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The Delusional Style in American Punditry

Forget experience: Opinion-slingers are mooning over Barack Obama's instincts. Don't they remember how badly that worked out last time?

Every now and then in American politics, normally balanced people get swept up by delusions of greatness about a presidential candidate, based on an emotional attachment to the candidate’s oratory or image. The youthful William Jennings Bryan brought down the house and swept up the nomination with his famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896--only to be crushed by the dreary William McKinley in November.

Political journalists have never been immune to the delusional style. But editorialists and pundits are supposed to be skeptical experts, who at least try to appear as if they base their perceptions in facts and reality. Enthusiasm for a candidate because of his or her “intuitive sense of the world,” “intuitive understanding,” and discovery of “identity”--the favored terms in some recent press endorsements of Barack Obama--is presented as the product of such discerning, well-considered thinking. But it is in fact nothing more than enthusiasm, based on feelings and projections that are unattached to verifiable rational explanation or the public record.

In recent years, pundits from across the political spectrum--and not just in politics--have denigrated informed and reasoned decision-making in favor of hunches, snap judgments, instincts, and what the upscale middlebrow’s favorite trendspotter, Malcolm Gladwell, defends as “instant intuition.” The political pundits have praised candidates based on their projections about the candidates’ characters, personalities, and inner lives--and what they imagine about the candidates’ instincts. Possessed by a will to believe in somebody, the pundits intuit intuition. It is the delusional style in American punditry.

The style was particularly prominent during George W. Bush’s rise to the presidency. Although Bush had a thin record on domestic matters as governor of Texas, no record whatsoever on foreign policy, and things to hide about his past, none of it mattered. As president, he has asked the American people to trust him because of his faith in himself and his God-given instincts--what he calls his “gut.” For years, the Washington press corps was bowled over by such self-assurance. Having decided that the wonkish, reasonable Al Gore was boring and inauthentic, reporters covered Bush as a centered man with superb intuition.

Bush has governed in much the same way, with harrowing results. Shortly after the invasion of Baghdad in 2003, when Senator Joe Biden raised serious questions at a meeting in the Oval Office, Bush serenely pushed aside Biden’s concerns about rising sectarian violence, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, and the growing problems of winning the peace. “Mr. President,” Biden finally said, “How can you be so sure when you know you don’t know the facts?”

Bush stood up and placed his hand on the senator’s shoulder. “My instincts,” he said meaningfully. “My instincts.”

Biden, who had never been mesmerized by Bush’s manufactured mystique, was incredulous. “Mr. President,” he said, “Your instincts aren’t good enough.”

Yet today, after seven disastrous years of the Bush experience, otherwise rational editorialists and commentators are insisting that instincts basically are good enough--and are actually more important than what they consider prosaic credentials such as knowledge, experience, and sound policy proposals. The pundits have vaunted good vibes and gut-thinking as the crucial qualifications for the nation’s highest office. They have turned the delusional style into a rallying cry--in support, at least for the moment, of the candidacy of Barack Obama and his allegedly superior intuition.

The Boston Globe, in an ideal specimen of the delusional style, ran an editorial that endorsed Obama because he is biracial and grew up in “multi-ethnic cultures”--adequate substitutes, by the editorial’s lights, for serious background and expertise in foreign affairs. Obama, according to the Globe, has engaged in “a search for identity” and taken “a roots pilgrimage to Kenya,” all of which supposedly displays a “level of introspection, honesty, and maturity” that the newspaper longs for in a president. “Obama’s story is America’s story,” the Globe intoned--a sentence that comes as close as any distinguished newspaper ever has to perfect emptiness.   

Let us hold aside that the book the Globe relied on in discovering these singular Obamaesque virtues, Dreams From My Father, contains composite characters and other fictionalized elements--not exactly a portrait of sterling honesty or authenticity. What is especially delusional is the Globe’s confidence that its own projections about Obama’s character and personality, as well as the mystical conclusions it draws from his ethnicity, are serious grounds for endorsing any candidate for any office, much less the presidency.

Fareed Zakaria, in his column for Newsweek, likewise claims that in foreign affairs, his own specialty, “personal identity” is more important than “experience and expertise”--at least when it comes to Barack Obama. (It would be hard to imagine anyone granted a foreign affairs column at Newsweek on this basis.) Out of his own experiences as a foreigner and aspiring immigrant, Zakaria builds a case that Obama has “the perspective and judgment” that it takes to be president. “I know what it means not to be an American,” Zakaria emotes--supposedly just like his new hero. Quite apart from the dismaying prospects of this line as a Democratic campaign slogan, it is striking how Zakaria’s admiration for Obama is based in blind narcissism as well as utter projection.

The most interesting thing about David Brooks’ recent pro-Obama column in The New York Times--along with Obama-friendly observations by Karl Rove and Rove’s former deputy Peter Wehner--is that they mark Obama as Republicans’ favorite Democratic candidate for president. But Brooks has also fallen into the delusional style. He likes Obama, he says, because of the senator’s “character and self-knowledge” which “matter more than even experience.” (Give Brooks credit for consistency; he said more or less the same thing in praise of George W. Bush in 2000.)

Brooks channels the late sociologist David Riesman to declare that Obama is a secure “inner-directed man,” who was “forged by the process of discovering his own identity.” Then, channeling Abraham Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Isaiah Berlin, Brooks expostulates about Obama as a man with a tragic sense of life and acute powers of observation--relying chiefly, like the Globe, on Obama's semi-fictional memoir. Brooks offers nothing about politics and knowledge and positions: it’s all about personality, character, and attitude--or what Brooks whips up about Obama’s personality, character, and attitude.

There are many possible explanations for this latest outbreak of the delusional style. An ever-intensifying cult of celebrity personality-worship, the more sentimental the better, may finally have overwhelmed precincts of political commentary. (Obama’s sidekick, Oprah Winfrey, is, after all, the reigning master of that cult.) Democrats may simply be so battered after what the Globe calls “seven desolating years” that they are looking for a man on a white horse to deliver them from despair--and so they have invented one.

There is also the troubling possibility that what a senior Bush official once cheerily described as the downfall of “reality-based” politics, including “reality-based” reporting, and commentary, has in fact come to pass, and that fantasy has taken over. Eight years ago, defiance of reality in favor of delusions about instinct helped bring the incumbent president to the White House. A catastrophic presidency ensued--directed largely on George W. Bush’s intuition. Today’s Obama-awed commentators, unchastened by that experience, describe breathlessly his “intuitive sense of the world.” No doubt if Obama falters, these pundits will someday find another intuitive child of destiny to call their own. What remains to be seen is if American voters will prove to be more skeptical--and more reality-based --than the pixilated experts.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).

By Sean Wilentz