Why Having Political Hot Heads and Heated Debate Are a Good Thing
The reception of Markos Moulitsas's American Taliban, which compares some American conservatives to their Islamist counterparts, seems to follow a conventional narrative line: overheated liberal bloggers versus the cooler heads of mainstream liberal publications. As the book's acquiring editor, I'm not a neutral observer in this story, but my take on it is also informed by my overall experience in the book industry, as an editor at a nonpartisan policy institute, and as an author of two books on political journalism and one on writing style. That mix of experiences makes it clear to me that we need to rethink the politics of cool -- or at least acknowledge its limits.
The controversy started when Jamelle Bouie, a young reviewer at the American Prospect, rejected the premise of Moulitsas's book, claiming that a) liberals should leave polemic to conservatives, and b) that conservatives haven't gained politically from their rhetorical tactics.
Well-known bloggers Digby, Hunter, and Glenn Greenwald refudiated Bouie's claims, and I turned up a Robert Kuttner article in the American Prospect that made some of the same points as Moulitsas. In fact, Kuttner's article, a review of Max Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah, was titled "American Taliban." Evidently, it was fine for Bob Kuttner, co-editor of the magazine, to deploy that potent phrase; but when Moulitsas explored it, he received a lecture from a junior staffer. Many liberal pundits, and almost all conservative ones, cited Bouie's review as a reason to dismiss Moulitsas's book in advance. But online comments, even on the American Prospect's blog, overwhelmingly supported Moulitsas, and the book's Amazon.com ranking cracked the top 50 the following week.
Other liberal commentators shared Bouie's aversion to polemic. Writing for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates noted that he identifies with liberals largely because we value precision over hyperbole. He therefore sees liberal polemic as a form of "brand degradation." This is a fair point, but it neglects a powerful cultural fact. Simply put, millions of Americans do not understand the truth -- and therefore its misrepresentation -- in the same way that most liberal writers do.
Oddly, the best description of this cultural difference appears in a book on writing style. In Clear and Simple as the Truth (Princeton University Press, 1996), Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner distinguish between classic style -- which emphasizes clarity, cool reason, and critical analysis -- and plain style, which they describe as follows:
Plain style is communal, its model scene a congregation in which speakers reaffirm for each other common truths that are the property of all. In the theology behind plain style, truth is always simple, and it is a common human possession. Individual revisions of this communal possession distort and dilute it. The wisdom of children can be the wisdom of adults, because knowing truth requires no special experience and no critical analysis. Sophisticated thought and conceptual refinement pervert truth. Any language that reaches beyond the simplest level is suspicious as the probably symptom of such a perversion.
Thomas and Turner endorse classic style, the default mode at the Atlantic and American Prospect. But millions of Americans are more comfortable with plain style. For them, the truth has already been provided (often through revelation), so arguments based on evidence are pointless -- worse than pointless, actually, because they can only move people away from the truth.
The theology behind plain style, I would add, has two political corollaries. First, politicians who accept this received truth are given wide latitude, even when they display little or no control over policy issues, history, geography, language, science, etc. What matters is what's in their hearts. Second, compromises with those who don't accept this received truth degrade it and are therefore unacceptable.
For most liberals, but especially liberal writers, plain style is deficient because truth is often complex. We don't expect the facts of climate change, for example, to come out of the mouths of babes. Moreover, we know that "common wisdom" is often faulty and self-serving. "It is perfectly possible," Thomas and Turner note, "for common wisdom to be an anthology of a community's complacent errors."
In short, liberals and conservatives aren't even playing the same language game. Worse, what counts as success in the liberal arena -- a well supported and sophisticated analysis -- is a resounding defeat in the conservative one. This makes reasoned debate, the liberal's strong suit, counterproductive. Compromise, the basis for much workaday politics, is also off the table because conservatives regard it as a spiritual sell-out. If we liberals also renounce polemic, we have little left in our toolkit -- unless we think nightly doses of television satire will sway voters searching for their pitchforks.
Polemics like Moulitsas's achieve two goals. They make conservatives explain and defend their views -- a good thing for liberals, since those views are often indefensible. And such polemics sound the alarm for complacent voters, including liberals, about the political and rhetorical excesses of the right. It isn't fear-mongering to claim that even mainstream conservatives today are playing with matches next to the powder keg. (That's how a friend of GOP operative Lee Atwater described his racist tactics back in the relatively tame 1988 presidential campaign.)
I wish high-minded exchanges mattered more in American politics, but in this culture, overshooting the mark is sometimes the best way to hit it. Hyperbole is a matter of raising the subject excessively, and we often need it to start or reframe a particular conversation -- not only with our adversaries, but also with those who usually agree with us. "As reality-based members of the American community," Jamelle Bouie maintains, "we have an obligation toward (sic) the truth, even when it isn't particularly convenient." I couldn't agree more. But the truth in this case may be that we've vastly overestimated the politics of cool.