Loathing the Politician

Written on July 31, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in International Relations

Rolf Strom-Olsen


Imagine if you went to consult a doctor and to reassure you she said “You can trust me. I have no medical training.” You would leave at once, of course. Yet why is it then that in the popular imagination, and especially it seems in Anglophone culture, that the idea of a professional politician is both derided and decried? This dilemma is currently at the heart of a growing discussion about the candidacy of Barack Obama, which can be summed up as the question:

Who is this guy?

With a dollop of gnawing fear:

Is he just another politician?

That question picked up last week as Barack Obama demonstrated his rockstar status in countries routinely perceived as anti-American (thus: Germany, France). Even as an adulatory crowd of 200,000 heard Obama deliver a rousing, if slightly canned, speech in downtown Berlin the debate back home has turned increasingly to the question whether he is inspired Übermensch prophesying change, or just (just!) a clever and skilled politician telling people what they want to hear.

Sapiens readers may be familiar with a risible flap that erupted recently in the United States, when the unswervingly upper-middlebrow magazine The New Yorker decided to publish a cover that was unflinching in its political satire. Here’s a link to the picture. As we can see, with the terrorist paraphernalia, the jihadist garb, the burning American flag, and the presidential-style portrait of Osama Bin Laden on the wall, there was not a lot of subtlety to this depiction.

In fact, to my mind it was an excellent riposte to the often absurd caricature of Obama made by the right wing (especially the assembled band of ranting lunatics masquerading as journalists and commentators at Fox News). These media boors have been making constant and nasty, if exceedingly clumsy, insinuations about both Obama and his wife that go roughly as follows: he might be Muslim and he’s probably unpatriotic; his wife definitely hates America; he’s a far-left-leaning ideologue who sympathises with terrorists and wants to bend over to rogue nations like Iran and France. Hell, he might even BE a terrorist since he was educated in a Madrassa. (Here and here are some links if you have the stomach for these deceits, most of which have been showcased at some point on Fox News (or Faux News, or Fox Noise, as critics have taken to calling this particularly vapid corner of the cable television world). 

The goal of this caricature is presumably to bamboozle that part of the electorate which is weak-minded enough to have doubt planted in their minds. And there is probably a more chilling, depressing and repulsive reason as well: which is that it is a way of playing off the latent racism that exists. There are white voters who are uncomfortable voting for black candidates. Since these troglodytes nonetheless live in the twenty-first century and are thus presumably exposed to at least a glimmer of enlightened thinking about things, they are also uncomfortable admitting that they are uncomfortable voting for black candidates. Obama as Islamic-educated radical or far-left Euro-loving socialist offers a reassuring alternative. (It’s not because he’s black: it’s because he supports the terrorists.)

Such antediluvian posturing, however, is limited to a fringe of self-marginalising, under-cultured yahoos. Of rather greater interest is the growing perception that Barack Obama may turn out to be – GASP – a politician. Now, it is a truism that in those countries which have inherited British parliamentary culture, the politician is a largely detested beast. Not that the rest of the world loves their politicians (just ask the Belgians), but the automatic contempt in which the citizenry hold their politicians – their outright distrust of the motives of the political classes – is a particularly ingrained feature in the Anglophone world. Canadians, Australians, Americans, and Brits themselves, all generally share a fundamental view that politicians are some mixture of self-serving, corruptible (if not yet corrupt), incompetent, cynical, insincere, two-faced lackeys of the power elites whose interests they unflinchingly serve.

(By contrast, consider the last election in France, which featured
a high-level, intellectual engagement of many important issues from
nuclear power to trade unions to education policy. Gazed at from within
the legacy of British parliamentarism or American political debate, it
was a marvel.)

Thus, in the US, the term “WaRshington,” with a superfluous ‘r’ thrown in. No mere instance (for any linguists out there) of rhotic accentuation (or so-called R-colouring, a common enough linguistic practice).
No, the superfluous ‘R’ is there to show contempt for the political
class, usually by a member of the political class – a display of
faux-bumpkin hokum that apparently goes down well with local yokels.
This cultural predisposition across Her Majesty’s territorial legacy to
distrust politicians is thereby reinforced every election cycle as
tired slogans promising to change the sleaze and corruption of politics
pollute the public sphere as a matter of course.

In the US, the rhetorical violence against politics is heightened by
the fact that the US political right regularly runs on an
anti-government platform, in which government is consistently
portrayed as the major problem in America, the obstacle to progress,
and a largely unremitting evil in the lives of the ordinary citizen.
Even George Bush was forced to confront this fatuous stereotype of his
own party’s making. During the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, he reminded his fellow Americans that government could be a powerful force
for good (even as the actions of his administration were abundantly
proving the opposite).

But is it really much of a revelation, as the New Yorker article which accompanied that outré cover would have us believe, that Obama is at heart homo politicus and that he has achieved such rapid success in his political career because he is, in fact, a good politician? Actually, I don’t wish to mischaracterise the article, which observes that many of Obama’s longtime supporters from the black neighbourhoods of Chicago’s South Side now feel somewhat disillusioned as Obama has redefined himself as a national politician. But that’s essentially the same thing: as a candidate moves from one stage to another, his or her politics must change accordingly.  That’s how politics works, considered as a system of garnering increasingly broad support as one moves higher and higher up the system. Note how quickly the populist fulminations  of Lula stopped once he was elected president in Brazil.

Anyway, the point is fairly clear. We need good politicians if we are to have good politics. And the presentiment in the anglophone cultural sphere against the professional politician has not eliminated them, but instead introduced a phony language of dissent, in which political aspirants are often forced to present themselves as something other than people who aspire to politics. Barack Obama is, as far as I can tell, an excellent politician – he is highly capable of bringing together a broad and disparate base of support, he is articulate in presenting his ideas, and he comes across with a note of candour and honesty. No, he is not some precious objet trouvé that can magically reform the muddle of global politics. But that’s not what the US – and the world – needs. How about a competent, skilled politician – silly popular resentments be damned.


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