This is a belated comment on David Ignatius’ column of July 5, in which he lamented that a terrorist attack on the United States would provoke liberals to criticize President Bush for making America more vulnerable by invading Iraq–and conservatives to criticize liberals for weakening us by coddling terrorists. “America’s political disharmony is scary,” Ignatius wrote. What we need is bipartisan collaboration to improve our actual defenses.
Various bloggers noted, in Matthew Yglesias’ words, that “disagreement is a real phenomenon of American life.” (Cf. Steve Benen.) Atrios went further: “Disagreement is the root of politics.” These bloggers predicted that we will not come together after a terrorist attack because we are not together. We have sharp disagreements about foreign policy and domestic security, and that’s to the good.
All three bloggers further argued that resistance to debate is an elite phenomenon, resulting from “too much time inside the Beltway.” Yglesias wrote, “There’s an enormous desire on the part of the people near the top of the political-media pyramid to believe that they are participants in some kind of ethereal realm of Pure Ideas. The idea that politics is a clash of interests is disturbing to their self-image.”
I have a different take, more sympathetic to Ignatius. The problem with partisans is not that they disagree and criticize one another; disagreement and criticism are healthy. The problem is that they are highly strategic in their use of information. Liberals want us out of Iraq, and they might use a terrorist attack to support that goal. Conservatives want an aggressive foreign policy, and they would use terrorism for those ends.
One can see strategic politics very clearly by looking at a blog like Think Progress, which is really a compendium of news stories that are useful to a Democratic policy agenda. I read Think Progress because I have a leftish political identity and I am comfortable with strategic politics. I think I know where I stand on most issues and I want ammunition for my positions.
But many people are turned off by strategic politics–by “spin.” We just conducted 42 focus groups on 11 college campuses, involving 356 students. Many of these students expressed a resistance to political debates in which the participants try to persuade you of something that they already believe. Politicians and pundits feed you partial information and try to manipulate you. They don’t recognize shades of gray. For this reason, they are not trustworthy. Many college students say that they turn away from politics because it is manipulative (“strategic,” in my sense).
These students are the opposite of an elite. In fact, the students who attended the fanciest colleges were the most comfortable with political debate. Likewise, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found deep distaste for disagreement among ordinary Americans. Thus I think that Yglesias, Benen, and Atrios have it backward. They are right to see the necessity of disagreement, but wrong to think that “elites” want consensus and unity. Elites are good at using news, data, and examples for their ends. It’s ordinary Americans who want unity and a certain open-mindedness about politics.
The practical implication is as follows. I think American voters would respond very favorably if politicians did not use news events to score points. Imagine that a liberal politician responded to a terrorist attack on the USA (and God forbid that there should be one) by blaming only the terrorists and expressing a willingness to work with the president to strengthen our defenses. I think this would go over much better than attacking the president’s Iraq policies at such a time.
But what if we want American troops out of Iraq? What if we sincerely believe that the invasion has increased the odds of a terrorist attack on US soil? Isn’t it appropriate, then, to use news of a terrorist attack as an opportunity to criticize the president? Well, maybe–there can be value to strategic rhetoric, which is why smart people use it. But before I used a terrorist attack as an example to support my policy position, I would ask whether doing so would really persuade anyone not already on my side–and whether the strategic benefit was worth the price.