s political persuasion. Thus if a politician changes his mind on the issue, then he is “for it before he was against it” and it’s a horrible thing. TV commercials are reciting a specific point of view over and over again, candidates give the same speech over and over again, proposals are made – repetition is the key. One creates the illusion of certainty by constantly sticking to the point, even if it leads to some disastrous results. Whatever happened to the true political values of flexibility, politicking, negotiation, manipulation, and compromise? There is no need to bring up Machiavelli, but certainly politicians have always prided themselves on shrewdness, not naivete and dogmatism. Certainly, there’s plenty of good old backstabbing and manipulative lying both in the public sphere and behind the closed political doors, but why aren’t those things popular with the people? Did American populism kill the true political activity? Is American politics basically a beauty pageant at this point? Where is the strife?
Take McCain’s stand on whether he will mention Ayers in the debates – TalkingPointsMemo reports:
Asked by his radio host if he’ll bring up the former Weatherman, McCain says:
“Oh, yeah. Y’know, I was astonished to hear him say that he was surprised for me to have the guts to do that, because the fact is that the question didn’t come up in that fashion. So, y’know, and I think he’s probably ensured that it will come up this time. And, look Mark, it’s not that I give a damn about some old washed-up terrorist…”
It’s Obama who has “probably ensured” that McCain will bring up Ayers. What’s so lovely about this is that McCain is now portraying his apparent decision to hit on the Ayers association as driven by a need to defend his honor.
You see, McCain wouldn’t have brought it up, but Obama questioned his manhood, so he’s now forced to overcome his reluctance to talk about Ayers in order to defend himself. It’s the old warrior’s code that’s making him do it.
So McCain is setting up the debate’s possible mention of Ayers and it is bad, argues TPM. But isn’t this precisely what a good politician would do? Not that McCain is good at it, otherwise he wouldn’t go around revealing his strategy to everyone and their mother. But if he did this in the debate and carefully orchestrated the event in such a way as to come out as defending his honor etc etc – wouldn’t that be the ultimate politician’s way? I think it is a general mistake to believe that Americans just want to hear about issues and how the candidates will deal with economic crisis, because then negative ads would never work. Arguably, McCain’s attack ads are just idiotic and it’s too late for them anyway, so they are mostly perceived, I think, as pathetic attempts to change the race. But why do negative attacks work? I think it is because they show a candidate as a cunning strategist, a manipulative and sneaky politician who presents even the negative attacks as a legitimate way of campaigning. It is because both campaigns play it out for the people that this race is so boring – they’re sticking to the most familiar narratives, it’s like watching reruns. If this is the age of populism, then can it please be at least somewhat entertaining?