Post last updated on February 8, 2023
Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Arjun Singh has reported in the Daily Caller that former American President Bill Clinton recently told an audience at Georgetown University that “politics is about power,” and that elections “are zero-sum games.” If Mr. Clinton is correct, political practices are dangerously contemplated and then justified in electoral victories.
According to Singh’s article, Mr. Clinton’s remarks were intended as a warning to his own political party: A variety of unpopular progressive policies, carried as such into law, results in electoral defeat. Note that Mr. Clinton did not address the character or rightness of these policies, but only their unpopularity in the approach of midterm elections. As such, he makes a political calculus, even as some in party thirst for a kind of new, universal morality.
In his 2014 book, An Anxious Age, Joseph Bottum has observed the way in which many American Protestants in recent decades carried on with older cultural assumptions without any longer believing the very things that shaped those assumptions. This unbelief, he wrote, eventually led to a failure of consensus: “They simply stopped being Christian believers in any meaningful way, even while they kept the assurance of their Protestant parents that they represented the center of American culture.”1Joseph Bottum, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (Penguin Random House, 2014), 13. This seems true; and yet, there is cause to think that this unbelief has become the very ground of a new positive consensus. It entails the unavoidably moral and religious inclinations that have always belonged to man, but attaches to them the kind of political and sociological expressions that Bottum describes in his book. In other words, secularism is now fully baptized in moral and religious identity. Bottum puts it this way: “We live in a spiritual age when the political has been transformed into the soteriological. When how we vote is how our souls are saved.”2Ibid., 67.
But the movement needs more converts. Without a fully unified consensus, rhetoric must assume its place in the ongoing program—the stump speech is become its sermon. Mr. Clinton, at least, seems to think that some in his party are moving too quickly; what we are yet to discover is whether, in his opinion, anyone has misbelieved.
The situation illustrates the way in which speech—even in its most degraded instances—retains its character as power. It moves an audience, even as it reveals something about its author. In his little book, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, Joseph Pieper gets to one way in which speech effectively obtains wicked ends.
The very moment, as I have stated, that someone in full awareness employs words yet explicitly disregards reality, he in fact ceases to communicate anything to the other. This the reader may more or less have accepted. But an instrument of power? Is this not too strong and too overbearing an expression? It really implies that from one moment to the next the human relationship between the speaker and the listener changes. I have to say, yes, indeed, this is precisely what happens; this really is going on! Whoever speaks to another person—not simply, we presume, in spontaneous conversation but using well-considered words, and whoever in so doing is explicitly not committed to the truth—such a person, from that moment on, no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person. From that moment on, to be precise, all conversation ceases; all dialogue and all communication comes to an end. But what, then, is taking place? This very question is answered by Socrates with an old-fashioned term: flattery…What does flattery mean? We no longer use this term in such a context; it has lost its bite, yet the subject matter itself is as relevant as ever.
What, then, is flattery? Flattery here does not mean saying what the other likes to hear, telling him something nice, something to tickle his vanity. And what is thus said is not necessarily a lie, either. For example, I might meet a colleague and say to him, “I have read your recent article, and I am fascinated!” It could well be that I have not read the article at all and am therefore anything but fascinated. This does not yet amount to flattery! Or else I might indeed have read the article, and I am really fascinated, and what I said was flattery nevertheless. In what lies the distinction? What makes the difference? The decisive difference is this: having an ulterior motive. I address the other not simply to please him or to tell him something that is true. Rather, what I say to him is designed to get something from him! The underlying design makes the message flattery even in the popular meaning of the word. The other, whom I try to influence with what he likes to hear, ceases to be my partner: he is no longer a fellow subject. Rather, he has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled. Thus the situation is just about the opposite of what it appears to be. It appears, especially to the one so flattered, as if a special respect would be paid, while in fact this is precisely not the case. His dignity is ignored; I concentrate on his weakness and on those areas that may appeal to him—all in order to manipulate him, to use him for my purposes. And insofar as words are employed, they cease to communicate anything. Basically, what happens here is speech without a partner (since there is no true other); such speech, in contradiction to the nature of language, intends not to communicate but to manipulate. The word is perverted and debased to become a catalyst, a drug, as it were, and is as such administered. Instrument of power may still seem a somewhat strong term for this; still, it does not seem so farfetched any longer.Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 1992), 20-23.
For my purposes here, the platforms and policies of American political parties is unimportant, but their political practices unfortunately predict the policies, reminding us that zero-sum games aren’t always followed by a replay.
Notes & References