Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Common Ground and Equal Blame

With this new year comes a new Congress, that season when an old pundit's fancy turns to familiar blather about "bipartisanship" and "common ground." However, the real problem isn't a lack of "bipartisanship," which is only a symptom, at best – it's the lack of responsible adults in Congress - and the parties are extremely lopsided in that regard. Neither is the problem a lack of civility per se – it's a lack of honesty and fact-checking. Beltway pundits endlessly fetishize "bipartisanship," but somehow it usually means, "Do whatever the Republicans want, regardless of whether they're in power or not." Strangely, a policy's merits and public opinion rarely seem to matter to the chattering class, either.

Trying to find common ground can be valuable, but among people of good faith, it's only part of a larger process – finding both points of agreement and points of contention. Assuming two people roughly agree on the facts and also on a solution to a given problem, they've found common ground and can proceed. However, our system is so broken that even common sense measures often become ridiculously politicized, and fail.

Meanwhile, some points of contention are trivial, whereas others remain extremely important. Arguing over whether a particular program gets slightly more or less funding this year is one thing, but it's vastly different from aggressively arguing that due process itself, a cornerstone of civilization, should be abandoned by our country - and that anyone who thinks differently hates America and loves terrorists. On the first issue, there can be haggling and compromise and the "bipartisan" comity that makes the David Broders of the world feel warm and fuzzy. On the second, essential issue, there should be no compromise - no abandonment of due process - and the proper place for "bipartisanship" lies in jointly condemning such crusades against the foundations of our justice system (not to mention their McCarthyist approach).

Coming up with wise solutions to complex problems is challenging enough on its own, but the sad reality is that, in our national political discourse, we rarely get that far. We have a political system - and that includes the media coverage of politics - that's saddled by a tremendous amount of corruption, bad faith, vapidity, sheer idiocy and bullshit. Large sections of the population believe things that simply aren't true. They believe them primarily because their leaders - and we're talking mostly about conservative Republicans here – lie to them. Meanwhile, these lies often go unchallenged by the media.

Danny Goldberg tackled these dynamics in an excellent piece in The Nation, Mad Men vs. Math Men (11/17/10):

Almost half of the public is either misinformed or subject to unanswered right wing narratives. If I believed that there was a chance of Sharia law being imposed in the United States I too would be gravely concerned. If I believed that most Europeans and Canadians had inferior health care to that of average Americans, I too would be against health care reform. If I believed that man-made global warning did not exist or that there were nothing we could do about it and that environmental efforts were responsible for unemployment I’d be against cap and trade. If I believed that prisoner abuse would make my family significantly less likely to be killed by terrorists, my thinking about torture would be different. And if I believed that the problems with the economy had been caused by too much government instead of too little, that my personal freedom was threatened by the government instead of large corporations, I’d probably be in a tea party supporter and a Republican.

Unless and until progressives change the mind sets of the tens of millions of people who believe right-wing mythology, who never read the New York Times or listen to NPR, who never watch any TV news other than Fox, future elections will have disappointing results for progressives regardless of who is in the White House.

Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have limits to their ability to de-program those who have been indoctrinated by conservative orthodoxy. As David Bromwich recently wrote in New York Review of Books, “You can learn from them why the wrong ideas are funny, but you cannot learn why the wrong ideas are wrong.”

It's hard to find common ground with people living on another planet. Generally speaking, in terms of people spouting falsehoods and the Stupid-Evil-Crazy spectrum, average folks are more likely to be sincere but misinformed, and someone's degree of "evil" is typically proportionate with their power. Members of Congress and political pundits have exposure to much more information than the average voter. For example, Bob the angry tea partier probably doesn't know how severe wealth inequity is in America, but John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan certainly do. As Paul Krugman recently observed (with a striking example), "It’s always important to realize that someone can disagree with you politically without being a bad person. But there are bad people in politics, too."

It's crucial to nail down the meaning and consequences of someone's political rhetoric as well. It can be easy to agree with political platitudes – that's why they're used – but the "common ground" they offer is generally illusory. What's the actual plan, what does it entail, who will benefit, and what are the likely consequences? Fine, Carly Fiorina, you say you want to shrink the deficit with spending cuts - how are you actually going to do it? Especially when measures championed by you and your party (further tax cuts for the wealthy) will increase the size of the deficit? Fine, Bob the tea partier, you're all for "freedom" – but what does that actually mean in practice for you? As Steve Benen explored in "Movements are about Something Real" (8/28/10):

For a year and a half, we've seen rallies and town-hall shouting and attack ads and Fox News special reports. But I still haven't the foggiest idea what these folks actually want, other than to see like-minded Republicans winning elections. To be sure, I admire their passion, and I applaud their willingness to get involved in public affairs. If more Americans chose to take a more active role in the political process, the country would be better off and our democracy would be more vibrant.

But that doesn't actually tell us what these throngs of Americans are fighting for, exactly. I'm not oblivious to their cries; I'm at a loss to appreciate those cries on anything more than a superficial level.

This is about "freedom."

Well, I'm certainly pro-freedom, and as far as I can tell, the anti-freedom crowd struggles to win votes on Election Day. But can they be a little more specific? How about the freedom for same-sex couples to get married? No, we're told, not that kind of freedom.

This is about a fight for American "liberties."

That sounds great, too. Who's against American "liberties"? But I'm still looking for some details. Might this include law-abiding American Muslims exercising their liberties and converting a closed-down clothing store into a community center? No, we're told, not those kinds of liberties.

This is about giving Americans who work hard and play by the rules more opportunities.

I'm all for that, too. But would these opportunities include the chance for hard-working Americans to bring their kids to the doctor if they get sick, even if the family can't afford insurance? No, we're told, not those kinds of opportunities.

Do read the rest. It's not hard to find two opposing parties who both like the word "freedom," but their conceptions may be immensely different; they may both praise the Constitution, but their knowledge and understanding of it may be wildly off. Let's make sure people – particularly those with power and influence – define their terms, explain their meanings and spell out the consequences of their proposals. (Fact-checking them would be good, too.)

We don't all live in the same reality, we don't all mean the same thing when we use the same words, and we don't all have the same goals. Some political players don't give a damn about the "common good" or working for a sustainable system. Many voices in the political discourse aren't blathering in good faith. And both major political parties are not 'equally to blame' for America's woes.

Saying or implying that the blame isn't equal makes some Americans – many of them well-intentioned and some even well-informed – extremely uncomfortable.

A case in point is Jon Stewart, whose Rally to Restore Sanity was very well-intentioned and civically-minded (and risky in its way), but wound up mostly preaching to the converted. Stewart explained his views more in this interview with Rachel Maddow (worthy of its own post), and responded to her criticism that he overdoes the "both sides do it and are equally to blame," false equivalence shtick. To his great credit, Stewart is extremely smart, consistently entertaining, and calls bullshit on the powerful with wit and style. The "both sides do it" framework (also favored by Obama) can have rhetorical value if it helps some sincere but heated person take a step back and recommit to fighting skullduggery, especially on his own side. It also can help insulate the speaker from charges of bias (although those are often inevitable regardless). However, "both sides do it and are equally to blame" is often simply not true, and sometimes laughably false. Stewart has suggested targeting "corruption" versus a specific party instead, and that's good, but the reality is that's precisely what many activists have been doing all along. (Most liberal activists haven't stopped criticizing the Democratic Party for its faults.) It's just that, if one genuinely targets corruption, skullduggery and the like, one party's rap sheet quickly grows much longer and much more damning.

How does a conscientious person respond to that? Given that reality, accurate reporting can be branded as "partisan," yet imposing a false "balance" on a story can be misleading, and rob the audience of the ability to make informed decisions. Meanwhile, it's one thing to be polite to a bald-faced liar or raging asshole out of respect for a venue or as a rhetorical strategy – swearing at Newt Gingrich ain't gonna play on PBS' NewsHour. It's another thing to be so guileless as to believe that Gingrich is actually operating in good faith and not prepare to combat his preferred bullshit of the week. Calling bullshit can be done politely at times, and some people are masters at this. However, sometimes politeness can severely conflict with honesty. Given the enormous preponderance of bullshit out there and the severe harm it actually causes, the important thing is to call bullshit in some fashion on shameless, destructive hacks. It's also important to know that this action will always strike a certain crowd as terribly rude. Beltway social norms "demand vehement repudiation of petty acts of incivility... while tolerating and even approving of extremely consequential acts of indecency as long as they're advocated with superficial civility." This is especially the case for the Beltway Villagers when a member of their own crowd, of that general class and with some power, commits the "indecency." Put another way, elite political bullshitting is an extremely cushy gig with a grotesque thought-to-dollar ratio, and being part of the bullshitting club transcends all other allegiances. If some foul-mouthed upstart is allowed to call out Bill Kristol on his bloodthirsty ways or staggering error rate, why, then, Cokie Roberts could be next! Civility has its place, but it's absolutely essential to have honest political discussions somewhere, particularly since they generally ain't gonna happen on the Sunday talk shows.

Jon Stewart does believe in calling bullshit, but also seems to sincerely buy into some of the "both sides are equally to blame" stuff. However, take that second tenet too far, and it severely crimps the first one. That second tenet's not so bad in small doses, and fine as a conclusion if it's truly accurate, but it shouldn't be predetermined; the first tenet is the much better starting point. Let's say you lean toward one party but try to be fair-minded; you confront those grossly unequal rap sheets, but cling to that second tenet; you wrestle with it all, but finally blurt out the accepted conventional wisdom of the church of the savvy pundit - "BOTH SIDES DO IT!" Do that all the time, come to that conclusion every time regardless of the evidence or the scale of the offense, and you're no longer just calling your own side on its crap, a valuable service – you're minimizing or outright denying the crap the other side is doing. It's well-intentioned, but dishonest. Plus, genuine scoundrels never stop voluntarily – they just exploit such good will. (Again, average citizens tend to be more sincere and honorable than political figures.) If one never holds the scoundrels accountable, the situation only gets worse.

Stewart was tested on that second tenet ("both sides") in the wake of some truly despicable maneuvers by the Republican Party, who yet again were blocking health care for 9/11 first responders. Stewart skewered the GOP in an excellent segment in standard Daily Show form, but then broke from the usual format to invite first responders on the show. Both segments were great, and Stewart's coverage helped get the bill passed. That's to his immense credit – but it also puts the lie to that second tenet. Now, while "both sides are equally to blame" overstates the case, there's some truth to it on some issues – neither major party is pushing hard to end the wars. (The division on the activist level is much sharper, though.) Similarly, the Dems enacted weak financial reform and aren't eager to challenge Wall Street – but the GOP wanted no financial reform whatsoever, so even that's not "equal." Meanwhile, both sides are not equally deserving of blame and credit at all on the 9/11 bill, or health care reform, or Don't Ask Don't Tell, or the Lilly Ledbetter Act, or S-CHIP (health care for kids), or unemployment aid, or a host of other measures. Democratic leaders are partially corrupt and plutocratic, while Republican leaders are entirely corrupt and plutocratic, even neo-feudal, and reckless and nihilistic to boot. As Danny Goldberg's piece above explores, rank-and-file conservatives believe utter falsehoods on almost every major issue of the day, and they believes these because their leaders lie to them. There's little equivalency between sides when it comes to being "reality-based" and responsible.

Blue Gal and driftglass covered Stewart and many of these issues in last week's Professional Left podcast, and driftglass delved into them further in "As Reasonable as Hell":

Jon's problem is that, for all of his formidable comedic and observational skills, he is still in an almost catatonic denial about the country in which he lives. He obviously, deeply wants us to be something more than we are. Something better than we are. A place where people with different but sincere and well-reasoned beliefs can fight hard, come together afterward to figure out a good-enough compromise, and then move on to the next thing.

You know who else wants that? Every fucking Liberal I know.

But this simply is not that country: not some feisty middle-brow Camelot with a couple of equally wacky, equally flawed and equally honorable political philosophies contending in an arena with rules and referees. Instead, this is a country where one political party is ruled by loathesome men with grotesque motives on behalf of a tiny clique of plutocrats and bulwarked by an electoral army which is kept constantly tweaked to the point of near-riot by a carefully-cultivated media cocktail of rage, ignorance, bigotry and God.

What Jon cannot face is that he will never have the country he wants -- that we all want -- by clevering and cajoling and joking and reasoning it into existence.

We've tried that for the last 30 years...

Again, do the read the rest. But given this situation – which is hardly a secret – the responsible thing to do is (as driftglass says) take sides. At this point in America, truly 'rallying to restore sanity' requires more than quiet decency in solidarity with one's fellow Not-Insane Americans; it requires speaking out against insanity and taking action. It's not as if it was hard to find insanity this past year: opposition to the 9/11 first responder bill, opposition to START, Liz Cheney's crusade to eliminate due process, the pro-torture brigade, the push to give further tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, the campaign to destroy Social Security, opposition to badly-needed jobs programs and infrastructure spending, godawful media coverage... There is no lack of worthy causes going forward. In our current political system, the amount of bullshit far outstrips the amount of outrage and the number of responsible adults. These situations won't magically get better on their own if people of conscience stay mute. If political figures pushing bad ideas are never forced to make their case - if people with good ideas never bother to explain anything well - if bullshit goes largely unchallenged - why the hell should we expect that the "mushball middle" (as Al Franken calls them) will somehow figure everything out and make good, informed decisions? "Team Evil" pays well, doesn't take days off and plays for the long game as well as the short one. Good causes don't triumph all on their own, without smart, sustained effort. To borrow from an old post, a national political discourse with one party attacking false scapegoats and the other too gutless or corrupt to call out real villainy is simply toxic. If "bipartisan" sanity, decency and responsibility can't be found in the current landscape, well then, it's time to make an informed, critical judgment, pick a side, and fight.

(Edited for clarity. There's a companion post, "Defining "Common Ground" in Diagrams.")



Rehctaw said...

I wish I had the ability to read the whole piece B-man. I doubt I'd have much to add or correct in your assessment. I promise to try again. and again. and again, but I just can't get beyond common ground.

I know that it exists, but not where it matters. Not where the decisions are made. In that place, there is only the demagogue harvest of the last 40 years.

It's fraud. Pure and simple.
Finding new ways to reward cheats who manage to stay within the margins or devise clevernesses to make their morally and ethically bankrupt schemes LEGAL does not contain a scrap of ground for progress or a progressive approach.

What would you advise to those who've simply ceded the fight? Where can the everyman turn?
Where are the community organizers who can speak to a public so jaded?

Who will battle wits with a Sicilian when death is on the line?

Ron said...

Spot on. Another gem my friend.