(Il)liberalism’s Paralysis

Yawning is a political strategy?

At Vox, Ezra Klein claims that the White House believes the bully pulpit drives illiberal dissensus on most matters of public concern.

“The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge [racial] divides. They believe — with good reason — that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had “acted stupidly” when they arrested Harvard University professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce. To defuse it, Obama ended up inviting both Gates and his arresting officer for a “beer summit” at the White House . . .

Moreover, Obama’s presidency has seen a potent merging of the racial and political divides. It’s always been true that views on racial issues drive views on American politics. But as political scientist Michael Tesler has documented, during Obama’s presidency, views on American politics have begun driving views on racially charged issues.

This all speaks to a point that the White House never forgets: President Obama’s speeches polarize in a way candidate Obama’s didn’t. Obama’s supporters often want to see their president “leading,” but the White House knows that when Obama leads, his critics becomeeven less likely to follow. The evidence political scientists have gathered documenting this dynamic is overwhelming, and Frances Lee lays it out well here…”

Klein (channelling the White House) and others seems to suggest that this illiberal bully pulpit effect is a feature of the modern presidency.  I take it this argument comes in parts: (1) twitter & 24-hour news cycle require comments on every issue lest president be seen as passive and consequently weak; (2) modern media fragment the bully pulpit’s message and make it more likely for any speech to take on purely political valence; so therefore (3) presidential speeches will, through naive realism, harden battle lines and make it more difficult for non-political institutions to come to solutions.  Therefore, says the hyper-sophisticated Klein and other savvy consumers of our political science and psychology literatures, Presidential pablum is the future. While the White House may use rhetorical nudges on the margin, any attempt to move the needle on matters of public note is basically self-defeating.

This all strikes me as too clever by half. It takes the wrong lesson from problem of cognitive illiberalism (as popularized by the the Cultural Cognition Project’s blog).  It’s not that we are doomed to process information through cultural lenses, and that we inevitably view political leaders from opposite parties as our antagonists.  Rather, the way that messages are framedwhether threatening to identity or not – matters a great deal.  Or to put it differently, cultural dissensus isn’t inevitable. Look at nanotech and GM foods: notwithstanding all the preconditions for cultural warfare, the western front remains silent.

My intuition is that the President’s rhetorical boomerang effect doesn’t so much result from a structural feature of the modern Presidency as a bug. That bug flows from some set of small tics related to how the President speaks to audiences – how he (and his speechwriters) can’t manage to make it seem like his gestures toward opposing views are anything other than convenient.  (This is an empirical intuition and I’m more than open to the possibility that the “bug” also/instead turns on the President’s race.)

Worse, casting about for structural explanations is self-defeating & weak.  The Administration’s repeated public signaling that they know that the Presidency can’t move the needle creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  The more that the President says publicly that he lacks power to influence the world (because of SCIENCE!), the less power he actually has. It would be better to talk less about talking less.

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3 Responses

  1. AYY says:

    Then again it could be that people think he’s just not a very good President. Not everything is spin. Sometimes substance gets in the way..

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “My intuition is that the President’s rhetorical boomerang effect doesn’t so much result from a structural feature of the modern Presidency as a bug.”

    Seriously, couldn’t you just come out and say, “The problem isn’t the Presidency, the problem is Obama himself.”? His gestures towards opposing views aren’t just convenient, they drip contempt. And, yes, as AYY says, he’s just not a very good President.

  3. Dan says:

    Obama is a great politician. And a great politician does not always mean great leader. The leader says “let’s go” and the politician says “let’s go in the direction desired”, which is not the same. In the case of ISIL, for example, a leader would want to go and crush them. A politican would ask what the desired direction is…people are tired of war, so let’s do a partial war, an air campaign. And opposing views are just that-not politically the optimum, so who cares?