Sunday, March 6, 2016

American Political Polemics by Theodor Adorno


Adorno characterizes the polemics of the obscure radio evangelist Martin Luther Thomas as fascist, whose broadcasts and sermons were mounted with the intent of subverting Democracy and institutions of  State authority by means of brutal, sadistic oppression. The book presents and analyzes various types of polemical devices that this preacher and others used during the 1930S to achieve their goals. These devices, however, are not unique to a fascist program, but common to the American politics generally and can be examined as the basis of many a successful campaign, especially for President, though the intents of the candidates may not be fascist at all or, in any case, do not necessarily result in any lasting fascist outcome. Or, at least, one might hope that the Constitution, the carefully crafted balance of Powers and our independent judiciary would ultimately prevent the worst of consequences when one demagogue or the other wins an election.


Adorno defends Enlightenment principles when he contrasts the ideals of  intellectual freedom, the independence of individual judgment, the capacity to absorb abstract arguments, and the pursuit of autonomous logical process against the myth, magic, idolatry and animism- with  their under-currents of paganism, sectarian religious theology and other ‘non-civilized religion of nature’ elements- in popular political discourse.  In Adorno’s view the masses of lower middle class Americans, in the thrall of the modern forces of industrial production, unable to discern the ambiguities, substitutions and inconsistencies of the fascist polemics,  are persuaded by such unreasonable appeals to surrender, through various subliminal processes, their powers in a democratic state in a sort of ‘blind obedience’ to the self-interest of the fascist agitator or beloved leader whose efforts, never-the-less, rarely meet with total or lasting success.

I will proceed with a brief over-view of the polemical devices in question. First,

Political candidates characteristically indulge in loquacious statements about themselves. Their talk is personal. Not only does it refer to the immediate interests of their listeners, but it also encompasses the sphere of privacy of the speaker who thus seems to take the listeners into his confidence and thus bridges the gap  of the abstract detachment involved in any objective discussion of the collective issues in a campaign. He often dwells upon his “also being a human being”. That is to say, in some respects as weak as his prospective adherents, exposing his or her own unrequited emotional responses to the social problems and blaring injustices of past and current affairs.  This helps establish a faux sense of affinity or sympathy between the candidate and his audience.

Politicians often characterize themselves as  a kind of ‘lone wolf’, struggling against mighty and often concealed opposition or inconstancy, not beholding to the establishment racket and thus playing up their own courage and integrity in order to win the confidence of those who feel they are underdogs and alone in their struggles.  They play upon the public distrust of the manipulations by the present power within the systems of communications and party, emphasizing their own uncorrupted loyalties to the public interest.

At the same time, a candidates self-advertisements and egotistical preenings, which often put his or her actual training, erudition or political  experience into the background, are often vague enough to leave room for any kind of fantasy and contradictory conceptions on the part of his listeners. This serves to herd together different types of listeners who are willing to follow him or her blindly, the less exactly they know who she (or he) is and stands for. Generally, the try to project innocence, honesty and unselfishness, together with untiring devotion to the cause.

Rather than presenting themselves overtly as a savior or superior, social agents, most politicians go with the meme of a messenger, an initiator, a ‘drummer’, a representative of something greater than him or herself. This introjects the proper note of humility into the politicians ambitions to power, side-stepping the potential damaging effects of ‘oriental’ patriarchalism or intimations that the candidate might be a despot in the making. Probably the best self-representation a politician can have is that of “a great little man”- he who walked unrecognized in the paths of other folks but who is finally revealed as  one who will‘ baptize’  America with the forces of change.  In America ‘incognito’ is relative, some sort of prior name-recognition in the early phases of a campaign is useful, celebrity can be good as long as it is not too closely associated with failed political enterprises.

The last character self-representation a politician in America likes to project, Adorno suggests, is the ‘good old time device.’ The American cult of novelty is likely to produce a sort of resentment within all those who cannot participate in the latest blessings of technical civilization, whereas even those who do participate in modern technology life appears to become colder and more frantic by the sweep of progress. A politician will often try to compensate for this feeling by emphasizing the old-fashioned and the homely as being genuine, traditional and as having  sort of patina which novelties don’t have. Certain unglamorous values and interests can be glamorized. New products can be spun as having palpable affinities with old ones.

The character representations are probably the most important in any national campaign in America but there are many others which are crucial for success.

One trick is to establish the perception that the campaign is ‘a movement’ that has more general implications in social and cultural relations than can be encompassed by specific legislative proposals, policy debates or bureaucratic reforms, and reduces the needs to discuss the rather more complicated matters of government in a modern industrial society comprised of hundreds of millions of distinct individuals. Thus the voters are seduced into the notion that something really big is going on that has a life of its own, almost as if it were a natural phenomena, a new turning point in the evolution of human society itself.

At the same time other politicians often communicate their messages ‘atomistically with a host of isolated, logically unconnected statements that avoid the impression of any consistent structure of thought. There are a whole range of devices used for this purpose including ‘red-herrings’, bogeymen, scape-goats, slippery slopes, conspiracy theories and the deployment of various other name-calling tactics, including epithetical uses of the term ‘radical’, red-baiting and more or less incoherent appeals to sectarian interests. The resistance of voters to such appeals can be moderated by the use of polls that, through the manipulations and aggregations of the snap judgments of no personal consequence to respondents, “ majority opinion’  can be made to appear supportive of a candidates or parties’ position. Attacks on bureaucratization, the opacity of the system of taxes and its always ‘excessive burden’ as well as fear-mongering external enemies are also popular approaches to winning elected office.  If the ‘forces’ of Enlightenment (as Adorno would have it) happen to present any significant challenge to such representations as serving the public interest then a politician can always claim that customary standards of civility have been broached and that he or she, above all, represent the ideal program for sustaining a ‘safe’ status quo: bi-partisanship, or even non-partisanship, though only a few exceptionally na├»ve voters will fall for that, so that it is only maintained for brief periods of exceptional crisis.

After they are elected to the Presidency, most candidates rely on the tendency of Americans to think that there is a kind of natural, inherent authority in the office, they are leaders because they hold the formal position of leadership, especially from the members of the Party from which he or she were elected, no matter what they do or say.   When members of the opposite party do not provide any degree of natural deference to the office as embodied in the person of the President, a great hue and cry is raised, as if the core value of American society –fair play- had been grievously violated. One can certainly imagine Adorno responding: “What [god-damned] fair play do you think you are talking about ?”

From the back of the hall one can also imagine John Gray hollering’ What the [fuck] kind of fair play are YOU talking about!”



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