Volume and Vocabulary

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Fundamentally governance is about the application of principles to the particular circumstances of life. For example, we agree that murder is a crime, but in practice we distinguish between a death in a drunken brawl and a premeditated homicide.

But partisan politics is that process in reverse. Every particular is now elevated to a matter of principle. Every nomination, every piece of legislation is no longer a solution to a problem but a manifestation of a larger conflict. The result is more than an escalation in rhetoric, as toxic as that may be. What happens is that our debates are no longer about the issue at hand, but rather arguments based on what each side thinks the issue represents. In this context partisan commentary purports to offer a sort of x-ray vision that allows people to see what's really going on, but the outcome is distortion, not illumination.

Thus the debate over health care reform morphs from a discussion of how we prevent and treat illness into a struggle between tyranny and liberty. Public finance is not a matter of revenues and expenditures but the replay of events in other times or places. Commentators and politicians hold up a mirror in which we are supposed to see ourselves as the Weimar Republic or modern day Greece.

So the way out of our current quandary is not merely a change in how we talk about things, but also a redefinition of what we talk about when we debate. It's not just a matter of volume but vocabulary as well. But unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the national conversation about the shootings in Tucson is all about tactics and not content.

Western society started its technological advance only when philosophers and experimenters stopped seeing the world around them as the re-enactment of a mythological cycle or the embodiment of some moral system and instead tried to see and understand things as they are. Similarly we will begin to address the problems that face us only when our politicians start speaking not in analogies but in specifics. The solutions that result from this shift will have, in the eyes of the partisan, the taint of compromise. But the rest of us will call it progress.


With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.