Tuesday, March 26, 2019

David Brooks on Scandal Politics

How we do politics in America:
The sad fact is that Watergate introduced a poison into the American body politic. Richard Nixon’s downfall was just and important, but it opened up the mouthwatering possibility that you don’t need to do the hard work of persuading people to join your side. Instead, you can destroy your foes all at once through scandal.

Politics since Watergate has been defined by a long string of scandals and pseudo-scandals — Iran-contra, Whitewater, Valerie Plame, Benghazi, Solyndra, swift-boating. Politico last year compiled a list of 46 scandals that were at one time or another deemed “worse than Watergate.”

The nation’s underlying divides are still ideological, but we rarely fight them honestly as philosophical differences. We just accuse the other side of corruption. Politics is no longer a debate; it’s an attempt to destroy lives through accusation.

The political media, especially on TV, now has a template it can apply whenever a scandal looms into view, to hook viewers into the speculative story line. According to the Tyndall Report, the three main broadcast networks made the Russia collusion investigation the second-most-covered news event of 2018, trailing only the Kavanaugh hearings, another scandal. . . .

It’s all a wonderful game. You don’t have to know anything about a boring policy subject like economics, poverty or foreign affairs. You can have a long career in politics and media by simply treating public life as an arena of life-or-death gossip.
Maybe this is partly because the real issues facing our country, from immigration to gun control to trade policy, and especially health care, are fiendishly complex and hard to understand. Who wants to listen to hours of argument about tariffs or emergency room fees? Scandal mongering is a way to rile up the emotions without having to engage the higher modules of the brain, and that is just a lot more fun. After all, we already know that our enemies are bad people with bad ideas, so why bother trying to understand them? Easier to accuse them of doing something nefarious and feel smug about our own virtue.


Shadow said...

"Who wants to listen to hours of argument about tariffs or emergency room fees?"

You couldn't even if you wanted to. There is too much to know, unless you are specializing in it -- it's your career. In a world awash in specialties and information, the idea of an informed electorate is a fantasy. Perhaps the idea of an informed legislature is a fantasy too. Better off applying good sense.

As to Brooks and his strange idea that we only awakened to the "advantage" of scandals with Watergate, he needs to stop drinking the kool-Aid.

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David said...


There's a lot of this sort of finger-wagging about the Mueller investigation going around, but an article in the NYT this morning makes clear that those indulging in this are missing a truly crucial point. The article, "Mueller’s Investigation Erases a Line Drawn After Watergate," makes clear that, the way things are working out, this whole affair will have had the effect of establishing a president's prerogative of firing Justice Department officials for investigating him. Given that the Democrats, out of embarrassment, may be expected to downplay and then let quietly die their call for the report's full release, we will be significantly further along the road to a presidency that is above the law.

Yes, I get it that other presidencies have, one way or the other, taken us along the same path, and that this includes Obama's. I don't care. I don't get how the best approach to a radical presidency is to pretend it's not there and turn our attention to things like emergency room fees, nor why I should be patient with a drive to turn our country into the Hungary of the New World, nor why it's okay to be ruled by a monarch (even, in this case, I admit, an apparently weak one) as long as that monarch gains power by election and not inheritance.