There is a classic “Doonesbury” cartoon, published soon after the Vietnam War ended, in which the antiwar activist Mark Slackmeyer is arguing with his pro-war father. They go back and forth, each blaming the other’s politics for everything that’s wrong in Southeast Asia, when they finally reach the Cambodian genocide.
They stare at each other in perplexity until one mutters, “Whose fault did that turn out to be?”
That ironic bit of commentary came to mind as I read various accusatory accounts of Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Baghdad, where he essentially begged -- really, there is no other word -- the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to halt the pipeline of arms from Iran to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, a flow of weaponry that runs directly over Iraqi airspace. Maliki, for his part, promised to take the matter under advisement -- although it is clear that, like Herman Melville’s Bartleby, he would prefer not to.
Back in the U.S., meanwhile, politicians and pundits have been doing what nowadays they seem to do best: placing blame. Politics ought to be about solving problems. Increasingly, however, U.S. politics consists of fault-finding, explaining to voters as well as readers and listeners where responsibility lies for whatever the current mess. We may not be able to fix many problems, but we sure know how to wash our hands of them.
Consider again the issue of Kerry’s failed mission. There’s a Republican narrative in which Maliki’s intransigence stems from President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq in 2011. There’s a Democratic narrative in which the problem is the 2003 invasion itself, either because it overthrew Saddam Hussein (who for all his unquestioned cruelties was a bulwark against Iran’s ambitions) or because it led to the more general instability in the region.
Note that neither narrative has much to say about how to resolve the problem. The Syrian regime is slaughtering its people by the tens of thousands, and the mightiest nation in the world is wringing its hands. Even if one side is right about who’s to blame for America’s declining influence in the region, the conclusion does nothing whatsoever to help the dying.
The U.S. is almost incompetent at resolving policy disputes, but how skilled it has become at fixing blame for them! The politics of blame resemble the ethics of the schoolyard, where immature bickering is normal behavior and “he started it” is considered a cogent argument.
One sees this same silliness in the fight over sequestration, in which each side insists that the whole mess was the other’s idea. Or consider the continuing unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act. Critics claim that people dislike the statute because of its requirements and effects. Supporters respond that the well has been poisoned by wicked conservative propagandists. And it’s hard to find anyone, among committed partisans, who does anything but march in lockstep with the more useful explanation.
Nowhere is this tendency more on display than in the fight over gun control. The likelihood that the Democratic-held Senate will pass nothing of substance has led to plenty of blaming by anti-gun forces: Either the National Rifle Association has hypnotized the voters in the red states, or the president has shown insufficient leadership. Whatever has gone wrong, there must be more here than a mere difference of opinion: It has to be somebody’s fault.
“Blame” is a serious word. We should be wary of reducing it to the status of a tool to be used in the accretion of power. The word comes from the same root as “blaspheme,” and was used as recently as the early 20th century as an imprecation (“I’ll be blamed if I know”). Although the meaning has lately diverged through overuse, we would do well to recover the sense of seriousness about the charge that the other fella is blameworthy.
Blame, in a moral sense, is the precursor to punishment. To blame is not simply to criticize. To blame is to insist that the object of the blame is somehow morally flawed and thus unworthy. America’s habit of placing political opponents in this category constitutes a considerable danger to the country’s democracy.
To take a simple example, the segregationists who opposed Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights program were far more morally blameworthy than anyone on either side of any issue today. But Johnson’s great accomplishment was to treat his opponents seriously. He used all his powers of persuasion, wheeling and dealing until he had the votes to get what he so dearly wanted, even at the cost of his party’s short-term future.
I am not suggesting that blame never matters. Understanding the origin of a crisis can help us avoid repeating it. But we have to keep our priorities straight: We should attempt the parceling out of responsibility, if at all, only after a solution has been worked out. To elevate blame into the first priority is an unserious act, an implication that solving the problem is less important than taking advantage of it.
Imagine how the market would punish a corporation that neither recalled nor replaced a defective product but instead divided into hostile camps, arguing over blame. But politics functions differently.
Blame isn’t a device for making policy. It’s a tool for winning elections. The way that partisans turn every dispute into an exercise in placing blame rather than solving problems is part of what is driving independents (a group in which I number myself) away from electoral politics.
To be sure, political scientists have insisted for years that it is possible to explain most of the behavior of elected officials by the incentive to win the next time around. But there is something to be said for subtlety. The blatant jockeying for advantage by politicians and their familiars in the media has become a repulsive spectacle. One longs for a leadership class devoted to a principle other than smashing the opposition.
But that is rarely what we get. Perhaps George Orwell was right. Perhaps the purpose of power really is power, and the devotion to principle was always a cynical sideshow. Well, call me old-fashioned if you want: I enjoyed the show while it lasted.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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