Politics Isn't War

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Ask the average voter, "Is American politics an insufficiently ruthless business?" and most won't even take your question seriously. They're attune to the acrimony in Congress, sit wearily through attack ads every election cycle, and flip through a radio dial filled with angry sounding people on the way home from work. In presidential elections, they vote for sunny personalities like Ronald Reagan, and gravitate toward slogans like "I'm a uniter, not a divider," and "hope and change." In my career, I've tried to discuss politics with as many different kinds of people as possible: progressives, centrists, and conservatives, Orange County Republicans and Harlem Democrats, Indiana factory workers, Arizona CEOs, Orthodox Catholics, Vietnamese immigrants -- the list goes on and on, and folks from every group find something unsavory about the whole business of politics. 

But if you spend time talking politics with people who identify as hard core progressives or movement conservatives, you'll find that a significant percentage believe their ideology would prevail more often if only their partisans were more angry, their attacks more pointed, their operatives more ruthless. This is most often expressed via the use of metaphors that draw on the language of war and fighting. Usually it doesn't make any sense. In war, the victor kills as many folks as possible on the opposing side. Political winners persuade more people to join their coalition.

When I reflect on the actions and words of people who subscribe to this mentality, I am often puzzled. Take the controversial comment made by a DC journalist about how his fellow progressives should react to the Jeremiah Wright story: by picking a conservative "like Fred Barnes or Karl Rove" and calling him a racist. In describing this tactic, he used an unexpected metaphor: "take a right-winger's [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window." Of course, it's wrong to falsely accuse people of racism, and the plate glass window comment is intemperate, but let's forget about the ethics of it for a moment.

Say that the racism accusation had been levied. It makes no sense to believe that calling Fred Barnes a racist would stop the right from attacking Barack Obama over Jeremiah Wright, nor does it make sense to think the accusation would help progressives in any significant way. People like Al Sharpton have gotten notoriety from race-baiting, and even scored brief tactical victories, but overall does anyone think that kind of thing has advanced progressive policy ends? Does anyone think that comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler in the run-up to the Iraq War made invasion less likely?

Is there any instance in the history of American politics when aggressively virulent rhetoric from the left has resulted in a big policy win? Does anyone think that people like Michael Moore help the left rather than hurt it? 

The "battles" waged by the conservative movement's polemicists make as little sense to me. Take a guy like Andrew Breitbart. Even in the course of criticizing him for publishing an edited video that misled his audience about Shirley Sherrod, a lot of conservative writers were insistent that he is "on the side of the angels," that his style of rhetoric has proved invaluable in the past, and that "we're lucky he's on our side."

This doesn't make sense. Conservatives are ostensibly concerned about the federalization of health care, the deficit, the size of the federal government, the erosion of federalism, etc. As someone who shares these concerns, I am painfully attune to how difficult it's going to be to address them.

Apparently it is emotionally satisfying for some folks on the right to force ACORN to reorganize, plumb the alleged racism of an obscure USDA official, expose the fact that some census workers were paid for their lunch breaks, etc. I can't help but think that these are all insignificant distractions that won't make the slightest difference when it comes to accomplishing anything that conservatives actually care about -- the conservative movement is asserting goals that require a decade long project, and they're elevating as their champions people who specialize in generating page views, winning individual news cycles, and selling books.

In an alternative universe where Mr. Breitbart triumphed in all his highest profile crusades, communities groups other than ACORN, but staffed by many of the same people, would get community block grants for the same kind of work. An NAACP esteemed by somewhat fewer people would levy accusations of racism that were slightly less credible but that still got judged on the merits of individual cases, resulting in zero policy changes. Everyone would agree that no one yelled the n-word as some Congressmen emerged from the Capitol during the health care debate.

However noble or emotionally satisfying these sorts of victories seem to movement conservatives, are they doing anything significant to advance their desired ends? And, of course, Mr. Breitbart hasn't even achieved all the things I've just mentioned. The episode with Ms. Sherrod destroyed Big Government's credibility more than the NAACP. The people most persuaded by his posts are already hard core conservatives, not converts being persuaded by his charm or the force of his arguments.

It isn't that there is never an instance when these tactics are effective -- it's just that even in those rare instances, it is only a short-term tactical victory, because it is based on slightly altering the balance of political power at a frozen moment rather than beneficial changes in long term public attitudes. The culture war waged against Bill Clinton arguably helped to defeat Hillary-care, but the prescription drug benefit passed a few years later, and Barack Obama's health care overall came soon after. Yet this short term calculus is the most dominant one in politics.

Let's look at some other data-points. In 1992, Bill Clinton didn't win because he ran a more ruthless campaign. It was the economy, mostly. Hillary Clinton ran the more ruthless campaign in the 2008 Democratic primary. She lost.

The last conservative triumph, back during the Reagan years, came when the biggest voices on the right were people like William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan himself. The supposedly indispensable Rush Limbaugh rose to prominence after that election had been won, and although many movement conservatives insist that his influence with the base is critical, I can't help but wonder what use it is if it couldn't stop all the George W. Bush excesses that conservatives complain so much. And how strong can his influence possibly be considering that GOP primary voters last selected John McCain, the guy Rush Limbaugh hates most, to be their candidate.

Lots of hard core progressives and movement conservatives are wrong: Political and ideological gains don't come from being best at smashing faces through plate glass windows or winning news cycles or employing the most extreme rhetoric. Perhaps you disagree with some of the examples I used. These are contentious issues. Overall, however, I hope you'll agree that the subset of people who treat politics as guerrilla warfare have a terrible win-loss record, and a warped, wrongheaded view of how winning in politics is done. I don't really know if one side of the political spectrum or the other engages in this kind of nonsense more often, but this isn't an argument about which side is worse, its an observation that some people on both sides are operating on a faulty premise.

Disagree? Have counterexamples? I'd like to hear them. This isn't something I've argued about very much, so perhaps there are holes in what I've said. Do note that I am not talking about ruthlessness as practiced by people who wield actual power in government. That is a different conversation.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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