Politics, War, Civility and No Labels

I’ve said before that I have my doubts with the new centrist group called No Labels.  There has been a lot of talk about the orgainzation in the blogosphere and most of it is predictably negative.  Conservatives tend to think this is nothing more than liberals in drag, while some liberals want to remind people that labels are important.  Christopher Beam’s article in Slate is able to mix my concerns about the groups with some of the same criticism about the name and the need for partisanship in American society.

I agree with a lot of what Beam said.  There have been lots of attempts by well-intentioned (or not so well-intentioned according to some) people who want to foster a more gentler politics and most of those efforts have amounted to nothing.  Beam is also correct in stating partisanship, or at least having beliefs is important and he is spot on in stating that part of the reason liberals and conservatives can’t cooperate is because they have less and less in common:

No Labels sounds noble in theory. But the group misunderstands what bipartisanship is. It’s not two parties deciding to be nice to each other. It’s a moment when their self-interests happen to align—moments that are increasingly rare. Washington does not have a “civility problem.” It has a polarization problem. Politicians aren’t any meaner now than they were 30 years ago. It’s just that over the last few decades, the two parties have become more ideologically coherent. Back in the 1950s, some Southern Democrats opposed racial integration, and some Republicans in the North favored a robust social safety net. Opposition to abortion was a bipartisan affair. There was a Christian right, but there was a Christian left as well. (The first Catholic president was a Democrat, after all.)

All of that changed in the ’60s and ’70s. Small-government libertarians aligned themselves with social conservatives under the Republican umbrella. Social liberals and economic interventionists joined the Democrats. In the 1980s, there was still enough overlap between the parties to beget phrases like “Reagan Democrats.” But every year the parties drift further apart. In a conversation with NPR about “No Labels,” Charlie Crist trotted out the old saw about Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. Those men “probably didn’t agree on a whole lot of things … yet were able to get along and at the end of the day, go out and have a cold one and understand that it’s important for them to be civil.” Sure. But by today’s partisan standards, O’Neill and Reagan had a lot in common. What stops Barack Obama and John Boehner from taking smoking breaks together isn’t that they’re jerks. It’s that they don’t agree on as much.

The parties have become more ideologically coherent, which has led to the current problem.

But where Beam and other detractors of No Labels fall short is on how to solve this issue.  It’s as if they don’t seem to care that important issues are not being discussed.  Of course partisan wrangling is part of the deal in a democracy.  An open society is not supposed to be a nice society.  I have no doubt that Democrats and Republicans were arguing back during the halcyon bipartisan days of the 1960s and 70s on the issues of the day. 

And yet, something is different these days.  We don’t seem to just argue, but we see those who disagree with us as something alien, something destructive to the very foundations of American society and all that is good and pure.

Earlier this year, Conor Friedersdorf wrote an essay called “Politics Isn’t War.” He was concerned about how politics has started to adopt the tactics of war, finding ways to drive up the “body count.”  Friedersdorf begins his essay:

Ask the average voter, “Is American politics an insufficiently ruthless business?” and most won’t even take your question seriously. They’re attune to the acrimony in Congress, sit wearily through attack ads every election cycle, and flip through a radio dial filled with angry sounding people on the way home from work. In presidential elections, they vote for sunny personalities like Ronald Reagan, and gravitate toward slogans like “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” and “hope and change.” In my career, I’ve tried to discuss politics with as many different kinds of people as possible: progressives, centrists, and conservatives, Orange County Republicans and Harlem Democrats, Indiana factory workers, Arizona CEOs, Orthodox Catholics, Vietnamese immigrants — the list goes on and on, and folks from every group find something unsavory about the whole business of politics.

But if you spend time talking politics with people who identify as hard core progressives or movement conservatives, you’ll find that a significant percentage believe their ideology would prevail more often if only their partisans were more angry, their attacks more pointed, their operatives more ruthless. This is most often expressed via the use of metaphors that draw on the language of war and fighting. Usually it doesn’t make any sense. In war, the victor kills as many folks as possible on the opposing side. Political winners persuade more people to join their coalition….

People like Al Sharpton have gotten notoriety from race-baiting, and even scored brief tactical victories, but overall does anyone think that kind of thing has advanced progressive policy ends? Does anyone think that comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler in the run-up to the Iraq War made invasion less likely?

Is there any instance in the history of American politics when aggressively virulent rhetoric from the left has resulted in a big policy win? Does anyone think that people like Michael Moore help the left rather than hurt it?

The “battles” waged by the conservative movement’s polemicists make as little sense to me. Take a guy like Andrew Breitbart. Even in the course of criticizing him for publishing an edited video that misled his audience about Shirley Sherrod, a lot of conservative writers were insistent that he is “on the side of the angels,” that his style of rhetoric has proved invaluable in the past, and that “we’re lucky he’s on our side.”

This doesn’t make sense. Conservatives are ostensibly concerned about the federalization of health care, the deficit, the size of the federal government, the erosion of federalism, etc. As someone who shares these concerns, I am painfully attune to how difficult it’s going to be to address them.

Apparently it is emotionally satisfying for some folks on the right to force ACORN to reorganize, plumb the alleged racism of an obscure USDA official, expose the fact that some census workers were paid for their lunch breaks, etc. I can’t help but think that these are all insignificant distractions that won’t make the slightest difference when it comes to accomplishing anything that conservatives actually care about — the conservative movement is asserting goals that require a decade long project, and they’re elevating as their champions people who specialize in generating page views, winning individual news cycles, and selling books.

Postering and violent rhetoric has been part of the American landscape since the beginning of the Republic.  But in this internet age, it has become more concentrated and able to shape or distract us from the politics that are needed to make policy in the United States.

I don’t think there is a magical center where people all agree on things.  But the way our government is set up, we have to find ways to work with each other even when we disagree.  But left and right in our nation act as if we don’t have to listen to the other side.  Even if one party wins astounding majorities in Congress, there are still people from the other party that were elected by people to be their representative.

Civility might seem like a silly thing to focus on, but at the end of the day what civility is all about is trust.  We learn to trust each other, to believe that the other person is a decent human being.  When that breaksdown, the our democratic society is weakened.  As Evan Thomas wrote in Newsweek recently, growing distrust in the political other can have dire consequences:

In an atmosphere of fear and envy, rumors and conspiracy theories spread fast. It’s easy for regular people to suspect the game is rigged against them by the insiders in New York and Washington—the Wall Streeters and the political and media elites. Cable-TV and talk-radio personalities and bloggers have risen up to speak for the people. But as they pander for clicks and ratings, their standards of factual accuracy are often low. This is not by any means just a right-wing phenomenon. As my friend Charles Krauthammer points out, it was an article of faith on the left that George W. Bush deliberately lied about WMD to get us into the Iraq War. Never mind a complete absence of evidence. On Twitter and Tumblr, on Fox and MSNBC, human error is quickly seen as a sinister plot.

The irony is that the Internet and limitless TV channels once seemed to promise more truth. More information, from more sources, should have liberated the marketplace of ideas. Open, free, unfettered speech has usually served to expose the abuses of power. I assumed the same would be true when every citizen could become a journalist, and power could not be rendered unaccountable by secrecy.

But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. There is more noise and more opinion—but arguably not in the cause of truth. Untruths and gross distortions swirl around the Internet, supercharged by the cable-TV bias for hyperconflict. It’s demonstrably untrue that President Obama is a Muslim or a foreigner, yet a small but somehow growing percentage of the country chooses to believe such a falsehood. With too much unmediated information to choose from, people select what they wish to believe. These days a wild rumor in an e-mail from your distant cousin can trump The New York Times.

Little lies can add up to one Big Lie. Obama is a socialist! Health reform means death panels! They’re going to take away your guns! I don’t mean to be apocalyptic. I don’t think that Big Brother beckons. But the old and weary (and increasingly cowed) mainstream media, of which I have been a charter member for more than 30 years, may not be as successful as it used to be at exposing the sort of distortions that can fuel mindless rage. Whether those distortions come from the far right or far left, the consequences could be disastrous: a protectionist who sets out to shield workers from foreign competition and wrecks the free-trade regimen that has made America prosper; a law-and-order vigilante who comes to office after a terrorist attack with a program to suspend cherished individual liberties to keep America “safe”; a soak-the-rich populist who kills economic growth in the name of helping the little guy.

So yeah, No Labels is probably not going to work.  And yet, I wish it well.  I wish it well, because the alternative is to become jaded and just leave things as they are- stuck.  I have to believe that as Americans we can come together in spite of our differences and try to work together.

I guess I’d rather be hopeful than apathetic.

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