Thursday, May 03, 2007

Testing a hypothesis

So, one line of thought goes that conservatives believe in the individual, liberals in society. (This is a simplification, obviously, and one could easily point out that liberals also believe in individuals, that conservatives engage in mass demagoguery and don't respect individual sexual rights, that both of them are quite enthusiastic for individualistic, capitalistic entrepreneurship, etc, but grant me that first sentence.) Would I be correct in pointing out, however, that when conceiving of their political enemies they engage in the opposite practice?

The general trend seems to be that liberals have a long laundry list of individual conservatives who "make the world a worse place." Typically these are people who reach a large audience/readership, such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Michelle Malkin, Michael Savage, et al. Political figures are usually limited to those occupying the White House, who are practically thought of as a cabal, but John McCain, Tom DeLay, and Joe Lieberman (yeah, he's a conservative on every level that counts these days) might also make the list.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have few individual targets, comparatively speaking. Obviously, they will bash Pelosi, Reid, and perhaps Murtha to no end, and they especially hate the Clintons, but for no other reason than that they're really loathsome people, which might be true for all I know. O'Reilly seems to have really latched on to George Soros and maybe Cindy Sheehan, but the latter has disappeared from the scene lately. On the whole, however, the "enemy" for conservatives often seems to be an indiscriminate mass, e.g. "the mainstream media," "the Hollywood elite," "leftist academics," or, of course, "liberals." I will admit that "liberals" is much more easily expressed phonetically in a contemptuous manner than "conservatives," which may be why it's used as a term of abuse so much more than "conservative." (As a side note, I'd say that "conservative" is not even an epithet: It's more like a revered "truth claim" of some kind, an unattainable standard set by Ronald Reagan or something that we can all "admire" and "respect." "Right-wing" is a bit harsher, but it has its counterpart in "left-wing." [Everyone wants to be in the center!]) "Democrat Party" is also so much more utilitarian in its nastiness than "Republic [?] Party." I don't even know what the equivalent would be.

Does my summary sound accurate? Also, what tend to be the causes and effects of these trends? In the conservative case, the smearing of "liberals" carte-blanche seems to me to have really developed during the 80s and culminated in the campaign against Dukakis in '88. (Isn't it common knowledge that you couldn't call yourself a "liberal" with pride after that?) On the whole, however, for the majority of the 80s, 90s, and early 00s the Republicans have held immense power, first under Reagan and Bush I, then in congress under Clinton, a very centrist President by anybody's standards anyway, and of course for the last 6 1/2 years. Considering they have had little opposition and have retained a sort of "cultural hegemony," you'd think that they'd go after individual scapegoats. Of course, they continue to attack the smallest of small, weak minorities -- gays, poor black people, immigrants, Muslims -- but otherwise they cast the largest possible net in terms of the "PC liberal culture" that's out to get them. Their ability to cast the debate in these terms continues to put liberals on the defense, I think. In other words: it's really fucking effective.

Liberals attack prominent right-wing figures because, let's be honest, there's a lot of them. However, this is a very ineffective strategy because the "shaming" process will get you nowhere in this country (could anyone ever really muzzle Coulter through shame?), and in fact it will likely just afford the media demagogues in question more popularity. In the blogosphere there seem to be more and more liberals realizing that hey, our cultural, political, and media establishments tend to be really, really conservative, but in the "mainstream," figures tend to follow the patern outlined above: defensive maneuvering with an emphasis on "bad" individuals. I'll flake out here and just say what others, including, I think, George Lakoff, have said, that liberals really just need to reframe the debate in language more favorable to them, where they don't have to worry about being "criminal coddlers" and "abortionists" and "defeatocrats." How much this can actually happen is questionable, simply because mainstream Democrats have done such a good job of making themselves similar to the Republican Party. (I'm thinking particularly of the DLC here, whose current chairman, Harold Ford Jr., was indistinguishable from his Republican opponent in the Tennessee senate election last year. As Atrios and Yglesias have pointed out recently, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, also seems to conform to this model.) I'm not sure how powerful the following strategy actually is, but Republicans have certainly cornered it: They can always call Democrats "socialists" (e.g. "socialist health care") at the end of the day, which has always and will always ring sour with the American public. I've seen right-wing websites advertising "Redefeat Communism" t-shirts with Hillary Clinton's face on them and they seem to believe this in earnest. The Democrats' actual similarity to socialists I will leave for all of you to contemplate. Even their closest candidate, Bernie Sanders of VT, would have been kicked out of the German SPD by Eduard Bernstein for being a bourgeois opportunist.

Allow me here to preempt the argument that might be made in favor of a Democratic policy that offers "concrete, pragmatic solutions to problems." This line of thought assumes that there are social outcomes that all can readily agree upon. It also neglects the fact that by most of the standards we would consider important, Democrats outperform Republicans, even in that most hallowed of conservative fields, the economy, yet still play the defensive. Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly has spent his blogging career documenting these facts so I'll leave it to you to discover them. Also, it's just being too optimistic to neglect the extreme importance, at the end of the day, of ideology and, dare I say it, propaganda. (If you think that both sides of American politics aren't engaged in large-scale, sophisticated propaganda exercises on a daily basis, you're kidding yourself.) Many liberal bloggers have raised a hubbub recently over Jon Chait of the New Republic's suggestion that the "netroots" engage in "propaganda." Many of them do, of course; they'd just call it "argument" or "principles" or maybe, just maybe if they're being honest, "talking points." The modern aversion from the term "propaganda" stems from its associations with onesidedness, lack of self-criticism, and a certain "mindlessness," but many of our daily practices involve these features, and certainly politics must contain a certain element of it if they are going to be decisive. I feel another blog post coming on about the Chait controversy, but I'll save it. For now, I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts!

In the meantime, since you've read this much, I'll "reward" you with the best thing I read in intensive Latin survey this week. This is from Pliny the Younger, writing in the late first century CE under the emperor Trajan. This is from Letter I. xx to the historian Tacitus:

Varia sunt hominum iudicia, variae voluntates. Inde qui eandem causam simul audierunt, saepe diversum, interdum idem sed ex diversis animi motibus sentiunt. Praeterea suae quisque inventioni favet, et quasi fortissimum amplectitur, cum ab alio dictum est quod ipse praevidit. Omnibus ergo dandum est aliquid quod teneant, quod agnoscant.

"Various are the judgments of men, various their attitudes. And so those who have heard the same legal case at the same time often think different things, or on other occasions the same thing but from different thought processes. And what's more each man favors his own method of finding out the truth, and when he embraces something as the strongest argument it's often what he himself foresaw all along but happened to be said in another way. Therefore everyone needs to be given their own version which they can grasp on to, which they can recognize."


Blogger Sebonde said...


3:50 AM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

I remember in the 'Eighties we used to liken the Young Republicans to the Hitler Youth.

3:51 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

The interesting thing about the reframing debate is that while for the Republicans it largely means -- as you point out -- outrageously smearing broad swaths of American culture in the name of Liberal Fascism or whatnot, for liberals (and certainly for Lakoff) it means finding the right language to create public support for a given policy. Perhaps the Dems should forget about policy and just do what the Republicans have been doing for the last 40 some-odd years: race-baiting, fear-mongering, chest-thumping, Jesus-ifying political discourse. I just don't see where or how the Dems could step into this kind of sickening debate which corrodes the political culture. The promise of Obama is that there's something his presence that exposes the GOP's rhetoric for the filth that it is. I'm hoping the Dems can focus more on reframing policy language (on universal healthcare, energy independence, bilateralism, etc.) in the future, and not try to go toe to toe with this soul-eating gibber-gabber. After all, we've still got professional boxing, the WWE, and Hugo Chavez speaches for that.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Josh said...

I know that some of you bloggers don't watch TV, let alone American TV, let alone American cable TV, but Jon Stewart recently explained a great idea about how to beat the Republicans at their own games of rhetoric. (And in case the Huffy Crew forgot what TVs are, they basically computers without keyboards... remember?)

"The Democrats' problem isn't that they're calling for timetables. It's that they're calling them timetables. You're up against Bush and the Republicans, you got to bring some zing. Don't call them timetables. Call them ... patriot dates ... freedom deadlines ... glory goals. What decent, patriotic American wouldn't stand behind a glory goal?" --Jon Stewart

I would stand behind any glory goal without even the slightest hesitation!

10:00 AM  
Blogger curry king said...

What Robot points out about Obama is also what is attracting me towards him and away from my original favorite, John Edwards. Edwards, who does have the strongest rhetoric and I think policies on a host of issues important to me -- Iraq, poverty, global warming, unionization, to name a few -- has been the first to use attack ads on the Democrats' policies in Iraq (of course targeting Obama and Hillary) to his advantage. Quite a departure from some of his rhetoric in 2004 of straying away from the attacks, especially in the wake of the Swift Boat ads. Of course, we'll wait and see how Obama and Hillary and the others attack each other.

Another element of today's political discourse common to both "wings'" is their perversion of the word "politics." Whether it be "playing politics," or "politicization," "politico," or any of the thousand other iterations of this word, politicians and indeed many bloggers have given the word "political" a negative connotation. Interestingly, we have parsed out new meanings for the words "policy" and "politics," giving the latter explicitly partisan affiliation and the former a more neutral connotation. Don't parties put forth policies? Isn't that their JOB?

I think the use of that word has contributed to a debasement of the discourse. After VA Tech, both wings attacked each other for "playing politics" instead of generating an idea-centered debate on whatever it is that helped cause the shooter to do what he did at VA tech (a variety of issues have been floated from guns to poor mental health legislation to communism). "Playing politics" becomes an easy target for any politician or blogger or journalist to make about a differing viewpoint.

4:42 PM  
Blogger curry king said...

More rhetoric, this time from the right:

"Politicians shouldn't micromanage our commanders in the field."

Again, isn't that their JOB? Do generals make policy (I hope not). Again, another case of the perversion of all things "political."

6:22 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Hmm, in response to Robot, I agree that dems shouldn't employ the same sort of *hostile* rhetoric. I do think that they should employ *rhetoric*, even along the lines that Josh jokingly suggests. That's my point about rhetoric and even propaganda: they're pretty much unavoidable in political discourse, and they might in fact be necessary for communicating ideas to large groups of people. The thing about Edwards, who is my preferred candidate, is that while his ads might be *attack* ads, they're not *false* attack ads, which is what characterized the swiftboating campaigning. More importantly, these sorts of arguments within the Democratic party are probably exactly what voters need leading up to a primary. The candidates should show the differences between themselves, and the fact that they're from the same party means that those differences can hopefully be discussed in a civil, truthful manner. The problem, I think, is labelling attack ads bad per se. The bad sorts of attack ads are ones that are just plain false or are conducted in a completely puerile, bigoted, race-baiting, or fearmongering way (e.g. the Willie Horton ad, the recent Harold Ford Jr. white bimbo debacle, et al). However, if you think that your opponent has made mistakes and that pointing out those mistakes might galvanize voters around your campaign, they shouldn't be off limits; in fact, they seem to me to be a necessary condition for an informed electorate.

12:32 AM  

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