Political Trolls: What the GOP Hath Sowed
Scott’s post last week attacking the Republican behavior before, during and after the health care debate generated quite the lively discussion in the comments thread. Scott and many primarily left-of-center commenters argued that the Republican and conservative leadership need to own up to their responsibility in fomenting death threats because “the very participation of Republican and conservative activists in the year plus health care debate have been of a largely reason and fact free nature, underwritten by a reliance on hyperbole and hysteria.”
I agree that Republican and conservative leaders and activists bear primary responsibility for the environment that has fostered these sporadic threats of violence (and let’s be clear here, the threats of violence are only sporadic – the country’s not on the verge of civil war no matter what some folks might want to think). But my reasons for agreeing are materially different.*
The problem is not that Republican and conservative leaders were, as Scott says, reliant “on hyperbole and hysteria.” Reliance on hyperbole and hysteria as a mode of political argumentation is as old as politics and, as Jaybird argued in the comments to Scott’s thread, is far superior to reliance on actual violence. One American politician from the 1840s expressed it thusly: “Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed do about as well as principle and reason in any party contest.” Then there’s LBJ’s campaign against Barry Goldwater, in which “They put out a Goldwater joke book entitled You Can Die Laughing. They even created a children’s coloring book, in which your little one could happily color pictures of Goldwater dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Nor is the problem that Republicans and conservative leaders were reflexively opposed to health care reform and have adopted a “Party of No” theme. I’m not aware of any duty in politics for an opposition party to provide assistance to the majority party in the achievement of the majority party’s goals. Such a strategy may be crass and political, but we shouldn’t be shocked that politics factors into, well, politics.
Instead, the problem with the behavior of the conservative and GOP leadership is that they have behaved throughout this debate like internet trolls and have thus utterly failed to represent the actual interests of their constituencies. By behaving as trolls, the GOP and conservative leadership left the Dems with little choice but to do what any good blogger does in response to trolls: stop feeding them. And in politics, just as on the intertubes, when you stop feeding the trolls you cut them out of the discussion entirely. Unfortunately, in a two-party system, this means that you not only cut the other party out of the discussion entirely, you cut out all of the people on that party’s side in the debate.
Somewhere along the line, the Democrats told the Tea Partiers and movement conservatives and Republican politicians that they didn’t really give a damn what Tea Partiers, movement conservatives and Republican politicians had to say on the matter. It was at about this time that the most extreme rhetoric started to become a widespread phenomenon on the Right – the grassroots may be many things, but it would’ve been blind to miss the giant middle finger being extended to them coming from the Dems. It is this alienation that has driven much of the Right to unprecedented levels of anger, and driven the most angry elements of the Right to the insanity of threatened violence.
But again – the Democrats had little choice but to extend their collective middle finger to the Right, whose leaders simply were not engaging in actual debate but were instead acting as trolls just trying to prevent any actual argument from taking place.
So, what do I mean by a troll? As I mentioned above, the mere reliance on hyperbole and hysteria is not what I’m talking about here. Nor am I criticizing the Republicans or conservative leadership for being uncivil, abrasive, or nasty – as far as I’m concerned, one can be the nastiest and most cantankerous f’er on the planet and still be a meaningful participant in an argument. Hell, being a nasty and cantankerous f’er can be an effective strategy in many instances. Nor am I suggesting that the Republicans needed to present a viable alternative proposal or even negotiate in good faith – they’re an opposition party, not goodwill ambassadors, and besides politics is in many ways the very art of negotiating in bad faith.
Instead, what the GOP and conservative leadership did was to refuse to respond to any of the Democrats’ actual arguments or counterargument for their health care reform bill. When the reforms were proposed, they cried “socialism!” and “fascism!” and, eventually, “death panels!” So far, so good, though – by themselves these claims aren’t too much different from implying that Barry Goldwater was a card-carrying member of the KKK with a devious plot to initiate a nuclear holocaust. Where they went off the rails, though, was when they failed to address the Democrats’ calls of “Bullshit!” – calls that usually came with at least some evidence. As soon as the Dems called “Bullshit!” the cowards turned tail and ran from the argument rather than defend themselves. Rather than waving aloft provisions of the bills that at least provided a grain of truth to their hyperbole or refuted the Dems’ own defenses, they just shouted “death panels” as if that were an argument; instead of putting Ruth Ann Johnson, that poor widow from Wichita who’s going to see her Medicare benefits cut, on center stage, they just whined about how those mean liberals are being so uncivil to them; and so on.
In essence, from my perspective the course of the debate seemed to go thusly (and remember, I think the health care reform bill that the Democrats passed will cause far more problems than it solves):
Democrat: We have 55 million uninsured in this country who need our health; health care reform will go a long way to solving that problem.
Republican: Bullshit! It’s socialism! And fascism! And there’s going to be death panels!
Democrat: This bill ensures health insurance remains a private sector business. And what death panels? There’s none in this bill. And as things are, we already have death panels – they’re called insurance companies.
Republican: It’s socialism! And fascism! And there’s going to be death panels!
Democrat: Hey asshole, are you deaf? Did you not hear anything I just said?
Republican: How dare you call me a deaf asshole? This is just proof that you are not at all interested in anything that I or anyone of the decent, hardworking real Americans that I represent have to say, you liberal, latte-sipping East Coast elitist douchebag!
Democrat: Aw, screw it. I think we’ll just take our chances with our 60 votes in the Senate.
To be sure, there were exceptions, but for the vast majority of the GOP and conservative leadership, I think the above is pretty much how things went.
Again – I’m not looking for civility or nuance or anything of that nature. Public political discourse is and will always be nasty and ugly, even if it’s far better than the alternative. Instead, all that is required for an effective and non-violent political discourse is two sides who fight by responding to actual arguments, however wrong those responses are, rather than just repeating the same rote response over and over again or feigning victimhood. Indeed, what I have come to so love about the League as it has developed over the last 15 months is precisely that so many of y’all fight back round after round. The precious few moments where a thread has been unenjoyable for me have been precisely those rare times when an opponent has done a hit-and-run, contributing nothing but a few poorly placed lines of undecipherable snark.
If one thinks an argument is bullshit and fantasy, then say it’s bullshit and fantasy. But if the alleged purveyor of bullshit and fantasy responds with something that at least raises a material issue of fact, then one better be willing to either (1) attempt to demonstrate that my “material issue of fact” isn’t just unpersuasive, but is in fact still bullshit in one’s eyes OR (2) to concede that the other side is not full of shit, even if one is unpersuaded OR (3) to concede that the other side is right. But don’t suddenly disappear or just repeat the same thing you already said in different words or complain that the other side is being unfair. And if one responds with option (1) or (2), it’s quite alright if you’re nasty in the process – just give the other side something, anything, to work with.
Option 2 is the best one can ever hope for in most disagreements; fortunately, it’s very achievable in virtually every disagreement one ever has, no matter how animated, at least as long as both sides are being honest. More importantly, it ensures that at the end of the day, everybody recognizes that they’ve had a fair fight and can go home with a grudging respect for their worthy adversary. Unfortunately, this route is never achievable when at least one side is not being honest, no matter how civil the two sides are being.
The Republicans weren’t being honest. They ran from the fight and there is no “grudging respect,” just a bunch of folks who feel alienated from the process.
* I disagree that this responsibility creates a duty to apologize, however – at this point an apology would do no good whatsoever; it would be the equivalent of Kevin Bacon shouting “All is well!” at the end of Animal House. The damage is already done and the best that can be hoped for is that these folks behave more responsibly on future issues.