Entry from April 5, 2010

Just over 14 years ago, when I heard President Bill Clinton announce in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of Big Government is over,” I thought that I had discovered the new age of what I called postmodern politics. By this I meant a political culture in which the vital link between word and deed, between rhetoric and reality was broken. To be sure, it was in the nature of politics for there to be a gap between these things. Politicians have always spun and been spun, they always — or nearly always — fail to live up to their most proudly proclaimed intentions. But always before, I thought, they had been subject to a greater or lesser extent to the discipline of a public which would notice this gap and punish them if it grew too large. What we began to find in the 1990s was not that politicians were suddenly engaging in empty rhetoric; it was that people stopped caring that it was empty — and even expected it to be empty.

At the time, I thought there must be some connection to President George H.W. Bush’s highly public promise in 1988 that, if elected president as he duly was, he would always say to the Democratic opposition: “Read my lips; no new taxes.” That emphasis, if it meant anything, meant that he was inviting people to hold him accountable if, as he subsequently did, he raised taxes. And people did hold him accountable by refusing him re-election in 1992. But there was a lot more to that election than his broken promise, and I thought it likely that his breaking of that promise must have had something to do with the final collapse of the bond of trust between the people and their elected officials that, however frayed it had grown since Vietnam and Watergate, still existed up until then. If even this old-style, honor-bound patrician politician has come to think that there need be no connection between rhetoric and reality, we must assume that, henceforth, everybody will think so.

Certainly when, four years later, the Clinton juggernaut cruised to re-election, even the G.O.P., though they may have grumbled about “Slick Willy,” didn’t think to cite so obvious an untruth as that “the era of big government is over” or any of his other, equally obvious rhetorical flourishes as a reason to vote against him. Bob Dole asked “Where is the outrage?” but the missing outrage seemed as much a stage prop as the things we were supposed to be outraged about, whatever they were. That was pre-Monica Lewinsky, and I can’t even remember now. During primary season, 2004, Andrew Ferguson wrote a brilliant piece for The Weekly Standard titled “The Pomo Primary” in which he, too, noticed that “the key to postmodernism is reflexivity, when words no longer seem to refer to anything outside themselves.” Alas, his insights, far better worked out and exampled than mine had been, never became the staples of academic political science and cultural commentary that they deserved to be.

Now I find that Victor Davis Hanson at Pajamas Media is identifying President Obama as a “postmodern president” — indeed, the country’s first. I think that Professor Hanson is right to say that “the chief characteristic of postmodern thinking is the notion of relativism and the primacy of language over reality,” but what he goes on to describe as “postmodern” is a straightforwardly left-wing view of the world and America’s place in it which, though President Obama may indeed to a considerable extent share it, does not in itself amount to postmodernism. The postmodern element lies not in the familiar but newly-fashionable leftism of those who are anti-establishment, anti-“vested interests,” anti-wealth, anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-Western alliance and anti-Western culture but in the curiously unquestioned pretense that policies which are, objectively, any or all of these things are “really” none of them.

Thus, too, it’s not the vast new entitlement of the “reformed” health-care system which is post-modern; it’s the ludicrous pretense that it will actually save the government money and so be more fiscally responsible than the status quo. It’s not the hypocrisy of attacks on the right for “hate speech” that are themselves couched in hateful terms; it’s the confidence that no one except those under attack will notice or care about the contradiction. It’s not that the president truckles to America’s enemies and insults or ignores our friends; it’s that he can rely on large segments of the foreign policy establishment to agree — or at least to pretend to agree — that such a course represents a welcome new direction for American diplomacy. And it’s not that Mr Obama is our first postmodern president. That honor should go to Bill Clinton if it goes to anybody. It’s that he has been as successful as he has been to date because he has been able to realize and exploit better than the opposition the fact that we are all living in a post-modern country.

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