All about soundbites: a philosophical look at the failure of the left

PvdA-leider Job Cohen.
By Rob Wijnberg

The Dutch labour party leader, Job Cohen, is losing ground. But his attitude in the election campaign is exemplary for left-wing politicians. They prefer not to play along with this game called politics.

One month ago, the Dutch labour party was all self-confidence and optimism. Job Cohen, the long-time mayor of Amsterdam, had just been appointed the new party leader and presented to the people as the modest and reasonable alternative to the crazy politics in The Hague. Journalists called the leadership change a “stroke of genius”, and the polls reflected this. Late last year, the labour party had been all but written off, but now it suddenly scented victory again. A ‘Yes We Cohen’ fan club, was launched on Facebook immediately.


Three TV interviews and two election debates later, the slogan seems just as outmoded as the ‘left-wing spring’ it was meant to usher in. ”Job has fallen through the ice”, the analysts now say, suggesting that winter has suddenly descended on the left again. The party leader appears stoic about it, but he must be amazed. Cohen is probably wondering what kind of circus he now finds himself in. Immediately after Sunday’s party leaders’ debate, where he was seen stuttering after being confronted with a last minute alteration Labour made in its election programme, three potential seats in parliament evaporate in the polls, amounting to ten percent of its total support.

Indeed, according to the criteria of the modern mediacracy, Cohen is failing spectacularly. When he doesn’t have an answer to a question, he admits it honestly instead of dancing around it peddling half-truths. The effects register in the following day's headlines. When other politicians interrupt him, he lets them speak for minutes, and only resumes his answer after they have finished. The camera zooms out and the organised applause cuts through his answer. He shrugs helplessly when interviewers persist in stirring things up with trivialities. “I don’t play those kinds of games,” he says.

A shortcoming rooted in a long philosophical tradition

Meanwhile, the game swirls merrily around him. The criticism is unrelenting and unanimous. Cohen is an administrator rather than a politician, unused to being contradicted, goes the analysis of the man who was a deputy minister twice before becoming the mayor of the Dutch capital. Clearly, he hasn’t been well prepared by his spin doctors, his critics argue.

There is a kernel of truth in these assessments, but his problem is more fundamental. Job Cohen is an obvious example of the shortcoming with which nearly all progressive, left-wing politicians have been struggling for years, and from which their more conservative, right-wing colleagues don’t seem to suffer. This shortcoming is rooted in a long philosophical tradition. From this perspective, the contrast between ‘left’ and ‘right’ parallels two movements that have competed in western philosophy for centuries.

Left-wing politicians are, in their thoughts and actions, primarily indebted to what one could call the Platonic tradition. The characteristic of this tradition is that all its representatives – from René Descartes to Immanuel Kant – start from a philosophical distinction introduced by Plato: the contrast between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. The starting point of this is, to put it concisely, that two sorts of ‘reality’ can be identified. One is reality as we experience it, mediated by our emotions, language, culture and interests. Behind that, these thinkers say, is objective reality: reality ‘as it is’, the ‘facts’ that we all share.

The business of politics as an issue of rhetoric

This tradition, which reached its peak during the Enlightenment, always cherished the goal of tearing down appearances in favour of ‘pure reality’. It depicted man as, above all, a rational creature that, having reflected on the facts, would come to an objectively determined consensus on how society needed to be organised. Left-wing politicians still maintain this ambition. They believe that reality as it is will ultimately be decisive for the political choices people make, and that rationally acquired insights ("the figures indicate...") create sufficient breeding-ground for collective agreement on policy.

Just as their philosophical forebears tried to raise the mask and get to the Truth, left-wing politicians try and get beyond the rhetorical power-play so as to come to Consensus. In other words, they prefer to avoid the game that is called politics.

On the other extreme is the tradition which, broadly put, runs from Thomas Hobbes via Friedrich Nietzsche to Richard Rorty. Their philosophies differ widely, but they share a criticism of the Platonic differentiation between appearance and reality. Reality, they argue, is just as it appears – mediated by emotions, language, culture and, most importantly, our competing interests. There is no ‘objective’ reality beyond this; human being can’t go beyond their 'perspective’ on the world. Right-wing politicians generally feel much more at home in this tradition. Thus they regard the business of politics as an issue of rhetoric. What matters is the image of reality you want to create, not whether that reality corresponds with ‘reality’.

Politicians like Job Cohen are visibly uncomfortable with this. They maintain a philosophical disgust with rhetoric that, according to them, is just aimed at doing violence to the ‘facts’. They wish to be ‘honest’ and are ashamed to present things different than they 'are'. They trust that voters judge them on what they have achieved rather than what they say, that, in the long term, successful policy prevails over successful spinning

The right-wing politicises while the left-wing analyses

Their right-wing colleagues reason otherwise. They know that politics is more about being perceived to be right rather than actually being right, and are less bothered by presenting an image of the world that works to their advantage. This is not a question of insincerity: they really believe the truth is to be created, not discovered. This is why they make pompous internet videos and dream up biting one-liners that target their opponents. In other words, the right-wing politicises while the left-wing analyses.

As a voter, one might be sympathetic to the way left-wing politics is practised, but the problem is that the mediacracy doesn’t value it. Currently, news is created in a way unfavourable to analytical politicians. News is not about what is ‘true’, as it may have been in more idealistic times, but about what scores. Newspapers, broadcasters and websites are, more than the journalists themselves often wish, driven by commercial interests. To sell advertisements, as much attention as possible must be generated.

Politics has become a ‘competition’ starring the brightest brains and the glibbest tongues. In such an environment, rhetoric thrives far more than ‘reality’. Geert Wilders thrives over Femke Halsema and Mark Rutte outperforms Job Cohen.

The left-wing has to find a response to this, preferably one that is not too philosophical.

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Election 2010