Swimming with Stanley Fish, Public Intellectual

A public intellectual, so far as I can tell, is an English teacher with an audience beyond the immediate family. Stanley Fish is our nation's most famous English teacher and writes a frequent column/blog for the New York Times, so I have on rare occasions sampled his stuff. Today's contribution is Against Independent Voters.

So what exactly does Mr. Fish have against the indies? Mostly he just resents the fact that they get so much attention.

We’re in that season now when we hear the same things being said over and over again, and nothing is said more often by political pundits than this election (it doesn’t matter which one) will be decided by independent voters. Accompanying this announcement is the judgment – sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit – that this state of affairs is to be welcomed, even encouraged: it’s good that the independent voters are making themselves heard and forcing candidates to think outside their partisan boxes.

He doesn't like this, and he especially hates the idea of "voting for the man, not the party."

Floating independently above the fray and inhabiting the marketplace of ideas as if were a shopping bazaar rather than a battlefield is an unnatural condition. The natural condition is to be political. To be political is to believe something, and to believe something is to believe that those who believe something else are wrong, and after all you don’t want people who believe (and would do) the wrong things running your government. So you organize with other like-minded folks and smite the enemy (verbally) hip and thigh. You join a party.

This sounds sort of reasonable, but my bullshit detectors are screaming. Now it's probably true that I have a bit of hostility toward English teachers, but I'm working on that, and I don't really think that that's the problem. What's wrong with the idea that our job as voters is to join a tribe and commit fully to it?

A lot, I think, but let's give Mr. Fish a bit more line:

Now, voting the person rather than the party is about the dumbest thing you can do for a reason I elaborated in an earlier column (“Parties Matter”). The party affiliation of a candidate tells you what kind of appointments he or she is likely to make. Do you think that regulations of industry stifle productivity and damage the economy, or do you think that unregulated industries endanger the environment? Do you think that illegal immigrants are just that – illegal – and therefore should be deported when detected, or do you think that we should figure out a way to legitimize their status and make the best of what has already happened? Do you think that Iran poses a threat that must be countered before it is too late, or do you think that military action should be resorted to only after every avenue of diplomacy has been exhausted, even if it takes years or decades?

Why does Mr. Fish think that party or party history is a better guide to these crucial points than the character and personality of the candidate. Bill Clinton accomplished many things that Republicans talked about but never managed to do: a balanced budget and welfare reform. George W Bush appointed many of the same men his father appointed, but in the international arena made all the mistakes his father studiously avoided. The Republican candidates this year have changed their positions on most crucial issues more recently than their underwear.

I'm a strong, maybe even yellow dog Democrat myself, but it's obvious to me that the personal qualities of a president are more important than his party affiliation. At the moment, of course, all the main Republican candidates are profound losers, but the notion that voting for the party rather than the man is always a good idea is still idiotic.

Fish concludes with a bit of sophomoric sophistry:

In the end, there is nothing to be said for independent voters and a lot to be said against them. Remember, a bunch of them voted for Ralph Nader. Case closed.

The main thing to be said for independent voters is that their existence tends to force the political parties toward toleration, compromise and moderation, and without those democracy cannot function.


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