Talking past one another on partisanship
Okay. So everyone is right and everyone is talking past one another. I responded to James Fallows yesterday, who was responding to Ross Douthat on his column about partisanship. Daniel Larison weighed in twice – in response to Ross and in response to myself. In an email, Fallows told me I was misreading him and I’m willing to believe him on that front. I think perhaps he was misreading Ross a bit, too, but I could be wrong.
It was always going to be a pretty low bar for Obama to clear to be “better on civil liberties” than Bush. Regardless, whether a lot of people expected that or not, we need to remember that Obama voted for PATRIOT Act renewal in 2006, and went along with the FISA bill in 2008 that he had previously vowed to filibuster. It’s important to distinguish between primary-season rhetoric and what Obama actually voted for when he was in the Senate. If Obama promised one thing to Wisconsin primary voters in the winter of 2007-08 and then did the opposite in the spring when it came time to vote, it’s a bit of stretch to compare the Obama administration to the primary candidate’s rhetoric rather than the Senator’s voting record. There was little reason to assume that Obama would be a civil libertarian in office, and he has confirmed most of the worst fears that civil libertarian skeptics had about him. If many people expected that he would be a civil libertarian, that helps explain why they are dispirited and disillusioned, but it doesn’t refute the core of Fallows’ argument.
True. But I would add one caveat: most voters who came to the polls for Obama were far more aware of his election rhetoric than they were of his voting record. Liberals and independents voted for Obama as a rejection of Bush policies, not as a confirmation of the specifics of Obama’s voting record. So Obama’s rhetoric did not line up with his actual position on things like domestic surveillance – so people vote for illusions as much as they do for tangible things. The point of Ross’s column, so far as I can tell, is that when Team A is in power, Team A partisans cheer its policies even though, were they enacted by Team B, they would oppose them. If Bush had imposed naked scanners and groping by the TSA, liberals who today remain mostly quiet or at best mildly critical of these policies would be up in arms. Similarly, the Charles Krauthammers of the world would never dare write critical columns of these policies under a Republican administration – they would be loudly cheering on the whole affair. Obviously the civil-libertarians, limited-government conservatives, principled anti-war progressives, etc. etc. remain consistent no matter what. Folks like Greenwald and Larison aren’t partisans, though. They aren’t part of this critique.
Now, to the question of whether the one side is worse than the other – I tend to agree with both Larison and Fallows. Conservatives and Republicans are, by and large, far more hypocritical than their liberal and Democratic counterparts. I think this is largely due to the conservative movement, which at once gives the GOP and the conservative base a lot of gusto and political power, but also places partisanship far above principle. It also makes it easy for conservative gatekeepers to outcast dissenters and to turn the entire narrative on a dime – hence the many ‘come to Jesus’ moments we’ve seen from the GOP lately. Fiscal conservatism is suddenly back in style; security-state overreach is miraculously a GOP cause again. Liberals have no such movement, and thus have far less capacity for hypocrisy.
But I take Ross’s column to not so much create a perfect equivalency as to describe a mechanism by which partisanship works. He isn’t saying – and is likely avoiding – whether one side is worse than the other. But he also isn’t saying that both sides are exactly the same at least in terms of degree. Rather, he was saying that partisans of whatever stripe are guilty of this sort of teamisim in kind. That the GOP is worse is secondary to the discussion Ross was trying to have. The fact of the matter is both sides are working to grow government in all the worst ways. Ross noted that, in this sense, having even a hypocritical opposition is a good thing. I’m not so sure. This kind of partisanship is actually something of an enabler to the two party illusion – a false opposition exists, but everyone knows that when they take control they’ll continue the very bad policies of their predecessors. So we have all the showmanship and none of the substance of an actual opposition. It might play well on Fox News, but it does us very little good in the real world.