Disintegration of the American Public (pt.1)

Kevin Drum has a post today at Mother Jones titled Everybody Hates Everybody Else. Based on a recent Bloomberg poll (see the pie/donut chart below), he concludes that:

…what it really means is that everybody hates everybody else. Democrats all think Republicans are responsible for screwing up the country, and Republicans all think Democrats are responsible. The only difference is that Republicans can’t decide who they hate more, Obama or Nancy Pelosi.

Half the country is a bogeyman for the other half of the country, and vice versa. Whoot!

Now, from the outset of any discussion of this phenomenon, I think it’s indispensable to name that this is not a symmetrical equation, with the two sides mirroring each other, both equally culpable in the same exact ways.

But disclaimers aside, I don’t think those on the progressive-leaning side of this culture war can be fully excused for our part. Nor do I think politicians are the only ones to blame. It’s really fun and easy&#151and quite understandable&#151for progressives to spend a lot of time pissing and moaning about conservatives and also about politicians. But it can be disempowering too. We are currently not organized in a way that gives us much leverage over many politicians, and we’re even less capable of influencing the attitudes of our hardest opponents. Focusing attention on the most extreme conservative statements of our hardest opponents can be an important thing to do tactically… from time to time. But to have our whole progressive media universe revolve around such stories is not only excessive, it’s also self-defeating. We get caught up in a story of being the powerless enlightened minority whose unfortunate fellow citizens are hopelessly backward. Now, while there may be some truth to this feeling, dwelling excessively on it is more a matter of venting than about changing something.

Don’t get me wrong. The need to vent is fully understandable. Venting helps us feel sane, and helps us feel connected with others who feel the same as we do. It’s part of the process of building our self-selecting progressive social circles. Venting about politicians and conservatives serves to signal others that we belong. We’re not so different than politicians in this regard. The modern public relations techniques employed by politicians are not much more than a scaling up of the signaling behavior all of us engage in intuitively, in our more manageable sized social groups. We’re signaling that we belong. (Sure, we’re also signaling our values.)

So yesterday I was talking with a friend who I know to be an excellent grassroots organizer at their college campus &#151 who has helped to win some impressive uphill battle campaigns. My friend was lamenting about a new class where he’s a teacher’s assistant. The class has a progressive-sounding name and course description, so my friend was surprised, disappointed, and somewhat alarmed that the group he’d been assigned was comprised almost entirely of jocks. I listened to a stream of jock stereotypes, before entering into quite an argument with my friend.

This is college, I argued. If you can’t reach out to people who have different interests and who cluster into different social groupings now, when will you ever be able to do so? This is exactly what’s wrong with our social change efforts, I thought to myself. Activism has become its own specialized thing, where self-selectors congregate and become content to associate mostly with themselves; who develop their own specialized signals of belonging; who, however friendly amongst themselves, tend to feel exclusive to outsiders; who too often become afraid to engage&#151to really, genuinely, deeply engage&#151people who are different from themselves, outside of their activist spaces.

Social transformation is what happens in everyday spaces with all sorts of everyday people. Activism should not be it’s own magical refuge from the world, but a conscious intervention in the world &#151 woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

We need to move beyond a culture of blaming and venting and dismissive attitudes. When you label someone a jock it makes you think you know a lot more about them than you do. It’s the same if you label them a hick. Or a conservative or a Republican. They become one-dimensional characters &#151 objects that we talk about, instead of human beings who we stretch ourselves to genuinely engage.

I’m not arguing that progressive change agents should spend all our time talking to our hardest opposition. That wouldn’t be a useful allocation of our limited time and resources. But the tendency to constantly talk smack about people who we deem to be less enlightened than ourselves doesn’t tend to stop with our hardest opposition. It tends, rather, to seep into everything and to unnecessarily cut us off from a lot of potential allies. It is the opposite of what grassroots organizing used to mean.

Safety of sticking to the script

Yesterday in his post Could Your Congressman Pass a Turing Test? Kevin Drum lamented how today’s politicians only seem to talk in “poll-approved talking points”:

…the other day I happened to watch a few old clips of politicians being interviewed (in this case, “old” = 30 years ago) and it reminded me &#151 again &#151 of just how mind-numbing their descendents are. This has become such a routine part of our daily lives that most of the time we barely even notice it, but honestly: everything, and I mean every last word, that comes out of politicians’ mouths these days is predigested boilerplate. It’s just an unending stream of stale, endlessly repeated, poll-approved talking points. Democrats and Republicans alike. Every single time. They simply never speak like normal people anymore.

…every few months I happen to notice this phenomenon again, and it seems freshly creepy every time. It’s easy not to think about it, but when you do, even for a few seconds, it’s pretty obvious that this just isn’t natural. Politics has always been partly about acting, but even politicians are supposed to be human beings for at least part of their lives. Within living memory they were, but no longer. What the hell has gone wrong with us?

Then today, as if answering Drum’s question, Kevin Cirilli of the Centre Daily Times digs into what happened when P.J. Crowley, former spokesman for Hillary Clinton, failed to stick to the talking points.

Crowley … called the treatment of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid,” at a Boston MIT seminar.

Manning, 23, is charged with leaking government files to WikiLeaks, a website that published classified international information. In March, he had been held for several months in the U.S. Marine brig in Quantico, Va., in what supporters say were conditions of isolation and deprivation that amounted to torture.

Crowley’s remark was so unexpected that a journalist at the seminar asked Crowley if it was intended to be on the record. He answered, “Sure.”

It was the end of a career in public service for Crowley – former spokesman for the National Security Council, witness to the Sept. 11 attacks and Persian Gulf War veteran.

“In those few seconds when I thought about whether to put my comments on the record, I wasn’t thinking about a future career,” Crowley said last week in a lobby outside of a classroom in Carlisle. “I just thought the question deserved an honest answer. [my emphasis]”

Facing intense political pressure, Crowley resigned three days later…

“I still think it was ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid,” he said.

There you have it. Clearly there are a lot of risks that come with speaking your mind freely and veering from the assigned script.