Easily Distracted » Blog Archive » Competency as a Cultural Value
This is a stunningly good articulation of something I think is crucially important to understand in today’s political climate. The whole piece is great; I’m hard-pressed to pick an excerpt.
I’ve written before in my blog about how “blue state” elites in the United States continue to walk into the trap of blandly assuming that competency, skill and experience are sufficient and universally appealing attributes for a political candidate in national elections, as long as that candidate also has generally liberal views. Following the Iowa caucuses, I’m returning to this theme, because it’s one claim that seems to rub a lot of my readers the wrong way and I’m desperately hoping that this time, the message gets across to Democratic voters.
That woman in Texas is probably not a Democratic voter regardless of whom the candidate is. Her key issue maybe ought to be health care reform, but she’s enmeshed in another kind of narrative, one where racial resentment, among other things, is lurking very powerfully just underneath the surface. But even that is a layer covering the real depths. What I heard listening to her was someone who basically thinks that she’s in a hopeless place because some great engine is churning mysteriously in the depths of history, that life is just bad now. The other Texan on the segment talked about a completely different issue, changes to family life and the status of women, but there was some of the same declensionist mood in her remarks. Families and women are just different than when she was young, she said, and she’s mighty concerned about it all.
Educated liberals have a lot of quick answers to these kinds of statements: they’re factually wrong, they’re unfair, they’re reactionary. All true. But those rejoinders don’t get to the heart of what’s being said: that life is changing, that the changes are mysterious, that power lies somewhere far away from where the speaker exists, and that they don’t believe that there’s much to be done about it. They despair at the way the world and their corner of the world is nevertheless.
But the thing of it is, in some measure, many ordinary Americans are not wrong to think that some of what afflicts or haunts their everyday lives is happening on scales of time and change and causality that aren’t reducible to the kinds of neat policy packages and governmental initiatives and ten-point plans that highly competent, experienced, meritorious political candidates tend to showcase. Like southern Africans, many ordinary Americans may invoke vague and metaphysical ideas about conspiratorial action and sinister agency to explain those larger transformations, but the basic take-away (as in southern Africa) is often: we’re fucked.
Offering a tangible plan that promises this tax incentive, that fact-finding commission, this reinvestment project, this funding for retraining doesn’t reach people who perceive the present as a slum left behind by a low-rent version of Benjamin’s angel of history. In fact, all it does is convince them that the candidate with the plans is one of those folks with his hands on the levers, one of them who always seems to come out on top. Yes, of course one of the things that makes me furious is that many Republican political leaders are exempted from this suspicion when in fact they ought to be the faces on the wanted poster, but that has something to do with the extent to which the Republican leadership since Reagan has largely avoided selling itself as the party of superior competency in policy-making, but instead as the party that can address the deeper spiritual condition of the nation, change the movement of the geist.