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Friday, February 13, 2009

Part 1: Obama's Post-Partisan Vision and the Unspoken Promise

President Obama is a man who understands the power of unspoken words. Although his powerful rhetoric seems to reveal so much on the surface, he is able to deftly veil his inner ideological core from unwanted eyes probing for weaknesses to exploit. Certainly his political enemies tried and repeatedly attacked him as an "empty suit" throughout the campaign for his hair-raising oratories. It didn't work because in the hands of a master politician like Obama, the power of unspoken words preempts controversy by defusing it before it becomes inflated. More to the point, unspoken words serve as a smoke screen behind which Obama can operate against political enemies who, much to their dismay, cannot reliably attack what they cannot see clearly.

None better exemplifies this approach than the notion of "post-partisan" politics, a term given to Obama by the media to characterize the spirit of "change" he promised to bring to Washington politics. The funny thing is, post-partisanship is a term that Obama never used himself, but yet it is becoming more mainstream by the day. But precisely because Obama left the term unspoken, he was free to flex his rhetorical muscles and stake out an ambiguous yet distinctly post-partisan position without ever being challenged about what it actually means. Obama can get away with this because he can charm a crowd of millions without breaking a sweat.

So instead of telling us what post-partisanship means, Obama only told us what it should NOT mean: Washington politics as we know it today.

Obama did this for a very simple reason: to avoid big-time controversy. The standard thing for politicians to do is promise BI-partisanship, or the act of "reaching across the isle" and making deals with the opposition. Since this is what politicians are supposed to be doing anyway, bipartisanship is a relatively safe promise to make. But on the other hand, to promise POST-partisanship, something that implies doing something other than "reaching across the isle," is basically tantamount to turning the American political establishment on its head. This is precisely why Obama never uttered "post-partisanship."

Last time I checked, we live in a bipartisan democracy. The truth is, partisanship is an existential trait of our two-party democracy; polar opposition ensures balance in bipartisan Congressional agreements which contain ideological elements of both sides, otherwise it is not really democratic (i.e., pre-partisan). While too often does this political ideal result in watered-down or even incoherent legislation, it's a process of eternal compromise we as Americans implicitly agree to suffer. Bipartisan jockeying can get downright shameful and we may not like it, but somehow that's just how things here should work.

Were Obama to have come forth outright with the decree that we should not be bipartisan as the term post-partisan would suggest, there would be an uproar. Instead of calling him a socialist, the GOP would have branded him a dictator and that moniker might have actually worked. But because of the power of unspoken words, Obama masterfully defused a potentially damaging controversy and instead ended up compelling a lot of people to imagine "something new" without prompting them to wonder what that actually means. To fill the intellectual void, both Washington and the mainstream media stepped in to put their stamp on post-partisanship, the former being politicians hoping to gain a political edge and the latter being journalists hoping for snappy headlines. From what I can tell, neither have yet got the definition quite right (1 2 3 4), save for a few that are on the right track (1 2).

This is exactly what Obama wanted, a smoke screen behind which he can operate against an entrenched culture of ideological warfare in Washington and, as the indomitable Rush Limbaugh would say, the "drive-by" media feeding Americans woefully biased information. Indeed, if we are to give Obama the benefit of the doubt that he is not just an "empty suit" canvassing for votes, then the power of unspoken words is the only means by which anyone can hope to "change" the incumbent political environment. For now, President Obama holds the cards and has secured a position of power where he can reveal them at a time of his choosing and no other's.

A lot of people are satisfied to just "watch and see" how Obama will conduct himself in the coming years but personally, I feel the promise of post-partisanship is too significant to let others define it for me. As such, this post is the first installment in a series that will explore in turn the contrast between post-partisan and bipartisan politics, at least in my theory; how post-partisan politics can be even compatible with a bipartisan democracy such as ours; and how we can judge the genuineness of Obama's professed post-partisan presidency when partisan gridlock in Washington is all we have in recent memory to use as reference. Stay tuned!


Dave C said...

When I hear a made up term that starts with "post" I shudder a little bit. Maybe its recall from art school encounters with post-modernism, but I'm cynical to any claim of moving past a behavior/belief/whatever.

Anyway, Obama has always been quick to subtlety embrace and encourage his Messianic following and appeal. I believe he started his Democratic Nominee acceptance speech with the words "Today is the day the seas cease to rise..." (or something like that). The media has been eager to reenforce this perception. So a label like "Post-Partisan," which implies he's transcends partisanship, is neither surprising to come from the media nor that Obama hasn't corrected it.

I don't think it is a calculating move to give him the freedom to govern. I think its a natural hyperbolic extension of the high expectations of his supporters, and the perception of Obama he has actively nurtured.

This image may translate to political equity, but beyond that I don't think it buys him any additional freedom. His first month in office and the trouble he is having with staffing shows that the promise of change can be just as crippling as any philosophy; made up labels or otherwise.

miles said...

I love the post- prefix.. post-bop in the 60's is my favorite period in jazz ^_^ The funny thing is that my understanding of jazz has helped me formulate my theory on postpartisanship. Namely, the post- of something doesn't mean it is mutually exclusive of that which came before, but rather it is a subsumption by which both elements coexist and operate together at the same time. So yeah, post-something doesn't really mean moving PAST something that came before, it's just adding to it. I'm not trying to be mister smartypants; this concept is central to what I will write in my coming installments.

Anyway, let's get to it. I don't want to say too much here because I barely scratched the surface with this post, but I can't resist testing the waters just a little..

I agree that Obama's goal was to get the Democratic base to eat up his rhetoric, but that's what every politician hopes to do; he just does it exceptionally well, even better than Ms. Palin (ugh). As I argued in this post, the real reason why he hasn't been challenged to define postpartisanship is because he gives everyone plenty to chew on already, namely what it should not be; it's the power of unspoken words at work.

Yes, the people's expectations are high as a result, but I don't think most people (including the media) even know what it is they're expecting. Nor do I, but that's precisely why I'm writing these posts. As I will argue in my next installment, postpartisanship does NOT mean "political equity" or bipartisanship, as you and most pundits out there suggest. Political equality, as it were, IS bipartisanship, which has nothing to do with postpartisanship in principle. I plan to define and explore this notion in great depth, so please resist disagreeing with me until I do!

In any case, it is much too early to judge whether Obama is really an empty suit. If his professed "change" comes, it will not come for some time even after he gets past his current troubles. But even if postpartisanship did one day begin to emerge, would people even know how to recognize it? This is why I intend to propose a metric in my final installment by which we can judge whether he is really being postpartisan or not. Actually, so far everything he has done fits into my model, including Obama's blatantly partisan behavior AND bipartisan gestures to date. HA Obama take that! Your power of unspoken words won't work on me!

Anonymous said...

"Will change come?" is a good question. Even Obama himself seems unsure about this. On the campaign trail he portrayed himself as a man of hope. Now his speaches carry somewhat of a doomsdayish undertone. More than once he's publicly said something like "I didn't plan on having to deal with this mess...". Kinda childish to say something like that isnt it? I'll tell you, hearing that doesn't sound like the same Obama that we heard before November and it sounds like he himself might be a bit worried about fulfilling that dream of his which was the campaign-centric idea of change that carried him to victory.

Chris (from the iPod) ^_^

miles said...

Yeah I think Obama's rhetoric must necessarily be less dreamy than it was during the campaign. He's definitely going to experience many potent reality checks. Yes, "will change come" is a good question, but a better one is "what is change" altogether. What really interests me is that he never clearly defined his idea of "post-partisan change" even though he got about 77 million votes for simply suggesting it. In my next few posts I attempt to wade through his smoke screen rhetoric and extrapolate what he might actually mean by post-partisan change in the first place and further, how he might be able to implement it in reality. Only after we actually define "change" can we start to judge whether "change will come" ourselves.