What Inspired "Does the President Matter?"07-10-2012
"If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by "credibility gaps" and "invisible government," by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality."
—Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times
Politics needs speech and action that can uphold the truth. It is a political crisis, therefore, when politics and truth go their separate ways. When politicians can no longer inspire, they lose their ability to lead and to summon their citizens to higher and collective ideals.
Who doubts that this is the case? When Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, says, "old politicians have lost the ability to lie to the world," he throws down the gauntlet to politics as usual. The rise of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the Pirate Parties are together a response to the diminished authority and sway of political leaders.
The question emerges: How does the President matter when political lies as well as political truths are no longer compelling? In what sense can we still talk about political leadership when the pillars of truth are seen to be meaningless trivialities?
The lost regard for politicians is both a crisis and opportunity. The crisis is clear. We witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. From Europe to Japan, from Russia to Egypt, and from China to the United States, political leaders are proving singularly inept at addressing the turmoil of our times. It is as if political leaders have gone on strike; unwilling—or unable—to make decisions anymore, except when forced to. People crave what used to be called a statesman; the United States is about to elect a President. But if the President is merely a politician whose words and strategies come from paid consultants, what will be the effect?
What then is the opportunity amidst the political crisis of cynicism and distrust? How can citizens assert their humanity when pollsters, think tanks, Super PACs, and PR “gurus” seek to automate the political system as well as the electorate? What would a human politics look like in the 21st century?
Hannah Arendt does not always speak kindly of politicians, but she does praise political people, those citizens who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire citizens to re-imagine a common purpose.
Where will real, unifying political action come from? Where might we find leaders who, in the words of David Foster Wallace, “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own”? What, in other words, would it mean for a president to matter?
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