Thursday, October 9, 2008

Our Great Political Myths

I think it's fair to say that Rolling Stone magazine has answered the questions about John McCain posed by David Foster Wallace in its pages during the 2000 campaign. The portrait of McCain in the magazine (especially in the much discussed Tim Dickinson piece) is justified and fair, if somewhat incomplete. McCain has run a rotten campaign, and his willingness to do so has revealed much about him. The choice of Sarah Palin made laughable his "Country First" slogan. Still, there are things to admire about the John McCain in Wallace's article, even if it was the man he used to be or perhaps never fully was. All people are contradictions. As Walt Whitman famously wrote in Leaves of Grass:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
It might just be that John McCain is smaller than we thought.

I've been meaning to write about political myths for some time. The Rolling Stone articles hit on many of our great political myths. Now seems as good time as any to discuss 3 big ones.

Myth #1: Equivalence in politics - all politicians are the same, the parties are equally corrupt and vicious. Reading Dickinson's article, you can't help but imagine what the right wing would have done to McCain if he were a Democrat. They were relentless in attacking John Kerry's war record. Is there any doubt that McCain's bravery and stoicism in Vietnam would have been made into questions about him being "broken"? Attacks on his patriotism and questions regarding his psychological stability would be relentless. That seems to me a certain and disgusting reality of the modern political Right.

Myth #2: The liberal media. This myth is entwined with #1 and has become conventional wisdom. But a cursory review of recent national elections demonstrates the claim to be absurd. The mainstream media made the Swift Boat attacks the biggest story of the 2004 campaign. Those attacks helped decide the election. As they did in 2000, Republicans gave the media its narrative - the Democrat is a weak, elitist, distant intellectual and the Republican is an everyman, a guy you want to have to a beer with. That it wasn't true hardly mattered. It's the same narrative that has dominated so many elections, it's a huge part of why Republicans have won 7 of 10 presidential elections. It was working again this year - Obama was exotic, ultra-liberal, elitist, professorial, weak - and the election was nearly even, until the economy and Sarah Palin blew up the narrative.

Myth #3: Karl Rove is a political genius. Matt Taibbi addresses this pretty well, "Rove is not a genius, or even very clever: He's totally and completely immoral." It's not difficult to exploit cultural identity, insecurity and resentment, any 6th grade bully knows that. Rove led Bush to two narrow victories (no small accomplishment) but in the process conservatism has been lost to a new Republicanism. A party of ideas has become a party of resentments. Now, the Democrats will likely win the presidency and, possibly, a filibuster-proof majority. So much for the "permanent Republican majority".

(more myths to come soon) (go back to supercollide)

(image credit: illustration by Victor Juhasz, courtesy RollingStone.com)