The function of criticism

Published online 24 May 2015.

It’s just amazing how much criticism of elite Republicans goes on here at DailyKos.com!  So what does all of this criticism say about elite Republicans?  They play us for suckers, they wage war on workers, they hate the poor, they sound nasty, they’re arrogant and wrong, and so on.

You’d think that if the elite Republicans actually read all of these criticisms published by front-pagers at DailyKos.com and took them to heart, they’d reform, and having reformed, they’d be the party to beat!  They would of course no longer be who they are now, at least in the descriptions put forth each day here.  But, once they’d reformed, who wouldn’t want to be a Republican under those circumstances?  (And, of course, having heeded all of our front pagers’ criticisms, said Republicans would no doubt start by thanking the blog of “more and better Democrats” for having goaded them into self-renewal!  This, no doubt, the result of years of DailyKos.com efforts to make the Republican party a better party.)

Criticism can be a vehicle for improvement.  We often criticize people with the aim in mind of making them better — we’d rather that those we criticize not play us for suckers, that they’d love the poor, that they would sound nicer, and that in word and deed they would be both humble and correct.  And if those we criticized really heard our criticisms, they’d take what we said to heart, and improve.

Of course, since they received so little of our criticism, the elites of the Democratic Party would maintain it as the same party it’s always been.  This might not be good for the Democrats, and it wouldn’t be a good thing for us, yet the reigning blog of “more and better Democrats” is okay with it.

Alas, however, the Republicans do not appear to be at all willing to take advantage of the joint strategy employed by the front-pagers here at DailyKos.com.  Maybe they’re all dependent upon Koch money or maybe they just want to “cut the public out of the deal-making” or something like that.  But it would be sad if all of this blog’s critical efforts to improve the Republican Party were to no avail.

An alternate strategy in deploying criticism, of course, would be to use it to point out where certain political actors “should know better.”  Advocates of this particular deployment of criticism would not focus upon wasting critical pearls on those “swine” who were unwilling to use them.  (The people who in fact count as “swine” may, however, merely be those without self-esteem, who can’t take criticism at present.  So I use the term “swine” loosely here.)  In deploying such a strategy, we criticize those whom we feel have the potential to take our criticisms to heart and to improve from them.

Perhaps to employ this alternate strategy we would need to learn a new critical language, using terms explicitly labeled as those of constructive criticism.  Here’s how it sounds when it’s aimed at politicians: “If you wish to merit our votes, you would listen to our constructive criticism, and here is what you would do.”

In order to employ such a critical strategy, we would need to become more sensitive, as well, to whether or not those we criticize are actually listening to us.  Politicians will often say nice things to us and pretend that they “feel our pain” but all the while they act as if the people to whom they really listen are their corporate representatives and financial donors.  “Gee, if only our politicians could hear us they’d sympathize with our plight and do something to help us!” you might think at times.  After all, we elected them.  But, really — have we given our favorite politicians any concrete reasons to listen to us?  Do they associate any material penalty with the consequences of not listening to us?  We need to make it clear to our favorite politicians that such a penalty exists.

And what about the Republicans?  It doesn’t seem as if they’ll listen.  The front-pagers here have criticized them relentlessly, year after year, but the behaviors of the elite Republicans only get worse.  If they’re a menace, their political power needs to be destroyed — which means investigating why ordinary people vote for them, and appealing to said ordinary people for a change in behavior.

A Google search for “why do poor people vote Republican?” reveals, most prominently, two interesting pieces: 1) Kevin Drum’s piece in Mother Jones on “Here’s Why The White Working Class Hates Democrats,” and 2) Gary Younge’s piece “Working class voters: why America’s poor are willing to vote Republican.”

Drum wants to argue that it was all about hatred for the “undeserving poor”:

But if that’s the case, why does the WWC continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare.

Why does Drum think welfare is stigmatized?

…at its core you have a group of people who are struggling and need help, but instead feel like they simply get taxed and taxed for the benefit of someone else. Always someone else. If this were you, you wouldn’t vote for Democrats either.

As Drum points out, there is no point criticizing the misplaced priorities implied in such a vision of economic reality.  You want, then, another way of appealing to those who think in such a way.Younge’s piece, for its part, has this gem of an observation:

When liberals depict the existence of poor white Republicans as an expression of mass idiocy and false consciousness they not only disparage poor white people, they provide conservatives with one of their key talking points which is that liberals are elitists who look down on poorer whites.

Younge’s observation brings us back to the main topic of this diary — criticism.  In everyday life, ordinary people are just offended by criticism.  “I take offense to those remarks!”  The matter of whether or not the remarks were true takes a back seat to how they were uttered.  And perhaps everyone imagines that they are supposed to start out looking perfect, because first impressions are so important.  Not everyone knows that there is more than one way to make a good first impression.Do we know how to criticize effectively?  When criticism is just jeering, then how is it effective?  Sure, you might inspire your allies to more actively dislike those whom you jeer.  But to what end?  Wouldn’t you rather inspire your allies to know how to criticize effectively, so that those who “should know better” might be improved by their criticisms?

Perhaps political partisans imagine that politics is like a team sport, and that they are on some sort of political drill team.  It’s easy to see the idea of “political self-interest” becoming completely lost in this sort of framework.

I suppose I think this way because, as I see it, the idea of “political self-interest” has been lost to America.  What do we really get, these days, for our income tax moneys?  A few more wars, a trade agreement or two, and government for rich people and out-of-control bureaucrats?  Perhaps it’s time to abandon “hooray for the good guys” in favor of “let’s figure out how to be the good guys.”  In this regard effective constructive criticism might be the easiest way through.

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