Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Rebuilding Accountability

Over at TAPPED yesterday, Garance Franke-Ruta asked a compelling question: how, exactly, can we really expect to hold Bush and his minions accountable for their serial acts of misgoverment?

And over at TPMCafe, Mark Schmitt responded by making a strong argument that today's Republicans escape accountability because, well, they don't really give a damn what anybody thinks about them other than on general election days.

Maybe I'm just consumed with anger at the administration and its congressional allies right now, but I think Mark's basically right. Most of these people have no concept of "accountability"--in terms of short-term performance, long-range consequences, the judgment of history, or even public opinion. Their only benchmark is progress towards their own ideological goals, which are "starving the beast," destroying the very possibility of meaningful bipartisanship, radicalizing permanent institutions like the judiciary, the military and the corporate sector, and keeping Americans afraid of the world and each other. That's why they've relied so heavily on abuse of power; it's the only way to perpetuate their power without compromise or accountability. And that's why they are so uninhibited by most considerations of truth or decency.

In fact, I would argue that their most important tactical consideration has been to destroy the possibility of accountability by short-circuiting all the signals whereby a healthy society normally judges its leaders. Any source of objective measurement has been systematically discredited as inherently ideological: scientists are secularist fanatics; the media are elitist liberals; the judiciary is full of anti-Christian activists; the opposition party is anti-American. We've all had much fun with the conservative characterization of "liberals" as "reality-based," but it's no laughing matter: the essence of Rovism is to eliminate any zone of rational persuasion and force Americans to pick sides in an identity politics of real and perceived privileges under imaginary assault.

Years ago, a friend of mine from Alabama observed that what bugged her about Republicans as people is that they had the subtelty and sensitivity of hammerhead sharks.

So the question is: how do you fight a hammerhead shark, particularly a wounded hammerhead shark?

Clearly, you can't go very far negotiating or reasoning with this kind of beast; you just become chum. But I don't put a lot of stock in the reigning opinion of so many Democratic bloggers that the answer is to become sharks ourselves. I've always opposed the idea that Democrats can win a selfishness competition with the GOP, offering our government benefits versus their tax cuts; they'll win every time if voters are asked to conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis of what they think they are "getting" for their tax dollars. Nor do I believe, in the end, we can out hate them or out thug them; even if that course was not morally repugnant, it's politically self-defeating; the ultimate sell-out to Republican values.

So if we do not happily cooperate with the GOP in reducing all politics to our team versus their team, and our "truth" versus their "truth," to what higher standard can we appeal? And that gets back to the problem of accountability in an age with few uncontested facts and no credible referees to keep a score card.

Our task can be summed up as this: we have to rebuild accountability, brick by brick. That requires relentlessly putting forth a message that reminds Americans of their real and tangible interests, individual and collective, and then measuring GOP governance, and GOP candidates, accordingly. This effort will naturally involve presenting Democratic alternatives to meet the accountability standards we propose, which means dealing aggressively with entrenched (if generally false) negative stereotypes about our own party. And ultimately, the "accountability moment" will indeed have to happen at election time, or sufficiently in advance of election time to convince Republicans they are at risk not only of losing seats, or losing power, but losing a political argument with epochal consequences, just as they did during the Great Depression.

The good news is that the whole Republican identity politics game is a house of cards based on the perception that Bush and the GOP are competent stewards of a threatened status quo ante of moral certainty, economic growth, and American power. Iraq and Katrina--and perhaps the impending cascade of ethical disasters--could damage those perceptions and greatly aid a Democratic effort to remind Americans of what their government should actually stand for.
-- Posted at 11:12 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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