The Debates


As I write this blog, the South Carolina Republican primary vote is about to get underway. Most bets are on Newt Gingrich to win, but voters are fickle, and polls must be interpreted with this firmly in mind. Who knows who will prevail? Perhaps the better question is, who should care?

Listening to the four candidates speak on Thursday night, I was if nothing else amused. The show they put on was definitely entertaining. Each candidate has been intelligent and articulate. Mitt Romney, for example, is a brilliant businessman who has performed with admirable consistency during the debates. What I appreciate most about him is the fact that, while suffering through a lambaste, he looks directly in the eyes of his opponent, smiles, and thereafter calmly dissects the criticism.

Senator Rick Santorum strikes me as a man who uncompromisingly advocates for the family and for life. I appreciate his righteous indignation over matters such as check-kiting by members of Congress and -- oh, yes! -- the fact that he thinks $375,000 is a lot of money and prepares his own income tax returns.

Congressman Ron Paul has the courage to march to the beat of his own drummer, and he's done that for years! He's the only candidate, so far as I know, who has bothered to mention the tenuous status of the dollar as the world's reserve currency.

Last, but not least, is Speaker Gingrich. He is the consummate politician who understands the "game" he is playing, isolates the targets of his attacks, and then implements the attacks to standing ovations. The Speaker is also a serious student of history, who can invoke the past to decimate a questioner or an opponent.

As gifted and as skilled in promoting themselves and their respective messages as these men are, it is well to remember that politicians are rarely either the solution or the problem. Sure, the word "CRISIS" is now writ large across the face of America. But should we look to political figures as the remedy?

I recently stumbled across a collection of remarkable essays written by Michael Oakeshott, a thoughtful English liberal theorist, pictured on the right. Allow me to quote at length from his essay "The Claim of Politics":

"[A]t times of political crisis, when a society seems to be in danger of destruction, and when the work of protection appears to be more important than anything else, there is a special temptation to believe in the overwhelmingly superior importance of political activity. Nevertheless, this also is a temptation to be avoided. The work of protection is never of primary importance; and when, in times of political crisis, it appears to be so, that is merely because, in the absence or poverty of creative activity, protection has usurped the place of re-creation. On occasion a society may be preserved and may survive by means of political action, but to make it live requires a social activity of a different and more radical character; and its life is as often threatened by political success as by political failure.

. . .

"If a society is to be saved from a corrupt consciousness it will be saved not by having its values and its civilization protected, but by knowing itself and having its values re-created.

. . .

"Societies, in fact, are led from behind, and for those capable of leadership [non-political figures like artists, poets, and philosophers] to give themselves up to political activity is to break away from their true genius."

If I may be so presumptuous as to paraphrase Oakeshott's meaning, it is that the strength and vibrancy of a society come not from politicians, but from the people who elect them. Societies are, yes, "led from behind." Oakeshott is not, by this phrase, making the case that political figures should be pusillanimous incompetents, who lead by default.  His point is that a society's true power is to be found in the hearts and minds of its citizenry, through which the values of the nation pulsate. 

Yet stop and think for a moment in whom America's strength is reflected. In the millions of people who are dependent upon entitlement programs and who patiently wait for demagogues like Barack Obama to throw them another bone? In elitist left-wing university professors who are among the most notable intellectual cowards of our time? In myriads of indifferent government bureaucrats, each of whom could easily, in the words of the Beatles, place his face in "a jar by the door"? In reckless and agenda-driven media who seek to formulate and to frame issues for the rest of us? In fat clergy who haven't read a book since Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People? In young tattooed, pierced freaks who bag one's groceries and who could not write a coherent sentence if their lives depended on it? In multi-millionaire athletes whose lives are little more than studies in stupidity and filthy indulgence? Pray tell me, where do we look to see our country's values being re-created?

Far from the current generation, that's for sure. Deep in the soul of America there is a void currently filled with little more than Hollywood and Walmart crap. One seldom, if ever, hears a candidate address the debilitated state of American culture. This sad reality tends only to demonstrate that they themselves are symptoms of it.

So am I hopeful about the Republican debates? No. I look at the character of the populace to which they are playing. If memory serves, it's the same populace that elected the current president and his predecessor. That fact casts the issue in a shameful light and is hardly a reason to cheer.

January 21, 2012