Politics, Paternalism, and Father Figures

Sarah Seltzer

The American media's obsession with turning all of our politicians into psuedo father figures is making babies of all of us.

Until the gossip from the Mark Halperin/John
Heilemann political scandal-fest took over the news headlines, it felt as if
the entire Republican establishment and the media were joined in a chorus.
Their sole focus: our president’s purported lack of manly protectiveness in
response to the failed attack of the Christmas underwear bomber.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this frenzy was a column that has been widely mocked
across the internet all weekend long–Maureen Dowd bitterly complaining that
Obama’s calm demeanor in the wake of the botched bombing had disappointed her,
showing a lack of uniquely paternal
She wrote
(emphasis mine):

But it’s not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are

He’s so sure of himself and his actions that he fails to see that he
misses the moment to be president – to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders, who reassures and
instructs the public at traumatic moments.

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He’s more like the aloof father who’s turned the Situation Room into a
Seminar Room.

Although Dowd and a few other major media figures are the most blatant
purveyors of this strange gender-standard for politics, the demand that our
president be some sort of mythical father figure isn’t unique to her or other
machismo-obsessed pundits like Chris Matthews. It’s part of our national
fabric, particularly in the Washington media, as Glenn Greenwald notes, but everywhere: the concept of a leader who
will think, feel, emote, and get angry on
our behalf
. It’s a craving for an Alpha-male in chief who will be strong
where we are weak. Blogger Digby writes about the real policy
for foreign
relations of this kind of aggressive attitude:

Chest pounding
and overreaction just so that the pundits and politicians can get that
marvelous thrill up their legs is the wrong
policy. It is a testament to just how much power these fatuous gasbags have
that they actually seem to think they can force the president to come before
the microphones and "sound" really mad so that they can feel comfy
and secure that Daddy will keep the boogeyman from killing them in their beds.
But the more belligerent he gets and the more bellicose the threats, the less
safe we all actually are.

As Digby and several other bloggers have said this week, even if we disagree
with our president on many issues, his unwillingness to get into a verbal
pissing match with the "axis of evil" or whomever is perceived to be
the enemy remains one of his more appealing
qualities. And Americans seem not to have had the same reaction as Dowd:
Obama’s approval ratings remain higher in the area of terrorism than in others
(most notably the economy).

Unfortunately, this American obsession with a "father knows best"
image and attitude goes beyond foreign policy, terrorism, and the issue of
outside threats. First of all, it makes it more difficult for a woman to get
elected without posturing or trying to be tough and bellicose, as recent
elections have shown us. It also continues the American tradition of leadership
being necessarily masculine and image-based. Look at four of the five
presidents we’ve elected since 1980 (Reagan, Clinton, Bush Jr, Obama): all of
them charismatic men with strong personalities–personalities which have, at
times, threatened to eclipse their ideology in the public eye. One might wish
that Obama had run more convincingly on a platform of progressive ideals and
less on his personal ability to
unite–but clearly, the personal aspect is what helped propel him to victory.
It’s what people expect of our candidates: someone we can trust, someone who
can take the reins for us.

The "father figure" mythology also resonates with our recent setbacks
in the area of reproductive rights and women’s agency. The concept of a strong
leader whom we need to protect us and to be our surrogate, is a close cousin of
the paternalistic ideas reproductive rights advocates have been fighting for
years. Why, after all, is the government involved in our wombs to begin with?
There are many reasons, but the conception of the government as a parent, in
particular a father, are a large part of the problem. The media and public may
have gotten too comfortable with the idea of pragmatic, no-nonsense, lawmakers
and justices who know well, better than emotional women do, how to interpret
our rights, what to bargain away and when. And then of course, there are the
ubiquitous laws that keep cropping up–mandatory ultrasounds, counseling,
waiting periods–meant to make sure women who get appointments for abortions
actually know what they’re doing, even after they’ve made that appointment and
traveled to the clinic. This belief in the daddy state combined with pervasive
misogyny helps explains why reproductive rights have been siphoned away for decades.

Yes, we need to elect politicians we can trust. But leaders in a democracy
should not be a parent whose job is to shield us and govern for us. They are
elected by the people to represent us, and therefore to be accountable to us.
The notion of a father figure is too closely linked to paternalism for comfort.

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