Entry from October 22, 2015

The most interesting thing about Joe Biden’s non-campaign speech  yesterday was not so much its criticism of Hillary Clinton — who, however, was not named — as what he chose to criticize her for, which was her identifying the Republicans in last week’s Democratic debate as "enemies" she was proud to have made. The Vice President said:

I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart. And I think we can. It’s mean spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long. I don’t believe, like some do, that it’s naive to talk to Republicans. I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies. And for the sake of the country, we have to work together.

In saying this, he was repeating what he had already been saying for a couple of days and on several occasions, on one or two of which he had even identified Republicans as friends.

For this he won all sorts of golden opinions, which I would like to think an encouraging sign that comity is still possible in our political culture, but we should also notice that immediately after the words just quoted he said: "As the president has said many times, compromise is not a dirty word." It would be tedious to check and see how many times the president has said this, or if, indeed, he has said it at all, but he certainly hasn’t shown by any willingness to compromise with Republicans during his time in office that he really believes it. The call for compromise and bi-partisanship has become no more than what the British journalist James Bartholomew calls "virtue signaling," and it is precisely this reduction of our political life to virtue signaling on one side or the other which has made enemies of political opponents and compromise nearly impossible.

Let’s let Mr Bartholomew explain. "It’s noticeable," he writes, "how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things."

It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious, as it is with Whole Foods. Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness. . . There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition.

Like everything else in politics, virtue signaling becomes competitive, which tends to drive all political energies to the extremes. Just look at the bidding war among Democrats to see who can propose setting the minimum wage at the most preposterously high levels out of supposed concern for the low paid — who are thus priced out of their jobs.

Mrs Clinton and Bernie Sanders therefore feel they have to run against each other with competing claims to superior left-wing virtue — and to hating their political enemies, whether Republicans or Wall Street or the Koch Brothers, with the more fervent hatred. That passion is of course strongly approved of by the scandal-obsessed media, whatever they may say about compromise and bipartisanship, who are always on the lookout for anything that can be represented as wickedness on the right. What hope, then, for compromise in such a rhetorical witches’ cauldron? Something tells me that Mr Biden already knows this — as, assuredly, President Obama does. But then, as we have already noticed, his words were probably just more virtue-signaling. After all, they came in a context where he was promising to do nothing about them but talk.

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