Support the news

The Problem Of Attributing Motive In Politics

L: Sen. Marco Rubio is pictured during a Republican presidential primary debate, Feb. 6, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. R: Activist Gloria Steinem speaks in Beijing, China, May 19, 2015. (Both photos, AP)
L: Sen. Marco Rubio is pictured during a Republican presidential primary debate, Feb. 6, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. R: Activist Gloria Steinem speaks in Beijing, China, May 19, 2015. (Both photos, AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Is the supposedly sunny, optimistic Marco Rubio even meaner and darker than his tormentor in chief, the thuggish Chris Christie? Christie patronizes President Obama, with only slightly subtle racism, calling him childish, but Rubio insists that the president is engaged in a highly competent quest to make America weak.

It’s the content of his now notorious talking point about Obama’s alleged anti-Americanism, not Rubio’s embarrassingly robotic repetition of it during last weekend's debate that’s most alarming. The unresponsive recitation of talking points during “debates” is business as usual. Accusing the president of bad faith, instead of bad ideas, is relatively unusual in mainstream politics. The assertion that Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing” in allegedly undermining American interests exemplifies the unhinged, conspiratorial thinking (if you can call it that) of Rubio’s campaign and the rising right wing extremism to which he appeals.

...speculating about the malevolent motives of our ideological opponents is increasingly common these days, on both left and right.

Attacking Obama’s motive, not his ideology, accusing him of subversion, is like asserting that George W. Bush wasn’t negligent or reckless in ignoring the warnings of 9/11 but purposeful, or that the disastrous conduct of the Iraq war wasn’t incompetent but intentional.

Rubio’s talking point takes us back to the dangerous political paranoia of 9/11 truthism and mid 20th century McCarthyism.

But, to be fair to Rubio and his comrades, speculating about the malevolent motives of our ideological opponents is increasingly common these days, on both left and right. Oppose or merely question affirmative action policies, for example, or stand up for free speech on campus, and you risk being dismissed as motivated by racism. Favor Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and, if you’re a woman, prepared to be accused of betraying your sex.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” former Secretary of State and Clinton supporter Madeleine Albright quipped, which might lead you to wonder what Albright has done for Carly Fiorina lately. Should we question her motives in opposing Fiorina? Is Albright “anti-woman”? Not in my view, and I suspect that Albright would respond that the fiercely anti-choice Fiorina “isn’t helping women.” I agree, but I don’t assume that she (and all other anti-choice advocates) are motivated by animus toward women. In fact, I neither know nor care what motivates her. Nor do I care what motivates Madeleine Albright, who should perhaps amend her remarks, reserving an imaginary place in hell only for women who don’t support the women whose policies she supports.

Female solidarity has a limited role in electoral politics. Gloria Steinem’s passion for electing a female president, specifically Hillary Clinton, has exposed the contradictions in calls for solidarity. Chastising young women for supporting Bernie Sanders, she insultingly attributed their support to shallow, girlish motivations: “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’” Steinem tripped, uncharacteristically, on an obvious generational fault line. It’s one of many dividing women and exposing the folly of a feminism that relies on female chauvinism, which, ironically, is a primary basis for Steinem’s appeals on Hillary’s behalf.

The personal may sometimes be political but the political should rarely be so personal.

She also offered a much more trivial and benign version of Marco Rubio’s claim to know the motives of his opponents. Maybe young women support Sanders because they’re drawn to his emphasis on inequality and the burden of student loans; maybe they just like his attitude or the political idealism he projects. Maybe they’re not simply thinking “where are the boys,” as Steinem assumes. Who knows?

Sharply criticized for so clumsily condescending to young women, Steinem responded with the usual sort of equivocal apology: She “misspoke,” and she was “misinterpreted,” suggesting that she didn’t mean what she seemed to say or she didn’t mean to say it, or we wrongly attributed meanings she didn’t intend. Whatever. In any case, I sympathize. It’s always tempting to speculate about the motives of people with whom we disagree, gently or violently. Doing so, we avoid considering the substance of their arguments and questioning the merits of our own. The personal may sometimes be political but the political should rarely be so personal.

Wendy Kaminer Cognoscenti contributor
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture and is currently a correspondent at The Atlantic. Her latest book is "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU."

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news