Behold postmodern, post-ideological politics

Anne Applebaum writes about the London mayoral race, between a clownish upper-class Tory and the incumbent, a clownish Marxist. It has degenerated into a rather comical clash of personalities. She suggests that this is a picture of the post-ideological politics that many of us claim we want. In our postmodernist frame of mind, ideas do not matter (since there is no truth), so personality and entertaining shenanigans are all that is left. Here is what she says:

This is a personality contest, and a deeply unserious one at that: If the good people of London really thought their traffic mattered that much, Boris wouldn’t be a candidate and Ken would never have been elected in the first place. But it’s a competition nevertheless worth watching. This campaign could well be a blueprint for future elections since it is “post-modern,” and post-ideological, in the deepest sense: In a world in which “issues” are not the issue and no one takes political parties seriously anymore, there’s nothing left to talk about except who said what to whom and whose tongue was sharper while doing so.

Usually, we don’t have this problem in the United States, our politics being too partisan and our nation too divided to allow for it. But a glimpse of what it could be like is available in the form of the Democratic primary, which has also deteriorated, unsurprisingly, into a particularly nasty personality clash. Any long-drawn-out contest between two people who don’t — let’s face it — differ that much on fundamental issues will invariably turn into farce; whether it’s an amusing one, as in London, or a “bitter” one, as in Pennsylvania, depends on the characters of the candidates involved.

So three cheers, then, for ideological politics or at least for real clashes of ideas, and let’s hope our presidential election, when we get to it, includes some: At least ideologically divisive elections make everyone talk about things that matter.

I think she overstates the matter, or, perhaps like post-ideological Londoners, misses that there is a huge ideological divide between the conservative Tory and “Red Ken” who defends Stalin and who wanted to stage a rally celebrating Fidel Castro. Ideologies are still important, though perhaps the public is getting so postmodern they don’t even recognize them. Still, the reduction of politics to personality, image, and soap opera is probably the true postmodernist political legacy.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Richard

    Anne Applebaum wrote “Gulag,” one of the best books on Stalin’s (and Lenin’s) atrocities, so she doesn’t miss the divide between the two candidates. Her column also talks about the debate she had with the moral idiot Livingstone about Stalin.

  • Richard

    Anne Applebaum wrote “Gulag,” one of the best books on Stalin’s (and Lenin’s) atrocities, so she doesn’t miss the divide between the two candidates. Her column also talks about the debate she had with the moral idiot Livingstone about Stalin.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    “In our postmodernist frame of mind, ideas do not matter (since there is no truth), so personality and entertaining shenanigans are all that is left.”

    What’s strange is that some people in recent comments here have advocated for such, claiming that anything said by a candidate is completely unserious, and thus not worth considering. Having tossed out the need to consider ideas, they then elevate the personal and trivial to positions of utmost importance, because what else is left?

    Mind you, this argumentation doesn’t seem to so much apply to Republicans. But I don’t think that this sort of process is unique to those who want “post-ideological politics”, given its use by those who seem quite happily ideological.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    “In our postmodernist frame of mind, ideas do not matter (since there is no truth), so personality and entertaining shenanigans are all that is left.”

    What’s strange is that some people in recent comments here have advocated for such, claiming that anything said by a candidate is completely unserious, and thus not worth considering. Having tossed out the need to consider ideas, they then elevate the personal and trivial to positions of utmost importance, because what else is left?

    Mind you, this argumentation doesn’t seem to so much apply to Republicans. But I don’t think that this sort of process is unique to those who want “post-ideological politics”, given its use by those who seem quite happily ideological.

  • Don S

    tODD, your comment is a startling misrepresentation of the nature of those “recent comments”, if they are the ones I think you are referencing. The nature of those comments was that we cannot naively trust the words and policy positions spewing from a candidate and his professional handlers during a campaign without looking at his longer term record to see what his true ideology is. Since Obama has such a skimpy record on that score, we also have to look at those with whom he has chosen as his mentors and evaluate their ideology as part of our efforts to deepen our understanding of his own. I think that’s a fair process to undertake when someone totally unqualified chooses to run for the highest office in the land.

    And it certainly does not mean that we are postmodernist and nonideological. Quite the contrary in fact. We just agree with the greatest president of the 20th century — “Trust, but verify”.

  • Don S

    tODD, your comment is a startling misrepresentation of the nature of those “recent comments”, if they are the ones I think you are referencing. The nature of those comments was that we cannot naively trust the words and policy positions spewing from a candidate and his professional handlers during a campaign without looking at his longer term record to see what his true ideology is. Since Obama has such a skimpy record on that score, we also have to look at those with whom he has chosen as his mentors and evaluate their ideology as part of our efforts to deepen our understanding of his own. I think that’s a fair process to undertake when someone totally unqualified chooses to run for the highest office in the land.

    And it certainly does not mean that we are postmodernist and nonideological. Quite the contrary in fact. We just agree with the greatest president of the 20th century — “Trust, but verify”.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    I reserve the right to consider all factors in evaluating a candidate.
    But I’m free to use any one, no matter how ‘trivial.’ That’s American politics for ya. I can use my gut, or I can all the info a candidate and his rivals offer (which, oddly enough I have done, and come to the same conclusion.) (Well, not ALL of it, but enough, I think. However, mileage may vary.)
    Stressing one particular factor in a blog discussion is hardly a denial of the others.
    It’s disingenuous and indeed unfair to suggest otherwise. But, if that’s the leg you wish to stand upon, then there you stand.
    What’s merely ‘personal and trivial’ about a candidate’s associations is a matter of opinion, I guess. But what’s not a matter of opinion is how much consideration ‘some people in some comments’ have given or are giving to a candidate as a complete package.
    In other words, if you, tODD, have to continue to trivialize what ‘some people in some comments’ are saying, you’re exposing more about you than me.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    I reserve the right to consider all factors in evaluating a candidate.
    But I’m free to use any one, no matter how ‘trivial.’ That’s American politics for ya. I can use my gut, or I can all the info a candidate and his rivals offer (which, oddly enough I have done, and come to the same conclusion.) (Well, not ALL of it, but enough, I think. However, mileage may vary.)
    Stressing one particular factor in a blog discussion is hardly a denial of the others.
    It’s disingenuous and indeed unfair to suggest otherwise. But, if that’s the leg you wish to stand upon, then there you stand.
    What’s merely ‘personal and trivial’ about a candidate’s associations is a matter of opinion, I guess. But what’s not a matter of opinion is how much consideration ‘some people in some comments’ have given or are giving to a candidate as a complete package.
    In other words, if you, tODD, have to continue to trivialize what ‘some people in some comments’ are saying, you’re exposing more about you than me.

  • Joe

    If memory serves I kind of started that mess that tODD is refereeing to by stating that a new poster (can’t remember the name of that person) was not allowed to tell me that the questions put to Obama about his association with an unrepentant domestic terrorist, a racist pastor and a Chicago crook were irrelevant. My point was that ideology does matter and that I believe who a person chooses to associate with gives some insight into what the candidate believes.

  • Joe

    If memory serves I kind of started that mess that tODD is refereeing to by stating that a new poster (can’t remember the name of that person) was not allowed to tell me that the questions put to Obama about his association with an unrepentant domestic terrorist, a racist pastor and a Chicago crook were irrelevant. My point was that ideology does matter and that I believe who a person chooses to associate with gives some insight into what the candidate believes.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    If ideas matter, then why has almost nobody here discussed Obama’s ideas? (And the few that have touched on them have often completely mischaracterized his policies, as if they didn’t care what he actually said.)

    What’s that you say? You do care about Obama’s ideas, but not so much the ideas that he says he has? Only the ideas you, with the help of the media, infer from his personal associations, or from his lapel pin, or whatever the latest gotcha outrage is? Sorry, sounds like “personality, image, and soap opera” to me.

    And, again, if such associations are the true measure of a man, tell me again why I’m not hearing accusations of Bush as a corrupted by his association with Ken Lay? Or why do we seem to care about what McCain says and thinks?

    Of course, you are all free to use whatever metric you want to vote — is there some reason this keeps coming up as a response? Nobody is even attempting to force you to think a certain way. But just as you are free to base your decision on whatever factors you like, I am as free to say whether I think your metric is silly or not. It is, as Susan said (@4) “a matter of opinion”.

    Personally, I’ll be ignoring most of the media circus and basing my vote on the ideas the candidates present. You may consider that foolish, if you like.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    If ideas matter, then why has almost nobody here discussed Obama’s ideas? (And the few that have touched on them have often completely mischaracterized his policies, as if they didn’t care what he actually said.)

    What’s that you say? You do care about Obama’s ideas, but not so much the ideas that he says he has? Only the ideas you, with the help of the media, infer from his personal associations, or from his lapel pin, or whatever the latest gotcha outrage is? Sorry, sounds like “personality, image, and soap opera” to me.

    And, again, if such associations are the true measure of a man, tell me again why I’m not hearing accusations of Bush as a corrupted by his association with Ken Lay? Or why do we seem to care about what McCain says and thinks?

    Of course, you are all free to use whatever metric you want to vote — is there some reason this keeps coming up as a response? Nobody is even attempting to force you to think a certain way. But just as you are free to base your decision on whatever factors you like, I am as free to say whether I think your metric is silly or not. It is, as Susan said (@4) “a matter of opinion”.

    Personally, I’ll be ignoring most of the media circus and basing my vote on the ideas the candidates present. You may consider that foolish, if you like.

  • http://viz.tumblr.com tickletext

    It may be that Obama (or Clinton or McCain) has worthy ideas. But in order to sift those ideas in the context of hypermodernity (the term which I believe is more accurate than postmodernity), we are forced to do so according to the nature of hypermodern persuasion. By which I mean that we have to perform the often difficult and sometimes impossible task of separating the hypermodern candidate’s “ideas” from his or her slogans. “Change we can believe in,” “compassionate conservatism”–even though these phrases may denote substantive ideas, they function primarily as slogans.

    Essentially, hypermodern campaigns are highly calibrated machines for producing candidates. These machines exist and wreak the havoc that they do largely because our society accepts the premise that human identity is a construct. That is, we have moved from personhood to selfhood. To be a person is to locate your identity in what is permanent and external, but the individual self constructs its own identity.

    Under the paradigm of selfhood, the body politic ceases to be a body. It is more like a billiard table on which we autonomous selves endlessly crash into each other. The only way to communicate is through the rhetorical violence of sloganeering and image management and narrative construction.

    Unless we address the principles and forms which govern and shape hypermodernity, our politics are bound to be marked by a poverty of discourse.

  • http://viz.tumblr.com tickletext

    It may be that Obama (or Clinton or McCain) has worthy ideas. But in order to sift those ideas in the context of hypermodernity (the term which I believe is more accurate than postmodernity), we are forced to do so according to the nature of hypermodern persuasion. By which I mean that we have to perform the often difficult and sometimes impossible task of separating the hypermodern candidate’s “ideas” from his or her slogans. “Change we can believe in,” “compassionate conservatism”–even though these phrases may denote substantive ideas, they function primarily as slogans.

    Essentially, hypermodern campaigns are highly calibrated machines for producing candidates. These machines exist and wreak the havoc that they do largely because our society accepts the premise that human identity is a construct. That is, we have moved from personhood to selfhood. To be a person is to locate your identity in what is permanent and external, but the individual self constructs its own identity.

    Under the paradigm of selfhood, the body politic ceases to be a body. It is more like a billiard table on which we autonomous selves endlessly crash into each other. The only way to communicate is through the rhetorical violence of sloganeering and image management and narrative construction.

    Unless we address the principles and forms which govern and shape hypermodernity, our politics are bound to be marked by a poverty of discourse.

  • Joe

    “And, again, if such associations are the true measure of a man, tell me again why I’m not hearing accusations of Bush as a corrupted by his association with Ken Lay?”

    Um maybe its because Bush isn’t running for anything? And when he was, his links to certain people and corporations and other evil entities was commented on.

    “What’s that you say? You do care about Obama’s ideas, but not so much the ideas that he says he has? Only the ideas you, with the help of the media, infer from his personal associations, or from his lapel pin, or whatever the latest gotcha outrage is?”

    Do you actually know how to read or do you just enjoy responding to things no one has said? Who has said that they haven’t look at his ideas, who has said they haven’t listened to his speeches? What I said and am saying is that IN ADDITION TO ALL OF THAT I am also going to learn who he voluntarily associates with in an effort to understand the entire picture of who he is and what his world view is. It is really not that strange or odd of a concept and it is not anything new to Obama.

  • Joe

    “And, again, if such associations are the true measure of a man, tell me again why I’m not hearing accusations of Bush as a corrupted by his association with Ken Lay?”

    Um maybe its because Bush isn’t running for anything? And when he was, his links to certain people and corporations and other evil entities was commented on.

    “What’s that you say? You do care about Obama’s ideas, but not so much the ideas that he says he has? Only the ideas you, with the help of the media, infer from his personal associations, or from his lapel pin, or whatever the latest gotcha outrage is?”

    Do you actually know how to read or do you just enjoy responding to things no one has said? Who has said that they haven’t look at his ideas, who has said they haven’t listened to his speeches? What I said and am saying is that IN ADDITION TO ALL OF THAT I am also going to learn who he voluntarily associates with in an effort to understand the entire picture of who he is and what his world view is. It is really not that strange or odd of a concept and it is not anything new to Obama.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Joe (@8), “Bush isn’t running for anything”? Does that mean we don’t evaluate anything from him anymore? Do we only think about politicians in the run-up to an election? And even if that’s true for you, what about McCain? Why does the lack of interest in his non-policy correspond with a similar lack of interest in those things by the media?

    “Do you actually know how to read?” Well, I was illiterate until the age of 2 or 3, if that’s what you mean.

    Also, for one seemingly angry about my apparent “responding to things no one has said”, you seem to have done just that to me. I didn’t say “they haven’t look[ed] at [Obama's] ideas”. Go back and read what I said (@6). Pay attention to the “not so much” part (it’s comparative).

    But to answer your question of what I’m basing my statements on, I’d point out Don S’s saying

    I find a candidate’s mindset, philosophy, life history, faith, etc. much more interesting than particular policy positions their campaign staff espouses.

    or

    I don’t know much about the specifics of the Obama health care plan. I don’t care much about it. … Since I will not be voting for either Clinton or Obama, I have no reason to research their respective positions on this or any other issue.

    as well as

    substance is a man’s character, the friends and associates he chooses, the mentors he selects, and things he’s said in the past which require further explanation, either because they are controversial or inconsistent with things he is saying now. The specific policies a candidate promotes on the campaign trail are not that revealing because they tend to hew the party line and are measured against innumerable polls to determine their popularity with the voters.

    You said that

    The fact that Obama wants to run on little other than his supposed ability to unite the nation across racial and political lines makes his association with unrepentant domestic terrorists and racists pastors relevant.

    If you think that’s a fair summary of Obama’s ideas, then I think you make a decent argument that you yourself haven’t really looked at Obama’s ideas. I believe you’re confusing campaign slogans (e.g. “Straight-Talk Express”) with actual ideas.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Joe (@8), “Bush isn’t running for anything”? Does that mean we don’t evaluate anything from him anymore? Do we only think about politicians in the run-up to an election? And even if that’s true for you, what about McCain? Why does the lack of interest in his non-policy correspond with a similar lack of interest in those things by the media?

    “Do you actually know how to read?” Well, I was illiterate until the age of 2 or 3, if that’s what you mean.

    Also, for one seemingly angry about my apparent “responding to things no one has said”, you seem to have done just that to me. I didn’t say “they haven’t look[ed] at [Obama's] ideas”. Go back and read what I said (@6). Pay attention to the “not so much” part (it’s comparative).

    But to answer your question of what I’m basing my statements on, I’d point out Don S’s saying

    I find a candidate’s mindset, philosophy, life history, faith, etc. much more interesting than particular policy positions their campaign staff espouses.

    or

    I don’t know much about the specifics of the Obama health care plan. I don’t care much about it. … Since I will not be voting for either Clinton or Obama, I have no reason to research their respective positions on this or any other issue.

    as well as

    substance is a man’s character, the friends and associates he chooses, the mentors he selects, and things he’s said in the past which require further explanation, either because they are controversial or inconsistent with things he is saying now. The specific policies a candidate promotes on the campaign trail are not that revealing because they tend to hew the party line and are measured against innumerable polls to determine their popularity with the voters.

    You said that

    The fact that Obama wants to run on little other than his supposed ability to unite the nation across racial and political lines makes his association with unrepentant domestic terrorists and racists pastors relevant.

    If you think that’s a fair summary of Obama’s ideas, then I think you make a decent argument that you yourself haven’t really looked at Obama’s ideas. I believe you’re confusing campaign slogans (e.g. “Straight-Talk Express”) with actual ideas.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Also, Joe, while what you’ve said in the comments may or may not indicate what you actually think, in order for me to understand what you truly believe, could you provide me with a list of everyone you know? It’d help me understand what you’re saying here.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Also, Joe, while what you’ve said in the comments may or may not indicate what you actually think, in order for me to understand what you truly believe, could you provide me with a list of everyone you know? It’d help me understand what you’re saying here.

  • Don S

    My ears are burning, so perhaps I’ll step in here as well. Regarding the first and third “Don S” quotes cited in tODD’s post #9, those are stated comparatively. As I stated in post #3 above, Obama essentially has no past record. He is still in his first U.S. senate term, and has done very little legislatively. On the other hand, McCain has a 26 year record. I know what John McCain believes and how he is likely to govern (and I am sure that if he becomes President, much of his term will be a frustration to me). I am not spending significant time perusing John McCain’s campaign position papers because I know that once he gains office, he will revert to form and govern the way he always has. His position papers, to the extent that they espouse views which he does not “own”, will hit the dustbin. What is important during this campaign are the people he chooses to surround himself with, because who he chooses to fill out his cabinet will dictate a lot concerning how his administration will do.

    As for Obama, as I mentioned above, there is very little record to examine. His campaign positions are designed to attract voters, but it is his life philosophy, life experience, and the people he surrounds himself with which will determine the course of his presidency. So comparatively, in my view, it is much more important to examine these things than to pore over position papers written by campaign staff. This philosophy of mine does not mean that I don’t appreciate ideas or policy proposals or any of that. It just means that I have experienced enough campaigns to know better than to think that any of these things will really see the light of day, at least in anything close to the proposed form. The key issue is, how will Obama fill his cabinet (William Ayers for “Secretary of Peace”?) and how will he govern as he faces the politics of the moment during his term.

    tODD, your second Don S quote is completely out of context for this discussion. You were picking at me in that particular thread as to whether I understood the difference between Obama’s health care proposals and those of Hillary. I responded that I didn’t care at all what those differences were because I am not choosing between those candidates. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about those ideas and policies in general, however, and come to the general election I will be evaluating the positions of each of the democrat and republican candidates.

  • Don S

    My ears are burning, so perhaps I’ll step in here as well. Regarding the first and third “Don S” quotes cited in tODD’s post #9, those are stated comparatively. As I stated in post #3 above, Obama essentially has no past record. He is still in his first U.S. senate term, and has done very little legislatively. On the other hand, McCain has a 26 year record. I know what John McCain believes and how he is likely to govern (and I am sure that if he becomes President, much of his term will be a frustration to me). I am not spending significant time perusing John McCain’s campaign position papers because I know that once he gains office, he will revert to form and govern the way he always has. His position papers, to the extent that they espouse views which he does not “own”, will hit the dustbin. What is important during this campaign are the people he chooses to surround himself with, because who he chooses to fill out his cabinet will dictate a lot concerning how his administration will do.

    As for Obama, as I mentioned above, there is very little record to examine. His campaign positions are designed to attract voters, but it is his life philosophy, life experience, and the people he surrounds himself with which will determine the course of his presidency. So comparatively, in my view, it is much more important to examine these things than to pore over position papers written by campaign staff. This philosophy of mine does not mean that I don’t appreciate ideas or policy proposals or any of that. It just means that I have experienced enough campaigns to know better than to think that any of these things will really see the light of day, at least in anything close to the proposed form. The key issue is, how will Obama fill his cabinet (William Ayers for “Secretary of Peace”?) and how will he govern as he faces the politics of the moment during his term.

    tODD, your second Don S quote is completely out of context for this discussion. You were picking at me in that particular thread as to whether I understood the difference between Obama’s health care proposals and those of Hillary. I responded that I didn’t care at all what those differences were because I am not choosing between those candidates. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about those ideas and policies in general, however, and come to the general election I will be evaluating the positions of each of the democrat and republican candidates.

  • Joe

    “while what you’ve said in the comments may or may not indicate what you actually think, in order for me to understand what you truly believe, could you provide me with a list of everyone you know?”

    Sometimes the technique of reducing something to its logical absurdity is a helpful debating tool. Usually, however, it is little more than a tool for avoiding the substance of the other party’s position. The latter is apparently its present use.

    But as for the substance of what I said: I did not say I needed to know who his friends are to determine if he really believes what he says. What I said was knowing who he associates with helps shape an understanding of who he is as a person and how he sees the world in general. I have not said that his association with Bill Ayers means he is lying about his desire to raise the capital gains tax. But it does give some indication of what his world view is.

    If John McCain associated with David Duke, I think that would add to the collective picture of who John McCain is and to our understanding of how he sees the world.

  • Joe

    “while what you’ve said in the comments may or may not indicate what you actually think, in order for me to understand what you truly believe, could you provide me with a list of everyone you know?”

    Sometimes the technique of reducing something to its logical absurdity is a helpful debating tool. Usually, however, it is little more than a tool for avoiding the substance of the other party’s position. The latter is apparently its present use.

    But as for the substance of what I said: I did not say I needed to know who his friends are to determine if he really believes what he says. What I said was knowing who he associates with helps shape an understanding of who he is as a person and how he sees the world in general. I have not said that his association with Bill Ayers means he is lying about his desire to raise the capital gains tax. But it does give some indication of what his world view is.

    If John McCain associated with David Duke, I think that would add to the collective picture of who John McCain is and to our understanding of how he sees the world.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    I don’t think I’m ignoring Obama’s ideas by pointing to Wright and Obama’s association with him and his church.
    It was his ‘idea’ to attend Rev. Wright’s church, and his ‘idea’ to claim Wright as, at one time, a mentor and father figure, then as a crazy uncle, and now as something nearer to Satan himself.
    All in all, a series of bad ideas.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    I don’t think I’m ignoring Obama’s ideas by pointing to Wright and Obama’s association with him and his church.
    It was his ‘idea’ to attend Rev. Wright’s church, and his ‘idea’ to claim Wright as, at one time, a mentor and father figure, then as a crazy uncle, and now as something nearer to Satan himself.
    All in all, a series of bad ideas.


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