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Political literalism is no better than religious literalism - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Political literalism is no better than religious literalism [Oct. 8th, 2008|02:29 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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Coming from a country where the entire political process is quite obviously a great stinking farce, it amuses me to watch my friends take the presidential candidates at their word and interpret the content of the debates literally. It is even more amusing to listen to discussions about what one or the other candidate "truly believes."

Candidates running for president don't have beliefs, people! They are merely the visible portion of a machinery that is designed to maximize votes for their political party, just as corporations are profit-maximizing entities. They will say whatever appears likely to win them the most votes, while attempting to be (somewhat) consistent with their history of recorded statements. Much of the campaign machinery exists to spin things retrospectively in a way that minimizes perceived inconsistency.

An analogy might help: statements made in debates no more reflect candidates' beliefs than the Bible reflects the word of God. Just as many of you believe that God exists only in the minds of the faithful, so do candidates' beliefs exist only to the extent that their statements appear to reflect an underlying view of the world. And just as, to rationalists anyway, the value of the Bible is mainly in studying the historical period in which it was written, so do the debates reflect, at best, the rhetorical qualities of the opponents. Anything deeper is simply make-believe.

Let me tell you who had beliefs. Ron Paul had beliefs. Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel had beliefs. Yup, those fringe jokers whom we forgot about long before the primaries ended. That's what happens if you try to take your beliefs into an actual election: you either get knocked out or you end up running for a third party and swinging the election in favor of the crazy guy! The highest popular vote percentage that anyone with beliefs ever got was probably 2%.

It is widely conjectured that Obama had beliefs at one point, but of course, the first step in his running for President was to give them up. More accurately, he attained to a state where the question of his beliefs is no longer meaningful, just as a Buddhist training to be a Dalai Lama rises to a level above the influence of ordinary human emotions.

Try reading honest accounts of the campaigning process written by insiders. TIME has a short but funny article full of delicious quotes:
A lot of debate prep is given over to mastering another basic rule: never make the rookie's mistake of actually trying to answer the question you are asked. Candidates are told instead to quickly "pivot" into their central campaign message whenever possible.

Question: "Governor, why is your hair on fire?"

Answer: "Nobody understands fire better than America's brave firefighters, which is why I'm so proud to say that the heroes who make up the National Firefighters Association took one look at my 11-point plan for comprehensive national health-care reform and strongly endorsed me as the only candidate in this race who is standing up for working, middle-class families who need health care now." Also, always keep talking until the moderator is forced to stop you with a foghorn blast or by reaching for an elephant gun under the desk. Airtime is gold.


Consultants have spent the equivalent of entire geologic ages trying to come up with the one item every candidate deeply pines for: the devastating one-liner. To be really devastating, the line must appear to be true, clever and, especially, spontaneous.


Finally, the savvy viewer should remember that any moment that looks too perfect to be true probably isn't. I once worked on a campaign in which we made a big show of opening our secret debate-prep session to reporters. The highlight was the part when the candidate dramatically rejected the lame, scripted debate answers we staffers had offered up, vowing instead to just tell it like it was.

We were very proud of our candidate; that was precisely the bit we had carefully rehearsed.
In case you think I'm being cynical, far from it: I'm actually quite satisfied with how the process works. See, what the debates (and the system in general) do offer is a fairly good test of the candidates' intelligence. We need the process to be even less about issues and more about rhetorical skills in order to prevent another Bush from becoming President. As I'm finishing up this post, it struck me that it is very similar to the argument made in one of the chapters of Everything Bad is Good for You, a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and completely agree with.

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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-10-08 04:13 pm (UTC)
but then coalition parties with incompatible beliefs come together and no one can act on anything! the result is the same.
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From: emeritusl
2008-10-08 10:43 pm (UTC)
Hunter Thompson's writings on politics are often quite entertaining, unconventional and, arguably, more honest than most. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail'72 (at least parts of it) offers a very enjoyable and insider view of the campaigning process.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-10-09 01:39 pm (UTC)
cool, thanks!
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