Benjamin’s observation that fascism turns politics into aesthetics is, by now,
a well-worn idea. This article argues
that Benjamin’s critique of politics can apply just as much to the modern
democratic politics of the United States. Borrowing from Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, and
Carl Schmitt, this article suggests that modern political discourse in the
United States does not follow the classical liberal ideal of rational discourse
in the marketplace of ideas within the public sphere. Instead, contemporary politics has become
spectacle where images and slogans replace thought and debate in a 24/7 news
cycle and political infotainment programs.
The result is that progressives and conservatives have their own
political “ecospheres” which enable them to have their own perspective
reinforced, and debate is replaced by straw man arguments and personal attacks.
aesthetics, Walter Benjamin, debate, ecosphere, Jürgen Habermas, meme,
politics, public sphere, Carl Schmitt
a German historian, it is appropriate that I begin this article with three
Proposition #1. The public sphere is a place where private individuals
can challenge public (meaning “state”) actions.
#2. "The specific political
distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that
between Friend and Enemy.” Carl Schmitt
#3. “The logical result of Fascism is
the introduction of aesthetics into political life….All efforts to render
politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” Walter
these three propositions, I will explore the relationship between politics and
performance. The third proposition comes
from Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” His now
famous lines: “Fascism sees its
salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to
express themselves. The masses have a
right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them expression while
preserving property. The logical result
of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.…All efforts
to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” How this analysis applies to Hitler’s Germany
is well-trodden soil and there is no need to travel down that path again. Benjamin
claims that Communism’s response to Fascism’s aestheticization of politics is
to politicize art, while Boris Groys
argues that the same critique could be made of Stalin’s regime.
While both analyses are enlightening, they
are limited. Crispin Sartwell suggests
that all politics and political formations have a unique aesthetic inherent in their
design, which is not just a matter of style or ornamentation. He writes, “ [The political] is the center of
power and hence of contestation between interests—classes, professions, races,
religions—the place you have to occupy to secure or expand the purposes or
resources of a given group.” This aesthetic aspect of politics is closely
tied to performance. It is only the
conceit of liberal democracy that permits its defenders to think that it is
somehow different from or above such ploys.
the heart of the American republic is a classical ideal that finds its origins in ancient Athens and seeks
to balance the interests of the individual and those of the entire community. Sartwell suggests that, in both architecture
and politics, the goal is “the imposition of coherent form by force and
reason.” Schmitt, the most perceptive twentieth-century
critic of liberal thought, places one of the chief problems with democracy at
the crossroads of individual liberties and community identity. He argues that democracy is a string of
identities. It belongs to the essence of
democracy that all decisions are valid only for those who have taken part in
the decision-making process. In larger
representative democracies, this responsibility is entrusted to a legislative
body with the understanding that the
will of the out-voted minority is in truth identical with the will of the
majority. These circumstances led to Rousseau’s famous
claim that the minority must be “forced to be free,” a claim that has an
ominous ring to it. The fascist
undertones of Rousseau’s position can be mitigated when one remembers that
Rousseau argued in favor of smaller-sized democracies where the population was
quite homogenous—like a Swiss canton.
the heart of liberal democratic thought is the conviction that politics must be
based on rational discourse. Discussions
about policies and allocation of resources must be made by the people affected
by these decisions or by their representatives. The marketplace of ideas is where political
views and ideas are defended, debated, and, if found wanting, discarded. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is perhaps the most eloquent defense of this notion and
of the importance of debate, as well as the importance of freedom of opinion
and expression. It is presumably through
this kind of discussion that one reaches Rousseau’s “General Will.”
in the phrase “dead dogma,” emphasizes the need to have vigorous debate about
all ideas. Even deeply held convictions must stand the
test of rational scrutiny if they are to stay alive. It is through the debate and defense of ideas
or policies that the classical ideal is preserved in republican politics. The coherent form imposed on the body politic
is forged by reason. The Lincoln-Douglas
debates were held across the state of Illinois eleven years before Mill
published On Liberty and in many ways
seem to embody the legitimacy of the liberal democratic view of politics as
rational discourse. There is an inherent
nobility in this view that is both appealing and misleading. Political discussion has always been as much
about the style as the substance. The
Sophists in the Athenian Agora offered, for a fee, to teach people the art of
political persuasion. Ideas do not
convince people without the aid of human effort. The audience must be persuaded
of their merit before ideas will be implemented.
commentaries on the Lincoln-Douglas debates reflected that no idea or
individual was ever judged on its merits alone. Newspapers were largely
party-affiliated products and articles written about the debates clearly revealed the opinions of the
writers. Often they did not concern the
issues presented by the candidates. Newspapers criticized Lincoln’s and Douglas’s
appearance or ignorance in their commentaries instead of discussing what they
said. “Descriptions of Douglas in a
Republican rag expressed how, in the opinion of the author, ‘he howled, he
ranted, he bellowed, he pawed dirt, he shook his head, he turned livid in the
face, he struck his right hand into his left, he foamed at the mouth, he
anathematized, he cursed, he exulted, he domineered...’ Lincoln, from the perspective of a Democratic publication,
was ‘as queer looking as he is queer spoken.’" Although not quite reaching Habermas’s ideal, nineteenth-century
newspapers were the chief public conduit for political debate. Newspapers were the medium in which candidates
and politicians presented and debated ideas, policies, and courses of action. It was on the editorial pages that the
newspaper could represent the public interest and demand that government be held
accountable for its actions.
Sartwell’s claim that political systems have
an aesthetic design therefore needs to be reconsidered from a slightly
different perspective. The architecture of the Lincoln–Douglas
debates reflected the classical ideals of republicanism. Two men debated the merits of their ideas in
public and attempted to persuade listeners of the correctness of their
respective positions. There was,
however, a second level of aesthetics that involved the appearance and actions
of the debaters. For the debaters, the
first aesthetic element, a design or structural aesthetic, was important. The second or cosmetic aesthetic, which concerned
the negative comments about the candidates’ mannerisms, was an attempt to
discredit the message by denigrating the messenger.
In the twentieth century, it is not
unreasonable to doubt the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy. But it is equally reasonable to question the
effectiveness of the press in providing a medium for political discourse or acting
as a watchdog for politics. On the first
point, Schmitt has written in The Crisis
of Parliamentarianism: “All progress
including social progress is realized through representative institutions, that
is, regulated liberty—through public discussion, that is, reason. The reality of parliamentary and political
party life and public convictions are today far removed from such beliefs.” Schmitt noted that important political and
economic decisions no longer take place in public debate and counter debate.
Instead decisions are made by committees behind closed doors where interest
groups wield influence. Parliamentary
rule has become a façade. Schmitt observed, “It may be that there is no
practical alternative. But one must then
have at least enough awareness of the historical situation to see that
parliamentarianism thus abandons its intellectual foundation and the whole
system of freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, of public meetings and
parliamentary immunities and privileges is losing its rationale.” If the aesthetic structure of republicanism has
been replaced by backroom dealings to protect special interests, then its
fundamental political and aesthetic design has been altered.
Regarding the second point: The
press in the twentieth century has not fared much better as the importance of
style and appearance has taken on an even more prominent role and has had an
impact on voters. The people who watched John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon
on television came away thinking that the former had won the debate by nearly a
two to one margin. Whereas voters who heard the debate on the radio believed
that Nixon had come out on top. The key difference of
course was that JFK had a better make up job than Nixon had. Once again,
cosmetic aesthetic trumped structural or design aesthetic.
It is not fair to blame the press for Nixon’s
appearance; but it is worth noting that this debate marked a turning point in
American politics. After the
Kennedy-Nixon debates, televised debates became a standard feature of American
politics. However, when a candidate’s
appearance becomes as much a topic of post-debate discussion (Did the candidate
look presidential?) as what the candidate actually says, then the press should
be held accountable.
lack of accountability was demonstrated in the 2000 presidential debate between Al Gore and
George W. Bush. Gore clearly won the
debate in terms of content. But the
following day’s analysis focused on Gore’s sighs and how they made him look
Political scientist John Sides notes
that the debate resulted in a swing of two or three points towards Bush. A well-discussed outcome of this election was
that the American people voted for the person with whom they would rather have
a beer with than for the person who was more prepared and qualified to be President.
the media have had a role in this development in American politics. What Adorno and Horkheimer referred to as the
“culture industry” has clearly taken over politics. Cable television has contributed to this
phenomenon in a perverse fashion. When
launched, C-Span was hailed as a boon for transparency in government. Now it has become little more than a platform
for long-winded politicians to speak before an empty chamber.
cable news networks have also contributed with a 24/7 cycle that demands
breaking news and a response to that news at a blinding speed. The important result of this is that politics
truly has become a spectacle, a series of photo-ops designed to impart messages
through symbols. The press has also lost
sight of its mission by focusing on the image instead of the issues.
The following two examples are representative
of modern political messaging in the United States: The first is the now
infamous image of President George W. Bush, decked out in full flight gear,
standing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln as a would-be courageous
Commander-in-Chief who had led his victorious troops into battle, standing beneath
a banner that boldly proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.”
The flight gear gave
the impression that President Bush had landed the fighter jet on the Aircraft
carrier himself. The message behind this
moment was of Bush as a strong and decisive leader, willing to do whatever it
took to protect the American people in a post-9/11 world. The political reality was, of course, vastly
different and in some important respects exactly the opposite of what the image
implied. Bush’s boast was tragically
premature, but the event’s political impact was, at least temporarily, unmistakable.
second example comes from the 2008 presidential campaign. The setting for Barack
Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was an attempt
at stagecraft that failed miserably. The
use of the Greek columns for a backdrop was designed to convey the Greek
Parthenon in Athens, the cradle of Western democracy, and to link the future
president to democracy’s origins.
is not surprising that conservative commentators reacted so negatively to the
image. The comparisons to the stagecraft
present in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of
the Will were not that far off the mark. Sartwell’s contention that monumental
architecture is an implicitly totalitarian political statement would certainly resonate
with Obama’s conservative critics. The similarity between the DNC’s staging and earlier Nazi propaganda settings,
along with a willful misreading of history, helped conservative pundits to
brand Obama as a fascist.
the Bush nor Obama event was designed to further political discourse, although
one could reasonably assert that Obama’s event was part of the larger aesthetic
design of American republicanism. Both
events were primarily for a television audience and not the people in
attendance. The servicemen on the
aircraft carrier and the delegates in the stadium were themselves part of the
stagecraft. Both events were attempts
to replace discourse with symbols (a harsher critic might say spectacle). Both President Bush and soon-to-be President
Obama gave speeches at their photo ops. But while most people remember the scenes, many
would be hard-pressed to remember what was said at either event. Conservative critics hated Obama’s campaign slogan watchword “Hope”
with an irrationality that is hard to fathom, but made for a nifty bumper
Hope may not have been a plan, but what
Obama’s critics failed to grasp was that a bumper sticker did not merit a
discussion of recent American politics reinforces the point about the evolution
of democratic politics in the United States.
The rise of talk radio, cable news, and the explosion of political
websites has created a systemic problem within liberal democratic politics. The
bourgeois public sphere that Habermas defined as where “private people come
together as a public” has been replaced by
public spheres that can, but do not necessarily, overlap. The result of this is the creation of small
communities of individuals with a remarkable degree of unanimity in terms of
political values and opinions. Instead
of engaging public authorities or those with different views in a debate over
general rules governing relations, these groups sponsor their own public forums
that allow for discussion, but very little dissent. I call such groups “political
ecospheres.” An ecosphere is a self-contained,
self-sustaining closed system. The degree of intensity within these political
ecospheres is such that any questioning of accepted orthodoxy is effectively
considered an act of treason or war.
Although the political ecospheres are more
complex, I break them into two basic categories of left and right, with each containing
smaller ecospheres for the extremely single-minded. The worldview of the ecosphere’s base is
reinforced by a network of choice. Fox
News is the primary news source for the conservative Right (usually
Republicans) in the US; MSNBC tends to
legitimize the worldview of the progressive Left (usually Democrats). This does
not mean that viewers watch only one channel or the other. Conservatives and liberals watch CNN and
occasionally the other side’s channel of choice. Watching another network is not the same as
getting information from that network. Progressives
and Conservatives both live in their own ecospheres:
1.) the Fox ecosphere on the Right, and
2.) the MSNBC ecosphere on the Left.
research by Pew Research Journalism Project confirmed the self-selection of
information by the general public.
consequence of this might be best understood by consulting Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, in which
he writes that “The political must therefore rest on its own ultimate
distinctions, to which all actions with a specifically political meaning can be
traced.” Schmitt concludes, “The specific political
distinction to which political action exists and motives can be reduced is that
between friend and enemy.” The friend/enemy dichotomy that Schmitt
identifies is an existential one, the enemy being one who threatens the very
existence of his or her adversary.
Sartwell’s and Schmitt’s thought can lend insight into the current political
situation. Sartwell argues that the
republican ideal “seeks coordination of disparate elements: classes, professions, talents, citizens,
slaves, women, foreigners.” What now appears to be happening is the
attempt to exclude elements that are not deemed acceptable (for whatever
reason) from the whole and then claim that these elements are not part of
American society or what it means to be an American. Schmitt noted, “The distinction of friend and
enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an
association or a disassociation.” The current political landscape and media
reflect Schmitt’s description. The
conservative and liberal ecospheres amplify both the intensity and
disassociation with slogans or sound bites that are substitutes for reasoned
discourse and intellectual exchange. As
a Washington Post article
illustrated, it is easy to negotiate a variety of online sources that reinforce
the individual’s existing political inclinations.
these websites are a host of unspoken assumptions that serve as the basis for
positions that do not need nuanced articulation. Failure to understand is a sign of lack of
intelligence, or worse, bad faith. Political discourse has been replaced by
talking points that often take the form of political memes. But even worse is that the memes are not
designed to persuade but to reinforce.
They are symbols, shorthand for a series of tenets that are a staple of
the political ideology that buttresses the right or left. The memes are clear to the initiated and most
likely infuriating for the opposition.
It is virtually impossible to have a Lincoln-Douglas style debate
because the two candidates no longer address each other. Candidates use their time to avoid answering
the question, secure their base, and persuade the small percentage of the
voters who are genuinely undecided that they are not the scary conservative or liberal
that their opponent’s ads make them out to be.
might not think that this is inherently a bad situation. In The
Social Contract, Rousseau noted that if people had adequate information and
held deliberations, there would only be small differences and the decisions
reflecting the general will would always be good. The danger would arise when factions appeared
and, in Rousseau’s words, “partial associations are formed at the expense of
the great association….” The risk was of one association growing in
influence at the expense of other associations and the will that prevailed was
a particular will, not a general one. Rousseau concluded, “It is therefore
essential, if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should
be no partial society within the state.…But if there are partial societies, it
is best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from being
unequal. These precautions are the only
ones that can guarantee that the general will shall be always enlightened, and
that the people shall in no way deceive themselves.”
are two difficulties with Rousseau’s conclusion. The first is that these partial societies can
claim to be the entire society and that those who do not agree with them have
evil motives and should be excluded from the political process. The second is that people do deceive
themselves. Benjamin’s critique of fascism is just as
applicable to our system and what passes for political debate, as an
examination of political memes will illustrate. Memes are a static form of media device and do
not provide for give-and-take discussion about an image or its message;
nevertheless, they are useful as a window for analyzing political discourse for
two reasons. First, memes identify
delineated battle lines and talking points on a variety of issues. Second, where memes appear there is invariably
a comment section where the public can “debate” (more often, hurl insults at
those who disagree). The exchanges in the comments section reflect
the perspectives found in the media of the two political ecospheres.
first series of memes is likely familiar to most Americans. The first image: Obama’s “Hope” poster caught on and inspired
numerous knock-offs from the left and right.
two “Nope” posters reflect the 2004 and 2008 campaign rejections of the
Republican presidential or vice-presidential candidates. The “Dope” reflected the left’s disdain for
the outgoing President Bush.
images above reflected conservative disdain and dismay over the
effectiveness of the Obama campaign. All
of the images reflect the right’s fundamental lack of trust in President Obama,
which existed before Obama ever stepped foot in the White House. Conservatives appeared to be convinced that
Obama had the masses under some sort of spell so that they could not see the
truth that the right was privy to. The following image summed up the frustration of some
Right’s perspective about the lack of scrutiny is clearly evident in this image
from a Website called Liberal Logic101. This
comparison evoked roars of approval from Conservatives and outrage from
lack of accuracy is not the issue in this meme. Although if one were interested in accuracy,
it would be possible to point to numerous legal ways that one can acquire a
firearm without “a background check through multiple government databases.” The online magazine Salon reported that in a Pew Research Poll 64% of Republicans
believed that President Obama was hiding something about his past. The conservative ecosphere did not want to
provide equal time or a fair and balanced view of either issue, gun
rights/control or Obama’s eligibility to hold the office of President of the
United States. The meme is directed at a
particular audience and designed to arouse a visceral reaction.
next two memes also provoke strong reactions from both the left and the
some ways it is difficult to talk about the two memes just shown; they re not meant to generate rational discussion. But at the same time, it is reasonable to
assume that the message of both images was clear to most viewers, whether they
liked it or not. The first image
illustrates the Left’s view that high capacity magazines for fire arms are
unnecessary. The text is directed at gun
rights supporters who claim the need for high capacity magazines for hunting. The meme is pure mockery of a position; there
is no attempt or intention to engage in a meaningful discussion about gun laws.
second image juxtaposes two situations that conservatives want associated with
the Democratic Party: slavery and the
Affordable Care Act. The implication is
that Democrats favor imposing their will on free people to give them and their supporters
something that they have not earned. The
disingenuousness behind this image is stunning.
Like the previous image, it is not meant to garner discussion but rather
to provoke a response. Herein resides
the problem with modern political discourse.
There is no marketplace where ideas get debated. The Internet would seem to be the ideal place
for such a free exchange. Alas, it is
not; rather, it is most often dominated by cheap shots, outrageous claims, and
people trolling for reactions. Behind
each image there was a host of assumptions that members of the appropriate
ecosphere either accepted or rejected.
If one accepted the premises, then the meaning of the image was
perfectly clear and required no further elaboration. If the assumptions were not accepted, then
everything was rejected and no conversation was possible. Thus, political discourse is replaced by
symbols or loaded language.
image above is a reference to the 2012 Senatorial election in Missouri in which the
Republican candidate, Todd Akin, claimed that in cases of “legitimate rape” a
woman’s body has a way of preventing a pregnancy. Akin’s stance, aside from being shockingly
misinformed, was fodder for liberals who claimed that conservatives were waging
a war on women and trying to limit access to abortion and other medical options
concerning reproductive health. The
issue of a woman’s right to choose is one where reasonable people can disagree;
but this political message does not set the stage for discussion.
This image reveals the
fundamental battle lines in political discourse. According to Schmitt, “An enemy exists only
when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a
similar collectivity.” This conservative meme frames the debate as a
friend/enemy dichotomy so that the integrity of anyone who questions it is in
doubt. The negative attributes applied
to conservatives by the imaginary liberal interlocutor are rejected and
replaced by positive characteristics that turn the charges on their head and
challenge the intelligence, integrity, and patriotism of the opponent. In these struggles the opposition is depicted
as either uninformed or somehow anti-American and not worth the effort or
energy to debate. The response, therefore, is to attack. The language used is often martial in nature,
whether it is a war on Christmas or a war on women. Our political discourse is now conducted so
that the public sphere is used not for debate but for hurling accusations about
the opponent. We have embodied Schmitt’s
concept of the political in our discourse. Righteousness is engaged in a death match with
evil, with the future of United States
and, by extension, the Free World hanging in the balance. The Internet and the airwaves are filled with
conservatives and liberals talking past each while questioning the
intelligence, integrity, and sometimes the sanity of their political
counterpart. The debate does not further
the viewer’s understanding of the topic discussed, but it does make for quite a
picture described above is not an aesthetically pleasing one. One question that immediately arises is, Can memes or other visual images be used to
promote legitimate political discourse or have the new media qualitatively
changed political discourse? It is still
possible to use meme’s or other images to promote a constructive political
discussion. In fact, because of technology
there is legitimate potential to have a more inclusive political and wider
ranging political dialogue. The use of
memes and other media devices o intensify animosity is a symptom of the current
state of affairs rather than a cause. The
following poster is an example of a political position that does not exclude
poster articulates a position without denigrating an opposing viewpoint. This poster leaves open the possibility of an
exchange of ideas. Local elections also demonstrate
that it is possible to have debates over issues.
are three factors that have contributed to the current state of discourse: the overwhelming impact of money on political
campaigns; election districts designed to preserve the majority of one party or
another; and the inability or unwillingness of the media to do their job. Public financing of campaigns and neutral congressional redistricting would go a long
way towards raising the level of political discourse. The media need to re-examine their purpose and
their relationship with politicians. Being
non-partisan does not mean treating liberal and conservative positions equally.
It means evaluating and commenting on
positions and their relationship to empirical reality. It also means to focus on issues and not introduce
distractions. It would be a change for
the better to have excitement generated over genuine intellectual exchanges
about ideas instead of manufactured outrage over false claims. The media also need to stop fearing that
critique will lead to loss of access. It
is safe to assume that a newspaper, television/cable/radio station, or website
that has not angered both political parties is not doing its job properly. One also has to hope that the public is aware
enough to recognize when a politician or party is favoring only friendly media
venues. If it is not, then the future of
the American experiment is very much in doubt.
Troy R. E.
Troy R.E. Paddock is Professor of
Modern European History and Chair of the Department of History at Southern
Connecticut State University.
Published on March 31, 2015.
 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations
(New York: Knopf Doubleday, 1969),
 See Crispin
Sartwell, Political Aesthetics (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), p. 10.
 Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), p. 25.
 J.S. Mill, On Liberty and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Colloni (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 37.
 Schmitt, Crisis, p. 49.
 The real origin of this development
is the rise of talk radio. But that
discussion lies beyond the scope of this project.
 See Max Horkheimer and Thedore
Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment,
trans. John Cumming (New York:
Continuum, 2000), pp. 120-167.
 Jürgern Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public
Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas
Burger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), p. 27.
 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 26.
 Schmitt, Concept, 26.
 Jean Jacques
Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans.
G.D.H. Cole (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003), p. 18.
 A recent example
comes from a liberal website, “Addicting Info:”
The story covers a recent Facebook post by Sarah Palin where she posted a
meme with President Obama saying, “I will be signing a new executive order
replacing the word ‘looting’ with ‘undocumented shopping.’” There is a screenshot of her post followed by
screenshots of Facebook comments by supporters making very negative comments
about Obama and his determination to destroy the country. At the end of the article, there is a Comments
section which is dominated by comments that are just as negative towards Palin
and her supporters. http://www.addictinginfo.org/2014/11/30/sarah-palin-mocks-ferguson-tragedy-and-president-obama-with-race-baiting-meme-on-facebook-image/ This “exchange” is a common occurrence on the
web. DOA December 1, 2014.
 The next two sets of images were
found doing a Google Image search with the phrase “Obama Hope.”
 Schmitt, Concept, 28.
 "Peace is
Patriotic," Thomas W. Benson Political Protest Collection, Special
Collections Library, The Pennsylvania State University.