Thursday, September 25, 2008

Authenticity and Artifice
A Feedback Loop

I've been meaning to recommend this post by Kevin Drum to folks for some time.

The Obama-is-a-pedophile ad is old news by now. (And, sadly, the tacit norms of civility governing our campaigns have been adjusted down once again. Thanks, GOP!) But the more important point in the post is that the Republican scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners policy of character assassination is actually--strategically, though not morally, speaking--a win-win strategy for them. That is: it helps them win, and it helps them undermine the Democratic candidate if he wins.

Kevin--who in this respect at least reminds me of the me of 7.5 years ago--charitably believes that the latter half of the strategy is not actually strategy at all, but merely collateral damage. I'm not so sure.

Now, intentions are vague and largely indeterminate things, and I don't think that, during its campaigns, the GOP aims as intently at undermining Democratic administrations as it aims at winning elections, but I'm inclined to think that the undermining intention is there to at least some degree. It's difficult, I believe, to argue that there was no intention to undermine Clinton even after he'd won his second election. But if electoral victory were their only goal, they'd have abandoned that undermining project. (One could respond that they were aiming at Gore, and that's not an unreasonable response, though I think we'd have to admit it's more of a stretch.)

Perhaps what's really going on is this, though: the twin goals of winning elections and undermining the authority of victorious Democrats are themselves both more like effects of a more primary, less artificial phenomenon. The primary phenomenon is more like this: widespread--though by no means universal--in the GOP is actual disdain for and something like hatred of Democrats--or at least something about Democrats. To be more precise: this is far more widespread in the GOP than it is among Democrats. In their better moments, better Republicans are perfectly fine human beings, of course. The person I respect most in the world, incidentaly, has been active in the North Carolina GOP his entire life (working against the evil Congressional Club of Jesse Helms, incidentally). Some of my best friends are Republicans. And remember, e.g., that they give more to charity than liberals do. I've always thought that was an important point. So nothing here aims at denying the goodness of sensible Republicans. But there's a strong tendency in the party--distributed in complex ways--to genuinely disdain and hate something about (at least representative or paradigmatic) Democrats.

So my suggestion is: the hack-and-slash culture war is partially a strategy...but it's partially just a consequence of something more genuine, more authentic, and, hence, more pernicious: real disdain and hatred of, well, folks like us. It's not artifice; it's genuine.

A further suggestion might go like this: it's partially anger at the policies we advocate, but it's partially other things, too. First, it may be partially a result of the fact that the kinds of people who tend to be conservatives have a stronger natural tendency to demonize their enemies than do the kinds of people who tend to be liberals. (One response to this might go like so: Soviet and Chinese communism give us insight into the tendencies that lie dormant in liberals; serious lefties are notoriously insane and prone to demonize their opponents. Witness, e.g., the frothing-at-the-mouth lunacy of uber-lefty PCers on American campuses in the early '90's. If this response is right, it trumps the suggestion above.)

A related suggestion: conservative anger and intolerance toward those with whom they disagree politically is actually consonant with the tendency toward intolerance in their policies. The irrational hatreds of homosexuals, atheists etc. that are so prominent in American conservatism are, at bottom, hatreds of those who are different. Perhaps--and, again, it's only a suggestion--it's really a fairly generalized aversion to those who are different that's at the root of this aspect of conservatism.

I suppose if I had to guess now, I'd guess that the viciousness of GOP campaigns is as much an authentic consequence of a certain tendency toward meanness and disdain for those who disagree with them as it is a conscious strategy. So maybe Kevin's right about the second prong of the alleged GOP strategy. That is, perhaps they don't really aim at undermining winning Dems with their scorched-earth campaigns, or at least maybe the intention is extremely inchoate. If so, then undermining the authority of winning Dems is just, strategically speaking, a happy consequence of their general attitudes about Dems, and of their attempts to win. (Not that Drum would agree with that, just to be clear.)

But (and here's the kind of point that got me to start this blog up in the first place) the problem--the real problem, the moral problem, the enduring problem--with all this is that it eats away at the core of respect and good will that makes a democracy like ours possible. There's a tacit inclination among many people to believe that the institutions of our nation can maintain justice and order even if the people and parties themselves are hateful or corrupt. But I doubt that it's so. As the Bush administration has demonstrated, laws are to some extent malleable things, and someone who is sufficiently intellectually and morally corrupt can frequently circumvent them while maintaining minimally plausible deniability about what they're up to. Sufficiently vicious and corrupt people will eventually corrupt the system. (Note: that last claim is unsupported, possibly false, and worth thinking about.)

Every vicious campaign, every campaign that stokes the fires of hatred and intolerance in the more dangerous sectors of the GOP base, erodes the common ground of mutual respect and understanding that makes our political system possible. Every time the GOP invents and propagates myths about the moral corruption of paradigmatic Democrats, the moral capital that we draw upon in lean times is depleted. The GOP has allowed its worst tendencies to run amok, allowing itself to believe its darkest, most irrational fantasies about the nature of its opponents. This in turn makes it easier and more natural for them to further demonize Democrats as a conscious strategy. We get a kind of feedback loop: they give in to their inclinations to believe the worst about us...and then, well, what's so bad about lying about bad people? If bad people are sufficiently bad, surely defeating them is more important than being scrupulous about the truth, right? And acting as if you believe x, of course, makes it easier to actually believe x. And so on.

I'm actually sympathetic to conservatives on many issues. My opposition to contemporary conservatism, and to Bush-style approaches broadly constured, is driven by my concerns about dishonesty and demonization and their effect on the body politic. I'm less concerned about particular issues than I am about the background conditions that make our democracy possible, and that make rational debate about all issues possible. And I'm less worried about the viciousness of campaigns than I am about the sources of that viciousness, and the long-term effects on our country.

The viciousness in question strikes me as being something very much like a cancer, and I fervently believe that we should spend more of our time and energy thinking about what to do about it.


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