Presidential Politics as Morality Play

Presidential politics is often as edifying as soap operas. Partisanship has become an exercise in demonology where policy disagreements often take a backseat to moral attacks on political leaders. Political discourse becomes obsessed with the personal background and character of the leader or would-be leader. Cathy Young, a thoughtful and provocative conservative columnist writing regularly for the Boston Globe, reminds us how bipartisan these tendencies are.

During the Clinton presidency, right-wing media were filled with suggestions that Clinton had engineered the murder of presidential counsel Vincent Foster or even of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. But even for those less conspiratorially inclined, it became standard fare to treat Clinton as a congenital liar and a slick political operative.

On the left, there is a fringe with its own conspiracy discourse. In the months following the death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, the Web was full of insinuations suggesting that the Bush administration had either caused or orchestrated the senator's plane crash. And even though this theme is probably limited to about as small a minority as the insinuations about Clinton-inspired murders, the left has its own respectable versions of demonization. The favorite themes are that the president is stupid, greedy and manipulative or deceitful.

Such discourse seems to trump all need for programmatic discussion. Indeed the fact that a policy proposal had emanated from such a man was reason enough to treat the proposal as dead on arrival. These accusations may tell us more about the current state of the body politic than about the accused. American politics has always put candidates in binds. Come across as fully in charge of and conversant with the issues and one is treated as a nerd or an ideologue. And much of the measure of intelligence is often of the trivia game sort. Does it really matter if Bush knows the name of the president of Azerbajain? Clearly Bush has a relatively well articulated worldview, a conception of economics, an understanding of how to make these relatively palatable to large numbers of his fellow citizens. Many of us may find these views limited or even dangerous, but treating the president as stupid distracts from the more important task of probing the limits of his arguments. And perhaps it serves as a security blanket to allay our concerns as to the limits and holes in our own perspective.

Wealth also creates its own double-bind. In a discussion of the politics of Cicero, my seventh-grade Latin teacher once suggested that patrician Franklin Roosevelt, whom he called the Cataline of his day, was a traitor to his class. In a highly inegalitarian society, one's economic background can always be used in ways to attack one's political position. The working-class radical can be viewed as motivated by class envy and the wealthy liberal as suffering from liberal guilt. Once again these familiar pop psyche categories are often treated as though they refute the agendas being advanced.

Both Bush and Clinton shared another form of demonization, scrutiny of their military backgrounds. Clinton the draft dodger is paralleled by scathing comments about Bush's role in the National Guard. But why should this matter? Should opponents of the war in Iraq put aside their objections if Bush were a disabled war veteran? Even if one is willing to die for a cause, that fact by itself does not lend legitimacy to the cause.

Manipulation and deceit are trickier matters. Of course we do not want a president to withhold from us important information. But presidents work with reams of difficult and often contradictory intelligence briefings. What president does not view this information through his own ideological spectacles? In the case of the attack on Iraq, even if deception is involved one might wish to ask further questions about the willingness of the population to be deceived and about the nature of a national security state that keeps so much raw intelligence out of the hands of the voting public.

The political focus on the moral character of leadership is not limited to the US, but it seems to have taken its most virulent form here in recent years. As a nation, we have been heavily influenced by the Protestant-ethic emphasis on individual character as an emanation from God. Place this underlying moral compass in the context of the breakdown of political parties as effective instruments of public policy, the increasing globalization of our economy and the insecurities this brings, growing economic and political inequality, and one has ingredients that can make conspiracy theory and more mundane forms of demonization run riot.

We need an honest debate about issues, but not one stained by obsessive focus on the character of our political messengers. And even in policy debate itself, we might do well to think long and hard about the gaps, inconsistencies, and lack of clarity that may infect all political positions -- even our own.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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