The Talking Heads will Feed Themselves

Kyle asks:

What motivates the Limbaughs and the Hannities and the Malkins to take up the standard of hyper-partisan contrarian now?  Surely one would say to provide a voice of balance against the rampant liberalism that is sure to gush forth from DC now that the Democrats are in charge.

But even this fails in my opinion to pass the test of an opposition founded in good faith.  For an argument of good faith has to first be one in which the ultimate desired goal is to lend to the betterment of the country as a whole, not a single movement, and second it should be couched in either the empirical or at least the intellectual.  That’s to say there should be some sort of logical grounding underneath the call for a contrarian stance.

I would say there is a rather depressing, yet still very logical grounding for this contrarianism.  And Kyle is right to call it “contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism” though it is not simply the need to act out that motivates the Limbaughs and Hannities of the world.  Rather, I think we have witnessed in the cable and radio talk shows, and on many a blog, the advent of a sort of Blowhard Bureaucracy, and like any good bureaucracy, it exists in order to maintain its existence.

What I mean by this is essentially the talking heads will do whatever it takes to stay in business, including acting in bad faith, or revving up the hyper-partisan rhetoric despite or perhaps in-spite-of any actions that may seek to quell such language.  Limbaugh would be out of business in a flash if he embraced Obama and Obama’s vision of America, or if he even tentatively embraced his appearance of post-partisanship.  I would add that President Obama, while obviously a pragmatic man, is anything but post-partisan, a term that is in any functional sense, utterly meaningless.  Partisanship, as Kyle rightly points out, is nothing more than a tool by which compromise is built:

Sometimes partisanship in this most useful form ultimately and completely proves wrong the precepts of one ideology, or perhaps more accurately, the dogma of that ideology, and sometimes it proves it unassailably true.  More often than not, however, when partisanship is working at optimal levels, the final result is some sort of compromise, one that pulls the very best from all participants, using the opposing concepts to ultimately create a rock solid foundation.

However, it is important to note that the talking-head class–the hyper-partisan commentariat–first of all has no desire to attain even a semblance of compromise, and second of all is so absorbed with their talking points and so convinced of their own ideological infallibility, that it is unreasonable to expect anything less than divisive rhetoric.

As Mark rightly points out, there is room for all of this partisanship in order to define and create a political coalition.  Standards, if only for the purposes of practicality, must be established in order to form cohesive political blocs. However, Mark writes “the success of a political coalition begins to give dogma the moral weight of principle, and to allow means to be confused with ends.”

I would add to this another danger, or perhaps merely a slightly different take.  We saw it manifest during Palin’s bid for the vice-presidency, and I think we also saw it in the very personage of our rather partisan former VP, Dick Cheney.  That is, when talking-heads politics become the standard not simply of the commentary class, but also of the politicians themselves–when the divisive, audience-pleasing, abrasive and recalcitrant politics of the Ann Coulters and Michelle Malkins of the world suddenly also become the politics of our leaders, who regardless of political affiliation, are at least supposed to be marginally pragmatic, and do their best to represent on some level America at large, we do run the risk of losing something important in our political process.  It is one thing to run attack ads during a campaign, and quite another to refuse to work with members of other political coalitions outright.

That was the direction the McCain/Palin ticket seemed to be taking national politics during its bid for the White House.  Obama, to his credit, seemed then and now to be doing just the opposite.  While I disagree utterly that he is somehow post-partisan, at least in his rhetoric he has avoided stooping to the level of many of his opponents and critics.

On the other hand, pragmatism for pragmatism’s sake is easily as confounding a notion as contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism.  Daniel Larison points out that:

This is the most frustrating thing about “pragmatic” rhetoric–at best, it obscures the real differences and so suffocates the debate under the pretense that we all want the same things, and at worst it severely narrows the range of the debate to two marginally different status quo alternatives and thus deprives most of the country of real representation. This is the political universe in which bipartisanship is the highest virtue, because if we all really want the same things the only thing that can thwart political action is random partisan rancor.

So there are essentially two sides to this coin, and I think that is the thrust of Kyle’s argument.  Partisanship serves a purpose, and we are wrong to ignore that, or to wish for some post-partisan Utopia where all sides are somehow rendered complacent or content, stripped miraculously of any ideological guidelines.

So let the talking heads feed themselves; let their gluttonous hyper-partisanship sustain them.  And let the political class still seek out the best options for their own constituencies, their own political visions of the world.  But where one group can never compromise lest they lose the audience that pays their wages, let the other struggle until compromise is reached, out of whatever ashes remain.  After all, as in war, politics should not be a game of unconditional surrender.

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8 thoughts on “The Talking Heads will Feed Themselves

  1. …And centrism for the sake of centrism can be every bit as dogmatic as contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism. Good post. Between this and Freddie’s responses, I can see I have my work cut out for me when I next write.

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  2. Kyle – to be honest, I’m not so certain it’s worth trying to figure out when an argument is and is not made in good faith. Instead, I think the relevant issue (somewhat expressed in the commenting policy I drafted for this site) is whether the speaker is attributing a motive to his opponent that the opponent has not expressly stated.

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  3. Mark, one problem with “expressly stated” is not all motives, even obvious ones, are stated. There is a certain amount of reading between the lines, or studying of patterns, requisite in attributing motive I think…

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  4. E.D. – very true. It’s an extremely amorphous division between determining good and bad faith. There were two posts a few weeks back, one from William Bradford at his site, and one at, I think PoMo Con that would seem to have some significant implications for any discussion of attributing good or bad faith to a speaker.

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