Political Treatises as Literature

Politics today is such a dull affair.

While that may not seem to be the case currently (with a hotly contested election, high levels of partisanship, and every nitwit with a camcorder getting his or her own TV show or movie deal), “dull,” from a certain perspective, is the best description. And this is no where more evident than in that sorry mess that passes as the political commentary section of the local bookstore.

But we need to be clear about what “dull” means.

When considering political literature, I’m using “dull” in the way recently articulated by Terry Teachout on his weblog. When discussing political plays, he says the following:

In my experience, most political plays tend to be boring, precisely because the political playwright voluntarily places himself in an ideological straitjacket and thus is rendered incapable of responding freely to the call of inspiration. That leaves me with nothing to talk about but his beliefs, which then become fair game for fisking. On the other hand, I don’t want to write about plays like that, and given the choice I won’t waste time going to see them in the first place. They’re too predictable, and usually too smug as well. (In my lexicon of critical invective, “smug” is the supreme pejorative, worse even than “dull.”)

This may seem a little reversed. After all, Mr. Teachout is explaining (basically) why art and politics just don’t mix. But I think there is one place that is, at least potentially, an exception – that is the political treatise/pamphlet. And it is here that I see his definitions of “dull” and “smug” being all too characteristic of the type of books coming out in that genre.

Now, this genre does not necessarily entail books of, say, academic political theory (usually guaranteed to cause dehydration through their dryness). Rather, it consists of “popular” political discussion – the type that deals with political questions, both immediate/concrete as well as more universal/abstract in a way not requiring a post-graduate degree. Past instances would include Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, the pamphlets going the rounds about the same time, the Federalist papers, Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society and Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine’s Common Sense, perhaps Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men, and so forth.

These works address the pressing issues of their day, but also in the context of more universal concepts. But what also distinguishes them is the way they are written. Especially with Burke, there is a flow to the treatise – it is not merely some harangue or mind-numbingly dense policy paper, but rather something meant to persuade through rhetoric and stylistic skill. Not only the substance, but the writing method matter in this genre.

So we come to today, and the vast wasteland that follows in the footsteps of these authors. Alas, they are dull and smug. Both will be dealt with in turn.

The contemporary works in the political genre are dull, in the Teachout definition – they suffer from the “ideological straitjacket” problem faced by the playwrights. Pick up a book by Limbaugh, or O’Reilly, or Moore, or Krugman – the chances of any unique insights…heck, anything not already listed in some party platform…are slim. The author, at least in terms of arguments, seems almost irrelevant, as the examples, the issues, the process of logic, and so forth remain excruciatingly constant among the writers. Perhaps the only difference in this regard is the number of footnotes, polls, or studies mentioned and explicated, with yawn-inducing results.

The problem lies in losing sight of ideas, replacing them either with petty sloganeering or pedantic wonkery. Despite the sheer amount of forests destroyed, the main points of most these works can be summed up on a bumper sticker. While it may work on the news networks, catchy sound-bite style one-liners do not a great treatise make. Then there is the obsessive focus on specifics. While perhaps shocking to the writers, an extended discussion on the statistical significance of a correlation between GNP, employment rates, and capital gains tax cuts in the end has little value – citizens are not motivated by regressions alone. Without the guidance of some developed ideas, these books are irrelevant almost before they are published – the moment they may have mattered is long gone.

But in one way, the current writers can be distinguished – alas, it is through their varying levels and types of smugness. Rather than relying on an enhanced wit or the like, these authors tend instead to focus on….well, perhaps “personality quirks” best describes it. Whether it is skill on loan from God, no-spin zones, or unkempt ballcaps, the authors attempt to get around their resounding lack of eloquence with their own brand of eccentricity. In many ways, the books are not political treatises as much as exercises in egomania. This type of writing-via-personality-cult might be popular for a time, but cannot last beyond a few years at most.

Can we hope that a more literary style of political treatise and pamphlet might come? Is there an oasis of erudite and skilled commentary in this desert of drivel? Will there be any political treatises in recent years that will have lasting influence, that will truly be literature and recognized as such by future generations? Perhaps. But how to do so is a topic for another day.