Last weekend the NYT weekend magazine edition published a feature on Job Cohen, one of the frontrunners in the Dutch national election in the coming week.
An interest in him is expected and entirely logical: he’s Jewish, an academic and highly intelligent, a moderate integrationist in a country increasingly mired in populism rooted in anti-Muslim rhetoric.
In recent weeks however, Job Cohen’s status has dimmed with each intensely scrutinized TV debate. The well-regarded former major of Amsterdam has stammered, stuttered, said no to questions that could have demonstrated his knowledge of everyday life, as well as generally refusing to engage in political banter with his opponents.
[A]ccording 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.
End of the day, Cohen seems to operate on a separate plane than the other players in the pen, which begs the question: when a politician refuses to play the game, does that make him more admirable or just a bad politician?
The NRC thinks this particular affliction strikes those on the left often, and hard.
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.
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’.
Interesting theory, but true? Only to a limited extent, in my opinion. In both the UK and US, the Labour Party in the last decade, and the Democrats in this one, triumphed despite their (relativist) left-leaning policies.
In the Dutch context, I have seen various left-winged parties wage rather successful campaigns in the media, GreenLinks in particular. The issue with Cohen is perhaps rather more uncomplicated, that he is a capable administrator but hardly a visionary and shrewd politician.