Saturday, September 6, 2008

Demagoguery 101

Kudos to Ari Melber for his latest post to The Notion, a blog maintained at the Web site for The Nation. This is the one about the strategic decision by John McCain's campaign planners to ban any semblance of engagement between the press and Sarah Palin:

The McCain campaign has admitted to a ban on most press interviews for its largely unknown but popular running mate. McCain's aides are selling this highly unusual approach with rank contempt for the public. "Who cares?" laughed Nicolle Wallace, when pressed on why Palin won't take questions by Time's Jay Carney, on MSNBC. "But I mean, like, from who, from you?" she added, incredulous at the very idea of Palin taking questions from Time's Washington bureau chief. "Who cares? No offense," she added, "who cares if she can talk to Time magazine?" (Of course, it was Time's Jay Carney who had that "prickly" interview with McCain last week, which enraged his aides.)

Nevertheless, I must take issue with Melber over whether or not this constitutes "rank contempt for the public." The point that Wallace seems to have been making on the video clip attached to the MSNBC hyperlink is that Palin has no need to talk to the press when she can talk directly to the public so effectively (as was demonstrated last Wednesday night). This is not "rank contempt for the public;" it is rank contempt for the press. Melber should know better to recognize when a harpy is despoiling his own feast!

Even with this interpretation corrected, the McCain team strategy is still cause for alarm. It defies Mr. Dooley's time-honored precept, "Th newspaper does ivrything f'r us," not to mention his common sense judgment, which knew better than to put his trust in a single news source. In the spirit of the fundamentalism that seems to support her value system, the assumption seems to be that the truths that come from Palin's mouth are so self-evident that they do not need to be subjected to the interpretive analysis of mere reporters and that the act of questioning any of these truths would be nothing short of heresy. Such an approach has a tradition going all the way back to ancient Greece, which embodies a specific approach to governance; that approach is called "demagoguery."

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers "rabble-rouser" as a synonym for "demagogue." This implies that demagoguery can only take place when there is a rabble to be roused; and Palin's greatest asset (particularly in light of her Convention performance) may be her ability to rouse several rabbles with a single rhetorical stroke. Think of all the ways in which the Republican National Convention supported interest groups whose interests were defined by exclusion, whether on the basis of economic class, religious conviction, scientific perspectives on life (both where it came from and when it begins), elitism, sexual preference, gender, and probably the criterion that dare not speak its name, race. I continue to subscribe to the hypothesis that Karl Rove was able to get George W. Bush elected twice on the basis of being able to convince each of these exclusionary interests that Bush shared the same interest, without worrying about any messy contradictions across the interest groups. While Rove worked his magic through intermediation, Palin's gift for direct speech may well be on the path towards achieving a similar goal for McCain.

However, this raises a question. Rove was good enough at his work that he never had to worry very much about whether or not the press could expose the duplicity of his works. In the words of Wallace, he could believe "Who cares?" without exposing the hubris ("chutzpah" is too polite for this one) of saying it directly. Of course any classicist can tell you that hubris frequently lies at the heart of a tragic flaw, so it will be interesting to see if Wallace's babble turns into a tragic flaw for the McCain campaign. Ultimately it will depend on whether or not her words are generally recognized as a flaw. However much MSNBC may take pride in providing Countdown as a bully pulpit for Keith Olbermann, the fact that no one spoke up to challenge Wallace's "Who cares?" question amounts to an act of legitimizing her demagogic principles. If MSNBC cannot make a difference in how Wallace's actions are perceived, can we realistically expect more from The Nation? I suspect that we cannot, which means that we probably need to concede this particular game to Wallace and the McCain team. Now, is anyone keeping score on the current set?

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