Scorched Earth Politics

Marcy Wheeler (Firedoglake) and Nate Silver (Five Thirty-Eight) have been having a cross-blog disagreement over the Senate health care reform bill. The links go to their most recent posts in the discussion. Marcy argues that the bill is detrimental to middle-class families, and Nate mostly disagrees. Remarkably, both of them are, as near as I can tell, trying to be honest with data. Even more remarkably, neither one has resorted to character assassination of the other.

This is a rare and wondrous event. Bronze those bytes and save ’em in a museum, I say.

I wrote recently about a strain of Manichaeistic thinking on the Left

This is the view that sorts all Democratic politicians into one of two categories — they are either pure and noble defenders of the righteous liberal cause or blackhearted, corrupt sellouts to the moneyed Powers That Be. And while the default mood of righties is seething resentment, the default mood of lefties may be either annoying self-righteousness or deadening cynicism, or the two combined.

And boy, are we seeing this now, big time. It’s gotten as bad as the Democratic Primary wars between Obama and Clinton supporters. Dispassionate discussion of facts is rare. Disagreements are almost always framed as character issues; people who disagree with My Noble Position are infected with evil. Sellouts, betrayers, dupes, etc.

I think the BooMan has a point here —

The split in the blogosphere is over splintering goals. On one side you have people who now identify the government itself (the insiders) as the corrupt entity regardless of party. On the other side you have people who don’t disagree about the systemic problems but who are looking for best outcomes and a successful presidency.

There is a place for both, but if you are waking each morning to blog about what a bunch of corporate whores the Democrats and the president are, you haven’t really adjusted your style to the new situation in Washington. In fact, you are effectively denying that there is a new situation in Washington. You just brought over what you were doing during the Bush administration and turned your guns on the Obama administration. And, remember, I am talking about motivation here, not discrete posts. I’m talking about themes and focus. Is this first thing you do in the morning to look for ways to talk about how the president has disappointed you? How Congress sucks? Then you aren’t interested in keeping the Republicans out of power any more. You are fighting a different battle. And if you don’t have a plan for how your reinforcement of Republicans memes is going to help lead to better outcomes, you aren’t really a Democrat anymore, and your activism can’t necessarily be considered progressive even if uses progressive terms and angles. That’s fine. No one is compelled to support the Democrats over the Republicans or to support policies they disagree with. But we should call this kind of blogging what it is, which is anti-Obama, and anti-Democratic Party…and anti-government, really.

BooMan is being roasted for writing this. At Firedoglake, Steelydan3 writes,

Here’s a quick short retort: We criticize the president and the party because by completely betraying the base on almost every single issue of import we risk losing the House and the Senate in 2010 to the Republicans. Of course, then Obama can have his prized “bipartisanship”. The first order of the day of course in January 2011 will be stripping the one or two decent things in the health care bill that Tom Harkin and Bernie Sanders sold their souls for and to turn the IRS into the gestapo in blue states with shoot to kill orders, but I digress about this horrific yet realistic alternate future.

Betraying the base. Sold their souls. Gestapo. Shoot to kill orders. I rest my case. Further, I say that when we think Bernie Sanders has sold out to the Dark Side, maybe it’s time to take a close look at where we have our own feet planted.

And, frankly, the idea that the way to help Democrats keep the House and Senate is to engage in relentless character assassination of those same Democrats (plus our only socialist, Bernie Sanders) is, um, hallucinatory. On its face.

The fact is, the health care legislation is enormously complex, and there are big chunks of it — the excise tax on expensive policies, for example — over which reasonable, intelligent people have honest disagreements. There are a great many projections of how the several aspects of the bill should work together to reduce cost and make health care more affordable, but like any complex thing we won’t really know how it’s going to work until it’s put into effect. And this would still be true if the bill had a robust public option.

And, one always has to ask, what’s the alternative? Every progressive blogger I’ve seen who supports the Senate bill forthrightly admits that parts of it stink out loud. But it beats the hell out of the alternative, which is the status quo. If there were a reasonable expectation that killing this bill would inspire Congress to cough out a better one next year sometime, then I’d be in favor of killing it, too. But that is not a reasonable expectation, at least in this time-space continuum.

Getting back to BooMan’s point about people not making adjustments — on the other blog yesterday I linked to an article from Tricycle magazine on Buddhist ethics. The author points out that opinions become part of our self-identity. Thus, a disagreement can be perceived as an existential threat. Thus, the opinion must be defended at all costs, and if we run out of reasonable arguments we must counter-attack and destroy the source of the threat — the person who disagrees.

Further, self-righteous anger feels really good. It’s one of the all-time great ego reinforcements. Pema Chodron has written quite a bit on the seductive, intoxicating qualities of anger. This is from an interview with Bill Moyer

I mean, not only has something, evoked a response in me but it’s going to be difficult for me to let go. Anger is like that for sure. Prejudice is like that. Critical mindedness is like that. You don’t want to let go. There’s something delicious about finding fault with something. And that can be including finding fault with one’s self, you know? So that’s what I mean by hooked. You’re sort of it because of the image of a fish and the hook and it has this juicy worm on it and you know the consequences aren’t going to be good. But you cannot resist. And one of the main things we’re addicted to is escalating aggression.

I agree with BooMan that lot of what we’re seeing is a refusal to adjust. That self-righteous anger that built up during the Bush Administration is just too intoxicating, to delicious, to let go. We’re looking at outrage junkies.

BooMan also points to a defense of relentless criticism of the President from Cenk Uygur, who argues that such relentless attacks from the left help President Obama politically. I say it just further poisons our already toxic political culture.

About the biggest reason the nation is so screwed up is that, for many years, we’ve been unable to engage in reasonable, rational, fact-base discussion about anything on a national level. Instead, every “debate,” whether on Iraq or abortion or taxes or health care or whatever, quickly collapses into a free-for-all in which people stop at nothing — including outright lies and death wishes — to defend their positions.

Today, some of the bigger personalities on the leftie blogosphere truly have lost all sense of proportion and decency. Bloggers who had been their comrades in arms through the Bush Administration suddenly are re-cast as Judas for having the temerity to disagree about the merits of a health care bill. This is self-evidently screwy.

Stop the hyperbole. Stop the self-indulgent self-righteousness. Just stop it. Being perpetually angry never helped anyone think more clearly. And even if, say, you score a political victory using these scorched-earth tactics, the ground on which you fought is too scorched to be of further use. This is not a rational way for the citizens of a republic to govern themselves.

60 thoughts on “Scorched Earth Politics

Comments are closed.