perry and political totalism

Music: Edward Ka-Spel: Tannith and the Lion Tree (1991)

Here we go. Perry has announced himself the Grand Old Party’s messiah. Good hair. Handsome. He appeals to the extreme and the less extreme. Christian. White. Resolutely phallic. Did I mention good hair? The man (and his team) has crafted an image of absolute autonomy. The hope: the public (pubic?) pendulum that swung toward reconciliation will now be drawn back, irresistibly, to the Big Dick. And we thought Bush was a prick . . . .

I’m not going to be optimistic. Demagoguery works. It worked for Obama. It will work for Perry. It will not work for Bachmann because she is a woman (case in point: the relentless publication of unflattering photographs). This election will be a “man-thing,” and I do understand. I don’t like it. But that is the way this seems to be going down.

When I moved to Texas in 2005, it was quickly obvious my new governor had aspirations for the presidency. Unlike most governors in the states I’ve lived in (Georgia, DC, Minnesota, Louisiana, and Texas), Perry would periodically concoct some sort of media event in which he did something patently absurd yet within the seething, widening horizon of “common sense” for the “far” right. It was obvious to most living in Texas that Perry was readying for a bid in 2009 when he announced that Texas may have to secede from the Union because of continual federal meddling in state affairs (this, despite his taking federal dollars to balance the state budget twice). I remember a number of us laughing over dinner about this media stunt, designed to get the attention of the southern “conservative” (secret Confederate) block Houston Baker, Jr. warned us about in Turning South Again. We discussed, I dimly recall, Perry’s strategy would be to rally the southern bloc, a strategy that has won a Carter, a Clinton, and two Bushes national contests. The “southern mind” is, as Cash observed, a complicated thing, but as Baker argued, the south has also dominated national politics for decades. If I ever get into teaching “politics” (whatever that is) in my classes, I will try to focus on making sense of the role of the psychical South in electoral politics. It’s just perplexing, but empirically undeniable. There is something Confederate about Perry’s promise, something racist. It’s there, and it’s soul-deep to his appeal, and I can’t quite figure it out.

Nevertheless, Perry has finally admitted he’s “all in,” even though most Texans knew this: almost all of the legislative wrangling at the state level has been done with the understanding of a national audience (and a coming scrutiny in years to come): immigration; demands for disaster funds (and their mismanagement); education reform; death penalty; “a day of prayer”; the list goes on and on. The good news is that Perry has a lot of skeletons that are going to come out (for example, read this polemical essay that details a number of icky things he’s done; I do not like how this is written, but the basic points are factually based I lived through almost all of them). Bachmann’s skeletons are pretty much out there now, for all to see; Perry’s have been strangely kept put up.

The bad news is that Perry is scarier than any politician I’ve been frightened by: all you folks who don’t live in Texas hear me out. If you thought Bush was bad, Perry is worse. Much worse. I found Bush II as odious as many folks did, but I never lost sight of his humanity. I’m not so sure, however, I can say the same for Perry. Bush, at least, is not a dull man (despite what some people claim); Perry . . . well, I think he’s met his match with Michelle Bachmann.

He is not a stupid man (no politician of national stature is stupid, when we define intelligence broadly). He is, however, not a “cognitively complex” person; he is in this respect the antithesis of Obama (if you ignore the fact they are both “male”). Perry does not play with a lot of cognitive categories; he’s “black and white,” and in more ways than one. Cognitive complexity refers to the avenues of thinking, or how many concepts one can juggle at once when making political decisions. The recent deadlock in Congress over the debt ceiling was couched in arguments about cognitive complexity: seasoned Hillers were saying these uncompromising “freshmen” Tea Partiers didn’t understand the political process of compromise. That’s just code for “it’s more complicated than you think.” Perry is not about complicated. Perry is about unwavering principle—even when those principles are contradictory.

I read a brilliant article by Kenneth Rufo and R. Jarrod Atchison this weekend that helped focus my thinking on Perry. Their essay, “From Circus to Fasces: The Disciplinary Politics of Citizen and Citizenship,” recently published in The Review of Communication, ostensibly tracks the “casual imprecision” of the deployment of the concept of “citizen” in my field, communication studies. They argue a rather imprecise deployment of the concept of citizenship in my field over the last century—a concept deployed early on as the justification of the field’s existence, to produce “engaged” citizens—has both contributed to and tracks a sort-of enlarging of the political domain (or the dominion of the political). From a disciplinary vantage, they discern we have a bi-polar understanding of the “citizen” that is a symptom of the ideology of the “political”: on the one hand, there is a lack of political engagement among “citizens” and our role is to educate toward political participation (modernist model); “On the other hand, we have a discourse theory of citizenship that sees all citizens as incorporated into the body politic”—the political produces the subject position of “citizen.” Both ways of thinking, they worry, implicate an hegemony of the political (one has us moving there, one has us there already) that is troubling:

If our feeling of foreboding seems absurd, it does so because of two historical trends. The first is the apotheosis of the political in the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with the massive spread of enfranchisement and the increasing demand for inclusion within the political process. Hence, slogans like “everything is politics” or “the personal is political,” wherein the implication is that every action carries with it political realities, consequences, or overtones. One’s choice of church, a kindness to a stranger, the goods or services we consume, the entertainment we enjoy, the food we eat, the way we dress, the way we vote, the way we argue, what we argue about—all are political acts. The political has become so pervasive that it has become commonplace to assume its status as the unsurpassable master horizon of our age.

The second trend, they note, is the assumption that democracy and totalitarianism are at odds (and they remind us that Hitler came to power by the ballot).

I don’t want to put words in their mouths, but it seems to me Rufo and Atchison’s implication is classically Gramscian: intellectuals also do the dirty-work of the dominant class, however unwittingly.

I’ll leave the disciplinary concerns of the essay for another moment (I’m personally not as invested in the debates over citizenship in my field; it is a sacred cow, but it’s not one I want to milk or make into hamburger). What their analysis helps me to see about politics in Texas, or should I say, Texas National Politics, is that both trends are pretty damn stark with Perry in the key of “double-plus-good”: like many of the Tea Partiers, he’s running on a platform that purports to limit the reach of the political (here, understood as the state/power) by promoting political excess, the complete collapse of the work of the state with lifestyle, modes of consumption and social reproduction.

I’m not saying we don’t see this on the left too, we certainly do (First Lady public health campaigns come to mind). But Perry and Bachmann are particularly conspicuous examples of political excess: Perry’s “day of prayer” spectacle last weekend, asking us to atone to God for our sins, or Bachmann’s now widely seen photograph of her devouring a foot-long corn dog at the Iowa state fair. If there is such a thing as abject irony, it is the politician calling for the autonomy of “ordinary citizens” while wanting to legislate every cultural expression of private living under the sun (Perry was a defender of the Texas sodomy law that was struck down, for example). And don’t get me started on Sarah Palin’s “reality television” show. “Total politics,” the idea that everything from consumption to popping the zit on your lover’s back is a political act, represents a certain ideological collapse that Rufo and Atchison identify as a looming fascism. I think they are right.

In his classic and (seemingly unendingly) useful essay “The Work of Art in the Age of (its) Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin ends on a frightening yet somewhat hopeful note. He says that the danger of his time (the decline of the Weimar) was the aestheticization of politics: the Nazi’s were making politics into an art. This amounted to, Benjamin hinted, making death look pretty. If you can make death look pretty, horrible things can happen (and he was right; they did). He suggested we needed to politicize art (and he had film in mind). Well, we’ve politicized art. Excessively. Lady Gaga got the memo.

In our time, when politics is not just art, it’s now everything, most especially consumption. Perry is marketing himself as a middle-way flavor. If there’s any hope for Obama (who I will vote for as the lesser of two evils), it has to be about soldiers, not the economy. Good hair sovereigns of fashion are death machines in phallic clothing. Somehow we need to convince others that politics is not taking your own canvas bags to the grocery store or where you buy your latte; politics is more about the kind of killer you elect.

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