Friday, January 23, 2009
The Pods Have Arrived
As Walt Whitman put it:
Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people.
. . .the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him -- these too are unrhymed poetry.
This video (via Patrick Appel at the Daily Dish), by contrast, is not unrhymed poetry. (As if the presence of a gesticulating Ashton Kutcher might have left room for doubt).
"I pledge to be the servant of the president" is, of course, an affront to the very principles of republican -- as opposed to monarchical -- government, where the president is in no uncertain terms the servant of the people. So while the message of service is a worthy one, it's delivered in a very intellectually lazy way. Worse still, anyone who's ever worked in drug and alcohol treatment -- or who's ever made a New Year's resolution, for that matter -- knows what happens to the vast majority of these kinds of heat-of-the-moment pledges. And if that weren't enough, making service fashionable is the surest way to keep it from becoming durable.
I mentioned before that President Obama's plans to create a sort of direct constituency of grassroots supporters made me uneasy. It's the classic populist technique of the demagogue, whose appeals to direct democracy (constitutional referenda, for instance) are often ways of sidestepping the institutional checks and balances of government.
What I realized since is that I'm not so much worried about Obama, who has at every turn used his ability to mobilize mass audiences to bring out their best, and not their worst, nature. What I'm worried about is the creation of an institution in American political culture that might subsequently be manipulated by someone with less noble aims.
And the kind of body-snatcher, cult-like following on display in that video doesn't offer much reassurance about the ability of the American political psyche to resist the demagogue's appeal when it does come. Melting into a mass movement dedicated to serving the president is about as antithetical to American governmental ideals as I can imagine.