In a post-modern political environment, the personal becomes the political not because we are interested in questions of character or integrity–questions that might affect the officeholder’s ability to perform the functions of his office–but because the media needs the dynamism of ‘personality’ to make politicians more ‘dramatic.’
I take his point, but I think it’s worth mounting a more vigorous defense of talking about issues like the Obama-Wright connection or Hillary’s fibs about Tuzla or even the essentially absurd flag-on-the-lapel controversy. I don’t think these topics matter just because they’re “symbolic”; I think they matter because they’re personal, because they tell us something (or seem to tell us something) about the psychology of the person we’re being asked to vote for. Now, obviously the mainstream press tends to overplay the personal issues, because they make for better theater and higher ratings and all the rest, and because television hosts, in particular, seem to live in terror of finding themselves too deep in the policy weeds. And just as obviously, these issues make easy fodder for partisan attacks, which is why they’re so often whipped up by the noise machines of the right and (increasingly) the left. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t or shouldn’t matter.
Why do they matter? Well, because picking a man (or woman) to hold the office of the Presidency is an awesome responsibility: By voting to elevate Barack Obama or John McCain or anyone to the White House, you’re voting to vest an immense amount of responsibility in a single individual; indeed, you’re essentially voting to grant them the sort of powers that the monarchs of old could only dream about. Yes, of course, Presidents are restrained by Congress and the Courts and the Constitution (well, sometimes), but there’s still a very real sense in which we’re electing a temporary king. And what was true in the court of European rulers way back when is likewise true for modern American Presidents: The personal is political. By this I mean that when we elect a new chief executive, we aren’t just electing to live with their policy positions. We’re deciding to live with their personalities – their sexual appetites and Daddy issues, their spouses and their friends, their religious beliefs and their psychodramas – for four or eight long years. (Or more, in our dynastic age, since we’ve been in Bushworld since 1988, and Clintonland since ’92.)
Ross is much smarter than I. But he seems to give too much credence to the post-modern deconstructionist tendency of modern politics in defending the “freak show.” Personality and psychology have trumped character as the categories in which we think, which is why books can now be written psychoanalyzing the President’s policies through the lens of his relationship with his father. While there may be merit to such theses, such reductionist theories seem to crowd out the possibility of independent thought, personal growth, and (above all) a role for policy untainted by personal issues in the political arena. That is, such an approach depends upon psychologizing of the human person that reduces his behaviors to history. While character formation is clearly a historical process, the notion of the human soul, upon which Aristotelian virtue theory depends, creates a gap between the history and behavior that empirical deconstruction cannot fill.
In other words, psychology’s pre-eminence in the political arena crowds out more traditional understandings of virtue. While the personal may be the political, our understanding of the person has changed so significantly and our desire to see that person’s life played out in public increased so dramatically that it is nearly impossible for me to find the current political milieu the least bit encouraging. While conservatives may have to play the game to get their candidate elected, I would rather spend a bit more time thinking about how we can re-write the rules.