Quarreling and Intellectual Bankruptcy

People generally quarrel because they can’t argue. G. K. Chesterton is said to have said that, and he was onto something there. Imagine you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, quite lost, and everyone is trying to figure out what to do next – try to head back and see if anything looks familiar, take the road to the right, or the road to the left, or sit and wait to see if anyone comes along who can tell you where you actually are, so you can decide how to get to where you’re going. And then you hear a pretty good argument for one of those options, calm and well-reasoned, and the tension eases, until someone says about the source of the suggestion – “She’s a woman. What do women know?”

But you can come up with your own example of this sort of thing – we’ve all run into it. You expected an argument about the options, and you got chin-out and chip-on-the-shoulder posturing intended to display dominance. That never helps, as argument is a process for working things out, and quarreling is somewhat the opposite – it’s a power and domination thing. Quarreling is about ending up looking good, with everyone else looking foolish. The game is King of the Hill. But you still stay lost, as what was won and what was lost in the quarrel was quite irrelevant to the problem.

But you see people do this all the time. Thomas Mitchell, the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal – the largest circulation daily newspaper in the state – offered an op-ed piece suggesting it is time to repeal the 19th Amendment, the one that granted women the right to vote. It seems that recent polls were showing that women support Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over his Republican opposition, regardless of the Republican opponent he’s matched against. That can’t be right, and to Mitchell it is obvious that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote. He closes with this – “Men are consistent. Women are fickle and biased.”

Mitchell doesn’t argue against Harry Reid, offering the irrefutable logic that proves that Reid should not remain their senator. He just doesn’t argue. He quarrels. And he cribbed from Ann Coulter – “If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president.” But there is seldom anything original about quarrelling – by nature it’s derivative, the repetition and amplification of a long-held gripe. And neither party here addresses the nation’s problems, of course. Of course it could be the start of a movement – send women back to the kitchen to bake cookies, damn it – but of course it isn’t. But that would require a careful reasoned argument. This is just griping.

The odd thing that is our polity these days – one side wants to argue and the other side wants to quarrel. It’s the difference between wanting to fix things – when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, quite lost – and wanting to score points. It’s two different ways of looking at what politics, and government, is all about.

In December 2009, when the healthcare reform debate was raging, Steve Benen wrote this:

Progressive activists and progressive wonks are at each other’s throats this week, but they want largely the same goals. Their differences are sincere and significant, but the intensity of their dispute is matched by the potency of their arguments.

And then turn your attention to the other side of the divide, and notice the quality of the arguments conservatives and Republicans have offered – and continue to offer – in this debate. Death panels. Socialism. Hitler. Government takeover. Socialized medicine. Incomprehensible charts. Incessant whining about the number of pages in a proposal.

The United States could have had a great debate this year about one of the most important domestic policies of them all. But Americans were denied that debate, because the right didn’t have an A Game to bring.

Benen says that “intellectual bankruptcy left conservatives with empty rhetorical quivers” – but he misses the fact that the Republicans actually did bring their A Game. They were just playing a different game. The Democrats brought their tennis rackets, to bat this back and forth, and the Republicans brought their golf clubs, to slam a few down the fairway. Who was winning? How could you tell?

So, Benen notes, the Democrats end up playing against each other:

We expected the fight of the generation to occur between the right and left, when the more relevant and interesting dispute was between left and left. …

But regardless what side of the dispute you’re on, it’s worth appreciating the vibrancy, energy, and seriousness with which progressives are engaging in the debate, as compared to the incoherent, ridiculous, and dull qualities our friends on the right have brought to the table.

Yeah, well, Republicans like golf. That’s their game. It’s the private country club thing or something.

But that debate is over. Healthcare reform was passed in both houses and signed into law at the White House.

But Benen points out, five months after he first wrote about it, that the Republicans are still playing golf:

It’s not that the right remained silent; it’s that they offered arguments that no serious person could find credible. Consider, just off the top of your head, the most prominent concerns raised by opponents of the Affordable Care Act. What comes to mind? “Death panels.” “Socialism.” “Government takeover.”

It was the biggest domestic policy fight in a generation, but most of the policy debate was spent debunking transparent, child-like nonsense. The left approached the debate with vibrancy, energy, and seriousness. The right thought it was fascinating to talk about the number of pages in the legislation.

And now Benen sees this wasn’t especially unusual:

We endured a mind-numbing debate over economic recovery efforts because Republicans weren’t prepared for a serious argument. We can’t discuss Wall Street reform because Republicans keep saying “bailout” for no reason. We can’t discuss a climate bill because Republicans reflexively reject the science.

Every major issue has strengths and weaknesses, and every major piece of legislation is subject to legitimate criticism. In 2010, however, the right seems fundamentally unprepared to even have the conversation.

But why have a conversation when you can have a quarrel? What, you Democrats wanted to have a conversation? Why? Whatever for? The point is to win points. Don’t you Democrats understand politics at all? No wonder you’re such losers, or will be again, soon enough.

But Marc Ambinder asks whether the right has actually gone mad:

Can anyone deny that the most trenchant and effective criticism of President Obama today comes not from the right but from the left? Rachel Maddow’s grilling of administration economic officials. Keith Olbermann’s hectoring Democratic leaders on the public option. Glenn Greenwald’s criticisms of Elena Kagan. Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn’s keeping-them-honest perspectives on health care, the civil libertarian left on detainees and Gitmo. The Huffington Post on derivatives.

I want to find Republicans to take seriously, but it is hard. Not because they don’t exist – serious Republicans – but because, as [Julian] Sanchez and others seem to recognize, they are marginalized, even self-marginalizing and the base itself seems to have developed a notion that bromides are equivalent to policy-thinking, and that therapy is a substitute for thinking.

Ambinder then suggests various explanations for this – the habit of conservatives to take entertainers seriously as if they were political actors, and “incentive structures exist to stomp on dissent and nuance,” and the “epistemic closure” problem in which conservatives ignore news outlets that might tell them what they don’t want to hear.

Benen says that explains little and adds this:

In a way, that’s a shame. I was really hoping he’d help me understand how one of the nation’s dominant political parties and the ideology it embraces chose intellectual bankruptcy.

Maybe that is because they have found politics has little if anything to do with anything remotely intellectual, and have had great success because of that assessment – up until the last two rounds of national elections.

But now things have changed, and perhaps America is slowly developing a bit of enthusiasm for results, not posturing, however compelling. And Conor Friedersdorf suggests in this item that the problem now lies with the conservative movement’s major spokespeople – Rush and Fox News and websites like Hot Air – and the “overwhelming evidence that their very existence as popular entertainers” hinges on an ability to persuade listeners that they are “‘worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors.” And that has been ruinous to conservatives. It’s all gripes, not arguments about what to do next.

Or if it’s not gripes and posturing – which, in theory and from experience, should lead the Republicans back to power, as it has always worked before even if it isn’t working as well now – it’s something even stranger. This was the week Glenn Beck told his radio audience that God is communicating with him directly and giving him “a plan … that is not really a plan.”

That’s like when you’re lost and the guy in the back seat says he just heard God speak to him and God said take the road to the right, but that’s not a plan. But Beck explained what God’s voice in his head actually said to him – “What He is asking us to do is to stand peacefully, quietly with anger, loudly with truth.”

Yeah, and what does that have to do with the much-needed financial reform legislation and which details need some fixing-up and which of those are just fine and will make another crash a little less likely? A friend of this site just met with the Senate Banking Committee to discuss some issues about potential conflicts between state securities law and federal law that could be real trouble if what is proposed is passed. He didn’t stand peacefully, quietly with anger and loudly with truth – the issue was SEC’s Rule 506, which is part of Regulation D under the Securities Act of 1933. God had nothing to do with it.

But the next day Beck went further:

We are entering a dark, dark period of man. Um, I was, um, I was in the Vatican, and I was surprised that the individual I was speaking to knew who I was. And they said: “Of course we know who you are. What you’re doing is wildly important. We’re entering a period of great darkness, and if good people don’t stand up, we could enter a period unlike we have seen in a very long time.”

You don’t want Beck in the back seat when you’re lost. And Ben Dimiero points out the obvious:

Of course, Beck doesn’t clarify whether the “individual” he talked to was a Vatican official or a tourist from Omaha, but the impression he wants to give his listeners is clear: the Vatican itself has identified Beck as “wildly important” in the coming “dark, dark period of man.”

You may see the ongoing debate in our country about health care reform, financial reform, and a variety of other issues in terms of how they will affect our policy decisions. Glenn Beck envisions things on a slightly larger scale – with himself at the center of it all.

Ambinder talks of the right gone mad and Benen discusses intellectual bankruptcy. Perhaps they’re right, or perhaps we’re seeing the dead end of posturing as policy, or the impassioned quarrelling isn’t cogent argument, even if it’s all you’ve got.

In a column in the New York Times, the pleasant and often moderate David Brooks just seems depressed by it all:

In these columns I try to give voice to a philosophy you might call progressive conservatism. It starts with the wisdom of Edmund Burke – the belief that the world is more complex than we can know and we should be skeptical of handing too much power to government planners. It layers in a dose of Hamiltonian optimism – the belief that limited but energetic government can nonetheless successfully enhance opportunity and social mobility.

This general philosophy puts me to the left of where the Republican Party is now, and to the right of the Democratic Party. It puts me in that silly spot on the political map, the center, or a step to the right of it.

The center has been losing political power pretty much my entire career. But I confess that about sixteen months ago I had some hope of a revival.

But his hopes were dashed:

The country had just elected a man who vowed to move past the old polarities, who valued discussion and who clearly had some sympathy with both the Burkean and Hamiltonian impulses. He staffed his administration with brilliant pragmatists whose views overlapped with mine, who differed only in that they have more faith in technocratic planning.

Yet things have not worked out for those of us in the broad middle. Politics is more polarized than ever. The two parties have drifted further to the extremes. The center is drained and depressed.

So what happened?

History happened. The administration came into power at a time of economic crisis. This led it, in the first bloom of self-confidence, to attempt many big projects all at once. Each of these projects may have been defensible in isolation, but in combination they created the impression of a federal onslaught.

In the first year of the Obama administration, the Democrats, either wittingly or unwittingly, decided to put the big government-versus-small government debate at the center of American life. Just as America was leaving the culture war and the war-war, the Democrats thrust it back into the government war, only this time nastier and with higher stakes.

This war is like a social script. Once it was activated, everybody fell into their preassigned roles.

So both sides dug in, and those foolish Obama people restarted the war between the government-can-do-good-and-let’s-have-more-of-it fools and the the-best-government-is-no-government fools, and poor David Brooks was left high and dry, weeping bitter tears.

But Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog will have none of that:

But the backlash against the Democrats wasn’t inevitable. It happened because Democrats did (and are still doing) a godawful job of rebutting the anti-government arguments and making a case for intervention by the public sector. They haven’t made the case, passionately and convincingly, that what they want to do isn’t “socialism!!!” or that it’s very much in the tradition of government interventions – like, oh, say, the New Deal and Medicare – that Americans have happily embraced.

Democrats who wind up in power are always too damn educated for their own good. They don’t understand that they actually have to explain to people, clearly, forcefully, repeatedly, and perpetually, that Medicare and Social Security are government programs; or that our tax rates were much higher in the middle of the twentieth century than they are now, and somehow capitalism not only survived but thrived; or that government fixes the roads and fights the crime and delivers the disaster relief and educates the vast majority of our kids – and we want it to do all that.

But how do you argue with Beck? How can you argue with God himself? And in the Guardian, Michael Tomasky argues that Brooks downplays the extremism of the right:

A lot of our current division stems from the Republican tactical decision to oppose every major thing the administration tried to do.

The larger fact here is that we teeter in the US on the edge of a host of financial and fiscal crises. The states have no money. They are cutting billions out of basic services and borrowing in ways that are plainly gimmicky or irresponsible. Medicare and Medicaid are in big trouble. We are not investing in our physical infrastructure nearly enough. Pension funds all over the country are on the ropes.

There is a mix of reasons for these failures, and Democrats and liberals bear some of the responsibility – can’t say no to constituencies like public-employee unions.

But there’s one main reason that towers above the others: we can’t have a rational conversation in this country about revenue. And that is because the GOP is much more extreme on this question than it was in, say, Ronald Reagan’s time.

And he can prove that:

Today’s conservatives have developed a narrative about how Reagan “got us out of the recession” of the early 1980’s. He cut taxes and reduced spending. Yes, sort of. But they leave out the tax increases of 1982 that Reagan agreed to. Like most tax hikes, it increased federal revenues. But it’s just not part of history now. Been airbrushed out.

So we are where we are:

Obama and the Democrats will take a licking at the polls this November. But assuming they hold on to the House, which I still think they will, you’ll probably see a Democratic Party that moves more in Brooks’ desired direction.

What you won’t see, I’d wager, is a Republican Party that’s interested in meeting them anywhere near halfway. They will oppose and obfuscate and outright lie, as Mitch McConnell just did on the financial reform issue. Their chief purpose is not to address what’s ailing the country but to make Obama a one-term president.

That’s a simple undeniable reality that needs to be acknowledged. The middle is vanishing because one of our two political parties has no interest in locating it and working to create it; only in pushing it further and further to the right.

Well, people generally quarrel because they can’t argue. Sometimes it’s all you’ve got, along with the voice of God in your head, speaking to you personally.

And Andrew Sullivan argues Brooks need not despair, as Obama is actually doing the right thing, and being the conservatives here:

The Obama administration was forced into the kind of big government action required to cope with several huge crises, after years of negligence and drift. I can see how easy it was for the FNC-RNC to wheel out their exhausted tropes of anti-government rhetoric and for Paul Krugman, say, to wheel out his own pro-government radicalism. … I happen to think that Krugman has much more of a case right now, because the circumstances almost require the drastic measures he favors. But, yes, the comfort zone of all these advocates is well within the abstract and kabuki world of “freedom or tyranny,” more government or less. And that has affected the perception of the new administration among independents especially.

But they’re all wrong. This administration’s actions are defensible for the large part from the perspective of the actual circumstances we face: a collapse of the extreme free market capitalism of the last twenty years and the implosion of a neo-imperial post-Cold War foreign policy in the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Mesopotamia. To recognize this, and to defend it from ideological attacks, is, in my view, the real conservative position today.

What should matter to conservatives is the empirical data, the specific circumstances, and the least worst practical way of grappling with social and economic and political problems.

So there’s no need to complain:

I disagree with David’s world-weary resignation over this, and his reluctance to support the Obama administration as it represents the pragmatic center in this day and age. The truth is: Obama has not caved to the left’s understanding of the role of government. In reality, the healthcare reform was a moderate enterprise, made radical in the public consciousness by a cynical bid to propagandize the whole debate by the FNC-RNC axis. Same with the handling of the banks, the financial regulation bill, the stimulus, and the recalibration of US foreign policy after the failed belligerence of the Bush-Cheney years. …

Even yesterday, Obama did not batter Wall Street. He asked them to “join” him in rescuing capitalism from itself and restoring the confidence of ordinary folks with retirement accounts in Wall Street. His September 2009 speech to Congress on healthcare reform was just as balanced and sane and moving. I feel absolutely no remorse – and considerable pride – in supporting him as a pragmatic end to the red/blue, pro-government/anti-government debate that has dominated for so long to so little practical effect.

So Brooks should chill, and be the conservative he says he is:

It seems to me that if, as David notes, it is history that has allowed the perception of Obama’s “big liberalism” to take hold, then it is the duty of moderate conservatives to resist this narrative, not cave into it. And that means the uncomfortable task for real conservatives of stoutly defending this president as the best option we now have. The epistemic closure on the right is how other conservatives still manage to blind themselves to the pragmatic virtues of this president’s remarkable 15 month record at home and abroad. Our job is to insist that the debate continue and that criticism of Obama be based on empirical reality, not ideological fantasy. If we do, we have a president open-minded enough to listen. But if we give up, the old divides win.

If the rump of what was the Republican Party can do nothing but posture in anger and start bitter quarrels about what isn’t so, no one now has to buy into that:

So buck up, David. And get back to defending Obama when it is appropriate (which, so far, has almost always been the case). You’ll lose friends; enrage colleagues; alienate long-time allies. And in the end, you’ll enjoy it.

And here’s a curious idea:

This is a great time for conservative thought – because it can be clearly disengaged from conservative power and the conservative movement.

So let them quarrel. There’s plenty to do and we might work out how to do it right. Ignore Beck in the back seat, talking about the voices in his head. People generally quarrel because they can’t argue. Let them be. And along with Chesterton remember William Shenstone – “Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it.”

Of course Shenstone also said that the world may be divided into people that read, people that write, people that think, and fox-hunters. Let them do the Cheney thing and go out and shoot little birds and small furry animals. They’ll be fine. The rest of us have work to do.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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