Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Hunting the Devil: Democracy's Rhetorical Impulse to War

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Hunting the Devil: Democracy's Rhetorical Impulse to War

Article excerpt

America's chronic impulse to war is provoked by democracy's shadow, which lurks at the far reaches of the nation's political soul. Democracy casts a dark veil of anxiety over the public disposition--so much so that it constitutes a national phobia. This deep distrust of the people, or "demophobia," confounds the identity and bewilders the political will of a self-proclaimed exceptional nation (Ivie 2005a, 14, 34, 43-44, 90-91). It produces nothing short of a cultural tension that is resolved in presidential rhetoric as a commanding motive for war.

There are several continuous phases in democracy's impulse to war. We--the people--fear the enemy within: an impassioned ogre of mob violence, a deformed Mr. Hyde who reflects the common fear and shared anxiety about democracy. This Demon--forged in the crucible of collective weaknesses, misshapen by national ambivalence toward the political system Americans claim to honor--is readily projected onto external sources which are then conjured as evil and defined as the public enemy. A discourse of diabolism swiftly follows to paint a threatening picture of the enemy's evil savagery and goad the nation to defend its holy democratic soul against civilization's wicked foes. The projection of a troubled identity, the displacement of the nation's own seeming vileness onto others--"in order to wipe it out with their blood" (Miller 1987, 337)--is a recurring goad to fight.

This demonic impulse to war assumes many guises in U.S. presidential rhetoric. The devil, as an essential antagonist in the nation's cosmology, has had a long and notable history in national dramas playing the part of the enemy. To kill the foreign devil-enemy is to reaffirm the nation's special virtue as a chosen people destined to overcome malevolence so that civilization may prevail. This heroic mask is the stuff of political myth. In the secular rituals of presidential rhetoric, the mask pretends worldly realism in order to summon the god of war, which is a necessary posture in a world of presumed enlightenment and a compensatory gesture in a fragmented postmodern political culture of hyper-symbolic transactions. Even as the nation dances to the drums of war, it justifies aggression in the prosaic presidential idiom of the real, the rational, and the practical. Herein lay the riddle of war's apparent complexity but basic simplicity; thus the extraordinary appeal of the contemporary call to arms.

Interested observers of this powerful mythos, upon detecting its presence in presidential rhetoric, need also to consider its implications for democratic culture. Recognition of the mythic forces that inform American politics is crucial to an understanding of governance in an age of imperial warfare. Can democracy, emptied of its incentive to humanize aliens by the diabolical incantations of presidential rhetoric, function as an inclusive politics of contestation? Or must it succumb, as did the first French republic (Schama 1989, 858-59), to a culture of war? To answer this question, it is important to acknowledge that George W. Bush's presidential rhetoric is not an aberration of American political culture; it is rather a manifestation of unresolved issues of national identity being played out in a mythic ritual of redemptive violence.

The Demon of Distempered Democracy

As a principal constituent of political culture and a basic element of national identity, democracy is defined by the language in which it is embedded, including its use in presidential rhetoric and other modes of public communication. The terms with which democracy commonly clusters, as well as the history of their separate and combined usage, establish a working notion of its sense, sentiment, and significance at a given point in time. Democracy is an attitude articulated within the polity and configured by rhetoric, especially by conventions of discourse that treat relations of similitude as relations of equivalence or virtual sameness. …

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