Art and the Pander

Gov. Mitt Romney after winning the Nevada caucuses in January. (Getty Images via USA Today)

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered ran a story last week on “How to Pander: A Guide for the Candidates”. Considering how few Republican candidates are left, and that the general campaign hasn’t really begun, I found this an odd time to run such a story.

For NPR, it was also a strangely cynical, not to say presumptuous, story to run. It suggested that in order to ingratiate the mostly northern candidates with Southern voters in Mississippi and Alabama, they were dropping “g’s,” throwing in “y’all’s” and (in Gov. Romney’s case) botching references to “cheese grits”. NPR phoned up a New York-based comedian of Puerto Rican descent (couldn’t they find a Puerto Rican comic?) to explain local cultural nuance in the upcoming primaries that Romney walked away with.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) (center-right) at Brown A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala., March 2007.

To balance out this litany of embarrassment for Republicans — they are the ones actively campaigning for the most part — the segment started off alleging President Obama’s pander to a southern African American audience just a month after he announced his candidacy back in 2007. Surely they could have found a more recent allegation? NPR dredged up Obama’s southern stylings before an audience at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, in March 2007, an unfortunate choice. This event has become foundation myth in the narrative arc of Obama’s life, because it was there that he forged the connection between his generation and the Civil Rights generation who made the way for him and other political leaders like him.

The political context of his visit to Selma was much more fraught than a tried-on southern-fried accent could hope to manage and the candidate knew it. Obama had to convince the Civil Rights establishment that a new face of mixed heritage from Chicago, who had not shared their struggles, was worthy of their inheritance. This was hardly pandering: it was a critical moment in American politics and absolutely vital to electing America’s first black president.  Obama’s address was audacious, deferential, profound and masterful. And it worked.

I had always understood the term “pander” in political rather than cultural terms. Pandering had been the candidate talking about ethanol subsidies to farmers to win the Iowa caucuses, or talking about reproductive rights with women’s groups, or preaching pro-life to anti-abortion groups, or collective bargaining with unions, or deregulation with business organizations.  It was singing to the choir. I see no particular shame in this. In politics, individuals of like mind band together, pool resources, and avail themselves to their government. People are stronger together than alone. And political figures in return avail themselves of that strength by going to groups and appealing to them in language that they understand.

The word pander is commonly defined as helping to fulfill someone’s baser instincts. It is perhaps interesting it has an archaic definition as pimp and comes from Panderus, a pimp character from the 18th century Italian play Troilus and Cressida. At least in the older dictionaries that I consult (Oxford American English, Webster’s New Universal Unabridged) it has not taken on a political definition.

But definitions aside, NPR has revealed something inadvertent in its How To Guide: that at the base of the political experience is something aesthetic, artful, pleasureful, even playful.  The cheese grits and cheese steaks, crab feeds and lobster bakes and spaghetti nights are all rooted in local communities. When we talk about a pluralistic political community, this is really what we are talking about. The American politician’s ability to maneuver in, articulate and speak to that plurality demonstrates the breadth and quality of his entire life and character, how much he has assimilated our vast and profound political culture. That lack of “connection” every commentator bemoans about Romney and Al Gore is witnessed and deeply enjoyed in Bill Clinton and (very often) in Obama. When it occurs, it is a politically aesthetic experience bordering on the sublime that too often goes overlooked.

To that end, Obama’s occasional wonky stiffness belies a suppleness of language and voice that Zadie Smith dissected as an essential aspect of his political brilliance: he hears in registers that others don’t, and is able to return those tones in ways that only others hear. The delight in his audiences, when it works, is obvious, and it is an unacknowledged pleasure of our political life.

This is also a political aesthetic experience important to understanding how politics works. We are just as likely to make political — that is to say morally normative — decisions based on aesthetic judgments as on reason, if not more so, and the keenest politicians understand that and are able to harness those judgments in ways political philosophers seem purely incapable of comprehending.