Modern Politics as Modern Art

by | Feb 27, 2007

The mere allegation that the one side is "playing politics" is like a catch-all smear to stop any opposition in its tracks.

From Obama says he wants end to ‘tit-for-tat’:

Obama told donors at a Houston fundraiser Thursday night that the nation will remain at a standstill “if we continue to engage in small and divisive politics and tit-for-tat.”

“Our country is at a crossroads right now,” he said, citing problems in Iraq’ and domestically with education, energy and health care. “It’s not as if we don’t know what the solutions are. What’s missing is the inability of our leadership to develop consensus.”

One of my favorite accusations by politicians is that the other side is “playing politics” with a particular issue and I have always wondered what that means and what could give rise to such an obviously ridiculous allegation, i.e., that it is wrong for a politician to play politics.

I used to think people meant one of two things when they say this:
1) That one side is attacking the other on the basis of something that is unrelated or at best tangentially related to the issue
2) One side is taking a position not because they believe in the position but because they wish to remain loyal to their party’s position

These are legitimate concerns, however, I think there is something different being implied especially as it relates to cases where the other side accuses their opponent of “playing politics” for simply disagreeing with them or for highlighting (often in a dramatic way) contradictions in their opponent’s position. The mere allegation that the one side is “playing politics” is like a catch-all smear to stop any opposition in its tracks. So, why don’t people see through this and what gives such an allegation any weight whatsoever?

Another aspect of this is typified by the proverbial lament “why can’t the Republicans and Democrats just get along and get something done”. Another is that “partisanship is bad” and “compromise” or “consensus” is necessary. Note the quote above where Obama explicitly states that we know the “solutions” to a host of issues but just need “consensus” to implement them.

Is he implying that the solutions to these issues are self-evident and that what is holding them back from implementing them is simply to put aside arbitrary and meaningless ‘tit for tats” and execute the solutions? Is there really complete unanimity on behalf of politicians? Why doesn’t he discuss these so-called solutions and what are they? Is consensus necessary and is it necessarily good as he implies?

I believe there are two reasons why Obama would make this claim. One reason ironically is political and one is philosophical.

First, there is the base political reason. If everyone else out there believes something is true then to sound good you must simply rehash what you think will make you popular without committing to anything particular that could be offensive or controversial. So, in other words, politically it makes sense to accuse your opponent of being political.

However, this explanation begs the question of why “everyone else out there” implicitly accepts these claims thus making them a popular rehash in the first place. I submit that the reason has to do with the concept of objectivity.

Modern philosophy generally holds that there are no absolutes, i.e., that reason is invalid or at best a limited means of acquiring knowledge. How often have you heard the claim that “nothing is black or white” or “we can’t be certain of anything”? Many would accept the claim that 2+2=4, however, most intellectuals do not accept inductive generalizations especially as they relate to philosophical issues. The history of this is long and complicated but the fact is that most people certainly believe its true that you can’t conclude anything is certainly true.

Since philosophy steers society, the rejection of reason and objectivity leads to subjectivism and manifests itself in every area of modern culture. For example, note the absurdity of modern art which stridently asserts that art can not be “defined” and so virtually anything can be considered “art” from arbitrary splotches of paint on a canvas to urine in a bottle (I wish I was making that up). This subjectivism in modern universities has led to so-called multiculturalism which alleges that you can not morally distinguish between a primitive culture and an advanced civilization. In fundamental science, physicists tell us nothing can be known for certain and that the best we can do is assign probabilities. This in turn has led to an upsurge in religious fundamentalism as those seeking answers must choose between the false alternative of the subjectivist secular philosophers (which offer all the grandeur of a hippie) and the absolutism of religious dogma (which at least offers individual salvation and a fancy afterlife depending on the specific religion).

Where does this lead in politics? Well if nothing can really be known for certain then upon what do we base the law? Are there absolute, objective political principles to which we can refer when passing specific legislation or is it all just a matter of opinion? If its just a matter of opinion and there is no right or wrong then what? The most you can do is let all factions fight it out in an effort to reach a “consensus.” In both domestic and foreign policy, compromise becomes necessarily virtuous since one could never assert with conviction that his view is absolutely right, right? In this sense, modern politicians are modern art incarnate and they should horrify us for the same reasons.

So in Obama’s mind could anyone truly disagree with him or could he truly disagree with anyone else? Does he attempt to cite specific causes of the problems we are facing right now? If there are no causes then how can there be solutions? To him there are no absolutes and no principles and therefore our leaders can only find “consensus.”

Is compromise virtuous? If you are negotiating to buy a car and you bid 8 and the seller offers 10 and you settle on 9 then that is a legitimate compromise. If one person offers you food and the other offers you poison could you compromise and just take a little poison? If one government promises to protect your rights and the other promises to enslave you, would you wish to compromise or find consensus on how much slavery you should accept?

Doug Reich blogs at the The Rational Capitalist with commentary, analysis, and links upholding reason, individualism, and capitalism.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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