Torture and Partisan Coding

The connection between asymmetrical polarization and moral rot.

By Nathan Pippenger

More concisely than anyone else I’ve read on the subject, Jane Mayer links the politics and ethics of the Senate’s torture report. First, there’s the simple fact of a growing partisan divide, borne out by polling data:

It remains to be seen, though, whether the report will spur lasting reform. Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and an expert on torture regimes, doubts that it will. For one thing, despite McCain’s testimony, torture is becoming just another partisan issue. This wasn’t always the case—it was Ronald Reagan who signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture, in 1988. But polls show both a growing acceptance of the practice and a widening divide along party lines. “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty,” Rejali said.

The death penalty comparison is apt, and well-timed, for although it didn’t receive as much coverage, another disturbing report of government practices surfaced last week. It was a document describing Oklahoma’s botched execution, in April, of convicted murderer Clayton D. Lockett. The doctor failed to correctly administer the drug cocktail, then, on repeated insertion attempts, used an incorrectly-sized needle that he did not realize lacked the necessary drugs. By that point, mercifully, officials had closed the blinds to viewers, as this further botched insertion punctured an artery, spraying the doctor with streams of blood.

I emphasize the details here because I suspect that if more voters thought about the practice in terms of this brutal reality, the partisan divide on the death penalty would probably narrow. (It’s a separate question whether they might continue to support the idea of capital punishment on the assumption that a more humane method could be employed.) But capital punishment—like torture—may be an issue on which many voters (as I recently wrote) make up their minds not by considering the merits, but by looking for partisan signals.

Elite politicians are perfectly aware of this dynamic, and it explains much of what is said (and left unsaid) in Washington. If they have moral bearings, they will exploit it responsibly. One way to do so might be to speak softly while quietly enacting policy reforms; another might be to loudly and publicly buck your party when something fundamental is at stake, as Senator McCain did last week.

Or you could follow Dick Cheney’s example. As Mayer writes:

[T]he new report, even before it was released, came under attack from Republicans, including Dick Cheney, who, although he hadn’t read it, called it “full of crap.” Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming majority leader, castigated it as “ideologically motivated and distorted.” John Cornyn, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, argued that C.I.A. officers should not be criticized but, rather, “thanked.”

This reaction is especially appalling in light of what we know about how these partisan signals influence public opinion. For many conservatives, statements by Cheney, McConnell, and Cornyn will not simply be one piece of information in a broader reflection on the ethical question of torture. Instead, this political signal will settle what is, just as importantly, an ethical question. The situation might be different if Cheney & Co. had offered a slightly different objection along of the lines of: “Yes, these are brutal techniques, and we shouldn’t adopt them lightly, but they’re a necessary tradeoff for national security, and what this report really shows is the need for a stronger and clearer legal framework.” Although wrong, this view would at least maintain a space for ethical debate, rather than closing off public deliberation by preemptively tarring the report as a whole. If it’s full of crap, or politically-motivated, or shamefully ungrateful when it should be thankful, then the report—and by extension, the issue of torture itself—doesn’t need to be grappled with. It can simply be dismissed.

That is the likely result of the GOP response: torture’s demotion from an ethical crisis of the highest stakes to just another partisan back-and-forth. Ironically, although that sad outcome will actually be a genuine example of the partisanship lamented by many Beltway elites, those same elites will never recognize it as such. A campaign of crude right-wing signaling is already reducing the debate over torture to empty talking points, and major sectors of the political media will unwittingly advance that effort by credulously covering the story in classic “Democrats say, Republicans say” fashion, signaling to audiences that this is just normal partisan bickering. In that way, pro-torture views will silently take their place among acceptable opinions, and opposition to the next wave of torture—whenever it happens—will be even more difficult to mount.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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