Monday, September 13, 2004

After Reason 

We are very taken with a blog entitled Paperwight's Fair Shot, where we discovered the following (through the kind agency of our esteemed colleague Mithras at Fables of the Reconstruction):
The central insights of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove (and, I suspect, most of the right wing machine) into the manipulation of the political process are twofold:
1. Act as if there are no facts. There are simply things that people say or believe, and other things that other people say or believe.

2. Act as if there is no causation. There are simply things that people do and other things that happen. There is no connection.
These central insights can be combined in interesting ways. For example, there are things that we say people do, and things that we say people believe. (The "some people say" canard beloved of Fox and George Bush himself) Or, there are things that we do, and then things that we say happen (tax cuts for the rich generating jobs). But the essence is that there is no reality, no facts, no causation. Therefore, there's no shame in being caught in a lie nor any reluctance to persist in the same lie. To paraphrase Jack L. Chalker: "No break rule. No rule for Republicans break."

And the distressing part for liberals, for those of us raised in the tradition of skepticism, facts, and causation, is that it works. Over and over again, it works. The liberal belief in reason as a driving force for political and policy decisions is useless against an opponent for whom there are no facts and no consequences. Those of us on the liberal side of American politics believe that if one simply keeps telling the truth, debunking the lies, providing the public with information, showing that there are consequences to actions, that the public will eventually come to see the truth.

But, you know, a lot of them won't. A lot of them, certainly enough to swing an election, will continue to rely on heuristics, on shortcuts, on faith. And, as was so nicely limned by all of the folks linked above, those are easily manipulated by people, like Rove, Atwater, and their colleagues in the right-wing noise machine. The irony, of course, is that the manipulators are not themselves imprisoned by heuristics or their own manipulations. They understand exactly what they're doing, how to use all of the levers of power that they're wrenching out of the hands of the people, and exactly how they'll benefit.

This suggests that Digby is right, and that, at least for now, liberals need to adopt the tactics of the right-wingers if we want to take back the country from the right-wingers. Liberals need to become more adept at dirty politics and manipulation of heuristics. Abandon the notion that taking the high road wins. It doesn't, at least not against an opponent without shame or scruples. How many sentences does it take to explain away a simple lie about a complex truth? Too many for people who think that if you were telling the truth, it would be easy to explain it.
We are not altogether convinced that mudslinging would be enough to get the job done. Noam Chomsky, stunned by the level of scholarly debate on the typical radio sports show, famously wondered what would happen if American sports fans poured all that obsessiveness and intellectual energy into politics instead. In his arid Chomskyesque way he concluded that sports
occup[y] the populations, and it keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that's part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions.
That formulation does not go far enough to suit us. We have always suspected that Republican strategists were closet readers of Chomsky, because they have quite plainly spent the last quarter-century attempting to rebrand the GOP as a sports franchise. Europeans approach politics as if they were consumers shopping for a product; first they decide which features they desire, then they compare the strengths and weaknesses of the available models, then they select the one they believe will best suit their needs -- which is to say, they understand that the choices they make will have a discernible effect on the quality of their lives and on their pocketbooks.

But Americans (okay, Republicans) increasingly approach politics as if they were goddam sports fans. You don't change teams because the other team is better; you hate the other team because the other team is better. You root that much harder for the upset. While your side believes in good aggressive play, their side stoops to thuggery and cheap shots. (The refs, by the way, are always looking to screw you.) Bad quarterbacking and suspect coaching may (eventually) result in a new QB and a new coach, but they won't drive the fans away -- not the true fans. And when the team is on its game, oh baby. There's nothing like watching the home team run up the score on Fox every weekend. Spike that ball, Bill! Do your end-zone dance, Ann!

It's all about fist-pumping triumphalism and Monday-morning bragging rights, because let's face it, what have the Republicans got to peddle, besides the Republican logo? Victory is sweet. It's also, needless to say, strictly vicarious.

Republican politics aspire to the condition of spectacle -- a palliative for your problems, as opposed to a solution. You've just lost your overtime and your job's about to be sent overseas, and your wife is sick and you've got no insurance, and your kid's about to get shipped out to Iran or Syria or God knows where . . . .

Life would be damned near unbearable if the team weren't winning. Go Bush!

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