I go around insisting often that nowadays we don’t want — or want to deal with the real costs and risks of — real things, or, rather, that when we can find or create the opportunity to have a thing-like experience, we eagerly choose that over experiencing the real thing. I argue that this act of moral pragmatism, which seeks to ameliorate the painful contradiction between binding commitment and unbound freedom, is the essence of therapeutic logic today. I recognize it most clearly in everyday life in the way that ‘senses of’ things have come to dominate our talk and the way we express our conceptions and our aspirations.
So I think that part of the anxiety striking people like Rod and Andrew who are uplifted and inspired by Obama and Huckabee is the result of our cultural inability to decisively defeat our fear that if we don’t remain bound in commitment to reality then we risk not just anxiety but great agony. On the one hand, we want real change, and people who promise, or evoke the promise, of real change therefore generate much genuine enthusiasm. On the other hand, we also long for the simple enjoyment of a sense of change. We’ve revised our expectations about politics downward, as a therapeutic prophylactic and analgesic, against the agony of realizing that the major structural change necessary to truly solve the huge problems that we can only cope with from year to year is actually impossible. With the feverish dislocation and trivial pursuit of the market, the dissolution of authority in our personal relationships, and the ominous contingency of terrorism and ecological change, we want to ‘live in the moment’, to be ‘heroes for just one day’, we want the freedom to be carried away without guilt or nervousness into the swell and flush of true fellow-feeling, following the proud yet inclusive call of politicians that seem to redeem politics by transcending it.
Yet we struggle to repress the knowledge that transcending politics from within politics can’t really redeem it.
It’s a stage trick. Any appeal that transcends politics must actually transcend the political. We criticize politicians for playing politics, but what else can they play? What we really mean is that they are good politicians but defective people, and we wish that we could have good politicians who are good people, too. But a good person isn’t necessarily a good politician, and the structure of American politics today makes us want to rebel against the standards of effective politics.
The rise of Obama and Huckabee is thus a partially justified and partially reasonable cry for help. The justified and reasonable portion, looking ahead, cries out for a fundamental break with the sort of bad politics that leads us to seek therapeutic compensation for its failures — always coping, never curing. The unjustified and unreasonable portion, looking only to the instant, cries out for the experience of a sense of that fundamental break to not end. But that infantile desire for the good feeling not to stop is exactly the kind of therapeutic coping that we have turned to to escape the risk of political agony. And we know it is, even while we know at the same time that our longing for the reality of change instead of the sense of it is itself genuinely real.
For these reasons, it’s important from where I’m standing to talk about whether the election of our exciting Change Candidates is likely to have much of a real impact at all — not because we’re in danger of being let down, but because if they can’t really do much positive political harm, then their election would be more or less harmless. In the short term, that would reward our bad desire for a therapeutic sense of change, and reinforce the reality that would seem to condemn us to it. But in the slightly longer term, such an outcome might be what’s needed for us to break through bad therapy and return to us the courage to face the reality of American politics. It might be the only thing that can force us to do politics again, to be true citizens. In that respect, the argument between Rod and Daniel about whether Obama and Huck are selling the mere sense of change may only be relevant to the extent that the harm of electing either would actually be real. And as much as I know both men support things that I don’t, one of the worst harms we face today is the mental habit of framing the possible success of anyone who disagrees with us as a crisis, a risk of comprehensive catastrophe. After all, it’s just such a permanent rhetoric of crisis that encourages us to take a therapeutic attitude about change. Because if high-stakes crisis is constant and ineradicable, there is no hope of curing the great anxiety that we adopt to avoid the risk of experiencing the agony of defeat. All we can do is cope — throwing ourselves periodically into the arms of whatever public figure consents to triggering in us the blissful release of fleeting erotic escape. In addition to mirroring the way sex functions under certain cultural circumstances, it reminds us of the crucial role of authority in making politicians good. Charisma is real, but it isn’t enough, and when people assert that it is, they assert false charisma. Sadly, those who would use this last point as a stick with which to beat their political opponents have little authority themselves, running on a record of power — or, worst of all, their history of experiencing the sense of it.
Cross-posted at Postmodern Conservative