I keep on having arguments with nice, idealistic academic Democrats explaining to them that our two-party system only works if there are enough partisans fighting for their parties. Partisanship is competitive and produces winners and losers — the goal is for your party to win. It’s true that as issues work their way through the process, ultimately a lot of compromises are made, and what comes out is seldom exactly what any single individual wanted. But compromise is the endgame. Competition is what makes the system run.
One of these days I’m going to crank out a big theoretical piece about the differences between scholarly research and political action. One is timescale: a scholar can spend five years on a problem if he needs that long to get it right, whereas political players often are working in conditions of extreme uncertainty with a deadline of just a few minutes. Another is misinformation: by and large geologists, for example, do not have to deal with deliberate concealment, deception and dishonesty on the part of their colleagues, whereas people in politics have to think about that all the time. (And Bush is one of the worst ever, but there never was a golden age when this was not true).
And another difference is that everything a politician says, does, and thinks is related to his goal of political victory. Regardless of how idealistic he is, if he doesn’t win he will be unable to accomplish anything at all. As a result, the most-admired political leaders throughout history have all done things which their worshippers would rather not talk about.
When everything a politician says is directed toward his political goal of victory, he is behaving pretty much the same as anyone on any job. He’s making a case. In the same way, a salesman makes the best case for his product, a lawyer makes the best case for his client, a professional sticks up for his profession, schoolteachers advocate for schools, and people who work for Nike say good things about the shoes Nike makes.
Too many Democrats seem to be unwilling to play the actual game of politics. Part of it, I am convinced, is the academic scholar’s disdain for lower forms of human discourse. Part of it is a wrongheaded absolute idealism, tracable to Gandhi and to a misreading of Orwell, which makes it impossible to differentiate between the kinds of partisanship characteristic of Harry Truman and the kinds of partisanship characteristic of Josef Stalin. The outcome is a kind of jellified fairmindedness which leaves its practitioners helpless in the face of deception and misinformation.
In the ten days before November 2, we can expect to see some plausible piece of information terribly damaging to Kerry to start popping up everywhere. We should vigorously deny it until Nov. 3 — regardless. It will probably be a lie, but in the context of the campaign it’s an attack and we should bat it down no matter what. We might end up being wrong that way, but that’s infinitely preferable to being wrong in the opposite direction, and letting a big lie give us four more years of George W. Bush.
P.S. Given what I’ve said, what’s the problem with George W. Bush?
Bush is like a salesman with a very bad product. There’s nothing wrong with making a case for your product, but if your product is bad, you have to lie all the time, and that’s what Bush does. And likewise, if you’re lying in order to sell a bad product, you have to sell exclusively to gut-thinking, thoughtless, uncritical people who don’t pay close attention (i.e., suckers), and that’s what Bush is doing too.
I’m exaggerating a bit — Bush’s core constituency includes a certain number of people who want World War Three and want to see the U.S. government bankrupted, and they understand what they’re voting for. But I don’t think that any campaign in American history has ever been so exclusively directed at stupid people and hard-core ideologues.
(The context of this is, of course, the recent controversy about the Killian memos, during which a large number of liberal Democrats were in too much of a hurry to declare that the objections were valid. We should let the Republicans do their own work — it will all come out in the wash eventually. I definitely agree that we shouldn’t put too much weight on these memos. They really aren’t needed to make the case against Dubya’s Guard service, and Dubya’s Guard service is a very small part of the total case against him.
My immediate inspiration was this satire seen in Kos.)