The politics of pettiness ctd.
Scott has a thoughtful follow-up to my anti-pettiness screed. I want to point out, however, that far more than the problems with populism, I was writing about the problems with elites manipulating it for their own purposes – which, in a sense, is the problem with populism. It is not so much that the huddled masses are wrong, or not to be trusted, or any of that. It is that they are all busy people. They have kids. They work for a living. They don’t have as much time, money, or education as the elites do. They don’t have the connections or the wherewithal or the behind-the-scenes knowledge of the political system. They’re not as connected to government or the media. This doesn’t make them foolish or ignorant or bad. Quite the contrary.
In many ways the people out there opposing the Iraq war or the tea-partiers out there opposing big government or any of these grassroots groups are good people, honorable people doing good and important work. Scott is involved in some activist efforts up in Canada, and if people didn’t get involved at the grassroots level or with politics in general, we’d be in much worse shape than we are now. I am not against this sort of popular politics. Indeed, we have a Democratic Republic so that we can elect representatives to do our will, to some degree, and in order for them to really understand our will a little bit of populism is necessary and vital to the health of our democracy.
But it can be misused and abused by the very people who so often populist anger ought to be directed. And right now I believe we’re seeing a Republican leadership that is disingenuously manipulating populist sentiment against the president and the Democrats. (I would argue that Obama has done much the same thing by running a very populist campaign and then following it up with a very insider-oriented administration. He’s simply more charming than his Republican rivals.) They are stooping to petty rhetoric and exaggeration and sometimes outright lies to rile up the base against a president who they describe as “radical” and worse.
Now, I have no problem with opposition. I think the Republicans should oppose Obama in many ways. They are well within their rights and indeed within their obligations to do so. It’s the pettiness and the dishonesty of their methods which rub me the wrong way, and I believe they stoop to these methods in order to gain populist support. And populists are vulnerable to these elite leaders because the elites have everything the populists don’t have – high podiums, connections, funding, and so forth. It’s a dysfunctional relationship, and one played out time and again throughout history.
So when I see Newt Gingrich on the Daily Show calling Obama a radical because we read a terrorist his rights on American soil, I just cringe. It sounds ludicrous to me, because it is ludicrous. We’re not talking about reading some enemy combatant over in Iraq or Afghanistan their rights after we capture them. We’re talking about a guy we caught in a plane landing in Detroit. There is a difference. And of course, there is precedent with the Shoe Bomber, just as there is precedent with trying terrorists in non-military courts as George W. Bush did over five hundred times during his presidency. Gingrich and other ostensibly smart people should know better than to dress this up as some “radical” anti-American and dangerous practice. But they do it because they believe it stokes the fires of angry populist sentiment in America, and because they want to be in charge of the narrative however absurd and petty that narrative may become.
Has it always been thus? I suppose it has, to one degree or another. Nor are the dividing lines so easy to define. Some elitism is just as necessary as some populism. Indeed, we can’t really do away with any of it can we? The point is, however, that we can do away with some of the pettiness, some of the dishonesty, and shoot for more reason and integrity. We don’t have to be nice or amicable either. We don’t have to ditch partisanship in favor of some mythical bipartisan Utopia. We can be partisan and honest at the same time. We can be partisan and still not so petty.