20 May 2013

The politics of truth and bulls**t

Supposedly, everyone longs for a politician who'll talk straight and tell the truth without spin, who'll speak his mind and empathize with everyone who's mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore. Even the President feels a temptation to do what he reportedly calls "going Bulworth." He's thinking of the 1998 Warren Beatty movie, and it's a problematic invocation for him, since Bulworth is as much about a white man acting black as it is about the same man telling uncomfortable truths for which he is killed. But leaving movie references aside, isn't Obama's urge to speak without inhibition a healthy one? Jonathan Chait, a New York magazine columnist, says no. Too often, Chait warns, the truth only annoys people. If you tell your supporters, or supposedly objective journalists, how difficult it is to get your agenda through the legislature, they get frustrated and complain about your lack of leadership. If you tell the truth, as you see it, about the opposition's obstructionist tactics or cynical calculations, you'll look mean-spirited and partisan. Chait offers a theoretical scenario:

Obama said of the IRS scandal, “The good news is it’s fixable, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to work together to fix it.” That is some prime-caliber bullshit. Of course it’s not in the Republicans’ best interest to fix the problems with IRS enforcement. It’s in their interest to prevent any fix and let the problems linger as long as possible. But if he had said that, there would have been a huge outcry, and probably a presidential apology.

In Chait's opinion, the "prime-caliber bullshit" was the correct thing to say. Why? Apparently because it spared Obama a "huge outcry" that would have put him on the defensive. He suggests that not just Republicans but reporters as a group are annoyed by the kind of truth-telling that assigns blame.

[M]ost political reporters and analysts don’t pay attention to the political science. They like narratives that revolve around the president as a protagonist. When you confront them with structural analysis that confounds their narratives, they just get upset with you....[T]he reason politicians don’t go Bulworth is that it doesn’t work. The truth about legislative dynamics is complicated and depressing. People don’t want to hear it.

Chait believes that Obama should employ more "bullshit," i.e. "faux-naive" rhetoric that emphasizes "good news" and the good intentions of everyone in the process. Anything else, Chait fears, makes him look weak and spiteful. Implicit here is a concession of rhetorical defeat in the long debate with Republicanism. A Bulworth approach won't work for Obama, we can infer from Chait's column, because it has become impossible to incite enough of the public against the Republicans for your agitation to do more good than harm. Only passive resistance seems possible; try to do your job without casting aspersions on others, even when they're uncooperative. Chait may think that people will figure out for themselves who's to blame for gridlock if Obama sticks to this approach, but recent congressional elections offer little reason for optimism.

On the other hand, who exactly, apart from reporters and analysts, are the people who "don't want to hear it?" And why don't they want to hear it? Could it be because they don't want to have to do anything about it?  So if the truth hurts, let's abolish it and we'll all feel better. That sounds more like the pejorative stereotype of liberalism than a liberalism that hopes to accomplish anything.

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