Friday, October 31, 2008

magical thinking in a partisan age

Chances are I don't need to inform you of Reihan Salam's credentials. He is one of conservatism brightest lights, and he has earned many laurels commensurate with his abilities. He deserves this praise and more. Recently, he penned an endorsement of McCain in the Guardian.

Reihan's piece is a disturbing document, one which shows that even the smartest among us can fall prey to cognitive dissonance. Reihan's justification for supporting McCain, I say without malice, is an endorsement of falling 100% into the hands of fantasy. It is an explicit rejection of empiricism as a method to determine political contests.

Reihan's argument, such as it is, is that we have not just gone through 20 months of campaigning by John McCain. No, we've been laboring under the misconception that the man who appears before us is the real McCain; that crass politician who has stoked the flames of cultural hatred and partisan divide is a construct designed, somehow, merely to win an election, and then be discarded once he ceases to be of use-- never mind the utter failure of that construct to actually build any lead in the polls. Reihan avers "We haven't seen the real McCain in this campaign." Let me be plain: that is a nonfalsifiable, evidence-resistant assertion that can only be supported by faith.

Even if it were possible for a candidate to hide his true self for the entire years-long grind of a Presidential campaign-- if it were possible that we haven't, actually, seen the real McCain, that the man on stage telling you he is the man he claims to be is in fact a Manchurian candidate who hides decency and level-headedness-- even in that case, I cannot imagine a worse framework in which to evaluate a political contest. Consider what this notion asks of us, as a democratic polity. Beneath every candidate's public persona, apparently, their rests a true self, which we are forced to divine. Voters could not rely on evaluation of the various candidates' stated positions, but would instead have to divine the secret meanings within. Even those who support Reihan's candidate would have a hard time endorsing this framework.

One of the dominant memes of the campaign, of course, has been to say that Obama's supporters are cheering for a cypher. We who are voting for Obama, the idea goes, are really just projecting onto him all of our hopes, and are able to do so because of his supposed emptiness and lack of substance. I find this notion strange, given Obama's very clear and readily-available policy proposals. But fair enough, it would indeed be a mistake to project onto any candidate the virtues one would most like to see. Surely, though, it is more logical to project those virtues onto a supposedly blank canvas, than to ascribed positive aspects to a candidate in the face of what that man and his campaign has been saying and doing. Again, the notion of who, precisely, is being naive is troubled. If an Obama supporter insisted that there was a "real Obama" beneath the public persona, god, the howls that would emerge from the Republican commentariat. It's exactly the attitude that's been so mocked by the Clintons and McCain.

The campaign's rhetoric, the stump speeches, the written platforms, the website, what was said at the debates, everything John McCain has said he is about and believes in-- none of this is his true self, I guess I'm meant to believe. We know this, because Rehain swears "we haven't seen the real John McCain in this campaign." No, inside, there is a different man entirely, a different man from the one who sneers out claims about terrorist sympathizing, and socialism, and an opponent who is supposedly an unknown and unvetted bogeyman. He isn't, Reihan would have us believe, the man he, his campaign, and their surrogates tell us he is.

Where have I heard this sort of notion before? Why, of course, it's the right's entire critique of Barack Obama. At the end of the day, when so many other narratives had failed to work, the McCain/Palin campaign decided that their only road to defeating Obama was to insist to the American people that they didn't know the real Obama. No, Obama the technocrat, Obama the moderate Dem, Obama the loving and mainstream family man-- that was a costume, a media-approved shell. Lurking underneath, we were told, and are told, is a radical socialist with disturbing ties, who would probably take your money and give it away to the poor, and probably secretly hates Israel, too. This is the Obama campaign's true crime, presenting one face to the public, while hiding another inside.

How quickly vice changes to virtue when partisan and ideological identification are switched. Where Barack Obama's supposed two-facedness is a part of the danger surrounding him, and the duplicity with which he is attempting to gain office, McCain's two selves are instead a sign of his integrity. Deep inside, Reihan sees the candidate he fell in love with long ago. Apparently, it's permissible for candidates to misrepresent who they really are, and what they really stand for, when the stakes are this high, and you're on the right side of the aisle.

Even if were true that, at one point, John McCain was the principled, bipartisan maverick the press so lovingly stylized him to be, this notion that the American electorate should suspend their affection for making decisions based on real-world evidence would be outrageous folly. But it isn't even true that McCain ever was the character he and the press made him out to be. (McCain and the press have since fallen out of love with each other, of course, as the press has had the audacity to accurately report that McCain was losing the election.) Matt Welch (fixed) documented the myth of McCain meticulously in his book, but that kind of reportage has been done in many different places. McCain appears to have always been a fairly conventional Republican, one who took part in precisely the kind of partisanship anyone must if they want to survive over 20 years in the Senate.

Reihan goes on to assert that
During Bush's first term in office, McCain served as a kind of leader of the opposition. Because the Democrats were so weak and divided, McCain became a rallying point for conservatives and liberals who opposed Bush on issues ranging from taxes and spending to the conduct of the war on terrorism.
I'm sorry, but this is simply untrue. It's just not so. The fact that McCain voted 95% of the time in line with the Bush administrations wishes has become an Obama campaign talking point, so anyone can be forgiven for tuning it out. But it's not just a talking point, it's also true. It is an empirical fact that can be verified by studying McCain's voting record, as he himself knew when he bragged about his nearly unquestioning fidelity to the Bush administration's legislative agenda.

Reihan says "Now, in the last days of the campaign, he must find his voice, and make it clear that he's not in the race out of personal ambition - indeed, he would be well advised to make a one-term pledge." How does Reihan now that McCain isn't motivated by personal ambition? What possible politician could not be motivated by personal ambition? I'd love to hear some evidence that this is the case. As it stands, I find a lack of personal ambition neither a virtue for a presidential candidate, nor the sort of thing that can be known with enough certainty by anyone but the candidate himself to be of any use for a discriminating voter.

Reihan says in closing "Rather than win the election for a party or faction, he must promise to work with all parties and all talents to build a safer, more prosperous world." Again-- this is precisely the kind of post-partisan vision that has been endlessly mocked and derided when found in Obama supporters. And it is again a time when I shake my head in wonder. Where is Reihan deriving the notion that this candidate and his apparatus are in a position to bring this new ecumenicalism? This candidate, with this running mate, is someone interested in, or capable of, uniting the country? The one whose campaign has dedicated every available resource to rhetorically dividing the country into the pure and impure sections? This candidate, whose rallies without exception involve incitement against some supposedly malign segment of the American people? This candidate, who literally said there is a real Virginia, and a fake Virginia? It's incredible. Sarah Palin, the second-in-command of a great uniter?

The truth of the matter is, there is one candidate who has operated in this campaign with more decency and respect for his opponent than the other, and his name is Barack Obama.This is a candidate who has endured explicitly personal attacks, attacks on his integrity, patriotism and character, for the entire campaign, and yet has responded with arguments about policy. At times these are tough, negative arguments about policy, and even at times unfair ones, but they are about policy, not character. This is a man who has never even hinted at an attack on the patriotism of his opponent. This is a man who speaks with equanimity, who actually speaks about real post-partisanship, rather than making partisanship and cultural war his brand. That may be political pablum; but it's a far sight from "real American, fake America." This is a candidate who actually has some positive ads running. This is a man who, in a 30 minute campaign ad that ran this past week, never once mentioned his opponent. It's also a man who, at a campaign rally the other day in Florida, upon hearing his opponent's name booed, stopped the crowd and said "You don't have to boo, you just have to vote." That's precisely the kind of integrity that the myth of John McCain has insisted he operates under. I await the time when McCain interrupts Sarah Palin to stop the boos that she is inciting against Obama.

We are in a part of the calendar when people are fond of saying "your side does it too." Well, both sides do most things that the other side does. But it simply is not true that the Democrats or the Obama campaign has engaged in the same kind of cultural war that the Republicans and McCain have. That is just not true. I find few people with the gall to suggest it is. So I read with great confusion when Reihan insists that it is John McCain who can heal this gulf.

I am a partisan, and an idealogue. I am not a big fan of times when others suggest that they are not. Reihan, to his credit, is open about his ideological and partisan affinities. But this has been a rough campaign for Reihan, or so it seems to me. He often appears to be frustrated by his interlocutors' inability to see what he sees in John McCain. He really wants people, I think, to believe in the John McCain he believes in.

Well, with the proviso that I am in the tank for Obama, and a partisan Democrat, and a liberal: John McCain is not the man Reihan Salam thinks he is. He has never been that man. The question before us is this: do we follow in Reihan's footsteps and give ourselves over entirely to irrationality and quasi-religious faith in the supposedly self-evident goodness of John McCain? Or do we make our political decisions on the basis of empiricism and rationality, and derive evidence from the world around us? If that weighing of the political realities of McCain and Obama leads you to vote for McCain, then I understand. But I can't understand the abandonment of adult discrimination in favor of the hope that someone represents something other than what he says. Could it really, possibly be the case that the last 20 months of campaigning has all been a show? If someone can give me some precedent for that notion, if real world evidence could be provided to support it, I might be able to open my mind to the possibility that there is another McCain hidden beneath the surface. Absent of some evidence beyond assertion, I have to engage in the democratic process the way it was intended, and judge John McCain by his record, and his rhetoric, and his campaign, insted of trying to see the great man that his campaign is for some reason desperately attempting to hide.

26 comments:

paul said...

I quite agree ... many reporters and pundits seem to be at least beginning to see that McCain may not have ever been equal to the McCain myth, but some otherwise intelligent people are still holding out, obviously.

bcg said...

This new banal blogging is so much more light-hearted and fun-loving than the old, Very Serious blogging.

Freddie said...

You'll note I removed the Banal Blogging reminder. It didn't take.

dbp said...

Sure Obama has made clear proposals, but there is something odd about his supporters. Lots of them like him because of what he has advocated--and this is all fine and good. What is weird is that lots like him because they think he just spouted stuff the progressives like so that he could get the nomination, but that he will be "pragmatic" once safely elected.

He could finesse it, but I suspect one of these camps is going to be pretty upset once Obama has to make a decision.

Joseph F. said...

Beneath every candidate's public persona, apparently, their rests a true self, which we are forced to divine. Voters could not rely on evaluation of the various candidates' stated positions, but would instead have to divine the secret meanings within. Even those who support Reihan's candidate would have a hard time endorsing this framework.

I don't think that's right, though. I think that is in fact a general premise of a majority of the political analysis from the media in this campaign. As you say right after it, it's the basis of the right's primary argument against Obama. Is it so hard to believe that many people--includng most of Obama's opponents from the left, as well as the above--genuinely believe is the best way to vote? By looking, completely subjectively, into a candidate's soul? Without that kind of faith-based non-reasoning, what could the pet Republican issues of "character" and "values" possibly even refer to?

Joseph F. said...

dbp, maybe, but only if by the latter camp you are referring to the kind of Obamacons who consider a progressive agenda to be incompatible with a pragmatic approach to issues. But I think are are compatible, and I think Obama himself would too.

I mean, isn't that kind of the definition of what it means to be a liberal? I've always definied it as someone who wants workable solutions to social problems from both government and the private sphere, where socialists and conservatives consider one or the other inherently bad and seek to eliminate it or limit it beyond what is reasonable.

Of course, there's also the fact that what Obama actually advocates now has shifted to being much more populist than in the primary season, when he was essentially ran slightly to Clinton's right on everything but the Iraq war.

raft said...

devastating.

if i were reihan i'd be crying in the bathroom right about now.

Brian said...

I generally admire Salam's work, but Jesus, you dismantled the poor guy. Well done.

Matoko said...

see Frum

Another shaman infected by the madness of magical thinking.
I am ..... simply heartbroken.
Reihan was the metasymboi to me of all the GOP could be in the future.
I don't think i can stay republican any more.

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

Reihan believes in the Republican Party, and that's all he really believes in, at least in the political sphere. Let's not forget that the failed book he and Douthat published this year isn't a prescription for good politics - it's a bogus prescription for a new way for the GOP to bamboozle the middle class out of more votes.

No matter who the GOP nominee was this year and no matter how repugnant the campaign he ran was Reihan was going to crank out some slime-swilling piece like this. Conservatism never fails! Excelsior! And so its candidates always embody virtue, especially when they don't.

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

dbp wrote: "Sure Obama has made clear proposals, but there is something odd about his supporters."

Is that "something" more or less odd than being a supporter of torture?

Or is that an odd question to ask?

Matoko said...

And I made my decision on MATH.
The probablity that McCain is exactly who he shown us is substantially increased by his apriori decision to RUN for office as a 72 year old cancer surviver, when a patriot, and a good republican would have supported someone younger for the good of the country and his party.
It is Bayesian.
Or like Maya Angelou puts it.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them.
The first time.

Matoko said...

moe....that is wrong.
Reihan and Ross actually made a proposal to try to help the middleclass, Jefferson's yeoman farmers, Reihans Sams clubbers, Dr. Pournelle's 40percenters, the American working class.
Historically, the GOP has scammed this demographic out of their votes with racism, classism and identity politics, for their own good of course, just like McCain is doin in this election.
Reihan has made a proposal to give the working class something to vote for, instead of something to fear and vote against.

The reason the GOP now has to listen to Ross and Reihan, is that the old carny scam isn't going to work anymore.
In 2020 caucasian becomes a minority.
Reihan wants to remake the GOP into something finer than it is now.
But McCain is the posterboy for the same old crapology.

I am heartbroken.
Its all lies i guess.

Ed said...

When I think of Reihan and all the excite he causes on the Right I am reminded of Lorna Luft's (Judy Garland's daughter) premiere at Carnegie Hall. Many people were excited that lightening would strike twice, and Lorna would create the same buzz her mother had years earlier. I'll never forget the review in the Times that read something like this: Its amazing, Lorna sounds just like Liza. In other words, not the worlds greatest entertainer, more like an imitation of an also-ran.

My read on Reihan is he's like a David Brooks lite. Another imitation of an also-ran. And this endorsement does nothing to disprove it.

Tiparillo said...

Believing that the "real" McCain has not been seen is like the GOP dead-enders that are arguing that the polls are wrong or Karl Rove having THE math in 2006

Matoko said...

when your shamans go mad, your tribe is doomed.

Half the GOP shamans have run from McCain/Palin like scalded cats, and the other half have apparently succumbed to NRO style magical thinking.
And McCain/Palin's win chance is at 2.8 %.

Wouldn't the pragmatic thing to do at this point be to keep a few shreds of the tattered rags of your intellect and honor to dress in?
To help the GOP renaissance?

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

matoko replies: "moe....that is wrong.
Reihan and Ross actually made a proposal to try to help the middleclass, Jefferson's yeoman farmers, Reihans Sams clubbers, Dr. Pournelle's 40percenters, the American working class.
Historically, the GOP has scammed this demographic out of their votes with racism, classism and identity politics, for their own good of course, just like McCain is doin in this election.
Reihan has made a proposal to give the working class something to vote for, instead of something to fear and vote against."

Sorry, dude, but I'll stick with my "bamboozle" analysis. I don't see how Reihan has any credibility, and Douthat (due to his long buddyhood with Steve Sailer) has negative credibility.

I see the ghastly duo teaming up to offer a new generation of promises to the middle class from the GOP, and of course none of them will ever be realized. Most of it sounds like rehashed Dumbya "compassionate conservatism" to me, and we all know how that turned out. Or at least those of us outside of "the base" do.

Matoko said...

well moe, we got back.
;)
in 2020 caucasian becomes a minority.
the cruel inexorable force of demographics will reform the GOP.
Tolerance, individual liberty, and unity will become fitness traits in the new evolutionary political landscape.
I'm surprised Steve Sailer hasn't written about this.
It's pure evo theory of culture, baby, and population genentics.
If you're reading, can you dig it, Steve?

Matoko said...

think about the really excellent piece Sailer wrote in 2004...the Baby Gap.
McCain can't squeeze out those Baby Gap votes in this election.....because the demographics have changed. The electoral college votes McCain needs are in states tending to purple with population demographics.
I think...one effect of McCain's abominable campaign is to alienate the youth demographic...that is going to hurt the GOP for years and years and they seem unable to recognize it.
Peeps on campus describe Palin as a "retard", and anti-choice and anti-gay are big turnoffs for the youth demographic.

Chris Cathcart said...

I said basically the same thing, just more succinctly. :-)

dragnet said...

I generally enjoy reading reihan although I'm quite a bit more liberal than he is. But your takedown was truly devastating.

The death of empiricism and reality-based thinking on the Right is old news that continues to renew itself in fascinating ways. It's a shame that the illness now infects the next generation of young conservative thinkers. I can only hope this malady is temporary.

This is actually my first time reading your blog. I'll definitely be back.

Bucko said...

"Matoko said...

When your shamans go mad, your tribe is doomed.

Half the GOP shamans have run from McCain/Palin like scalded cats, and the other half have apparently succumbed to NRO style magical thinking.

And McCain/Palin's win chance is at 2.8 %.

Wouldn't the pragmatic thing to do at this point be to keep a few shreds of the tattered rags of your intellect and honor to dress in?

To help the GOP renaissance?"

The Republican Kool-Aid must be especially tasty this year: the denial runs very deep. I'd like to think that utter humiliation and defeat on Nov 4 will chasten them, but color me skeptical.

It's difficult to say exactly why so many on The Right seem incapable of seeing what's plain as day to all of us unfettered by an undue devotion to Bush/Cheney and all the damage they've wrought to our country. It goes beyond being unwilling to admitting one's errors: it borders on psychotic.

When so much has been invested in pursuing and expanding on the Culture Wars, I guess it's a mighty tall ladder to be talked down from. But as so few recognize the extent to which all that demonization and sneering has perverted our politics, at this point I think the only thing to do is get out of the way and let it all come crashing down on top of them: they deserve nothing else.

Matoko said...

Are there any young conservative thinkers left?
Most of us are running out of the burning vampire house with Christo Buckley and Colin Powell.

Anonymous said...

The only principle republicans believe in is the peter principle.There is no logic.

dbp said...

"Or is that an odd question to ask?"

Yes, sort of: Given that I elaborate on what I think is weird the next sentence down, plus McCain was pretty clearly anti-torture back when that was an issue people were talking about...

To elaborate on the "pragmatic" supporters. Their views are more along the lines of: Over the course of the campaign, he has (to choose two examples out of many) talked about scrapping Nafta, or bankrupting coal-fired electricity producers, but they don't think he will actually do any of those things.

Makkabee said...

But Two-Face Johnny McCain waffled on the torture issue during the campaign. He attacked the Supreme Court ruling requiring some constitutional protection for Gitmo inmates -- I don't remember McCain's exact wording but it was something along the lines of "the worst ruling in recent memory."