On good followership

by Andrew Sprung

Last week, Andrew linked to Glenn Greenwald's lacerating response to Obama loyalists who sounded off on the Dish against left-wing attacks on Obama (Patrick's response here; a reader's here):

Those who venerated Bush because he was a morally upright and strong evangelical-warrior-family man and revere Palin as a common-sense Christian hockey mom are similar in kind to those whose reaction to Obama is dominated by their view of him as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual.  These are personality types bolstered with sophisticated marketing techniques, not policies, governing approaches or ideologies.  But for those looking for some emotional attachment to a leader, rather than policies they believe are right, personality attachments are far more important.  They're also far more potent.  Loyalty grounded in admiration for character will inspire support regardless of policy, and will produce and sustain the fantasy that this is not a mere politician, but a person of deep importance to one's life who -- like a loved one or close friend or religious leader -- must be protected and defended at all costs.

Greenwald is right, of course. Personality is seductive, and team sports are seductive, and politics for most people is a team sport. Obama is a highly seductive personality, and the seduction lies in large part in his showcasing of his own deliberative processes, and willingness to consider all sides, and base decisions on data, and present his policies as a synthesis that partly incorporates opposing points of view. That is part skillful marketing, as Greenwald suggests, but "marketing" embedded in his personality.

That intellect on display can induce some of us to invest Obama with the properties of what some Freudians call "the one presumed to know." When presented with an apparent Obama error of policy or presentation, it's tempting to assume that he's "playing a long game," thinking five moves ahead, not focused on the daily news cycle, etc. etc. -- rather than that he or his surrogates just miscalculated, or suffered a failure of nerve, or failed to pay attention, or caved to corporate interests, or otherwise erred.  We owe it to him and to the country not to cede our critical faculties and to oppose him when we believe he's of-course.

But there's another side to this.  In assessing a leader's  actions or positions, personality can't be discounted entirely. That goes for writers too, and anyone else who influences us.  Take Greenwald, for example. His powerful polemics are fueled by a personality that never suffers doubt. It's hard to imagine him considering that were he ever in power, he might see some issues differently  And therefore to consider whether his own point of view might in some instances be partial -- and whether in such circumstances, God forbid, it might be rational to give a leader who explains his own reasoning in detail the benefit of the doubt.

Greenwald's writings on Afghanistan are a case in point. So many writers deeply versed in U.S. foreign policy -- Steve Coll, Andrew Exum,  Fred Kaplan, Joe Klein, James Fallows -- have admitted to doubt as to the right course, whether they recommend a specific course or not. Fallows, hardly one to cede his judgment to leadership (though a self-confessed nonexpert on that part of the world), plainly senses with every instinct that the U.S. will never foster a viable government in Afghanistan. Yet his respect for Obama's process and reasoning led him to title his post following Obama's West Point speech, "Well, I hope he's right"   and to allow for the possibility that he might be. Not Greenwald.  Here's a sampling of his writing on the subject:

How long are we going to continue to do this?  We invade and occupy a country, and then label as "insurgents" or even "terrorists" the people in that country who fight against our invasion and occupation.  With the most circular logic imaginable, we then insist that we must remain in order to defeat the "insurgents" and "terrorists" -- largely composed of people whose only cause for fighting is our presence in their country.  All the while, we clearly exacerbate the very problem we are allegedly attempting to address -- Terrorism -- by predictably and inevitably increasing anti-American anger and hatred through our occupation, which, no matter the strategy, inevitably entails our killing innocent civilians.  Indeed, does Hoh's description of what drives the insurgency -- anger "against the presence of foreign soldiers" -- permit the conclusion that that's all going to be placated with a shift to a kind and gentle counter-insurgency strategy?

Powerful stuff. But some facts and strong counter-theories are conspicuously left out, e.g. 1) U.S. neglect of Aghanistan after the Soviets pulled out led to years of civil war contributed mightily to the rise of the Taliban, and the safe haven for al Qaeda. 2) The cycle described here was to some degree arrested in Iraq by the surge. 3) The Afghan people were not hostilely disposed toward the U.S. and allies when the Taliban were first driven out, and the country was hardly 'occupied ' by the minimal forces deployed in the aftermath. Again, arguably, the country spun into chaos more because of U.S. neglect than because of a too-heavy occupying hand. 5) Even now, the populace as a whole is not ill-disposed toward the U.S . or well-disposed toward the Taliban.

This is not to say that Greenwald -- and Matthew Hoh, whose argument he was seconding in this post -- may not prove right about the futility of the U.S. attempt to stabilize Afghanistan. The point, again, is that absence of doubt is a limitation as well as a strength of Greenwald's. As Andrew Exum wrote in reference to this post:

Look, if someone writes something and it matches up with your opinion, by all means say so. But I know about 50 really smart people on Afghanistan with lots of time on the ground there, and no two have the same opinion about what U.S. policy should be. Let's not turn one dude whose opinions on Afghanistan happen to line up with the zeitgeist into the flippin' Delphic oracle.

Certainty comes from ideological consistency, and Greenwald is nothing if not consistent.  His contrast between "corporatist" and anticorporatist Democrats has a lot of truth to it, as does his portrayal of Obama as someone generally willing to play ball with corporate interests. But I think he underestimates  the realism, and the purpose behind the realism, behind Obama's conciliatory approach. The Senate health care reform bill, if something very like it passes, may transform health care delivery and health care insurance -- over twenty years, with many subsequent reforms built on the basic structure. Obama is determined to move the battleship by degrees, because that's the only way it can be moved. Greenwald considers the Senate HCR bill a gift to the insurance industry. I see it more as a trade -- 30 million new customers in exchange for ending their worst practices, not to mention some stiff taxes. 

Further, while no one would accuse Greenwald of not thinking out any of his own policy positions, most people who adopt a pronounced ideological framework tend to buy at least some of their opinions off the rack. (Okay, so do those who don't adopt one.) Some might even follow Greenwald (or, say, Rachel Maddow) in lockstep. In many cases, opposing a leader who tacks to what's perceived as the center on a given issue may be just as reflexive and represent just as much an abdication of independent thought as supporting a charismatic head of the party with whom one identifies.

Finally, judgment based in part on assessment of personality is not only inherent in human nature, it's essential to democracy. Though most people would probably disagree, I believe that over the long curve of history the electorate continues to prove itself smarter than all of us.  That's because the mass of voters -- or at least of swing voters -- are moved by some alchemy of events and response to the individuals competing for their vote.  Campaigns can obfuscate, and sometimes the obfuscation prevails. But you still can't fool all of the people all of the time.