Sunday, April 26, 2009

Our Political Map is not the Territory

I was watching the video podcast of NBC's Meet the Press this morning, and a particular comment by host David Gregory caught my ear and prompted me to do some thinking (and blogging). It's a question of General Semantics and the relationship between our names for things (words as abstractions) and the meaning behind them.

Gregory posed this question to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

"MR. GREGORY: There are those who say this is a president who's playing politics. He is straddling this issue because he wants to appease his liberal activist base who very much wants accountability from the Bush years over this issue."

As a member of President Obama's "liberal activist base" I would support Mr. Gregory's assertion, but I don't think the issue he was attempting to explore is limited to a "liberal activist base" in the way he was framing the conversation about justice, torture, and political maneuvering. I could spend an entire post on the words "liberal" and "conservative" as descriptors of our national system of political beliefs, but I don't think that those words are the relevant concerns in this case. In fact, I think they're nearly irrelevant to my point.

The term "activist" is used in this example, and in many others like it in the institutional media, to frame a group of people who are engaged in the issues, particularly with respect to applying political pressure for desired outcomes. The higher levels of abstraction, I would argue, also contain a sense of radicalism, or a highly polarized position on the traditional right-left political line. I believe the attachment of the words "right" or "left", or their counterparts "liberal" or "conservative" enhance or solidify that sense. When a journalist or pundit describes "activists" it is generally in the context of a particular situation that is problematic for a political figure who is trying to sit on both sides of the fence. These people are the citizens likely to pick up a phone, mail a letter, send an e-mail, or walk a picket line in support of their own position on said issue. The visual reinforcement of the "activist" in the television medium is an aging hippie protestor, a grungy, pierced anti-globalization youth, or a Christian conservative soldier of the anti-abortion/anti-gay marriage wars. There are several symbolic reinforcers to the definition of activist in the institutional media, which are marginal in their representation of the more nuanced "reality" that persists in actual political claims.

Is one not an activist if they lose a child to toxic waste pollution in their local water system and sues the polluter for reparations and/or justice? Is one not an activist if a large corporation decides to build a 10-story building across the street from their house, engulfing their home in shadow for most of the day, and writes a letter to their Congressman for help? Is one not an activist for voting for the President of the United States? In the sense that one takes action, particularly in the form of a claim of some kind, we all are activists to some degree. Without acknowledging that fact, we resign the label of activist to the abstract and to the symbolic charicature of the institutional media.

The term "base" is also problematic for me. The intent of the journalist is to suggest that there are a group of people who must be won over for a political figure to gain election or stay in power. The so-called base are a collection of true believers on one side of the partisan divide or the other that drive the political bus in fund raising, policy making, and agenda setting. This collection of people is the alpha and omega of political support and must be appeased, as Gregory suggested in his comment. From a purely practical standpoint, I think this idea is generally false. Obama was elected by a broad coalition of people with varied interests, sensibilities, and claims. If he lost any one of those coalition members, John McCain might be President today. Certainly, the base determined the outcome of the Democratic Primary, but is it so easy to say that the base who voted in the neighborhood of 18 million for Hillary Clinton is somehow the same base that voted in the neighborhood of 19 million for Obama? If they were the same, they would have all gone one way or the other. The same can be said for John McCain. If the Republican base were the radical Right that serve as the symbol for the partisan divide in the institutional media, Mike Huckabee would have been the runaway nominee.

The notion that there is a "base" in the sense that Gregory and others suggest seems inaccurate. It connotes something solid or permanent, when we know that political claimants and their interests tend to shift over time, moving from one alliance to another. There may be some general trends in identifying the loyalties of these claimant groups, but it's a mistake to assume that they're fixed. A political base may trend to a particular set of issues and/or claims and the groups who identify with said issues and/or claims, but it requires a far more nuanced investigation to determine the make up of these coalitions and the interaction of their claims to determine an individual politician's base. In fact, I guarantee that within these coalitions there are more than a few contradictory claims that complicate the definition of specific membership characteristics in any accounting of support groups.

When Gregory, or his peers, simplify the notion of claimant groups and political support by drawing on the left-right, linear definition of political claimants, adding in a symbolic connection to our collective image of radical activism, rooted in a foundation of power identified as a base, they miss the point and actually end up misinforming the public in the process. The reason that it hit home in this particular example is that the issue of torture, and the morality of it as a national intelligence feature, is hardly an issue to be attributed to partisan activist bases. To whatever extent we define particular collections of claimants as activists and to whatever extent those people are members of a supporting coalition for our President, in this case, there is truth in Gregory's statement. The problem is, I don't believe that the outrage over the things we now know were conducted by the intelligence community at the discretion of the Bush Administration and their legal allies, is limited to a narrow group of activists in Obama's base.

There is outrage over the idea that the United States drowned people to the point that they were on death's doorstep as a way to elicit information. As the details have been spelled out more clearly in the institutional media, the public has become more familiar with methods that would be hard to characterize as anything other than torture. The only claimant group that appears to be arguing anything to the contrary are the roughly 25% of the country that indicated support for President Bush throughout his presidency, and the people they elected to Congress. It would seem that President Obama is going againt the wishes of roughly 75% of the American people that would like to see the rule of law upheld, rather than some "liberal activist base" lurking to pounce on the 1st opportunity to smack the President if he fails to do our bidding. I don't have the numbers handy, but I would bet that any poll conducted regarding the public's wishes for investigation and/or prosecutions in this case would at the very least hover at 50/50. To paint it as an issue for the "liberal activist base" is an oversimplification of the conditions on the ground in the United States, and demonstrates quite clearly how the Washington Press Corps is living in a very narrow set of definitions of the political environment set by self-fulfilling symbolism, abstractions, and "storylines." These "storylines" are the standard stories of the Washington insider crowd that help to define their position and interests with respect to the various claimant groups in the general American political system. For more on what I mean, I suggest reading up on Charles Tilly.

At any rate, it's important to challenge the accuracy of the language used to define the terms of our own engagement in our human environment. In this case, I think it's quite clear how inaccuracy in mapping territory with particular words can lead to a misinformation at best and outright propaganda at worst.

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