Published January 9, 2020
The New Criterion - December 2019 issue
In what now seems a distant epoch of pre-history, President Bill Clinton came before a joint session of Congress in 1996 to deliver the State of the Union address and announced that “the era of big government is over.” Even in 1996, no one thought that the era of big government was actually over, least of all Bill Clinton, but it must have seemed like the right thing to say at the time in order to show that one was in tune with the popular mood — in fact, leading it rather than following it — by putting into a pithy sentence what people were thinking, or thought they were thinking, before they had quite thought it. This happened, you may remember, just after the newly elected Republican Congress, the first in 40 years, had had to knuckle under to Mr Clinton after shutting down the government in a vain attempt to limit big-government style spending. Thus the President, as it might have seemed, was being magnanimous in victory — making a gesture in the direction of the ostensibly small-government philosophy of his opponents before adding: “but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”
Needless to say, “the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves” was as empty of real political content as the claim that the era of big government was over. No one was proposing, as no one would have dared to propose, to abolish the social safety net. The President was merely juggling partisan clichés but in an original enough fashion that the media were inclined to regard it as a political master-stroke, part of his campaign of “triangulation” in which progressive desiderata were introduced cautiously or with an alloy of conservatism (or, failing that, conservative rhetoric) in order to make them more palatable to the centrists in both parties. We disgruntled conservatives used to speak of this as “the triumph of style over substance,” but in retrospect the joke was on us. Bill Clinton saw sooner than we did that, in the post-Cold War 1990s, style was substance — or as much substance as most people ever wanted to bother themselves about.
Politics, in other words, had become a fashion statement rather than a serious program for governing. The real business of government was already in the process of being turned over to judges and what is now being called “the deep state,” leaving politicians free to posture and virtue-signal without consequence. With the departure of seriousness and responsibility from the political culture, what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” took over, and the rancorousness and hatred which are now the salient features of our political life have been increasing ever since. Way back in the ‘90s I tried coining the name — I’m sure I wasn’t the first to think of it — “post-modern politics” to describe this new, style-centered political culture based on moral preening but it didn’t catch on. That was because, I think, we had no need for the name once all politics became post-modern politics. It was just politics.
This is still true — indeed, it is even more true — now that politics, as I have been noticing in these pages over the past three months, has turned revolutionary. Or, more accurately, “revolutionary.” Nor is this ersatz revolutionism limited to the United States. Here is Benedict Spence writing in the (London) Daily Telegraph about the autumnal struggle in Britain between pro- and anti-Brexiteers which is to be ended (if it is to be ended) with a general election this month:
We have reached a period of political partisanship where people are so willing to suspend reality in order to pursue an agenda that they view real life events almost entirely through the prism of their own bias. Like football fans watching the video replay of a penalty — one set of people are able to scream that one thing is “clearly” the case, even as the other shouts that it is “blatantly” the opposite. The same footage, the same evidence, through almost identical sets of eyes, is capable of spinning wildly contrasting views. . .We have reached the stage where manipulation of the facts by spin doctors or government departments is no longer necessary — people take the raw evidence before them and mould it themselves in real time. But what is every bit as chilling is just how effective it is at drowning out reasoned debate on serious subjects.
We’ll take his word for it that in Britain there is at least some “reasoned debate on serious subjects” to be drowned out, but there’s precious little evidence of any in the U.S. Even debates over the size of government, which were once the equivalent of Britain’s Brexit debate, can no longer be taken seriously, as Bill Clinton showed us all those years ago.
But Bill Clinton looks serious and statesmanlike in comparison with the latter-day practitioners of post-modern politics. Here is a series of statements made by Nancy Pelosi to the press just before the party-line vote formally to open the impeachment inquiry — an inquiry which had already been conducting business in secret under intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff for weeks:
- “It’s a sad day. It’s a sad day because nobody comes to Congress to impeach a president of the United States, no one.”
- “Today, we move forward down the path forward by putting forward our procedures, which are transparent and open.”
- “These rules are fairer than anything that have gone before in terms of a, of an impeachment proceeding.”
- “We take an oath to protect the Constitution. And we cannot ignore — we will not ignore when the president’s behavior indicates that that investigation, that that inquiry is necessary.”
- “We will proceed with the facts — the truth — it’s about the truth and the Constitution.”
- “This isn’t about politics, it isn’t about patriotism — uh, partisanship — it’s about patriotism.”
I very much doubt if there was a soul present at this extraordinary recitation who didn’t know at some level that every single one of these articles was literally and demonstrably the reverse of “the truth,” except where she misspoke to say that it wasn’t about patriotism. And yet, for some reason, the Washington Post chose not to turn its “fact-checkers” loose to give Mrs Pelosi the Trump treatment and catalogue her words as “lies.” She even included a Clinton-style false dichotomy when she said that “we’re working hard to defend our democracy, because if we don’t have a system of checks and balances we might as well all just elect a president and go home because it will be that unitary form of government that our Founders did not want us to have.”
So Congress has a stark choice between pursuing impeachment and going home? Nobody believes that, and yet it passed unremarked by the media along with the rest. These were just the things she was expected to say by her fellow Democratic partisans in order to maintain the polite fiction that neither she nor they were partisan. So she said them. The performance was of a piece with the multiple, mind-bending, meta-post-modernism, noticed here last month, of her wrapping herself in the mantle of America’s revolutionary Founders to announce that seeking information abroad to the discredit of a political opponent has now become an impeachable offense — at least when committed by someone her political allies have been trying for years to impeach on the strength of information (or disinformation) to his discredit garnered (or manufactured) abroad by her own side.
Andrew McCarthy wrote in National Review online of “The Trivialization of Impeachment,” but really this is just one aspect of the trivialization of everything political. A partisan impeachment, like a partisan scandal, would be in the real world, if the real world existed anymore, a contradiction in terms, but now it is just one more absurdity to add to the ever-lengthening list of absurdities our politics has become. Way back in the 1960s, everybody got the joke when President Kennedy was asked at a news conference for his reaction to a resolution of the Republican National Committee against some measure he had proposed. His only comment was: “And I’ll bet it passed unanimously.” It was a variation on the contemporary comment by Mandy Rice-Davies when Lord Astor denied employing her services as a call girl: “He would, wouldn’t he?” But I’m afraid the joke would fall flat today.
It certainly would on the ears of those now championing the evidence of an anonymous CIA analyst with, in the carefully understated phrasing of the inspector general, “some indicia of an arguable political bias … in favor of a rival political candidate” against the President. The “whistle-blower,” later identified by Real Clear Investigations as Eric Ciaramella was said to have ties not only to Joe Biden and John Brennan but also to a Ukrainian-American named Alexandra Chalupa involved in Ukrainian efforts to sabotage the Trump campaign in 2016, the very thing the President was asking his Ukrainian counterpart to look into in the now-famous telephone conversation last July. It’s hard to imagine how evidence could be more tainted than that, but Mrs Pelosi and Mr Schiff and the other impeachers know that they need have no fear that this might be pointed out by anyone not identifiable as a partisan supporter of the President.
There may be one or two of the highly-principled Republican NeverTrump faction who have protested against such monstrous unfairness, but if so I haven’t heard about it. When absurdity becomes routine, it ceases to be funny — And who can doubt that it has become routine when elected officials proclaim their intention to defy the law in response to what they characterize as the lawlessness of Mr Trump’s attempt to enforce our immigration laws? Or the media insist that the First Amendment must protect their own right illegally to publish classified information but must not protect other people’s right to anything that they, the media, are pleased to call “hate speech.” In these and other ways, absurdity has gone global, as we can see when the prime minister of Canada joins in a protest against a government headed by, er, himself to show how enthusiastically he is prepared to speak out against the “climate change” he is unable to do anything else about.
Yet such an absurdity is a mere trifle next to that of a 16-year-old schoolgirl addressing the rapt and applauding delegates to the United Nations and demanding, also on behalf of limiting climate change, that wherever in the whole wide world people are not already enjoying the dubious benefits of a pre-modern, pre-industrial economy they should revert to one — even at the cost of embracing with it the universal poverty that any such reversion would inevitably entail — if they want to remain in the good graces of her good self and those other putatively non-polluting innocents she claims to speak for. Imagine that, if you can, apart from the gaudy fantasy-land of post-modern politics. It is even more impossible than the realization of any of Greta Thunberg’s forlorn hopes for human-kind. Their very impossibility is what has given the luster to her glory and made a celebrity of her.
It is possible to see post-modern politics, like little Greta’s ideal post-modern economy, as in some ways rather a reversion to the pre-modern in disguise — to the politics of Jacksonian America as described by Joanne Freeman in her book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, published last year. Then, too, as she shows in abundant detail, truth became a partisan affair; then, too, the bonds of national unity had all but dissolved and the hatreds of the two main political tendencies of the era for each other burned brightly and seemingly inextinguishably. The nation founded half a century earlier under the Constitution that Nancy Pelosi professes to venerate had by then already effectively ceased to exist as a nation, as regional and tribal loyalties took precedence, foreshadowing secession and Civil War only a few years later. Then as now people might have spoken of a “cold civil war” already in progress.
In retrospect, it ought now to be clear that the supposedly “divisive” President Trump’s “nationalism” was a doomed attempt to appeal to our waning national spirit against the tribal or “identity” politics of the left — an appeal that could only be resisted by its portrayal as a disguised attack on one or more of the racial, ethnic, religious or sexual identities huddled together under the Democratic tent. Hence Mr Trump’s now well-advertised “white supremacism” Note, however, that he’s not being impeached for that, nor for racism, sexism or any of the other forms of political incorrectness that could get him dismissed in disgrace if he were merely a college professor or the chief executive officer of a public corporation. Mrs Pelosi and her minions had to find something that could be made to look, however unconvincingly, like good old-fashioned corruption or self-dealing because they knew that the kinds of divisions between Americans that they are in the business of appealing to do not resonate with most people even to the extent that Trumpian neo-nationalism does. That the pretense of a real impeachment must still be upheld ought to give us hope that post-modern politics is, after all, different from the pre-modern kind and that today’s cold civil war may not turn hot as the last one did.
For the differences between Americans in the 1830s were deep and real, not the mere rhetorical artifacts that today’s have become. Such revolutionary madness ought to be but too seldom is the tip-off that what we are seeing, mostly on television and in the newspapers, is not a real revolution but a post-modern one, a revolution staged with the help of the media and mostly taking place in the media, broadly understood to include the social media, but characterized by such sound and fury that the media-addicted among us can easily mistake it for the real thing — to the point, even, of embracing socialism (or “socialism”), the most thoroughly discredited political philosophy there has ever been since there has been political philosophy (see “Trying Times” in The New Criterion of April, 2018), if that is what it takes to keep us à la mode. I suspect that even those of us who repudiate the would-be socialists and pretend revolutionaries cannot entirely avoid being caught up in the post-modern fantasia and must struggle to hang on to such shreds of detachment and self-awareness as are left to us, lest we become as blind to reality as those whom we oppose.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.