Is there any way to cut through the political divides in America? Is there any common ground to be found? Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice linked a piece that ponders this, "Political Theater v. the Reality-Based Community," by John H. Richardson. It's a short, interesting piece:
Kill the umpire! Shouting in the middle of a crowded sports arena, or a slow news day — that's what all John Boehner's cries for the heads of Geithner and Summers are about. It's what all his party's cries of "socialism" are about. And I bet it's the same with the poll that says 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim and 28 percent think he's from Africa and 33 percent think he eats Christian babies with a side of fava beans.
Conservatives are turning themselves into the spandex-clad heroes of a really cheesy potboiler.
And liberals, pathetic rationalists that we are, always do the same dumb thing — in 74 percent of adjudicated calls, we say, statistics show that umpires are actually accurate within a margin of 67 percent, adjusting for minor variations in humidity and the GDP, which is the only thing standing between us and a state of anarchy. Our entire politics is one big spoiler alert.
Conservatives? They laugh and paint their faces red.
This is generally accurate on the national stage – liberals tend to go wonky, discussing the quality of a policy, whereas conservatives typically go for an emotional marketing pitch – remember the propaganda about "death panels"? (The lies, fear and spite are necessary, because conservative policies are generally horrible.)
The far left always pushes its favorite alternative, which is to shout kill their umpire, but this never gains much steam because liberals are not constitutionally inclined that way. Everyone has to try and understand the idea of red and blue states is an illusion, because every state has plenty of both and the margins are usually very thin. But we don't even have red and blue people. So Obama and Robert Gibbs are right: No matter how frustrating and futile it may be, we have to resist the temptation to demonize the other side and keep trying to find common ground. Because there is common ground.
Richardson goes on to quote conservative Conor Friedersdorf, and discusses both their experiences in turning down the heat of disputes, and engaging people of different political views. All that's good, as is this point:
This is the thing our rational political discussions always overlook: People aren't rational. They aren't consistent. They don't have worked-out positions. We know this from novels and movies, where the very definition of satisfying art is complex characters who can't be reduced to a one-dimensional caricature. But when we enter the supposedly factual world of politics, we pretend to forget it. So it's interesting that Freidersdorf's argument is "grounded in the assumption that Internet commenters aren't always being real."
Yes, many voters – and human beings in general – hold irrational beliefs, and haven't really thought them through. These can be harmless, or deeply destructive. Regardless, Richardson's right that it's unwise to forget these dynamics. But he loses me a bit with his closing paragraph:
These days, that's what conservative politics is. But we're all feeling the same distress. And the more we ridicule them or smear them all as racists, the louder they're gonna shout down that umpire, bringing us closer and closer to the danger point when the crowd turns into a mob and the umpire actually does get killed.
There are several different issues here. (Since Richardson's piece is short, it would be unfair to treat it as his be-all-end-all diagnosis on American politics. I'm mainly using it as a launching point.) It's one thing to debate the political effectiveness of calling, say, Rush Limbaugh or Mark Williams a racist. It's quite another to say that it isn't true, and that liberals or anyone else should pretend that Limbaugh and Williams aren't racists, despite the formidable evidence to the contrary. Liberal bloggers have been expressing concern about right-wingers committing violence for years now, and there already have been some shootings by right-wingers who have swallowed propaganda from the Fox News/right-wing noise machine hook, line and sinker. I don't think Richardson is warning us about liberals becoming a mob (even if individuals are driven to rage). He's talking about right-wingers, who are angry and believe things that aren't factually true, doing violence to their fellow Americans. While engagement and de-escalation are worthy pursuits, they don't fully address those dynamics. Moreover, pushing those responses and nothing else shifts the burden of responsibility almost entirely from the hucksters and the marks to the more sober, responsible adults.
As I wrote over at Anne Laurie's post, while Richardson makes several good points, there’s a huge difference between dealing with "real people" versus politicians, pundits and professional hacks. I can gently challenge my friend’s basically-otherwise-decent-and-occasionally-sweet mother on her homophobia, have a civil, good-natured discussion, get her to laugh, and maybe make some headway. It’s completely different with someone like Mark Williams, who’s a bullying, arrogant, angry racist and a general asshole otherwise to boot. Common ground with Williams would start with him acknowledging his “black folks’ letter to Lincoln” was racist. Common ground with Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, John Boehner and the rest would start with them joining the reality-based community and not lying constantly. Every so often liberals and other reasonable folk can extend an invitation to them to get off the Evil Train, but it’s foolhardy to expect that it will happen. When Andrew Breitbart, Karl Rove and Grover Norquist openly seek the permanent destruction of liberals, liberal institutions, and the Democratic Party, it's wise to take them at their word. By all means, let's have conversations with real people who might be able to de-escalate or have a reality-based conversation. But it doesn’t take a finely tuned bullshit detector to peg the truly crazy and the professional scumbags.
It would be naïve for liberals to think that a better idea or policy will prevail on its own without being pitched well, but it's also naïve to think that Newt Gingrich and company have any interest in running the country well. (Richardson, who recently wrote a superb, damning portrait of Gingrich, certainly isn't naïve, which is why that one post shouldn't be taken as a final statement. This post fleshes his views out further, and some of the disconnect may be semantic.)
This leaves liberal activists with some old dilemmas. One, what's the most effective political approach? Even if you have good policies (perhaps vastly superior policies), you still need to pitch them well. Second, on the more personal level - how do you fight evil people without losing your soul? (Pick other terms if you like, but I don't think "evil" should be reserved solely for fictional villains like Darth Vader. Severely hurting other people or your country, whether intentionally, blithely or recklessly, qualifies as "evil" in my book.) The current political climate is pretty insane, and trying to push back against the racism, Islamophobia, and eagerness to destroy the social safety net while giving even more wealth to the super-rich can all be maddening.
Blue Gal recently tackled these issues from a personal, Christian, Quaker perspective. I find myself repeatedly returning to them (probably in most depth in "Concern Trolls for Nixon"). There isn't one, easy answer. However, when it comes to the national political discourse, it's a major battle merely to have a reality-based discussion in the first place, before we even get to the question of what the hell we should actually do.
The dynamics may be different on the ground level, and it's very helpful to distinguish between the professional hacks and average citizens. Mrs. Polly at Rumproast interviewed some protesters of the "Ground Zero Mosque" (that isn't really a mosque and isn't at Ground Zero). If you head over to watch it, the exchange is pretty civil, and the two protesters don't seem like bad guys per se. But they've been lied to, they're upset, and they will not acknowledge the contradictions in their stance. Maybe they can admit it all to themselves later. More likely, they won't ever directly back down and admit they’re wrong. If they get something out of their fight, some concession from the other side (move it another two blocks!), then maybe they can let it go. They won't lose face that way.
Now granted, liberals should anticipate such things in their political calculations, and practice good negotiation strategies (start with a more liberal stance and compromise to the more "centrist" position, rather than starting with the "centrist" position – looking at you, Obama administration and Democratic leadership). However, "compromise" doesn't work when it's an essential issue, such as Freedom of Religion. Those two protesters might eventually back down or see the light, but the sincerely crazy wingnuts (Pam Geller) and professional bullshitters (Newt Gingrich) of the world will never stop. At best, they'll merely change their pitches. And the right-wing noise machine is powerful, coloring every "debate," and inventing fake scandals all the time. Liberals simply can't anticipate them all. Professional conservative hacks enter debate, discussion and negotiation in bad faith, and generally the conservative base sincerely believes their bullshit. It's folly to ignore this. "Anticipation" and strategy have to encompass combating these overall dynamics and changing them, versus constantly playing defense by debunking one fake scandal after another. Good debunks are very important, but a larger political framework must be offered to combat the crap spewed constantly by Fox News and the gang.
Those first two questions this post mentioned were: "Is there any way to cut through the political divides in America? Is there any common ground to be found?" With average citizens, perhaps, and it's worth a try. However, on the ground level, and especially the national level, the more relevant question is, "What's the best way to combat bullshit in the political discourse?"
A Wingnut Checklist
Here's a first crack at a Wingnut Checklist. It applies mostly to movement conservatism and its allies, although these dynamics aren't limited to one party. There are Democratic politicians and hacks who will display the same behavior, mostly those of plutocrat, war hawk or authoritarian tendencies. However, those are all conservative trends. And while the Democrats have their scoundrels, these dynamics absolutely dominate the Republican Party, and have for decades now. There's only a small percentage of "reasonable conservatives" left, and few of them are on the national stage or have much influence in the GOP. There is really no major conservative movement or bloc that does not demonstrate one or all or these elements. (In some cases, they prefer to fund other wingnuts versus openly espousing this stuff themselves, hence the many conservative think tanks and astroturf organizations around – they're paying 'the help' to do the dirty work.)
The next time a person or group (normally conservative) pushes some "scandal," consider whether any or all of these apply:
1. They make factually false claims. Additionally, while some of the zealots may be true believers in these false claims, the ringleaders are deliberately lying for political reasons. (Some are more specifically classic bullshitters, not caring whether what they say is true or not.) [Liars]
2. What they propose is extreme, and antithetical to core American values and law. The "debate" they're instigating goes far beyond a mere policy dispute, and instead attacks more fundamental American values. They're authoritarians, stomping on almost every part of the Constitution save the Second Amendment. They oppose Freedom of Religion, warrants for searches, due process, humane treatment and freedom from torture, and basic civil liberties for anyone they don't like. Sometimes what they propose isn't antithetical to the Constitution itself, but is nonetheless genuinely radical and extreme (eliminate progressive taxes, eliminate income taxes altogether, eliminate the estate tax altogether). To the degree they've given it any thought, they want to tear up the social contract in favor of some form of neo-feudalism. [Extremists]
3. They are assholes. This group seeks to dominate or destroy those they view as foes. They do not seek peaceful coexistence, or building a better system for everybody, and have no interest in running things wisely or well. Their goals are radical (#2), and they will lie, cheat and steal shamelessly to achieve them (#1). They will not stop voluntarily, and are extremely dangerous in positions of power. Basically, in a classic case of projection, they are as implacable and ruthless as the foes they demonize with their distorting, McCarthyite rhetoric. They seek domination atop a hierarchy, not a more fair society. (For instance, even if one mistakenly believes that opposing the building of any mosques in America is somehow a respectable position, it cannot possibly be called an inclusive vision for America.) [Assholes]
Feel free to improve this checklist. But for almost every conservative-driven "scandal," you will see one or all of these three elements: liar, extremist, asshole. Any one of them alone is sufficient cause for challenging and defeating their campaign. Any time these bullies and brats get their way, it only encourages them. And given all three elements, and an issue of actual importance, it's imperative that their campaign is confronted and overcome. Yeah, we can continue to try to have civil, honest conversations with average citizens of different political views. When in doubt, starting with that approach is wise. When confronting professional scallywags, factually-based debunks still play an important role. However, it's folly to expect good faith from them, and basic common sense to look for the lie and be prepared for some of their favorite bullshit claims and debating tactics.
You don't compromise or make peace with Joe McCarthy. You challenge him, expose him, debunk him and defeat him. (And you record history accurately so you're ready the next time his type comes around.)
Update: John H. Richardson has written a thoughtful response to this post, plus one other on this general theme. Head over to read them. (I hope to have a follow-up post done at some point.)