Thursday, August 04, 2005

Ideology and Democracy

I just read a really remarkable book - Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic, by Robert Morstein-Marx - in which he makes a very interesting argument about Roman republican rhetoric that, I think, has implications for current discussions of rhetoric.

His point - to summarize - is that the political culture of late Republican Rome was "ideologically monotonous" - what looks like ideological debate about the nature of government, how it ought to be conducted, which ideas ought to guide us in our practice - was, in fact, really a series of ad hominem assaults on individuals, with no significant orator questioning the status quo of the organization of Roman politics as a whole. (Hence Meier's thesis of the "crisis without an alternative" leading to the rise of Octavius/Augustus.)

Anyway, what does it mean about American politics today? When you find political rhetoric being a contest over who has the true interests of the American people/group X at heart, and competition between the two sides centering on who is the bigger liar, you have a problem. What is shows is a pretty flawed rhetorical/political situation, in which, though I hate to sound all Frankfurt schooly, something like a hegemonic superstructure has so thoroughly penetrated the minds of the masses that even "critiques" of the system or facets of it wind up reproducing the system itself. Case in point - Morstein-Marx draws on Habermas in setting up his argument, specifically Habermas' point about the ideal speech situation, within which we each advance reasons that we are unembarassed to give (they are unselfish, for instance) and we each have equal opportunity to speak and listen.

Now, that's about as far from American politics as I think you can get - and there are a whole lot of variables you could look at to explain the discrepency between norm (democracy) and form (America 2005.) But among the ones that comes to mind is the mediator between elite and non-elite: the media. Could it be that the "he said/she said" firing of talking points formats that is so much of American media today can't do anything but reproduce the power structures and problems it is supposed to address?

Anyway, I'm writing about it because this seemed to be very much John Stewart's point on Crossfire, and I think the theme behind the show: the system - i.e. the one that is supposed to promote both accountability and interest representation in public discourse - is broken.

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