Sunday, May 1, 2011

Politics, Policy and Truthiness

David Roberts has written an interesting article in which he defines "post-truth politics."

For decades Republicans have single-mindedly pursued a few core goals: reducing taxes on the wealthy, dismantling the post-war social welfare state, and freeing corporations from regulatory restraints. Sometimes that has meant short-term compromises and half-measures, sometimes it's meant exploiting culture war resentments, sometimes it's meant a pose of moderation (compassionate conservatism). Very often -- almost always -- it's meant couching the agenda in other terms, since it is, if you poll it directly, wildly unpopular with the public. Americans want to tax the rich more, protect entitlement programs, and put tighter rules on corporations.

Republicans thus talk about "taxes" and "spending" and "regulation" in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.

In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They've realized that their rhetoric doesn't have to bear any connection to their policy agenda. They can go through different slogans, different rationales, different fights, depending on the political landscape of the moment. They need not feel bound by previous slogans, rationales, or fights. They've realized that policy is policy and politics is politics and they can push for the former while waging the latter battle on its own terms. The two have become entirely unmoored.

In summary, what he's saying is that Republicans know their policies aren't popular, so they divorce themselves from policy and play in the field of politics instead. Facts, reality, and history don't have to enter that game. It reminds me of what a George W. Bush aide told Ron Suskind in 2004.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

Could there be a better description of "post-truth politics?"

Roberts identifies one of the reasons why this kind of game works...the failure of the "fourth estate."

But the crucial fact of post-truth politics is that there are no more referees. There are only players. The right has its own media, its own facts, its own world. In that world, the climate isn't warming, domestic drilling can solve the energy crisis, and Obama is a socialist Kenyan. (Did you see Obama's birth certificate yet? If he had that much trouble convincing people he was born in the country, how did he expect to convince them he's a reasonable moderate?) Obama can back centrist policies all day, but there is no mechanism to convey that centrism to the broad voting public. There is no judge settling disputes or awarding points.

As so many have noted, even the traditional media is addicted to conflict and crisis. Rather than being the arbiters of reality, they think their job is to find the opposing position when faced with facts.

Roberts criticizes Obama's response to all of this.

Yet still there seems to be this craving, in Obama and sooo many other self-styled pragmatic, post-partisan moderates, to take the politics out of politics. To have an Adult Conversation. To be Reasonable People, to draw forth other Reasonable People with the power of ideas and together transcend petty partisan squabbling and move forward with a Commonsense Agenda based on Shared Values. (Are you tingling yet?)

It's a nice idea but it's not how American politics works. There is no huge class of uncommitted independents waiting to be persuaded. There are no Reasonable People behind the curtain, pulling the strings.

And that's where he loses me. I guess he thinks that if he merely capitalizes words he doesn't agree with, he's making some important ironic point. Puhleeze!

To me, either you agree with those "self-styled pragmatic, post-partisan moderates," or you give up on democracy. I agree that, with the the Obama method, the President is taking a risk. As Michelle said about him:

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

But what's the alternative? If people can't be awakened to reality and exert the kind of partnership power necessary to address the realities we face, then whatever it is, I'm not all that interested in finding out.

As Obama said back in 2005:

The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job. After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart. It's easy to dismantle government safety nets; it's harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It's easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it's harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion. But that's our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate...

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

I'm still with him on giving that a try.

3 comments:

  1. I'm pretty much on the exact same page as you.

    It's astonishing, how prescient POTUS was:
    And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate...

    6 years later, this is still the case.

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  2. Anonymous

    Back when Obama was first elected, I did some looking into his tenure as the president of the Harvard Law Review. What struck me then - and still does today - is his consistency. No one going back in my life 20 years ago would find that. I'm sure his specific policy positions have altered over time. But he's had a clarity of thought in his overall worldview and leadership style that is quite remarkable.

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  3. @smartypants, this is so utterly true. While people run around with their hair on fire pretending that this POTUS is a mystery, so exotic, such a cipher, I see a man who is consistent near unto boredom. "Clarity of thought" is a nice way of putting it.

    (meant to sign my comment---gn)

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