Politics as Passion Play

Choosing Our King: Powerful Symbols in Presidential Politics.
by Michael Novak.
Macmillan. 324 pp. $7.95.

In 1970 Michael Novak went on leave from his academic post as professor of philosophy and religious studies at Old Westbury to work as a speech writer for Sargent Shriver, who was campaigning that fall for Democratic Congressional candidates. Plainly it was an eye-opening experience. Although as a liberal Catholic Novak had been intensely interested in politics during the 60's, he writes that “nothing in my education had quite prepared me for how different Americans are from one another”—or, by implication, for what Americans and American politics are really like. Choosing Our King is Novak's effort to come to terms with what he saw in 1970 and again in 1972, when he worked briefly for Edmund Muskie, covered the Democratic primaries for Newsday, and—despite differences he had with the candidate—joined the McGovern staff after the Miami convention.

It is not an especially well made book. Novak stitches together a bizarre variety of materials—campaign journalism, moral philosophy, political analysis, and cultural anthropology—in a way that is usually less than disciplined; as one makes one's way through the volume, one often has the feeling of reading the author's notes rather than the book that was to have been written from them. Yet despite this flaw, it is a fascinating piece of work, and not only because of its telling insights into the politics and personalities of 1972. It is also interesting as a report on the political education of a reluctant McGovernite. For Choosing Our King is not so much. a campaign history or study in political science as it is a personal confession, and in searching out the lessons of his candidate's nomination and defeat Novak proves to be an honest and mostly unillusioned witness.

The problem with Americans, Novak argues, is their penchant for moralism—for the innocent yet arrogant belief that morality is simple, that everything would become morally attractive if only people saw the light, and that the purpose of American politics is to make life morally attractive. These beliefs, Novak says, are mistaken. Morality is in fact complex and ambiguous; people in any event have different, culturally-determined notions of the good; and it is impossible to act politically—here Novak offers an imaginative restatement of Reinhold Niebuhr's thesis about the disjunction between individual and social morality—without coming to have “dirty hands.” When we proceed on assumptions other than these, things go wrong. People begin to behave badly. Disasters occur. Above all we lose the ability to see people and events for what they really are.

This moralism has left Americans with a mistaken idea of what Presidential politics is all about. We imagine that it is or ought to be a disinterested and rational affair in which “issues” are discussed, “qualifications” weighed, and “decisions” soberly taken. The reality, says Novak, is quite different. For politics is a mostly symbolic activity—a ritual, in fact—in which we express essentially religious beliefs about our identities, the moral geography of our lives, the nature of reality, and so. on. This ritual focuses particularly on the President, who is monarch, priest, and prophet as well as a constitutional officer. This is not to say that he is all-powerful or non-answerable—only that when we look at a President, what we see is not just a chief executive, but a personification of the nation as a whole and a symbolic reflection of each of us as individuals. The President is an intimate participant in the lives of all Americans, shaping them and being shaped by them in turn. An election is thus a deeply religious event. For the candidate, the campaign is an ordeal that tests his worthiness for office and that reveals his identity; for the voter it is a pilgrimage of self-discovery.

Our moralism also prevents us from grasping the two main problems that confront every President or candidate. The first of these is the need to discover and live up to a public persona which people can believe and respond to. Meretricious “image-making” here will not work, says Novak; the persona must emerge from the candidate's true personality. Edmund Muskie is an interesting case in point. The reason Muskie lost, says Novak, is that he assumed an inauthentic identity manufactured for him by his campaign staff. He presented himself, not as the temperamental Polish American that he is, but as an imperturbable Yankee, which is why the crying incident in New Hampshire was such a devastating blow to his candidacy. The problem was not that Americans mistrust men who cry (Hubert Humphrey cries from time to time and is none the worse for it), but that the event showed Muskie to be something other than what he claimed to be. If he had assumed a more authentic persona, the tears would have been in character and the incident would have been passed over as insignificant. Muskie's other mistake, according to Novak, was to define himself explicitly as a man to be trusted (“Trust Muskie,” the posters read). The problem was that this is an inherently unbelievable appeal. People know they will eventually be disappointed by politicians; to the extent they trust them anyway, it is as a by-product of agreeing and identifying with them, not because they believe in their “trustworthiness” per se.

Candidates who solve the problem of their public identity must then cope with an even larger problem: pluralism. Because politics is religious and the Presidency priestly, a candidate cannot win unless he can personify and symbolize the religious sensibilities of a majority of Americans. These sensibilities are extremely diverse, and the differences among them are deep and tenacious. Novak develops an interesting and useful analysis of the various “civil religions” in America, of which there are two, five, or fifteen (depending on which of Novak's analytic schemes one has in mind). It doesn't matter how many; the important point is that pluralism involves something more important than pizza, Wiener schnitzel, and blintzes. It means that Americans live in radically different moral and cultural worlds, and that the symbolic demands they make on the Presidency are sharply in conflict. A candidate must therefore be more than just authentic; he must be authentically ecumenical—a difficult task under the best of circumstances, and an almost impossible feat to sustain for four or eight years under the intensive scrutiny of the media.


Novak's analysis of McGovern's defeat is straightforward. First, there was a problem with the McGovern persona. McGovern presented himself as being both moral and realistic—which is inherently unbelievable, and became acutely so in the aftermath of the Eagleton affair. Much more important was the fact that McGovern was, and defined himself as, a narrowly sectarian candidate. He symbolized the concerns of a “conscience constituency” made up of an intensely moralistic, college-educated “new class” that defined itself in opposition to the civic religions of working people and traditional ethnic groups—persons whose support is necessary for the election of any liberal candidate. McGovern created a symbolic vacuum in this critical political center, and Nixon, who has never been an intrinsically appealing public figure and who, historically, has also tended to define himself in a sectarian way, effortlessly moved in to fill it. Once McGovern was nominated, in short, the outcome was foreordained; not even Watergate was capable of affecting the result—though it may yet do so retroactively, and in any event has already diminished Richard Nixon even more drastically than the symbolic processes of our politics diminished McGovern, Muskie, Humphrey, and all the rest.

All of them, that is, except George Corley Wallace, who acording to Novak was the only really gifted symbolic candidate running in 1972. His persona was authentic, it embodied the concerns of many Americans, it generated incomparably the most intense response received by any candidate, and it was greatly enlarged and dignified by the Governor's shooting and painful recovery. Novak warns that if Wallace runs seriously in 1976, he will be a truly formidable candidate—which is worth bearing in mind at a time when media speculation mentions only established Washington personages like Kennedy, Mondale, and Jackson, and which also raises a question. If George Wallace represents the sort of politician who flourishes in the religious-symbolic politics that Novak describes, is it possible that our real problem is not with candidates who don't measure up to the requirements of their craft, but with the religious-symbolic nature of the political environment that determines those requirements in the first place?

Novak resists putting the question this way, but he too is troubled by the implications of his analysis. If the Presidency is a religious-symbolic, plebiscitarian institution; if the symbolic preferences of the American people are largely fixed by historically-determined “civil religions”; if the McGovern ethos is inherently offensive to a large majority of Americans—then it follows that the “conscience constituency” should reformulate its beliefs or resign itself to impotence. Novak, perhaps understandably, resists that conclusion. Instead he parts company with the logic of his analysis and urges a “reconstruction” of American civil religions, as if they were made of nothing more permanent than Tinker Toys. In their place we are asked to erect a “new, dark civil religion”—pluralistic, participatory, anti-materialist, un-moralistic, suffused with a sense of the nation's past failure, yet aglow with a vision of a universalistic future. Otherwise, writes Novak in words suggesting how hard it is to eliminate moralism from the American breast, we will be left with the “narrow, naive, immature,” and “inadequate” faith that currently “imprisons” the nation and consigns us all to lives of “emptiness.” Or: if they don't agree with us, then they'll just have to change their minds.

This is a pretty unsatisfactory way out of Novak's dilemma, but what is interesting is how he got into it. It has always been true that there is a religious-symbolic aspect to politics; it is also true that this aspect has become more important in recent years, with the advent of TV and the decline of the political party; and it is clear that the Presidency has become the focus of our symbolic passions. But from there it is a long—and I think unwarranted—step to saying that our politics is, and ought to be, essentially religious and expressive in nature. Novak takes that long step, partly out of intellectual enthusiasm for an interesting idea, but partly also, it is clear, because he seeks in American politics the rewards he envisions as flowing from his new, dark civil religion: a “genuine liberation” of the “energies of the heart,” and an “obscure joy . . . springing from connection to the unfathomable mysteries and terrors of human life.”


If people want a sense of purpose, Harold Macmillan once observed, let them go to their bishops, not to the politicians. Novak cites that statement (mistakenly attributing it to Edward Heath) and instantly dismisses it. He really should have taken it more seriously. Allowing for the fact that a measure of symbolism is natural and proper in politics, it says something that is true and important in a pluralistic liberal democracy, namely, that there are limits to what politics can do without ceasing to be pluralistic, liberal, or democratic. It would be no bad thing if this fact were more widely acknowledged. It is not just that gifted and thoughtful persons like Michael Novak would then not find themselves trapped, despite themselves, in a sterile, either/or, us-versus-them Manicheanism. It might even become possible to reverse the current trend of our politics, which is toward precisely the sort of symbolic passion play that Novak says it is already, or ideally ought to be. The events of 1972 and thereafter bear witness to the damage wrought by this view of the political process.

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