A Flâneur Reflects on the Simmering Crisis in American Politics

I read an essay recently in the New York Times concerning the virtues of flânerie or “attentive strolling” in Paris during this lovely time of year. That lyrical reflection by Elaine Sciolino set me musing about another story I was sure I had seen two years ago concerning the idea (Sciolino, 2015). My search was rewarded when I found Bijan Stephen’s excellent paean to the flâneur in the Paris Review and reread it (Stephen, 2013). Here is how Stephen described the flâneur and how the term has often come to be employed in modern literary and political studies:

The figure of the flâneur—the stroller, the passionate wanderer emblematic of nineteenth-century French literary culture—has always been essentially timeless; he removes himself from the world while he stands astride its heart. When Walter Benjamin brought Baudelaire’s conception of the flâneur into the academy, he marked the idea as an essential part of our ideas of modernism and urbanism. For Benjamin, in his critical examinations of Baudelaire’s work, the flâneur heralded an incisive analysis of modernity, perhaps because of his connotations: ‘[the flâneur] was a figure of the modern artist-poet, a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and investigator of the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism,’ as a 2004 article in the American Historical Review put it. Since Benjamin, the academic establishment has used the flâneur as a vehicle for the examination of the conditions of modernity—urban life, alienation, class tensions, and the like (Stephen, 2013).

As I imagined a flâneur walking in Paris (or perhaps in New York, or even the small city where I live), I wondered what he or she (flâneuse) might think of an argument by Jay Cost that I had read some days ago in the Wall Street Journal, “The Politics of Distrust,” as he or she stopped for coffee and to linger over the day’s newspaper. Cost, a staff writer for the conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, suggested in his essay that our nation’s politics was now typified by distrust and began as follows:

We live in extraordinary and distressing political times. The elected branches of the U.S. government seem paralyzed, incapable of governing except to avert crises. The president accuses his opponents in Congress of virulent opposition to even the most common-sense measures, while they accuse him of trampling the Constitution. Voters outside the Beltway are totally   dispirited, and insofar as they are engaged in the political process, they are increasingly drawn to flamboyant populists of the left and the right, who make wild promises that cannot possibly be fulfilled (Cost, 2015).

Following this introduction, Cost went on to assess a number of common arguments aimed at explaining this extraordinarily significant phenomenon for the health and legitimacy of democratic governance, and to dismiss each as inadequate in turn:

  • The GOP has turned sharply to the right, with many of its representatives and devotees exhibiting libertarian, if not nihilistic positions and tendencies. This explanation was insufficient according to Cost, as it did not provide an account of why this has occurred. Moreover, some supporters of the Democratic Party, too, have shown a tendency thus far in this presidential race to support candidates not long ago considered “unusual,” if not extreme, i.e., Senator Bernie Sanders.
  • Our House districts are so sharply gerrymandered that the extreme character of their constituencies explains our present political pass. But, this explanation, too, according to Cost, is unsatisfactory, as we have always had some degree of gerrymandering in our political process. More than this, Americans of all partisan views appear dissatisfied and gerrymandering cannot explain that turn.
  • Cost also dismissed arguments that the country’s citizens are anxious as a result of the decline of the social regulatory mechanism previously embodied in the mainline Protestant churches, or as a consequence of an upswing in immigration in recent decades.

After this brief overview, Cost sought to argue that a quickening of the nation’s economic growth rate to earlier levels would do a very great deal to overcome the deep polarization and lack of trust now so emblematic of our politics. As he concluded,

The tonic to this situation is as obvious as it is elusive: economic growth that approximates the levels of the late 20th century. For now, that should be the priority of both parties. Whatever its faults, the postwar political consensus was the most durable and productive in American history, and there is no obvious alternative to it. If the country can somehow find its way back to 3% growth, look for our problems to ease over time. If not, look for the nation’s anxiety to persist, and even worse (Cost, 2015).

Now, to return to our flâneur or flâneuse as he or she sips coffee and considers Cost’s arguments, I found myself imagining this individual asking The Weekly Standard’s writer several questions. First, why is gerrymandering not important as a partial explanation of our current politics, because “it has always been with us in some measure”? Strongly gerrymandered districts imply sharply partisan and divided politics by definition and elected officials who must appeal to such voters or risk losing their seats. Moreover, our presidential nomination structure was shaped in the 1970s around primaries in which the most partisan voters most often vote, a situation that did not obtain so fully historically. It is not enough to dismiss the significance of this factor by contending that elected officials have long engaged in gerrymandering.

Second, our flâneur might wonder how 40 years of attacks on government and governance aligned disproportionately with the GOP can be ignored as a factor in explaining rising levels of citizen mistrust of America’s public institutions. Republican representatives today not only claim to revere the market as a supposed alternative to self-governance, but have gone much further, to attack President Barack Obama personally and to question his citizenship, and to do so repeatedly in the face of widespread criticism and all evidence to the contrary. This now established pattern among many Republican elected officials of delegitimating behavior aimed at government leaders and institutions, encouraged by their supporters, can hardly be dismissed as “something all are doing” or have done, as such is manifestly not the case.

Third, our flâneur might inquire why it is that membership in the Protestant faith traditions, if as important as Cost suggests, has declined so markedly in recent decades in the United States, and ask if it might be linked in any way to the dominance of the public philosophy of neo-liberalism and its devotion to materialism and the market, and to the accompanying claim that government is the nation’s most significant “problem,” pressed most fervently by the GOP.

Fourth and related, our stroller might ask why the materialism now so firmly ensconced in the United States, with its accompanying redefinition of liberty as a capacity to consume, will be assuaged with a higher rate of economic growth, or why such might not simply lead to still deeper privatism and cynicism. That is, while Cost seems to believe growth will serve as a wonder drug to cure citizen unease and fear, he says nothing about the deeper changes now afoot in American politics as a result of our collective neo-liberal turn.

Finally, and perhaps most deeply, our flâneuse might ask if more money for some individuals would actually relieve the enduring existential modern condition of anxiety wrought by globalization, neo-liberalism and the ever present potential of terrorism. How would more spending power for some, or for many, alleviate or change the continuing powerful influence of these vital shaping forces in our culture?

Taken together, one might view Cost’s arguments as an analogy to our decades-long search as a culture for a substitute for the responsibility for self-governance. Many of our political leaders have argued, in absolutist terms, that capitalism can replace self-governance, and that virtually any form of government action, by definition, fetters personal freedom. There seems to be no single reason why so many Americans have apparently accepted this claim as an article of ideological faith, nor any simple remedy for its deeply deleterious effects for democratic self-governance. Overall, even a sharply higher economic growth rate, whatever its virtues, will not prove a solution for the very difficult situation in which Americans have now placed their regime and their governance. Our present simmering political crisis, in significant measure a self-inflicted wound, will not soon be cured by calls for more of the same calumny that helped create it. One suspects our flâneur or flâneuse might set off after finishing their coffee with a much heavier heart.

 

References 

Cost, Jay. “The Politics of Distrust.” The Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-politics-of-distrust-1445015969, Accessed October 16, 2015.

Sciolino, Elaine. “The Flâneur Discovers Paris, a Step at a Time,” The New York Times, October 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/fashion/the-flaneur-discovers-paris-a-step-at-a-time.html?_r=0, Accessed October 2, 2015.

Stephen, Bijan. “In Praise of the Flâneur,” the Paris Review, October 17, 2013, http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/10/17/in-praise-of-the-flaneur/ , Accessed October 8, 2015.