Sweet melodies of the Imagination: On Political Leadership
While some pundits compare Trump’s style and political swagger and outright racism to fascist leaders from Stalin to Mussolini and Hitler, a more apt comparison is to what American political leadership looked like during the Cold War.
The glory days of WWII were over, and one of the great sociologists of the time, C. Wright Mills (1916-62), concluded his landmark book, The Power Elite (1956), with this to say: “America—a conservative country without any conservative ideology—appears now before the world a naked and arbitrary power, as, in the name of realism, its men of decision enforce their often crackpot definitions upon world reality.”
Though referring to the leadership of the 1950s, the notion of “crackpot definitions” seem appropriate in the current political climate, where our yesteryear enemies are now our friends in the Middle-East and vice versa, and where the embargo on arms-sales to Vietnam has been lifted.
Mills continues to say that “the second-rate mind is in command of the ponderously platitude.” This assessment could be levelled against the presumptive presidential nominees of both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as any of the foreign policy wonks in Washington or those offering their informed opinion on television networks.
But if the scathing critique of the non-ideological conservative tenor of Republican politics makes some liberals smile with self-confidence, beware of what comes next: “In the liberal rhetoric, vagueness, and in the conservative mood, irrationality, are raised to principle.” What was true in the 1950s is still true today, some sixty years later. Have we learned nothing from hallow expressions and rhetoric of liberals and conservatives alike? Have both
parties done nothing to get beyond their respective platitudes?
For Mills, echoing Eisenhower’s warnings about the military-industrial complex, an unholy alliance has evolved in the 20th century between “privately incorporated economy”—or what we call today the privatization of public institutions, “the military ascendancy”—or what we perceive today as the sacred cows of the military budget, and “the political vacuum of modern America”—or what is claimed today in the name of outsiders challenging the political establishment.
The “political vacuum,” as any scientist will readily testify about vacuum in general, is bound to be filled at some point. For us, this is the empty verbiage of Trump’s announcements coupled with the idle promises of Sanders and Clinton. It’s a vacuum because no real and substantive political debate is afoot: no candidate is digging deeper into the soul of American politics with its checkered past and manifest destiny. Ideology isn’t a rant against this or that target, but a sustained examination and of the logic of ideas that inform our political economy. No political leader is engaging the public at this level of public discourse.
American political leadership then and now is saddled with moral insensitivity and even irresponsibility, forgetting who is being represented and led and who requires protection and support. If the same logic of the 1950s that saw the confluence of power in the hands of economic, military, and political elites remains intact today, we are in trouble. Trump’s and Sanders’ ascendancy is merely a symptom of a deeper illness. That illness in American political discourse is infested by media and commercial distractions that collapse celebrity fascination with real life.
If the only models of success in America remain wealthy celebrities—whether entertainers, world-class athletes, or billionaires who determine policy priorities as if they were elected officials—we are indeed doomed. To where has the decent American disappeared? What about hard-working Americans sustaining a modicum of integrity in the face of financial hardships? What about the celebrated American ingenuity that already made America great for decades?
This is no plea for nostalgia, since the historical record of American slavery and slaughter of Native Americans remains a stain on our national past. But it is part of the fabric of myths we have weaved over two centuries so as to inspire future generations. What we need today is neither false nostalgia of a happier past nor empty promises of a rosy future; instead, we need to work on the conditions under which every American is in fact an integral part of the American landscape.
If this means rethinking economic relations, let us redesign our marketplaces; if this means reallocating some of the defense budget to health care, we can easily manage to do it; and if this means invigorating our political imagination, then we must embrace it.
If political candidates can inspire our economic and political imagination, then they are doing us all a great service. But when they do so while villainizing segments of the population, we are in the danger zone of past fascist regimes. Fear mongering and venting pent-up anger and frustrations are not the only means by which to inspire people. The sweet melodies of the imagination are much more powerful.