Politics and the Theater of Authenticity

I've been reflecting on charges of hypocrisy in politics lately, and there are plenty to go around. Democrats -- who gutted avenues of legitimate resistence to Obama appointees -- are now trying to create new avenues to resist Trump's. Republicans, who refused to vote on Obama's appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, are now shocked and appalled that democrats would do the same. Further, "You didn't protest when Obama enacted such policy" is somehow supposed to undermine political opposition to Trump's executive actions, while "Don't call yourself pro-life if you refuse to recognize the lives of refugees as in need of protection" is supposed to somehow be a response to defenses of increased national security measures.

Why does so much political discourse consist in simplistic charges of hypocrisy? 

I don't know, but here's a guess. 

Political representatives publicly engage in theatrics meant to rationalize the action that they (and their party) are taking, while privately engaging in a political calculus based on judgments of power -- political (will this get me elected), economic (will this make my donors happy and thus help the party), and personal (is this in line with my ambitions and the goals I've set to achieve those ambitions). There's also the fact that they are legitimately constrained by those they represent (voting against the interests or expressed views of their constituents does violence to their mandate and puts them in a risky position politically). Because so much of the public understanding of political dynamics, policy, and the actual role of our government in domestic and foreign issues is so cartoonish, these rationalization have to adhere to facile narratives, and, indeed, more often devolve into a sort of tribalistic expression (I voted NO because OBAMA is BAD, I voted YES because REGULATIONS KILL JOBS). 

Because of this, the public record is full of simplistic, fundamentally untruthful explanations of why certain political action was taken. The only way that one can respond to such explanations then -- sort of angrily denouncing the whole system and establishment -- is by pushing hard on the inconsistencies that inevitably arise. You can't respond to the actual motivations that went into a vote, because that would appear disingenuous (and undermine the system as a whole -- bad for your opponent as well as yourself). You can't provide nuanced critiques of the position as stated, because the position as stated is often not even filled out enough to critique. It's cartoonish and based almost entirely on propaganda (and select facts that are largely irrelevant to the actual issues at hand).  

This is why politicians just constantly sling mud. 

And I think much of *our* political discourse (that is, the discourse of non-politicians) simply imitates what's going on in Washington. That, and it's fairly useless to provide facts and nuanced critiques of a position when the champions of that position -- as well as their opponents -- are rationalizing and critiquing it will what amount to a series of non-sequitors or emotive expressions.  

The net effect of all this, though, is that it eventually degrades trust in the government, makes bipartisanship impossible, and undermines democratic systems and institutions that might otherwise work. 

So while democrats and republicans throw themselves into the work of polarizing their base (and expanding that base through such tactics), they end up undermining and eroding democracy. This explains why so much effort on both sides goes into protecting the respective establishments. If an outside figure acquires enough power to actually disrupt the establishment, the game is over and everyone loses their jobs. I'm not suggesting that this is all held together by simple-minded self-interest (though that's certainly a part of it), there's also this delusion -- common among politicians -- that power in their hands is somehow safer and more likely to lead to good results. This last bit -- the utilitarian calculus of power -- also goes some distance toward justifying the instrumental approach so often taken to truth-telling and principled descision making.

 

 

 

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Sidenote: I was once asked why I "troll" politicians on Facebook, instead of sincerely engaging them in reasoned debate or genuine dialogue, and I think what I wrote above goes some distance in explaining this. Often, the most truthful thing that someone without any political power can do, given the dynamics described above, is to push back on a politician's stated rationale -- to undermine it by showing it to be fundamentally false. You can do this fairly easily by laying out the reasons why he or she actually holds the position, and contrasting this with the stated position. But getting the right uptake on such a narrative -- that is: getting the real reasons out there in a digestible narrative that is able to rival the one put out by those in positions of power (with their access to media, staffers, other political levers, etc) -- is extremely difficult. Often, you end up talking to a small group of already convinced critics. So, often, you need to enact the narrative. Slowly, bit-by-bit, in exchanges with the politician in the public eye (on the news, at council or committee meetings, etc). And in doing this, you risk simplifying your own criticisms (to the point where they are in danger of becoming disingenuous rationalizations) so as to gain enough ground to counter the established narrative. I think one can do it with integrity, but it's incredibly hard and requires tons of time, organization, and discipline. By the end of the process, it starts to become obvious why so many political figures take the easy way out: the results in terms of public support and political power are often the same, and if one's willing to take an instrumental view of the value of truth, you might think integrity's not worth the effort...