Played at Once by Cynics and Crazies

I just ate up this essay by Benjamin Kunkel at n+1. Chiefly it diagnoses the two main political strains with their corresponding pathologies (Republicans/conservatives are psychopaths and Democrats/liberals are neurotics, and I just can’t argue with that) but I found this encapsulation of the practice of politics to be troublingly spot-on:

A tricky thing about this otherwise simple, not to say tedious game [of politics] is that it’s played at once by cynics and crazies, or people who are cynical one moment and crazy the next. Sometimes, in other words, my diagnosis of the other person is a deliberate and cynical misconstrual of his words (I know he doesn’t actually believe that, but it’s convenient to pretend he does) and sometimes it is a sincere exercise in politico-psychopathology (I do think he believes that, though he refuses to admit it, except by accident); and the same holds true for my opponent when he talks about me. But true craziness is fundamental, while cynicism is only tactical.

This, I can tell you from my experience, is a pretty accurate description of what we who are or were involved in politics do. It’s not just drawing contrasts and pointing out the flaws in the opponent’s position. It’s sniffing the air every moment to see if your opponent has violated a taboo that may or may not have anything to do with the office or issue in question. But that’s not all, it’s also believing that one’s opponent is just the kind of person who would perpetrate said violation. And if you don’t believe it, well, maybe that’s worse, because that means you’re lying, making a case that you don’t even accept.

And this is the case is professional politics as well as in its mere consumption as news or entertainment.

Earlier in the piece, he uses the “gaffe” as an illustration:

Politics no longer involves the public use of reason; it is instead a matter of psychopathology, and is already treated as such by politicians and the public alike. Only this can account for the political centrality of the “gaffe” or slip of the tongue, an eminence that verbal inadvertencies have not enjoyed since the early days of psychoanalysis.

Exhausting, isn’t it?

7 thoughts on “Played at Once by Cynics and Crazies”

  1. Politics is now merely an exercise in marketing and social engineering. It has infiltrated into the psyche of politics, that they mostly think only in those terms.And it’s like everyone knows it is a game of advertising, and all advertisers are suspect when it comes to honesty – deeply suspect. Of course, your brand is advertised honestly, and the other side is lying. It works back and forth
    I remember when Coke and Pepsi were going at it head to head. They both claimed to be the most popular until threats of misleading advertising suits were being discussed. Now, they use such obviously imaginary scenarios, like the guy accidentally preferring pepsi at a coke presentation. Reminds of the way conservatives and NRA’s argue. Never any empirical support, just “it makes sense that if we do this, x will happen. It’s so obvious that it must be true” sort of arguments. Whenever data gets invoked, it is invariably cherry picked.
    Fallacies, not logic, is the name of the game. Did I mention appeal to emotion?


  2. But that’s not all, it’s also believing that one’s opponent is just the kind of person who would perpetrate said violation.

    Add to that the observation that people tend to accuse others of offences that they themselves would commit and you have grounds for unbridled pessimism.


  3. Sorry but I have to call bullshit on the author’s premise:
    “Politics no longer involves the public use of reason”
    When or where was this ever really the case? People like to romanticize the past, and that’s what this looks like to me. Look at every presidential election in American history going back to George Washington and find me one that matches this description.


      1. Now…every good politician likes to claim the mantle of reason. Alinsky wrote of the “passport of morality”.


      2. …and here’s the other Alinsky quote from Rules for Radicals I was looking for that speaks to this dichotomy:

        A well-integrated political schizoid. The organizer must become schizoid, politically, in order not to slip into becoming a true believer. Before men can act an issue must be polarized. Men will act when they are convinced that their cause is 100 per cent on the side of the angels and that the opposition are 100 per cent on the side of the devil. He knows that there can be no action until issues are polarized to this degree. I have already discussed an example in the Declaration of Independence—the Bill of Particulars that conspicuously omitted all the advantages the colonies had gained from the British and cited only the disadvantages.
        What I am saying is that the organizer must be able to split himself into two parts—one part in the arena of action where he polarizes the issue to 100 to nothing, and helps to lead his forces into conflict, while the other part knows that when the time comes for negotiations that it really is only a 10 per cent difference—and yet both parts have to live comfortably with each other. Only a well-organized person can split and yet stay together. But this is what the organizer must do.


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