Bachmann speaks to those who would lose the fight without losing their souls, rather than win a hollow victory

Michele Bachmann Fights Like A Girl

By —— Bio and Archives--December 12, 2011

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It has been more than thirty years since Margaret Thatcher altered the Western political landscape, helping to save the world from Soviet expansionism while coming as near as anyone could to saving England itself from the cultural and economic quagmire that, since her departure, has continued to deepen.  Nevertheless, over the past few months the most serious female presidential candidate in U.S. history—and the one most similar in principles to the early Thatcher—has been treated as an also-ran by both the mainstream and Republican-leaning media, as well as subjected to unfounded accusations of incompetence or instability—from conservatives.


There was Tim Pawlenty’s suggestion that her susceptibility to headaches (an ailment she shares with Thomas Jefferson) renders her unfit to govern.  Then there was George Will’s judgment, apparently pulled straight out of the ether, that she could not be trusted with her finger on the nuclear trigger.  (They said the same of Reagan.)  Perhaps the concern is that if she had a headache and went stumbling blindly in search of her painkillers, she might inadvertently hit The Big Red Button, thus starting World War III.  Never having been in the White House, I had naively assumed there would be safeguards to prevent such a mishap, like secret codes and a military chain of command and stuff; but Will and Pawlenty, who have been in the White House, seem to think it’s a possibility, so who am I to object?

No, I do not believe that the Republican Establishment’s objection to Bachmann is that she’s a woman.  The objection, rather, is that she is not a man—where by “man” I mean “an accredited member of the Washington Insider’s Club.”  She doesn’t talk the way we expect modern politicians to talk.  Her public persona, in debates and interviews, does not fall easily within the accepted norms of TV-age politicians.  She tends to speak in bold colors.  She talks about over-arching issues much more comfortably than about niggling details.  She delineates issues with a view to their long-term ramifications, where long-term does not mean two years, but two decades, or two generations.  Worst of all, she infuses all issues about which she speaks with a moral tinge—which is to say that she instinctively hones in on the moral implications of public policy, rather than merely on the pragmatic, outcome-oriented aspect of decision-making.

This last trait, the morality-colored glasses, is particularly troubling to today’s Establishment types, for whom politics is about winning, at least as much as it is about being right.  Bachmann speaks to those who would lose the fight without losing their souls, rather than win a hollow victory.  A Gingrich or Romney presidency would be hollow victory on a grand scale, sucking the wind out of America’s burgeoning constitutionalist revival while doing little—or, more likely, nothing—to change the fundamental premises of the Establishment’s workings.  That is to say, the multi-generational project of rekindling the notion of a constitutional republic, not only in rhetoric but in practice, will require more than lip-service critiques of the current Establishment’s follies.  It will require the slow, bottom-up creation of a new Establishment.  Establishmentarianism, per se, is not the problem; George Washington was the Establishment in his time.  The challenge is to transmogrify the Establishment into something noble, something with purposes and ideals higher than the next election cycle. 

Joseph Conrad said that women hate irony.  He meant it as a criticism; as they are more inclined towards naive belief in the good, the true and the beautiful, women are more likely to be angered than pleased at the cleverness that undercuts and casts doubt upon fundamental principles.  Conrad, however, was writing in an age in which irony was an intellectual art, a means of broadening understanding by way of refusing to allow the mind to say “Stop here.”  Today, we live in an age of universalized, and hence diminished, irony.  Everyone is wised-up; everyone sees through everything; everyone thinks that matters of the most crushing importance are merely intellectual games, mass media games, power games.  In such a morally decrepit climate, irony is not a means of enlightenment.  It is just a fancy name for cynicism, which is the enemy of enlightenment. 

In such a climate, civilization needs leaders who are not ironists, at least not in the modern, diminished sense.  In Conrad’s terms, civilization needs women.  To put it more simply, America manifestly does not need more “big ideas,” “big schemes,” and “big hopes,”—i.e. more big government.  What she needs is a voice of conscience to speak to the present crisis as a moral crisis of historic proportions. 

It is certain that among this year’s primary contenders, Bachmann has the most credibility as this kind of moral conservative.  By “moral conservative,” I do not mean a Christian conservative, or a social conservative.  (Rick Santorum is also strong in these latter areas, of course.)  I mean someone who can articulate the economic crisis as a moral crisis, and who can propose financial solutions that are grounded in an understanding of the moral nature of the problem.  For this is the only way to change paths in the permanent manner that is required.  The goal cannot be merely to balance the budget, for example.  The goal must be to demonstrate to the electorate that a balanced budget is a practical manifestation of a particular moral position on the relationship between government and citizen.  This is what Bachmann’s manner of articulating the issues achieves most effectively—if people will listen.

Bachmann’s practical problem is that, in the age of TV ratings and Twitter politics, her strength, which is the strength most needed at this time, is obscured

Bachmann’s practical problem is that, in the age of TV ratings and Twitter politics, her strength, which is the strength most needed at this time, is obscured.  The superabundance of repetitive, sound-bite-focused debates is most beneficial to the cute talkers, the Six Point Plan guys, the “ironists” in the modern sense.  How would Lincoln, Jefferson, or Madison have fared in such a setting?  It is impossible to know, and speculation is futile.  What can be said, however, is that the ideas that have allowed those men to be regarded as giants today would not have played well in the modern debate format, in which one must make all of one’s arguments in the form of one minute speechettes: One broad point (but not too broad, lest it require some long-winded explanation of, say, two minutes); two details naming circumstances related to the broad point (rapid-fire delivery is effective, as it creates the impression that one is really up on the issue, while also making careful scrutiny of your information difficult); a name-drop (calculated to appeal to the particular audience in attendance); and a summation, preferably featuring a pre-fab zinger, citing oneself as the only person who has anything worthwhile to say on this issue (just keep going until the moderator says your minute is up).

This format does not suit Bachmann well, at least from the cynical point of view.  That is to say, even when, as often happens, she makes a great point, and makes it well, it generally plays awkwardly with the audience—and presumably with TV viewers—because modern voters typically do not see themselves as they really are, namely, as people being asked to think about what is best for the future of their country, but rather as aloof “observers,” as pseudo-strategists.  When such people hear an argument offered in obvious cynical calculation, they do not think, “Phoney!”  Rather, they think, “That was smart; it’ll play well with Hispanics/Tea Partiers/Jews/Whomever.”  In other words, they imagine themselves as the ones who can see through it, while assuming that no one else can.  Furthermore, that cynical, pseudo-sophisticated point of view actually becomes their own means of judging candidates.  That, it seems to me, is at least half of what people mean when they talk about “electability.”  They are praising a politician—and supporting him—for being able to fool people, as though this were a virtue. 

(This explains how Bill Clinton rose in popularity after everyone saw him lying through his teeth in his video testimony.  Seeing him engage in sophistries about the meaning of “is”—sophistries whereby he tossed a young lover into the trash with a casualness that would be shocking in a psychopath—millions of ordinary, reasonable people thought, “Wow, I can’t believe he pulled that off—what a guy!”)

When Bachmann talks about the impact of the debt on national security, by way of interest owed to China, the audience goes quiet.  When she says 2012 will be America’s last chance to repeal socialized medicine, the audience goes quiet.  When she says she is running for President because she sees that the nation is on the brink of collapse, some think she sounds silly.  When she says the United States is living in a fantasy of being a wealthy nation, while in fact being broke, listeners stare at their hands.  When she says every adult citizen should pay some taxes, some people may cringe a little, thinking, “Oh, she just alienated the 47% who don’t pay taxes.” 

Many will regard her as a schoolmarm, a nagging wife, “Nanny Michele.”  In the Christian era, the traditional role of women has indeed included the function of settling men down, civilizing them, reminding them of their responsibilities.  “Eat your peas” is a mother’s dictum.  Men don’t like to be reminded of their souls, which means of their future, but women remind them anyway—and men, along with society as a whole, are better off for it. 

Sarah Palin was appealing to many Tea Partiers precisely because of her ability to fight with the boys.  She could take as good as she got, and she wouldn’t back down.  Michele Bachmann’s is a somewhat different appeal.  Attack mode seems unnatural to her.  In the stand-up debates, she looked small among all those men, and seemed uncomfortable trading shots.  She is in her element when, as in the Thanksgiving Forum, she is pouring water for all the men, and then sitting down to remind them of what they need to be focused on.  Like a good wife or mother, she plays the role of conscience very well.  In other words, she is the moral advocate at the table, and in your head, who, if you are not already too far gone, keeps you on the righteous path.  To state this another way, she embodies the best elements of the Tea Party.

At this moment, which, as Bachmann consistently reminds Americans, may truly be the penultimate moment for their nation, it is not enough to have some pretty good policy ideas, as a few of the candidates do, or to look and sound like a politician (not to say statesman) in a way that appeals to the cynics.  One must also know why winning is necessary, and be able to explain it to the voters.  What’s more, one must be able to instill in the citizens of a pop culture world a sense, not only of history, but of the faint death-cry of a too long-neglected future.  The task is Herculean—perhaps, in fact, too much to hope for from any one man.  So how about trying one woman?


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Daren Jonescu -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Daren Jonescu has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He currently teaches English language and philosophy at Changwon National University in South Korea.

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