Political Theater

by Don Boudreaux on December 21, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics

Here’s a letter of mine appearing in today’s Washington Times:

I agree with every sentence of Steve Chapman’s essay on Barack Obama save this one: “But Mr. Obama came to public attention because of a speech, at the 2004 Democratic convention, that showed he was capable not only of a clear thought but of genuine passion” (“a ‘My Pet goat moment,” Commentary, Wednesday).

The most we can conclude from that speech is that Mr. Obama is capable of displaying passion that appears genuine to audiences longing to hear it, much like a soap-opera star is capable of displaying passion for an actress whom that star might hold in utter contempt the moment the tape stops rolling.

Let’s not confuse theater with reality.

DONALD J. BOUDREAUX
Chairman
Economics Department
George Mason University
Fairfax

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{ 36 comments }

thrill December 21, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Sincerity is the most important thing … once you can fake that, you've got it made.

Marcus December 21, 2008 at 12:28 pm

Irrelevant. You're focusing on the cult of personality when what matters are what his policies are going to be. The cult of personality doesn't give us any useful information on determining what those policies will be.

Ben Abbott December 21, 2008 at 1:24 pm

You may try to avoid confusing reality with theatre, and/or confusing theatre with reality. In the end I think such ideologies are irrelevant.

Marcus has beat me to my point. What matters are the results. Obama is able to motivate an inspire constructive action. I'm hopeful that ability will produce constructive results.

gamut December 21, 2008 at 1:34 pm

Marcus:

In a way, these cults to predict policy quite well. Personality cults breed arrogance and self confidence, which are two of the worst traits for driving policy decisions.

emerson December 21, 2008 at 2:05 pm

Ben,
Constructive action is what scares me. When's the last time something a politician has done improved your life?

johnleemk December 21, 2008 at 6:12 pm

This criticism of Obama's personality cult doesn't really ring right to me because every politician tries to cultivate such a cult. If all that mattered was a politician's policy stance, why would anyone be attached to a politician? We'd be attached to a party instead. While certainly Bush never attracted the kind of fanbase Obama clearly has, remember the withering backlash in conservative circles when someone dared criticize Bush or his policies? Likewise with John McCain and especially Sarah Palin this election season.

Cults of personality ought to be criticized. But when we only selectively criticize such cults, we leave ourselves open to the just accusation of bias.

Sometimes I think, however, that cults of personality don't have much on cults of ideology. Cults of personality usually die with individuals; cults of ideology are much harder to kill. In politics, it often seems that the strongest credential is being able to spout the right buzzwords – Sarah Palin being perhaps the most vivid recent example.

Marcus December 21, 2008 at 6:47 pm

"This criticism of Obama's personality cult doesn't really ring right to me because every politician tries to cultivate such a cult. If all that mattered was a politician's policy stance, why would anyone be attached to a politician?"

Clearly, there is more to what matters than just a politician's policies. With 200 million adult American's there are probably 200 million different takes to 'what matters'.

Speaking for myself, however, at this point I could care less about Obama's personality cult. It is what it is. What I'm interested in now is what is he going to do.

Sometimes I think, however, that cults of personality don't have much on cults of ideology.

I think that's an insightful thought. Thanks for posting it.

Jacob Oost December 21, 2008 at 7:21 pm

Preach on sister! I continue to be amazed at the sheer mass of otherwise intelligent people who fall for total phonies like Obama and Hillary Clinton. BTW, since when did HRC become a "centrist"? If HRC is a centrist, then Stalin was a Swedish Socialist.

Babinich December 21, 2008 at 8:31 pm

Prof Don,

The president elect is the master of the conjunction "but".

For example Obama exclaims: "Of course the 2nd amendment as part of the Constitution should be preserved"

then the "but"…

"The death toll on the streets can only be reduced by a combination of steps including responsible gun control."

All the while the leaving the key question of what is and what is not "responsible gun control" unanswered.

Willabus December 21, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Babinich,

Great point! What is scary is that Obama actually taught Constitutional law! The scariest moment came during the final debate when asked about abortion. Obama responded in saying that it is protected under 'the right to privacy' found in the fourth amendment.

Well here is the fourth amendment and I would love for someone to make an argument about where they find abortion in it.

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

maximus December 21, 2008 at 10:06 pm

"I would love for someone to make an argument about where they find abortion in it."

You don't see it? It's right there between the lines.

TrUmPiT December 21, 2008 at 10:17 pm

An abortion is between the lines of her legs. Perhaps that is why you are having trouble finding it.

vidyohs December 21, 2008 at 10:21 pm

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons"

"secure in their persons"?

Figure that one out and you have your right to privacy and a right to abortion.

I can't argue a woman's right to have an abortion without facing any problem with government action against her. I just don't think anyone should pay for it but her and the father.

She can have her abortion, just not on my dime.

floccina December 21, 2008 at 10:27 pm

Bravo, Don. Well said!

Willabus December 21, 2008 at 10:55 pm

To clarify, my point was not about whether or not a woman should be allowed to have an abortion or not.

My point is that the federal government does not have authority over the issue. The Constitution is silent on the issue and is thus reserved to the states.

Also the fourth amendment is not a 'right to privacy'. It is a protection against unreasonable search and seizure of property by the federal government.

Crusader December 22, 2008 at 12:14 am

All politicians engage in the "cult of personalty" thing, just not to the Stalin/Hitler type exhibited by Obama. Obama's rallies truly remind those who are students of history of the Hitler Nuremberg rallies, only lacking the torches.

However even worse is the cult of ideologies:

* New Deal was good for America
* The Great Society was well intentioned
* The rich have to pay their fair share
* Everyone is entitled to free healthcare

vidyohs December 22, 2008 at 8:01 am

Willabus,

Written English being the wonderously complex thing it is makes it easy to write of many things and by using conjunctions and other devices of puncuation make it possible to say much with fewer words.

The 4th Amendment is such, but can be deconstructed if you want.

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons against unreasonable seizures shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the person to be seized."

I see a right to privacy in the word secure, as well as many other rights.

I see that word "secure" in the fourth amendment being deliberately ambiguous to allow for those unennumerated rights, as is the word "arms" in the second amendment being also deliberately ambiguous to allow for unennumerated weapons.

If you ever find yourself in court as a defendant you'll be glad that the SCOTUS agrees with me.

RFN December 22, 2008 at 11:58 am

"Obama is able to motivate an inspire constructive action."

What does this even mean? George Bush won two elections. So he must have had that, too. Obama hasn't done anything of note…ever. He now has the grandest stage to do something. We'll see.

muirgeo December 22, 2008 at 1:10 pm

"Let's not confuse theater with reality."

You just did that by assuming you know the mind of Mr Obama based on your prejudice against ALL politicians. Can you claim to honestly know his mind? Your prejudice is far more likely NOT based in reality than the words and intentions of President-elect Obama. And if it were true it would seem to preclude any hope for a libertarian society where these evil beings are kept in check by the governing and benevolent Invible Hand God.

Steve Chapman's essay mentions Obamas "clear thought" as well as his "genuine passion". I suggest many of his supporters, myself included, like him as much or more for what we percieve as his clear thought rather then just his passion as you assume. Believe it or not there are very very smart people, many of them, who ARE reality based and don't by into the ideas of free market economies or Invisible Hand Gods.

Sam Grove December 22, 2008 at 1:17 pm

The straw man slayer returns.

Thoughts can be clear AND in error.

Sam Grove December 22, 2008 at 1:28 pm

To deconstruct:

Believe it or not there are very very smart people, many of them, who ARE reality based…

Supposes that those with different ideas are not reality based. An aspersion, not an argument.

..and don't by into the ideas of free market economies or Invisible Hand Gods.

Takes the "invisible hand" comment from Smith, who uses it to refer to a clear illustration of a guiding principle of the motivation of market actors, and renders it as some mystical allusion of no content.

A meager and snide aspersion indeed.

One has to suppose that those who make this aspersion are either malevolent or unable to grasp Smith's meaning.

Or likely, both.

Babinich December 22, 2008 at 1:53 pm

Posted by: muirgeo on Dec 22, 2008 @ 1:10:08 PM

"Steve Chapman's essay mentions Obamas 'clear thought' as well as his 'genuine passion'. I suggest many of his supporters, myself included, like him as much or more for what we percieve as his clear thought rather then just his passion as you assume."

Who cares what Steve Chapman writes about the Tabula Rasa?

All one has to do is look around at what the state of Illinois has become and on whose watch the state accelerated towards the finish line in the race to the bottom.

muirgeo December 22, 2008 at 2:53 pm

The straw man slayer returns.

Thoughts can be clear AND in error.

Posted by: Sam Grove

No in fact my post has no straw man. You just did thee straw man.

I only claimed that we percieve his thoughts to be relevant and clear. Obviously you feel differently but thta is what this is debate is about.

My perception of things is not a strawman. It is a fact that I believe the way I do. And the point was that I/ we believe Obama for more then just his passion.

As a general rule though I agree thoughts can be clear and in error as I believe yours to be. But don't pretend that you have absolute knowledge of the facts and truth of these things we debate. And again, as I always say, the lack of a functioning libertarian society doesn't bode good for your ideology nor does the factor that every time we lean towards a leberal society the walls come crumbling down. You philosophy put to practice is in my opinion the cause of much misery wecurrently see all around us.

All those Wall street jerks from lenders to brokers to hedge funnd managers all preach the free market bull crap and then when left to their own break the economy and society.

muirgeo December 22, 2008 at 2:57 pm

All one has to do is look around at what the state of Illinois has become and on whose watch the state accelerated towards the finish line in the race to the bottom.

Posted by: Babinich

Talk about a straw man. Illinois has a corrupt governor so all politiicans from Illinois must be corrupt. Wow what a deep thinker you are.

cpurick December 22, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Muirgeo,

"And again, as I always say, the lack of a functioning libertarian society"

Yawn. It's all you ever say, moron. And it's been proven completely irrelevant.

johnleemk December 22, 2008 at 4:52 pm

Crusader:

I don't think the parallels to Stalin are apt. Hitler is also a huge stretch, but you can at least make an almost credible argument that Obama is reminiscent of Hitler in some ways. But Stalin? Stalin had to force people to worship him at the barrel of a gun. Obama just happens to be a brilliant rhetorician; he hasn't forced anyone into supporting him.

As for the Hitler analogy, although I can understand where it's coming from, I also find that far fetched, if only because Hitler used his rhetoric to spout anti-Jewish and anti-freedom demagoguery on the way up. Obama has used his ability to at least pay lip service to freedom.

You could tell almost from the start that Hitler's agenda was sinister and strongly totalitarian. There are no indications yet that Obama has such inclinations, and given his behavior so far, yes, I would be surprised if Obama were to pursue a totalitarian agenda.

brotio December 22, 2008 at 5:20 pm

Mierduck has passed this question by in two threads. Let's try for three.

From the Bankrupt Assertion thread:

You believe choosing to unionize (or not) is too important an issue to trust to a secret ballot – that it really, really NEEDS a union organizer standing over your shoulder reminding you that he knows where you, your wife and kids live. Do you also support the elimination of the secret ballot in other elections, such as for president?… – Posted by: brotio | Dec 16, 2008 9:38:04 PM

Please explain how a "champion of liberty" can support the elimination of secret balloting. Do your best to explain why the same standard for electing a dog catcher or a president shouldn't apply to electing to have collective representation (or not) at work.

Babinich December 22, 2008 at 5:30 pm

muirgeo on Dec 22, 2008 @ 2:57:44 PM

"Talk about a straw man. Illinois has a corrupt governor so all politiicans from Illinois must be corrupt. Wow what a deep thinker you are."

The corruption goes far beyond the governor; but why expect more from an ideologue?

There is also the Tabula Rasa's sterling record as a state representative that needs to be looked at with objectivity.

That's ok; I guess he's golden as long as he makes you feel smart or as long as he feels your pain.

vidyohs December 22, 2008 at 5:31 pm

"Obama just happens to be a brilliant rhetorician; he hasn't forced anyone into supporting him.
Posted by: johnleemk | Dec 22, 2008 4:52:50 PM"

Wow john,
Now that brilliant rhetorician claim is quite a stretch! A rhetorician to be sure, but briliant?

The response to Obama speaks more to the intellectual caliber of his listeners than to any degree of his skill, and in general his listeners were either woefully young, inexperienced, and with little or no perspective; or, they were cynical socialists with an agenda.

Obama is really just a run-of-the-mill demagouge with a large party of socialists to give him credence with the unwashed and ignorant.

Hell, I know of a people that worship a stone, does that make the stone brilliant?

Babinich December 22, 2008 at 5:49 pm

"Obama just happens to be a brilliant rhetorician; he hasn't forced anyone into supporting him."

vidyohs is spot one: it's not the content of the speech; it's audience the speech is delivered to.

The president elect is the master of the prepared speech. When speaking extemporaneously he tends to struggle.

Sam Grove December 22, 2008 at 9:24 pm

Invisible Hand Gods.

There's your straw man. I don't know any libertarians who worship "Invisible Hand" gods. You statement contends that that is what libertarians do.

You dismiss the argument Smith summed up with "as though by an invisible hand" with the implication that free market advocates actually believe in some mystical "invisible hand".

A straw man.

Sam Grove December 22, 2008 at 9:30 pm

My perception of things is not a strawman.

Not of itself, but when you express your perception in argument or debate, it becomes a straw man.

That you believe your straw man is alive does not alter its irrelevance to Smith's basic argument.

You are trying to dismiss the argument rather than provide a counter argument.

Marcus December 22, 2008 at 10:43 pm

"And again, as I always say, the lack of a functioning libertarian society doesn't bode good for your ideology nor does the factor that every time we lean towards a leberal society the walls come crumbling down."

This argument could have came straight from the mouth of a loyalist during the American Revolution.

Sam Grove December 23, 2008 at 12:01 am

every time we lean towards a leberal society the walls come crumbling down.

Can you cite when these leanings occurred and what they were?

muirgeo December 23, 2008 at 10:02 am

Reagan replacing Volker with Greenspan, the over-turning of the Glass-Steagal Act, The failure of Sarbenes-Oxly to regulate the use of stock options, allowing the big banks to increase their debt to capital ratio, allowing OTC derivatives to be traded with out regulation, huge tax cuts favoring the wealthy and large corporations. And trade agreements allowing flight of capital. Allowing off shore tax havens to prosper.

All these deregulatory hands off poliices have brought massive amounts of pain to hard working Americans. All of these indvivual mistakes boil down to one common problem, the false belief that markets are self adjusting.

Sam Grove December 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm

Reagan replacing Volker with Greenspan

How is replacing the head of the central bank a leaning in the direction of there being no central bank?

over-turning of the Glass-Steagal Act,

An assumption that this had anything to do with the bubble popping. There are arguments the other way.

Sarbenes-Oxly to regulate the use of stock options, allowing the big banks to increase their debt to capital ratio

The failure of a regulation to do what you think it should is a "leberal" leaning?
I'm not persuaded.

A liberal leaning would not have resulted in the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley.

Again you make the valid point that government favors the political class. And you want to make it stronger?

allowing OTC derivatives to be traded with out regulation

I don't think that's a sign of "leberal" leaning so much as yet another manifestation of the corruption that occurs when government and business begin the regulatory dance. I think you understand that. This "failure" was the permitted outlet for profit making so the lenders would keep making subprime loans. That helps explain Barney Frank's opposition to closer oversight of Fannie and Freddie.

All these deregulatory hands off poliices have brought massive amounts of pain to hard working Americans. All of these indvivual mistakes boil down to one common problem, the false belief that markets are self adjusting.

The market is self adjusting, that's why there is so much support among big business and other interested parties for government interventions.

Here again, you speak with the pretense that these problems are the result of a market left alone to function properly when the reality is that the government has been heavily, HEAVILY, and increasingly, involved in the market, especially the financial markets, for over a hundred years.

These disasters are payback for political attempts to prevent the market from correcting.

Of course all this has brought pain to "hard working Americans". That's what government is for, to make us pay the costs incurred by the political class.

You think your vote gives you political power? Voting is the surrender of your power to the political class.

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