Brother Double Fantasy

Elias Isquith has been thinking about the attachment of some “lefties” to John Huntsman:

[W]hile it’s probably the case that some Democrats like Huntsman because so many Republicans don’t, I’d guess that what’s happening is actually simpler and even more superficial: they just like the guy, and any policy-based cognitive dissonance is shrugged off or waved away.

Considering the strong and getting stronger temptation to speak of the Huntsman ’12 campaign exclusively in the past tense, further committing any interest in it to the realm of the simple and superficial puts the value of the whole exercise in doubt.  Yet, at the risk of merely rehearsing my prejudices, I’ll suggest that something deeper or more essential underlies the otherwise quite entirely unimportant minor infatuation encountered amongst a certain kind of “lefty” with Huntsman, something that also has to do with why I put “lefty” in quotes.

One of the key premises that joins all liberals together is an insistence that politics remain un-serious in Schmitt’s sense:  That, whatever our differences, we remain committed to working them out rhetorically and logically, according to the rules of politics as a game.  The concept speaks to a difference between those who are committed to the bourgeois-liberal system as virtually an end in itself, if not the only end of politics, and those who see it as at best a tool, in other ways as an obstacle, to “getting what they really want.”

What the left and the right really want is justice as they define it, and the “harsh partisans” or “radicals” on either side in their own way follow the biblical precept:  no justice, no peace.  Neither right radicals nor left radicals – rightists nor leftists properly speaking – acknowledge the liberal definition of politics to be desirable or even philosophically tenable.  They are wont to see the to the liberal all-important laws, forms, and precedents as empty show, concealment for the real and in the final analysis lethally violent coercion that is always going on, whether or not the variously useful and not very useful idiots of the broad liberal center are even capable of conceiving of their role in the prepetuation of that violence.

The recognition erupts into public consciousness in the captivating rage of so-called insurgent candidates and movements, or the outbursts and actions of the heroes of popular culture, connected by subterranean channels to the sacred bloody fount.  (“You can’t handle the truth!”)  Contra Corey Robin, who tends to see bloody-mindedness as somehow more typical of the reactionary right, at least in our day, this tendency can still be found across the further-left wherever it seeks to distinguish itself from uncertain allies nearer the political center.  In the absence of visible and militant organized leftwing movements, especially after the fall or self-abnegation of the Marxist-Leninist powers, we are more like to encounter the shadow, the attitude, a relatively quiet, suppressed invocation of the lethal seriousness of politics, rather than anything remotely resembling an open call to arms.  The pacification of the last militant holdouts seems to correspond with the reflexive quasi-pacifism of the further left.  Figures like Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher, or Cornel West are able or are compelled to operate in this zone, whenever they indict, with flagrant impotence, the moral failings of the compromisers – as though those who have already been ostracized are ever in a position to insist on a new round of proscriptions. It was in part this political flailing of the further left, easy to depict as self-indulgent, irrelevant, detached from reality – in a word, infantile – that once sent the likes of Christopher Hitchens as well as most of the liberal power structure, with the signal exception of relatively minor figures like state senator Barack Obama, fleeing into the arms of the much more serious Neo-Cons with their visions of a civilizational fight to the death with the likewise serious radical Islamists.

To round our way back to Huntsman, I find it impossible to take him seriously in any sense, but I can recognize in the idea of a general election campaign between him and the incumbent president the fantasy of a rational, logical political competition, a competition that would be serious only and precisely in the apolitical way that liberals define “serious politics” – an intellectually somewhat demanding occupation for gentlepeople, chiefly characterized by careful examination and adjudication of administrative issues susceptible to a probabilistic analysis of comparative utilities – and no essential, no Schmitt-serious disagreements to be found.  It could not therefore matter at all what half-recycled garbage now sits in the Huntsman platform.  In the light of rational discussion, its foolishness would stand out for all rational gentlepeople to see, and Huntsman and his party of rational conservatives would lose both the argument and the election to the exponent of progressive rather than reactionary neo-liberalism.

In Huntsman – a callow, hesitant, and incoherent politician whose every word and gesture betray his status as a son of immense privilege and thoroughly suppressed urges to rebel – liberals, but not lefties, glimpse victory twice over:  A significant electoral victory to come, one in which all of their splendid arguments and insights receive a favorably dispassionate presentation; and a victory already won, of a political discourse defined entirely on liberal terms, endlessly to their liking.  As pleasant fantasies go, it’s little more than a daydream, as forgettable as Huntsman ’12 gives every indication of being.

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4 comments on “Brother Double Fantasy

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  1. Seriously, Huntsman has to figure out what his audience is, his interviews with the Journal, show that he does understand the macro picture on economics, on China competition with us (the support for a virtual trade war is one of the most tone deaf of Romney’s positions) but he seems to be gearing it for Esquire and the Times, and by proxy Elias’s crowd, that gets you no
    where, specially when Ron Paul can out flank you on the quirky independent,

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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