Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A new style of political discourse

Barack Obama is our President-elect. Since I voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin, I am naturally disappointed. But speaking as a man of the Right, I want to add my voice to that of others on the Right who are saying the same: President Obama will be my president too. And on one score I hope the President-elect is right. Last night, in his victory speech, Obama promised that “change has come to America.” God willing, he can succeed where President Bush failed: namely, to “change the tone in Washington, D.C.

In a wise and beautiful column in the Washington Post this morning, Michael Gerson points out that an election victory is not merely a triumph for the majority; it is also “a transfer of legitimacy that binds the minority as well.” For the past sixteen years, the Right and Left in this country have stumbled over one another in a race to undermine the legitimacy of democratically-elected presidents. As Gerson puts it:

In the past few decades, the magic of legitimacy has seemed to fade. Opponents of President Bill Clinton turned their disagreements (and Clinton's human failures) into an assault on his power. Some turned to insane conspiracy theories, including accusations of politically motivated murder. After President Bush’s reelection, elements of the left began their own attack on his legitimacy, talking of impeachment while repeating lunatic theories about deception and criminality.The assault on legitimacy has done great damage to America. And I hope—I profoundly hope—that we on the Right can be loyal opponents to President Obama without resorting to conspiracy theories or what I described below as “foam-flecked hyperbole.”

The initial reaction on literary blogs to Obama’s victory has not been entirely encouraging. Compare the always generous Mark Sarvas (stunned with happiness at Obama’s victory, he says quietly, “Look at what this amazing country did”) to the always maledicent Michael Bérubé (who is wowed by Obama’s win, but not so much by the victories of Senators Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith or by California’s approval of a gay-marriage ban, sneeringboggling: “Dang, what is wrong with you people?”).

You can’t have it both ways. Either you celebrate an electoral victory, which means that you respect the legitimacy of the winner, or you don’t. Here is hoping that the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s decisive victory introduces a new style of political discourse on the Right.

Update: In the comments section, Michael Bérubé takes me to task for failing to mention the reelection of Sen. Ted Stevens (R–AK). “Surely there is something wrong with electing a convicted felon, no?” he says. “I mean, I thought conservatives believed in law and order and stuff.” Ha ha. If I didn’t mention Stevens it follows that, like most conservatives, I must be some sort of hypocrite.

Upon reflection, though, I am struck by Bérubé’s assumption that there is something “wrong” about Stevens’s reelection. “Wrong” in what sense? Politically speaking, Stevens is, at last count, winning reelection. Bérubé and I may lament the outcome, but it gives Stevens a certain legitimacy. (Senate rules apparently do not disqualify him from serving, although majority leader Harry Reid (D–NV) has warned that he faces expulsion.)

Clearly, then, Bérubé means that Stevens’s reelection is immoral. Moralizing about popular outcomes is precisely what has landed us in this discursive mess. Stevens’s conduct is wrong, but his election is legitimate. To speak any other way is to commit an ignoratio elenchi.


Unknown said...

A worthy post - John McCain's tone of his concession speech was an excellent start to this trend. While it is typical of the losing candidate to offer support to the victor, I somehow feel that McCain meant what he promised - a desire to work together with President Obama. It is a brave new world we are now facing.

Michael Bérubé said...

Dang, it's weird that you left out the immediate antecedent of my "dang, what is wrong with you people" -- namely, the re-election of Ted Stevens. Surely there is something wrong with electing a convicted felon, no? I mean, I thought conservatives believed in law and order and stuff.

And you got my tone wrong, too. It wasn't sneering -- it was bewildered. Just so you know.

D. G. Myers said...

Re: Bérubé's comments. Fair enough on tone (although you did sneer at Stanley Kurtz, who has carefully documented every claim that he has made about Obama).

On Stevens: you could not be more correct. You will not agree with me, though, that his corruption is one more reason to admire Governor Sarah Palin, who is Stevens’s fiercest opponent in Alaska.

Michael Bérubé said...

Actually, I'm kind of worried that Stanley Kurtz is onto us: "Gamaliel specializes in ideological stealth, and Obama, a master student of Gamaliel strategy, shows disturbing signs of being a sub rosa radical himself." Then again, if Obama truly is a master student of ideological stealth, eight years from now we still won't have understood fully just how radical he is. That's how sub rosa it's gonna be.

And yes, Governor Palin is considerably less corrupt than Ted Stevens. I've learned much from the past few months' crash course in Alaskan politics . . . but I'm still intensely curious as to why she wouldn't say whether she voted for him.

D. G. Myers said...

Gosh, maybe she actually believes in the secret ballot.

Unknown said...

I note that the 'non drive by media' talk show hosts rushed to the attack today. Again, not referencing anyone in particular, one bloviator stated that he is one of the 58 million who said no and that is where he will remain - a rejectionist.

Anonymous said...

Couple of points. First, the Gerson quote is as pure and obvious a false equivalence as you're going to find. Can you seriously not see that? C'mon, man.

And second, what on earth does Palin's behavior have to do with the secrecy of the ballot? That's just incorrect - a mistake - not true.

Just an FYI.

Charlie Green said...

I find the criticism of Berube a little bizarre. Not only do you pull several of his comments way out of context, who cares about the tone of his blog? (More importantly, about the tone of a single post that's really just representative of one kind of writing style he displays.) What about his academic articles, his public speeches, etc.?

Oh, and anonymous is right about the false equivalence.