Tuesday, September 23, 2008

US Election 2008 - Sincerity versus Authenticity

(Where is my copy of Lionel Trilling's book? I thought I had one somewhere. Did I lend it to someone? Oh well, never mind, it'll turn up.)

I was just reading David Foster Wallace's account (in a book called "Consider the Lobster") of John McCain's 2000 campaign for the Republican nomination (against an opponent then referred to as "The Shrub"). Wallace (then writing for Rolling Stone) was far from being a supporter of McCain, but he was impressed by his personal qualities. It's difficult not to be impressed by McCain's biography - whether as a fantastic example of courage and fortitude or as a brilliant example of personal myth, or perhaps both.

So here's a thought. In the upcoming presidential election, Obama represents Sincerity while McCain represents Authenticity. Different kinds of truth.

A minority of voters might vote for McCain and Palin because they share their opinions and beliefs, but most Americans don't. The only reason McCain and Palin have the remotest chance of winning the election is because sackloads of American votes will be cast for who the candidates are, not for what they stand for. Megan Garber (Columbia Journalism Review) calls this the Authenticity Trap - " the West Wing logic of governance: that truth-to-self will somehow lead a president to effective leadership".

In contrast, people will mostly not vote for Obama because of who he is - a smooth Afro-American lawyer from Chicago with a foreign name - but because of what he (so eloquently) stands for. Adam Kirsch (New York Sun) finds Obama's book more authentic than Hillary Clinton's - but come on, how many American votes are going to be based on reading? (People didn't vote for Churchill because they'd read his books either.)

Perhaps more than any election in recent memory, this is the battle of the Enlightenment. The man who speaks from the heart for progress, hope and the American Dream against the man who was captured by the VietCong and will not tell a lie. George Lakoff (Huffington Post) thinks the Enlightenment frame isn't working so well for Obama these days, and wants the Obama campaign to stop reinforcing the Maverick frame for McCain.

Steven Shaviro has a rather different take on this. In More Electoral Ruminations, he contrasts Democrat hypocrisy with Republican cynicism, and avers that "It is not stupid to vote for McCain/Palin; rather, it is evil. Republicans are intrinsically, and necessarily, morally depraved."

Some of Shaviro's readers were shocked by this abrupt jump from the political discourse to the moral/ethical, so he tried to justify his position with a Note on Evil, claiming that Obama is the true follower of Kant, and resurfacing his argument (originally posted in 2004 - Nothing) that Kant's concept of radical evil applied exclusively to the Republicans.

For a much more coherent and compelling argument about the relationship between hypocrisy and cynicism, see David Runciman's new book on Political Hypocrisy. Runciman also finds for Obama, whom he compares with Lincoln, and quotes approvingly Obama's view that "It is only the politician who is able to speak his mind freely who knows when to compromise".

For a systems thinking view of the US election, see the POSIWID blog.