"Root-Causeism" & Electability

Article excerpt

The cliche of this primary season--and, like most cliches, it's probably true--is that the Democrats are fired up with hatred for and resentment against President Bush this election year. Or, in the jargon of the political professionals that is more and more to be found in ordinary news reports, the "base" is unusually "motivated" to work for the President's defeat. In fact, saying that the Democratic base is motivated has become a way of getting the base motivated. Exit polls from almost every primary election in February and March tell us that the prime consideration among the Democratic voters who chose John Kerry to be their standard bearer was that he was the candidate most likely to beat Bush in November. What Marjorie Williams of The Washington Post, a Kerry supporter, calls the "alarmingly tautological nature of John Kerry's victory" turns out to be an example of what Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard called "the po-mo primary" in which "everybody was thinking like a pundit, especially voters." In citing his "electability" the Kerry voters "voted for someone because they thought voters would vote for him. It is second-order reasoning, a meta-rationale, a judgment about a judgment about a judgment. It will make your head hurt if you think about it too long."

Like the priesthood of all believers, the pundit-class of all voters is in one way a democratizing force which owes a lot to the blogosphere. It can hardly be a bad thing if it cuts into the monopoly exercised by media punditry as it is currently practiced. Yet that which above all else makes the quality of most commentary by newspaper and magazine columnists so poor is equally debilitating to the wit and the independence of the unpaid bloggers, and that is cheap sophistication. This is everywhere in the media today, both commercial and amateur, and is, I take it, what's really behind Mr. Ferguson's po-mo primaries. For to say that you're voting for someone because you think he's more electable is really to engage in a form of posturing. You assert what can only be a false sense of your own importance by affecting an attitude of power, like that of a party boss or kingmaker, or of knowledge, like that of a handier or a spin-doctor. How do you know that Mr. Kerry is more electable than Mr. Edwards or Mr. Dean? The answer is that you don't. But you've heard some media wise-man say so and it flatters you to associate yourself with someone who is paid to make such predictions--presumably on the basis of deep knowledge.

Of course it can never be anything more than an affectation. It is natural enough for the party bosses and the electoral technicians to think in this way about electability because they have a direct interest in acquiring power. It may be cynical but at least it makes sense to conclude that they have no policy but being returned to power, no interest in any candidate but the one most likely to effect that return. When Evelyn Waugh said that modern politicians did not seek power in order to implement policies but sought policies in order to attain power he at least proposed a rational if vicious state of mind on the part of those for whom power meant, if nothing else, the power of patronage. But what do ordinary Democratic voters stand to gain from adopting such an attitude--apart from the fact that it makes them feel wiser than they are, part of the circle of the initiate who know that this is the way the world really works? You'd think they'd feel ashamed to adopt such a cynical pose for such a small return. But then if there is no difference to speak of between the candidates and no return at all for paying close attention to their policy positions, you can begin to understand why they care so much about putting their man in power and so relatively little about what he may do when he gets there.

At any rate, for such people hatred of George W. Bush seems to have become its own justification. Some such reflection must have occurred to the British sociologist Frank Furedi when his eight-year-old son came home from school one day recently and said, "Daddy, I really hate Bush. …