Politics Doesn't Stop at the Water's Edge

by: Matt Stoller

Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 11:35


Here's Matthew Yglesias.

Michael Signer, who worked on foreign policy and national security issues for John Edwards, has a great piece in The Washington Post about the difficulty of getting any coverage of the foreign policy distinctions between the presidential candidates. He (rightly) cites Michael Gordon's series of interview/analysis articles for The New York Times as an important exception, along with some of the stuff Jason Horowitz did for The New York Observer, but "mostly you had to look to the blogs -- places such as the Atlantic Online, the American Prospect, TPMCafe and Democracy Arsenal -- for serious, sustained foreign policy reporting."

Look, if you want foreign policy to become a political issue, you have to make it a political issue.  That's an organizing problem.  I didn't see any attacks from any Democratic candidates against each other on North Korea or Russia, any attempts to draw distinctions, though I saw a lot of high-minded 'major serious policy addresses'.  Of course those are going to be discussed on elite foreign policy focused blogs and nowhere else.  If you want to get into the fray, you have to get in the fray.  The foreign policy community doesn't do that, politics stops at the water's edge and all that.

On the other hand, I saw fights over immigration, trade, and Iraq.  Those seem like foreign policy issues to me.  Bill Richardson ran ads on no residual troops on Iraq, and foreign policy is a regular topic of conversation all over the country, but Signer only looks at a certain type of wonky blog as talking about the issue the way he likes to discuss it.  I saw the liberal wonky community get their knickers into a twist over Moveon's Petraeus ad instead of using it as an opportunity to start a conversation.  What exactly does Signer think that ad was about? This habitual disrespect of politics needs to stop.

Here's what Signer writes.

This time around, the three top Democratic candidates all proposed assertive ideas for tackling major problems in roughly the same time frame. In April, May and June respectively, Obama, Edwards and Clinton all gave major speeches on national security. Obama called for "building a 21st-century military." Edwards proposed building a "mission-focused military." Clinton called to "rebuild our strength and widen and deepen [the military's] scope."

You'd think that journalists would do a comparative analysis of what the three candidates had proposed for the U.S. military in the coming decade; what they could do, practically; and what the speeches might predict about national security during their presidencies. But no.

No, Signer, that's what YOU think journalists should do, because you enjoy comparative analysis of bureaucratic sounding language that few outside of military think tanks understand.  What political journalists cover is politics, and they don't do a particularly good job.  That's obvious.  That's been obvious for years.  Why you run your foreign policy discussions as if they do cover substantive issues in depth is the question I have.  The media's problems are the media's problems, but they should not obscure the fact that 'major serious policy addresses' are terrible forums to communicate major serious policy ideas, and that progressive foreign policy elites just don't tend to deal with politics or organizing or engaging with the public itself in a serious sustained fashion.

It's time that Signer look himself in the mirror and recognize that politics matters.  If he or someone like him is not sitting in the room where the decisions about TV, direct mail, and organizing are made, then no one in the press will take his foreign policy addresses seriously.  And you can blame the press if you want, but if 97% of a campaign budget is going towards something other than communicating foreign policy ideas to the public, then what exactly is being done to fix this problem?

Matt Stoller :: Politics Doesn't Stop at the Water's Edge

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Lakoff vs. Narrow Foreign Policy Frame (0.00 / 0)
On the other hand, I saw fights over immigration, trade, and Iraq.  Those seem like foreign policy issues to me.  Bill Richardson ran ads on no residual troops on Iraq, and foreign policy is a regular topic of conversation all over the country, but Signer only looks at a certain type of wonky blog as talking about the issue the way he likes to discuss it.

Way back before there was a blogosphere as we know it, George Lakoff wrote a paper for the Frameworks Institute in which he talked about how a fundamental problem for progressives was that their foreign policy concerns were a good deal broader than the traditional national security/economic self-interest frame, which tended to marginalize, trivialize or ignore their concerns.  In "
The Mind and The World: Changing the Very Idea of American Foreign Policy" [PDF]
, Lakoff wrote:

New realities have emerged since the end of the Cold War. But they have largely
been ignored in American foreign policy. The Global Interdependence Initiative was designed to address those vital concerns. They are:
* the environment,
* human rights,
* women's rights,
* children's issues,
* global public health and the spread of disease,
* poverty and the powerlessness of the impoverished,
* fair labor practices,
* violent ethnic conflicts,
* the rights of indigenous people to preserve their traditional ways of life, and crucially
*  an economics of sustainability that promotes quality of life rather than an unsustainable economic growth.

When one looks more closely, further details come into focus: the immense danger of global warming, the freedom of women to get an education and engage in public life, the connections between women's education and world population growth, AIDS in Africa, the spread of tuberculosis, the enslavement of children and child labor, and so on.

These concerns might sound to some like a laundry list of unrelated topics. As we shall see, they are anything but that. They are a natural category of concerns - a category that has never been adequately described or named. Our job is to forge a general approach to foreign policy where each item on this list is a natural special case, a natural and obvious concern for American foreign policy conceptualized in a new way.

As Lakoff goes on to explain, what holds these in common is an alternative to the "self-interest" frame--the "moral norms" frame.

And--me speaking here--it just so happens that most Americans think of American primarily in moral terms.  So it shouldn't be too hard to start shifting this reality.

Oh, yeah.  I forgot!  We don't have the counter-hegemonic infrastructure to do diddly-squat.

My bad!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


this is my favorite post of 2008 so far from you matt (0.00 / 0)
Insightful in that way where it challenges 99% of the convention wisdom on a subject, but after reading it I think "duh, of course he's right."  

Do you think it would be practical for a Senate or Presidential candidate to try to make foreigh policy issues into big issues though?  Obviously a House candidate or lower is going ot have a really tough time getting anything covered outside of a top one or two issues (if that).  I remember when, almost accidentally, the "third party talks" Korea issue became a media thing between Kerry & Bush after the first debate in '04.  

That issue didn't seem to help Kerry any.  Mostly it just lead to GOP bloggers, who five minutes earlier had never heard of any of those policy differences, immediatley proclaiming Bush's position the only logical one.  And then, media outlets tended to present both views at legitimate policy differences-  which on the whole helped Bush because it made him look something less than totally inept at foreign policy.  But, realistically, that issue wasn't the most compelling foreign policy difference to highlight.  

Anyway- again- really great post.  


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