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Anti-Tea Party Campaign: Demagoguery or Not?

From the Department of Agitprop!

1:22 PM, Sep 23, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Recently, I strongly criticized the Obama administration for considering a political ad campaign against the Tea Partiers, suggesting that it was demagogic.  They didn’t like that over at the New Republic!  Jonathan Chait agreed with my basic take on the midterm dynamic, but said my characterization of the proposed ad campaign was “beyond absurd.”  Wow!  Not to be outdone, Ed Kilgore claims to be “frankly offen(ded)” and accuses me of pushing "agitprop" (ummm…spit take?!). 

He then proceeds to pummel the living daylights out of a strawman:

 It’s “demagoguery” for political leaders of one party to ask voters to compare their policies to those of the alternate party? Last time I checked, the U.S. Congress hasn't adopted the system that some states have for judicial elections, in which voters simply decide whether to retain or reject incumbents, without knowing anything about their potential replacements. Elections are inherently comparative…And, far from being demagogic, it's responsible for the major parties to try to educate voters about what they're choosing, rather than simply what they're voting against…

I have no problems with the Democratic party asking “voters to compare their policies to those of the alternate party.”  That’s often referred to as a campaign, and as the former author of the Horse Race Blog, I have no troubles with campaigns.  If it weren't for campaigns, I'd be at some fourth-tier political science department writing boring essays about the correspondence between Karl Popper and F.A. Hayek for The Quarterly Journal of Scholarly Tedium!

But this is not really an accurate characterization of what the White House is mulling, is it?  Here is what the New York Times actually suggested was on the table:

President Obama’s political advisers, looking for ways to help Democrats and alter the course of the midterm elections in the final weeks, are considering a range of ideas, including national advertisements, to cast the Republican Party as all but taken over by Tea Party extremists, people involved in the discussion said…

“We need to get out the message that it’s now really dangerous to re-empower the Republican Party,” said one Democratic strategist who has spoken with White House advisers…[Emphasis Mine]

This is not a straightforward contrast campaign, wherein the Obama White House draws tough distinctions with Republican candidates for office.  Instead, it’s a two-prong effort: tar the Tea Partiers as dangerous extremists, then argue that your seemingly sensible local Republican candidate is actually the pawn of these nefarious anti-coffee schemers, though s/he will never admit it.

Here’s the definition of “demagogue” from Merriam Webster:

A leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.

I think it is a patently false claim to assert that the Tea Party is “dangerous.”  As for the charge of extremism, it’s a typical epithet thrown about by both sides, including Kilgore in the above-cited article.  I find that to be a really tiresome rhetorical strategy.  Memo to all and sundry: pointing out a few examples of bad behavior on both sides is proof of nothing, just like the plural of anecdote is not data. 

Liberals aren’t extremists; they’re just liberals!  Conservatives aren’t extremists; they’re just conservatives!  Similarly, the Tea Partiers are perfectly within the mainstream of American political thought, so is the New Republic.  The two are just on opposite sides of a very broad spectrum of perfectly respectable political ideologies – so when they look at each other without proper perspective on where they stand in the body politic, the other appears extreme.  Call it political parallax.  Nevertheless, Americans have been having the same basic political argument since about 1896, so for goodness sake can we stop accusing each other of extremism?

So, I think both claims about the Tea Partiers are false.  As such claims would be made to rally a totally dispirited Democratic base to retain the party’s hold on power, I stand by my characterization that an ad campaign as laid out in that New York Times article would be demagogic.

Of course, demagoguery has long been well within the mainstream of American political discourse.  I don’t really have much of a problem with it per se – my Hobbesian view of what counts as “fair play” in American political campaigns is a lot broader than most people’s.   

My beef is what it has long been for a long while: President Obama promised to do one thing, but time and again he has done the other.  As his campaign for the presidency was predicated entirely upon promises such as these - rather than executive experience or legislative success in the Senate - it aggravates me a great deal that he didn't even try to do what he promised.  The alternative theory - that he tried but he couldn't get the votes of conservative nutjobs like George Voinovich, Bob Corker, and Orrin Hatch - is just absurd to me.  He came into the White House with a West Wing team stocked full of partisan brawlers, and he picked a fight almost as soon as he got in the door.  

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