I guess I should be pleased that Politico Magazine is turning to more than the usual Beltway hacks -- in this case, to Jedediah Purdy, a Duke law professor (and late-1990s media hype object, as I'll explain below). I suppose I should be happy that Professor Purdy tells PM readers that we really, really have to do something about climate change and economic inequality.
But it seems to me that all he's done is find a new way to say that both sides do it! Here's what he writes:
...Can't we all just get along?Did you follow that? We're all to blame for inaction on inequality and climate because we all, across the board, just throw up our hands and pretend that we're helpless to effect change. In fact, according to Purdy, we're all just faking it because we aren't really fighting with one another on these issues -- it's all just posturing, a matter of "partisan rhetoric and style." You just think all those plutocrats pumping billions of dollars into our politics to prevent climate action or economic aid to the non-rich are sincere. No! It's all theater!
No, we can't -- even though much of our partisan division is superficial. The more basic problem is denial. Like a dysfunctional family writ across a continent, we Americans have learned to look away from some of our hardest problems, such as inequality and climate change, and, when confronted with them, wring our hands and pretend there's nothing we can do -- even when we pretend to be making a fuss about them.
Part of the reason for the denial is that doing something meaningful about these problems would deepen our conflict. It would reveal a country divided by material interests, not just partisan rhetoric and style. It would raise the stakes of politics. This is risky, but the chance might open the door to a more hopeful politics.
Much Washington partisanship is tactical, positioning the team to take another increment of power. Much popular partisanship is a matter of culture and identity -- where you get your news, what kind of tone you use when pronouncing President Obama's name, which kinds of people you wish your children or siblings wouldn't date.What he's saying is that right and left are just fighting over style points, with no goal in mind other than winning a little more political power for its own sake -- as if the funders of the right's culture wars actually don't have anything material to gain from political victories (tax cuts? gutting of regulations? continuation of the fossil-fuel economy?), and as if those who try to fight back on the left don't really lose anything when Republicans win (jobs? mortgages? birth control coverage? the right to vote?).
Purdy is confusing the style of present-day political content, which, yes, is sometimes trivial and shallow, with the content, which is serious as a heart attack. The attendees at Koch brothers confabs are playing for real stakes with real money; they just happen to know that if Fox News does a Two-Minutes' Hate about Bill Ayers or the New Black Panthers or the "Ground Zero mosque," that's going to turn out voters for the party that does what's in their economic interests.
But no -- it's all faux-posturing to Purdy, and, yes, both sides definitely do it:
... cynical and superficial polarization is just another form of denial, and in some ways the most effective. It produces infernos of political passion -- think of the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 -- followed at most by trickles of change. All this confirms the suspicion that government is always ineffective, that politics is a show of empty gestures and hollow promises. That kind of cynicism doesn't make politics less engaging; it just makes it less consequential. Politics becomes a form of middle-class entertainment: a highbrow soap opera, sports for nerds, Hollywood for ugly people. This kind of politics could never produce a constructive engagement with America's biggest problems. At best, it amuses us while we await the guillotine of austerity. In this guise, the politics of denial denies politics itself.Say what you will about the Obama campaigns, and about Obama himself, but the hope that inspired them was the hope that something could really be done about important issues on which the right had had a political stranglehold for eight years and, in many cases, far longer. People wanted wars ended and Gitmo closed and health care guaranteed and a hundred other things, including, yes, a lessen of inequality and an acknowledgment of climate change as a real crisis. The will.i.am video and the Shepard Fairey poster were means to an end, not ends in themselves. We never got where we wanted to go, but we weren't just fighting style wars.
Purdy contrasts this era to earlier eras, when, he says, we had real conflict, pushing our fights to the surface:
... the actual scope of disagreement in our so-called polarized time is nothing compared with the issues that divided the country during the debates over slavery, the labor-capital clashes of the Populist and Progressive eras, the same again during the New Deal or the battles of the Civil Rights era. Conservative opponents accused Franklin D. Roosevelt of taking the country down the road to fascism, with considerably more conviction than Republicans' insincere warnings against "socialism" today. One hundred and one senators and congressmen signed the 1956 Southern Manifesto denouncing Brown v. Board of Education and defending segregation. Those were divisions worth braving. By comparison, our civic mutual loathing is a tempest in a pisspot.So 101 members of Congress signing a letter denouncing Brown is real, but repeatedly forcing the government into near-default is just a vaudeville act? Turning the filibuster into standard operating procedure for every bill is just Kabuki? Relentless legislation from the bench at the Supreme Court is just reality TV?
Some of you might remember this Jed Purdy guy -- a baby-faced, home-schooled West Virginia who went on to attended Phillips Exeter and Harvard and then, in 1999, when he was still in his mid-twenties, wrote a buzz-generating book with the pompous title For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today.
It was a good moment to write an attack on irony -- though that's a cultural pet peeve I've never understood. Underlying an awful lot of what's called irony is a feeling of helplessness -- the world sucks and the people who run everything won't permit change unless you're literally willing to kill or die for it, and probably not even then. If you're Jed Purdy, a kid who's the talk of the town in certain circles before you've ever had to hold down a real job -- if, in fact, you never have to hold down a job that's tedious and dead-end (much less worry that you can't even snag one of those), of course you're going to think (as Purdy did in 1999) that what our culture needs is "political, social, and community reengagement" (as if plenty of people didn't try and get rebuffed), and of course you're going to think now that political engagement that doesn't accomplish anything must be inadequate and false -- you succeeded early, so you don't see why anyone else would try and fail.
The thing is, trying and failing is what most people do all the time, and it's absolutely what's going to happen if you set out to save the earth or keep the poor from getting poorer. It's not because you're a superficial posturer, it's because the people on the other side have the game rigged. Purdy just doesn't get that. To him, it's all our fault, because we're so damn shallow. He needs to have a little empathy for people who were never, like him, the talk of the town.