Politics Is War? Well… No

The recent furor over James Carville and his comment that Howard Dean should be replaced as head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) brings to mind the unfortunate analogy of politics and war that Carville, like David Horowitz, apparently lives by… it was Carville, after all, who said, “When your opponent is drowning, throw the son of a bitch an anvil.”

It’s a stupid analogy and unfortunate attitude, no matter if it comes from the far right of Horowitz or the faux center of Carville. It’s also dishonest, for neither man lives by it. Horowitz, by all accounts, is quite nice to everyone in person—and Carville is married to his supposed political opponent Mary Matalin. A more accurate analogy might be sports where, after the game, opponents are expected to be civil, leaving competition to the playing field.

Even the sports analogy, however, isn’t sufficient to encapsulate what should go on in politics. Sports, even more than war, is based on a zero-sum outcome: someone wins, someone else loses. Politics isn’t so simple. Sure, someone wins each election, but no election is an end. In fact, it’s the beginning of another phase of politics, one quite different from the election itself.

In his news conference after the election, President Bush said that he understood the difference between politicking and governing. While that is questionable (he seems to be politicking all the time, often at the expense of good governance), it is an important distinction and one that sports doesn’t contain at all and that war can be only said to have if negotiation is considered analogous to governing.

When politics-as-war carries over from the campaign into the governing itself, as it will do once that attitude has been established, the entire nation suffers. The Republicans would not give up their war against Bill Clinton in the 1990s and so forced the nation to witness a farcical impeachment. Under this administration, the Republicans have refused to see Democrats as anything but the enemy, so have shut them out of the legislative processes on Capitol Hill.

This, in fact, is one of the reasons the Republicans lost control of Congress. Their belief in a “permanent majority” allowed them to continue to see Democrats as enemies instead of as partners whose viewpoints should be considered (at least) if not incorporated to some extent. Their belief undermined the American political system as it has operated for quite some time, now. Revulsion to the change and desire to bring us back to a system of negotiation and compromise (not some progressive agenda, alas) led directly to their defeat.

Americans don’t want politics to be war or to be thought of as war. Most of us have genuine respect for our system and are leery of anything that could lead to total defeat of one side or the other. Though I am a leftist, for example, the (second to) last thing I would want is a left-wing hegemony in the United States (the last thing would be a right-wing hegemony). I’ve seen what happens when any single party gains too much control. Invariable, the slide towards totalitarianism begins—as it did here, over the past six years.

We are fortunate. The basic American protectiveness of our system is deep and strong—and it made itself felt in this past election. There are many, however, like Carville and Horowitz, who don’t understand what happened. Carville chastises Dean for not having been successful enough—yet Dean and the Democrats accomplished something marvelous, wresting control of Congress from a group that had stacked the deck against them through gerrymandering, dirty tricks, and scare tactics. They tapped into the fears that we were going to lose our traditional system and have given that system a chance to right itself. That is extraordinary.

But it is not war.