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In Defense of American Democratic Government and the Common Good (Against Anti-Government Republicans)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) May 21, 2011: I write in defense of the American experiment in democratic government and the common good, against anti-government Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin who worship Ayn Rand and self-centeredness and selfishness.

William F. Buckley, Jr., was one of the greatest dimwits of the twentieth century, but even he worked to keep Ayn Rand out of the conservative movement. But today's anti-government Republicans have regressed even lower than Buckley in their admiration of Ayn Rand's championing of self-centeredness and selfishness.

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But our American government was formed to work for the common good, not for self-centeredness and selfishness. So if anti-government Republicans stand for the self-centeredness and selfishness championed by Ayn Rand, as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin does, who will rise to defend the need for government and the common good?

This question brings me to President Barack Obama and the Democratic party and the upcoming presidential election in 2012.

But first I want to discuss Aristotle, who lived in ancient Athens during the time of the great experiment in participatory democracy in Athens. Dante famously described Aristotle as the master of those who know, a judgment that I am not inclined to disagree with. In her book RETRIEVING POLITICAL EMOTION: THUMOS, ARISTOTLE, AND GENDER (2000), Barbara Koziak examines Aristotle's discussion of political emotion. Political emotion is needed to move people to political action. Isn't this obvious?

So what in the world is the point of her title RETRIEVING POLITICAL EMOTION supposed to be? Where does it need to be retrieved from? Who needs to retrieve it? Koziak suggests that political emotion needs to be retrieve in political theory, because it has lost a respectable place in political theory. However that may be, I would suggest that President Obama and other Democratic politicians need to retrieve an honorable place for political emotion as they attempt to fight the anti-government Republican noise machine.

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We Americans today should feel political anger against anti-government Republicans and their war on the common good in favor of self-centeredness and selfishness through deregulation and tax breaks for the wealthiest among us. Inasmuch as Republicans are anti-government, they are against the common good.

As a result of the connivings of the George W. Bush administration, many Americans felt a tremendous surge in political anger during the 2008 elections. In his 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama did not need to work very hard at all to remind patriotic Americans why they should feel political anger. Patriotic Americans were already feeling strong political anger. As a result, all Senator Obama needed to do was invoke the name of George W. Bush periodically.

But Senator Obama also tapped into another political emotion that we need: hope. We always need a modicum of hope to work constructively for change. In the process of trying to instill hope, however, he may have overdone it a bit. As I listened to televised clips of his campaign speeches and read published accounts of his speeches, I got the impression that he was going to be Superman if elected. Not surprisingly, President Obama has not turned out to be Superman.

In any event, a lot of people who voted for him have been disappointed in his performance as president, including Cornel West. Perhaps they wanted him to be Superman, even if they knew that he couldn't be Superman. Cornel West, for example, certainly must have understood that President Obama could not be Superman. But President Obama has attempted to follow the course of what Reinhold Niebuhr refers to as realism. By contrast, in his fervor for prophetic witness, Cornel West embraces idealism, as do many of President Obama's critics in what he refers to as "the professional left."

Political life can be hard on idealists. When idealists are seriously disappointed in political life, they can become cynics and withdraw from political involvement, or they can switch from being liberals to becoming neoconservatives, as a whole group of once-liberals did because they were so disappointed in the Democratic party several decades ago.

In a similar but different way, many young liberals of the baby-boom generation who were against the Vietnam war turned against the Democratic party after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic party convention in Mayor Daley's Chicago. In light of this dark memory of Chicago and the Democratic party convention there in 1968, it is fascinating that Senator Obama emerged into political prominence from Chicago. After the 1968 convention, many baby-boomer liberals were cynical about the Democratic party. My hypothesis is that idealism is often replaced by cynicism when the idealists are seriously disappointed somehow.

In light of the examples of Democratic liberals who became the neoconservatives and the baby-boomer antiwar liberals who became cynical about the Democratic party after the 1968 Democratic convention, I am seriously concerned about those people who voted for President Obama in 2008 but have since been disappointed by his performance as president. In their understandable disappointment will the people who are disappointed in him abstain from voting for him in 2008, or will they go so far as to vote against him as a way to assuage their disappointment in him and take revenge on him by voting against him in 2008? That will show him that he should not have disappointed them! Is there any hope of disappointed idealists of giving up their idealism and their cynicism and possibly converting to Niebuhrian realism, which appears to have been President Obama's preference all along, despite his big-sounding speeches that made him sound like he was going to be Superman?

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Now, in my own effort to try to understand the disappointment of those voters who are disappointed in President Obama, as distinct from the anti-government Republicans who did not vote for him in 2008, I have to return to all his rousing campaign speeches in which he sounded like he was going to be Superman, on the one hand. On the other hand, I have to turn to Aristotle's account in his treatise known as the RHETORIC of the three kinds of civic rhetoric and the three ways in which the civic orator can appeal to his audience.

The three kinds of civic rhetoric are (A) deliberative rhetoric, as exemplified in pro-and-con debates about specific proposed courses of action in legislative assemblies; (B) forensic rhetoric, as exemplified in prosecution-and-defense debates about specific charges made in courts of law; and (C) epideictic rhetoric, as exemplified in ancient and modern times in public civic events such as funeral orations, Fourth-of-July speeches, and modern American political campaign speeches. Modern American political campaigns are aimed at moving voters to vote for particular candidates. Campaign speeches center on epideictic rhetoric inasmuch as they center on values espoused by each candidate. Thus political campaigns are in effect debates about values, with each candidate debating his or her political values against the opposing candidate(s).

The three kinds of appeals that the civic orator can use are (1) logos, (2) pathos, and (3) ethos. I prefer not to translate these Greek terms, but simply use them as part of the English language today.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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