Politics, Paternalism, and Father Figures

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.

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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  • crowepps

    I remember being a little boggled by an opinion piece that took Obama to task for thinking things over and being ‘too deliberate’ and which asserted that the most important part of a presidential decision is that it be ‘decisive’, as in quick and unalterable, and that whether it was right or wrong wasn’t anywhere near as important. Your insight certainly explains the origin of that delusion. Thanks!

  • jo

    You’re absolutely right and we’re seeing it in Family Court too. Google “mothers’ rights” to see their plights. Because there are fathers’ rights groups/individuals out there trying to erode women’s rights in family court, these mothers’ rights groups have cropped up. Judges now punish mothers with jail time, fines, punishment. If they violate custody (perhaps their ex was a drunk, abusive, etc- doesn’t matter, the judge might not believe her), the judge PUNISHES the woman by transferring custody to the ex. How is this in the “best interest of the child”? It’s not- it’s punishment to women. They also use: malicious mother syndrome, lying litigant syndrome, etc. – all based on women being mentally defective or sterotypically liars/malicious. They can even get lawyers who promise to “teach her a lesson.” Fathers righters are taking over the courts and trying to gain back their patriarchal privileges – they lobby to change laws & women should be aware of them.

  • faultroy

    How incredibly ridiculous and hystrionic. No one but this commentor would even consider an attack of Mothers by the Courts as having any merit. Women still get over 95% of child custody decisions. Women are still able to lie, manipulate and decieve men in reference to paternity issues. If a woman does not choose to mention who the father is, there is absolutely nothing a man can do. However, if a woman chooses to accuse a man of being the father of his child, it is up to him to prove he is not. Just the other day, there was a report of an actor (Keanau Reeves)who had been charged with being the father of a woman’s children (he never even met her and had no idea as to who she was), yet, he was required to take a paternity test to prove that he was not. What was even more absurd is that the courts did not require her ex husband who was the father to prove that he was not even though he had been listed as the father on the birth certificate records. And lets not forget the fact that the actor David Letterman had a Restraining Order against him because he was harassing a woman by sending "telepathic messages" to not only another state, but half way across the country. And how about the fact that men can not even get restraining orders removed when they have been proven false in court by a judge–it is permanantly listed on their records and they discriminated because they have a restraining order. In most cases it cannot be removed–it must be expunged. And what do they do to those women that steal their children away from their fathers? Nothing. And what about the debacle of men being incarcerated for non payment of child support when it is proven time and time again that they are not able to pay? Does the state require a woman to pay for any State Aid or Federal Aid that she receives in rearing her children? No, that money which is given by the taxpayer–and should be considered a loan not an entitlement– is never required to be payed back. Does this sound like a return of Patriarchy to you????

  • emma

    From over here in Australia, much of the American national psyche seems utterly bizarre. One sometimes experiences a sense of confusion: is the president a head of government (and state) or a monarch. I recall watching Obama’s inauguration – I felt obligated to witness it, due to the historical relevance, even though it began at something like 1am here – and thinking that the entire spectacle more closely resembled the coronation of a king than the inauguration of a president.


    I find it so strange that so many Americans seem to see the president as a national daddy figure who is there to Keep Americans Safe. And one seriously wonders about the psychological health of those who believe Obama is insufficiently militant, given that, under Obama, not only are the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan continuing, with the war on Afghanistan escalating, but the US is now bombing Pakistan and Yemen. To Keep Americans Safe, of course. Perhaps such people would feel more satisfied if the United States renamed itself ‘Sparta’, and declared war on the entire world.


    Your country honestly terrifies me. It’s an empire in decline, and my suspicion is that it’s going to take as much of the world down with it as possible.


    Now, children, don’t forget to check beneath your beds before you go to bed tonight. There may be a communist hiding underneath.


    *Please note that my comments are not directed at the many sane people who post on this site.

  • positivemitch

    Well said, Sarah…
    I lived in Massachusetts, where we just elected pickup-truck-drivin’ Scott Brown to fill the U.S. Senate shoes of Ted Kennedy (he’s better known for his pickup truck than for his stand on any of the issues). Yes siree, this home of elite students and über-smart savants still acts a lot like the rest of the country in this respect: that a candidate’s personality and "charisma" are far more important than what they actually stand for. What does Scott Brown stand for, anyway? Oh yeah, that’s right… CHANGE. :-)


    Emma–a crumbling empire indeed. I don’t know if you know, but the U.S. imprisons at a higher rate than any country in the world, period. (source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate ) This creates an underclass of people whose crime rap sheet prevents them from moving up, forcing them to take the dirty jobs no one wants. Often, as convicts, they can’t vote, so they’re disenfranchised. And then you’ve got those millions of undocumented immigrants who do more dirty jobs no one wants, and of course they can’t vote. Those of us who do vote are very sheltered from that. These "convicts" don’t tend to be "people we [who vote] know," because "certain kinds of people" have a way higher imprisonment rate than others (i.e., urban people of color…). The rest of us, who obviously vote in way greater numbers than convicts and undocumented immigrants, are completely unaware of this rotten reality of our society. No wonder we seem a little complacent and sheltered.


    The superpower status of the U.S. further coddles us out of taking politics seriously. So United States policemanship in Afghanistan is okay, because the U.S. is a force for good that topples bad guys across the globe. Think about this: in how many other countries could such a perfunctory mentality around INVADING ANOTHER COUNTRY persist so gracefully? Even in big bad Russia the rather short war in Georgia really messed things up bad for them economically. Our subconscious sense of military superiority allows us to think we can be the world’s cop, and a president who doesn’t somehow act like this cannot be a effective leader, it is implied. Heck, Obama was the "antiwar" candidate, but he made sure he talked tough about bin Laden and Afghanistan on that campaign trail, and now he’s locked into that.


    We are a falling empire. And the sooner we raise our consciousness and realize how that can also be a good thing, the sooner we can do what Britain did as its empire began to crumble–provide health care to everyone and improve infrastructure at home instead of spending billions of dollars for lethal adventures in far-off lands.




    Positive Juice for your revving mind: http://positivejuice.com