How Post-Rational Politics Works

Like a lot of journalists and politicos, I have been pondering David Samuels' mind-blowing profile of White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes. It's the best illustration I've ever seen of the practical consequences of what can sound like an abstract theoretical problem.

All White Houses have attempted to sway public opinion (Jack Shafer has a great piece here recapping such campaigns from Truman forward). But Shafer's emphasis on continuity—Obama is the same as his predecessors, so there!—seems a bit off to me. As Shafer notes, earlier White House opinion-shaping efforts, whatever their sly strategems, were at some level explicit appeals to the principles and interests of the citizenry. Americans then knew what the White House was claiming, and they knew it was the President's team that made the claim.

That's no longer the case in the 21st century. As David Axelrod puts it in Samuels' piece: "It’s not as easy as standing in front of a press conference and speaking to 70 million people like past presidents have been able to do." Now, Samuels writes, "the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why."

This is a qualitatively different process from 20th century politics. It is one in which no one knows who crafted "the narrative" or why, except the master crafter and his minions. George W. Bush, selling intervention, and Barack Obama, selling non-intervention, differ from their predecessors here. They do so in much the same way (and for the same reasons) that Obama differs from earlier Presidents in choosing polices that "nudge" people into making better choices in health, finance and other areas.

Like nudge, invisible spin assumes that people are irrational much of the time — that they take action not in response to explicit arguments and clear self-understanding, but rather in response to perceptions and emotions that they themselves do not understand. This is a departure from the way we imagine politics is supposed to work: " 'I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” [Rhodes] said, shrugging. 'But that’s impossible.' "

I don't mean to suggest that we should be nostalgic for a bygone age of sagacity and selfless wisdom. Politics in this country has never been Ciceronian. It has always involved threats and horse-trading as much as it did arguments of sweet Reason. (Considering that the Roman Republic was run a lot like the Mafia, not even Cicero was Ciceronian.) But even low maneuvering is, at least, explicit—a gambit like "vote for this and we'll put a base in your district" is an appeal to rational thought and self-awareness. A gambit like "everyone knows this is the right way to see it, just look at Twitter" is an appeal to unconscious social motivations and anxieties. It is not the same old thing. It is different.

Bureaucrats across the world are accepting that people are not rational (and therefore should be unconsciously nudged rather than explicitly persuaded to do the right thing). So why be surprised that their politician-masters have accepted that people aren't rational when it comes to selling policies that the bureaucrats will then enact?

Yet this raises a problem: How can a Republic that supposedly depends on rational debate continue after its government has accepted that this is not how people "do" politics? How to avoid a Soviet-style hypocrisy, in which not a single actor in a public debate — politicians, policymakers, advocates, non profits, journalists — believes what he or she says about it?

I have no idea how to answer those questions, but, as I said, they are becoming less theoretical and more practical with every passing day. Samuels' piece dramatizes that very effectively, which is one reason I admire it.

I was also impressed with its craftmanship.

Many years ago, the New York Times Magazine assigned me to write a profile of a DC advocacy organization, and I went down to Washington as an outsider. As I wrote the piece, I tried not to get swept up in DC conventions. Instead, I tried to remain the outsider, contemplating the odd folkways of the capital—the insipid blather that passes for repartee, the greasy-pole climbing, the transformation of major public problems into trivial stories of personal feuds and favor-trading. I looked at it all from the outside, as I guessed a normal reader would. I thought (I think correctly) that this was something of a departure from standard journalism about "the process," in which the point seemed to be to sound like a member of the club.

The editors killed the piece, without discussion. They wanted knowing, insidery journalism, not something that, by sounding human, would make the magazine look amateurish.

So, all credit to Samuels and his editors, for producing the best story about politics for non-pole-climbers that I have ever read. Clearly, being in the White House did not turn his head. He captures the banality of the political mind, its unimaginative second-rateness (the story begins with its subject's decision that writing for politicians is obviously a better thing to do than pursuing his art). But Samuels also captures how alarming it is when the President, the person in charge of Washington, feels a normal person's contempt for the place. I have a lot in common with people who dislike the culture of medicine. But wouldn't want my doctor to be one of those people.

This is a paradoxical and ambivalent take-away, a literary achievement, rather than a political one. A lot of those attacking the article don't get this. They want to interpret it as if it were inside the system of spin and game-playing that it describes.

For instance, it seems many people are offended by Rhodes' contempt for "the Blob"—the foreign policy network of think tanks, academics, wise men, officials etc. who made (or endorsed) so many bad decisions over the years.

A big theme in the piece is that there is a difference between knowing what you are talking about and being a sanctified expert. Rhodes is the former sort of person, formed by deep confrontation with a set of facts. The people he disdains are the other type—formed by mentors, networks, training in how to think and sound like the right sort of person. That such experts, and their friends, dislike the idea that their experience isn't so impressive should not be surprising. But the thesis that expertise is overrated is eminently defensible. Should I care that it offends experts? I don't think so.

Another line of attack interprets the piece as more typical journalism: A move in the game of persuasion and counter-persuasion. Since the article takes place in and around the White House, it can't be taken at face value—as an account of one human being engaged with some alarming changes in our politics. Instead, it must be read as an attack on the Iran nuclear deal. But that deal is simply the specific story that illustrates both the psychology of one interesting fellow and a broader social trend.

A third criticism leveled at Samuels is that he exaggerates his subject's importance. For instance, here, Dan Drezner makes the point that Rhodes' effort made a great deal less difference in the politics of the Iran deal than Samuels suggests.

This is an inevitable hazard of magazine profiles, which I like to think of as the "biopic problem." You expect a movie about someone's life to make contact with the major historical developments that took place in that lifetime. But people's lives are often touched tangentially and irregularly by history. Even someone present at the crucial meeting may have been distracted by his gout that morning. So it is hard to line up the milestones of an individual's life with the milestones of history. This is why, in biopics, we get odd scenes, like Josephine Baker singing The Times They Are a-Changing in nightclubby feathers and satin. (OK, we've worked in the 60s).

I've written a lot of "profiles" for magazines, so I am familiar with the magazine version of the biopic problem. Almost inevitably, your subject looms larger in the picture than she would in a Tolstoyan grand overview. You compensate for this problem by proffering something of interest that is peculiar to your subject. In effect, you are saying, I know others will say my guy didn't invent the Internet, but you aren't reading this to find out who invented the Internet.

I think this is what Samuels was trying to do. His narrative is Rhodes-centric because Rhodes was his subject, not because he wants you to believe that Rhodes matters more in history than John Kerry or the Washington press corps. He has a different story to tell: What Washington game-playing looks like to a normal person, and how it is moving further away from the Enlightenment model of rational individuals debating in good faith.

ADDENDUM: Unsurprisingly, some of the complaints about this piece have raised substantive issues. I don't think they detract from overall success as a piece of writing about politics, but they shouldn't be ignored.

First, Samuels didn't disclose anywhere that he is a longstanding opponent of the Iran nuclear deal for which he describes Rhodes working. Jeffrey Goldberg has the goods here. A number of writers were quick to point this out, including Robert Wright and Fred Kaplan. This raises two questions: Why didn't Samuels own up to the skin he had in the game? And why, given his record, did the supposedly crafty and disciplined Obama White House give him such access to its inner workings?

Second, as Goldberg explains in his post (others have too), Samuels frames quotations about some journalists to make it sound as if those people were simply sock puppets for the Administration. Goldberg is offended by this for a number of reasons. One is that he is one of the writers tarred unfairly. Another is that he and Samuels have some bad blood between them, which Samuels doesn't disclose.

As I said, I don't think these points detract from the larger import of the story, which is about the way politics has moved from explicit and rational arguments to a sort of post-rational style of policy debate. But they are troubling.

How Post-Rational Politics Works

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