Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Limits of Rhetoric

The left wing base of the Democratic party has been growing increasingly frustrated with Obama for most of his presidency, the perception being that Obama hasn't turned out to be the kind of "fighter" they wished him to be.  This seemed to have reached its zenith in a piece by Drew Westen in the NY Times, entitled "What Happened to Obama?".  Yet Jonathan Chait offered what I consider to be a powerful response,
Westen's op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen's telling, every known impediment to legislative progress -- special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion -- are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama's failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon. 
What’s odd to me about this phenomenon Chait identifies (I think correctly) of the left’s infatuation with rhetoric, is that it doesn’t seem to really exist on the right. Sure, they speak in powerful language, but I think that power resides as much as anything in pure ideological simplicity and intransigence. It would be the equivalent of Obama saying he doesn’t want any spending cuts, only tax increases, period.

Yet this is why we call the right crazy. Aside from substantive incoherence, they are simply taking positions that literally threaten the economy on a massive scale. This isn’t a function of Republican rhetoric, but the composition of the Republican electorate and the conservative movement in general.

So, to try and match this phenomenon on the left, to try and drum up something similar within the voting left merely through rhetoric – through one man! – seems quite silly. At best it is cynical political posturing. Maybe it would be a good thing to be able to muster such a united front on the left. But doing so would likely come at great cost. Political unity and passion is one thing, but we don’t want the left to go go crazy. We don’t want ideology to trump reality and evidence. We don’t want an authoritarian mind-set that bristles at nuance, that is unable to reach across the aisle, that is only interested in demagoguery and simplistic fear-mongering.

I don’t presume to have any answer to how to best respond to what seems such a frustratingly successful parade of right-wing dullardry. But I’ll gladly take the liberal-friendly principles of free thought and measured truth-seeking over authoritarianism’s blockheaded success.

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