Thursday, February 7, 2008

Changing the Game

I've recently stumbled upon a new blog, Gender, Race and Philosophy, and in particular this post about Obama's political vision. Personally, I've never been interested in politics, but that's mostly because I don't think the game is played well. Politics, in the US, is usually some sort of media-hyped hardball. Without fail, in every election one of the candidates initiates the game of hardball, and the others follow suit for fear of letting the other candidate get ahead. The game escalates, and madness ensues. It's not the meaningful politics that we should be participating in, but rather another version of bad reality tv (which I watch a lot of, so I should know). The post reminded me of a paper I wrote last year in reaction to a chapter in Galston's The Practice of Liberal Pluralism. So here are some of my further thoughts on the matter, in conjecture with GRP's wonderful insight on this year's campaign.

I hate to sum up Galston unfairly in a paragraph or two, but this is a blog, so I haven't much choice. I'll preface this by saying that this is how Galston's argument seemed to me, so if it's not as charitable as you'd like, well I'm sorry. This is primarily about Galston's chapter on political toughness. Essentially, he recognizes that there are certain valuable goals of the government, and the leaders that are able to achieve such goals need possess a certain toughness (roughly construed), firstly to gain a position of power and secondly to put those goals to work while in power. Toughness is the balance between squeamishness and callousness, wishfulness and cynicism, and innocence and calculating. The right balance of on these three spectrums will achieve some toughness equilibrum whereby the politician can "contemplate the performance of intrinsically distasteful and objectionable acts, but only at the right time and in the right manner.” Fair enough. Certainly life is full of trade-offs, and you don't have to be Machiavelli to occasionally sacrifice a principle or two for the sake of more important principles or demands. However, Galston applies this toughness to the race for power in a way that, to me, defeats the whole purpose of a deliberative government.

He assumes that democratic politicians have a responsibility to act on the behalf of others in the pursuit of ends “that others have a good reason to expect him to pursue." These ends are likely to include the minimization of summum malum, the underlying purpose of the political system as a whole. To be a politician, you must take this responsibility seriously and act accordingly, even if that includes employing disagreeable means. In addition, your tactics must be shaped according to how the world actually is, not just how you think the world should be. Adjusting to the world as it is, according to Galston, includes considering the decisions of your opponents. Accordingly, if your adversary initiates a game of “hardball” (the use of disagreeable, but not utterly reprehensible, tactics to achieve an end), then you are obligated to play hardball as well. You must use similar distasteful tactics because they are the only effective means to win and hold power in our society as it is. However, playing hardball in the political arena condones the existence of the game in the first place. By playing the game, the leader essentially accepts the rules by which the game is played. Also, if politicians make use of underhanded tactics routine, then the public becomes desensitized to these tactics. They begin to see such means as acceptable and normal, which in turn makes it harder for a politician to opt out of the game. The game has become a routine and anticipated feature of the political system. Moreover, continual use of such tactics usually leads to the escalation of the distasteful tactics employed. As the game progresses, the only effective strategy is an increased use of disagreeable means. The truly balanced political leader should find it difficult to use such means, and it should be noted that this difficulty increases as the need to use such tactics increases. Eventually, the game will change from hardball to “dirtyball,” where the means are not only disagreeable but also unacceptable. In such a case, the leader’s moral balance is lost. This, to me, is unacceptable.

American politics is a prime example of this cycle. The public no longer sees the initial purpose of the government, because they've been bombarded by this game that the politicians play, a game that has nothing to do with what's really at stake. When the game becomes bigger than the needs of society (with the "good of society" as a banner for the game itself), then it's time to change the game. That's where this post on Obama comes in. Essentially, Hillary sees the tactics of the right and she reacts. By reacting, she perpetuates the game as it is currently played. Her mentality is that to win you must get in that arena with your opponents (the attack dogs), which means she must become one herself. Obama's vision (I won't comment on his implemenation of said vision) is to abstain from the game. He wants a new game with new rules, where genuine debate and deliberation are the keys to a successful government (and campaign, for that matter).

GRP says:
"Why should progressives take Obama's metapolitics seriously? Two reasons. One is that it is an attempt to transform the political culture. That is, to break with the Clintonian style of responding reactively to the attack dog mode of Republican politics that aggressively sides with allies against enemies. The reactive Clintonian style simply reproduces this mode. The short hand for Obama's critique of this mode: "they are willing to say anything to win." The key idea, however, is that poltical culture should be geared less to the ally/enemy distinction and more to the idea that, the diversity of the polity notwithstanding, ordinary, democratically energized Americans can mobilize/debate their way towards common understandings of the common good." (emphasis mine)

And that's just it. I think toughness, as promoted by Galston, is Clinton's strategy. But all of this toughness is blinding everyone to the real reason for the game in the first place, and I hope our political culture can actually transform into something worthwhile. I'm not sure if Obama can do it, but at least he's trying (or says he is).

I leave you with this last bit from GRP:
"A successful transformation of the political culture along these lines (which Obama compares to Reagan's transformation of American political culture--an analogy that Hillary has gone out of her way deliberately to misrepresent) may be needed for the establishment of an enduring progressive coalition (in Obama's words--democrats, independents, and some Republicans) that, rather than constantly react to and compromise with post-Reagan Republican ideas (an important part of Bill Clinton's legacy, as is evident, e.g., in the compromise over welfare reform), articulates in new terms (talk of common sense and of a common good) a new progressive agenda. The insistence, in short, that overcoming a reactive political style is the indispensable first step moving towards the articulation of a nonreactive, progressive political agenda." (emphasis mine)

So there you have it. Maybe if the game gets a makeover then I won't loathe it so much. Maybe.

No comments: