Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Ruthlessness Factor

My conjecture that the Republicans treated Pete Stark as a sign of vulnerability in Democratic leadership, which they could then exploit in going after Nancy Pelosi, seems to have attracted some attention over at Truthdig. Reader Outraged now seems convinced that the Republicans are planting moles among the Democrats, so they can plan and implement further attacks. I certainly agree that the concept of a "loyal opposition" has become about as quaint and outmoded as the concept of "public trust;" but I suspect that the adversarial relationship between Republican and Democrats has not (yet?) escalated to a level of Cold War thinking. Everyone has vulnerabilities; but, in a town that has as many off-the-record blabbermouths as the District, you do not need undercover agents to figure out what they are!

Rather, I think it is just that the era of the "loyal opposition" has given way to an era of overt ruthlessness; and I’m afraid the problem is that the Republicans are just a lot better at that overt ruthlessness than the Democrats are when it comes to playing power games; and ruthlessness trumps reasoned deliberation in the face of complex problems every time. Indeed, "ruthless" is the adjective that dare not speak its name in Isaiah Berlin's essay on "Political Judgement;" but there is no doubt that it is lurking in the subtext. After all, Bismarck is one of Berlin's prime examples; and he was about as ruthless as they get.

This is not to say that ruthlessness was not a factor in the good old days of "loyal oppositions;" and it is not as if Democrats have always been naive about ruthlessness. What, after all, was behind LBJ's famous "I've got his pecker in my pocket" metaphor? The problem seems to be that inter-party ruthlessness now undermines deliberation, and one of the most important contributions that the Congress makes to the balance of powers is its capacity for deliberation. However, if we have now slipped down to the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy, dispensing with deliberation in favor of acting for immediate self-gratification, then Eugene Robinson's editorial last June about the need for a "brainiac president" is way off the mark. After all, the brainiac was always the first kid to get the crap beaten out of him by the school bullies; or, in a more innocuous setting, the brainiac is the victim of Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts, who once said, "He was beginning to make sense, so I hit him."

So this brings me back to yesterday's agonizing over the extent of the corruption of the body politic and the need for the how-did-we-get-in-this-mess question. One explanation may be that ruthlessness trumps deliberation because it is far more entertaining. After all, how many people actually watch the C-SPAN coverage of the Congress, compared to the number of people who watched Glenn Beck deliver his serves-them-right fulmination over the victims of the California fires? For that matter, how large an audience did Don Imus attract for doing the very things that eventually got him kicked off the air? In the language of the preceding paragraph, in the business of mass media, the market for school bullies is always going to dwarf the market for brainiacs; and, like it or not, political decisions and actions now have far more to do with what "sells" than with the subtle questions that arise in the course of deliberation. Whether or not this is the government we deserve, it certainly appears to be the government we want!

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