I’m very thankful that I don’t have a television. We’re heading into the final months of the presidential election, and maybe I’ll be spared the demoralizing experience of so much stupidity conveyed with such seriousness. You know the routine. The news anchor asks, “Jim, did the McCain campaign overreach with the recent ads that suggest that Obama’s eyebrows are raised in haughty disdain for the white working class voters in Ohio who went for Hillary Clinton in the primaries?” “Well, Michelle,” Jim replies, “today, the South Toledo Coalition Opposed to Facial Stereotyping held a news conference denouncing the ads. But I think that’s really a side issue. What really matters is that voters will be offended by such a superficial turn in the McCain attack ads, and that’s nothing to wink at.”
But I’m kidding myself. You don’t need a television to get reception. The mindless political buzz is everywhere.
By my reckoning, the inanities of mass politics in a democratic society are a necessary evil. Campaigns must be conducted. Candidates need to have talking points. Political parties have to close ranks and push for victory. And I recognize the inevitability of the ever-growing, para-political world of media commentators, think tanks, lobbyists, magazines, bloggers, and grassroots movements. Who wins matters, and we are rightly invested in the outcome of our elections.
But I worry. I worry about friends who seem to vibrate with anxiety over the thought of this or that candidate being elected. I worry about others who seem to invest undue confidence that their highest moral and spiritual ideals will triumph if their favored candidate is elected. And most of all, I’m amazed at the serious attention that seemingly intelligent people give to the passing ephemera of the news cycle. Have we convinced ourselves not only that politics matters, but that it matters most of all? It’s an unfortunate mistake.
Lytton Strachey saw this error very clearly. He was an essayist who flourished at the beginning of the twentieth century. His irreverent biographical essays in The Eminent Victorians (1918) were very influential, giving cruelly witty literary form to the emerging dissatisfaction with the starchy, nineteenth-century Victorian commitment to high moral principle. The dreams and fears of Western culture were in the process of changing, and Strachey helped give birth to our post-traditional world, one more concerned with happiness and authenticity than honor and duty.
Yet, for all his sensitivity to cultureindeed, for all his quite evident desire to do his best to redirect the moral compass of his own ageStrachey judged a political emphasis corruptive of our larger moral and cultural intelligence. In an essay on Lord Macaulay, one of the most important English writers of the nineteenth century, Strachey suggests why.
Macaulay is justly famous for his History of England, a multi-volume account of the Revolution of 1688 and subsequent reign of William and Mary that painted a picture of liberty and true religion triumphing over tyranny and obscurantism. This historical interpretation was very much a part of the liberal or Whig view of British politics in Macaulay’s day, and the History remains a pleasure to read in large part because Macaulay’s prose is so alive with a Whiggish confidence.
Strachey acknowledges the way in which Macaulay’s political convictions gave his writing energy and purpose, but at a cost. “His Whiggism was in itself a very serious drawback,” Strachey writes of Macaulay, “not because it was a cause of bias, but because it was a symptom of crudity. The bias was of the wrong kind; it was the outcome of party politics, and the sad truth is that, in the long run, party politics become a bore.” “Too often,” Strachey continues, “he misses the really exciting, the really fascinating point. And how can one fail to miss a great deal if one persists in considering the world from one side or other of the House of Commons?”
I find myself assenting without reservation. Party politics are a bore, as most of us realize after we’ve spent time during this campaign cycle at the office cooler posing as a sixty-second pundits. In fact, Russell Kirk thought a certain detachment from politics to be a sign of a sensible, well-ordered conservative soul: “Even more than liberals or radicals, typical conservatives (sensing that politics is not the whole of life) remain indifferent to political action as long as possible; there are more interesting things to do.”
Party politics and campaign punditry make for boredom in the same way that a heavy diet of the Racing Form or baseball box scores will make any person’s life seem dull and narrow. But there is more. Politics are also epiphenomenal. Winning elections is all about gaining control of the levers of state power. In a healthy political culture, candidates and their supporters want power in order to implement policies that have some sensible connection to ideals or principles or collective sensibilities.
In the main, American politics is healthy. Yes, of course we have professional politicians who are desperate to stay in office at any cost of principle. Yes, of course we have lobbyists with gobs of money who want to tilt legislation this way or that in order to give their clients an advantage in the marketplace or a place at the trough of government spending. But from where I sit, in this election (as in every one I can remember) the two parties want power primarily in order to realize the dreams and forestall the fears of their core constituencies.
All the ephemera of the campaign seasonthe sound bites, the spin, the counter-spin, the endless layers of media meta-spinning comments on spin, the polling, the focus groups, the reporters interviewing swing voters, indeed, the very concept of a swing voterall of this and everything else that will clog the airwaves for the next two long months serve this basic goal: to win for the sake of our often inchoate, often inarticulate, but always passionately felt sense of the purposes and dangers of our collective life.
In the end, our dreams and fears emerge out of debates about our common culture, debates about first things. These debates, as Lytton Strachey and Russell Kirk (two men with very different political outlooks) recognized, are much more interesting and more important than politics.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.