I have always been trying to be observant and curious while residing in the US if for not other reason than to have something to tell my compatriots in the unlikely event of my deportation. It is an ultimate narcissistic exercise because it makes me recount certain events that I encounter to myself as if I was telling a story to my distant and intrigued descendant. A kind of self-reflection that inevitably leads to self-importance and arrogance, but I am willing to take the risk.
One of the fascinating things about American political culture (and maybe general cultural as well) that I have noticed very early on is the complete disdain for changing your mind (“flip-flopping”) that permeates everything: the best thing is apparently to always say the same thing, because, even if one admits to having an incorrect view, one must consequently disappear from the public eye. “You’ve been wrong before, how can we trust you not to be wrong again?” – this is a strange logical position. My first exposure to this type of discourse was occasioned by my early interest in crime shows like “Law and Order” – yes, there was a time when that show was pretty good. Everyone knows that story: a person is on the witness stand, she is being questioned about a matter at hand, it is revealed that she has lied about a similar or even the same matter before, respective lawyers panic/celebrate, the jury announced the verdict, the case is lost/won because the witness is untrustworthy. Very simply observation: why can’t a person who lied before change her mind and actually tell the truth now? Clearly, in the legal setting where the jury decides it is simply pragmatic to assume that those who lied before cannot appear to be reliable. However, there are more complex cases in which a person is presented as having changed her mind – again, we can’t trust you because you’ve changed your mind on the issue, you were mistaken before and you will be mistaken again.
In the political arena the same logic seems to work in a way that actually discourages the engagement with the issues and encourages commitment, “values,” and certainty of one’s political persuasion. Thus if a politician changes his mind on the issue, then he is “for it before he was against it” and it’s a horrible thing. TV commercials are reciting a specific point of view over and over again, candidates give the same speech over and over again, proposals are made – repetition is the key. One creates the illusion of certainty by constantly sticking to the point, even if it leads to some disastrous results. Whatever happened to the true political values of flexibility, politicking, negotiation, manipulation, and compromise? There is no need to bring up Machiavelli, but certainly politicians have always prided themselves on shrewdness, not naivete and dogmatism. Certainly, there’s plenty of good old backstabbing and manipulative lying both in the public sphere and behind the closed political doors, but why aren’t those things popular with the people? Did American populism kill the true political activity? Is American politics basically a beauty pageant at this point? Where is the strife?
Take McCain’s stand on whether he will mention Ayers in the debates – TalkingPointsMemo reports:
Asked by his radio host if he’ll bring up the former Weatherman, McCain says:
“Oh, yeah. Y’know, I was astonished to hear him say that he was surprised for me to have the guts to do that, because the fact is that the question didn’t come up in that fashion. So, y’know, and I think he’s probably ensured that it will come up this time. And, look Mark, it’s not that I give a damn about some old washed-up terrorist…”
It’s Obama who has “probably ensured” that McCain will bring up Ayers. What’s so lovely about this is that McCain is now portraying his apparent decision to hit on the Ayers association as driven by a need to defend his honor.
You see, McCain wouldn’t have brought it up, but Obama questioned his manhood, so he’s now forced to overcome his reluctance to talk about Ayers in order to defend himself. It’s the old warrior’s code that’s making him do it.
So McCain is setting up the debate’s possible mention of Ayers and it is bad, argues TPM. But isn’t this precisely what a good politician would do? Not that McCain is good at it, otherwise he wouldn’t go around revealing his strategy to everyone and their mother. But if he did this in the debate and carefully orchestrated the event in such a way as to come out as defending his honor etc etc – wouldn’t that be the ultimate politician’s way? I think it is a general mistake to believe that Americans just want to hear about issues and how the candidates will deal with economic crisis, because then negative ads would never work. Arguably, McCain’s attack ads are just idiotic and it’s too late for them anyway, so they are mostly perceived, I think, as pathetic attempts to change the race. But why do negative attacks work? I think it is because they show a candidate as a cunning strategist, a manipulative and sneaky politician who presents even the negative attacks as a legitimate way of campaigning. It is because both campaigns play it out for the people that this race is so boring – they’re sticking to the most familiar narratives, it’s like watching reruns. If this is the age of populism, then can it please be at least somewhat entertaining?
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I don’t think it’s so much that politicians don’t want to appear to be wrong (though that’s an issue). It’s that they don’t want to appear to be politicians. In the public imagination, a politician is a person that will change their opinion based on whatever way that popular opinion turns, with no regard as to what actually might be good for the country. This kind of politician is a person who has no opinions of their own, cares only about hanging on to power, and probably no expertise in the problems they’re facing. Nobody likes that guy. Nobody wants to vote for that guy. So politicians try very hard to not appear to be that guy.
Remember, too, that US congressmen are elected to only two-year terms. If they appear to compromise on core elements of their platform, they will be out of office quickly. The people who voted them in would feel like they’ve been the victim of false advertising. People don’t care if a politician stabs another politician in the back, or lies to another politician in horse-trading. That’s no problem. But people do care if they believe they (the voters) are being lied to. Charges of “Congressman Smith said he was against raising taxes, but he voted 23 times to raise them” become the norm, even if they were only on procedural votes or done to stop a budget deficit. Smith had better have a good explanation that doesn’t bore his audience or sound like he’s making an excuse, or he’ll be out of a job.
It doesn’t take an extremely skilled politician to be able to make that kind of an explanation. However, by its nature, that explanation can’t be boiled down into a 30-second sound bite or an ad. It’s best delivered in person at a local meeting. Congressman Smith might be able to pull it off, since he only has one district to canvass. But President Jones would have a tougher time. Presidents and Presidential candidates don’t have the luxury of doing very many of those kinds of meetings, and certainly not the number that would be required to make a dent in public perception. So, the most cost-effective way for them to blunt that sort of critique is … to cling to the same position regardless, repeat it, and hope that nobody notices the disconnect.
Oy, this post was linked to by Andrew Sullivan – I read his blog religiously, even if I don’t agree with everything he has to say…