Civic Contradictions

As we near the end of another presidential campaign, I am struck by how different the experience has been for me this time around. This is my first major election cycle since 1996 I’ve not viewed through the lens of “civics teacher.” The experience has been shockingly sobering: I find myself foundering on the shoals of apathy, cynicism, even despair. What seductive sirens have brought me to this place of unexpected peril, I wonder. And why am I no longer lashed to the mast that would secure me from temptation?

In all those years teaching my way through the U. S. Constitution every semester, I always felt an enthusiastic assurance that “the way things were supposed to be” would prevail over “what things had become.” My lessons never neglected to address the very real challenges and inherent contradictions that came with the subject. But always, in the end, the possibilities and promise of this “wonderful, terrible thing” that is our American Republic never failed to rise above the perils and potential corruptions that come with self-governance. I did my best to educate and inspire class after class of “active and informed citizens” to go forth to make good on the promise. I’m concerned I’ve lost my faith in these ideals myself.

It seems that without my annual Constitutional fortification, I became easy prey for the ideological squalor, destructive vitriol, and outlandish arrogance that passes for modern politics. The dearth of genuine statesmanship in a political culture dominated by money and manipulated by media leaves little room for hope. This sad situation is aptly described by theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart:

Late Western modernity, especially in its purest (that is, most American) form, certainly values the available and the plentiful, but not necessarily the intrinsically “good.” The diet produced by mass production and mass marketing, our civic and commercial architecture, our consumer goods, our style of dress, our popular entertainments, and so forth [could we perhaps add here “our politicians”?]—it all seems to have a kind of premeditated aesthetic squalor about it, an almost militant indifference to the distinction between quantity and quality. (“A Splendid Wickedness,” First Things, Aug/Sept 2011)

Perhaps there is also an “aesthetic” of genuine statesmanship that’s been swept away by the same mass/consumerist tidal wave Hart describes above.

Is statesmanship, considered in this light, an “art” for which we’ve lost the “craft”? I am outraged by vast—even sinful–amount of money spent “marketing” contemporary candidates and policies to the public. I am insulted by the mindless media manipulation of a process so wisely crafted genuine monuments to statesmanship. Hart, once again:

Our culture, with its almost absolute emphasis on the power of acquisition, trains us to be beguiled by the bright and the shrill, rather than the lovely and subtle. That, after all, is the transcendental logic of late-modern capitalism: the fabrication of innumerable artificial appetites, not the refinement of the few that are natural to us. Late modernity’s defining art, advertising, is nothing but a piercingly reckless tutelage in desire for the intrinsically undesirable.

The identification of “advertising” as late modernity’s “defining art” is quite telling, I think, in the context of political campaigns and media spin of policies and personalities (“the bright and the “shrill”). Campaigns are no more than contests of will and image (“the power of acquisition”), not platforms for debating the common good. We are merely being “sold” candidates whose self-promotion and partisan posturing is what makes them “intrinsically undesirable” substitutes for genuine statesmanship.

Alas, I fear we’ve grown unable to realize—or worse, even care—that we are simply being sold a product in the guise of a political campaign. I once felt determined to stem the tide, but I find myself losing faith. Surely there must be others who share my disgust at the extravagance and arrogance that defines the modern political process. What should we now do? Where can the “lovely and subtle” voice of true statesmanship to be found? We’ll look to those questions—and consider possible answers—next time around.

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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