Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nuance? HELL YEAH!

File as part 4 of a larger series entitled: "Yes, We are Doomed. But look! I baked cookies!"

The lines between our political and commercial life have become blurred. Selling and buying is the game, whether the product is disposable razors or positions on abortion rights. The techniques taught at business schools are consciously and rigorously applied by politicians and their handlers on a daily basis.

And that's not good for the quality of our governing.

Why? Because the secret of effective governance is mastery of the nuance and complexity of all relevant issues. The key to selling lots of stuff, on the other hand, is to create a mass market with unvarying tastes, and get them all to buy one unvarying product by promoting it with a short, simple message that requires no effort on the consumer's part to understand.

In other words, you can make good public policy or hit your quarterly sales forecast. But you can't do both.

Nuance and complexity are the stuff of reality. They are also completely unmarketable. An effective car commercial will be focused and simple. Is it a sexy vehicle? Is it sensible? Safe? At the most, an ad might suggest that the car is both sexy AND sensible. "Dear God!" exclaim viewers, their minds reeling, "that car is TWO THINGS AT ONCE! I need Xanax NOW!"

Can the health care debate be boiled down to two monolithic ideas? ("Private health care. The highest quality care that you can't afford.")

Another thing that product marketers try to do in their ads is induce an emotional rather than intellectual response. It's well understood that it's much easier to reach someone's heart and/or gut in 15-30 seconds than their head. It's also a much more effective and reliable way to generate a buying response.

The result of this in the political realm is that complicated matters of public policy that require the utmost intellectual engagement are stripped of all meaningful substance and wrapped in some tangential or irrelevant emotionally-charged packaging before they are "put on the market." Remember the ads (on both sides of the issue) when the quixotic push for privatizing social security was on? Whether the ad was pro or con, there was sure to be a sad old lady who didn't know what she was going to do.

But for the most part, nobody bothers to try to sell issues as complex as health care or social security reform. Sure, you can dress them up in a lacy thong and put lipstick on them, but the public won't be fooled. They know these issues are BORING. And boring is the worst thing there is.

Which brings us to another big problem with policies as consumer goods: not only are the issues repackaged beyond recognition, certain issues never get put on the shelves at all for reasons totally unrelated to how important those issues might be to our well-being or ability to thrive. Instead we get only hot-button issues like abortion or gay marriage. These issues that evoke a visceral response are the only ways for politicians to get noticed and stay noticed. And being noticed is the air that politicians need to survive.

Were things always this way? Clearly, election campaigns and lowest-common-denominator salesmanship have always gone hand-in-hand. But the drive for politicians to sell, sell, sell every minute of every day is largely a phenomenon of the last 30 or 40 years. For one thing, the intensely competitive television news cycle delivers information instantaneously to people that don't read, which in itself leads to increased pandering. Also, today's constant polling is like a perpetual stream of sales figures that compel politicians to adjust their marketing plans on an ongoing basis.

And let's not forget that this idea of selling public policy is more than an analogy. Newspapers and TV networks are literally selling advertising against the dramatic quality of political rhetoric.

It's difficult to see how this story can have a happy ending without profound changes in the way politicians conduct their dialogue with the public. That will require tough legislation that constrains the media and the way money flows into and can be spent by campaigns, and a re-evaluation of our national unqualified worship of the Market As Good For All Things. Wake me up when that happens.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Democrats Gone Wild

Now that the Democrats have got a bully pulpit, subpoena power, and the purse strings by the short hairs, Republicans are redoubling their efforts to distract the public from their own compulsively scandalous behavior by feigning shock at Democratic overreaching. From the administration we hear cries of dismay that Democrats are trampling upon the noble institutions and traditions of our government, disregarding precedents of Executive privilege and confidentiality, rashly issuing subpoenas and interfering with the President's right to use the military as cavalierly as he would wield a flyswatter.

How could Nancy Pelosi sabotage our foreign policy by taking matters into her own hands in Syria? How could the Democrats put a timeline on the withdrawal from Iraq? What shame that the Pat Leahy would push Karl Rove and Harriet Myers to the dishonor of revealing confidential deliberations on the firing of US attorneys.

Poor, delicate creatures of the Right, their constitutions are simply too fragile to be exposed to such incivilities. As Scarlett O'Hara once said, "Rhett, don't. I shall faint."

The profound hypocrisy of such protestations is self-evident. The Lords of Scandal are genetically incapable of feeling scandalized.

But they do make a good point (though as usual, not the one they think they're making) which is that much of what makes our government effective, when it is effective, is not codified in law; rather, it is institutional and traditional. For instance, the bi-partisan civility the typically exists in the Senate allows for legislative productivity even in times of acute political conflict. Or consider the freedom of action in legal gray areas that we allow elected officials, who get the benefit of the doubt because they implicitly represent the will of the people, and traditionally we accept that the remedy for their trespasses should come from the voting booth, not the courtroom.

These extra-legal aspects of our system of government are more than niceties. They are the products of a Darwinian churning that helps insure the survival of our political compact. It is not through any sense of compassion or squeamishness that those with the balance of power have historically refrained from using that power to administer a total coup de grace to the weak in past administrations, but rather the result of fear. Fear of political backlash, fear of making too many enemies, fear of permanently altering the political playing field in ways that lead to unpredictable, and hence risky, outcomes.

And--if I can refrain from cynicism for just a moment (Look mom! Icebergs in hell!)--sometimes politicians are motivated by fear's positive flipside, respect. Respect for tradition and for the value of stability and civility as foundations of good government.

But whatever leads people in government to behave--beyond terror of prison gang rapes--it's a fact that not many rise to the highest echelons by being a bull in a china shop. Success in politics, particularly given the amount of money required, calls for a lot more grace than that.

Or so it used to be.

House lights down please. Slide one. Exhibit A: our current administration.

Composed of (1) provincial nobodies who, had not blind fate bestowed money or connections, would have aspired to no loftier position than a seat on their town zoning council; (2) longtime government operatives with pasts that could most generously be described as "checkered," and a history of holding positions that are extreme even by the standards of extremists, and (3) a collection of Dr. Strangelove's from the fringes of academia. Of the latter two classes it is difficult to say which provides the more fitting candidates to be cast as the villain in James Bond films.

These people mistake loyalty for respect and aren't wise enough to feel fear. They think rules are for suckers, that they can make there own reality. They would have us believe that mindless thrashing is in fact their brilliant master plan.

Beware those who conduct their affairs as if big problems have simple and easy solutions. Such beliefs are the refuge of the lazy, for whom the honest and necessary work of building robust constituencies based on interest to advance specific policies is too mentally taxing, frustrating, tiresome and slow. Yes, it is tempting to believe that they have found some kind of secret shortcut to a better, safer world. But recognize a medicine show when you see one. The administration is operating somewhere on a continuum between out-and-out deception at one extreme and intellectual weakness, delusion, and foolishness at the other. We can debate where on the spectrum they truly sit--but it doesn't really matter. You don't want to be strolling in any part of that neighborhood after dark.

They haven't shown any reluctance to breaking actual laws, so they certainly aren't going to think twice about smashing institutional traditions that they (accurately) see as constraining of the executive scope of action. In fact, they are purposely flouting all precedent in an attempt to permanently redefine the relationship between the branches of government and to blur the lines between partisan activity and government business. But such tactics won't lead to a stable altered government anymore than you can breed children with wings by sewing feathers to your ass.

This administration is that one drunk dumbass that always insists on standing up in the canoe.

So what are the democrats to do? When one power is intent on setting fire to every useful constraint and institution, inaction is not an option. Extremism in one part of the political arena must engender extreme reactions as surely as nature abhors a vacuum. What is truly remarkable about the way the new congress has conducted its business so far is not the aggressiveness with which it pursues oversight, with which it seeks to stabilize the ship, but the restraint with which it conducts that oversight. They know that even as they seek to call the administration to account for countless faults, they must simultaneously salvage our beleaguered institutions and traditions in hopes that one day, before too long, a saner executive will be able to use them to govern effectively.