Monday, April 10, 2006

Rationality and Joe Lieberman

Is it rational to perform a rational analysis of the rationality of Lieberman's actions?

Armando, sacred cow hunter of the DailyKos, goes after Matt Stoller for the latter's attempt to perform a rational analysis of Joe Lieberman's threats to leave the party and run as an independent if he doesn't get the nomination. Armando, being Armando, doesn't mince words:

What a strange political party we support. It is oftentimes hard to understand what our leaders are thinking. But it is sometimes harder to understand what some Dem bloggers are thinking. Matt Stoller today publishes the most bizarre reaction of all to Joe Lieberman's threat of political treason. Matt thinks Joe is being rational:

And realize that for Joe, who is perceived as popular in CT, running as an independent isn't just a last resort; it's actually a pretty rational move.

It is a sad commentary when a Democratic candidate's threatening to leave the Party is considered a reasonable rational move. It's sad for the Party and its adherents. Frankly, Stoller's comment amazes me.

From Armando's perspective (at least my perspective of his perspective), it is irrational for any Democrat who is loyal to the party to even consider that Lieberman's actions are rational. Why? Because doing so gives those actions moral weight. It makes them seem "okay".

This isn't some academic debate being held within the halls of some university. This isn't a poli-sci discussion where we step back and analyze political actions on a higher plane. This is ground-level, activist politics. And at that level, Lieberman's actions are a betrayal. Any ground level Democrat who doesn't condemn it as such, who wastes time trying to analyze Lieberman's actions, is acting irrationally (i.e., against their own best interest).

Democrats have had a bad habit applying academic, objective analysis to political matters while losing sight of the fact that, to the people on the ground, all of that matters for shit. It's this habit that makes Democrats look disconnected to the average voter, who doesn't give a crap about political science theory and thinks anyone who does is just weird.

For the activist Dem, Lieberman's actions are simply reprehensible. End of discussion.

I think what Armando is trying to do, in his own unique style, is force people to pay attention to the ground game and leave the acadmic analysis to the academicians.

I support that effort.


Now, I may disagree with Armando mostly on points of style but not on substance. Armando says that Democrats shouldn't be "allowed" to think about Lieberman's actions objectively. I disagree. Of course they should be "allowed" in the sense that, as an American, Stoller is free to put his considerable brain power to whatever exercise he wants. The question is whether this kind of analysis is helpful to Democrats when it comes to winning elections and influencing public policy.

It isn't. It is just a distraction from the kind of work we should be doing (getting out the vote, supporting good candidates, countering Republican spin and smears, etc.)

Armando speaks in absolutes. That's not my style, but I understand the point he is trying to make and I appreciate him trying to make it.


Some who have disagreed with Armando on this point have stated that he is misrepresenting Stoller's point. Stoller, is only saying that Lieberman's actions may be rational. He is not saying they are good. This demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of opinion dynamics.

Meaning has two aspects. There is the meaning as intended (implication) and the meaning as received (inferation (not a real word, but it should be)). I know that, in a technical sense, describing something as rational does not mean you are saying it is right (in academic parlance, it is not normative.) But to the layman, "rational" has an emotional component to it which implies approval. It is a positive label and thus anything you apply it to gains a positive inferation.

This is a mistake Democrats have made time and time again. When they talk about the political ideas of their opponents, they often talk about them on an academic level. They acknowledge the potential rational for the opposing point of view. This kind of discussion causes the casual viewer to infer that the Democrat is actually approving of the idea. When the Democrat then expresses disapproval it creates a cognitive dissonance in the audience that is resolved by concluding that said Democrat is muddled in their thinking. He is a waffler. He is flip-flopping. He doesn't know what he stands for. He was for it before he was againts it. Blah blah blah.

In the end it does not matter if, when you call something "rational" you know you aren't calling it "good". In the mind of your audience, the formula "rational = good" fills in the missing piece.

Only an academic would say that "rational" has no normative value to it. Everyone else understands that the working assumption is "rational = good".

It doesn't matter if, on an academic level, you could describe Lieberman's threat as "rational". What matters is whether it is rational for Democrats to respond to it in any way other than outright condemnation.

It is not.


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