The Joe Biden Decline Story Is Taking On Watergate Dimensions

It has left the realm of the temporal and been elevated to the sacred.

The story is no longer being covered as battles between self-interested partisans but rather it is now about the pursuit of holy truth.

When a story is increasingly covered in moral terms, it becomes a holy crusade. Liberal columnist Jonathan Chait writes for New York magazine July 7:

The problems are ethical, not just political.

…Biden has not broken any laws, but he has violated two important norms. First, he brought his son Hunter in to serve as an adviser in White House meetings. “Longtime aides to the president,” reports Politico, “are now raising concerns about Hunter Biden’s new presence alongside the president in meetings.” Or, as NBC News puts it less delicately, “Another person familiar with the matter said the reaction from some senior White House staff members has been, ‘What the hell is happening?’”

The second and worse violation is that Biden is reportedly ignoring the need to examine his cognitive health. “Since winning the White House, Biden has continued to dismiss the need for a cognitive exam, and aides have said he has never taken one as president — not in three annual physical exams, and not in the week since a halting debate performance raised more urgent questions about the now-81-year-old’s mental acuity,” reports the Washington Post.

Facts don’t speak for themselves. They need context. The context for this Joe Biden story has changed from the temporal to the eternal. This story is no longer a partisan one. It is an American one. The health of the Republic seems at risk from the infection of lies emanating from the White House. All sides of the American political spectrum are demanding that Joe Biden step down because he has broken his contract with America. He’s exhibited bad faith.

Cornell Law School notes: “Bad faith refers to dishonesty or fraud in a transaction. Depending on the exact setting, bad faith may mean a dishonest belief or purpose, untrustworthy performance of duties, neglect of fair dealing standards, or a fraudulent intent. It is often related to a breach of the obligation inherent in all contracts to deal with the other parties in good faith and with fair dealing.”

Anyone who comes forward now with information showing that Biden is unfit for office will be treated as a patriot rather than as a self-interested political player.

Professor Jeffrey Alexander writes in his 2003 book, The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology:

* In June 1972, employees of the Republican party made an illegal entry and burglary into the Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Republicans described the break-in as a “third-rate burglary,” neither politically motivated nor morally relevant. Democrats said it was a major act of political espionage, a symbol, moreover, of a demagogic and amoral Republican president, Richard Nixon, and his staff. Americans were not persuaded by the more extreme reaction. The incident received relatively little attention, generating no real sense of outrage at the time. There were no cries of outrage. There was, in the main, deference to the president, respect for his authority, and belief that his explanation of this event was correct, despite what in retrospect seemed like strong evidence to the contrary. With important exceptions, the mass news media decided after a short time to play down the story, not because they were coercively prevented from doing otherwise but because they genuinely felt it to be a relatively unimportant event. Watergate remained, in other words, part of the profane world in Durkheim’s sense. Even after the national election in November of that year, after Democrats had been pushing the issue for four months, 80 percent of the American people found it hard to believe that there was a “Watergate crisis”; 75 percent felt that what had occurred was just plain politics; 84 percent felt that what they had heard about it did not influence their vote. Two years later, the same incident, still called “Watergate,” had initiated the most serious peacetime political crisis in American history. It had become a riveting moral symbol, one that initiated a long passage through sacred time and space and wrenching conflict between pure and impure sacred forms. It was responsible for the first voluntary resignation of a president.

How and why did this perception of Watergate change? To understand this one must see first what this extraordinary contrast in these two public perceptions indicates, namely that the actual event, “Watergate,” was in itself relatively inconsequential. It was a mere collection of facts, and, contrary to the positive persuasion, facts do not speak. Certainly, new “facts” seem to have emerged in the course of the two-year crisis, but it is quite extraordinary how many of these “revelations” actually were already leaked and published in the preelection period. Watergate could not, as the French might say, tell itself. It had to be told by society; it was, to use Durkheim’s famous phrase, a social fact. It was the context of Watergate that had changed, not so much the raw empirical data themselves…

Political life occurs most of the time in the relatively mundane level of goals, power, and interest. Above this, as it were, at a higher level of generality, are norms—the conventions, customs, and laws that regulate this political process and struggle. At still a higher point there are values: those very general and elemental aspects of the culture that inform the codes that regulate political authority and the norms within which specific interests are resolved. If politics operates routinely, the conscious attention of political participants is on goals and interests. It is a relatively specific attention. Routine, “profane” politics means, in fact, that these interests are not seen as violating more general values and norms. Nonroutine politics begins when tension between these levels is felt, either because of a shift in the nature of political activity or a shift in the general, more sacred commitments that are held to regulate them. In this situation, a tension between goals and higher levels develops. Public attention shifts from political goals to more general concerns, to the norms and values that are now perceived as in danger. In this instance we can say there has been the generalization of public consciousness that I referred to earlier as the central point of the ritual process.

…What must happen for an entire society to experience fundamental crisis and ritual renewal? First, there has to be sufficient social consensus so that an event will be considered polluting (Douglas, 1966), or deviant, by more than a mere fragment of the population. Only with sufficient consensus, in other words, can “society” itself be aroused and indignant. Second, there has to be the perception by significant groups who participate in this consensus that the event is not only deviant but threatens to pollute the “center” (Shils, 1975: 3–16) of society.

…there has to be effective processes of symbolic interpretation, that is, ritual and purification processes that continue the labeling process and enforce the strength of the symbolic, sacred center of society at the expense of a center that is increasingly seen as merely structural, profane, and impure. In so doing, such processes demonstrate conclusively that deviant or “transgressive” qualities are the sources of this threat…

…* The televised hearings, in the end, constituted a liminal experience (Turner, 1969), one radically separated from the profane issues and mundane grounds of everyday life. A ritual communitas was created for Americans to share, and within this reconstructed community none of the polarizing issues that had generated the Watergate crisis, or the historical justifications that had motivated it, could be raised. Instead, the hearings revivified the civic culture on which democratic conceptions of “office” have depended throughout American history. To understand how a liminal world could be created it is necessary to see it as a phenomenological world in the sense that Schutz has described. The hearings succeeded in becoming a world “unto itself.” It was sui generis, a world without history. Its characters did not have rememberable pasts. It was in a very real sense “out of time.” The framing devices of the television medium contributed to the deracination that produced this phenomenological status. The in-camera editing and the repetition, juxtaposition, simplification, and other techniques that allowed the story to appear mythical were invisible. Add to this “bracketed experience” the hushed voices of the announcers, the pomp and ceremony of the “event,” and we have the recipe for constructing, within the medium of television, a sacred time and sacred space.

* Through television, tens of millions of Americans participated symbolically and emotionally in the deliberations of the committee. Viewing became morally obligatory for wide segments of the population. Old routines were broken, new ones formed. What these viewers saw was a highly simplified drama—heroes and villains formed in due course. But this drama created a deeply serious symbolic occasion.

* …ringing and unabashed affirmation of the universalistic myths that are the backbone of the American civic culture. Through their questions, statements, references, gestures, and metaphors, the senators maintained that every American, high or low, rich or poor, acts virtuously in terms of the pure universalism of civil society. Nobody is selfish or inhumane. No American is concerned with money or power at the expense of fair play. No team loyalty is so strong that it violates common good or makes criticism toward authority unnecessary.

Truth and justice are the basis of American political society. Every citizen is rational and will act in accordance with justice if he is allowed to know the truth. Law is the perfect embodiment of justice, and office consists of the application of just law to power and force. Because power corrupts, office must enforce impersonal obligations in the name of the people’s justice and reason.

* Narrative myths that embodied these themes were often invoked. Sometimes these were timeless fables, sometimes they were stories about the origins of English common law, often they were the narratives about the exemplary behavior of America’s most sacred presidents. John Dean, for example, the most compelling anti-Nixon witness, strikingly embodied the American detective myth (Smith, 1970). This figure of authority is derived from the Puritan tradition and in countless different stories is portrayed as ruthlessly pursuing truth and injustice without emotion or vanity. Other narratives developed in a more contingent way. For Administration witnesses who confessed, the committee’s “priests” granted forgiveness in accord with well-established ritual forms, and their conversions to the cause of righteousness constituted fables for the remainder of the proceedings.

* In terms of more direct and explicit conflict, the senators’ questions centered on three principle themes, each fundamental to the moral anchoring of a civic democratic society. First, they emphasized the absolute priority of office obligations over personal ones: “This is a nation of laws not men” was a constant refrain. Second, they emphasized the embeddedness of such office obligations in a higher, transcendent authority: “The laws of men” must give way to the “laws of God.” Or as Sam Ervin, the committee chairman, put it to Maurice Stans, the ill-fated treasurer of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRETP), “Which is more important, not violating laws or not violating ethics?” Finally, the senators insisted that this transcendental anchoring of interest conflict allowed America to be truly solidaristic—in Hegel’s terms, a true “concrete universal.” As Senator Wiecker famously put it: “Republicans do not cover up, Republicans do not go ahead and threaten… and God knows Republicans don’t view their fellow Americans as enemies to be harassed [but as] human being[s] to be loved and won.”

In normal times many of these statements would have been greeted with derision, with hoots and cynicism. In fact, many of them were lies in terms of the specific empirical reality of everyday political life and especially in terms of the political reality of the 1960s. Yet they were not laughed at or hooted down.

* The reason was because this was not everyday life. This had become a ritualized and liminal event, a period of intense generalization that had powerful claims to truth. It was a sacred time, and the hearing chambers had become a sacred place.

The committee was evoking luminescent values, not trying to describe empirical fact. On this mythical level, the statements could be seen and understood as true—as, indeed, embodying the normative aspirations of the American people. They were so seen and understood by significant portions of the population.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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