January 23, 2005
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW

The Triumph of Gesture Politics


Christopher Morris/VII

By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL

The world's governments, churches and even terrorist-affiliated groups have thrown themselves into the tsunami relief effort. You would expect that passing judgment about which kinds of aid and which modes of delivery work best would be a complicated matter.

But you would be wrong. In Europe, at least, the public has separated the heroes from the scoundrels with a simple yardstick -- lost vacation time. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany stands among the winners. He rushed back from a post-Christmas vacation in his native Lower Saxony to set up a crisis center in Berlin, and has since been a whirlwind of activity, pledging more than half a billion dollars in aid and devoting his New Year's address to the disaster.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who chose not to cut short his own vacation in Egypt, finds himself cast as the arch-goat. Blair's government was quite active during the days that followed the tsunami. But even though Britain has offered substantial assistance to the wave-damaged region, that is somehow insufficient. For the past month, the British news media have savaged their prime minister for his ''colossal act of disrespect.'' According to an editorial in The Independent, ''Blair has failed to grasp the essence of leadership.''

If that accusation is fair, then the essence of leadership has changed into something that is less and less about significant undertakings and more and more about dramatic stunts. Thus, at least one European newspaper described President Bush's effort to aid tsunami victims as a bid to show U.S. compassion. What was important was not the particulars of Bush's own aid plan, but whether the public would find it convincingly noble. Not that programs don't matter, but in the public mind they are secondary to (and their success is dependent on) the personal gestures that accompany them.

The expression ''gesture politics'' generally describes the substitution of symbols and empty promises for policy. The microinitiatives that Bill Clinton developed for the 1996 election -- promoting the distribution of cellphones to neighborhood watch groups, for instance -- qualify as classic examples. So do Republican attempts to stiffen federal sentences on crimes that are usually prosecuted on the state level. Accusations of ''gesture politicking'' are often made following natural disasters. In 2000 the European Union was embarrassed by reports that of the $440 million it had pledged in aid to the Central American countries hit by Hurricane Mitch two years earlier, none had arrived.

This is not quite what Schroder is up to. The policy attached to his gestures may in fact be extensive and effective. But like the other kind of gesture politics, this one implies a citizenry that is either easily bamboozled or disengaged. It appeals to citizens on the grounds of what their leader does as a person -- probably because citizens lack the attention span to follow the things he does as a head of state.

In theory, we should strictly distinguish between these two roles, much as medieval subjects tried to distinguish ''the king's two bodies'' (as the historian Ernst Kantorowicz put it): the king was simultaneously sovereign by divine right and (potentially) some fallible, average lout with designs on your wife, money and cattle. But it's ever more difficult to keep things straight.

The social theorist Richard Sennett claimed in ''The Fall of Public Man'' that the backsliding began with Lamartine and other leaders of the 1848 revolution in Paris. It was they who first stressed their ''credibility'' as people as opposed to their competence as leaders. They turned political discourse into a sort of seduction. ''What was perceived when people watched someone behave in public,'' Sennett wrote, ''was his intentions, his character, so that the truth of what he said appeared to depend on what kind of person he was.''

Now this confusion crops up everywhere. After last year's Republican convention, the editor of The New Republic, Peter Beinart, noted the tendency of speakers to praise President Bush's war in Iraq not as a wise effort but as a sign of personal ''inner strength.'' They insisted that we were safer after the Iraq invasion -- not because of anything it accomplished, but because it showed we were led by the kind of person who invaded Iraq.

Or consider the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when the royal family's attempt to keep a stiff upper lip backfired terribly. As the English political scientist David Marquand put it: ''The royals behaved as they had been taught to do: as symbols of the state, quintessential inhabitants of the public domain, with all its emotional austerity and self-control. But the populace did not want a display of emotional austerity and self-control. They demanded a public display of private grief.''

There are a few redoubts where the politics of gestures don't penetrate. Francois Mitterrand's love of ortolan, a wild game bird netted on hillsides in rural France and eaten with one's fingers, is a fascinating biographical detail, but that is all it is. It has never been taken (unless by animal rights activists) as having any political significance. The same goes for Jacques Chirac's fondness for sumo wrestling. No Chiracian has ever used it to sell any of his policies. (Although last year, Chirac's rival Nicolas Sarkozy let drop that he thought sumo an enthusiasm of lightweights -- a sign that things may be changing even in France.)

Perhaps our own era of personalized politics began when White House spinners used Ronald Reagan's fondness for sweets to convey that he would be a ''nicer'' president. The government, we were encouraged to think, would be pursuing different -- and probably better -- policies than we'd been led to expect. The proof was that Reagan was crazy about Jelly Bellys. It should have occurred to us to say, ''Who isn't?''

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing writer for the magazine.