Matt Taibbi and the Criminalization of Compromise

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rolling Stone National Affairs Chief Matt Taibbi, who has written the introduction to the 40th Anniversary Edition of the late Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, was interviewed about this singular honor and about Thompson in the June 27th Edition of The Village Voice.

Now, Taibbi and I only occasionally find ourselves in agreement, as much because of his tone and tactics as his content. His coverage of the collusion between government and the banks has been some first-class reporting that should be making the staffs at both The Wall Street Journal and Mother Jones blush in embarrassment.

Sadly, his polemic style undermines his reportage, if not his effectiveness with your average Rolling Stone reader. Taibbi’s goal is to enrage and mobilize at least as much as it is to argue and analyze, and to me this kind of fire-and-brimstone-upon-the-converted from ideological extremists lies at the heart of the modern American political dysfunction. Taibbi’s style is as much a part of the problem as Rush Limbaugh‘s. Passion should be the seasoning in politics, not its substance, and reasonable points get lost when concern boils into outrage.

To offer just one example of what I mean, in his interview with The Voice, Taibbi makes some cogent points about the Left’s disillusionment with Obama:

“I think a lot of what Occupy is is disappointed idealism. A lot of the people who thought, in Hunter terms, that Obama was the “Great Shark” who was going to come and right all the wrongs. And then they realized that he was very much, for all his good qualities, a conventional Democratic party politician, and all the negatives that that comes with. I think people were extremely disappointed, and that’s why they’re all out on the streets right now. There’s a tremendous cynicism embedded in mainstream American politics right now, where people who are in Washington and live on Capitol Hill really don’t think they have any obligation to be truly honest.”

As I read that, I was banging on my desk screaming “yes, Yes, YES,” like Meg Ryan in a deli, smacking the two-ton benchwright table so hard that the monitor was bouncing. Taibbi gets it, I think. Then, in the very next sentence, he tosses in a barb that ruins it all.

“They [i.e., the politicians] think that everything is a compromise. They’ve lost touch with what people actually want. And they [the voters] really do want somebody who is idealistic.”

Ach, der leiber Gott, Matt, this is the heart of the problem with both progressives and reactionaries: they want idealists in power, and because of that we wind up with Solons who could not compromise even if they wanted to because their electoral mandate is to hew to an idealistic line. As a result, today we have a government made up of puritanical idealists on the one hand and cynical sell-outs on the other whom together have effectively institutionalized political gridlock.

Are Americans tired of watching Washington serve as a feather bed of public self-servants? Of course. But the answer is not more idealism in the halls of power. What we need is a government made up of moral, ethical public servants who have strong ideals yet who recognize that in an ideologically diverse nation like our own, compromise is essential to progress. We want leaders who understand that compromise for the sake of genuine progress is no vice, but that compromise for the sake of personal empowerment or enrichment is at least morally reprehensible, if not a felony.

History bears witness to the truism that idealism in government is the pathway to division and tyranny. A government in service of ideological absolutism, whatever its flavor, is a government at odds with democracy and an open road to despotism. That a correspondent of Taibbi’s stature cannot see this elemental fact is not just disappointing, it is downright frightening.

I can only hope that the readers of Rolling Stone and The Village Voice know better. But I worry. When you start throwing around words like “moral” and “ethical” with many liberals, you don’t get nodding heads, you get a fiery debate about WHOSE morals and WHICH ethics. This is the problem with relativism in society: the good people stand around arguing about where to draw the line between right and wrong while the bad people are cleaning out the store.

That said, buy the book. Thompson did not create the modern genre of popular political science (that laurel goes to Teddy White for The Making of the President, 1960), but he reinvented it with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72, and in the process wrote a book that every voter should read at least once.

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