Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A German View of our Political Theater

The American press has become so predictable in what it chooses to write about the race for the White House that it is becoming necessary to look to other countries for an alternative perspective. Marc Hujer has attempted to provide such a perspective in his attempt to examine the preparations for the Democratic caucus in Iowa in an extended analysis at SPIEGEL ONLINE, and it is worth considering that perspective simply because it is not beholden to American media interests. The first thing one observes is that Hujer has confined his analysis to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, regarding them as the only "signal" in a much broader field of "noise." This may be an unfortunate consequence of his being a one-man operation trying to do his job while all the other media have tag-teams canvassing the state of Iowa every which way; but it also may be a reflection of how any of us would react when there are just too many players on the field. We need to focus down on making a choice between a smaller number of alternatives; and, at the risk of sounding too cynical, two is the ideal number because, if all else fails, you can always toss a coin.

Having made his decision to focus, Hujer then tries to develop a model of the distinction between Obama and Clinton; and the result is that he seems to have made of his mind how he would cast his vote had he one to cast. He sees Obama as a bright star that is just too detached from the electorate to have an impact. Hujer latches on to an epithet that he claims is popular among campaign strategists to argue that Obama lacks any standing among "the beer drinkers." Unfortunately, he does little to explain why this is the case beyond portraying Obama as a bright guy who just is not particularly comfortable in his own skin. This is not meant to be a metaphor about race, because it seems as if he real discomfort is with being given the dreaded "brainiac" label. Gone is the label of "audacity" under which he first charged into the fray, along with any suggestion that hope may be revived through that audacity. Hujer sees Obama as a man with much to say but without anyone willing to listen; and this German perception of what happens when someone who is, by nature, cerebral tries to go stumping among beer drinkers may be one of the more accurate assessments to have been written about a political process that may ultimately exemplify the sort thing that another German, Max Weber, had in mind when he wrote about "loss of meaning."

Hujer's contrasting view of Clinton, on the other hand, is summed up in the thesis sentence of his analysis:

Barack Obama may be the star of the 2008 US presidential campaign, but he lacks what rival Hillary Clinton offers in spades: competence and experience.

Invoking the spirit of Weber again, this is what one might expect from an attempt at a rationalist assessment of the current state of play. However, in the interest of that rationalism, Hujer may have neglected Clinton's strongest holding in her hand of spades: ruthlessness. I have already suggested that lack of ruthlessness may explain why John Edwards was not even detected by Hujer's radar; and it may also explain that Obama's audacity has been beaten down by Clinton's ruthlessness, even when it appears through a mannerism like her "Medusa eyes." I am a bit surprised that Hujer chose not to pick up on this, particularly in the context that one of the greatest masters of ruthlessness was Otto von Bismarck; and it was due to this trait that Isaiah Berlin held him up as such an expert in political judgment. Indeed, when it comes to the Berlin model of political judgment, Clinton probably fills the bill better than any of the other contenders among Republicans as well as Democrats. However, Hujer does not explore this point of view, preferring to focus of competence and experience, probably because they are more palatable for his rationalist sentiments.

This may ultimately be the flaw of his analysis. Yes, it is true that we find better examples of rationalism in what Europeans write about politics; but, as we can see from the reports of recent neo-Nazi and other nationalist activities, rationalism does not dominate the electoral decision process in Europe any more than it does in the United States. Thus, Hujer's contribution is valuable for being different but not necessarily for contributing any critical observations that might provide further insight into the current political theater in Iowa. Had he been less attached to his rationalism, he might have spent more time among the "audience in the stalls" than in tracking the two front-runners.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The basic problem with his assessment is that Hillary's supposed advantage in "competence and experience" is a triumph of perception over reality. The true caliber of her "competence" can be seen in the health care reform debacle of 1994, and her "experience" led her to support an even bigger debacle, the Iraq war, in a vote she still won't admit was a mistake.

You are quite right that it's ruthlessness, not experience or competence, that's lead Hillary to her frontrunner status.