The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College
The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College


Fall Conference 2012

'Does the President Matter?'


SEPTEMBER 21-22, 2012


"It is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect "miracles" in the political realm."

—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?


Politics needs speech and action that can uphold the truth. It is a political crisis, therefore, when politics and truth go their separate ways. When politicians can no longer inspire, they lose their ability to lead and to summon their citizens to higher and collective ideals.

Who doubts that this is the case today?  When Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, says, "old politicians have lost the ability to lie to the world," he throws down the gauntlet to politics as usual. The rise of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the Pirate Parties are together a response to the diminished authority and sway of political leaders.

The question emerges: How does the President matter when political lies as well as political truths are no longer compelling? In what sense can we still talk about political leadership when the pillars of truth are seen to be meaningless trivialities?

The lost regard for politicians is both a crisis and opportunity. The crisis is clear. We witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. From Europe to Japan, from Russia to Egypt, and from China to the United States, political leaders are proving singularly inept at addressing the turmoil of our times. It is as if political leaders have gone on strike; unwilling—or unable—to make decisions anymore, except when forced to.  People crave what used to be called a statesman; the United States is about to elect a President. But if the President is merely a politician whose words and strategies come from paid consultants, what will be the effect?

What then is the opportunity amidst the political crisis of cynicism and distrust? How can citizens assert their humanity when pollsters, think tanks, Super PACs, and PR “gurus” seek to automate the political system as well as the electorate? What would a human politics look like in the 21st century?

Hannah Arendt does not always speak kindly of politicians, but she does praise political people, those citizens who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire citizens to re-imagine a common purpose. It is not utopian but hard-nosed realism to insist that "miracles" exist in politics. It is men, Arendt writes, who perform miracles, and the only question today is where such a political miracle worker come from?

Where will real, unifying political action come from? Where might we find leaders who, in the words of David Foster Wallace, “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own”? What, in other words, would it mean for a president to matter?

Our Conference will bring together artists, politicians, businessmen, academics, and public intellectuals to explore how we can re-imagine presidential leadership for today.

Generous support for this conference at the Arendt Thinkers Circle Level of Membership and above was provided by Anonymous Donors, Jenny Lyn Bader, Alexander and Wendy Bazelow, Jack Blum, Carol and Roger Einiger, Ric Fouad, Sandra Gaffner, Gantcher Family Philanthropic Fund, Jeffrey Glass, Mark Gordon, The Grosfeld Foundation, Dean Hachamovich, Nancy Leonard,  Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lipp, Elisa Loti, Marin Community Foundation, Steven Maslow, Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Fund, Marshall Rose Family Foundation, Mrs. Ellen J. & Mr. Paul N. Roth, Bruce Slovin and Francesca Cernia, David Stemerman, Alan Sussman, Felicitas S. Thorne, and Rebecca Westerfield.

Please consider supporting the Hannah Arendt Center and all that we do by becoming a member. Learn more here.