the problem with strategic rhetoric

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.

One thought on “the problem with strategic rhetoric

  1. Doyle

    This is a fascinating bundle of issues. The importance of conflict is taken up in a fascinating little book by Stuart Hampshire, Justice is Conflict. He turns away from grand ideologies (perhaps, narratives) and argues that the “proper business of politics…is protection against the perennial evils of human life—physical suffering…war, poverty and starvation, enslavement and humiliation,” Hampshire finds “that protection must be found in universally acceptable rational procedures of adversary reasoning and compromise.” That is, conflict is required and indispensible.

    I can’t help but wonder, however, if the regular, contested elections of a proper democracy don’t undermine the kind of open-minded dialogue you’re talking about and institutionalize forms of unproductive conflict. I am sure, for example, that many congresspeople and senators have productive, deliberative and open-ended discussions behind closed doors. The problem is that they have every incentive to have those discussions privately, while staying on message publicly. To have an election, we must have differences. IF our differences are relatively trifling in the big scheme of things, they must nevertheless be the things that are emphasized to create the differences and the conflict intrinsic to elections. As the election cycle spirals out to an unending process, space for public open-ended deliberations across parties shrinks.

    The bloggers mentioned seem to critique the media and a common media or punditocracy inclination to condemn partisanship. In practice, they feel, the kind of suppression of partisanship they seem to advocate means giving in to the Bush agenda. They’d prefer to see people who stand up for what they believe in.

    About the American culture of conflict-avoidance, a great discussion appears in ethnographer Michael Agar’s Language Shock (e.g., p. 141). He contrasts Austrians with Americans. ‘American conversations emphasize servicing the relationship. Austrians assume the relationship is fine and go to direct debate. For Austrians, a contradiction is not a threat to the relationship; for American it is.’

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