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Politics and Ideas

Michael Tomasky has a review of two books in the latest NYRB. One is Demonic, by Anne Coulter, and the other is Red Army, by Aaron Klein and Brenda Eliot. I can’t imagine that either of the books was very pleasant to read, or that it is was easy to come with anything at all to write about them. Well, in the spirit that he wrote, anyway. And largely, Tomasky eschews the books (because, let’s be honest, they’re both a kind of catechism for a specific sort of political “opinion” consumer; there’s not really any point of entry into the nonexistent substance of these things, their “virulence” as Tomasky calls it). Instead he devotes a lot of time to the difference between the “activist base” and the “establishment Republicans,” “rhetoric” and “ideas.”

The activist base, for Tomasky, are the more ideologically inflected pundits and Tea Partyers. In the past, the establishment had “typically mitigated the more extreme impulses” of these people and their pet interests. But this isn’t the case anymore, in Tomasky’s eyes. What’s happened, these days, is that things are driven by “rhetoric.” Oh, for the golden days, when a “political movement [was] driven by its ideas.” Back then, ideas, were what allowed politicians in the United States to reach compromise: if you were motivated by a notion, and you attempted to realize it in good faith, you would be more open to the ideas that your political opponents might have about things. And so you would engage them. In fact, Tomasky sees the ascendance of the Republicans in the 1980s as coinciding with the moment they became “the party of ideas”; said ideas “were a big reason conservatism became dominant.”

Leaving aside the problematic causality of “big reasons,” what’s happening here is that Tomasky effaces or ignores partisan gamesmanship in order to claim that, once upon a time, politicians wanted to do what was best for the republic. And doing what was best had to be formulated through ideas. And that these ideas, in virtue of their rational content, might impel people to act in certain ways. Hence, discussing the healthcare debate fiasco, he notes that the idea of an individual mandate came from the Heritage Foundation in the 1990s:

The Heritage conservatives argued that each family should be required to take responsibility for its heath care and not depend on handouts. A party more interested in ideas [i.e., not the current iteration of the Republican Party, in Tomasky’s eyes] might have claimed victory in seeing a Democratic president come around to its way of thinking; it might then have worked with the admnistration to arrive at a bill that included still more of its ideas, to which Obama would no doubt have been amenable [!!!]. But rhetoric prevented that. The base insisted that compromise was treason, and the party establishment agreed.

Ideas, had they been what motivated the politicians involved in the healthcare debacle (and it really is a debacle: see my recent past, that of even unluckier souls, or how shitty it really is), would have allowed them to get more of what they wanted. Assuming they wanted to enact more of their ideas. But what if what they wanted was to ensure that the people and entities furnishing their campaigns with money (for instance, the pharmaceutical industry) wouldn’t have to negotiate better prices on medication (say) or cease to exist completely (in the apocalyptic socialization of our hospitals and doctoring professions). But it’s cynical to assume that politicians aren’t merely out to perpetuate their cogplace in the political machine. Instead we can blame their failures on the triumph of a toxic political rhetoric that is virulently eating away at the body politic.

There’s another problem here. The notion that this corrosive rhetoric is streaming out of the activist base. In opposing the base and the establishment, and not treating the growth of new forms of media (conservative radio, cable news, etc.) in a politically economic way, we elide a lot of the activity that actually sustains the “conservative rhetoric factory.” The dissemination of the rhetoric Tomasky is targeting is often anything but an activity of what would in general be called the “base” of a political party. These days, elites pay a pretty penny to technocratic PR firms to fashion a message and deliver it effectively.

So there’s a sense in which the opposition of base/establishment and rhetoric/idea echoes a longer standing bias against those not motivated by ideas (antidemocratic, antirhetoric thinking goes back very far). Tomasky attacks the antimob thinking in Coulter, but seems to be doing something similar in the structure of his argument. But this has rambled far enough for now.

Categories: Notes.

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