Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

A politics of targeted ads

Pursuant to the conversation w/ John A about my post "Left, right, and wrong," I was giving thought to the question of how I see political polarization. This is tricky. On the one hand, I share Ronald Dworkin’s concern, articulated in his popular book Is Democracy Possible Here?, that political polemic has become so divisive and partisan that each side has come to perceive the other as not just an opponent but an enemy. On the other hand, one needs only tilt the kaleidoscope ever so slightly to see Democrats and Republicans as sharing (and, importantly, excluding) a remarkable amount in common, and not in some just-folks, we’re-all-Americans way. (A frequent charge, from critics from Ralph Nader to Ron Paul, is that the problem with both major parties is precisely what they have in common.)

On Dworkin’s account, debate is starting to be impossible because the parties do not recognize each other as legitimate opponents; thus no serious engagement about issues happens, because the encounter never moves past throwing hostility back and forth. Of course, Dworkin contends that the two major parties do share a tremendous amount in common, and if they could remind themselves of this, civility might be restored and public discourse elevated. On George Farah's view, on the other hand, debate never happens because the two apparently opposing views are really too close. Farah is the founder of Open Debates, an organization seeking to broaden the available spectrum of living options and in particular to reform the political debate system. According to Farah, in a debate between candidates (we're speaking now about an actual event, not just a disagreement), what we see is a canned rehearsal of anticipated moves, like Tweedledee and Tweedledum in a WWF match, but no hard questions (from the audience or even from each other). Huge swathes of political tradition -- and public opinion -- are excluded by ideological fiat. A Naderian critique would have it that the ostensible animosity between the left and right wings of the ruling class masks their mutual complicity, and the distraction provided by their foofaraw suits them well. They don't want the elevated discourse Dworkin imagines; they want targeted ads. Farah traces at least some of this shameful dumbshow to the 1988 coup d'etat in which the League of Women Voters was replaced by the newfangled Commission on Presidential Debates.

How seriously, then, ought we to take ostensible differences?

Recently I read a remark by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, decrying feminism that allows itself to be distracted over whether men or women do the dishes or the laundry, while women in Somalia or Pakistan or elsewhere are having their genitals mutilated or being stoned or strangled in honor killings. Against such a background, debates over housework might be characterized as (to put it mildly) confused regarding priorities; one could justifiably argue that whatever the differences between the parties, these are dwarfed by what they have in common, and in this case, they are being distracted from that common ground -- mutual concern for women’s lives -- to concentrate instead on minutiae.

There is a danger of scoring cheap points here, points all the cheaper considering the real suffering they exploit. The point is not to belittle feminism, nor to wave away the stresses of our lives, which are real, however trivial they seem by comparison with a gun in the face. But the case remains that a pressing concern up close does not always loom so large from a distance. In my comment to John A., I compared the question to the differences between Marxist factions in the late 19th and early 20th century. The most obvious of these might be Lenin’s polemic with Kautsky (the specific instance I mentioned), but the period was rife with these disputes, some on fine points of theory, some more substantive, and the parties went at it hammer and tongs. Some of them -- quite a number -- wound up dead, which is certainly a difference that makes a difference, at least to them. From a century’s distance, what do we see? Simply that every one of the parties was on the wrong side? Or is there something more?

And can I really mean that Glenn Beck and Harry Reid are as close and as far apart as Lenin and Kautsky? Is there a danger of the comparison being not false but just meaningless?


  1. Dworkin's comment about the blasting of the legitimacy of one's political opposition doesn't really apply to 'both parties' in my view because this attack on legitimacy is by definition extremist, and the Republicans have far more extremists in office than the Democrats. There are far more rightists than leftists in office. The Dem office holders are mostly centrists, despite what Fox says.

    Centrists will, however, tend to delegitimize the program of extremists, so that must be your Kautsky angle. But don't confuse pundits with actual office holders.

    The classic case of institutionalized delegitimizing of an American opposition party will always be, in my view, the absolutely unconscionable move by Republicans after 2001 to reduce the number of committee seats held by the minority party by one seat. That subtle reduction of force made it impossible for the opposition to stop anything in committee, throwing out a key 'emergency brake' against totalitarianism. It was a frontal assault on the heart of the American system, and should be in all the textbooks by now as one of the great evils of the new American century in politics.

    The Democrats, by contrast, after suffering this insult for years, promptly re-installed the committee balance after regaining the majority in 2008, even though it granted the Repubicans the power to obstruct policy. The Dems who led this return to sanity should have our deepest gratitude - but do we doubt the GOP will sabotage the committee structure again if they ever get back their majority? Case closed.

  2. Are you implying that if the debate or that fell cliche 'the national conversation' became more polite there would be no problem and no need to amend the electoral system or make any structural changes?

  3. To Om~~
    Possibly there would be even more need of reform-- it would all depend on what the politeness signifies. (A faux 'united front', or genuine respect?) What I want to see is a far broader conversation in which the damn elephants in the room can be named, without people reaching for their guns. The problem of course is that "the people are an ass"-- an evaluation all the exceptions share, and I have a hard time disputing it myself.

    To Detheo~~
    My own sympathies lie very strongly against the radical right, so much so that I am suspicious of my readiness to find fault with them. (I would be an awful office-holder-- too prone to second-guess myself.) Having said this, though, I do hear a lot of vilification, a lot of plain old fuck-you's, from the left -- remember that I live in Seattle, where democrats assume they are among friends and can belittle rank & file republicans-- ordinary blue collar folk who happen to disagree about gay marriage or immigration or whatever-- for laughs. It isn't on the level of the leadership that I think this is really a problem. I expect the Reids & Obamas and the Gingriches & Palins to be able to sit in a room without throwing things at each other, though frankly I don't care what they do to each other in the privacy of their negotiations. But the ordinary citizenry comes to perceive some vast, sprawling force out there-- either a populist hydra (the Tea partiers) or an elite avatar of liberal condescension (the liberal New York-Hollywood alliance). That's what gets demonized. One could argue that little harm is done since the Utah Republican doesn't read the liberal free paper where many Seattle citizens take their cue on how to vote (I know people who follow it to the letter, though (they would insist) not uncritically), and the Seattle Democrat doesn't listen to talk radio. I'm not so sanguine.

  4. While I'm absolutely frightened by the kind of rhetoric (and wild distortions) I hear coming out of the right, I can't say that I believe the right has more radicals than the left. Frequently when discussion issues with my more left leaning friends I hear comments about how we need to get rid of corporations or wall street. I really can't imagine a more radical restructuring of the world and frankly think it would be impossible short of a complete and catastrophic collapse. I don't take these comments personally any more seriously than Glenn Beck's "New History" but I certainly see why some would see them just as frightening. Of course what is always missing is a viable alternative. If you can give me even a brief outline of something that could do what the stock market (among other markets) does I'm all ears.

    I think this sort of touches on an earlier discussion you were having about how similar we really are. During the Soviet Era our worthy opponents would laugh out loud when we touted our two party elections. To them it was obvious that they were dealing with two sides of the same coin. And in that light so much of the rhetoric that paints the other side as "radical" is characterization. Barak Obama is much more a market capitalist than Abraham Lincoln was--or George Washington for that matter.

  5. The notion of dispensing with the stock market, etc., is indeed radical, and it does (and ought to) frighten people. Some, doubtless, are repulsed by the content of the ideas, but many more have a gut reaction that is -- at the risk of sounding condescending -- pretty much your standard-issue Fear of Change. This is not neccessarily irrational, as there are far more ways for things to go wrong than to go right, and the track record of large-scale interventions in the status quo is not good. But there are plenty of people asserting that there are "viable alternatives" (various versions of participatory economics, local currency, and so on). I would be ready to lobby for several of these if I thought the transition could be done without bloodshed. Maybe one day I will say, "with a minimum of bloodshed." But when I catch myself thinking such thoughts, I begin to understand a little better the reactive horror with which such ideas are met by hoi polloi. I think I already understand pretty well the fear of the upper .01%.

    As you note, Obama is a market capitalist through and through. It is very odd that the reason he has been such a disappointment to the left is his failure to champion the social causes he touted (his administration's bizarre mealy-mouthed stance on the Defense of Marriage Act or Don't Ask Don't Tell, e.g.); but he is vilified by the right for political reasons (the expanse of government and government spending). I don't see these as nearly as separable as many seem to; I heard, e.g., the Tea Party recently characterized as "all about smaller government," even though many supporters of the movement "tend to be socially conservative too," a distinction I think is naive. I don't mean that certain positions always go together; of course one can oppose (say) abortion, or even Roe v Wade, and still be far to the left, even a socialist; and I know Log Cabin Republicans. But to argue that gay rights or school prayer is a social not a political (or even a fiscal) question is peculiar. To argue for (or against) laws, or certain interpretations thereof, is a matter of politics.