So, the nation’s weightiest campaign arms dealers waltz about the Big Easy talking like Emily Post and asking the rest of us to put our napkins in our laps. That’s the news from New Orleans, where James Carville and Mary Matilin hosted a gathering of talons and fangs called “Taking the Poison Out of Partisanship.”
“Everyone came to play,” Matilin said of the Republican and Democratic consultant mixer last week in New Orleans. Really? Sorry.
America regrets we’re unable to lunch today, Madam. Like Cole Porter’s Miss Otis, we’re sorry to be delayed. We woke up and found that our dream of love was gone.
Matilin described the soiree sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center this way:
“It was like an All-Star game. All the best players on the field in their sweet spots. We may never be the poster children of post-partisanship, but it was the greatest coterie of committed political professionals ever assembled.”
Looking out on the sad world, one wonders why anyone would claim membership on an elite team that has sure played its part in the havoc. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Play the music and take no responsibility for the dance?
“Why,” the All-Stars ask after throwing chairs through the windows of the tavern of democracy, “can’t we all just get along?”
The problem is not partisanship. The problem is not a lack of amity. The problem is the Amityville horror we have made of democracy in these last years, as if the ghosts of the Gilded Age or the shades of the Roaring ‘20s have returned to ruin the locks on the Constitution and blister the hands of egalitarian exorcists.
American children die for lack of health care. Millions of Americans are out of work. They’ve lost their savings, their homes and their prospects for the future. Income disparity is greater than any other time in our history. The top one percent income earners captured half the nation’s overall economic growth from 1993 to 2007. Meanwhile, the courts have ruled that money is speech, meaning the lucky one percent with more of the former had, ipso facto, more of the latter and so tightened its grip on the political sphere as well.
Therein lies the problem. The truth is, consultants are just entrepreneurs in a political system already corrupted by money. Officeholders come and go, the fortunes of the political parties ebb and flow. But their consultants are forever.
We must grant that, within this ugly system, they do the important job of mass media political advocacy. While many have grown cynical, some still cast idealistic shadows in the late afternoon of a cloudless day. Individually, many are good people. The business model of contemporary politics, however, is corrosive. Their pleas for civility do little more than peal the poison label off a bottle of lye.
They are hired to win today’s brawl, not secure tomorrow’s world. Those at the top of the consultant heap in D.C., the ones I have in mind in this essay, are never around to see the corpses and blood on the barroom floor. They shout traitor, communist or faggot at their opponents, whose consultants shout thief, charlatan or whore in return. But it’s all professional wrestling. When the fight is done, the media maestros walk arm in arm from the tavern, singing self-congratulatory songs about their big-spirited bipartisanship.
Too often, “bipartisanship” is just another word for Sophie’s Choice. One side says save two children. The other side says let both die. The bipartisan solution is to save one at the sacrifice of the other. Politics, after all, is the art of compromise, even if the compromise is morally bankrupt.
I don’t believe it’s necessary to go for the throat of opposing counsel. Affability is an asset lost on the ass. Anger changes few minds. In any case, today’s celebrity consultants are like Hercules’ foe Antaeus. Knocking them down just raises their profile and makes them stronger.
But we can’t be asked to overlook the fact that there are human consequences to the outcome of our struggle. I can’t honestly befriend those of an authoritarian bent who consciously exploit bigotry, stir hatred and use fear to promote their cause, as many of my opponents do.
And how long will we ignore the obvious evil: money. Surely, tomorrow’s historians will look back upon us and scratch their heads that we were so dim-witted we replaced ideas and argument with money, that we were so thick we treated the wad of cash as words.
If we could reduce the cash profit in politic campaigns with, for instance, public finance and free TV time, we might be surprised at the wisdom and respectfulness of a broadly informed public. I doubt there’s much hope for such reforms. A fellow can dream, though, and hope for fewer tips on etiquette while the ice caps melt.
Until then, consider Cole Porter, Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues my messengers back to Madam Matalin et al. To paraphrase CP, you should have thought a little bit about the end of it before you started painting the town. It’s just one of those things.