The Aesthetic Equivalence of U.S. Political Parties

The Aesthetic Equivalence of U.S. Political Parties March 11, 2012

For several years now, I’ve had an uncanny feeling about the competing political mirror images in national politics. The Republicans and the Democrats look essentially and problematically the same to me. They appear perfectly complimentary to each other, like feuding identical twins. (Elsewhere I’ve called them a “two-headed monster.”)

I’ve tried to argue and assert this feeling many times, and in different ways—and I know I am not the first, last, or only one—but I have yet to find satisfaction in my explanations.

This should be no surprise to readers at Vox Nova. For some time now, several of us have consistently maintained that both parties ascribe to the political philosophy of liberalism and the economic ideology of capitalism. Indisputable as this is—and believe me, it is indisputable—this equivalency is not the principal source of my unease.

Others who hold a similar view—the view that both U.S. political parties are roughly equivalent to each other—often articulate their position using reasons I am friendly towards, but don’t share all the way down. I’ve yet to find a comfort in these “shared” reasons. I feel a strange gap between us, even when we share a common point of view.

For instance, Noam Chomsky’s been saying this for quite some time now. (And Chris Hedges have been echoing similar points more recently.) While I find his notion of “manufacturing consent” and other ideas appealing at a certain level, I did not arrive at my position because of him. I would never describe my politics as Chomskian. Where we agree is mostly coincidental.

I have, at times, felt a fleeting sense of solidarity with the dissent in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Large factions in each group make similar points about the equivalence of the two-party system. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, I still feel disconnected from them. After spending time observing either movement, I grow increasingly uncomfortable and sometimes disgusted with them.

Where I do feel a strong, enduring connection with them is in their inability to articulate what they want. The Right likes to make fun of OWS and the Left enjoys doing the same to Tea Partiers for their  remarkable incapacity to make concrete demands or constructive suggestions. This weakness of each movement is something I can relate to. I, too, lack a clear description of my political unease, of what I really want. I only have an inarticulate feeling: a strong, itchy discomfort with the ways things are, with what I see around me.

This wildly affective speculation is all I really have to go on. I suspect this is true in the unrest we see elsewhere, everywhere. We see anger, outrage, hatred, sorrow, pride, and more. When we pay close and careful attention, I think we must admit that, at least in practice, there is no such thing as a political science. Political art rules the day. Politics is driven by the heart not the head, the gut not the brain.

Politicians cannot simply be smart. (And this fact is often alarmingly true!) We do not elect geniuses for president, and for good reason. A politician is first and foremost an artist, especially in this age of constant propaganda and pictorial media coverage: we cannot ignore the aesthetic, artistic dimension of politics. (This is why I believe we ought to have political art departments at colleges and universities, to counterbalance political science departments.)

This can be seen in the incredible attention given to the way a candidate looks. From make-up to wardrobe to body type, there is a crucial, albeit superficial, aesthetic importance on display during major elections. No one can deny this. The television, and now the internet, have transformed politics into a beauty pageant.

I’m not upset about this aspect of politics. After all, the Church is full of a liturgical, beauty-pageant rituals. In fact, this political pageantry strikes me as a deeply Catholic. We must recognize the sacramental nature of politicians and political rituals as external signs we can recognize, pointing us towards the internal gifts we desire and hope for.

It is the particular kind of political beauty pageant we have that fuels my uneasy feeling about the equivalence of Democrats and Republicans. Look at them: they look the same. They dress the same, talk the same, eat the same food, drive the same cars, live in the same houses—hell, they probably smell the same!

What I mean by “the same” is that, on the whole, there is nothing that stands out about a Republican or a Democrat that aesthetically indicates a strong, visible distinction between one or the other. (Those who try to invoke race as an aesthetic difference between the two, fall into the mistake of confusing the constituents with the elect and invoke a historical narrative that doesn’t tell the same story.) They may be diametrically opposed to each other in some ways, but aesthetically they are remarkably equivalent.

This becomes salient when I watch or read the so-called “news” and “debates,” when I surf the toxic space of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Both sides—Huffington Post and Drudge Report and alike—are ugly: mediocre to bad writing, smug and indignant, astoundingly pious and self-righteous. Fox News and MSNBC are equally simplistic, predictable, and convenient. (This is why the only media outlet I frequent is The Onion: at least there is some beauty to be found there in the form of comedy, satire, and wit.)

The ugly economic wrangling that feeds both of their glutinous appetites is obtained, distributed, and spent in vile, mutually complicit ways. The wars they wage together are not objectionable to me for their violations of justice, I oppose them because they are ugly, technological wars, wars that kill persons as objects, in monstrous, impersonal ways.

Prediction: the Republican and Democratic national conventions will be aesthetically equivalent to each other. Both parties are most obviously equivalent in their mutual, creative capacity for turning human persons into an objects. Not that they could ever carry out this perverse project, but they certainly treat people that way at alarming rates. Their have both cultured a thick, awful style of depersonalization.

When Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party protest these sorts of things in ways that are artistic, imaginative, and beautiful, I find myself at home with them. When they ignore beauty, disavow art, and become vulgar—and often anti-intellectual—mobs, I am disgusted and afraid.

When my friends say that they don’t see their pet party this way, I become dogmatic. To all Republican and Democrats: open your eyes, see what is in front of you at all hours of the day, see it as art and see that thin, cracking, plastic art for what it is!

We live in a nation-state where structural and systematic ugliness has acquired a monopoly over our political imagination. We are watching a pageant where neat and expensive outward beauty conceals messy and cheap internal ugliness. We participate in a public ritual where sacraments are inverted, disordered, and out of balance.

To reject the ugly and embrace the beautiful is a sufficient reason—a reason of the heart—to reject both parties as equivalent to each other, as ugly twins, a two-headed monster, a really bad duet. The first step to aesthetic re-enchantment and transformation is to know the difference between what is beautiful and what is ugly. The next step is to begin to remove one without doing damage to the other. If a child is covered in excrement, we must remove the ugly and preserve the beautiful.

But I shouldn’t be too strict in my aesthetic evaluation: nothing is ugly all the way down, beauty is everywhere, all things are pregnant with beauty. There is beauty to be found in these parties, among these persons who, like me, are broken and searching.

For this reason, I am inclined to participate in politics, in either party. To vote. But my reasons will not be for tribal, ethical, moral, or rational reasons: I will vote for aesthetic and affective reasons instead. Which candidate shows more potential for beauty? Which candidate is less likely to make our lives uglier?

There are a variety of prescriptions that could follow from this, one could vote for many different people for the same basic reasons, but only one political party will remain a viable option: a party to come, a party that is not yet here, a party of hope: the eschatological party of the future, of the Kingdom of God.

In the meantime, my political affiliation will remain unapologetically Catholic.

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