The case for being unreasonable

gompersMy friend Scott Lemieux kindly takes issue with my previous post. Perhaps reading his and other objections will deepen my argument. I leave that for you to decide.

Things that are incontrovertible, some of which I’ve already acknowledged:

1.  Dems are better than Republicans, in more-or-less every respect. They will be less bad, and their hires and appointments doing administration in the executive branch will be much less bad. Hence for the left a vote for Democrats for the presidency under currently foreseeable circumstances is usually the correct vote.

2.  The obstacles to third parties at the national level are huge, nearly prohibitive.

3.  Everybody agrees we need reinvigorated social movements to push the Dems and the country to the left.

4.  I am no fan of Maoist “the worse, the better” thinking, which is more accurately memorialized in “After Hitler, us.”

So what’s wrong with another exhortation to go lesser evil? I note that Scott refers to it as “boring.” I’ll take that as an admission: it reflects a lack of imagination. The implication is that point #1 is contested, and answering it solves the Social Question, as Bismarck would say. My case only partly overlaps with ‘third party curiosity’ (Scott’s cute phrase).

One question that is arguable is whether we are on a continuous, rightward path where the D’s are always better than the R’s, but always worse than D’s of years past. How much credit is due to the current and previous Dem administration?

In this regard I’d first refer back to Samuel Gompers, who when asked the objectives of the labor movement, replied “More.” I think Scott and Mike Tomasky would agree with that too. However, their implementation of that axiom differs from mine. For me, “more” means maintaining constant, unrelenting criticism of the Democratic Party, replete with threats to abstain, sabotage, or defect. It means being an endless pain in the ass (insert your own joke here), a perpetual source of discord. Call it creative tension, or if you like, “heightening the contradictions.”

Even when the Dems are better, they should be told to be better still. To me that’s a valid strategic principle. You can’t put that across if you’re always making nice, or telling everybody things could be worse. It’s not like Dem leaders are some fragile, needy children with low self-esteem who require constant encouragement. How hard to push, and when, is a tactical matter. At times credit will be due. We don’t expect Democrats from a lot of places to garner much enthusiasm. From many, there is little to expect (Hi, Heidi).

There is also the non-trivial matter of evaluating actual progress and regress. It is not one-dimensional. It’s certainly better to be gay today in the U.S. than it was even ten years ago. Or to smoke weed. But is it better to be, say, African-American? Or a woman? I am neither, but some starkly negative trends are evident. Residential segregation by race (and by extension, in local public education) is probably as bad, though different, as it was fifty years ago. Incarceration rates are high. Denial of the voting franchise proceeds apace. Reproductive rights are increasingly under pressure in the so-called red states. The police are basically out of control, whether in day-to-day dealings with minorities or in attacking the practice of non-violent civil disobedience. We have no well-founded expectation of privacy any longer.

It pays to be careful with statements along the lines of “We’ve never had it so good.” On the other hand, if you rant that shit is fucked up and bullshit, you’ll never leave anybody behind. Scott can compare some points in time that favor his case, but as in economics, the period you choose to define a trend makes all the difference.

We often bifurcate issues between the economic and the social. The Dems are better on social issues, there have been notable improvements, as cited above. On economic, class issues there is more to argue about. On one level the split is misconceived. Segregation, incarceration, and reproductive rights have profound economic implications for the victims. On the other side, Scott can point to the BFD of ObamaCare. I could add the initial fiscal response to the Great Recession.

For the sake of argument, we could concede that the Affordable Care Act and the initial Obama budgets for FY 09-10 were the best that could be achieved. Imagination comes back in as one reflects on this background. We could acknowledge the pragmatic necessity of results without neglecting what more there is to do. Lesser evilism tends to rest on imperfect or, worse, entirely unjustified laurels.

In the case of fiscal stimulus, more was clearly called for, at the start and to a greater extent a year plus down the line. In the case of ACA, the surviving legislation will deserve any number of adjustments in the future. Where should we be going? I defy you to relate any answers from the White House, or from admonitions that the other guys are always worse. Is it worth advancing proposals with no immediate chance of passage? It seems to have worked for the crazies on the Right. What’s harder to support is offering bad proposals — like ‘chained CPI’ — that have no chance of passing either. (I happen to think it might have passed, but that’s speculation on my part, or at least, more speculative than the rest of this post.)

What can we unreasonably say, looking forward, taking a long view?

1.  The Dems address climate change, but not enough. In this case a bit better is not necessarily adequate.

2.  The Dems remain wedded to dangerous meddling in the ME, indulging dubious allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hillary in particular promises more unwelcome excitement on this front.

3.  You can’t advocate for jobs while touting deficit reduction; it just makes people stupider. The same goes for what I call the Democrats’ doctrine of Federal Reserve supremacy. The European variant is even worse. Ersatz notions of full employment are purveyed by liberals.

4.  We are not out of the woods on bad Social Security changes coming from Democrats. They only await the return of more reasonable Republicans.

One new development is promising noises made by Democratic big thinkers. I’m so old I remember similar talk about “putting people first” (they didn’t). Another presidential election looms, and Lucy and her football are back.

If the problems I have raised do not support the case for a permanent state of umbrage, I’m afraid we are fated to disagree. Dems may get my vote, but they will not get my apologetics.




The case for being unreasonable — 21 Comments

  1. What’s harder to support is offering bad proposals — like ‘chained CPI’

    Not exactly a proposal by the Obama Administration in the sense of preferred policy, but a proposed concession offered in exchange for other worthwhile things.

  2. Actually I think they prefer it. They really think you have to close an SS ‘deficit.’ As for the worthwhile things, I’m afraid to ask.

  3. “I am not now, nor ever have been a USA citizen”
    I think what the US needs, is a viable third party, very left wing, how this can happen, I haven’t a clue.

  4. The case that the Democrats prefer chained CPI seems very weak. I’m sure there are some that do, but leadership didn’t do anything likely to get it. When Obama put it on the table in the negotiations, it was always tied to what were obviously poison pills for the GOP. Call me crazy, but if Obama really wanted it, why wouldn’t be put it in a proposal Republicans might agree to?

  5. One question that is arguable is whether we are on a continuous, rightward path where the D’s are always better than the R’s, but always worse than D’s of years past.

    The case for preferring Carter to Clinton is vaguely plausible; the case for preferring Carter to Obama seems utterly insane to me.

  6. The case for preferring Carter to Clinton is vaguely plausible

    Is this just because Volker is preferable to Greenspan? Or because of Carter’s almost passed health-care policy? Maybe the sweater? The bunny rabbit?

  7. Hello, found this through Scott’s link (though I use a different nym over there, having started commenting there well before adopting my current one).

    “The police are basically out of control, whether in day-to-day dealings with minorities or in attacking the practice of non-violent civil disobedience.”

    Is this any different from what it once was? I guess that again depends on the period that you look at, but racist out-of-control policing (content note: some photos of police brutality there) has been around for decades. And in terms of police treatment of non-violent civil disobedience…well, back in the ’60s you have the police response to black civil rights demonstrations and anti-Vietnam-War demonstrations, of course. Get into the late ’80s and early ’90s and you have police violence against ACT UP in NYC. In the late ’90s and early ’00s you get police violence against the anti-globalization movement – Battle of Seattle, Miami FTAA, etc – and occasionally against the antiwar movement as well (as with the 2003 Oakland port action). Proceed through the Bush era and get the brutality at the 2004 and 2008 Republican National Convention protests.

    Sometimes police are worse to protests than other times (and some cities are consistently worse than others), and there was a period where outside of a few cities I get the sense that it was less bad, but when it became worse again (I hear people cite the Battle of Seattle as a turning point a lot, though I’m not sure if that’s familiarity bias) that was arguably a return to form, with some modern updates, rather than a new development.

  8. Hi Lirael. It’s hard to say whether cops are worse or better. I think they’re worse, but the main thing is they deserve criticism, and in my view nagging about voting for the lesser evil tends to dilute criticism.

  9. Right exactly.

    The ideal form of left engagement with the Democrats is to always be credibly threatening to abstain, and never to actually abstain. Obviously, that is not possible. So we’re left with the need to trade off the goal of less-bad policies now, with the goal of more leverage over Democratic policymakers.

    Balancing these two goals is going to require a compromise of some sort. Presumably the optimal point is not going to be at either extreme, but an intermediate point where we support Democrats more than would get us the most leverage, but less than would get us the best immediate outcomes. For reasons which I have long since given up trying to understand, people like Scott L. are unable to see the possibility of a tradeoff between competing goals here, and keep insisting that if one extreme position is wrong then the other extreme must be right.

    This kind of inside-outside strategy is what my old comrades at the Working Families Party have been trying to follow in New York elsewhere. I don’t agree with every specific choice they’ve made but they have the right idea, and they’ve proven it’s viable.

  10. The other good point you make is that it is possible to support the election of Democrats, and to relentlessly criticize their actions in government. Of course doing both at once can be tricky. Maybe that is Scott L.’s real argument: It’s easier to just support the Dems.

  11. So how do you respond to the “Obama kisses ISIS’s ass because he’s a Muslim” crowd?
    It’s a very very big crowd.

    BTW, wayback in the Maxspeak glory days I asked for you to take on some topic related to economics that I don’t remember what it was, and got a response of “Other fish to fry,” but I’m going to try this sort of thing again; to wit, a recentish meme is that America has very close to the most progressive taxes in the developed world. The arguments confuse me, and anything that might go toward rectifying this situation would be appreciated.

  12. And I’ll add the source of the meme is not the aforementioned crazies, but supposedly sane people. I have links, on the off chance that anybody’s interested.

  13. I realize this all sounds very concern trollish. I don’t know what to do about that.

  14. “There is also the non-trivial matter of evaluating actual progress and regress.”

    Seem to me in the desire to bash the Democrats and bolster their arguments, people lose sight of this.

    Your list of progress comes off as dismissive and you fail to note some things.

    This is not to defend Democrats. Why hasn’t the “unsatisfied left” been more successful these past 40 years? Maybe part of it that no one wants to join a bunch of downers (granted Max is less of a downer than others).

    Also as things move rightward, the prospect of a Republican President and Congress becomes more scary and the Democrats appear much, much lesser of an evil.

    On the other hand I’d argue the “unsatisfied left” have a new example to point to: Greece. If the Democrats don’t improve things, they’ll go the way of PASOK and a Syriza will replace them.

  15. “Not exactly a proposal by the Obama Administration in the sense of preferred policy, but a proposed concession offered in exchange for other worthwhile things.”

    The chained CPI wasn’t even that, it was part of a negotiating strategy that they never followed through on. Still it’s bad enough that they offered it up.

    Now the Democrats are offering to expand SS. Do they get credit? No.

  16. There is a leadership function that the Democrats abandoned over the past 30 years. From Dukakis running as a technocrat, through Clinton’s “era of big government is over”, through Kerry’s saying he’s not the income-redistributing kind of Democrat, there’s been a serious failure to articulate the alternative to neo-liberalism. It’s all been about social rather than economic responses to the fact that people have lost financial security for housing, education, health care, a decent retirement.

    The chained CPI issue is a good example. According to Lemieux, the chained CPI was both a proposed concession for good stuff and a fake proposal that he knew the Republicans wouldn’t accept. So AT BEST, all he’s done is verbally validate the cutting of Social Security.

    Over and over Democrats validate right wing arguments. And then they deny that they’ve moved right.

  17. All well-taken, JM. The thing is, threatening to abstain is not a binary thing where you need a credible threat. I’ve already relinquished any threat by saying in the end you have to vote Democrat. But you can impose damage by being a constant pain in the ass, even while admitting your vote is not in question.

  18. Depends on how you define progressive. Relative to most other OECD countries, the U.S. makes more use of taxes on income. But our total public sector is smaller. The decisive thing is not the distribution of taxes, where the U.S. looks relatively good, but the distribution of after-tax income, taking public benefits into account. The Luxembourg Income Study is the go-to place for national comparisons pertaining to inequality.

  19. If it could be proved, I would bet in their heart of hearts, Obama & co. would like to do the chained CPI for its own sake (e.g., “fixing” Social Security). Just follow what his own economists have said along those lines (with the partial exception of Jared Bernstein). I don’t buy any of this three-dimensional chess stuff.

  20. Is this just because Volker is preferable to Greenspan? Or because of Carter’s almost passed health-care policy? Maybe the sweater? The bunny rabbit?

    Carter v. Clinton. One an engineer, i.e., a guy who’s acquainted with physical reality. The other a lawyer. Gosh, what a tough choice….

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