Inaugurating the New Hegemony
Issue #54, March 2001
No one will ever accuse George W. Bush of lacking political vision. Unlike his father before him, the man has it in spades. From his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, where he outlined his vision of compassionate conservatism, to his inauguration speech where he offered his outlook for the nation's future and enjoined his fellow Americans to actively embrace their country's promise, not as spectators or subjects, but as citizens, Bush has shown a marked proclivity to cast policy issues and platform planks in terms of a more comprehensive political viewpoint, one infused with pronounced moral hues.
What should we make of our new visionary President? What, if anything, does the latest iteration of Bush's larger political world view — the one offered at the recent inauguration and in the first few weeks of his administration — tell us about the underlying ideology of this Republican administration? What does this vision tell us about Bush's understanding of contemporary politics? These are the questions that animate this essay.
Events like the recent inauguration make great political theater. A well-produced pageant of democracy, the inauguration afforded Americans the chance to symbolically reaffirm the basic tenets of their political system: the popular election of the executive, the peaceful transition of power, the primacy of the rule of law and the Constitution. But beyond this celebratory and symbolic function, the inauguration had little substantive political significance. The real politics — the arm twisting, the negotiation of the legislative process' perilous waters, the wielding of power — only really began once the bunting was taken down and the klieg lights turned off.
This, at least, was the standard interpretation of the inauguration offered by the news media and the pundits.
And they're not entirely wrong, of course. The inauguration is a well produced public spectacle of democracy, a political performance piece rich in ritual and symbolic gestures. Watching the event on TV, listening to the coverage on the radio, perusing the many press photos, and reading the accounts in print, it is hard to miss the inauguration's performative and theatrical elements. The oath of office is taken on a proscenium before an audience of witnesses. The event cannot be staged without props like the Bible. Costumes abound from the suits worn by the politicians to the more elaborate costumes in which parade participants and ball attendees are decked out. Amidst all of this theater there is also precious little obvious politics. For the event's brief duration, America's political class sits together on stage, their rivalries, animosities, and agendas set aside as together they help acclaim the majesty and power of American democracy.
Yet to reduce the inauguration to pure performance, to maintain a clear distinction between symbolic politics and the supposedly 'real' activity of politicians obscures the very important substantive work that takes place at such a public spectacle. George Bush got quite a lot done as he spoke to the nation for the first time as President. Not only did he have the opportunity to rally his base, but he also had the chance to chase away some of the ghosts from the recent election by trying to re-integrate groups and constituencies who felt alienated and even cheated by the outcome of the post-election wrangling. He had a chance, in other words, to begin the work of constructing a sense of legitimacy for his administration. Moreover, from the standpoint of fundamental developments in US politics, Bush had the chance to do something even more important on January 19th. In outlining his vision of the post-Clinton America, Bush began to construct the political narrative with which he would justify not only his own policies but the continued re-organization of American society along post-welfare, neo-liberal lines. Standing in before the nation on that blustery day, Bush added his voice to the construction of America's new hegemony.
One of the hallmarks of late twentieth century political development has been the renewed interest exhibited by intellectuals and social movements for both the politics and theory of civil society. After all, it was the progressive social movements, who, beginning in the 1960s, exploited civil society as a staging area for political mobilization that aimed not only to reform the policy and political institutions of society but also to revolutionize civil society itself. Thus they introduced new identities, new cultural forms, and new political and social norms, altering, as they did, how people interacted in everyday life. Observing and also participating in these movements, radical intellectuals engaged the theory of civil society in earnest, themselves sparking an intellectual movements of sorts, one that has placed the investigation of civil society as a potentially rich site for the radical democratization of contemporary politics at the center of radical theory. Dispensing with the orthodox notion that the goal of leftist politics must be to fundamentally alter the state and economy along socialist lines, these theorists of civil society have instead looked to the realm as a check on bureaucratic domination and economic exploitation.
George Bush is not — by any stretch of the imagination — a man of the left. Nonetheless he has taken up the theme of civil society and made it the centerpiece of his political vision. Mining what he sees as the rich resources of compassion, solidarity and neighborliness that exist in America's civil realm, Bush offers a conservative version of civil politics, one amenable to the conditions of a post-welfare state political system and a neo-liberal economic order. In Bush's worldview, civil society is not the arena for launching participatory initiatives aimed at opening the political and economic institutions of society to the democratic impulses of the citizenry. Nor is it a realm in which groups can experiment with new radical identities and norms in an effort to dispel the regressive power that conventions and tradition hold over contemporary understandings of sexuality, ethnicity, or gender. No, George Bush imagines civil society as something else entirely. Within his political imaginary, civil society becomes a realm where citizens, eschewing the benefits of critical self-reflection, are sure of their identities and desires. Bound together by their allegiance to nation, faith, and the tradition of the heterosexual nuclear family, these citizens work together to alleviate the suffering of others, without, however, exploring the origins of such suffering. In Bush's vision, these citizens are not reformers. Confining their energies to civil society, citizens are supposed to work together to compensate for the externalized costs of a capitalist market cut free from the constraints of government regulation.
This is an audacious vision, one with unsettling implications for democratic politics. Where Bush Sr. could only mumble about his ideologically impotent ersatz vision for America, the 1000 points of light, Bush Jr. has conjured up a politically seductive, ideologically powerful vision of a civil society in which Americans are — under the pretext of creating a more activist, more compassionate society — made the civil servants not only of a state that has abdicated its responsibility for the commonweal, but also of an American capitalism intent on exploiting with ever greater efficiency the opportunities for profit offered by the global system.
In his speech, this vision unfolds as Bush, echoing themes of his campaign, portrays America as a country beset by a particular set of social, economic, and political ills. Looking out over what is admittedly a highly prosperous nation, Bush nonetheless sees that this prosperity has not brought peace of mind or joie de vivre to all. In fact, it has bred a certain amount of cynicism. There are citizens who "doubt the promise — even the justice — of our own country." And although America is a land of unrivaled political and economic opportunity, there are disparities that hinder the equal access of all citizens to this opportunity. Some Americans find themselves on the short end of the stick, "limited by failing schools, hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth." And perhaps even more significantly, Americans face the challenge of negotiating their differences, differences that are recalcitrant to mediation, differences that, in fact, "run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country."
Never mind the vague, almost meaningless nature, of these words. Never mind that Bush's cryptic allusions to economic injustice, popular alienation with the political process, stubborn racism, and the fraying of the nation's social and political fabric are totally inadequate as social analysis, either completely misidentifying the nature of America's problems or soft-pedaling them into glib platitudinousness. The vagueness has its place. It's not a sign of sloppy speech writing or Bush's supposed lack of intellectual acumen. Rather it is an extension of the vision's underlying logic and a key to understanding its ideological potency. Then, in refusing to precisely define the nature of the problems that America faces, Bush short-circuits the process of reflection upon whether the solution he proposes — a reinvigorated, re-organized civil society — is even adequate to the task of solving what ails the country.
Bush lays out in this solution in two parts. In the first, he concentrates on the political promise contained in a revival of traditional civic virtues. Ensuring the resonance of his words, Bush draws on deep-seated traditions in the American political tradition when he notes mid-speech: "Today we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion, and character." Civility. Courage. Compassion. Character. These four virtues comprise the core of Bush's catalog of virtues. Through their practice, Americans can address the problems that the nation faces while also ensuring its continued prosperity and strength.
Of course, the definitions of civility, courage, compassion, and character are open to interpretation, especially in an American society characterized by a multitude of worldviews, some complementary, some diametrically opposed to one another. George Bush is clever. He solves this problem not by dogmatically asserting one cultural horizon in which his virtues are to be interpreted, but by indirectly suggesting this horizon via his choice of metaphors, cultural allusions, and illustrations. Throughout his speech Bush refers to religion, the nation, and the family. As he notes with biblical flair, "And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." Through the noticeable deployment of such allusions, Bush manages to suggest that the proper framework for interpreting American values and virtues is defined by traditional American patriotism, religious faith, and allegiance to conventional, patriarchal institutions like the heterosexual family.
But where does this leave other interpretations of compassion, courage, civility, and character? We can admire the selfless compassion of the Good Samaritan and still ask whether such a notion of compassion is politically desirable. Then as admirable as the Good Samaritan is, he also exhibits a certain passivity. He helps, but he does not combine this with a desire to put an end to the conditions that contribute to suffering in the first place. His is a limited, apolitical compassion. What of those notions of compassion that reject such an uncritical approach to alleviating suffering? What of those notions of compassion that, even as they motivate people to help others, also drive them to demand that the conditions that caused the misery in the first place be changed? In his elision of such other conceptions, in his constant allusions to Christian notions of compassion and the other virtues, Bush strongly suggests that the alternative conceptions will be left by the side of the road, that they will not possess the same social legitimacy as those versions of the virtues sanctioned by his administration and by the state.
However necessary virtues might be, without virtuous individuals they are empty indeed. This insight grounds the second main component of Bush's vision for American politics: an active citizenry. Sounding a populist, but more importantly, an empowering note of political inspiration, Bush argues that citizens are the ones in the best position to enact the virtues America needs. Eschewing the usual arrogance of the technocrat, Bush argues that neither the political elite, nor the state have the expertise or insight to successfully address the most recalcitrant problems America faces. "Compassion," after all, "is the work of a nation, not just a government. And some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor's touch or a pastor's prayer." Weaving together Republican themes of patriotism, individual responsibility, and empowerment and giving them an activist gloss, Bush limns this new citizen as the compassionate, responsible servant of his nation and his fellow Americans. "I ask you to be citizens," Bush implored at arguably the high point of his speech, "Citizens, not spectators. Citizens not subjects. Responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character." An activist government is anathema to Bush, not so an activist citizenry.
But make no mistake, it is only citizens of a certain sort that Bush desires. In re-defining the American citizen as compassionate servant of the common good, Bush simultaneously empties this status of much of its political, democratic, and critical content. Bush peppers his speech with allusions to compassionate citizens, courageous citizens, and civil citizens. There are, by contrast, no allusions to political or democratic citizens. There is no vision of citizens doing what the democratic tradition has long thought citizens ought to be doing in the first place: participating in the institutions of government, influencing collective decision making, monitoring against abuses of power by the state. Bush makes no request for citizens to develop their political consciousness by forming social movements that might monitor the exercise of power or contest the excesses of the market. Instead of political hell raisers working for justice, Bush asks for citizens to narrow their focus to themselves, their families, and the neighborhood. "Our public interest depends on private character, on civic duty and family bonds and basic fairness, on uncounted acts of decency which give direction to our freedom." This is a vision of a newly mobilized citizenry, decent and kind, who is asked to undertake, on the one hand, tasks that were once the responsibility of the state and to compensate, on the other, for the market's inability to deliver public goods reliably, like health care, public safety, and bonds of solidarity.
Never was empowerment so disempowering. Which is, ultimately, the point. Within the logic of Bush's vision, Americans are offered a trade-off: an increased role in civil society in exchange for their continued subordination in the face of political and especially economic power. Bush has politicized civil society, legitimating the increased participation of citizens in education, the provision of welfare and health care services, and the fight against poverty. In his vision of a society united by the practice of the virtues, Bush also promises Americans a renewed sense of togetherness, of national mission which is to offset the discord and social stress caused by those perceived bugaboos of contentious multiculturalism and value pluralism. But the price for all of this is steep. Then Bush, if only through his silences, declares the political and the economic realms to be off limits to citizen initiatives. These realms will remain the prerogative of experts, managers, and leaders. Here the power and profit hungry will rule. Still. Unquestionably. Unchallenged. And thus we come to the hard irony at the heart of Bush's vision — nothing much has changed. Bush remains his father's son. Despite all of his good old boy charm and his heartstrings tugging evocation of compassion, Bush cannot shake his roots. He remains an elitist, a technocrat, a bourgeois.
It remains to be seen how many Americans will accept Bush's offer. But before they do, they should realize the real costs of acceptance. Then, to accept this model of politics is to accept self-defeat from the outset. The problems America faces cannot be solved by creating a nation of virtuous volunteers who limit their activities to civil society while ignoring the political and economic realms. Then, the problems that Bush seems to care so much about have their roots in those very areas he would close off to the democratic impulses of the citizenry. Without political and economic reforms that ensure economic democracy, political equality, and distributive justice, Americans will continue to be subjects and spectators fated to submit to the dictates of economic and political power and to watch as forces beyond their control continue to determine their everyday lives.
John Brady is co-director of Bad Subjects and a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley.