Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rachel Maddow - Jon Stewart interview: What politics is not

I finally got a chance to watch the entire Rachel Maddow - Jon Stewart interview. I'm sure that many people are tired of the dust-up to do with Mr. Stewart and the suggestion by some on the left that he was claiming an equivalence between what goes on at Fox News vs. at MSNBC.

That's getting old and I don't care about it anymore and neither, apparently, does Mr. Stewart, who wasn't claiming anything of the sort in the interview. Good.

No, something else came to mind while watching this very interesting exchange. It was that politics is not what Jon Stewart thinks it is. If he, as a bright and decent man, thinks that politics bears some resemblance to the way people communicate with each other and negotiate preferences in the every day world, he is mistaken.

Politics is, and has always been, an entirely different form of human endeavour and to attempt to understand it by any other set of rules than those that apply uniquely to it is shear folly.

Politics is, excuse the tired term, a blood sport. It is about putting your argument in front of the voters and ridiculing the other guy's argument. It is about "going after" one's opponents to make them look incompetent, clueless or otherwise just plain wrong.

It is not about working together to find common ground, at least not in the election period and increasingly not even in the governing phase, though I think we make too much of this being a new phenomenon. Republicans in FDR's time, for example, actively worked to thwart his plans to resurrect the nation amidst a depression in the hope they could return to power sooner.

Politics is about spinning and messaging that de-emphasizes inconvenient truths that weaken your position. It is about shading the facts, or telling half-truths to make one's arguments look stronger. It is about appealing to certain interests held by particular constituencies as a way to make them forget that most of your platform doesn't really benefit them at all.

It is almost always a very nasty game, which is why people don't like it. Moving mass opinion requires tactics that are not wholly honest. It just does. Scream if you like, it doesn't change the facts.

Jon Stewart is not wrong when he chastises those engaged in politics, and those who report it from strong ideological perspectives, for being part of a frequently unpleasant game. And the thousands of people who went to Washington with him are not wrong for wishing that politics was more civilized. All these fine folks are not the first to wish it so.

Niccolo Machiavelli is credited with having said that in politics we have to assess the means we can tolerate based on their relationship to the value of the ends that result -- the ends justify the means idea. The right, in great part through their mouthpiece at Fox News, has clearly decided that any deception, any reprehensible tactic, is justified because the stakes are so high. The left, at times through MSNBC, does politics the old fashioned way: they spin, they hold clear ideological positions, they emphasize certain facts, they engage in some choice name-calling, but they do not typically make shit up.

The left in America is just not willing to go as far as the right to realize their political goals, so I guess Machiavelli is only partly correct. The left doesn't have the same taste for blood as the right and they are suffering electorally for it.

I don't think that Jon Stewart thinks that everyone is the same in the way that they do politics. But I do think that the he and those who went to Washington with him have an unrealistic idea of what is involved, not that it's a bad idea to wish that human beings behaved better.

I also don't think I want the left to follow suit and completely spoil anything they might hope to gain by crawling into the gutter with the other side. But they are going to have to use more of the tools required by politics because that's the way the game is played. They, and those who support them, will have to decide what means they can tolerate and how far they will go to secure the ends they value.

Lest you think I am talking about anything insidious, I am not. Obama, Democratic politicians, supportive media, other progressive groups all need to push back hard against their political opponents with arguments and characterizations, based on fact, that make Americans understand the dangerous future the right is offering. The gloves need to come off.

Now is not the time for us all to get along. Now is the time for the left to fight back with all the legitimate tools politics offers.

As I said, Jon Stewart seems to be a smart and decent man, but what he is on about is not politics, though in a better world it might be.

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  • re: It is almost always a very nasty game, which is why people don't like it. Moving mass opinion requires tactics that are not wholly honest. It just does. Scream if you like, it doesn't change the facts.

    Amen brother.
    Regarding the political game I am reminded of a New Yorker cartoon in which a scrawny kid confronts his bully with a baseball bat. The bully wags his finger at the kid and says "Fight fair". What does fighting fair mean in the context of a game thats rigged?

    By Blogger john horse, at 6:30 AM  

  • Watching the two of them “spar” like they were on opposite sides was hilarious. What a joke.

    Next we will have an hour long interview of Newt Gingrich vs George W. Bush.

    What a joke.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:03 PM  

  • Rachel found out that she's closer to a comic than John is a journalist.
    Not a fan of either but there is no doubt John is more comfortable being a spectator than Rachel is being a player. He opened her eyes and it was refreshing to watch.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 4:26 PM  

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