Obama for Minister of the Left

Some historians have gone so far as to endorse Barak Obama for the office of President of the United States. Lots of people who seem to have very little affinity with the policy positions Obama has advanced on his website find him to be attractive. How can this be? Is not democratic politics a matter of picking the candidate whose policy positions you find most compatible and then voting for them?

Well, yes and no. At least some of choosing a president is choosing a symbol of the nation. Thus the suitably of a candidate to be a flattering self-reflection is also important. Most of the time we Americans select our politicians (if we give the matter any thought at all) on what promises they make and what things they say they will do. The moral qualities of an official are not something we worry about too much. On the other hand, we do occasionally tend to think some politicians are more than just a set of checkmarks on a list of policies1 but rather symbols of whatever an American is (Kennedy and Reagan come to mind)
Americans seem to have problem with this, as our political language is not well suited to this type of talk. Jounalists do ask, incessantly, the silly question of which candidate you would most like to have a beer with2 I think Dukakis ran an ad pointing out that politicians and beer buddies are not the same thing.

In China things are a bit easier, in part because one does not need to worry about electing leaders all the time and in part because traditionally Chinese politics had a lot to do with moral qualities. One of these is friendship, which is both one of the five bonds of Confucianism and crucial to understanding much of Chinese political history. Somebody said that nations do not have permanent friends, only permanent interests, but members of the Chinese elite did have friends. Wyatt talks a lot about the role of friendship in The Recluse of Loyang, a study of Shao Yung (1011-1077) whose political role in the Song centered around his friendship with powerful men and their desire to be friends with a man like Shao Yung. As Shao put it in a 1074 poem

A man mustn’t seek his reflection in flowing water;

He must seek it in water that is still.

Flowing water has no fixed form,

While still water provides a fixed entity.

[But] neither should a man seek his reflection in water [at all].

He should seek his reflection in other men.

Water’s mirror may show a man’s face,

But a human mirror exposes a man’s spirit.

(Wyatt)This poem encapsulates a code that is simultaneously exclusionist and yet immanently social. Shao the recluse could not conceive of passing through life alone; still, he was unwilling to settle for anything less than full perfectibility in his prime relationships.

This should not be taken as an endorsement of Obama by this website, Shao Yung, or myself, but I think this poem does a lot to explain the Obama phenomena. Much better to look in the mirror and see Obama then to see (insert name here.) I suspect that democratic politics in China, if it ever comes to be, will be rather different than that in the U.S.

For Su Fei’s Chinese take on American politics look here.

  1. As Mitt Romney is discovering 

  2. Bush, obviously. Being rich he would pay and as he does not drink I would get both beers. 


  1. Barack Obama for a new America! We love him in NYC. We are sick and tired of the Bush and Clinton dynasties, and we desperately want the USA to be a source of hope and generosity for the rest of the world (not war criminals and marauders). Change is coming in 2008. YES WE CAN!!! ps. Andrew Sullivan sent me : )

  2. Alan’s comment that democracy in China will be very different is appropos of Ian Buruma’s characteristically pointed column,”Culture is No Excuse for China Denying It’s People Democracy” in the Guardian Sunday Feb 3 http://observer.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,332351970-102273,00.html

    Buruma has some familiar things to say, but says them cogently.

  3. I think Alan’s suggestion that democracy in China would look quite different raises some really fascinating questions. I’m not as up on my contemporary Taiwan politics as perhaps I should be, but wouldn’t Taiwan provide a possible ‘case study’ here? I’m just throwing it out there, and seeing if it sticks. Anyone have some thoughts on the issue?

    By the way, great post.

  4. Jeremiah,
    The Taiwan example is interesting, and I think it points to one of the problems of democracy in Chinese political culture. Most Taiwan politicians are not that impressive to me. Lee Teng-hui is the only one I can think of that anybody could see as a moral figure of any sort. I think that is sort of to be expected. It is hard to see how you could square a Confucian-flavored moral politics with political conflict. If my candidate is Christ what does that make yours?
    This of course is the problem of faction in Chinese politics that Ouyang Xiu and others wrote about. If the emperor’s government is a moral force how can it have factions and divisions? One of the things that makes democracy is an idea of loyal dissent, which Ouyang at least really struggled with.

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