Politics Isn't War

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.

Presented by

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In