Image: Freedom of choice by Krzysztof Poltorak
The New York Times report on president Obama’s kill list put into stark relief something that has been easy to overlook at times over the past few years: the differences between those who prefer a personality-based political environment and those who emphasize policy.1 Those tensions really came to a boil after Chris Hayes discussed the drone program on his show last week. Kevin Gosztola posted on the reaction; in it and a companion piece several exchanges involving Tbogg showed the division very clearly.2
The main problem with treating politics like some kind of theatrical production is that it trivializes policy. The effects of the things government does get reduced to props, which means taking a position on any policy is viewed through the lens of which actor it helps.
That in turn means that if you criticize policy A supported by politician X then you are objectively supporting politician X’s opponent. Tbogg has been particularly emphatic in this area. Criticism of an Obama policy makes one pro-Romney in that world, so of course the response to criticism from the president’s left is to demand to know why liberal critics think a president Romney would be better. Because if you criticize any of Obama’s policies it inevitably follows that you think Romney would be a better president.
Every position taken on every issue must therefore be taken with primary concern over the election that will, eventually, be held. There is no window for looking at whether anything is good or just or – heaven forbid – legal, because nothing must be allowed to show one’s champion in an unflattering light. Doing so just gives aid and comfort to the enemy, who will then be better positioned to win the next election. (And it goes without saying that such an unhappy result will be sole responsibility of the unsavvy grumblers among the base – not because of anything actually happening in the country.)
Which leads to the next problem with a personality-driven political worldview: It means buying in to the perpetual horse race. We are nearly five months out from election day right now. Only paid political consultants and media figures on the politics beat should be obsessing over poll numbers or who won the week. The rest of us can safely ignore all of that – including both parties’ wankfests over the summer – until, say, Labor Day or so.
Look at how the personality narrative played out with the kill list. Tbogg weighs in right away. He is enthusiastically in favor of “taking out terrorists”3 and immediately makes it about personalities: His implicit trust of the president and enthusiastic support of the assassination of a head of state(!) that – as far as I know – has absolutely nothing to do with the kill list. One commenter responds with highly personalized attacks, while others bring up flaws in his arguments. Guess which one he engages.
In the rest of that thread and the one in the follow up post, Tbogg consistently goes with the personal, even when apologizing (“zeabow did a nice job in pushing my button”). But he ignores the substantive critiques of his position.
For instance, we are using bounties to decide whom to kill, but bounties are a notoriously shoddy intelligence-gathering method. Or: 16-year-old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was killed in a completely separate strike than the one that killed his father; it is absolutely ludicrous to say his father put him in harm’s way (unless by “in harm’s way” you mean “Yemen”). Or that considering “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” is pretty clearly not selective at all.
Even when asked as simply and directly as possible about a substantive point, he ignores it and instead focuses on the domestic electoral implications of the kill list. If you’re going to engage in an intellectually honest way on an important issue4, you have a certain obligation to address relevant facts and evidence in a forthright way. Weighing in while ignoring basic truths is exactly the kind of know-nothing approach that, say, climate change denialists take towards science.
Once again, I’m using Tbogg’s comments just to highlight a recent instance from one person. I don’t mean to single him out beyond what’s needed to give readers a concrete example of what I’m getting at. There are plenty of others who use personality-driven analysis and try to shoehorn everything into election day.
I understand the appeal of that approach. It’s instantly recognizable, easy to identify with and it lets the writer tell an entertaining story. That’s a lot easier to grab onto than digesting actual information and incorporating it into your beliefs. It’s ultimately a cheap and easy way out, though – a way to avoid grappling with tough issues and uncomfortable truths. And when applied to the most pressing issues of the day it helps obscure the truth rather than revealing it.
1. The friction between those two is at a minimum for liberals when Republicans are in charge because they will oppose both the people calling the shots and the policies they propose. That’s why there wasn’t as much of this kind of infighting during the Bush years.
2. I’ll use Tbogg to illustrate the personality-based approach to politics in order to give readers a specific recent example. I dislike the “some say” construct because it’s often used to attack straw man arguments. I’m highlighting his comments in order to not write “some like a personality-based approach” without giving readers any idea what I mean. Despite the criticism here I often enjoy his snarky take on politics; here is a favorite.
3. medicinecat had a nice response to that anodyne euphemism: “‘Take out’ refers to carry out food, like ‘Chinese take-out’, or ‘take-out pizza’. What you’re referring to is better described as murder.”