Is it "contradictory" to decry the right's tactics while insisting on their equal application?

Allowing GOP personality-based attacks to go unanswered is a recipe for certain failure.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published April 16, 2008 6:03PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II)

The Weekly Standard has published a review by Dean Barnett of Great American Hypocrites which, considering the publication, is reasonable even where it's inaccurate. There are numerous points I'd be inclined to address, but I want to focus on one in particular:

Like the rest of us, Greenwald has both strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Too much of Great American Hypocrites indulges his fondness for pointless ad hominem attacks, the weakest aspect of his work.

Many of Greenwald's fans will probably take delight in his description of Rush Limbaugh as a "draft-avoiding, illegal-pill-addicted and multiple-divorced (man) burdened with one of the most decadent and degraded lives of any public figure anywhere." Whether they take note of the irony that a mere two pages later Greenwald decries our "attack-based personality-obsessed politics" is an open question.

The contradiction that Barnett thinks he perceives -- between (a) highlighting the decadent, degraded and dishonorable personality attributes of right-wing leaders and (b) decrying our "attack-based personality-obsessed politics" -- is not a contradiction at all. Rather, it is one of the principal points of the book.

The Right has mastered the art of transforming their leaders into heroic icons while demolishing the character of virtually every liberal and Democratic leader. Those are the themes that, far and away, dominate the establishment media's political coverage. There has been no more conclusive proof for that proposition than the news cycles of the last several weeks.

We are a nation in or on the verge of an extreme recession, with growing economic insecurities, mired in an endless and savage occupation that is consuming our scarce resources and eroding almost completely every aspect of our national strength. We have been ruled for the last many years by a political faction that has embraced truly radical theories that have fundamentally transformed the type of government we have and the type of country we are.

But as we select the next President, what are the stories that are dominating our political discourse? The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza provided the answer just this week:

Critical mass has been reached. "Bitter" and "cling" will forever be tied to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in the same way that "Tuzla" and "the laugh" will always evoke Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) when a political junkie thinks of the 2008 Democratic race.

And the "bitter" drama merely replaced the "elitist-because-he-can't-bowl" storyline in the spotlight. As I noted the other day, this is just an exercise in reflexively filling in the gaps in the insipid personality-based script -- authored by the Right and amplified by their media partners -- that dominates every one of our elections, regardless of who the candidates are or what they do.

John Kerry's defining trait was that he windsurfed in effete tights. Al Gore's was that he invented the Internet, claimed credit for Love Story, and wore earth colors because Naomi Wolf told him to. Michael Dukakis' was that he looked like a geeky loser in a helmet and didn't seem to show enough manly rage when asked in a debate about a hypothetical case where his wife was raped and killed.

One of the prime propagators of this cliched and petty chatter, Maureen Dowd, wrote yet another column today re-hashing these same themes:

Behind closed doors in San Francisco, elitism’s epicenter, Barack Obama showed his elitism, attributing the emotional, spiritual and cultural values of working-class, "lunch pail" Pennsylvanians to economic woes. . . . Obama comes across less like a candidate in Pennsylvania than an anthropologist in Borneo.

He hasn't pulled a John Kerry and asked for a Philly cheese steak with Swiss yet, but he has maintained a regal "What do the simple folk do to help them escape when they're blue?" bearing, unable to even feign Main Street cred. . . .

What turns off voters is the detached egghead quality that they tend to equate with a wimpiness, wordiness and a lack of action — the same quality that got the professorial and superior Adlai Stevenson mocked by critics as Adelaide. The new attack line for Obama rivals is that he's gone from J.F.K. to Dukakis. (Just as Dukakis chatted about Belgian endive, Obama chatted about Whole Foods arugula in Iowa.)

So Barack Obama now takes his place on the ignoble path tread by every other Democratic candidate before him: as an effete, elitist, out-of-touch loser -- just like Mike Dukakis and John Kerry, and just like Al Gore and (when she was leading in the polls) Hillary Clinton. Conversely, the GOP leaders are stalwart and amiable though heroic Men of the People.

Given that dynamic, Democrats have two choices and only two choices: (1) allow the Right to wield these themes unchallenged, in a one-sided manner, or (2) engage them just as aggressively and directly in order to neutralize the advantage they confer. The point is that having our elections decided primarily on substantive issues isn't an option, precisely because the Right and the shallow, slothful media ensure that petty personality controversies predominate. The only choice is to engage them or to ignore them, thereby allowing them to rage unchallenged.

When the Right inserts personality-based trash into our political discourse -- and when they build up their leaders based on mythological themes of heroic, morally upstanding character imagery -- it isn't an "ad hominem" attack to highlight the deceit that lies at the heart of those claims, to document the actual character of those individuals. It's a necessary response for debunking the manipulative, substance-free character themes that are outcome-determinative in our elections, for neutralizing the twisted attacks that predominate.

Put another way, where someone advocates "Principle X," one can either (a) contest the validity of Principle X or (b) insist that Principle X be applied equally to its advocate. Opting for (b) does not preclude (a), nor does it make one hypocritical to insist upon equal application of a principle to which one objects. To the contrary, method (b) is a means of advancing (a); that is, one way to demonstrate the depravity of a principle it to apply the principle to its advocates.

Here, "Principle X" = the Right's notion that our elections should be decided based on petty personality-based themes -- euphemistically known as, justified and glorified as, "character issues." Decrying that principle while simultaneously subjecting the Right to it is not "hypocritical" or "contradictory" but, instead, is a means -- the only means -- for undermining it.

It's certainly the case that there are substantive means for combating these attacks. Substantial portions of my book are devoted, for instance, to dissecting the myth that the GOP is devoted to "limited government" and "individual autonomy" or that they stand for "strength" and moral probity. It is vital to develop substantive means for highlighting how deceitful those claims are. But liberal squeamishness over engaging personality-based battles has allowed the Right to flourish, and the point of engaging them isn't to join the muck but to render those attacks impotent by ensuring that they are applied equally.

I had the opportunity this week to speak to a gathering of roughly 20 members of Congress along with various Democratic Beltway strategist-types about my book and some of the strategic issues discussed here, and this same question was raised: "if we engage these themes, aren't we dragging ourselves to the level that they're at, and copying tactics which voters emphatically say they dislike"? Voters say they dislike those tactics, but they still continue to dictate election outcomes, largely because the tactics are deployed in such a one-sided manner, and are therefore highly effective.

These themes trigger potent psychological, emotional and tribal responses and, if left unrefuted, will virtually always overwhelm rational consideration of "issues." Illustrating what "strength," "patriotism," and moral probity really are -- and who and what exudes them -- is imperative, and it is equally imperative to do so aggressively and unapologetically, not defensively or meekly.

As illustrated by the Weekly Standard review of my book, this is the game the Right has been playing for some time. They ceaselessly turn our elections into petty personality-based, Drudge-like attacks. Democratic Candidate A is a deceitful, scheming, conniving, weak, effete elitist freak who hates the Regular Folk and their heartland values, while Republican Candidate B is a heroic, honor-bound, strong, morally upstanding Man of the People. And the minute those themes are subjected to critical scrutiny, they scream "ad hominem attack!"

By all rights, John McCain -- leading proponent of one of the most unpopular wars ever and tied at the hip to one of the most unpopular administrations in modern American history -- should be 20 points behind in the polls, at least. But he isn't. He is typically tied or even sometimes ahead. Why? Because the Cult of Personality constructed around him -- just as was true for George Bush -- remains largely unchallenged, while the right-wing/media monster demolishes the personality and character of the Democratic candidates. Until that changes, it doesn't matter how enthusiastically voters embrace the position papers of Democrats. The Right will continue to dominate our national elections irrespective of how vehement Americans reject their political positions and ideology, because these vapid themes predominate instead. Drudge Rules the Media World. Ignoring that reality or wishing it weren't so doesn't make it go away.

* * * * *

As a reminder, tonight, at 7:00 p.m. I'll be speaking at Olsson's Bookstore in Dupont Circle, Washington DC, with an extensive Q-and-A session. That will be followed by a "debate night" event jointly hosted by FDL, Drinking Liberally and The Seminal at the 17th Street Cafe. Tomorrow night, Thursday April 17, I'll be speaking at the University of Maryland-College Park, at 6:30 p.m., in the Crist Boardroom of the Samuel Riggs Alumni Center, which is open to the public.

UPDATE: Oddly, a CNN article today actually summarizes these matters quite accurately:

Sen. Barack Obama is saddled with a potentially toxic image problem -- that he has an elitist attitude. . . .Branding a rival elitist is not new in politics. Republicans for years have successfully labeled Democratic presidential candidates as the liberal elite. Portraying their rivals as latte-sipping, sushi-eating insiders, Republicans have connected with some voters by arguing they understand the values important to the everyday person. . . .

Republicans painted George Bush's Democratic opponents Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 as elitists who were detached from average Americans, and the strategy worked. . . . It's ironic, [Drew] Westen said, that of the three standing, the only one who isn't demonstrably wealthy is Obama. Since leaving the White House, the Clintons have earned more than $109 million from book sales, speaking engagements, the presidential pension and her Senate salary, among other sources.

McCain, whose father and grandfather were Navy admirals, married into wealth. His second wife, Cindy, has a stake in her father's multimillion-dollar beer distributor company. The Associated Press estimated her worth at more than $100 million.

Only in Media World could an individual who grew up in a poor and/or single-parent home with purely self-made accomplishments (Obama, John Edwards) be an out-of-touch "elitist" while individuals who live in extravagant wealth earned by others (George W. Bush, McCain) be Regular Folk in touch with heartland lifestyles and values. As Atrios noted today, even Howie Kurtz understands the bizarre spectacle of watching coddled media stars decree who is an "elitist" and who is in touch with Common Values:

It's mildly amusing to watch cable hosts with multimillion-dollar salaries wring their hands over how Obama can't possibly relate to the struggling masses. When was the last time most of these people had a shot and a beer in a bar, or visited a small town unless it was to make a highly paid speech? It's a small irony of this "out of touch" debate that upper-echelon journalists with wardrobe allowances or kids in fancy private schools get to pose as the folks who are in touch with the great American working class.

But that's how these themes work and what makes them so toxic. Aside from being painfully petty, they bear no relation to reality. After all, George Bush and Dick Cheney were the swaggering, strong, courageous, protective warriors and Vietnam-volunteering John Kerry and Al Gore were the weak-kneed, subversive, soft, effete, Chamberlain-like appeasers. The right-wing script is deployed regardless of the candidates and their true attributes.

UPDATE: Salon has an excerpt from Great American Hypocrites, concerning the establishment media's indispensable participation in all of this, which can be read here.

Glenn Greenwald

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