Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Whom? Where? When?

I've been meaning to write a blog post for a long time called "Does Public Opinion Matter?" But I think we really need to go back a few steps and ask ourselves whether there is anything like a "Public" at all, at this point--if by that we mean a listening, thinking, observing, aggregate--people who are actually aware enough of political events, statements, and sayings that they can be said to think anything at all. This seems to be something that is utterly lost on even our brightest commentariat. Look at this discussion over at Washington Monthly--Steve Benen and Greg Sargent (brought together by the miracle of blog commentary.) Sargent catches Grassley in a patent lie.

As Greg Sargent, who called Grassley's comments "very significant," explained, this is an admission that "will make it tougher for Republicans to claim Dems didn't opt for a bipartisan approach on health care."

Grassley is, Greg added, "openly acknowledging that the GOP has had 'input' into the bill, which Dems can point to in order to argue that they pursued bipartisanship in good faith, even if they were unable to reach bipartisan agreement."

Uh? Really? Dems can "point to this...in order to argue...?" Baby, we are long past needing to argue to the voters. The voters aren't even in this debate at this point. Its all up to the legislators and they don't care what the voters know, or think they know. They only care about what they've been paid to do or what they believe in doing for its own sake. The voters and their votes are only the tools that get people into office to do stuff, and later a second order rationalization whose "real" interests or "real" beliefs can be used, rhetorically, to legitimize political acts taken in their names. There's no there there.

Let me explain something very slowly here: when politicians say things in public they are saying it for effect. They don't believe it, they don't stand behind it, and even their auditors and their audience knows better than to believe that they will either hew to their public line, or reject it, for reasons as picayune as logic, fairness, or honesty.

In this case Steve and Greg are thrilled they've caught the Republicans out in a blatant contradiction: --On the one hand Grassley and the Republicans have strongly opposed Democratic Health Care Reform Initiatives because, as we know, they don't want the Democrats to pass anything good. For purposes of propaganda sometimes Grassley et al pretend that the reason they oppose Democratic Initiatives is that these initiatives are not bipartisan, they are ideological, they are destructive. Sometimes, of course, Grassley et al pretend that the Republicans are active partners in drafting and proposing legislation. This leads Republican leaders to sometimes say things like there is "80 percent agreement" on this or that aspect of the bills in question. Sometimes they say *both* that the bills are hyperpartisan and worthless and should be scrapped and started again, sometimes they say that they have eighty percent agreement and the bills are hyperpartisan, should be scrapped, and started over again.

Both Benen and Sargent appear bemused by this...incoherence. This is not message discipline! This will make it harder for the Republicans to argue---what? It only makes it "harder" if you imagine that they are making any kind of logical argument to a consistent set of listeners who are amenable to logical argument. But they aren't. Look at the context in which these claims are made--Grassley's and Cantor's I mean. Claims are not made in the absence of context. Sometimes Grassley and Cantor shave their statements--they trim their coat to suit their cloth and they offer their listeners what they want to hear. They don't worry about that audience--nice ladies on a lunch break, angry tea party'ers on a tear, Glen Beck's audience, C-Span's audience--getting together to compare notes about what they've heard. Why should they? There's no singular public sphere in which these competing claims are held up for comparison and derision.

The location of that public sphere, the "coffee house" of our romanticized imagining, doesn't exist anymore. We have a fragmented public sphere of separate water coolers, and their "water cooler vengeance" style politics. The politics of rage, spite, and information incoherence. Beck's audience, Rush's audience, get their information from Fox. Other people get their information from similarly compromised major media sources which have shown no desire to fact check or back stop Republican statements as patently false as "Death Panels for Granny" or even its most recent avatar "Welfare Quota Queens Use Obamacare to Steal Granny's Winning Lottery Ticket"

Needless to say this approach to informed public policy and an informed public has to be right up there with the all time greatest hits of fear sublimation and rage projection. It could hardly be bettered, combining as it does deep seated and atavistic white fears of a crawling, clinging, rage filled underclass of undeserving poor non whites with discreet pleas for fundraising as though mere dollars and words are going to combat the horror. I don't think its going at all too far to point out that this is essentially to refight Reconstruction, with "health care for fat people, poor people, and black people" being translated through the Republican decoder ring into a modern version of "where de white wimmen at?"

There isn't going to be any come to Papa moment here. The Republicans aren't worried that their voters are going to wake up and realize that their leaders are lying to them. That's utterly besides the point. The voters care as little about bipartisanship as they do about reality itself. If they were paying attention to their own lives they'd be burning down the insurance companies doors instead of protesting the idea of government action while demanding government investigations of public transit authority business or holy walking to the podium to beg government to keep its hands off medicare. The last thing the Republicans have to worry about is equivalent of the White House pointing out that its "shocked! shocked! that there is gambling going on..." in the casino. No one who matters is paying attention.


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