Jonah Goldberg

"All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling," Oscar Wilde once remarked.

Irving Kristol took Wilde's observation and ran with it. "The amateur's feelings are sincere enough -- why else should he be writing poetry? -- but he takes the writing of poetry to be more important than the poem itself," Kristol noted in his influential 1972 essay, "Symbolic Politics and Liberal Reform." "For him, writing poetry is a kind of symbolic action, in which he liberates his most earnest sentiments, and it is in this impatient action and in this instant liberation that he seeks fulfillment."

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The successful poet, meanwhile, understands that good poetry is ultimately not about the experience of the author but of the reader. "He understands that a plea of sincerity is of no account in the ultimate court of literary judgment, which will look at the poem itself and simply ask: Does it work?

"It seems to me," Kristol wrote, "that the politics of liberal reform, in recent years, shows many of the same characteristics as amateur poetry. It has been more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves."

Kristol -- who died last month, prompting me to reread him -- dubbed this heart-on-your-sleeve approach the "New Politics," and he lamented that it had taken over the Democratic Party.

For Kristol, the "outstanding characteristic" of the New Politics was its "insistence on the overwhelming importance of revealing, in the public realm, one's intense feelings -- we must 'care,' we must 'be concerned,' we must be 'committed.' Unsurprisingly, this goes along with an immense indifference to consequences."

During the 1990s, Bill Clinton represented the high-water mark of the New Politics. Clinton bit his lip, rheumied up his eyes on cue and conveyed a warm fog of empathy wherever he went. If in trouble, his first instinct wasn't to defend results but to testify about how he'd been "working so hard."

In 2000, his wife Hillary one-upped him as a master of the New Politics, winning a Senate seat as a carpetbagger by telling New Yorkers the only issue in the race was which candidate would be most concerned about the issues that concern New Yorkers.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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