Another eight months of soaring but empty rhetoric about bringing people together and bringing about change will leave most of America brain-dead. ~Stuart Rothenburg
The cynical and hostile observer might note that the success of such a campaign thus far indicates some significant and widespread neurological damage in the voting population, but when all is said and done it is hard to fault a mass democratic election campaign for being largely vapid and bereft of substance. This is one of the reasons I tend to think so poorly of mass democracy, but since it is what we have at the moment there is a certain absurdity to the charge of insubstantiality, as if Mitt Romney rattling off 20 year-old talking points about the welfare state and family values represented some kind of substantive engagement with contemporary problems or John McCain repeating “we are winning” at every debate showed something other than the unimaginative status quo campaign that he is running.
It isn’t that Obama’s campaign has built itself up on the strength of his policy agenda, since no successful campaigns ever do that, but that no one else really has, either. Every mistake of analysis I have made over the past year has come from believing that policy mattered to voters and that the candidates with the policies most in line with their constituents’ priorities would prevail. That was a pretty stupid assumption. Worse than a pundit’s fallacy, this is the error of the high-information voter, who thinks that because he wastes his time learning about the policy positions of two dozen politicians that everyone else is as, well, brain-damaged and conditioned as he is. Even though the high-information voter is presumably reasonably well-informed, he repeatedly, insistently refuses to acknowledge that the entire exercise is absurd and fairly futile, since he knows better than most that the actual policies enacted by the candidate once he is in power may bear no relationship whatever to his campaign pledges. Yet these are the people who will complain loudest about a “lack of substance,” whether real or imagined, despite their awareness that the content of any substance that may be offered to them may be reversed or repudiated within months of a candidate taking office. When that happens, the same people will speak knowingly about the candidate’s “newfound pragmatism” and the “importance of compromise,” and so on and so forth.
The heavily policy-oriented campaigns are always the third-party protest candidacies that fizzle and die. Some candidates have been more wonkish than others, and these candidates have failed, but all of them have been operating within an extremely narrow range. The candidates of bold ideas and major changes were, of course, the ones who were consistently marginalised and ridiculed as “kooks,” and in a narrow sense this label is correct in that you do have to be a bit eccentric to care deeply about foreign policy paradigms, much less monetary policy. The one candidate who routinely spoke about the declining value of the dollar, one of the more important questions of the moment, was Ron Paul. The best McCain has ever been able to do when confronted with a question about monetary policy is to recycle his lame joke about propping up Alan Greenspan’s corpse in a chair, and he stands a frighteningly good chance of becoming the next President. Paul’s rivals typically battled with each other over things that were relatively trivial by comparison–”sanctuary mansions” comes to mind–and they have been rewarded for their triviality. They are the serious ones, because while they may mouth platitudes, these are the approved platitudes. Paul’s candidacy was focused heavily on his dissenting policy views, and it was, whether or not you endorse his proposals, the most substantive campaign of them all.
All of which is a long way to make the point that voters aren’t terribly interested in substance. The attack that someone “lacks substance” is a criticism leveled by journalists and pundits (and bloggers!) at a candidate to reinforce their self-styled reputations as allegedly sober observers of the political scene. It is a gesture towards their sense of themselves as the knowledgeable and informed elite and the would-be guardians of public discourse, which the very phenomenon of blogging reveals to be nothing more than pretense. It is ultimately an expression of the petty tyranny of the miserable functionary who fancies that he is the king of his own small hill, and he is going to demand that the great and the good pay their respects and jump through a few hoops to acquire real power that the functionary can only ever just watch and never possess himself. It is finally a pose designed to bolster the incredibly untenable claim that our political discourse is serious and intelligent, and that the media, ever so wise and prudent, put the candidates through their paces in a way befitting that seriousness and intelligence. That this is transparent nonsense does not bother the people who do it.
Of course, the Obama campaign exaggerates all the features of modern democratic campaigns that represent the generally visceral and reactive nature of our political life, but everything that so many of us have been reacting against is just a heightened or intensified form of something that has existed in modern democratic politics for decades. Thus the people who have fashioned the posthumous (and increasingly embarrassing and incoherent) quasi-cult of personality around Reagan now berate the people who are creating a quasi-cult of personality around the candidate who consciously models himself on the last Democratic Senator elected to the Presidency, the one whom the Democrats have shrouded in myth and gauzy legend. The party whose nomination has been fought over by candidates disputing over which one of them Reagan would endorse now clucks its tongue at an excess of defining politics in terms of a charismatic politician. Of course, it’s true that Reagan had intellectual heft and headed a movement with intellectual and academic roots, but was routinely ridiculed for being a lightweight famous for appearing on film with apes, just as Obama, obviously intelligent and educated, is now mocked for his “lack of substance.” Yet this is what the circus of democracy makes candidates become, and the more successful they are the worse it gets, since to some extent success feeds the very things (i.e., popularity, need for mass communication, simplicity of message) that make insubstantiality necessary.
It is true enough what Rothenburg says elsewhere in his article that the “change” of a concerted progressive policy agenda and the “change” of drippy bipartisan cooperation really are mutually exclusive. He can either pursue his agenda or he can introduce his “new politics,” but cannot do both at the same time.