As the coverage of Iowa events intensifies so too does my distaste for themes I am seeing. Edwards and Obama have crossed the line and joined the ranks of Republican candidates in their lament for the loss of some American ideal. Their speeches consistently rail against corporations and a loss of values. This is easily seen in the health care discussions (are they really discussions?) but is more disconcerting in the debate about experience they are having with Clinton. Their response to Clinton’s claim of being experienced is not to mitigate her experience (leave that to Republicans) but instead to criticize the value of experience.
Obama and Edwards claim their lack of experience is good, because it pits them as radicals opposed to Clinton’s reformism. Their lack of experience means they are not indebted to the system and can thus rail against it. Further evidence of this tactic is seen by Edwards’ and Obama’s scramble to out-radical the other, as seen in Edwards’ attack on Obama’s claim to negotiate with insurance companies. This tiff is eerily reminiscent of 1980 Republican squabbles about how to best handle and defeat the evil Soviet Union. I have to pause when Presidential candidates are bickering over how to best fight other Americans. That is the definition of populism.
Interestingly enough, Renata Salecl (1998) has a discussion about communism and post-communism which is also eerily similar to the rhetorical moves described above:
So it is for those who are nostalgic about communism: since it belongs irretrievably in the past, they do not need to act to improve their current situation. That is why the vast majority of such people do not engage in serious political struggle …. Instead, they persist in the comfortable role of lamenting victim. The paradox is that in the past, they wished for the end of communism, but they did not truly believe that their wish could be fulfilled. And today they act in a similar fashion when they dream about returning to the safe shelter of communist institutions, while knowing that this cannot happen. In their attitude toward the unattainable past, these nostalgic men and women greatly resemble …disenchanted lovers … who mourn for lost love and at the same time do everything to prevent the realization of their desire. (p. 80)
The lament is easy to see in Edwards and Obama. They will call it the American Dream, but I will call it a myth, a story to guide and not an actual historical moment. Obama should be more understanding of this nuance, given his identity and from where he hails. I am not too surprised to see Edwards make this same lament of the southern white man: life was good before X, so I shall fight X. But does fighting ever actually get us back home? Probably not, and definitely not in politics.
Things have changed; let us make our current system the most humane one we can instead of trying to buck it. This is all, of course, without begging the question of how much bucking can the President of the United States actually do. As they are busy positioning themselves as the uber-radical they forget how caught up in the system they already are, instead arguing their opponent is the one caught up.
Many of the politicians in Iowa to-day are singing the same tune, which is an un-sophisticated view of politics and their role within it. I like this message in my entertainment, see the Kasier Chiefs’ “Modern Way”, but from my potential leaders and policy-makers I want more sophistication. I want someone who says, “I have experience improving lives. I will continue to strive for that goal and I will work with those that have differing conceptions of how to do so.” Of the current choices that quotation most resembles Senator Clinton. I am not especially happy with that evaluation, but the stakes are too high.
Salecl, Renata. (1998). (per)versions of love and hate. London: Verso Books.