Friday, April 25, 2008

What is the Future of Polarized Politics? How should political parties begin to market themselves?

One factor making our government less effective and competent than it should be is the polarized state of our politics. Three points:

1. It is not just a cliche but a fact of experience that 'problems' -- whatever those things are that government is supposed to be solving -- are best solved collaboratively: to get important things done, people generally have to work together.

2. Different political publics today not only struggle to work together, they increasingly have difficulty even talking to each other. Distrust instead shapes the relations.

3. So while polarization might be a good thing in that it signifies healthy conflict and the existence of competing ideas, we still must fill in the hole: How do problems get solved amid an unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of the opponent?

A Polarized Politics

For an example of polarization, look at the following virtual conversation between neo-conservative syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer and BarbinMD, a contributor to the Democratic on-line community DailyKos.

First, Mr. Krauthammer writes a column in the Washington Post . He argues not simply that the Democrats have come up with a lousy candidate, which he has every right to do, and as a member of the press, a responsibility to do. However, Mr. Krauthammer's point is not analytical but accusatory; the distrust is overwhelming. He does nothing less than question Mr. Obama's loyalty to his country:

Would you maintain friendly relations with an unrepentant terrorist? Would you even shake his hand? To ask why Obama does is perfectly legitimate and perfectly relevant to understanding what manner of man he is.

Or take the fact of Mr. Obama's changing his mind about the an issue rife with complex questions of symbolism and freedom of expression -- it's enough to lead Mr. Krauthammer to question whether he is one of us:

Obamaphiles are even more exercised about the debate question regarding the flag pin. Now, I have never worn one. Whether anyone does is a matter of total indifference to me. But apparently not to Obama. He's taken three affirmative steps in regard to flag pins. After Sept. 11, he began wearing one. At a later point, he stopped wearing it. Then last year he explained why: because it "became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security."

Apart from the self-congratulatory fatuousness of that statement -- as if in this freest of all countries, political self-expression is somehow scarce or dangerous or a sign of patriotic courage -- to speak of pin-wearing as a sign of inauthentic patriotism is to make an issue of it yourself. For Obamaphiles to now protest the very asking of the question requires a fine mix of cynicism and self-righteousness.

The depth of the article is demonization ("his acolytes . . . wage jihad") and mocking ("Obamaphiles"?) rather than legitimate political difference. It is enough to lead an Obama supporter to respond.

On DailyKos, BarbinMD, a community member, does just that. He or she writes:

It's amazing really. In an attempt to make the case that Barack Obama's "character and cultural attitudes" somehow disqualify him from the presidency, Krauthammer distorts (Jeremiah Wright as an inciter of racial hatred), uses code words (jihad and tribal), lies (political career "launched" in William Ayers home), and projects ("self-congratulatory fatuousness"). . .

But then BarbinMD begins to return Mr. Krauthammer's favor. BarbinMd's post turns from fair analysis to the same kind of personal hostility that marked the former's column.

which of course says quite a lot about Krauthammer's own character and cultural attitudes, not to mention his journalistic ethics.

Which he is willing to attack in detail: political difference reduced to a matter of defunct character.

But if Krauthammer wants to pretend that he's concerned about "the character and beliefs of a man who would be president," perhaps he can use his national platform to delve into the character and beliefs of John McCain. A few potential areas of concern:

--McCain seeking out and embracing endorsements from "men of God" who accuses the Catholic Church of conspiring with Hitler, who believe that Hurricane Katrina was a just punishment for the people of New Orleans, and who believe that our nation's destiny is to destroy the "false religion" of Islam. Kind of trumps what Reverend Wright had to say, doesn't it?

--McCain, who in his official capacity as a Senator, protected his Republican brethren from being exposed in the Jack Abramoff scandal.

--McCain's anger management issues that have led to his trying to have women fired for crossing him and spewing profanities at colleagues who disagree with him. A temper so vile that Republican Senator Thad Cochran once said that the thought of McCain as President "sends a cold chill down my spine."

--McCain admitting to multiple affairs while married to his first wife, finally divorcing her to marry his current, millionaire wife who is 18 years his junior, which transformed him from a run of the mill adulterer into a cradle-robbing gigolo.

Any character issues there that you want to talk about, Chuck? I didn't think so.

Demonization in response to demonization. A classic case of what seems to be a growing strategy among Democratic supporters -- a sort of 'what you can do we can do better' approach. Important Democratic public representatives like Eric Alterman and MediaMatters often communicate in this demonizing manner as well. A gutsy strategy, co-opting the strength of your opponent. But whether Democrats can in fact do polarization better than Republicans is yet to be seen.

The Problem with Polarization

We know that in a polarized environment national problems -- the war, the economy, the environment -- become institutionalized as markers of this divided world rather than as challenges to be solved by it. Mr. Obama's appeal in this way is not manipulative, as Krauthammer mistakenly concludes. Rather, Mr. Obama's rhetoric represents an authentic expression of today's political reality. His notion that 'fixing Washington' is concrete policy rather than utopic nonesense makes sense to a great many voters. Voters who, hokey or not, do 'hope' that their political party* develops forms of political communication that both provides for partisan power and party reproduction and allows for national challenges to actually be solved.

*Republicans and Democrats are both meant here. 'Fixing Washington' has bi-partisan appeal. The potential Obama holds for cross-party success is significant.

So what should Mr. Obama do?

If Mr. Obama runs a center-of-the-road campaign, he could win the presidency with a comfortable margin. Thing is, he does not appear to be setting himself up in this way for the national election. For one thing, there are signs that he is running far too conventionally liberal a campaign. If he changes course, and he goes to the pragmatic center in the general election, he can convince centrists he is their candidate and he can win. If he doesn't, and if the liberal Republican John McCain is his opponent, himself a man of considerable centrist cred, Mr. Obama will lose.

The Future

In some ways it is easy to understand the 'we can polarize too' strategy of a Democratic party ready to kick some tail after being down for so long. But the party should resist. The future is heading elsewhere: Moving forward from where American politics is right now, the party that is first able to develop some sort of a balance between its own needs and the nation's needs as a whole will have the strongest possible organizational position and will enhance their political power above the other, assuming they --

Market well. The successful party will have to find ways to communicate its superiority in non-polarizing ways. The period of polarized politics, in other words, is coming to a halt. From where we are right now, the ability to not just talk about social problems but to solve them and to communicate why and how will be increasingly paramount and will shape organizational success and failure. The problems we face are just too important; someone will solve them, and gain the authority that comes with it.

One last caution for the Democratic Party in the present case

Don't underestimate McCain's actual distance from Bush. While Obama's camp will do well to invoke Mr. McCain as ittle more than four more years of President Bush, they should resist believing it themselves. The fact is Mr. McCain is much more formidable right now with centrists and independents than President Bush could ever hope to be -- the very same independents Mr. Obama will need to win over to win the race. Polarizing, anti-Bush rhetoric will not be enough to do this. Mr. Obama must beat Mr. McCain, not President Bush. The Obama camp should not mistake the two men for each other; swing voters don't.

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