I am not a touchy-feely person. I managed to grow up in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1960s and 1970s without ever feeling the need to join into the narcissistic self-validation that Cyra McFadden so perfectly captured in her 70s classic The Serial, a novel that followed a number of self-involved, self-actualizers in Marin County. This is not to say I’m not self-centered or self-involved — I am. I just have the decency to be embarrassed about those feelings, instead of boastful. It’s small wonder, then, that I don’t like Oprah. Watching her show makes me feel uncomfortable. With all the emotions slopping out, it’s like peeping through someone’s bedroom window — and that’s despite the fact that she compulsively invites people in.
All of this may explain why I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the 2008 President race, which is probably the realistic end point of Bill Clinton’s 1992 “I feel your pain” campaign. The candidates are walking emotions, and the voters are mewling narcissists. Or, as Jonah Goldberg explains:
What Americans really want when they look into a politician’s eyes is to see their own images reflected back, like in Narcissus’ pool. The presidency in particular has become the highest ground in the culture war. Americans want a candidate who validates them personally. “I’m voting for him because he’s a hunter like me.” “I’m backing her because she’s a woman too.” “I’m for that guy because he’s angry like me.” Such sentiments have colored the presidential contest for so long, they’ve saturated it like stain into wood.
“Authenticity” — on which voters supposedly place such a premium — is really just a label put on self-validation. Bill Clinton infamously promised he felt our pain. Hillary Clinton similarly sold her 2000 bid for the Senate by arguing that she was more concerned about the issues that concern New Yorkers than her competitor. Question: Would you prefer a blase surgeon remove your appendix or a very concerned plumber?
On Monday, Hillary Clinton got all choked up campaigning in New Hampshire. “This is very personal for me,” she said of her bid for the presidency, seemingly holding back tears. “It’s not just political. I see what’s happening (in America). We have to reverse it.” Later, she explained that she wanted people to know that she’s a “real person.”
In a sense, this is populism updated for the age of “Oprah” and “Dr. Phil.” Principles and policy details take a back seat to the need to say “there, there — I understand” to voters. As Willie Stark, the populist protagonist of “All the King’s Men,” bellows to the insatiably needy crowds: “Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice.”
Years ago, I attended a Peter, Paul & Mary concert. Noel Paul did a semi-humorous anecdote that stuck with me. He commented on the titles of fluffy magazines at the supermarket checkout stand. They used to be things like Mademoiselle and Glamour and People. Then came Us. Self quickly followed. What next, he asked? A magazine entitled Me which, when
happened opened, contains nothing but a shiny foil in which you can admire your reflection? Paul was prescient but he got the forum wrong. It wasn’t in the world of magazines that this was going to happen. In magazines, instead, we got to read about someone else admire her own wonderfulness: Oprah, Martha, Rosie. Nope, it turns out that where the “me” phenomenon hit was the world of politics, and if that doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your next stand up with horror, you’ve got nerves of steel.
Filed under: Presidential elections