Thursday, May 25, 2006

Getting personal over politics.

THE SELF-HELP MOVEMENT is a peculiarly American one that grafts onto politics with surprising ease," notes Jason Moring in a fascinating column for the always canny New York Observer.

Moring's piece revolves around many of the same themes I raise in SHAM, though he comes at the topic from a somewhat different angle. (His timing is excellent, by the way, as this month's Washington Monthly* also contains a feature on SHAM/SHAM's political overtones). The author doesn't much concern himself with examining how the self-help movement actually informed the nation's two polar political ideologies (i.e. he doesn't discuss latter-day Liberalism and Conservatism as creatures of Victimization and Empowerment, respectively). He's more interested in how today's political animals and operatives are turning to self-help for the solutions to their own disappointments--and he makes his case with verve and insight. As he poses in his lede, "You feel lost, confused, alone in the world. Everything you do ends in failure. No one listens to your ideas, respects your feelings or recognizes all that you have to give. You're filled with resentment and anger. Your hopelessness borders on despair. You don't know what to do, where to turn.... You're a Democrat, obviously."

Moring then chronicles the rise of a new self-help phylum--books explicitly targeted to readers with political agendas in mind. "The mass-market appeal of the political-strategy book is a relatively recent phenomenon," he writes. And since, at the moment, Dems see themselves as the odd men (and women) out, many of these new books are designed to teach folks of liberal persuasion how to reclaim their lost thunder--or at least, get more in touch with their inner, very angry child. Moring cites as illutrative works Jarding/Saunders' Foxes in the Henhouse, columnist/commentator E.J. Dionne's Stand Up Fight Back,** and the similarly combative Take it Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future, by political strategists-cum-talking heads James Carville and Paul Begala.

Moring puts forth two prime reasons why self-help translates so easily to political life. First, "Self-help reduced everything in American life to the intensely personal," he writes, "and politics were no different." (This is not, strictly speaking, a new concept. "The personal is political" is a phrase usually credited to Vietnam-era feminist Carol Hanish***.) Perhaps more important for our purposes, Moring intuits today's tidal wave of political self-help as a natural outgrowth of classically American rebellion against limitations of any kind. After discussing the European tradition--which recognizes the past's enormous role in shaping the present--he writes, "This notion of a largely predetermined fate is foreign to most Americans reared on optimism and possibilities." Endless possibility is an especially salable theme to a generation of Democratic voters and strategists who refuse to accept that the deck is stecked against them. They need to believe that, despite current GOP ownership of both congressional houses as well as 1600 Pennyslvania Ave, vindication is just a few hanging chads away.

"Self-determination is our most essential myth," as he puts it, "and the one at the center of most advice books for Democrats." Hmmmm.

But it isn't till late in his essay that Moring makes what may be the salient point here, for my money (or political contributors' money, for that matter). He observes that "Desperate to attract moderates, Democrats have undergone the political equivalent of way too much plastic surgery, abandoning their unique, compelling features...." If that sounds familiar, it should: It's our argument about whether, in the process of conforming yourself to some one-size-fits-all "improvement" program, you end up, in essence, abdicating yourself and becoming something you were never meant to be. The delicious irony is that this endeavor to trade in the old you for a new you may only make things worse. Certainly, in political terms, this is a hard truth the Democrats have been slow to perceive, argues Moring: Not only has their move to a more centrist persona failed to attract the new blood they'd hoped for, but increasingly it has lost them the original voter base who liked the party just fine the way it was.

* June issue, not available online.
** No, there's no missing conjunction. That's the correct title.
*** though many claim that Hanish was appropriating sociologist C. Wright Mills.

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