Gregory Downs: Jared Lee Loughner, the Personal, and the Political

We welcome a guest post today from Gregory Downs, author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908, which we will publish next month. In the book, Downs argues that the Civil War created a seemingly un-American popular politics rooted not in independence but in voluntary claims of dependence. Faced with anarchy during the long reconstruction of government authority, people turned to the government for protection and sustenance, pleading in fantastic, intimate ways for attention. In this post Downs reminds us how deeply personal the political can be and challenges us to consider what is normal about alleged Arizona shooter Jared Lee Loughner.–ellen

Gregory Downs (photo by Kyle Cassidy)

After the first shock, the questions about Jared Lee Loughner’s attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords quickly resolved to a familiar American dichotomy: Was his act political (see the NYTimes discussion and Larry McMurtry in NYRoB, for example) or was it personal (see David Brooks in the NYTimes, and Michael Serazio and Josh Kraushaar in The Atlantic)?  A first gush of commentary blamed incendiary orators like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck for planting the idea of violence in political discourse; after a closer examination of Loughner’s own meandering diatribes, most came around to the view that Loughner’s actions were a product of something purely personal, perhaps schizophrenia.

We will probably never know why Loughner did it.  Possibly, Loughner himself does not know, even if he were able and willing to tell us.  But if the discussion of Loughner’s actions does not tell us much about them, it does tell us a great deal about a deeply laid mistake in how we see American politics.

The two contrasting images of Loughner—partisan or psychotic—don’t emerge from the facts of the case; they grow from the way we generally describe politics, a way that has perilously little to do with how people in fact experience politics and that therefore limits our analysis in all kinds of significant ways.  Politics is all too often reduced to either ideology or self-interest, a struggle over ideas or over spoils, a debating society or a knife fight.  People have beliefs and values and, if they are corrupt, money riding on the outcome, but rarely do they have feelings.

The way Loughner approached politics was actually not as idiosyncratic as we would like to think, even if it was much more extreme.  Loughner’s attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords seems likely to have been spurred not by her ideological commitments nor by her cultural values nor by her actions in regard to any project in Loughner’s backyard, but instead to a fleeting moment of personal interaction in which, in Loughner’s skewed view, Giffords failed to engage with him.

Although most people do not erupt into murderous rages, many Americans do think about politics in these very intimate ways, as exchanges between individuals, and those exchanges are often imaginative, even fantastic, among people who otherwise seem rational and sane.  Congressional interns, in fact, frequently find themselves sifting through piles and piles of letters from people who, while not violent, make eccentric, personal demands upon politicians.  Often we analysts, like those overworked interns, simply learn to look the other way.

While we have made great strides in incorporating the 1970s lesson that the personal is political, we do not adequately appreciate how the political is deeply, idiosyncratically, personal.  What does it mean to think of politics as personal in these terms?  It means recognizing that one of the key ways people engage with politics is rooted in language drawn from religion and family life.  More than grand ideological leaders or cultural warriors or party bosses, “good” politicians appear frequently in the words of their consumers as household gods, as fathers and Fathers, and bad ones as betrayers, as gods that failed, or simply as devils.

History provides many examples of this, from the Louisianans described by Alan Brinkley who prayed to the Virgin Mary and Huey Long or the ex-slaves who turned to Lincoln as a king, a father, and, at times, almost a god.  My own grandfather, like many people, had two paintings on the wall opposite his bed, one of Jesus Christ and one of John F. Kennedy.

In my book Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908, I trace one iteration of the vernacular intimacy of politics.  In North Carolina the Civil War prompted an intense personalization of a once-distant state, as thousands of “suffering” people writing from “the depths of black and awful ruin” invented fictive relationships with distant politicians they described as a “friend to the poore and a farther to the fartherless,” a “friend unseen,” a “listening ear,” and a refuge.”  In return they promised the most intimate of gifts, loyalty and love, a promise to be “your mule.”  Most famously, in the 1930s Depression, thousands of writers turned Franklin D. Roosevelt into a “Modern Moses,” “our Earthly Father,” the “Loving Provider of the Poor,” and “king,” as they sought his attention and his favor.

The American democratic experience did not magically make its people into modern citizens.  Instead, people’s experience with Civil War and New Deal expansions of  government assistance helped fashion what appeared to be an imaginative subjecthood, a set of pleas that used invented personal relationships to beg for help from distant figures, a vernacular approach to politics that I call patronalism.  In the face of it, politicians responded to exactly these hopes and fears, emphasizing their role as a friend, a paternal protector, and an avenger.  American liberalism was made in part through these strange, eccentric appeals that bound people to a faraway government.

In some ways, we are right to consider these appeals eccentric.  The 1930s expansion of bureaucratic systems for managing pleas, the increased education of the American populace, and the centrality of television in refashioning the relationship between the rulers and the ruled have all made these kinds of claims, once commonplace, seem unusual.  Nevertheless, they have not been extinguished.  They are found in the modern sites of vernacular culture, Youtube and chatrooms and discussion boards, as well as at the old dinner tables and watercoolers.  However much we tell people to think of politics as a fight over issues or cultural power, people are stubbornly, if oddly, self-centered.

Instead of sharply differentiating between the crazy and the sane, analysts might begin by asking whether the insane in this event, as in many others, illustrate not unique characteristics but common ones taken to uncommon extremes.  By thinking through what was normal about Loughner, we can start to examine the mysterious question of the production and reception of politics, the messy and confusing and central issue of the relationship between the American people and their state.

Gregory Downs is assistant professor of history at the City College of New York. He is author of Spit Baths, a Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection of short stories.