My first point about the current presidential campaign is that, more even than the last one, it is being reported from an almost exclusively metapolitical perspective. That is, instead of saying that the candidate expressed view X, the papers tell us that the candidate has decided to express view X in manner Y to audience Z. The emphasis is on form rather than content, strategy rather than substance. Armies of pundits and spin doctors pore over the (uniformly obnoxious) TV spots: where are they airing, what strategy do they exemplify.
And from this perspective, it is universally acknowledged that Bob Dole is no match for Bill Clinton. Even conservative publications have affirmed that Dole doesn’t deserve to win because he has failed to articulate the reasons why he should be elected. To the extent that this critique of Dole is not merely tautological–if you can’t be elected, you don’t deserve to be–it reflects a significant change in our political criteria. Campaigning skill may win elections, but we do not traditionally judge the worthiness of candidates for office on this basis.
In a predictable meta-meta-political move, many deplore this vacuous fascination with campaign trivia at the expense of fundamental issues. But bewailing what “we” do malgré nous is an unsatisfactory substitute for explaining it.
Clearly not only the chameleon-like Clinton is obsessed by tactics; Dole, trailing badly and short of resources, has to be even more concerned with them. He is often reproached with his failure to stay on message, particularly in reference to the 15% tax cut. But the only substantive issue is whether Dole is telling the truth when he gives his word to cut taxes, not how often he repeats it; and the reason he doesn’t repeat it is that sticking to substantive issues has not proved an effective strategy.
A key feature of our times is the fissure that has opened between the college-educated upscale and the less educated downscale populations. The increasingly bimodal distribution of consumer goods–Pic’n’Save versus Neiman-Marcus–has hit hard traditional middle-class retailers like Sears and J. C. Penney. Although both political parties have attempted to turn this phenomenon to their advantage, no one seems to see its relationship to the metapolitical trend under discussion.
Americans are more sophisticated than they used to be because they are better educated than they used to be. There is objective content to this sophistication: one does learn a few things in college. But sophistication is more a relative than an absolute category: to be sophisticated, one must know more than what we suppose an ordinary person knows. Anxiety in this regard is at a minimum when the educated class is either limited to a small elite or includes nearly everyone; it is bound to reach its maximum when the population is more or less equally divided, as it is in the United States, between sophisticates and ordinary people.
In such circumstances, no one knows exactly how much other people know. Instead of striving to acquire knowledge, with the less-than-sure chance of becoming more learned than my adversary, it’s more effective simply trump his knowledge with cynicism. What you think you know, you do not really know, because you are too naive to see the power-relations that dictate the creation and transmission of your “knowledge.” On campus, this kind of thinking is associated with Michel Foucault. But any grade-school dropout can acquire the rudiments of metapolitical cynicism. This in turn obliges the real sophisticates to keep a step ahead of the crowd by listening to the talking heads discuss spin on a daily basis.
My second point is that the Democrats have been remarkably successful in making themselves over from the liberal party driven out of office two years ago. The critique of liberalism presented in these columns is that it is essentially a means for acquiring for oneself a position of moral superiority. The liberal finds victims everywhere and presents himself as their champion in the face of the selfishness of his peers.
The postwar victimary era appears to be coming to a close. Issues like affirmative action still play on this theme, but the anticipated victory of California’s Civil Rights Initiative may well be the beginning of the end of overt racial preferences. The present defense of affirmative action is driven more by the self-interest of potential beneficiaries (well over 50% of the population if all women are included) than by the white guilt it relied on in the past. But if–to speak like Jack Kemp–the Democrats have lost a few yards on affirmative action, they have scored a series of first downs by reminding the great middle class of a simple fact: government entitlements may benefit poor and minorities, deserving or not, but above all they benefit you. In their desire to end the victimary thrust of liberalism, the Republicans began to threaten, or appear to threaten, entitlement programs on which the majority of the population relies. The party’s petit-bourgeois instincts, which had been politically effective in curbing the victimary excesses of liberalism, are inadequate in their raw form to deal with the subtleties of our relationship with government. Clinton’s claims, however self-serving or misleading, that he has cut the size and budget of the bureaucracy while making it more sensitive to our needs, cannot be answered by Dole’s simple assertion that cutting taxes gives us back our money to spend it as we like.
Clinton’s fabled effectiveness as a campaigner is largely based on his insistence on integrating local people and issues into his political speeches–something of which Dole seems pretty much incapable. Clinton will bend over backward to ingratiate himself with his audience, even if this means telling MTV he regrets not having inhaled, or that business group in Texas that he’s sorry he raised their taxes. How can you trust a man like that? Well, what the audience, and the public in general, appreciates is that you can trust him to get the local community and a few of its members on the national news. They get their 15 seconds of fame, and the rest of us feel we too might have our chance.
Cynical as it may be, this kind of appeal resists dismissal as mere strategy far better than Dole’s repetition of slogans. For the integration of local elements into political discourse reshapes this discourse as one in which these elements become a necessary component. It forces politicians to present their policies in terms of their concrete advantages to their beneficiaries. The appeal to local and individual interests helps to reestablish the traditional dialogue between the government and the people that the altruistic cast of victimary liberalism had allowed to decay. It provides a more neopolitical antidote against liberalism than generalized hostility to big government.
This is not to say that skill at metapolitics justifies the moral laxity of the current administration. But history isn’t always made by nice people. When things seem to be going pretty well and both parties agree on fundamental policies, there is an advantage to being the one less ideologically committed to these policies–balancing the budget, for instance–but more concerned to weave them into an integrative political discourse. It’s the sort of performance that impresses the cynical pundits, and even a good number of the cynical voters. Let’s see how well the Republicans can learn this lesson by 1998.