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The Silent Agendas


Every election is underwritten by the silent agendas which underpin the human heart. Though politics is often regarded as an arena for duking it out over ‘getting stuff’, even when specific social reforms are a driving impetus as implied idealistic vision gives them credence. As a species we have long indulged in animated philosophical peregrinations about our supposed superior rationality, a discourse that has spanned disciplines from theology to economics and sometimes, it seems, everything in between. Our ability to reason ‘makes us human,’ ‘sets us above the animals,’ is ‘God in us’ and on it goes, our ego stroking pas de deux with this lovely thought. We are more, much much more, than mere (lower) passions and appetites, but rather creatures who can think logically and reasonably about our needs and how best to achieve them. Well, maybe we can, but we almost never do. For we are, in truth, creatures of bounded rationality at best, something modern neuroscience increasingly makes apparent. We are rational within sharp limits; we are emotional with over-arching intensity. And when we vote, the preeminent silent agenda is our emotional animus.

It is our emotions that make us want, above all else, to identify with our candidate. Books like “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” lament the fact that rural voters especially so often vote for candidates whose platforms will actively do them harm economically. But, if they can afford to, voters will always vote their identity rather than their self-interest. The generally high standard of living enjoyed in this country in recent decades has given this propensity a free rein at the ballot box. Conversely, the grinding economic exigencies of the Great Depression caused millions to put aside any niceties of identification and vote for someone, perhaps foreign to them in persona, intellect, and background, but who seemed willing to wade into the carnage and pragmatically take the bull by the horns.

This is the economic bottom line demarcating interest vs. status politics, a concept introduced to me by Richard Hofstadter in his excellent essay, “The Pseudo-Conseervative Revolt - 1954.” Interest politics are bread and butter politics, concerned with how best to allocate resources to achieve the greatest good or remediate past social injustices. Status politics are all about the much more amorphous question of morality. ‘What is the good?’ ‘How Shall We Then Live?’ ‘Do We Measure Up?’ Status politics are inordinately preoccupied with questions of moral degeneracy, judgmental by definition, and obsessed with sexual mores. Generally, they are validated by some sense of higher, noble purpose; the human animal they purport to ennoble and improve seems scarcely to enter into their lofty calculations in any realistic sense at all. They might as well be playing chess with a wooden token.

Status politics have the most emotional clout; they tend to hit us in the gut (assuming our gut is reasonably well fed). People, after all, are generally as ‘good’ as they can afford to be. Status politics are also the most polarizing, not least because we disagree about what is good, but also because those afflicted with a crusading mentality see these issues as a titanic conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In this, Manichaean, apocalyptic theater, compromise is tantamount to treason. This political mindset is also highly susceptible to the routine tools of propaganda which rely for their efficacy on vivid emotional triggers.

Interest politics are more complex from an identity standpoint because they generally require diverse coalitions of disparate individuals to force the economic order in an inertia resisted direction. The issue of identifying with the candidate has to move from the personal to the philosophical. It has to engage with the rational realm with which our emotions have such an uneasy (and unequal) partnership. It posits the individual as not just individual but a creature shaped and defined by the milieu in which he or she lives. It posits the human as an indubitably social, communal creature. So the voter identification becomes less one of say, liking, the individual candidate than with what are sometimes called ‘big tent policies’, with idealizations of human rights, social justice, a vision of what can be achieved to further the common good. Ironically, it is an identification with an abstraction even though it is less about God, who can certainly be regarded as the ultimate abstraction, and more about people.

Obviously, American politics of the last forty years or so have been predominantly of the status variety. But the economic disruptions of the Great Recession and the anemic and uneven pace of recovery are causing our body politic to gravitate to a decidedly interest based focus.

In whichever direction we fling our hearts and our voting allegiance, there are other silent, mostly emotional, agendas, that are always in play. We want to find someone worthy of our fealty- a leader. We want more than the lesser of two evils. We want to be uplifted and inspired by the discourse that demands our attention. We want to be respected as befits autonomous citizens in a democracy. We vehemently object to the sense of being ‘played’ in service to someone else’s agenda. We want to be offered a vision of the future in which we can believe, because one of our most pressing human needs— one infused through and through with emotional gravitas—- is for meaning and purpose.

And, finally, the most amorphous silent agenda of them all: the Zeitgeist. What is the Zeitgeist? From the German, it translates literally as ‘time-spirit’; more broadly, it is the spirit, attitude, and general outlook of a specific period, the moral, cultural, and intellectual climate of an era. Politicians bear the stamp of genius when they intuitively recognize a shift in the Zeitgeist and make themselves an early ‘voice crying in the wilderness.’ Obama’s ’08 campaign had some of this stamp. Conversely, even old political warriors can appear incredibly befuddled when they continue parroting the mantras of the old Zeitgeist as a new one takes hold. Most of the time politicians, like the rest of us, stumble into a new Zeitgeist, a new point of view, propelled by a vague sense of discomfiture with the status quo which we feel acutely but would find it hard to fully articulate. The clearest sign that the American Zeitgeist has shifted are polls quizzing voters about the direction of the country which consistently report discontents at 50% or greater. Similarly, incredibly dismal ratings of the recent performance of Congress reflect overwhelming public disgust with an institution whose main focus in the near past seems to have been creating an impregnable fortress around the increasingly discredited status quo. Just as symptomatic are the successes of unorthodox, outside-the-mainstream candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The Zeitgeist, however, will have its way with us. Already, decidedly centrist candidates like Hillary Clinton are groping their way in its direction. And candidates like Ted Cruz, who regard the old Zeitgeist as gospel ( and his followers who perceive any change as apocalyptic ) are doubling down on the old, established mantras and titillating us with ‘end is nigh’ predictions if we don’t heed their clarion call.

Who knew the simple little voting booth was so enormously crowded? All these agendas, however, are going to be clamoring for our attention when we mark our ballots. Come November, we’re going to find out whose voices are the most cogent.

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