Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Obama on the Way Washington Works, Continued

I'm a little late to this party, but before it gets to cold I want to talk a little about Barack Obama's speech at Michigan over the weekend.  Before I get to my interest in it, I do want to report that Andrew Sprung has an excellent and interesting analysis that I recommend.

What struck me about the speech was that Obama once again confirmed that it's the way Washington talks that he doesn't like.  Here's what I said after the health care summit:
Barack Obama wants to change the way Washington works.  What he doesn't like is a system in which politicians mostly speak in spin and poll-tested talking points.  Politicians, he thinks, should just say what they mean.
I contrasted this with John McCain's objection to the way Washington works, which is that he really does seem to object to people trying to advance their own, private, interests.  Moreover, I said that both of them were wrong...for Obama's objection, I said that "spin is mostly harmless."

At Michigan, Obama set out a case for why it really matters that politicians speak in spin instead of plain English.  First of all, because plain English can't compete:
It’s just sometimes all you hear in Washington is the clamor of politics.  And all that noise can drown out the voices of the people who sent you there.
I don't really find that convincing.  Oh, I think that Washingtonians can be captured in a bubble that isolates them from their constituents, and that it's a particularly dangerous trap for presidents, who have a constituency too large to really grasp and security reasons for being removed from them.  In other words, I think that the bubble is a danger, but it's not really created by "the clamor of politics."

Obama doesn't stop there.  I'm going to quote at length, but note that I'm taking out his context setting, which is actually terrific; he makes clear that serious, vigorous conflict is an essential part of democracy.  But:
[We should] maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate...we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down.  (Applause.)  You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.  You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism.  (Applause.)    Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” -- (laughter) -- that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.
Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past.  It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth.  But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse...The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise.  It undermines democratic deliberation.  It prevents learning –- since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”?  (Laughter.)
It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out.  It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation.  It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

OK.  Obama has a number of problems with overly heated rhetoric.  I think I can boil it down to:

1.  Prevents compromise.
2.  Undermines deliberation.
3.  Prevents learning.
4.  Coarsens our culture.
5.  Might lead to violence.

Of these, I'll certainly agree with him on #4, but that's not really a political objection.  For #5, I'm afraid I don't know any of the literature (if any?) on the relationship between elite rhetoric and political violence, but given that Obama concedes that extreme rhetoric is always with us, what someone would have to find is that mainstream rhetoric that echoes extremist themes can push some people over the edge...Obama doesn't seem sold on the relationship, so I'll put it aside.

I think his case rests on the first three claims, and really it all boils down to one complaint: that politicians use of rhetoric keeps them from doing the serious work of governing.  They can't do real deliberation, because they can't state their real position (since instead they are busy spinning for mass audiences).  They can't compromise, possibly because they've taken extreme positions, or possibly -- and I think this is the most serious charge -- because they're so enmeshed in their own rhetoric that they lose track of their own, and their constituents' own, interests. 

The question is whether any of that is actually true, and unfortunately I can't give you an answer.  In order to answer it, we need to know a lot of things that are pretty hard to get at...do politicians really believe the (false, extreme, spin-like) things that they're saying?  When they threaten to vote against a bill for phony reasons, do they have real, constituent-based reasons underlying the phony, for-the-cameras reasons?  Do political elites really become ignorant of the basics of public policy because they spout silly talking points (and remember, causation could run the other way)? 

What I can give you is a reminder that when Barack Obama says that Washington is broken (or words to that effect), that's what he's talking about.  He does share with John McCain (and most others) a dislike of something called "special interests," which I think he does see as inherently corrupt, but unlike McCain and many others his focus is not on corruption in that sense; it's on the failure of the rest of us, both in Washington and in the population at large.  It's important to see that for Obama, self- and group-interest is not inherently bad; most of us, he says, have "legitimate but bridgeable differences" (although he does not much like to talk about legitimate but irreconcilable differences).  The problem is that soundbite politics make it difficult to do the bridging.  For Washington, the cure is, although he doesn't quite say it in the Michigan speech, plain talk.  For the rest of us, he has two cures: one is empathy for the other side (that's the bit about reading both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; see Jonathan Chait for more on that).  The other, which was the theme of his graduation speech two years ago at Wesleyan, is participation

Oddly enough, I like the cure, even though I don't really buy the malady.  I'm not going to knock participation or empathy, and while I do think the odds are that spin and heated rhetoric are mostly harmless, again I'm not going to complain about plain talk.  If I had Obama in a seminar, I'd like to ask him about whether he thinks there are legitimate but irreconcilable interests, and if so what he proposes for that situation; I'd also like to get him to defend the notion that some interests are (presumably illegitimate) "special" interests -- but of course he, and not I, am in the mainstream of American political culture in claiming such a thing exists. 

Again, do check what Sprung has to say about Obama's views of government.  The question I'm left with, which I'm going to think about as Obama continues teaching his course in democracy, is the relationship between his ideas of democracy and his ideas of government.  If you find that an interesting question, stay tuned, because I'll return to it in the future.


  1. Jonathan, the functional view you take of political behavior is always bracing and can make those of us who are prone to take our favorite politicians' words at face value feel naive.

    With regard to Obama's attitude toward "special interests": during the campaign he did often inveigh against them, often in the same breath as against "incivility." On Jan. 30 '08 in Denver (http://bit.ly/bclmPx), those twin ills were part of a litany of why the US needed to fix its politics before its policies:

    "Lobbyists setting an agenda in Washington that feeds the inequality, insecurity, and instability in our economy.

    "Division and distraction that keeps us from coming together to deal with challenges like health care, and clean energy, and crumbling schools year after year after year."

    And of course, he made ethics reform a signature issue in the IL and US senates, and ostentatiously refused to accept lobbyist money, and lost himself Daschle with his guidelines for keeping lobbyists out of his Admin. But then on the other hand, as I think you pointed out right after HCR passed, he moved early to neutralize/buy off various interests in the health care marathon. So he's got that duality: let's work with everyone/let's curb the lobbyists. In fact, during the campaign, didn't he hit Hillary for saying that lobbyists represent legitimate interests?

    As for what to do when interests prove irreconciliable: here was his answer at the end of the Feb. HCR summit:

    We cannot have another year-long debate about this. So the question that I'm going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month's time or a few weeks' time or six weeks' time we could actually resolve something?

    And if we can't, then I think we've got to go ahead and some make decisions, and then that's what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about -- about the vision for the country and we'll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November. All right?

  2. "do politicians really believe the (false, extreme, spin-like) things that they're saying?"

    Wouldn't it be easy to answer this question in the situations where a politician 'flip flops' on a big issue? In those cases either they legitimately changed their mind from a moderate to an extreme position or at some point they didn't say what they really believed.

    I guess you could still argue that you can't know which is the case, but I think it's reasonable to assume that, in most cases, if someone abruptly goes from taking a moderate position to taking an extreme one, they don't really believe the extreme view.

    But in cases where they've consistently held extreme views, I've often wondered if they really believe what they're saying. And I'm not sure whether to be more concerned if they do or they don't.

  3. This is just an isolated example from when I worked on the Hill, and its not exactly on point, but it's somewhat relevant. It was regarding an attempt to classify crimes against gays as hate crimes.

    "do politicians really believe the (false, extreme, spin-like) things that they're saying?"

    Anti-gay rights groups referred to this bill as the "Thought-Crimes Bill," claimed it would put preachers in jail for preaching against homosexual, etc. The boss didn't make any statements about the bill, but he definitely didn't believe that, and didn't hate gays.

    "When they threaten to vote against a bill for phony reasons, do they have real, constituent-based reasons underlying the phony, for-the-cameras reasons?"

    In this case, the office received well over 500 constituent calls/letters opposing the bill, and several large churches were adamantly opposed. We received 3 calls in favor. Our gay Legislative Assistant made the final call to vote "no," and contacted each of the in favor calls to explain why personally. Additionally, the decision was made after a whip count had been done and our vote was found unnecessary.

  4. Jonathan, it's really easy to get sucked into the rhetorical vortex that traps Washington in a seemingly-never-ending contest of who's more extreme. I tend to believe that politicians, in general, have no views except those that will win them election after election. Constant polling and focus grouping influence politicians on where to stand that will put them in the best light with both voters and contributors. Case in point: Romney's reversals on abortion and health-care reform. He was clearly pro-choice and pro-health care when his left-leaning Massachusetts made it difficult for him to move right. As soon as he made a play for the GOP nomination, however, it was safe to go that way because that's what the voters wanted him to do. In any event, I don't think he seriously believed in either side. Another case is GW Bush, who talked about reducing government while he expanded it beyond anything most liberal presidents could have imagined (and all of it not paid for).

    There's no need to speculate as to whether heated rhetoric and spin are essentially harmless. Here, in the trenches where it really matters, that sort of talk does divide us as a nation. So yes, it is harmful. Words have power. It's like the way I parent my sons: I watch the way I speak to them because my words are omnipotent at this point and I can do real harm to them.


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