Monday, July 07, 2008

Mythical politics

There are a couple of recent blog posts that raise useful challenges to the notion that Presidential vote-getting is a matter of assembling numbers along a left-right spectrum. That is certainly important, though the ways in which it is important are often misunderstood. Neither post to which I refer here focuses on the regional element that needs to be considered alongside the "left-right" continuum, which is that the South votes Republican in Presidential elections and California votes Democratic. You can't really make sense of the ideological element in Presidential voting without taking full account of the regional aspect and what drives that.

One is from Glenn Greenwald, who I've been quoting a lot lately, Beltway myth: "The left-wing base" vs. "the American people" on Iraq Salon 07/07/08. He takes as his starting point an appearance by NPR's Mara Liasson and Bill Kristol on FOX News talking about the Iraq War:

So Liasson just flatly stated that "the American people" - as opposed to "the [Democrats'] left wing base," which is (of course) a different animal altogether - don't want to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months but instead favor withdrawal only when "facts on the ground" permit it. Bill Kristol added that "Obama's move to the center on Iraq shows how radical the Democratic Party's position on Iraq has been for the last year and a half . . . to pull the plug on a war effort in the middle of that effort." (emphasis by Greenwald)

It's obviously possible to argue - as Liasson obviously believes - that withdrawal according to an unconditional timetable is the wrong policy. But it's not possible to argue that "the American people" agree with her - at least it's not possible to argue that with the smallest amount of honesty. All anyone has to do to know how false is her claim is just look at all - not some, but all - of the most recent data on that question ...
He goes on to cite some polling results that continue to show large majorities in favor of what the war fans consider a rapid withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. (On this topic, see also Stepping Back by Josh Marshall TPM 07/07/08).

This habit of TV commentators routinely declaring their own opinion as "what the American people believe" is serious journalistic malpractice and is yet another way in which our Establishment press has become a millstone around the neck of democracy. (Hey, I have to indulge a little purple prose every now and then!) It's especially silly when, as in the case of the Iraq War, there are years of polling data consistently collected that show how public opinion divides on the issue of withdrawal.

But the punditocracy, and apparently a large portion of the professional political consultants on which Democratic candidates rely in their campaigns, are committed to the stale and counter-factual notion that Republicans always and everywhere have an advantage on national security issues. The Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006 when enough of them had the sense to make opposition to the Iraq War a centerpiece of their campaigns when the polls showed that was a popular issue but the conventional wisdom of the "chattering classes" said that it would just make the Dems look weak on defense to do that.

Greenwald argues, perhaps overstating the single causality a bit, that this has been a key factor in the Democrats' often-bizarre paralysis in the face of a very unpopular administration:

This is the central deceit that causes the war in Iraq to continue despite most Americans' wanting it to end for quite some time (because "only the Left" wants an end to war while "the Center" wants to say until we win). It's why crimes committed by the Washington elite go uninvestigated and unpunished (due to the lie that only "the Left" favors investigations and punishment while the Center" opposes investigations). It's how radical Bush policies such as warrantless eavesdropping, telecom amnesty and torture become the "Center" even when they're no such thing. This is the central premise of the Beltway class - that any policies they dislike, any attempts to hold them accountable, are necessarily the rantings of "the Left." (my emphasis)
This press conventional wisdom is not so ideological as this particular comment of Greenwald's addressing the Iraq War issue might suggest. For instance, the press courtiers attribute their own adoration for St. McCain to the general public, as well. And we could see that in the primaries when at least some of his opponents were nominally to "the right" of press darling McCain. (For a largely non-ideological view of how this works with St. McCain, see John McCain's "protective barrier" by Jamison Foser, Media Matters 07/03/08 and We'll Get Back to You on That by Josh Marshall TPM 07/07/08.)

The other post is by George Lakoff, The Mind and the Obama Magic Huffington Post 07/06/08. I'm not familiar in detail with the cognitive findings that he discusses in this post and in his new book, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain (2008). But his dynamic model of the complexity of the "left-right" schema is certainly an intriguing one:

There are two major modes of thought in American politics - conservative and progressive, what I've called "strict" and "nurturant." We all grow up with brains exposed to both and capable of using both, but usually in different areas of life. Some people are conservative on foreign policy and progressive on domestic policy, or conservative on economic issues and progressive on social issues - or the reverse. There is no left-to-right linear spectrum; all kinds of combinations occur. I've called such folks "biconceptuals." Brainwise, they show a common situation called "mutual inhibition," where two modes of thought are possible but the activation of one inhibits the other. The more you activate a conservative mode of thought, the more you inhibit the progressive mode of thought - and the more likely it is that the conservative mode of thought will spread to other issues.

Interestingly, many people who call themselves "conservatives" actually think like progressives on a range of issue areas. For example, many "conservatives" love the land as much as any environmentalist; want to live in communities where people care about each other, that is, have social not just individual responsibility; live progressive business principles of honestly, care for their employees, and care for the public; and have progressive religious values: helping the poor, caring for the sick, being good stewards of the God's creation, turning the other cheek. One view of "bipartisanship" for progressives is finding self-described conservatives and independents who have such progressive values and working with them on that basis. That's what Obama did when he went to Rick Warren's megachurch and it is his strategy in Project Joshua. Note that this is the opposite of the form of bipartisanship that involves really adopting right-wing values, or even appearing to. What this bipartisan strategy does, from the brain's viewpoint, is to activate the progressive mode of thought in the brains of conservatives, and thus tends to inhibit conservative thought.

But the form of bipartisanship that involves adopting, or appearing to adopt, right-wing views has the opposite effect. It strengthens conservative thought in the brains on those biconceptuals and weakens progressive thought. In short, it actually helps conservatives. Rather than "taking arguments away from them" it strengthens their basic values and hence all their arguments. It give conservatives more reason, not less, for voting for conservatives.

If Obama adopts, or appears to adopt, right-wing positions, he may still win, since McCain is such a weak candidate. But it will hurt Democrats running for office all up and down the ticket, since it will strengthen general conservative positions on all issues and hence work in the favor of conservative candidates. (my emphasis)
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