Entry from August 21, 2002

John Edwards’s Presidential PAC is calling itself “New American Optimists” — a fact which, so far from being itself a sign of optimism, is running neck and neck with Bob Dole’s slogan in which he claimed to be “the most optimistic man in America” as the most amusingly cynical thing any politician has said in an election campaign in a decade. One trusts that Edwards’s optimism will enjoy the same fate as Dole’s.

All this rubbish about “optimism” stems from the watershed election of 1980 in which the optimist, Ronald Reagan, beat Jimmy “Malaise” Carter, and the conventional wisdom ever since has been that you can’t win election as alderman without a fake grin on your face and frequent assurances of your optimism. But it is optimism out of context. Optimism when everybody is optimistic on principle means nothing. Or means only that the alleged optimist is yet another politician who has consented to become the creature of his handlers and pollsters, which is hardly anything to be optimistic about.

The letter I received asking for money similarly uses only focus-group tested buzzwords, assuring me that people like myself were “tired of their elected officials putting special interest profits ahead of the public interest” (like certain unnamed presidents) and that he, Sen. Edwards, could be relied upon to “know exactly how these hard-working Americans feel. Growing up around the textile mills where my father worked for 36 years I saw good people who played by the rules, victimized by those who didn’t.” And so on, blah, blah, blah.

You’d think that those “good people who played by the rules” — who have appeared in (at a rough guess) three quarters of the political speeches made since Bill Clinton introduced them in 1992 — would be ready for a rest by now. Likewise the “special interests” and “uncaring coroporations” and “armies of lobbyists” — all of whom have been round the course more times than anybody can count since first some spin doctor identified them as entities that people react to in the right ways. I wonder if Edwards is relying on new focus groups or just repackaging the campaign material that everyone else has used for a decade. One sincerely hopes it is the latter and that, the next time a pollster tries to ensure that these phrases retain their resonance with voters by testing them on a new focus group, they rise up in a body and lynch him.

Somehow, though, it is hard to believe that it could ever happen. Writing in the London Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley offers the following take on a recent spat within the British Conservative Party:

This is a fight between people who believe that politics is no longer about serious ideas and those who do. It is between those who think that principles and policies are what an electoral contest is for, and those who believe that, in a post-Blair world, elections will be won only on image and presentation. It is between those who believe that it is what you say that matters most, and the others who think that the tone of voice in which you say it (and the colour of your shirt when you say anything) is of more importance. It is not about the past versus the future. It is about reality versus appearance; content versus packaging.

The remarkable thing about American politics is that packaging has won in a landslide. In fact, there is no “content” party anymore — no one in mainstream politics clearly believes that it is “about serious ideas,” at least so far as I can see. On both sides there are reflexive twitchings — on behalf of increased regulation among the Democrats, tax cuts among the Republicans and pork barrel spending on both sides — but the head is off.

Politics was still, as recently as the Reagan administration, a contest between rival visions, however attenuated, of the good society. Now, no one knows or cares what the good society might be, and voters have apparently stopped expecting politicians even to have a thought on the subject. Instead, they are like high divers or ice dancers who go through a prescribed routine of rhetorical gyrations before their electoral judges and then wait for them to show the card with their score on it. Maybe this state of affairs is another one of the consequences of Mr Fukuyama’s “End of History,” but it is increasingly difficult to imagine any circumstances in which a politics of substance might return — pessimistic though that might sound.


From an obituary in The Times of London of General Tran Do, late of the army of North Vietnam:

A retired general, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former head of the Communist Party’s ideology and culture department, Tran Do was expelled from the party in January 1999 for suggesting that it should relinquish its monopoly on power. Thereafter he was kept under constant police surveillance.

In June last year he was briefly detained in Ho Chi Minh City, where he was visiting his son, and his three-part memoirs containing his thoughts on the country’s future were seized. Do repeatedly sent letters to authorities, as well as the Vietnam Writers Union, protesting about the illegal confiscation of his manuscripts and demanding their immediate return.

His extensive correspondence, which began in 1997, also advocated free elections and freedom of expression. The crusade started after unrest over official corruption in his home province of Thai Binh, south of Hanoi, had broken out that year.

“How can it be that the very nation I contributed to building with my own tears and blood is now trampling on its own constitution, its own laws, and treating me in such a ruthless and ungrateful way?” he wrote in a recent letter.

How indeed, General Tran! Rather you should be asking how you could have been such a dupe and a gull as to suppose that the “nation” you chose to build, a one-party state in which was invested enough power (as you thought) to alter social reality, would not have turned that power on you if you should ever become an inconvenience to it.

The great con trick of the century, and you fell for it! Sucker!


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