Partisanship vs. the Politics of Personal Destruction


I was going to devote this column to discussion of the Democratic takeover of the Senate and the best methods to block rightwing judicial nominations. Instead, I will focus on the meaning of the media tracking the use of Internet sex sites by gay conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan. But in some ways, they are really related stories.

Now for those who missed the Sullivan story, it starts with Sullivan himself, "gay conservative" being just the start of his contradictions as writer, a moralist against gay promiscuity and anti-abortion to boot. So it was with great glee that a few of his ideological opponents in the gay movement tracked his use of an Internet site where gay men sought out one another for unprotected sex. His opponents passed the information onto the broader media and a minor media firestorm ensued.

A shocking newsworthy story? Maybe, although Sullivan is HIV positive and sought out only other AIDS-infected partners, so despite the salacious story that the media picked up on, it was actually unclear what was being exposed other than prurience at gay sex terms like "barebacking," the term for non-safe sex used on the Internet site. Yes, it's fun to find that moralists of all sexual orientations actually like sex, but it's less fun to find out progressive civil libertarians like to invade people's most intimate personal privacy when it serves their political purposes.

Sullivan labeled the media attack "sexual McCarthyism" and the relationship to McCarthyism (however overblown) is that based on political disagreement, people's personal lives and their personal associations will be investigated and then they will be forced to answer for it in public forums, eroding both personal privacy and dignity.

Which brings us to the nominations process. There is a sickness in public debate where investigations into private failings gets more attention and debate than the investigations into concrete public statements and policies. But before it sounds like I am siding with moderates bemoaning the tone of "partisanship," I actually blame those in the media and politics who claim an aversion to ideological attack and prefer a focus on "qualifications" or other non-ideological blather.

The sickness of personal investigations derives from a system that delegitimizes honest partisan ideological debate. Partly it is a disease of a "non-ideological" press that can declare a "gotcha" objective truth with a semen-stained dress but has to make "on one hand" muddled declarations on the effects of policy, even when it is clear which special interest wrote the damn bill being debated.

We also have folks saying "qualified" people should be confirmed in office regardless of ideology, so since ideological attack on public figures is somehow delegitimized, full-out character assassination becomes the tool. So we end up with an Ashcroft confirmed for the Justice Department but Linda Chavez blocked at Labor -- a perverse way to approach public appointments. Chavez should never have been in charge of the nation's labor laws, but not because she sheltered one illegal immigrant -- which sounded like a relatively decent personal thing to do. She shouldn't be Labor secretary because she would not enforce the minimum wage laws for the vast numbers of immigrants, legal and illegal, who are exploited in US sweatshops. But she could have been confirmed on the latter but was forced to withdraw over the former.

The odd thing is that it is "moderation" that drives the deepest sewers of American politics, since principled disagreements are considered suspect, while base personal attacks are rewarded with political triumph.

I was against the trolling in Clinton's personal life for consensual sexual relations and thought they should have been out of bounds for discovery even in court proceedings, since private non-public consensual sex had nothing to do with sexual harassment charges by Paula Jones. (Publicly flaunted sex on the job is another matter that could have legal implications but Clinton, however reckless, did not engage in that.)

Tracking Sullivan's personal Internet ads, in whatever source, is as disgusting as Ken Starr trying to subpoena peoples' book purchases or the media who sought to track Clarence Thomas's video rentals during his confirmation hearing.

In the heat of the impeachment battle when sources like exposed Henry Hyde's sexual infidelities, there was a certain "fight fire with fire" justification based on the stakes involved and the so overwhelming hypocrisy of the rightwing assault involved. But the saddest thing is that the whole process was a shadow game, since the Republicans wanted Clinton impeached because they hated him politically, yet felt they could only impeach him on personal acts that had little to do with their actual opposition to his policies.

And the irony is that the results were not exactly all the GOP could have desired -- they scored political points but Clinton stayed in office and the Republicans lost not one, but two Speakers of the House to their own sexual scandals. Such wayward results are inevitable with personalistic attacks, since by their nature they drain public space of serious political discussion in favor of feeding a media beast that has only the politics of the Jerry Springer show in its search for salacious and embarrassing scandal.

One other point: Some confuse the "politics of personal destruction" with the opposition to Robert Bork being appointed to the Supreme Court. Yet no one ever accused Bork of any personal failing or scandal; progressive opponents merely ran an ideological campaign against his nomination that many of the D.C. elite thought was too "partisan." "Borking" a nominee is exactly the kind of vigorous ideological debate that should influence judicial selections, while the personal lives of nominees should be left off the media platter.

Progressives need to highlight the fact that the much bemoaned "politics of personal destruction" derives from the bizarre allergy to honest partisanship in many media and elite circles. If senators could just stand up and say, you know, you're a nice human being but I disagree with your politics and won't vote for you, then we wouldn't have this stupid dance at nominations where the only way to get rid of an ideological opponent is to find something sleazy about them.

So far the new Democratic Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy is making the right noises about the committee being willing to block nominees on ideological grounds. The Republicans may bemoan their loss of power but the results of honest ideological opposition will be to diminish the character assassination that breeds in the media incubator of "nonpartisanship."

Nathan Newman is a longtime union and community activist, the Student National Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book Net Loss, on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email

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