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“Are the legitimate political institutions of our societies in a position to redress even the most perilous situations by democratic intervention in the process of actual decision making, as traditional political discourse keeps reassuring us, despite all evidence to the contrary?”
Under certain conditions an extremely contentious presidential primary campaign would elicit a robust chorus of individuals attesting to the virtues of a healthy and robust democracy. Massive voter education and mobilization, issue oriented debates and policy discussions, passionate arguments over the symbol and substance of politics and policy, and the distinct possibility of institutional transformation as a result of a change in the ruling party would be the hallmarks of such a contentious campaign.
Unfortunately, these conditions do not obtain in our privately financed, winner take all, low intensity spectator sport called American democracy.
For all of its sound and fury, the 2008 presidential campaign is less a testament to the strength of democratic politics in the United States than an ever present reminder of its current state of crisis. And this crisis is most prominent in what travels under the banner of political commentary in both old and new media.
The public is bombarded with breathless analyses of the latest packaging and style of the presidential candidates “message,” tendentious tidbits are offered regarding the funding of the “message,” and a litany of polls are constantly reported in an effort to communicate the strength and veracity of the “message.” Most political commentary refuses to engage in a critical and sustained investigation of the substance of the “message,” readily accepts the mystifying logic that equates the funding of the “message” with broad based political support and legitimacy, and rejects any challenge to and attempts at clarifying the assumptions, methods, and theories that support the big business of political polling used to attest to the strength of the “message.”
The American public is thus left with a dearth of critical information to not only make informed decisions on the candidates but, more importantly, to confront the much more pressing issue concerning the continued viability of the institutions that support a form of democratic politics that may have exhausted the possibility of responding to a radical restructuring of society that is needed in order for all Americans to possess the basic necessities for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The depth of the current crisis is quite evident in light of the proliferation of political commentary on Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The majority of commentary on Wright’s remarks delivered at the National Press Club have been framed around three dominant themes: 1) An African American preacher with outdated ideas versus a new post-racial politician who is the first serious African American contender for the presidency; 2) An egocentric and bitter black preacher attempts to derail the candidacy of a progressive and persuasive multicultural presidential candidate; and 3) Black leaders of the 1960s are unwilling to concede power to a new generation of civic minded and politically sophisticated Americans who happen to be black and who view the world beyond the narrow confines of race.
Through these narrative strategies, commentators and pundits have confined political discourse to a series of rhetorically similar commentaries that resort to ad hominem retorts to substantive political issues using the language of “unfortunate,” “ill-timed,” “cocky,” and “outrageous” to characterize Wright’s statements while effusively praising Senator Obama’s “powerful denunciation” of Wright’s “outlandish” statements, “divisive” style, and “arrogant” tone.
Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Wright, the frame and form of the commentary on Wright is extremely instructive about the current crisis in American democracy.
The reason why we need to pay attention to the political discourse around Wright is not because of the often spurious psychoanalytic diagnoses of Reverend Wright offered by commentators or because of the simplistic dialogues on the implications of his comments on an already overdetermined discourse on the campaign strategies, messages, or tactics of the presidential contenders. The reason why the Wright episode demands considered attention is because it is a poignant reminder of the willed ignorance of commentators who dominate our mass mediated political discourse and police the boundaries of what is “acceptable” political language and critique.
Wright’s “impolite” language about the classist, imperialist, and racist dimensions of democratic politics in America, his critique of the past and present state of the arrested development of democracy in America,and his critical skepticism concerning the policies and practices of government points clearly to the extremely narrow limits of legitimate political discourse. Moreover, the substance of Wright’s remarks stand as a foundational challenge to a politics of the given that systematically evades questions of imperialism, racism, sexism and a predatory capitalism while simultaneously pointing to the structural lie of the commonsense logic that governs acceptable political commentary.
And it is the strict codes that govern acceptable political commentary along with its framing effect on political discourse that continues to marginalize the lives, hopes, and aspirations of “We the people.”
Thus, the latest installment in the “Wright saga” represents a precipitous deepening of the political crisis crippling democratic politics in the United States and gestures toward the virtual end of politics.
What is called for then is an ethical and responsive political commentary infused with the spirit of Reverend Wright’s adamant refusal of the normal, the acceptable, and the commonsense that marginalizes the vast majority of the citizens of our nation, not to mention the people of the world.
Political style and clichéd soundbytes cannot paper over long-term structural determinants that maintain and perpetuate poverty, inequality, and discrimination. A rabid patriotism cannot legitimate a corrupt nationalism that seeks to maintain the racial asymmetries of the status quo predicated on a historical amnesia that evades the legacies of America’s peculiar institution. Mass mediated political commentary cannot dictate the terrain of acceptable politics for those whose base of support is independent of the political games that Capital plays.
For “We the people,” the Wright episode can mark the end of politics – the politics of the given – and mark the beginning of a radical politics of deep democracy.
COREY D. B. WALKER is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America, which will be published in October.