Media, Politics, Progressivism

Politics and Perception

"Don't tell me to tone it down you Indo-Kenyan Commu-fascist!"

It’s been fascinating to watch the blogosphere react to the last few rounds of GOP presidential candidate shuffling. Above all, it’s driving home the vast differences in perception across the American political spectrum.

See, to a guy like me, here’s how our current political moment seems: The GOP’s field of presidential candidates looks downright hilarious. It’s a shambles! While they were falling over each other to demand the hardest that President Obama produce a birth certificate, he was finishing the nation’s 10 year search for Osama Bin Laden. His poll numbers are higher than they’ve been for over a year, and he’s confident enough to make a push for immigration reform (and the Latino vote) in Texas. The guy’s on a roll. He’s been building political momentum since December.

Meanwhile, to the folks over at United Conservatives of Virginia, Obama looks like he’s just about to crack:

The American people have been sacrificing; it is he and his family who are behaving as if they’ve never had two nickels to rub together – and now, having hit the mother lode, they’re going to spend away their feelings of inadequacy at the taxpayers’ expense.

Obama continues to exhibit behavior that, at best, can be described as mobocratic and, at worst, reveals a deeply damaged individual. In a February 2010 column, I asked, “Is Obama unraveling?” I wrote that it was beginning to appear the growing mistrust of him and contempt for his policies was beginning to have a destabilizing effect on him.

Yep. Any second now. He’s about to collapse. That’s the most audacious hope I’ve heard this month. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the on-camera breakdown.

And while it’s easy to laugh these sorts of differences off, it’s got to be (at least) a bit troubling. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are signs that progressives and conservatives in the USA inhabit completely different political realities. It’s not that they just interpret our situation differently…they actually don’t begin with the same situation. This, incidentally, is why they often seem not to share political concerns. It’s why one side thinks that our immigration situation is a National Crisis (THE Current National Crisis of Import), and the other thinks that our immigration system needs reforming (along with a number of other political institutions). It’s why one side thinks that climate change is human-caused and a National Crisis (THE Current National Crisis of Import), and the other side thinks that it’s nothing more than hippie fantasy.

Here’s another example, courtesy of Brian Kaylor:

However, many other candidates who appeal to Huckabee’s conservative evangelical base and can meet the rhetorical expectations of our age of confessional politics now have the opportunity to shine and assert themselves as the candidate to challenge Romney, whose Mormon faith hurts him among many evangelicals (see post here). Several candidates have been already working to appeal to this constituency, including evangelicals Tim Pawlenty (see post here), Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain (see post here), as well as evangelical Catholics Rick Santorum (see post here) and Newt Gingrich (see post here).

And yes, some of this is perhaps right, but it’s too kind. Huckabee’s absence isn’t really going to change much for Cain or Santorum. I don’t care how hard they’re working on the evangelicals. They’re treading water until after South Carolina or so, when they’ll take their 3%-5% (max) of the GOP primary electorate and go home (to be fair, Kaylor gets at this in some of his own posts that he links).

The point, though, is that it’s much, much harder to have worthwhile political arguments—on the blogosphere or beyond—when you can’t settle on the basic contours of what you’re arguing about. If you can’t explain yourself to the other side in terms that they can understand, if you don’t make an effort to understand when they’re talking, democracy starts to fall apart. Alexis de Tocqueville worried that democracy would eventually isolate humans from each other, shutting them up “inside the solitude of [their] own heart[s].” He thought—and it’s hard to disagree—that American democracy thrived on interactions that crossed these lines of difference. This doesn’t mean that we always agree, but it means that we form our political opinions and argue out our political decisions in the presence of others who don’t share our views. From Lincoln to FDR to MLK, Jr., America’s best have always praised our commitment to open dialogue.

But that’s not where we are now. Our public discourse is an echo chamber. So many of us get our news from those who confirm our deepest prejudices, and we spend our public and private life with other members of our side’s political chorus.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at these Huckabee-affiliated history videos. When political differences lead to wholesale breaks in our shared political reality, we have to go back and revise our historical narratives. It’s no longer enough to remember that Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 election. It’s now critical that he also be the “Worst American President” ever (with Obama apparently contending for the title) who remade America into a drug-addled wasteland. It’s no surprise that someone on the American Right would take this on. It’s also no surprise that a left-wing blogger like Yglesias would call them out for such historical revisionism.

I’m not calling for a group Kumbaya, or more Grand Bargain compromising. I’m suggesting that our system can sustain this kind of “information ghettoization.” We’re not going to make much progress on any of our political problems until we can come to some basic agreements regarding just WHAT we’re arguing about.** I’ve also got a pretty strong hunch that the GOP/American Right/American conservatism has more work to do as far as searching for general evidence and data for their side. That doesn’t mean that the Democrats/American Left/progressives are blameless, of course.

Let me try to close this post by putting it another way: Americans frequently end unpleasant disagreements with the words “You’re entitled to your opinion.” I want to say, “Hey, you’re entitled to your opinion, but if it’s a fantasy with no factual roots, it’s going to get treated as such. If your opinion is tethered to reality, show me how. We’ll have better arguments. We’ll have a better democracy. We’ll be a better country.”

**Of course, it seems like this position implies some increase in respect and humility and basic politeness as a corollary to keeping our minds open to a broader set of political facts, but that’s not strictly necessary.


May 2011
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