The Triumph of Postmodern Politics, Part 1

A slogan for the new Republican Party.

What follows is the first in a series of three articles about the way that American politics has been influenced by postmodernism, or has, in fact, become postmodern.

These constitute an attempt to understand how the public sphere changed from the discursive model found in Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere to a place of competition between competing metanarratives.

That world had its problems, as Habermas himself certainly noted. And he also saw in the early 1960s the beginnings of a process of change. But is that change what actually happened, and is the model of political discourse that Habermas proposed almost 60 years ago still relevant to the world in which we live?

For many months, both before and since the election of Donald Trump, Americans have been waiting for a tipping point. Starting with his notorious comments about where he liked to grab women, there was a common feeling that at some stage a point would be reached at which even the most cockeyed idealists (or hardened cynics) among Mr. Trump’s base of support would recognize the error of their ways and return to the traditional nostrums of American politics. While it is now clear that a tipping point has been reached, it is equally clear that this is not the point commonly forecast.

The ideology of tipping points has taken on different forms among different groups in the public sphere. The mainstream media in the United States likes to characterize matters in sporting terms, probably because they think that this will attract attention from an electorate which, in large part, gets the news that it cares about from ESPN Sportscenter.

For the last two decades it has been common for pundits in the news media to ask and answer the question, “How will this play with the electorate?” or “Who is edging ahead?” rather than “Is what is being proposed here a good idea?” or “Do these statements have any basis in reality?”

One of the more grimly entertaining features of the last two years has been the spectacle of the mainstream media in the United States painfully rejigging its commentary style to take at least some account of whether the statements of politicians are simply bare-faced fabrications. And even now they are wont to fall back into their old habits of triangulation.

Thus the headline of a story in the New York Times about the recent fraught meeting between Mr. Trump and the Democratic leadership at the White House went something like, “Someone Had a ‘Meltdown’ at the White House. Pelosi and Trump Disagree about Who it Was.” (The NYT has since changed the headline on this piece to something that reflects the facts as known rather better).

What the mavens of the major press conglomerates would much prefer is to be able to swap stories and make bets over drinks like the denizens of a dog track bar. The fact that Mr. Trump and his acolytes have taken public mendacity to previously unexampled heights is a matter of intense grumpiness among the people forced to cover it (except those currently working for MSNBC for whom Mr. Trump’s challenges with saying things that are true are mother’s milk).

In the first year of Mr. Trump’s presidency, you could see the boys (and girls) on the bus trying to lead the horse to water. Every time that Mr. Trump actually managed to follow a teleprompter for more than three minutes it would be characterized by everyone from the Washington Post to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin as a presidential moment, the point at which Mr. Trump was making the turn away from the behaviour appropriate to a Lower East Side dive bar and toward actual civilised government. It never happened.

At the same time, a large swath of American media figures, running from disaffected conservatives like Max Boot all the way to the left-wing of the Democrats, has been waiting for the American public to say “enough.”

They are shocked that it hasn’t happened so far and retain the hope that each new horrific revelation will be the thing that causes the scales to fall from eyes and to truth finally to be acknowledged. This view is reflected among large sections of the centrist and moderate left electorate, none of whom seem to recognize that if it was going to happen it would have happened long ago.

But we have reached a tipping point of sorts: the point at which American politics has fallen into full-scale postmodernism. Lest any of the more scholarly readers of this piece object, this is not meant as some sort of attack on the work of Derrida, or Deleuze, or de Man (well he was a creep but anyway…).

The attempt to call into question the certainties of the post-Enlightenment narrative of Western society, running from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, through Horkheimer and Adorno, up through the French post-structuralists and beyond, is a worthwhile project. It is not so much the primary thinkers in these intellectual movements, but the popularizers who read them (or didn’t) and concluded that nothing means anything.

Politics has always been interwoven with dishonesty. But the claim that all politicians are liars is one of those pieces of cynical fakery most often uttered by people wishing to seem world-weary and wise.

The related assertion that all utterances have elements of truth and falsehood to them due to the vagaries of the subject’s relation to the world is useful in philosophy seminars but less so in public political discourse.

This is particularly evident at points such as when Mr. Trump asserted that his pulling of US troops out of northern Syria was likely to have any other consequence than a Turkish incursion. Or that the “ceasefire” that was negotiated is anything other than a legitimation of ethnic cleansing of the Kurds from the region.

The public sphere in this country is now the arena of combat in which competing equivalential chains vie for power. It has little to do with fact per se, and much more to do with overarching beliefs that structure the way those facts are perceived.

The case of the Ukrainian quid pro quo is a perfect example. At the time that it happened, at least some people in and around the administration recognized that attempting to trade military aid to Ukraine for dirt on Joe Biden or his son was illegal. This the records of the call on which it happened were stashed in a server usually reserved for matters needing to be kept secret for reasons of national security. This approach illustrates that some atavism for the previous era survives in government.

The true situation became clear when, in the wake of the whistleblower complaint, Mr. Trump’s administration released a partial transcript of the conversation which made it clear that the quid pro quo had actually happened. His defenders then started chaffing the media with assertion, absurd to anyone familiar with the English language, that the words uttered didn’t imply a quid pro quo, or that the undertaking of such a deal was no big thing.

The avatar of this approach has been the president’s some time lawyer (apparently Mr. Trump is not certain about his status) Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor and prosecutor has, in his public defenses of Mr. Trump, (and now of himself) undertaken a three-part strategy.

First, it is asserted that event x never took place. Once facts establishing its occurrence are presented, it is asserted that event x might have taken place, but it was not illegal. Finally, it is claimed that everyone does things like x, and the very assertion to the contrary is evidence of stupidity or dishonesty.

This approach, although alarming to the less deranged members of Mr. Trump’s entourage, has basically succeeded. It will probably be put to a rather more severe test now that several of Mr. Giuliani’s associates are under indictment in the Southern District of New York, where Mr. Giuliani himself is the subject of at least two investigations. But Mr. Giuliani has by his actions proved that things have changed fundamentally since the days when he was prosecuting members of the New York mob since their protestations of upright conduct were not met with much sympathy by the prosecutor’s office.

Lest one be accused of failing to take account of both sides of an issue, it should be noted that the Democrats have engaged in their own variety of homespun postmodernism.

Speaker Pelosi would, it is clear, have been more than willing to engage the pantomime of rebutting Mr. Trump’s assertions until the cows came home (or until the 2024 elections). But the brazenness of the Ukraine deal forced her hand, and she was compelled to descend to the plane of provable facts, which recent American politics has shown to be a loser.

The path to this point has been complex and involves the peculiar way that matters in the scholarly realm interact with those beyond it. The next piece in this series will look at how we got to this place and what the political is now that simply showing someone to be a criminal is no longer a problem for their political prospects.

Photograph courtesy of ~db~. Published under a Creative Commons license.