Dogmatic Rhetoric is Self-Defeating

Ken Brociner

Martha Biondi and James Thindwa’s viewpoint, Earth to Ken Brociner,” does start out with a clever title – that much I’ll grant them. Unfortunately, they seem to have misunderstood the points I raised in my last column, What Progressives Can Learn from Obama.

Part of Barack Obama’s appeal to Americans of all backgrounds stems from the way he conducts himself in the heat of political combat. Obama rarely, if ever, casts aspersions on his opponents’ ultimate intentions. He eschews the use of incendiary or insulting rhetoric. And he totally avoids the use of dogma in his writing, in debates, and in his speeches.

Of course, Obama is not the ideal candidate from a progressive or leftwing perspective. Before his most recent embrace of the political center, it was plain that Obama had never been more than a center-left candidate to begin with. Nonetheless, progressives can learn a lot by examining Obama’s style of politics. 

Yet in their article, Martha Biondi and James Thindwa illustrate the kind of political style that Obama has warned us against – one that has long proven to be counterproductive to the prospects of the American left.

For example, Biondi and Thindwa accuse me of having bludgeon[ed]” MoveOn for its General Betray Us” ad. In fact, what I really did was offer constructive criticism to an organization I belong to and greatly admire. And based on the negative reactions to the ad by such leading Democrats as Nancy Pelosi and Barabara Boxer, along with the fact that both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed resolutions denouncing it, there can be little doubt that the ad badly backfired. 

But Biondi and Thinda apparently don’t share this conclusion, even though the Washington Post reported (9÷21÷07) that many Democratic strategists were privately furious at the group for launching an attack on a member of the military rather than Bush, arguing that it gave Republicans a point on which to attack the Democrats and to rally around the administration’s war policy.”

Biondi and Thindwa also take me to task for arguing that we shouldn’t be in the habit of calling key supporters of the war in Iraq warmongers,” despite the fact that the term conjures up images of people who favor war for wars’ sake. They then go on to insist on both the accuracy and wisdom of the use of such inflammatory rhetoric in our criticism of John McCain.

Whatever one may think of McCain’s views on Iraq, Iran or Vietnam, for that matter, calling him a warmonger” fails to explain either his political views or the motives that have shaped his positions on matters relating to war and peace. 

But let’s assume, as Biondi and Thindwa do, that McCain really is a warmonger – however we might define the term. Does it then follow that it is politically wise for progressives to hurl such a personally insulting term at a political figure widely respected for his war record and undeniable bravery during more than five years of captivity? 

Shouldn’t it be self-evident that we need to place more of an emphasis on successfully reaching out to the American people than on indulging ourselves with self-satisfying rhetoric? In short, we need to consider how this kind of overheated rhetoric will play in Peoria.” 

Biondi and Thindwa further claim that I personify the mindset that assigns good intentions to everyone…” But what I actually wrote – about Obama – is that he feels most of his opponents are truly well intentioned.” It’s an important distinction and one that I agree with. 

Of course any analysis about what motivates political leaders to pursue specific policies should grapple with the many complexities involved in such an effort. And Biondi and Thindwa do raise an important question when they ask what could possibly have been behind all the misleading statements issued by Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and Richard Perle other than a desire for war.” 

Obviously the Bush administration has repeatedly, consciously and deliberately deceived the American people on a whole range of issues. While the buildup to the war in Iraq is certainly the most egregious example, it is only part of a much longer list of deceptions. 

Given all of this, I have no problem with describing the Bush administration’s pattern of duplicity as being infused with bad intentions. But towards what ends, in the minds of Bush et al, were these means employed? Was it simply a desire for war” as Biondi and Thindwa suggest?

Having a better understanding of how our adversaries really see the world can only benefit our movement – both in terms of refining our own ideologies as well as enhancing our organizing and outreach skills.

To honestly ask this question is not to, in any way, excuse or justify the war in Iraq or any of the other horrendous policies that this administration has pursued. The purpose is to try to break through the kind of rote thinking that is so prevalent on the left. 

Instead of simply assuming that the leading officials in the Bush administration are driven by consciously malevolent or diabolically sinister motives (as so many on the left do), I think the progressive movement needs to take a more nuanced approach when it comes to trying to understand the mindsets of our primary adversaries, i.e. Bush, Cheney and other leading figures in the Republican party.

For starters, we should avoid the temptation to internalize dogmatic caricatures of Bush and his inner circle. For once we fall into this ideological trap, it then becomes very difficult to modulate our rhetoric in a way that enhances, rather than impedes, our ability to communicate with Americans outside the progressive movement.

One way to avoid dogmatic assumptions is to read some of the books that present nuanced and complex accounts of how those who have formulated and carried out U.S. foreign policy during the last eight years actually see the world. 

For example, in Rise of the Vulcans, James Mann makes it clear that Bush and his closest advisers have been pursuing policies that are extremely harmful to the United States and much of the rest of the world. Yet, he also writes that they all believed that American power and ideals are, on the whole, a force for good in the world.”

In Imperial Designs, Gary Dorrien presents an even harsher critique of neocons than Mann does. Yet he too concludes that the neocons genuinely believe that the maximal use of American power is nearly always good for the world.”

Having a better understanding of how our adversaries really see the world can only benefit our movement – both in terms of refining our own ideologies as well as enhancing our organizing and outreach skills.

So, for example, when David Sirota charges that Clintonism” was about only pretending to serve ordinary people” while really trying to appease Big Money,” should we actually believe – and then repeat – such a one-dimensional caricature? Would it have been so difficult to strongly criticize Hillary Clinton’s economic proposals without also arguing that she was being insincere whenever she spoke of the need to work against economic injustice and poverty? 

When we use demeaning or nasty rhetoric to attack our political adversaries, we’re much more likely to turn off voters than win them over. In his fine book, Stand up Straight! How Progressives Can Win, Robert Creamer offers this piece of advice: It’s good to be tough. It’s bad to be mean.”

Unless the American left can make a much cleaner break with this style of politics than we have up until now, we will never succeed in building the kind of public support that will be needed in order to enact a left-wing agenda in the years and decades to come. 

Barack Obama has articulated the need to avoid demonizing adversaries and oversimplifying arguments better than anyone else in recent memory. The long-range prospects of the American left may well hinge upon whether we ignore or heed Obama’s advice. 

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Ken Brociners essays and book reviews have appeared in Dissent, In These Times and Israel Horizons. He also has a biweekly column in the Somerville (Mass.) Journal.
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