The Death of Political Idolatry

Resistance or Despair for Alienated America?

With Bobby Kennedy passing and Eugene McCarthy licking his wounds, the United States, in 1968, was forced into a new age of political iconoclasm. No "image-maker" can make much of what serious presidential timber we have left. McGovern, who is the nicest of the bunch, and Lindsay, who is the handsomest, have little fire to offer compared to the heat generated by either the Kennedy or the McCarthy campaign. Shirley Chisholm, whose personality is far more electrifying than any other candidate's, is unlikely to get the kind of money or delegate support needed to be elected president. Not only do Democratic Party leaders doubt the political viability of a black national candidate, Ms. Chisholm must face the overt anti-feminism of male and female voters alike.

I say we were forced into this age because, surely, the lack of inspiring leadership evidenced by either party cannot coincide with the people's apparent longings. As one woman stated her case in the New York Times three autumns ago, after voting for Kennedy in '60, Goldwater in '64, and Wallace in '68, where does one go now? The answer, it seems, according to the mood of the country, is an uneasy and remorseful: "Nowhere." It seems there's no one to turn to these days but ourselves.

Karl Marx would laugh a knowing laugh in the midst of our presidential campaign. Deprived of an idol who somehow seems capable of transmitting a sense of purposeful unity and of moral social enterprise, longing for a human god to awaken us to our future and to make idealism fashionable, the activists of our country, the students of the first moratorium and their parents, the New Frontiersmen, retreat into despair and acknowledged political impotence.

It is instructive to contemplate the few heroes still left us, "us" in the sense of the country as a whole, "us" in the sense of John Kennedy's mourners. Certainly, it's for the better that we've been deprived of some illusions, stripped of the comforting passivity of political idolatry, forced to see the New Frontier and the Alliance for Progress as a sham, compelled to recite eulogies for the War on Poverty and for the Great Society, and thrust into the reality, again, of war's immorality, seeing the innocent we've killed and living we've helped destroy. Still, there was some good in feeling some value in believing that we would grow up to join the war to end social injustice, in believing that somehow, for some reason, we were going to fight together toward an undefined, but better, destiny. That much we had under Kennedy, a sense of our own sincerity, progressivism, and vibrancy created from a character we, ourselves, molded for Kennedy.

Marx's chiding would focus on the crucial point in America's accelerated spirited decline: people must run the political process themselves. It cannot be separated from their material lives; it must not be an abstraction, but a reality for each individual.

In our removal from real politics, our distance from the activity of community organization, we are forced to find in one man, one image, the qualities we each know we should pursue individually.

As Tocqueville wrote in the 1830's, an electorate severed from the workings of its government surely can't be expected to choose its leaders wisely. When no idealistic projection is possible, we continue to ignore the potential, salvation that lies in our talents, in human resources. Rather, we, the activists, despair.

Americans despair not only because they are removed from the political process, but also because they are basically alienated from their material lives, from the process of production and from industrial enterprise. Work seems like drudgery, like misery and a hardship whose central object is the sanctification of leisure. We lend no credence to our own stated goals, feel no control over our own day to day activity, sense real estrangement between ourselves and those with whom we work, and atrophy while feeling that there is something else we should be doing if only we could define it. It is our distrust of ourselves that leads us to look for leadership elsewhere; it's because we are alienated from the people closest to us that leadership must come from a distant figure. Hence, we continue to pick our glorified candidates, mortals upon whom we bestow an imagined "gift of grace."


It is a reality of the power structure in the United States today that, besides the means of production themselves, the trappings of power--money, prestige, and access to the mass media--are concentrated in a few hands. While this concentration of power is a target for resistance regardless of who is pulling the strings, the figure of the string-puller does make a difference. For instance, activists are clearly better off under a Ramsey Clark than a John Mitchell, and this has nothing to do with seeing in Ramsey Clark an imaginary radicalism or a mysterious saving power.

There are two reasons for political preferences of this sort. While progressives may forestall better than reactionaries the economic collapse that appears a prerequisite to fundamental social change, they will make it easier for dissent to coexist with ruling class practice and enable organizers and writers to expand popular consciousness in relative political freedom. Indeed, their inability to resolve fundamental economic contradictions may appear to the people as the strongest argument possible for restructuring the economic, social, and political orders.

Secondly, they will not do the consciously inhuman things that conservative, self-consciously business-oriented administrations might. While their practice will inevitably full short of their preaching, liberal activists will at least preach many of the right things and begin, in a small way, to make the right kinds of human sentiment fashionable.

In this light, the case of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg '52 is particularly unusual he is something of an archetype par excellence for the sort of interim activist leader we have described. His admitted role in helping to circulate The Pentagon Papers strikes a few themes central to the current American crisis.

We must begin, as with the Kennedys, by emphasizing what Daniel Ellsberg is not. While he stands under indictment and may go to trial and while, regardless of the outcome, he is unlikely to be put on Pentagon projects again, he has made a relatively small sacrifice in material terms. Any prestige accorded him by the conservative or moderate establishment is now extended ten times over by the liberal establishment and by his younger audiences. He claims to have withdrawn his intelligence from the service of power, but we do not know--as, in fact, Ellsberg may not--what his position would be under a McGovern administration. For example, would he not be the ideal candidate for a McGovern National Security Council?

It would be wrong to underemphasize new injustices Ellsberg faces--from having his phone tapped to being a police target at demonstrations. However, he is not likely to have to go hungry either, and, in our admiration for his obvious courage, we must steer clear of dressing him in robes borrowed from our romantic memories of John or Robert Kennedy.