Monday, January 22, 2007

Serious Political Commentary for Serious Times

Many liberal political commentators have noted the ability of the conservative movement to raise questions of authenticity about liberal candidates. No one is more hip to this than Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler, which is repetitive and tiresome and absolutely correct. Grounded in his experience in the 2000 Gore campaign, Somerby details how political coverage is converted into a simple narrative (he calls it novelized), in which candidates are reduced to a few personality traits which are repeated ad infinitum. Invariably, the personal traits of liberal candidates that are identified with liberals are inauthenticity, dishonesty, hypocrisy, shrill moralism and overbearingness. Republicans are given the personality attributes of authenticity, manliness, honesty, directness, and sincerity. By the end of the campaign, Democrats are seen as icky. It explains why Democratic candidates who lose, even those who win like Al Gore, as seen as contemptible and ridiculous, and an embarassment after the election.

What does this have to do with ministry?

Ministers frequently feel under the obligation to be non-partisan in many of their political comments, especially as they move out of their more private conversations into those which are more public. Now, there are three sorts of non-partisan stances. One is that you never say anything about politics. Second is that you say only good things about all parties and all candidates and all potential candidates. The third is that you adopt a cynical critical view that disparages all candidates and parties enough to deflect any criticism that you are an open advocate of one or the other. This is most ministers' strategy, I think.

So the commentary goes like this: "Boy that Bush is a War Criminal, isn't he? But how about that Hillary? What a cold fish, calculating opportunist? She's like John Kerry -- first she was for the war and now she's against it. And I am so glad the Republicans lost the majority on the House, but if I see Nancy Pelosi in an Armani suit and pearls talking about raising the minimum wage, I just gotta laugh out loud." Republicans are sincere, but wrong, and Democrats are just laughable losers. This type of non-serious discourse is acceptable under the prevailing rules of the game, but it completely reinforces a partisan frame, a Republican frame. In a world where policy differences are not always easy to discern and judge, many people choose to vote on the basis of sincerity, honesty and authenticity.

Democrats have better senses of humor than Republicans. I have no empirical evidence of that, but I believe it to be true. We are able to absorb a joke made about one of the foibles of a liberal candidate than Republican is about a conservative. We will laugh when Jon Stewart or Jay Leno makes fun of a Democrat, especially if they point out an insincerity. That is not a two-way street, and maybe it is a sign of mental health, but it is doing the work of the conservatives. Does Rush Limbaugh make fun of John McCain?

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