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Can We Hope in Politics?12/26/2007 15:04:59
As we inch ever closer to the time when voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada tell Americans who our presidential candidates will be, those of us stragglers who put the decision off till now feel some pressure to come out with it. Philosophers from Kierkegaard to Derrida have reminded us about the absurdity of deciding, but Dante thought hell is too good for those who sit on the sidelines.
I will not vote Republican, but if the candidate were Ron Paul I would consider it. My ideal election: Ron Paul v. Dennis Kucinich. The debates around a contest like this might finally tell American who she really is. And there would be no more war in Iraq, that's for sure.
Though I lean toward Kucinich's adventuresome thinking, I also feel the need this late in the game to decide between the two candidates who might actually win the nomination, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Both relatively centrist, the key distinction between the two of them, as I see it, is the kind of leadership each will provide, rather than the issues themselves. In this regard, the difference seems clear to me: Obama's "politics of hope" against cynicism against Clinton's realism and experience.
My friend over at The Toothbrush Debates states this case of hope for Obama well. The new guy offers a new way of thinking and talking about politics. I was struck how well his campaign book The Audacity of Hope captured sympathy for ideas on different sides of an issue, even as it stakes definite positions. While it remains unclear whether Obama has the negotiating skills or appeal to actually be a bipartisan dealmaker, he talks an appealing talk.
What is troubling is how much Obama might resemble George W. Bush in the 2000 election, who promised to be a "uniter" not a "divider" and to practice "compassionate conservatism." In office, Bush has been none of this. His lack of governing ability and judgment collapsed the early ideals into reactionary, warmongering partisanship.
Hillary Clinton, in contrast, works within the system, and unlike Bush and Obama does not pretend to be a prophet from without. She voted for the Iraq War to voice her support for an eventuality. She has scaled back her past health care proposals. With her husband after his first years in office, she has learned the trouble of pushing ideals over practicalities. Clinton knows Washington as Obama cannot possibly; she knows its rules and its people.
The event that set my perception of the two candidates in this way was the debate in July when Obama promised to hold meetings with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea during his first year in office. Clinton's celebrated reply, that such a meeting would be foolhardy and disastrous, made Obama look unpresidential. She knows how diplomacy works, and it doesn't work by presidents indiscriminately giving face-time to tyrants. As the "Vulcan proverb" from Star Trek VI goes, "Only Nixon could go to China."
This, though, strikes me as the dilemma of hope. Do we vote for things to be done right such as they are, or for a new way of doing things? Is the promise of something valiantly new (like Obama's meetings or Kucinich's Department of Peace) by definition absurd? Hannah Arendt insists that it is not, that instead we should define politics according to the new, according to natality. We are human as long as we remain open to possibility, and by necessity possibility breaks through against the assumed onto-theologies of our time. Being new means doing things differently, even looking foolish in the logic of the old.
The problem with novelty is it has no substance. It remains to-come. With George W. Bush, the promises of novelty, when they gained the substance of practice, turned into a lie - as with so many political promises. Obama's may go the same route. Clinton could unveil a novelty of her own. This is why the decision is always so absurd: the future is unknown, the substance of hope remains unfulfilled until hope itself fades into realities. In any case, there is no escape from hope. Any politics of decision has to be a politics of hope.
In Arendtine terms, it is Obama who offers true politics, the possibility to think in new ways about how we are and operate, while Clinton represents a certain banality. Not necessarily a banality of evil, and perhaps even one of competence and good. I don't think we are ready for banality yet. The conversation needs to continue, and it needs to welcome new ideas, new voices. The president, the figurehead, is this country's best opportunity to represent itself to itself.
re: Can We Hope in Politics? - 12/26/2007 18:54:48
re: Can We Hope in Politics? - 12/26/2007 22:08:24