Don’t Blame the Other Side.

January 9, 2010 at 11:52 pm (By Amba)

Obama is a wimp.  Or a Stalinist.  Or a wimp giving the store away to Stalinists.

The Republicans are obstructionists and/or racists.

I heard both points of view expressed in Florida and they both set off alarm bells in me.  But I’m having a hard time explaining why, even to myself.  It’s so easy to get caught up in arguing the foreground, the content of what’s being said, when what’s wrong is so much deeper and more systemic and infects both sides without distinction.

It’s not what either side does or says, it’s the motive that poisons everything they do and say.  The motive is winning.  American politics has become a huge, toxic Super Bowl in which appearing to advance positions or values or beliefs is only a means to an end.  The end is power.  And to that end, neither side will hesitate for a moment to distort, malign, and demonize the other, whatever the cost to the country.  Not only what the two parties say, but what they do, the legislation they push, the wars they prosecute, is about political calculation and spoils first, principle a distant second.  Perhaps in some cases principle is “sincerely” held, but precisely because it is so form-fitted to self-interest.

The voters are far more genuinely sincere in their beliefs, and so the politicians and their media whips manipulate and aggravate those beliefs, flashing trigger symbols, arousing exaggerated fears and hatreds in order to motivate people to vote for them, or at least against the other side.  Voters may believe their portrayal of the other side as unAmerican, threatening, and evil, but the primary reason Republicans and Democrats regard each other as evil is that every Democrat elected is a Republican out of power, and vice versa.

You’ll probably tell me it’s no different than it’s ever been, that this is the only game in town and we have no choice but to play it.  Not having been alive in 1835 or 1940, I have no idea whether you’re right that nothing has changed.  But whether it’s better, worse, or just the same as always, it is so disgusting.  It is so disgusting.  I don’t ever want to talk, think, or write about politics again.

P.S.  Even if it is equally calculated, I’ve been impressed by Newt Gingrich’s persistent civility, fair mix of credit and criticism to his opponents, and focus on ideas.  It doesn’t seem to be working for him, though.  He is widely despised and dismissed.  It’s almost as if people now expect their emotions to be inflamed, and perceive a more civil and cerebral approach as insincere, or bloodless, or cold. or irrelevant.  I’ll repeat my observation that much of the public has become addicted to “getting off” emotionally, to that satisfying, stimulating limbic-system workout, even if nothing is accomplished, even if it is downright counterproductive.

24 Comments

  1. Ron said,

    People don’t have a language for praising/understanding non-winners. They immediately think ‘loser’, and can’t understand people who just won’t play.

  2. Spud said,

    Newt recently said the Obama Administration Starts “Every Day With A Presumption That The Rights Of Terrorists Are More Important Than The Lives Of Americans”. That’s where Newt loses credibility with me. It makes It hard to have an honest debate.

  3. amba12 said,

    Lately Newt is trying the red-meat tack, I think, because civility didn’t get him any props or contributions.

  4. Jason (the commenter) said,

    Not having been alive in 1835 or 1940, I have no idea whether you’re right that nothing has changed.

    “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”

    –From The Declaration of Independence.–

  5. Spud said,

    I know I’ve said this before and it pisses Karen off which I can’t help, but from my perspective the difference between the left and the right is you don’t see the left accusing the right of being the enemy of God and country. Liberal is a dirty word in the eyes of most conservative pundits starting with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. To them liberals are the enemy of America. How can one get a dialogue going with that obstacle squarely in the way? Just my two cents.

  6. amba12 said,

    Because the left generally (with exceptions) has a more cosmopolitan and secular perspective, “unAmerican” isn’t the worst insult they can think of. They just call the right ignorant yahoos, bigots, jingoists and fanatics.

  7. Spud said,

    I don’t see the left as any less religious than the those who are on the right. As far as the name calling goes it goes both ways, except the anti-God and anti-country part.

  8. El Pollo Real said,

    One asymmetry in the left/right thing in America is the tendency for many conservatives to have gone through or indeed have been, more “liberal” (liberal in the sense of leftist) at one time in their life. The Winston Churchill adage is apt. Link. This is certainly true with me and many people I know IRL and on-line, yet the opposite direction/arc much rarer. I’m thinking of my my F-I-L as an example.
    If there were a corresponding tendency for innate rubes to become more “liberal” over time, then I think we could predict where we might end up overall.
    I do agree with amba that civility is key, and should insisted upon on both sides.

  9. amba12 said,

    But civility doesn’t provide that physiological rush that I think is so addictive.

  10. amba12 said,

    It’s hard to tell the difference between relief at the periodic venting of frustration at a feeling of helplessness to change things, and a rush that becomes an end in itself, almost dependent on things NOT changing to keep the outrage fix coming.

  11. PatHMV said,

    I don’t think that what we’re experiencing is in fact all that different from the past. We’ve never had glory days where the mass public had deep, serious debates over important issues. If anything, I think the only problem is that too many people have decided to become very politically active. People should try to turn their passions towards charity work, their families, their communities, their religion rather than on political issues. I fear that in some ways, many people have substituted politics for religion to find meaning in life.

  12. amba12 said,

    Certainly politics — in addition to, and similarly to, sports teams — have become the new tribal markers, providers of identity. That may account for the severity of the polarization. The need to belong to a group with a well-defined enemy has been a human constant.

  13. wj said,

    There has always been a strain of venom in American politics. (Cf. McCarthy, not to mention a bunch of folks in the late 19th century.) But the current situation is different, IMHO, because the venom is rather more pervasive. Whether this is because the extremists (in both parties, but especially the Republicans at the moment) have largely intimidated the moderates, I am not sure. But it sure looks different than my first-hand memories of the Republicans in the 1970s — yes, different even from the Republican conservatives as they rose up and rolled over Carter.

    Part of the difference also is that, from what I can see, those criticizing Obama the most loudly are seriously divorced from reality. I think there is a lot in his policies to criticize — but they aren’t doing that. Rather, we have the stuff in the first paragraph. Which certainly can stoke your sense of victimhood, if that’s what you require. But does little to improve the way the country is run.

    And, from the far left, the issue is merely that they have the illusion that they should get everything they ever wanted from the government, and instantly. The minor detail that significant parts of the country (yes, even outside the far right) doesn’t agree with them is beside the point. As is the other minor detail that Obama doesn’t agree with them on lots of stuff. A black man won, so a) he must by definition totally agree with them (reality need not apply), and b) opinions outside theirs are by definition wrong, so need not be considered. (And if you don’t accept that view of the far left, try living in the San Francisco area and listening to those around you!)

  14. amba12 said,

    And if you don’t accept that view of the far left, try living in the San Francisco area and listening to those around you!

    Poor baby! :(

  15. Melinda said,

    I agree with WJ–can I be a WJ dittohead? The tweets I’ve been seeing from the righty blogs are mirror images of Bush Derangement Syndrome, and from my lefty friends I’ve been hearing this righteous indignation and disappointment that Obama “caved in” on health care and is getting all hawky on terrorism.

    “Harrumph! I thought I voted for a Democrat!”

    No, pal, you thought you voted for God.

  16. amba12 said,

    Obama certainly gets little credit on the Right for sticking it to the Left! The pattern is that people initially find something to reluctantly admire (e.g. in his decision and speech on Afghanistan) but then quickly, and with relief, find a reason to unadmire it (like unfriending somebody).

  17. Icepick said,

    Obama is a wimp. Or a Stalinist. Or a wimp giving the store away to Stalinists.

    The Republicans are obstructionists and/or racists.

    No reason it can’t all be true….

  18. Icepick said,

    You’ll probably tell me it’s no different than it’s ever been, that this is the only game in town and we have no choice but to play it. Not having been alive in 1835 or 1940, I have no idea whether you’re right that nothing has changed. But whether it’s better, worse, or just the same as always, it is so disgusting. It is so disgusting. I don’t ever want to talk, think, or write about politics again.

    I don’t think the game has changed that much, save for two things. First, television makes it all more pervasive and immediate than in pre-TV days. Second, the government, especially at the federal level, gets larger and larger, eating up more of the nation’s energy. So who’s in charge matters more and more.

    I still say that our best don’t go into politics, and haven’t save (perhaps) for the Founding Generation. So we’re putting more and more power into the hands of people who probably couldn’t hack it outside of government. Not very encouraging.

  19. realpc said,

    “The need to belong to a group with a well-defined enemy has been a human constant.”

    There has always been the need to belong to a group. There is no need to have enemies, but there almost always are enemies, since life is inherently competitive. If your group has something, other groups will try to take it. It’s the same way now — if your group has the power, then don’t expect the other groups to be ok with that.

    I think some people are just more bothered by intense competition than others. Maybe it depends on testosterone levels.

  20. amba12 said,

    Real, I don’t think that sufficiently explains the need for an enemy. There’s hardly been a human group in history that hasn’t had a specific and particular enemy that was sort of “the anti-us.” Every Native American tribe had a rival tribe whose customs were considered disgusting, and they feuded. It was certainly in part a competition for territory and resources, but it became a means to clarity of identity and solidarity of the group.

    Old-fashioned North Carolinians no longer feel that way about blacks. They feel that way about Mexicans. Compared with Mexicans, blacks R “us.”

  21. amba12 said,

    we’re putting more and more power into the hands of people who probably couldn’t hack it outside of government.

    Politicians are a parasitic class.

  22. realpc said,

    Amba,

    Well maybe that explains why us-vs-them thinking and demonization are so common. Maybe our brains are built that way and it will never change. I very much dislike demonization — especially when it’s being done to me — but maybe it’s a lost cause hoping that any of us can overcome it.

    But it also seems to me that not everyone is intensely into demonizing. Some are more than others. Some of the worst demonizers I know are women, by the way, so I guess my testosterone statement was wrong.

  23. amba12 said,

    Yes, you’re quite right about women.

  24. wj said,

    No Melinda, not a dittohead. Not even close. I have had some interesting conversations with various of my left and far left friends (and I have a fair number). They typically start out decrying all conservatives. And I point out that I’m a conservative. To which their response, with great consistency, has been “Oh, but you’re a tolerant conservative” — like that’s an anomaly.

    I confess I take their description as a complement. But it also says something about the image that conservatives (and, more to the point, reactionaries who style themselves “conservatives”) have created. I think it’s an inaccurate image, but no less pervasive for all that.

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