U.S. Politics: Substance Gave Way To The Superficial? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

With the 2008 presidential campaign in full swing, we are beginning to see each campaign initiate efforts to cast doubt on the opposition. As the primaries approach, candidates hasten their attempts to derail each other's momentum in order to position themselves for the primaries as well as the general election.

Over the years, the methods and means utilized to achieve these goals have become far more negative. At the same time, the rhetoric and the rationale of each candidate has also become far more superficial. While it is easy to assail politicians for the current environment, one mustn't ignore the fact that the voting public has lowered the bar...demanding less substance and accepting more hyperbole. Frankly, clever phrases and short sound bites work because voters have embraced the simplistic nature of partisan politics over the complexity of careful consideration.

Simultaneously, the passage of time tends to anesthetize us...enabling us to travel great distances without an understanding of where we began nor a recognition of where we've arrived. Such journeys are fraught with danger as they are journeys which often occur more by chance born of complacency than by choice derived from deliberation. The former tends to leave us tone deaf while the latter has the potential to launch a legion of luminaries. One is a series of steps in the sand; quickly washed away by the wind...the other is a map of measured marks; able to withstand the worst of storms.

One recent event illuminates the importance of remembering our roots and respecting the growth they so eloquently engender. As such, a tree provides an important metaphor...one which should remind us to look beyond the surface. Hence, we arrive at the substance of my musing. It is a mistake and a miscalculation to malign the absence of a flag pin on the lapel of Senator Obama. What's not present on the surface likely tells us little about what lies beneath. To conclude otherwise negates our journey, ignores our roots, and darkens our destiny.

After completing the below graphic, I came across an article by Andrew Sullivan in which he points to a Wall Street Journal piece which was written by Peggy Noonan. While no fan of Noonan, her thoughts amplified my concerns with the criticism being directed at Senator Obama. Taken together, their thoughts provided the symmetry that can only come with the passage of time and an appreciation for what history can teach us about ourselves and the prospects of our future. I offer the following excerpts...first Noonan, then Sullivan.

From Peggy Noonan - The Wall Street Journal:

Barack Obama has a great thinking look. I mean the look he gets on his face when he's thinking, not the look he presents in debate, where they all control their faces knowing they may be in the reaction shot and fearing they'll look shrewd and clever, as opposed to open and strong. I mean the look he gets in an interview or conversation when he's listening and not conscious of his expression. It's a very present look. He seems more in the moment than handling the moment. I've noticed this the past few months, since he entered the national stage. I wonder if I'm watching him more closely than his fellow Democrats are.

Mr. Obama often seems to be thinking when he speaks, too, and this comes somehow as a relief, in comparison, say, to Hillary Clinton and President Bush, both of whom often seem to be trying to remember the answer they'd agreed upon with staff. [...]

You get the impression Mr. Obama trusts himself to think, as if something good might happen if he does. What a concept. Anyway, I've started to lean forward a little when he talks.

Mr. Obama is fortunate to have one with the grace and vigor of Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy's great staffer and speechwriter, who told me this week, "I am supporting Obama."

When I asked if his support was connected in any way to the idea of breaking away from the Bush-Clinton-Bush rotation, he said, "Above all, I believe this country needs change, and continuing the 20-year hold on the White House of the same two families is not my idea of change."

The Bushes are winners; the Clintons are winners. We know this, they've won. The Bushes are wired into the Republican money-line system; the Clintons are wired into the Democratic money-line system. For a generation, two generations now, they have had the same dynamics in play, only their friends are on the blue team, not the red, or the red, not the blue.

Is this good for our democracy, this air of inevitability? Is it good in terms of how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves? Or is it something we want to break out of, like a trance?

From Andrew Sullivan - The Atlantic:

I don't always agree with her [Noonan], but she represents for me that brand of blue-state conservatism that came of age in the Reagan era, one that was often Catholic (though not dogmatically so), repelled by the bile of the far left, respectful of religion and tradition but very much at ease with the modern world, often urban and ethnic, and very susceptible to the charm and rhetoric and deep seriousness of Reagan. I guess she reminds me of my mum and sister. These kinds of conservatives are meritocrats. They were much more Reagan than Bush. And they are deeply distrustful of dynasty and inheritance. They're not country club Republicans. But they're not Dobsonites either. And they don't always vote for the party of the right.

I've been following him [Obama] for a while and got to interview him the other day for a forthcoming cover-piece in the Atlantic. He's still a real human being, a commoner. She's [Clinton] to the Manor wed. I don't believe this race is over. I think it has barely begun.


Now it's no secret that Noonan and Sullivan both despise Hillary Clinton...which should make one skeptical of their words with regard to the selection of a Democratic presidential nominee. Moreover, Noonan may well be singing the merits of Obama as a result of her believing the GOP nominee stands a better chance to defeat him. On the other hand, I've found Sullivan to be more forthcoming so I doubt he would praise Obama just to undermine Clinton...though it is possible.

Regardless, both of them were Reaganites and see the former president as the last representation of a true conservative Republican. Truth be told, I suspect both of them believe George W. Bush squandered the Reagan legacy and will leave the GOP in a state of shambles...forced to grapple with its identity.

Unfortunately, the GOP's problems have become part and parcel of America's problem...a problem which has emerged under the tutelage of two families...a duality which has come to represent two distinct ideologies in a woefully divided nation.

In this dynamic, the nation and it's citizenry is therefore more susceptible to the pitfalls discussed above. Consequently, as the two sides have jockeyed for dominance, the words of the war have continued to escalate...and to devolve into narrow black and white arguments intended to mobilize the combatant constituencies. Success has become an equation dependent upon division.

As I think about the assault triggered by what isn't on Senator Obama's lapel, I can't help but think back to Ronald Reagan. In saying as much, I am not suggesting that President Reagan's policies were palatable to all Americans...they weren't. Notwithstanding, his approach to the political process...the means by which a president must govern in a two party nation...was in many ways functionally superior to what has now emerged at this juncture in the Bush and Clinton years.

When Ronald Reagan stated that he didn't wear his religion on his sleeve, he established a necessary barrier between political practicality and ideological intransigence...a move that arguably served both the president and the nation. In so doing, he also set a tone of moderation...one which has subsequently evaporated. Just the opposite is now the norm. Not only has politics moved away from moderation...moderation has become synonymous with capitulation to those on different sides of the political spectrum.

The nation that took Ronald Reagan at his word without demanding sacramental symbols...because it was brave enough to believe that his deeds would speak even louder...has seemingly lost its way. In the intervening years, emblems have become evidence of authenticity while reasonability has become the signature of insincerity.

If one endeavors to understand the statement of Barack Obama with regard to not wearing a flag pin on his lapel...and does so by first looking backward to Ronald Reagan and then coming forward to the present...he was, like Ronald Reagan, attempting to place substance ahead of superficiality...an action meant to suggest that living one's patriotism is preferential to dangling it as a badge. Further, he undoubtedly believes that love of country cannot be reduced to acts of symbolism...that it must be an ongoing set of actions meant to advance the nation; not just the political aspirations of one candidate or one party.

If we hope to reconnect with that which has steadfastly sustained us, integrity must emerge, sanctimony must surrender, and rancor must retreat. Ronald Reagan once said, "Each generation goes further than the generation preceding it because it stands on the shoulders of that generation." I'm afraid that before we can begin to do so again, we may first have to recommit to using what already sits atop our shoulders. If we do, perhaps we'll learn to look beyond each other's lapels.

The Evolution Of American Politics


1 On October 6, 2007 at 9:54 AM, Daniel wrote —

Note to readers:

I've moved the following comments from another site at which I regularly post content. I felt the exchange provides some important elaboration.

Comment from Bitter Scribe:

Daniel: Ugh. Your words about Reagan are an example of a disturbing tendency among some progressives: to pretend that the leading conversative of the previous generation was somehow more decent, civilized, whatever, than today’s crop.

This has been done for Barry Goldwater (civil rights opponent), Robert A. Taft (World War II isolationist, Joe McCarthy enabler), etc.

Reagan was evil. Evil, evil, evil. He put a sunny, congenial face on greed and bigotry, and in so doing dealt progressive politics blows from which it has still not recovered. Please do not wax nostalgic for that man.

Bitter Scribe

My response to Bitter Scribe follows:

Bitter Scribe,

I’m afraid your visceral disgust with the thought of the man may have prevented you from following my argument. My remarks do not idolize Ronald Reagan. As a gay man, I know all too well his shortcomings.

The point I’m making is that the GOP, which does idolize the man, has forgotten who he was and how he behaved. Surely you realize that the GOP has become far more extreme under the Bush administration…and that when they hold up Reagan as the model for conservatism, they expose the hypocrisy of the hard right theocratic shift they have made…not to mention their fiscal irresponsibility. If one looks at nothing more than Reagan’s hesitation to push religious ideology as absolute political policy, one should recognize the contrast with George Bush.

With that said, the assault on Barack Obama’s decision to not wear a flag pin on his lapel is no less sincere than Reagan’s statement that he didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve. As such, those GOP apologists who drink the George Bush kool-aid can’t attack Obama without undermining their praise for Reagan. For years, the GOP has flaunted Ronald Reagan in the face of Democrats. In today’s environment, the Democrats can throw it back at them.

In the end, history provides us with the evidence of what the GOP has become…and it is a far worse party under George Bush than it was under Ronald Reagan. Making that comparison doesn’t make Reagan acceptable…it simply makes Bush more intolerable…and assists in convincing moderates and independents that the GOP is no longer the party of Ronald Reagan.

If you’re suggesting that we should forego such comparisons because of our dislike of Reagan, then I would posit that you’re adopting a mind set which is the equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

I’m convinced the Democrats need every vote they can get (see the stalemate in the Congress). Some of those votes have to come from former Reagan Democrats and other like minded voters. The Lamont - Lieberman contest should be instructive in that regard. We don’t have to become Republicans to get those votes…we have to show them that the GOP is no longer the party they supported.

Anyway, thanks for sharing. I enjoy the dialogue.



2 On October 6, 2007 at 9:59 AM, Ben in Oakland wrote —

Daniel-- as always, you are bang on, thoughtful, and fair in your analysis. I'm quoting from memory here-- tom robbin's Another roadside Attraction:

"We are symbol junkies. We are as addicted to symbols as the most far-out junkie is addicted to smack."

Great book. Totally changed my life and how I learned to think about EVERYTHING when I was 20 years old. Aret can change your life.

Thought Theater at Blogged

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