From Romantic Citizen to Tragic Victim: An Interview with Jennifer Mercieca

by Tom Cutterham

Jennifer Mercieca is an associate professor at Texas A&M University. She writes about the history of rhetoric and discourse in America, from the revolution in her first book, Founding Fictions (University of Alabama Press, 2010), to Barack Obama in her second, an edited volume, The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations. Here, she discusses apathy, citizenship, and the role of rhetoric in political change.

In Founding Fictions, you were critical of the way narratives of the founding celebrate elite leadership and marginalise popular activism. Do you think America's founding fictions have changed much between the early 19th century and the early 21st?

Part of my interest in Founding Fictions is to understand modern citizen apathy. The political fiction that emerged in the eighteenth century to support revolutionary republicanism constituted the citizen as a romantic hero who would cheerfully sacrifice for the common good and act to control the government and prevent corruption. By 1787, the citizens seemed either unwilling or unable to prevent corruption, and so they became tragic victims instead. The system itself became the hero. The revolutionary romantic citizen created instability while the constitutional tragic citizen allowed the system to provide stability. In the 1820s, Jacksonians used the new democratic political fiction to turn citizens into partisans by proclaiming them romantic heroes who control the government, but without changing the constitution to allow the people to rule, and demanding loyalty to party rather than to the common good.

A lot has changed since my story left off in the 1840s. More and more people have been admitted into our construction of who counts as a citizen, and the rise of neoliberal citizenship has turned partisans into consumers; but the fundamental legerdemain of promising the people democracy, but giving them a government premised on the fear of the rule of the people, has not changed. The United States was designed as a republic, not as a democracy, specifically to prevent the dangers of active citizenship. The founding generation was quite forthcoming about its fears of popular rule. But by the second generation (and certainly since) it is no longer possible to claim, publicly, that the people should have as little as possible to do with making political decisions.

So you argue that contemporary apathy about politics is a product of this narrative or ideology, this fear of popular rule, that keeps decision-making on a different level from ordinary people. What about Obama - what role does his rhetoric play in this structure? Did his campaign offer a sense of empowerment to ordinary citizens in the political sphere, or did he just reinforce the idea that the only political role of the citizen is to vote for a representative? Or Occupy Wall Street - did that movement succeed in challenging the apathy you're talking about?

I don't want to make too strong of a causal claim here about the relationship between apathy and the nation's political fictions, but, yes, I do think that modern political apathy is a logical response to a political system that fears citizen participation. I also think that current protest movements like the Tea Party, Occupy, and even the election and re-election of Barack Obama are signs that Americans do want to participate. Social movements are the last, best hope for romantic republicanism.

In his campaign rhetoric Obama stressed obligation, the common good, and the difficult challenges facing Americans, and he called upon Americans to be active citizens, to be romantic heroes. But they would be active by working to elect Barack Obama, not by seizing power themselves. Despite the fears of many on the right and the hopes of many on the left, Obama is no revolutionary; indeed, he is deeply committed to supporting the US Constitution. I think that he understands the difference between America's democratic and republican political fictions and I think that he often positions citizens as romantic republican heroes rather than tragic victims or ironic partisans.

On the other hand, he has not suggested reforms that would enable the average citizen to control the government. I'm thinking here of things like automatic voter registration, a national election day holiday, term limits, compulsory voting, abolishing lobbyists, campaign finance reforms, and binding instructions for representatives – all things that could be done within the current constitutional configuration, but would go a long way toward giving the people more power.

Of course, the recent Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder and new state level laws to restrict easy access to the polls only remind us that we fear the rule of the people and that politics is a game in which the spoils belong to the victor. In some ways, then, the election of Barack Obama has resulted in a net loss for active citizenship: he has not suggested the reforms necessary to give the people more power and his election has activated those who fear of the rule of the people and has resulted in increased barriers to participation.

Perhaps it's time to step back a bit here and talk about the kind of analysis you're undertaking in your work. Just what is rhetoric as an academic discipline? Are there questions you and other scholars of rhetoric are asking that historians and literary scholars aren't? If the idea isn't to identify causal patterns, what kind of knowledge are rhetoricians aiming for?

Thank you for asking about the discipline of rhetoric! I'm hesitant to answer because I do not speak for my entire field and my approach is very specific to the questions that I ask about politics, political theory, and citizenship. My research tends to examine the ways in which rhetoric helps us to position, describe, frame, and delimit concepts and problems, and how those constitutive discourses provide what we can think of a repositories of topoi – or, the available means of understanding and persuading.

The main difference between scholars of rhetoric and scholars of history or literature is that the former are more keenly attuned to questions of audience, timing, judgement, and effect in language and visual texts. We may be studying historical texts or literary texts, but the questions we ask are different. So for example, in Founding Fictions I was specifically interested in the ways that our nation's political fictions constituted American citizenship; in The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency we're interested in how the constitutive discourses surrounding the presidency have affected any president's ability to lead. My next project will focus on the constitutive discourses surrounding the nation, particularly during times of crisis.

Political discourse is complicated and it is unlikely that any political actor speaks or writes about a topic upon which his or her audience has not already formed some opinion. Yet, powerful rhetors do persuade. They set agendas, frame arguments, provide a lens for understanding questions, and their voices resonate in their immediate context as well as throughout history.

I'm interested in how rhetoric might fit into a theory of political change. The way you've framed it sounds a lot like JGA Pocock in his work on political languages. My question is, how do you see this working in contemporary circumstances? Does rhetoric as a discipline imply a kind of Gramscian war of position, gradually shifting discourse in a certain direction?

Political change is impossible without rhetoric. Yet, I'm trying to make a subtle claim about effect and causality. Let's look at an example from recent political discourse. During the 2012 Republican primaries, Rick Santorum argued,

‘There are no classes in America. We are a country that don't [sic] allow for titles. We don't put people in classes. There may be middle income people, but the idea that somehow or another we’re going to buy into the class warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That's their job, divide, separate, put one group against another.’

This is obviously a false claim, but I wondered a bit about why he would say it. I mean, GOP presidential hopefuls have had no trouble making appeals to the middle class in the past, so why did Santorum call such appeals ‘class warfare’ in January, 2012? Santorum had even done it himself earlier in the campaign. What had changed? After the Occupy movement asked people to recognize the difference between the 99% and the 1%, appealing to the middle class became ‘class warfare’ – and somehow Obama was to blame.

To me this is a striking example of how it isn’t possible to say just anything at any time; of how the rhetorical landscape changes dramatically within context. Even an idea as seemingly benign and all-American as the ‘middle class’ can suddenly become contentious. That the Occupy movement changed the way that GOP presidential candidates talked about middle class voters meant that Occupy had an important influence on American political discourse and upon the 2012 presidential campaign. Did Occupy abolish class? Did Santorum? No, of course not. But, Occupy forced politicians to re-position their arguments and respond to (or, carefully ignore) their critiques. In that way, the movement influenced the political discourse of the election.

I've learned so much from both Pocock and Gramsci; I'm glad that you've brought them up. From the example above I think it's clear that there are moments when discourse shifts rather suddenly – Gramsci and others might call those moments ‘conjunctures’ – but, yes, I think that otherwise political discourse is rather stable and is certainly a central part of Gramsci's war of position. I like Pocock's notion of ‘political language’ and the conceptual change scholarship that has come out of it quite a bit. In Founding Fictions I try to argue that my notion of a ‘political fiction’ is complementary to Pocock's ‘political language’, yet different in some important ways, most notably a political fiction includes the idea of narrative and performance.

When we think of political theory as political fiction we recognize political theory as a blend of poetical, rhetorical, and dialectical language - as narratives performed sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously by all members of a political community, not just political theorists or founders. My goal has been to make America's political fictions more apparent so that they can be analyzed and critiqued.

The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency is forthcoming from Texas A&M University Press. Find Professor Mercieca on Twitter @jenmercieca and follow the hashtag #teamrhetoric for more discussion.