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Rhetoric Double-Step

Peter Beinart's latest column makes two sets of claims with which I agree. One goes like this:

I think the liberal critics are largely right: Bush's actions don't match his words. . . . But liberals are losing the argument nonetheless, because Bush's second inaugural wasn't about policy. . . .

But that's exactly the point. Bush's second inaugural doesn't challenge liberals at the level of policy; it challenges them at the level of rhetoric. And, unless they respond in kind, they'll experience the same fate that befell John Kerry. In policy terms, Kerry probably had a more serious democratization agenda than Bush. But, rhetorically, he never matched Bush's grandeur. And, in the United States, where it is great causes and missionary impulses that rouse citizens to engage with the world, Bush's language captured the public imagination, and Kerry's did not.

The second, and larger part, of the argument goes like this. Liberal rhetoric about democracy-promotion and idealism is more likely to be effective at promoting democracy but liberals are sensitive to the reality of past American wrongdoing and hypocrisy. This is stuff the people we're trying to help are aware of, and they don't take the US government seriously unless we acknowledge all that and can credibly maintain to be doing things differently in the future.

The trouble is that rather than bolstering each other, as Beinart thinks, these points are in tension. The sort of liberal rhetoric that is effective as part of a democracy-promotion strategy is harmful as an electoral strategy. That's exactly the kind of stuff that pisses most Americans outside of a smallish cosmopolitan sector off. A big part of what's appealing about Bush's idealistic rhetoric is that it plays into America's very flattering self-conception. The more honest take on this beloved of liberal intellectuals is likely to work better, since it's more credible, but at best it will confuse the electorate ("nuance" and all that) and more likely it will enrage them. People don't want to hear that America, though often good, has also been bad and needs to reform its ways to meet the challenges of the 21st century. There's a genuine difficulty here, and it needs to be acknowledged and addressed. The "pundit's fallacy" of assuming that whatever you happen to think the best policy would be is also the best political approach is a serious danger.

February 17, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

at best it will confuse the electorate ("nuance" and all that) and more likely it will enrage them

Both happen regularly, and that's the biggest problem we have-- it's not the subtleties ("nuance") so much as the fact that the modern world is complex, and that simply irritates hell out of most people, and as a conseequence they tend to lash out at anyone who seems to embrace that complexity. It certainly makes reductive reasoning and simple (but grandiose) rhetoric that much more appealing to the masses.

Posted by: latts | Feb 17, 2005 1:00:27 PM

"The trouble is that rather than bolstering each other, as Beinart thinks, these points are in tension. The sort of liberal rhetoric that is effective as part of a democracy-promotion strategy is harmful as an electoral strategy."

Hmm...

I think you're confusing policy and rhetoric, Matt.

A Democratic candidate could have delivered the exact same inaugural speech that Bush did, while pursuing a Holbrook-ian foreign policy instead of a Wolfowitz-ian foreign policy.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 17, 2005 1:02:53 PM

Mr. Yglesias,

You have made a very good point. Political programs are not going to be sold through nuance because people are not led by nuance. Politics, electoral and international, is a blunt club, not a fencing foil.

But that is just a tactical matter. Also interesting is a fundamental error - the tendency of the over-specialized, like the typical academic, to mistake the forest for the trees. You complain about the simplistic idea ordinary Americans have of American virtue. It seems to me that, lacking detail though this idea is, it is more correct than not, and it is a fundamental failing of the academic left that it ignores this larger reality for the sake of the details it obsesses over.

Someone who specializes in this stuff, like for instance Howard Zinn, can mistake all his catalogued complaints for reality. Perspective is not a virtue among academics.

This applies in foreign affairs too. Determination and conviction are powerful things, "yes ,buts" and nuance are too often just barnacles slowing down progress.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 17, 2005 1:06:16 PM

Matt wrote: "The more honest take on this beloved of liberal intellectuals is likely to work better, since it's more credible, but at best it will confuse the electorate ("nuance" and all that) and more likely it will enrage them. People don't want to hear that America, though often good, has also been bad and needs to reform its ways to meet the challenges of the 21st century. There's a genuine difficulty here, and it needs to be acknowledged and addressed."

I strongly recommend spending less time with academicians and more time with marketing and advertising types. If Democrats want to win elections, they need to sell (it's not a dirty word) a product (Democratic Party and Democrat candidates) and a message (Democrats are good for you).

If you want to have an academic argument about expiation of American guilt, forget about winning elections.

Posted by: pilsener | Feb 17, 2005 1:06:34 PM

"People don't want to hear that America, though often good, has also been bad and needs to reform its ways to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

I'm more than willing to hear that. Now, if you could name the country that has done more good over the last century, that has meet more challenges and made more reforms in the last century. If it's not us leading the way, who? If not now, when?

Posted by: Chad | Feb 17, 2005 1:10:57 PM

Dear Matt: You are getting close to the very heart of our national dilemma. As a people, we are lousy citizens. A sweeping majority fails to even TRY to be informed participants in a democracy.
For most of my adult life, the winning formula for Republicans and Democrats alike has been "don't worry, there's no problem that'll ever require you to put down the remote, get off your fat ass, and do something for your nation. John Kennedy was the last president to challenge the American people. Ever since it's been all feel-good, all the time. It was Carter's people who dropped sacrifice from the national vocabulary because voters loathed the term.
There is no rhetoric that the Democrats can devise that'll trump the GOP's lock on that mindset. Bush has assured people that science, arithmetic, or any unpleasant fact are irrelevant. Obey us, put a bumper sticker on your car, and America remains great-just as you the person are great.
Lies that grandiose can't be topped. The Democrats need the Dr. Phil approach. I'll vote for any presidential candidate with the common gumption to point out that if Vijay Singh works 14 hours a day to be the best golfer on earth, being the best country on earth might take a little effort as well.
I don't think this is necessarily a suicidal strategy. People don't WANT to be lazy, selfish, and uninformed. Most folks do well when faced with challenges. John NcCain and Howard Dean, two very different pols, were and are at least scratching the surface of my idea. It'd didn't make them president, but it did catapult them to national prominence.

Posted by: Michael Gee | Feb 17, 2005 1:14:16 PM

I think Kerry may have had the drawback of insisting on believing what he said. Not good in politics.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 17, 2005 1:17:34 PM

People don't want to hear that America, though often good, has also been bad and needs to reform its ways to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

I disagree. I think that Americans would be quite happy to hear that.

I just don't think that it is what's on offer from most Democrats. Rather, we get from them "America, though occasionally good, has been mostly bad and needs to completely overhaul its ways to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

That is, ask most Democrats about the last half-century of American foreign policy and what will you hear? Vietnam, Iran-Contra, Pinochet, Vietnam, Saddam, Saudis, Vietnam, death squads, Abu Ghraib. It's unlikely you will hear too much about Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, etc.

Posted by: Al | Feb 17, 2005 1:17:40 PM

Mr. Isbell,

I think Mr. Kerry actually honestly belives the wrong things (from my point of view), and that Mr. Bush honestly believes the right things. People can be much too cynical about politicians.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 17, 2005 1:20:16 PM

"I think Kerry may have had the drawback of insisting on believing what he said. Not good in politics."

The art of politics is in large part being able to say politically advantageous things while at the same time not saying things you don't believe in.

See Bill Clinton for an example of how a skillful politician pulls this off. See John Kerry for an example of how a mediocre politician doesn't.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 17, 2005 1:25:09 PM

Short version: demagogues win elections.

Posted by: Carlos | Feb 17, 2005 1:34:11 PM

I disagree. I think that Americans would be quite happy to hear that.

Why do you think so?

Posted by: JakeV | Feb 17, 2005 1:34:26 PM

I disagree. I think that Americans would be quite happy to hear that.

I just don't think that it is what's on offer from most Democrats. Rather, we get from them "America, though occasionally good, has been mostly bad and needs to completely overhaul its ways to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

Well, Al has a point. I agree that people would be happy to hear "we have done some wrong, but at our best, we are great" rhetoric. But no, except for the Chomskyite left (which ain't the Democratic Party), no one our side peddles the "bad bad America" meme.

Of course that meme is associated with the Democrats in the popular mind. And of course the Democrats have been so afraid of this association that they have found unthinkable the idea of saying even "for what we have wrong, we are still a greatest force for liberty and democracy in the world." We're talking about a party that- I will never, ever get tired of ranting about this- that found itself tongue-tied on the goddamned $87 billion vote.


Posted by: Sean Flaherty | Feb 17, 2005 1:36:02 PM

America has finally developed a history. At home, Americans are much less historically minded than many other nations, and optimism and good intentions sell. Abroad you probably do need a somewhat different strategy.

I was thinking of France and Britain. Oh, just for the sake of argument, lets assume they aren't born wicked, and might choose an action for altruistic purposes. It happens to the worst of us. There are very many places in the world where France and England could not simply say:"Trust Us."

America has done a lot of good, and some bad, but I think we have gotten to a point where our history has become a negative factor in international relations. This is not to say we deserve to be hated, but simply to say that we shouldn't expect other nations to take our good intentions as a matter of faith.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 17, 2005 1:37:25 PM

Whoops.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 17, 2005 1:44:54 PM

Jeez, what the heck should you be smoking at this hour to type an idiotic post like this, son? Not to mention reading this Peter Beinart feller again...

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 17, 2005 1:47:34 PM


I don't think any country has taken US good intentions as a matter of faith, other than perhaps Canada. International relations are all about fear, power and advantage.

Now, there have been many times where countries haven't had an option but to hope for the best and trust in America, because they were so relatively weak that is the best they could do.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 17, 2005 1:47:45 PM

Good intentions... Lol. Countries to hope... Oh, god.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 17, 2005 1:59:02 PM

It's telling that - off the top of his head - Al could think of 9 separate cases in the past 40 years where U.S. foreign policy would fall into the anti-democratic category and 2 examples of democracy-promotion. I'd put Bosnia on the "good" side of the ledger (maybe Al didn't want to credit Clinton). But I think his post is pretty strong evidence that we aren't, in fact, a great force of "good" in the world - that we're a bunch of hypocrites who want to ignore our own culpability. As to the larger point, of course it's bad politics to admit this.

Posted by: Charlie | Feb 17, 2005 2:03:13 PM

Look, no matter what rhetoric the Dems use, the GOP will still scream that we don't have an "exit strategy" or some such thing. Beinart, and Matt, are assuming that it's possible to go back to the days before all Republican warmongering is good and all Democratic warmongering is bad.

Posted by: Matt Davis | Feb 17, 2005 2:07:06 PM

Mr. Charlie,

Perhaps its because those cases have gotten so much press for so many years ? Also, he is listing cases, not countries, and the situations in many of these were very ambiguous.

The US tried to create a Vietnamese democracy. It was well on the way to succeeding in that I think, much further along than at the same point with respect to Korea.

The US organized elections and promoted a democratic system in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Alls well that ends well I think. Unless you feel that it didn't end as well as could be expected.

I think Chile was in the middle of an unresolvable constitutional crisis. Whether there was a democratic government in place at the time is questionable. Allende was unconstitutionally opposing his own legislature.

Saudi Arabia was never a democracy. The US would have to take it over to install one.

Now, consider what the US has done - it preserved democracy in Western Europe, and brought it to Eastern Europe and Japan, representing a population of some 500 million. It has served as the principal repository and refuge for demoracts around the world, who eventually brought democracy to Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, etc., all this helped along by the capitalism it has also defended.

The US was the indispensable country for democracy, the core, the root, the shield, the sword, when necessary. There are stains on the shield and nicks on the sword, but so be it.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 17, 2005 2:14:41 PM

Michael Gee -

I was unsuccesssful in remembering a Presidential candidate that was honest and straightforward in his campaign rhetoric- perhaps Mondale who lost 49 states.

I believe that most people perceive campaign promises and rhetoric as essentially empty words, so they vote based on other factors. If a candidate can ever be perceived as an unsparing truth-teller with reasonable approaches to solving problems, I believe that candidate will win. I don't expect to see such a candidate in my lifetime.

It is possible to run a candidate who can be believed on a few big things. But the candidate will have to believe in those few big things and be able to communicate sincerity. Somehow Senators seem to lose the ability to be sincere about much of anything.

Posted by: pilsener | Feb 17, 2005 2:24:39 PM

Luisalegria,

At what point do we take some responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths? There have been places and times when we supported democracy, and there have been places and times when we've undermined it. But nearly all of it has been in our self-interest - which is fine, but let's at least admit it. You may want to claim that we went to Iraq to "liberate" the Iraqi people, but anyone who's honest and pays attention knows that's bullshit. Let's not pretend our actions in Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, Central America, etc. have been virtuous. All's well that ends well? You think the death squads were fine because Central America has become more democratic? Don't forget, it was Ortega who held elections in Nicaragua, and transfered power to Chomora (sp?) when he lost. (By the way, we actually have done a lot to support this Saudi dictatorship since its inception).

Posted by: Charlie | Feb 17, 2005 2:34:44 PM

Mr. Charlie,

The US had been in an extended war against a totalitarian conspiracy since 1945. Bad things happen in wars. Its over.

What has the US done to support a Saudi dictatorship ? Arabia was a set of kingdoms and chiefdoms since forever. Ibn Saud united it through conquest, single-handed, without US help, and against British influence. Saudi Arabia was not a western product. The US dealt with it as a sovereign and legitimate country, which it is. The Saudis have maintained their country through their own efforts with their own funds. I really don't see what the US did to preserve them in power.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 17, 2005 2:40:53 PM

The US tried to create a Vietnamese democracy.

No, it didn't. It had ten years to try this in the South before the war started in earnest, and failed to do so.

much further along than at the same point with respect to Korea.

Funny you bring up Korea, considering that it took about 45 years under U.S.-backed regimes before a real presidential election was ever held.

I think Chile was in the middle of an unresolvable constitutional crisis.

Lots of democracies have had constitutional crises, including our own. This was not a valid reason to overthrow the government and install a dictatorship that terrorized and killed many thousands of people.

Now, consider what the US has done - it preserved democracy in Western Europe, and brought it to Eastern Europe

No, it didn't. It contained communism in Eastern Europe until it collapsed under its own weight. This was a strategy devised by liberals, at a time when many conservatives were insisting on "rollback." It is also consistent with modern liberals' strategy in the Middle East, to which you seem to be opposed.

and Japan

This was a byproduct of a war that we entered for unrelated reasons. The U.S. deserves credit for winning the war, not for embarking on a pro-democracy crusade.

The US was the indispensable country for democracy, the core, the root, the shield, the sword, when necessary. There are stains on the shield and nicks on the sword, but so be it.

This is just mindless cheerleader-ism. And what is the point, anyway? Is anyone supposed to be keeping score?

My argument, and the argument of every mainstream liberal I know, is not that the U.S. is a bad country. The point is that we should acknowledge our mistakes, because they're the truth. And we shouldn't waste time insisting on being given credit for the things we've done right, because that is pointless. Who cares where we rank among historical world powers? How is this supposed to accomplish anything except stroke your ego? The difference is one of priorities: whether it's more importnat to fix existing problems, or to make sure others genuflect before us? Conservatives would rather have their egos stroked. We disagree.

Posted by: JP | Feb 17, 2005 2:46:34 PM

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