Nietzsche Dissects American Political Discourse

By Sungyak Kim 10-02-2012
Political icon image, Gary Hathaway /
Political icon image, Gary Hathaway /

What if I told you that the political discourse in America has proven for decades what PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ phenomenon has proven recently? What do I mean? It is simply this: people can indeed get tirelessly excited about something that sounds good without understanding its contents. 

Like every election year, 2012 seems to have its own particular set of buzzwords and slogans. From “the forgotten 47 percent” to “you did build that,” those on the left and the right are each trying to infuse the political discourse with their own partisan lingo. But it’s time somebody put a stop to the hype and asks the sensible question: “What is the real meaning behind all of this?”

Truth is, both political parties have been directing their resources to highlight their differences more than anything else. They are platforms defined by contrast, not by real facts. This should lead us to raise the question that is usually unasked (and therefore unanswered) amid the consistent heat of the American political climate: “If the government is designed ultimately for the good of the people, is the political discourse today reflective of that goal?”

To this question, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche answers, “No.” 

In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche urges anyone who is engaged in any sort of moral discourse (political, philosophical, religious, or cultural) to start thinking a bit more historically about the language that is always dictated for us. Modern thinkers, says Nietzsche, “lack the historical spirit. … they’ve been left in the lurch by all the good spirits of history,” and they “think essentially unhistorically in what is now the traditional manner of philosophers.” 

What Nietzsche means by the “historical spirit” is made clear as he elaborates on his interpretation of the history of morality. In sober retrospection, says Nietzsche, what we understand to be “good” today isn’t really what’s truly “good,” but “on the contrary, it was the “good people” themselves, that is, the noble, powerful, higher-ranking, and higher-thinking people who felt and set themselves and their actions up as "good,” that is to say, of the first rank, in opposition to everything low, low-minded, common, and vulgar.

What Nietzsche says of philosophers can be applied to all of us. Is it possible that the mass (or the mass media) considers “good” only according to the terms defined by the powerful purposed for their personal gains? Not only that, does this power come at the expense of the weak? Is “good” really about what’s morally beneficial to the public, or is it about what is useful for the powerful minority?

Sure, Nietzsche can be a bit too invective and hyperbolic at times. But, there is still something there to be taken in our context, i.e., that what the American political discourse often does paint as a genuine moral struggle between two constituencies is in reality a power struggle between two puppeteers. 

They create their own definition of “good” and “evil” for their self-serving purposes, and label the other side accordingly (forming their very own “axis of evil”). If the word “poverty” is entirely absent from their language, then it becomes an issue not worthy of discussion. If those in power like to use the word “extremists” carelessly, then the public has the same prerogative to do that, too. We are playing their game by their rules for their sake. 

Nietzsche’s moral theory has the potential of turning around this insensible cycle we call political discourse. But, if the public realizes that they’ve really been swept up in an enticing power play among a group of aristocrats all of their lives, would they not turn their attention away from the endless smear campaigns and the us-versus-them mentality that have directed our political discourse? Will they not instead begin to focus on what is really supposed to be at the center of our political and moral discourses, i.e., the true good? 

This is why Nietzsche’s literature can be a great remedy to the American political discourse. It exposes the historical complacency underneath all of the TV ads and bumper stickers constantly flashed before our eyes. It leads us to question whether we understand what they really mean. 

As a Korean myself, I have been pleasantly surprised by PSY’s rise to world fame and his wildly entertaining video laced with brilliant socio-political satire (albeit unintended). I’m just saying here in greater length what I’ve said to my non-Korean friends about PSY’s video: “Why don’t you question the meaning of the song? Who knows, you might actually discover something truly worth dancing for?”

Sungyak "John" Kim is an MA student of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. He is currently investigating the intersection between philosophy and theology, and their practical applications in our culture and politics. 

Political icon image, Gary Hathaway /

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