Thursday, June 05, 2008

Drunks With The Radio On, Or, If Only Michael Freeden Hadn't Said He Liked It

In his piece in the most recent LRB, David Runciman acknowledges that his initial preference for Clinton as the Democratic presidential candidate has shaped the way he has understood the subsequent race. Since as every good Quinean knows, you need a theory to interpret a piece of evidence - to decide even what counts as a piece of evidence - it is of course for different people to interpret the same piece of evidence quite differently, and in Runciman's case, as he details, various pieces of evidence that could have cast doubt on the rationale for his support for Clinton were interpreted in such a way as to mean they did not. The failure and eventual abandonment of various different Clinton campaign strategies were not, for example, evidence against her electability, but rather of it; she was indefatigable, a hard-nosed political operator, able to change tack as and when it was needed.

Both Runciman's dislike of Obama and his willingness to be candid about the less-than-rational nature of his political preferences is, knowing anything about his work, not entirely surprising. Of Obama, he says that his

rhetoric has always sounded phoney to me, much too good to be true: so sweetly sincere as to be obviously insincere about the hard grind of daily politics.

Given that Runciman has just written a book about the necessity of hypocrisy in politics, which I saw, and was very impressed by, presented as lectures in a slightly earlier form, that is exactly the sort of complaint you'd expect him to make about Obama, who can easily be understood as denying that politics is at root about conflict and potentially violent disagreement. In a cerain way, that's a kind of hypocrisy all by itself, a hypocrisy about hypocrisy and how endemic it must be in order for politics to function, since as Runciman is at pains to stress, one of the ways in which politics avoids lapsing back into the violence it is supposed to remove the need for is through hypocrisy. If we can all get along fine if only we're goodwilled enough, then we don't need to be hypocrites who smooth out differences by lying about them, since we're goodwilled enough to overcome them. But if we were goodwilled enough to overcome those differences, then we wouldn't need the apparatus of politics to do that for us: the fact that politics exists proves that we must be hypocrites, and to deny that is to engage in a particular pernicious form of hypocrisy, a hypocrisy about hypocrisy itself. That kind of hypocrisy cripples our ability to be hypocrites in the ways which we must if we are to remain within the political and not slip into the various disasters that accompany the difference it contains breaking free. As such, it is an incredibly dangerous hypocrisy: it effectively threatens to plunge us into the Hobbesian state of nature.

It was under Runciman's influence that I was prepared to defend David Cameron's hypocrisy about cannabis. Of course politicians are hypocritical; that's the price of doing politics. Critique the policy on its merits rather than by appealing to a moral standard which, if applied universally, would destroy the possibility of doing politics at all, especially when the policy seems to me obviously ridiculous on the merits. Or at least so I thought: maybe we should be hypocrites about our attitudes towards hypocrisy when it is to our political advantage. Either way, I think Runciman gets Obama wrong, because Obama hasn't got hypocrisy wrong in the way that Runciman thinks he has. His political programme is based on hypocrisy, because the only way that it's possible to get to the kind of common ground that his campaign is claiming to try to find is by being a hypocrite, by abstaining from saying what one really thinks. That kind of public reason cannot but be schizophrenic, since it requires that people do not bring their full set of personal commitments to the public sphere, and that is certainly a kind of hypocrisy.

It's a more morally motivated hypocrisy than Runciman I think is comfortable with; it's not for nothing that Runciman invokes Schumpeter, who found the idea of a politics of the common good quite ridiculous. After all, when Runciman argues that political discourse makes little difference to political outcomes, that, for all that not all blogs are "hideous, rambling screeds", that the quality of the debate around the election has been in general high, "the hard truth this time round is that most people are voting with the predictability of prodded animals", he is parroting Schumpeter. For him, just as for Schumpeter, the last thing to say on the matter is that

the psycho-technics of party management and party advertising, slogans and marching tunes, are not accessories [but] the essence of politics.

But we might wonder whether Schumpeter was quite right about that. For all that Runciman talks of the way in which there are definite and distinct social groups who have consistently preferred one of the two Democratic candidates to the other, he adduces no actual social scientific evidence that this is the case. He is scathing about the standard of polling in American elections, so maybe nothing that would count as evidence either way exists, but I would like to see the evidence that the discussion that the campaign has spawned has done nothing to alter anyone's views on any issues or on even on which of the candidates they prefer. That, and that alone, would show that political debate is as ineffectual as he claims. Otherwise, presumably it's all so much hot air.


Phil said...

His scathing points about polling are statistically illiterate, incidentally - the size of a sample has nothing to do with its randomness (or representativeness), and the size of the underlying population has nothing to do with that. There's a word for this, which isn't 'nescient-ist' but means something similar - I know nothing about X, therefore they don't really know anything about X, therefore X isn't worth knowing about.

Rob Jubb said...

Is he also wrong about how inaccurate they have been, or is there some other explanation for that? I'd guess that given a large enough sample of polls, some of them are going to be badly off, so he'd be able to find examples, but that doesn't mean that that's what he has done.