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.

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93 thoughts on “Political Trolls: What the GOP Hath Sowed

  1. * 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.

    I disagree with this. The “Animal House” analogy is completely wrong, in my opinion.

    An apology is the first step in showing one’s intent to “behave more responsibly on future issues”. Additionally, it is part of our social system of modeling acceptable behavior. If I don’t apologize when I’m a jerk, my kids see that behavior and model it in the future (to be clear, I do apologize when I’m a jerk, and I’ve gotten lots of practice at apologizing).

    If we don’t treat others as we wish to be treated, then much of the social contract dissolves (IMHO). If someone directly refuses these elements of “social lubrication” that keep the gears going, then that is a direct message of “I will NOT behave more responsibly in the future” or “the social contract doesn’t apply to me”.

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    • Maybe John, but the risen Christ wouldn’t be able to extract an apology from the GOP and the Tea Party right on this issue so then question then becomes whether we allow their behavior to stop the gears moving or whether we decide consciously to move forward.

      It is important to note that they have been punished for their behavior by means of the resulting outcome; a health care reform bill has been signed into law over which they exerted virtually no influence and they have been delivered a historic political defeat as a consequence of their behavior. If they fail to recapture both the House and the Senate (and especially if they fail to capture the House) in the next election then their political spanking will be well and truly delivered.

      At this point the best vengeance the Democrats and Obama can extract would be to govern well and effectively. My own humble suggestion would be that Obama should focus on electorally popular stuff like finance reform until the election and then take steps to do something about the countries finances afterwards. The Democrats have achieved a huge step towards one of their signature policy goals this year. It would behoove them to address the finances of the country themselves rather than let it be done by parties more hostile to their priorities.

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      • North, I agree with all your points, and they’re good points.

        My disagreement with Mark’s disagreement (!?) was based on his statement that an apology “would do no good whatsoever”. I tried to show how it WOULD do some good. Not about whether the apology could be extracted or whether there were (or should be) consequences, just that apologies are an important part of the “social lubrication”.

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        • A few years ago, I probably would have agreed with this, but to be honest the pattern of very public, very insincere apologias we’ve seen for various wrongs in recent years have made me conclude that the social lubrication factor as often as not amounts to just a deception of the public to get them off one’s case. Which is to say that I credit apologias not at all.

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          • This is exactly the point I was about to make. I’m thinking of the snark that accompanies any public apology, rather it was Trent Lott or Tiger Woods or Mark McGwire. The media / Hollywood has made the Public Apology a rite of passage for public figures. There’s no substance anymore.

            JHG, let’s say the GOP collectively apologized for the Bush years and said, “We’re going to do better.” Would that honestly make you any more likely to like their ideas? In the comments for Scott’s post you mentioned that there are no more honest Republicans and then rattled off a list of Standard Liberal Talking Points that proved why. But many of those things weren’t dishonesty. They were very real and fundamental differences in policy. If you can’t even get over that first hurdle of understanding how someone can fundamentally disagree with you at a very base level and still have good intentions…how could an apology ever mean anything to you? At the end of the day they still are going to be pro-life and anti-affirmative action and you’ll say they aren’t honest.

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            • let’s say the GOP collectively apologized for the Bush years and said, “We’re going to do better.” Would that honestly make you any more likely to like their ideas?

              No, it wouldn’t make me more likely to like their ideas. But, it would make me more likely to listen to them and take them seriously, and that is the first step that must be taken before there is a chance that I will like their ideas.

              In the comments for Scott’s post you mentioned that there are no more honest Republicans and then rattled off a list of Standard Liberal Talking Points that proved why. But many of those things weren’t dishonesty. They were very real and fundamental differences in policy.

              I really don’t understand this at all. I’ll choose a single thing that I discussed: deficits. I hear Republicans say (today) that deficits are really bad for the country. I assume that some of these are what you call “honest Republicans”. During the Bush years, the deficit doubled. I did not hear more than a few Republicans say anything about deficits being bad during the Bush years. Therefore, there are very few honest Republicans, or they are hypocritical and only blame Democrats for deficits. Even the cries today about Obama’s deficit are hypocritical – the CBO projected over $1 trillion in deficits in 2009 BEFORE Obama took office (early January 2009).

              This is not a difference of opinion on policies. This is Republicans acting and saying different things about the same policy, depending on who is in the White House.

              I’m not going to rehash that earlier thread, but I will try to explain further. There are no honest Republicans because they are inconsistent and hypocritical in their professed beliefs, not because I disagree with their policy positions.

              Obamacare is socialism! the Republicans cry. Yet, Obamacare has many elements that are identical to Romneycare or the Republican health proposals from the early 90’s. This is the politics of hypocrisy. When they continue to do this for years, I stop taking them seriously. Hence, my belief that there are no more exceptionally few honest Republicans remaining.

              Perhaps, you are one of the few remaining honest ones. I certainly don’t know, because I don’t know what you were saying about the Republicans for the past 9 years.

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          • If enough people stop expecting apologies, then the social contract would be altered. But, then, how would one show they are serious about behaving more responsibly on future issues?

            Also, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. If apologies are insincere, then let’s not believe them. But, let’s keep expecting them (sincere ones).

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            • I don’t believe that apologies are part of the ‘social contract’. Are people’s sensativities really so fragile? And who assesses sincerity? The very people least-inclined to believe it. It’s a flawed process and really just an exercise in public theater.

              I also really, really, really believe the people clamoring loudest for a public apology are also the people most inclined to use it to score cheap political points.

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                  • The most important part of an apology is entirely internal to the person making the apology. A sincere apology requires taking responsibility for one’s actions and words; of expressing regret; of acknowledging a mistake.

                    In my mind, the people who most deserve an apology from the Republican leadership is…..Republicans. But, the most important part of the process if for them to feel regret or take responsibility for their actions and words.

                    I thought this was obvious, but apparently I’m a little too obtuse in my explanations.

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                    • Sure, that would be terrific. I’m still waiting on Republicans for that change in tone.

                      Here’s a good example of the tone not changing: recently a few Republicans have said negative things about Rush. Rush then lambastes them on the next show. Then, those same Republicans apologize to Rush and say they didn’t really mean it, so they are brought back into the fold.

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                    • But again, you’re talking about a very public thing. You want to see Republicans publically dressing-down fellow Republicans. It still seems like you aren’t going to be happy unless there’s some kind of visable action that you can point to and say, “See? They realized they were in the wrong.”

                      And if it’s just about a change in tone – I assume you advocate the same for the Left, or are you suggesting they are free from guilt in that department?

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                    • I don’t understand, Mike.

                      How will I notice a change in tone if not in the public statements they make?

                      And, of course I advocate the same for the Left. In fact, most of my comments have been that EVERYONE must do it – it is part of the SOCIAL CONTRACT, that it is important to SOCIETY.

                      Read the words – my intent is right there, plain as day.

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      • The whole social analysis of apologies business is misleading, just like the last thread about violence.

        I don’t expect either side to issue much in the way of apologies in the near future, but that isn’t because anybody is a jerk. Their team aren’t going to apologize because the vast majority of them are too ignorant to know what they ought to apologize for. Our team isn’t going to apologize because we don’t have very much to apologize for.

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  2. Bullshit, Mark!
    The reason for the threats of violence, assuming there were anymore than normal, is the radical shift to the left orchestrated by Dear Leader’s regime…there’s still Americans who don’t want to be Romanians (sorry, Romanians). And, if you think this is violent wait until more and more people are put outta work by the Enlightened One’s policies, or people die as a result of being denied commie-dem health care, or are refused treatment by the federal health care bureaucracy or not treated in a timely manner, and so on.
    The best thing the GOP can do is stay as far away from this commie-dem train wreck as possible, whether it’s crap and trade, Algore’s wetdream (climate change), illegal immigration, kissing Muslim ass, gun control, etc.
    As far as I can see the American people wanted a little taste of Kenyan-communism! Well, boys and grils how’s it working for you?

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  3. Excellent post.

    The Republicans’ behavior during the healthcare debate was particularly disappointing to those of us who believed that there were legitimate policy reasons for not adopting the bill, and that those reasons needed to be articulated in a way that could be taken seriously by moderates. Some of us tried, but we were either drowned out, or we suffered some pretty lousy guilt by association.

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  4. I’m not a big news watcher, and actually most of my news comes from the weekly issue of the Economist- so I missed much of this debate. However, I did turn on CNN the day after the bill passed and was startled to see the Republicans grousing like a group of sullen teenagers about how nobody ever listens to them. It seemed pretty misguided, given that one of the Republican strengths has always been being much more rock-ribbed than that. Being stoically angry in the face of defeat garners more respect.

    As for the bill, well, the real issue with US health care is that every single service costs more over there than anywhere else. Your costs are ridiculously inflated. Even getting a broken bone set costs more in the US than anywhere else. The bill doesn’t really address the cost of services in any serious way at all, so it’s a bit like getting the government to foot more of an already inflated bill in order to prevent a troubled industry from collapsing under its own weight. Not a lot different from the auto industry bailouts in that sense. On the other hand, now it’s the government’s responsibility to address areas that it never was before. That was a sea change, and it’s understandable that the Republicans are angry. They got screwed really hard on this one.

    As for the rhetoric, I don’t find it alarming at all. I just think that the way of communicating that works well in broadcasting doesn’t translate well to political speech, and there’s an abnormally vigorous attempt to make that translation right now. The propaganda wing of a party shouldn’t drive the party. The problem with the Internet, for political parties, is that it amplifies the propaganda wing of each party by 100 times. It allows each mouse to roar.

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    • I agree completely with your first two paragraphs here, especially the note about the GOP traditionally being proud of its thick skin but now suddenly acting like petulant children in their attempts to paint themselves as martyrs.

      As for your last paragraph, I think you’re onto something there. Still, I think it’s entirely possible to at least engage in argument through sound bite in a way that represents your constituency honestly. As I say above, hyperbole and paranoia are just a part of political rhetoric; I think our sound-bite culture probably makes this more important. But when your hyperbole gets called out, you can at least try to defend it rather than just repeating it or playing the victim.

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    • I agree with Rufus here, but for the GOP specifically, I think the problem is more talk radio and FNC rather than the internet. There’s a sizable, loud portion of the GOP base that listens more to those outlets than internet message boards, but the effect is the same: mice roar, and politicians heed the call.

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      • Well, it’s two different styles of speech, right? Talk radio hosts are supposed to use sensationalism to pull in listeners, so the hyperbole makes sense. In politics, sensational hyperbole is much more appropriate for the campaign stops than trying to get Bill # 123423211321 passed. The problem is that civilians think the talk stars are somehow being more “straightforward” and “honest” than those wily politicians, when they’re really just trying to push their listeners’ buttons and get their numbers up.

        That said, I think the GOP really just needs a few Bill Buckley types to play good cop when their hyperbole gets questioned. The closest I can think of to a smooth talker on their side is Mitt Romney, which is sort of depressing. The Democrats have Barack Obama, and his entire rhetorical style is to vastly overstate the arguments on the left and the right and then position himself in the middle. “Now, there are some on the right who think that even allowing the poor into hospitals is communism! And there are some voices on the left who say that we should put Communist China in charge of our health care system! But, me, I’m just trying to find bipartisan compromise.”

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        • Ha. Not that original of an observation I guess, but well expressed. I’m surprised by how few politicians have mastered this rhetorical device. For Obama, it often verges on a tautology; “I’ve found the right balance on the spectrum of bi-partisanship and anyone who disagrees is, by definition, an extremist.”

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        • The other thing talk radio hyperbole eliminates is humility, the idea that anyone can say “I may be wrong.” To keep the viewers watching, you have to broadcast the idea that you are the ONLY correct source, the ONLY thing worth watching, so then what you say must be the ONLY truth. And that means you must have a truth to spout about everything. I get so, so frustrated at people who are positive they are right and will brook no arguments, even if they don’t have anything more to back it up than incorrect facts and “well Rush/Glenn/etc said so!”

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          • Same as it ever was…

            In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.
            – Mark Twain

            Great points, though.

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    • “I just think that the way of communicating that works well in broadcasting doesn’t translate well to political speech, and there’s an abnormally vigorous attempt to make that translation right now. The propaganda wing of a party shouldn’t drive the party. The problem with the Internet, for political parties, is that it amplifies the propaganda wing of each party by 100 times. It allows each mouse to roar.”

      Ok well which party are we representing here then? In the OP Mark asserted that the debate over health care was largely dominated by death panels, which is nine months or so out of date. Is this meant to have some value as an expository argument or merely propaganda?

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  5. That faux-dialog is misleading and self-serving, the idea that it’s really ok to keep believing that Republicans have cooties instead of putting in one’s fair shift to help the cause of prosperity and limited government in America. I haven’t heard anything about death panels since July or so. And the whole thing was a creation of Sarah Palin and arguing about them was mostly in relation to her.

    The GOP criticisms of HCR were mostly about being too big, too intrusive, costing too much, not being transparent, etc.

    The real elephant in the living room was that the D’s never really articulated their bottom line motivation: that everybody ought to get free or cheap health care, and the fact that some people don’t creates an immediate need for us in the political class to do something to rectify it. They never argued for this because they didn’t want to be held accountable for the public’s answer.

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      • Well yes but that was one of their hide-the-ball tricks. What they said was

        1. There’s X million uninsured
        2. The HC system is broke therefore we have to fix it.

        What they believe is we have to fix it so that there are no more uninsured or people who otherwise lack coverage or access to health care. But that’s not how Americans in general evaluate the health care system and if they didn’t know it before, they certainly know it now.

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  6. good post mark, i generally agree. i would diverge a bit though with how the caustic and bullshitfull nature of the discourse is actually bad for us. not that it is new but when all or most of the discussion is in various forms of lies, threats, superheated emotions or political maneuvering then that becomes the substance of our democracy. and democracy doesn’t function all that well when bullshit is majority of our discussion. even just the base motive of wanting your own party to win and the other to lose debases the high minded concept of what democracy is supposed to be. the thing is most of us on various sides of the political rhombus are unhappy with how our democracy functions and some of that is due to what passes for our dialouge.

    I guess the only other thing about how the R’s conducted themselves which i thought was just sad was the utter shamelessness of their lies. I’ve heard recent discussions about the mandate and how many R’s think it is unconstitutional. well it has been pointed out that the mandate was originally a R idea. when asked about this most R pol’s have said something along the lines of ” hey look at that big distracting thing over there”. one senator, i think it was mcconnel or hatch, said that they were for a mandate in the 90’s only to kill clintion’s HCR and they were lying at the time. is that pol going to suffer any repercussions for saying ” why yes i am not only a liar but willing to lie about absolutely anything to win.” and then we wonder why we get the pols we do.

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    • Thanks, Greg.

      Regarding whether causticism, etc., are bad for us, my general feeling is that it all rather depends on the situation. I can’t really define the line between good causticism and bad causticism, though, other than to say that it seems to work pretty well for some people and less well for others. For example, I’m probably within the ideological target of the majority of posts at Balloon Juice, and yet for some reason I can’t help but enjoy reading that site more days than not. For me, the causticism and whatnot has the effect of narrowing things down quite nicely. I suspect that the division between those who can and cannot deploy causticism effectively is between those who are willing to take as much as they give and those who are not. But that’s just conjecture.

      To me, the big point is that for politics to be an effective tool for non-violent resolution of disputes, there has to be an actual political argument. If there’s no actual argument, but still a dispute, the dispute doesn’t go away, and it’s still going to have to get settled one way or another. I don’t see much wrong with shouting at each other and calling each other names so long as you’re actually making arguments in the process; I see quite a bit wrong with avoiding actual argumentation such that the dispute can’t be resolved at all. That’s not the same thing as saying that the dispute should be resolved by compromise – just that when there’s no attempt at an actual argument, you can’t even get to the point where you just agree to disagree.

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      • I’m not always sure where the line between nifty and evil caustic debate is either. My guess is it has something to do with self-righteousness and disingenuousness. If you are absolutely sure you are right and the other is wrong then your debate is probably bad caustic since you have no insight and are demonizing. If you don’t have any shame about what you say then you are likely to just smear shit instead of engaging in a loud but principled argument.

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      • “For example, I’m probably within the ideological target of the majority of posts at Balloon Juice, and yet for some reason I can’t help but enjoy reading that site more days than not. For me, the causticism and whatnot has the effect of narrowing things down quite nicely. I suspect that the division between those who can and cannot deploy causticism effectively is between those who are willing to take as much as they give and those who are not. But that’s just conjecture.”

        Really? I was thinking more along the lines of Iowahawk.

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  7. As an outsider to both parties, I don’t have a dog in this fight. This is my take on the last, oh, 20ish years.

    I sort of saw what happened as the culmination of several (political) generations that saw politics as game theory rather than… I dunno. Something more important. Instead of having, like, a goal that was measurable, it became a game that was measurable only by how apeshit crazy the opponents got.

    I first noticed this during the Clarence Thomas hearings under Bush I… and then saw it snowball under Clinton. There didn’t seem to be any underlying principles at all but the only thing that mattered was whether the other side went nutzo.

    Clinton got elected in 1992 (the only “real” vote I ever cast… sigh) with 43% of the popular vote and the Republicans/Perot voters went, you guessed it, nutzo. As such, Clinton’s defenders defended stuff that I couldn’t believe. (One of the main reasons I voted for Clinton in 1992 was, get this, women’s issues and our South American policy.) The stuff that was said about Paula Jones and Juanita Broderick floored me (keep in mind, my political awakening happened under the Clarence Thomas hearings). Whenever I got into a discussion about what the press was doing to Paula Jones, the automatic assumption was that I was a Republican hypocrite who didn’t care about womens’ issues at all and was using Paula Jones to hurt the only guy in the election who gave a damn about protecting the right of women to control their own sexual destinies.

    A lot of things happened in the 90’s and it seemed like no matter what Clinton did, Democrats would defend it tooth and nail… until the Marc Rich pardon. At the Marc Rich pardon, most of my Democratically-inclined friends deflated. I think they looked back at 8 years and saw… well, they hadn’t accomplished much of anything except an end to welfare as we knew it and NAFTA.

    The 2000 election did for the Democrats what the 1992 election did for the Republicans… and for the Republicans what it did for the Democrats. I remember arguing about, say, the Steel Tariffs… the Farm Bill… that fighter plane that crashed in China… and the automatic assumption that the only reason I could *POSSIBLY* be complaining rather than defending would be that I was a Democrat and was argued against accordingly for a while until it sunk in that I was not, at which point the argument turned into why I would be arguing against the only guy in the election who gave a damn about fiscal responsibility. After 9/11, everybody went a little bit crazy but, when the dust settled, the automatic assumption was that there were two sides and you were either helping or you were giving “aid and comfort to the enemy”. You’ve got a problem with signing statements? Don’t give aid and comfort to the enemy. You’ve got a problem with unitary executive? Don’t give aid and comfort to the enemy. Whenever the Republican Leadership (and lay leaders, e.g. Redstate (full disclosure, banned, etc)) had a choice between defending Conservativism and defending Republicans, they chose defending Republicans *EVERY* *TIME*.

    And it reminded me of nothing so much as the Democrats defending everything Clinton did… and I kept wondering what the “Marc Rich pardon” would end up being. Nope, not Terri Schiavo. Nope, not that lobbyist guy… oh, the bailouts. There you go.

    By the time the American People finished throwing the bums out in January, the Republican leadership (those that were left, anyway) noticed that it was 1992 again, insofar as they were in the minority in the House, Senate, and without the White House. And so did the Democrats.

    And the arguments coming out of Washington have nothing to do with principle.

    Again.

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    • Thanks for the post explaining that politics is filled with politicians who focus on political expedience via partisan politics. Very helpful! ;-)

      The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.

      – Mark Twain

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      • I would have thought that the focus from “politics as means to accomplish goals on behalf of those one represents” to “politics as applied game theory” was an interesting shift in politics.

        I assume it was a shift. Maybe it’s always been like that (goodness knows, it’s been like that for as long as I’ve been awake).

        If one sees it as game theory, the Republican unwillingness to do anything, seriously, anything AT ALL makes perfect sense… as does the willingness of the Democrats to buy off, say, Louisiana and Iowa’s representatives for a bill that doesn’t provide anything close to Single Payer or a Public Option but instead looks like a bill written by lobbyists for the Insurance Companies.

        When you stop thinking “oh, there are principles involved” and start thinking “what would game theory advise?”, the actions of both sides start making perfect, if somewhat less defensible, sense.

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        • On one hand this all works for me. On the other hand I’m scratching my head over it. So the principled thing for the Dems to have done would have been to flip their blue dogs the bird as well as the Republicans, proposed some kind of single payer or public option plan and then wrapped themselves tightly in their principles to keep warm as the bill crashed and burned under a filibuster before their eyes? Is there no room for compromise or practicality in this angle of politics?

          Also, for a bill that was a giveaway for insurance companies they sure lobbied hard against it once they thought they had a shot at killing it. A bill written by insurance lobbyists probably wouldn’t have taken away their ability to deny people with preconditions or use recession on insured people who get sick. Indeed the former actually sprang from the latter rather than the other way around; the mandate was issued in recognition of the fact that without it the antirecession and antipreconditions rules would swiftly run the insurance companies out of business.

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          • “Is there no room for compromise or practicality in this angle of politics?”

            I don’t know. I see the bill as Healthcare’s TSA.

            Instead of providing health care, we get health care theater.

            But, hey. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the bill that actually passed will result in security for Americans and, finally, drag us kicking and screaming into the First World where countries like Canada, England, Denmark, and France have been for decades and decades.

            My suspicion is counter. Time will tell.

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        • I would have thought that the focus from “politics as means to accomplish goals on behalf of those one represents” to “politics as applied game theory” was an interesting shift in politics.

          I agree that this would be very worthy of discussing…..if it actually happened. In the U.S., I don’t think that politics has been about accomplishing goals on behalf of those one represents, except in very specific and rare circumstances.

          This is the inherent flaw in representative democracy. The incentives to accomplish the goals of those one represents are miniscule compared to the incentives for power, wealth, prestige, fame, etc.

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            • Fair enough, Mr. Thompson. ;-)

              To clarify, I was saying Mike was cynical for this:

              I don’t believe that apologies are part of the ’social contract’. Are people’s sensativities really so fragile? And who assesses sincerity? The very people least-inclined to believe it. It’s a flawed process and really just an exercise in public theater.

              not for this:

              I also really, really, really believe the people clamoring loudest for a public apology are also the people most inclined to use it to score cheap political points.

              Strangely enough, I agree that there are many who are clamoring for an apology to score cheap political points. But, this doesn’t mean that apologies aren’t necessary or helpful to society.

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          • You mean, like, ever?

            If so, I think that the game theory response is to either look out for one’s own interests by digging in with as much game theory as possible while doing everything one can to get everyone else distracted with such things as “principles”.

            I don’t know what a principled response might be.

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            • Yep, exactly correct, I think. And, it reflects what most politicians would say and do. In some ways, Clinton was an expert at this (they called it “triangulation”, I called it “striangulation” – it slowly strangles your options until only one option isn’t dead…).

              I’m as big a liberal as they come, and I detested Clinton during the Clinton years (still do!) and thought he did great harm to liberals and Democrats and the country.

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        • I’d put it a bit differently. I think what’s becoming more apparent recently is “positions on issues as a means to retaining power” as opposed to “power as a means to getting stuff done on the issues”. Maybe it was always thus, or maybe in the past there was more overlap between what needed to be done on the issues and the positioning on the issues that helped to retain power. This goes back to Mark’s analogy with trolling – the point of trolling is to appear to have won, not to actually convince anyway. Similarly the point of present-day politics is to appear to have the right positions, not to actually do anything effective about them.

          If this has changed, I think maybe its to do with the growing importance of the parties as a source of funding, and the lobbyists as a source of legislative ideas. As such a lot of the legislation both parties have been trying to pass are only tepidly popular, even with their own side, and a lot of what they say is largely irrelevant to what they’re trying to do.

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    • This phenomenon is why I can’t talk politics when I go home to Kansas. If you end up debating the wrong person, then make one argument for the other side and you are immediately tarred as “one of them” and the discussion becomes a shouting match about falsehoods, half-truths and bad numbers. As someone who likes debating, this is perpetually frustrating.

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      • I find it helpful to have these conversations in front of both groups of friends.

        Let them hammer out whether your write-in vote for Jerry Garcia is really a vote for McCain or whether it’s really a vote for Obama.

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  8. So the Dems said:

    “And what death panels? There’s none in this bill. And as things are, we already have death panels – they’re called insurance companies.”

    If that’s what they said, I would suggest they were the ones trolling. Let’s break it down. We aren’t going to have socialism, because we will maintain the existence of private insurers. Which we will keep. We will have them. Private insurers are in the mix.

    Also, private insurers=death panels.

    Oh, but we won’t have death panels.

    So which is it?

    I have said it before, but the real and serious answer would have been: Yes. We are going to have death panels. If by a death panel you mean a room full of bureaucrats who will decide what treatments get paid for and which do not. Your kid needs a $200 million treatment that has a 1 percent chance of success? Sorry. We can’t afford that. Really, we’re sorry. But most insurance companies wouldn’t pay for it either.

    Insteadm we got: Nope. No death panels!

    Which is another way of saying, “We’ll pay for anything no matter how much it costs, no matter how unlikely it is to be successful.”

    Palin was being a dufun in not pointing out that such things already exist in the provate sector. But to act like nobody anywhere would be performing this function seems just as trollish to me.

    That is, if we don’t get some death panels and some people willing to say “no,” any system is doomed. I don’t think this system is doomed. I think someone will be in charge of saying no. Don’t call it a “panel” if you don’t want. I suggest you don’t. But we will have them. Or else.

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    • Doesn’t this suggest that the nature of the rhetoric really is a problem? Id “death panel” just refers to the intractable facts of health finance but one side insists the other own up to a brand-new, sensationalistic label for it, then is not in fact this a concrete example of the way this newly sensationalistic trend in our discourse, which is then amplified hundreds of times by the fact that the most sensational memes are the fittest for survival in our media environment, is harming our ability even to accommodate ourselves across party lines to basic unavoidable facts shaping our policy decisions?

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      • I guess the rhetoric might be a problem, Michael. But there really is a possibility that some people are more comfortable having a corporation make this decision, especially if its involved with a contract that’s been freeley entered into. I think that’s a bunch of bunk, as there was never a lot lot of “free” or “market” involved in our mess of a healthcare sytem. But I don;t think it’s ENTIRELY unreasonable for a conservative type whose very skeptical of government action to worry about someone from HHS or the IRS or DEP or whateve rother agency being put in charge of these decisions.

        Just as important: In the case of the corporation, there was never really all that much freedom to actually make the death call in the first place. Public and political pressure led to some very high-profile cases in which sympathetic looking teenage girls were told “no” for experimental procedures. Politicians and the media raised holy hell and POOF. Suddenly the procedure is paid for. I think a bureaucrat is going to be even LESS likely to resist the need to say no, being even more beholden to public opinion.

        So in short, yes, Palin was being obnoxious when she posed the issue in terns of death panels. But she was actually raising a good point: Unless someone in this new system is willing to play the bad guy, the government is going to have to put somebody in charge of deciding who gets treatment and who dies. Who’s going to do that?

        Again, her tone was obnoxious, but the point hardly amounts to “trolling.” And the Democrat’c response listed in this post, namely that nobody is going to have to do that, amounts to sheer dishonesty. The idea that people repeated the question after getting the non-response seems only natural.

        That is, the GOP isn’t the only entity bullshitting here.

        Yes. We will have death panels. Or “Life affirming financial efficiency and sustainability panels,” or “Sunshine and Puppy Consortiums.” Call them whatever you want. But someone is going to be in charge of saying, “Sorry. That’s too expensive. You have to die.”

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    • Yes, good point! The hypocrisy definitely exists on both sides of the aisle. I made similar points over this past year with R’s and D’s.

      However, I think your slightly-hidden point is even more important. In the U.S. most patients want any treatment that might help them, no matter the cost, and no matter how long (or short) it extends their lives. This is the hypocrisy of Americans.

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  9. Hey Mark –

    I’m coming to this party/post a little late, but hopefully not so late that you won’t read this, because I think by comparing the current political process to blogging you’ve hit close to something I have been thinking about. I’d love to get your (and everyone else’s) feedback to this:

    For the first time ever I think that the GOP has allowed the blogosphere to be the engine, rather than the caboose, in their political strategy.

    Hear me out: For al long as I can remember, the meme has gone like this: Political group comes up with idea, and gets a public figure (president, senator, candidate, TV celebrity) to float it to the public. Than the MSM reports on it, then makes some cursory and non-in depth analysis about it. Then the blogosphere makes comments on all the above, with commentary that ranges from tepid to wingnut.

    What I have seen in the HCR debate from the GOP, however, has been the opposite: A right-wing blogger would (depending on the blogger) make some thoughtful analysis, jump to rash conclusions or make up bat-shit crazy stuff to get people riled up. Then the MSM (mostly FNC or talk radio) would comment and report on whatever was in the blogosphere as if it were something actually happening in the political arena or the real world, and as a response the GOP and its public figures would adopt the stance/actual facts/totally made-up stuff being talked about by the MSM. I think Death Panels is a great example of this.

    Am I missing something, or have we just seen a complete reversal of the flow of influence in the GOP? And if so, is this a good thing for politics in general? (So far it certainly doesn’t seem to be a good thing for the GOP.)

    I welcome everyone’s perspective.

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    • I’m skeptical personally. The unity we say in the GOP’s opposition was remarkable and was a consequence of some very determined whipping by the minority leadership. I’d really love to know what the nature of the horse heads were that they laid on the doorsteps of senators like Snow. In any event, when it comes to the opposition in the House and Senate I’d hazard that while the opposition was supported (vigorously) by their base and blog wing it was initially at least a top down strategic decision.

      Now has the blogosphere increased in influence? I’d say absolutely, most likely I’d say it’s matching or exceeding the influence of the print media on the GOP (though since most of their online yeomen are essentially electronic avatars of their print media flagships the distinction is moderated a lot).

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      • As I said above, for the GOP I think talk-radio pundits are the class that has more influence over the base than the internet writers. I’m fairly sure that a significant portion of the GOP base pays way more attention to TV and radio than the internet when it comes to politics.

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        • I basically agree with you, but my point is this: A few years ago, radio pundits took talking points, arguments, and new memes from places like the Heritage Foundation, or AEI, or Focus on the family. Now, I think, they take it from places like RedState and MichelleMalkin.com. It then becomes the place of the AEI’s of the world to create policy options based on what gains popularity from that.

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  10. 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.

    I guess I think it quite matters just where along the line you think they were “told” this, how, in what words, etc. Because it sure seems like it might be a pretty convenient thing to decide you’ve been “told” if what you’re interested in is, variously, running a successful election campaign, or running an populist insurgency, based on the notion that you’ve been “told” by the people in power that they “didn’t really give a damn” what you thought (and then went on to commit “abuses of power” in enacting the agenda your thoughts about which they “didn’t really give a damn”), as opposed to having to run such a movement or campaign simply on the belief that such not-giving-a-damn was in fact the order of the day among the powerful.

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    • In this post, I use “told” in a largely figurative sense. The impression that a lot of people had was that the Democrats really weren’t listening to their opponents. I think this impression was ultimately pretty accurate, at least sometime after August recess (before which time I think they really were trying). After about August or September, though, it seemed to me like the Democrats stopped trying to even argue with the GOP or its base or HCR opponents in general. Certainly it was at about that time that they really started to focus on just getting this thing passed with their own caucus (which is not quite the same thing as I’m talking about here, but serves as a decent proxy). Again, though, this was not their fault – there wasn’t anyone in any kind of authority position on the other side who was interested in actually arguing. I think they gradually realized that they were largely arguing with a wall and that it would be a lot more productive if they just argued with themselves. They did precisely what they had to do.

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      • I think that’s a reasonably true story, but I don’t think it amounts to the Dems telling these people they don’t give a damn. What you say was a “choice” not to argue with them seems to me more like just an acceptance that it wasn’t possible. What can you say when someone is just shouting “DEATH PANELS!!!” at you? That’s more or less the same point I suppose.

        The only other question, then, and it doesn’t supercede yours, but rather follows it — but it retroactively affects it — is whether, even if real dialogue could have taken place, ti would have amounted to anything. It seems like even if the conversation you’re imagining could have happened say, between GOP and Dem leaders, it would have gone something like this:

        GOP: We can’t be a part of a health reform package that is anything like the one you’re proposing.

        Dems: Okay, then what could you support.

        GOP: Insurance across state lines and tort reform and um… we’ll get back to you.

        Dems: Okay do that, because that’s not comprehensive health reform that’s just two minor provisions, both of which you know are poison pills for us.

        GOP: Okay we’ll think it over.

        …time elapses; Dems consider options while drafts of their bills leak to the press.

        Dems: Hey GOPers, any new ideas

        GOP: No, we’re still thinking it over.

        Time elapses; stories of Dems’ “Gov’t takeover of one-sixth of the economy, complete with DEATH PANELS!” run. Congress goes to recess where the public is enraged at both paralysis AND prospect of reform. Certain newly-minted political celebrities see an opportunity to make names for selves; seize them. Congress reconvenes.

        Dems: So, GOP, you’ve had all summer. Got anything we can work with?

        GOP: DEATH PANELS!!!!!

        And that’s how it would have gone. The badness was just baked in the cake of the interests of each party; it was just never in the GOP’s interest to allow a bipartisan bill to pass, even though the bill on offer was right down the middle of the plate in terms of their more moderate members’ ideological profiles.

        So while I agree with you that it was probably inevitable and neither side did much not legitimately in it’s interest, to say that one side “told” the other that it didn’t give a damn what it thought doesn’t comport with that assessment, and also, I think, frankly just doesn’t comport with the facts. The Dems did care what some GOPers wanted in exchange for votes, but either party discipline, political interest, or an inability to agree to a substantive deal prevented a deal from being reached. And in terms of the activist resistance, if simply being speechless in the face of irrational screaming and then saying that the substance is wrong on the facts amounts to telling someone you don’t give a damn what they think, well then it is inevitable that some will feel they have been told that. That doesn’t seem to leave much room for what to call it when someone actually tells someone they don’t give a damn what they think, however.

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        • Keep in mind that the context of this post is in trying to understand what has led to threats of violence. My argument is that the the cause of threats isn’t that GOP’ers and conservative leaders were throwing around hyperbole and hysteria like they were going out of style, but rather instead that a lot of the conservative grassroots very much feels alienated from the political process right now. It seems to me fairly clear that at a minimum, these folks really are angry that, from their perspective, the Democrats completely ignored them in muscling this through in the way they ultimately did.

          And let’s be honest – in the end, the Democrats really did wind up disregarding any counterarguments. This is because in fact the GOP/conservative leadership ultimately weren’t offering any actual counterarguments, just meaningless slogans divorced from any counterarguments, while the people making actual counterarguments were too piddling a constituency to be heard. But just because the GOP leadership wasn’t actually providing counterarguments doesn’t mean that their supporters thought they weren’t. To the GOP/conservative leadership’s supporters, a shout of “fascism” really was an argument unto itself no matter how often repeated, even if a crappy one – never underestimate the power of team allegiance to color one’s perceptions. To go back to the troll analogy – when a troll gets banned or whatever on the internets, it’s my experience that the folks on the troll’s ideological team tend to rally to the troll’s support even though they’re not necessarily big fans of the troll to begin with. In fact, they may even take it as a sign of animus to their entire tribe.

          That’s basically what’s happened here, I think. When the Dems stopped feeding the trolls, a lot of health care opponents perceived it as an attempt to alienate them from the debate entirely.

          Now, as for what the final reform package would have looked like had the GOP engaged in actual argument, I agree completely that it probably would have looked no different. But I do think it would have at least cut down on the alienation that feeds a lot of the rage.

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          • That’s basically what’s happened here, I think. When the Dems stopped feeding the trolls, a lot of health care opponents perceived it as an attempt to alienate them from the debate entirely.

            I’m completely on board with this. But that’s because it has been moved from the active voice “told” to the passive “perceived.”

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            • @Michael Drew,
              Way way late to the party, but I think it’s worth recalling the experience of Sen. Baucus. All summer long he was pilloried from the left for trying to get a deal, any deal, with his gang of six, or his SFC. In the end, the politicos won out: the Republican leadership decided that no bill, nothing of any kind, was the better play. Baucus gave a very angry speech on the floor — December, maybe, or November — complaining that Republican seators who’d assured him privately of support, people he considers his friends, were choosing blind partisanship over leadership.

              For his pains, and because of the lingering effects of his childhood speech impediment (his style takes some getting used to) Baucus was ridiculed across the right blogosphere, accused of appearing drunk on the senate floor.

              The Republican leadership thought they had the votes to win an all-or nothing contest. They didn’t want transparency, cost controls, or anything else. But even at the end, there was no finger. If the Republican leadership had allowed GOP moderates to participate in preparing the reconciliation sidecar, the President would have jump out of his skin, and down Rep. Pelosi’s throat, to make it happen.

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  11. Speaking of Internet trolls, I can;t fund any other way to describe Alan Keyes here. In particular, the sort of troll who makes idiotic pronouncements and answers every objection with “There’s no point trying to explain anything to someone as stupid as you are”.

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