Sunday, October 24, 2004


The longer I work on this blog, and the more Brooks I grudgingly force myself to read, the more I come to realize that he seems to be two different columnists, appearing on different days. Sometimes Brooks's columns are surprisingly detached, mildly clever pieces of sociopolitical observation. More often, they're dunderheaded confabulations of nonsense built on clonkingly stupid presumptions, papered over with a veneer of middlebrow wit.

The most recent piece, though, is one of the tolerable ones. Brooks makes an observation that, as far as I know, hasn't been much fussed over in the media: the electorate's nearly fifty-fifty split year after year seems curiously detached from any of the concrete issues on which election campaigns are supposedly based. Either people are not basing their votes on the issues at hand, or their attitudes towards the issues at hand are actually determined by prior political loyalties; either way, the issues don't appear to be affecting people's politics. Brooks:

"Over the past four years, we've experienced a major terrorist attack, a recession, a dot-com shakeout, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate scandals and an active and tumultuous presidency. We've had an influx of new citizens. Millions have died of old age, and tens of millions have moved to new towns and new states

"Yet the political landscape looks almost exactly the same. We're still divided right down the middle...Why does everything in America change except politics? That is the central mystery of this election."

This isn't a bad question to raise. The only problem is that Brooks then goes on to explain the abiding fifty-fifty split in a typically ham-handed, dull-witted manner. Viz.:

"First, partisanship...Human beings are tribal. When they find themselves in a closely fought contest with a rival group, they become ever more tightly bound to their tribe. They see reality in ways that flatter the group. They nurture the resentments that bind the group."

This is a very stupid explanation; it doesn't actually qualify as an explanation at all. Human beings have always been tribal, but American presidential elections have not always been split almost fifty-fifty. You can't explain a novel phenomenon by referring to a permanent condition; the permanent condition can't, by simple logic, have any explanatory value in accounting for the novel phenomenon. I'm sure classical rhetorics has a term for this error, but I don't know what it is. It does strike me, though, as the kind of error to which conservative thinkers are peculiarly prone, for some reason. Give me a few minutes and I'll try and think of some examples - I'm just sure I've seen Brooks and other conservative writers make exactly the same kinds of meaningless appeals to eternal nature in explaining novel, conditional, contemporary phenomena before. I don't know exactly why they would be particularly prone to that sort of logical error, except perhaps for a fondness for ideas about human nature being fixed and unchanging, whether genetic or God-given.

Ronald Reagan's famous notion that trees cause air pollution involves a somewhat similar failure of logic. (There have always been trees; air pollution is new.) But it's not quite the same thing. I'll keep thinking.

Anyway, Brooks's second explanation is at first less obnoxiously stupid. "We're in the middle of a leadership war," he writes. "Underneath all the disputes about Iraq, we're having a big argument about what qualities America should have in a leader. Republicans trust one kind of leader, Democrats another.

"Republicans, from Reagan to Bush, particularly admire leaders who are straight-talking men of faith. The Republican leader doesn't have to be book smart, and probably shouldn't be narcissistically introspective. But he should have a clear, broad vision of America's exceptional role in the world. Democrats, on the other hand, are more apt to emphasize such leadership skills as being knowledgeable and thoughtful. They value leaders who can see complexities, who possess the virtues of the well-educated."

This isn't bad, either, as far as it goes. Though I quibble with the use of the word "leader", which already, to my mind, sneaks in an implicit Republican bias. I think much of the time Democrats don't even particularly want "leaders"; we want good politicians and public servants. We don't need to be "led", we want our views represented in open, democratic debate, and we're comfortable with the idea of somewhat fractious polities that don't march in goose-step to the vision of a Glorious Leader. Republicans seem profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of dissent and of governance by compromise, not by unanimity.

But the more important point here is that the fact that Democrats and Republicans prefer different leadership styles doesn't actually explain in any way the fifty-fifty nature of the current political divide. As Brooks notes, Reagan and Mondale also epitomized the respective Republican and Democratic leadership styles, but Reagan walloped Mondale fifty-seven to forty-three. So what is Brooks writing about here? How does he think these different preferences in leadership styles contribute to the narrowness of the split in the electorate?

Here's Brooks's explanation: "It just so happens that America is evenly divided about what sort of leader we need." Which, obviously, is no explanation at all. "It just so happens"? What the hell is that? Brooks is supposed to be explaining a novel and disturbing phenomenon - the persistence of a fifty-fifty divide through two presidential elections, despite immense changes in the concrete issues the country faces. And his "explanations" for this phenomenon are irrelevant appeals, first to the eternal, and then to the arbitrary.

To be fair, Brooks's discussion of leadership styles does have some relevance to the question of why new events and issues don't seem to change the political map; he's saying that people are voting based on character, not issues. But why fifty-fifty? That's the question he's raising, and that's the question he then fails even to address, much less answer.


At 4:21 PM, Blogger josh narins said...

It's a violation of formal, boolean logic, it is not a "mere" fallacy. That is alwasy the case if there is a logical contradiction, although I'm not a logic expert. (I do know that the Rhetoric and Fallacy schools are part of Informal logic, and Boolean (Socrates was a dog) is formal).

He brought up Reagan-Mondale because he wants _us_ to think of Republican-vs-Democrat as that race.

Calling Bush II or Reagan "straight-talking" is lying. Both Bush II and Reagan were front men. They acted calm and reassuring while psychotic and sycophantic supply-sider/neo-con/pro-wealth policy wonks ran the country into the dirt.


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