Monday, July 25, 2011

Against Magic

Matt Yglesias wrote an absolutely wonderful post over the weekend about party politics, and how to go about improving things in the world. It's called "How To Move American Politics To The Left," but if that's not your interest it works just as well for the center, or for the right, or for libertarianism of whatever stripe, or for whatever your own idiosyncratic ideology or set of issue positions might be. The gist is this: if you don't like policy outcomes, the best way to do something about it is to elect people who agree with you. Or at least people who are closer to agreeing with you than the people in office now. And the process of doing so basically comes down to (if you want to move things to the left) two things: in marginal districts, support the Democrat against the Republican, and in primaries, support the more liberal Democrat.

Sound trite? I suppose it might, but it really isn't. Yglesias is writing against something that seems to have much more appeal, but is unfortunately entirely phony: the magic of a third party. I could add more: the magic of the perfect presidential candidate, or the magic of finding the perfect argument that will convince (or silence) your political opponents, or, and this one is of course more for self-described moderates, the magic of the grand bargain that solves issues for good.

The point he makes, which is absolutely correct, is that winning in this way is hard. It's incremental. It's not, usually, particularly heroic. It requires supporting the lesser of two evils most of the time. It requires, sometimes, skipping the fight that would feel good because there's another fight that rational analysis says would do more good. And it requires motivating oneself and others without the promise that if only we work a few more hours, if only we give a little more, if only we win this time then finally all will be right with the world.

Well, let me back up a bit...I said it was not heroic. It's not heroic in the sense that, if one accepts that political gains are incremental and usually temporary, it's harder to feel that what one is doing is on the grand scale, which is, for the most part, how many like to envision themselves, certainly in politics, if not generally. However, there is something heroic about it, precisely because believing in magic is a form of contempt for the democratic process. And why do we support democracy? In my view, it's not because of the illusion that if only democracy worked properly that our side would win.  It's because it's worth believing in democracy for it's own sake -- because there's something great about the idea that humans should have collective control over their own world. Believing in that means accepting that some people really differ with what you want, for good and bad reasons; and since they are human too, it means accepting that they get a say, also. And to me there's something a bit heroic about that, albeit not, perhaps, the kind of heroic that gets people to walk precincts in unfortunate weather conditions.

So hard, yes, and dull, yes. But heroic nonetheless.


  1. Funny, if you look at your previous post you see that democrats are moving to the right, obstensibly, to stay in power. Although, such power is diminished since they gave Up so much to get there. How do you reconcile the two posts?

  2. I would agree with you if democrats actually moved things to the left but Obama has been "triangulating" from the beginning, even when he had a democratic congress.

  3. Purist Liberals love the "beautiful loser" over the effective politician every time. They will wax romantically over a Dennis Kucinich who will never get within 10 miles of having to make a substantive policy decision over a President who has to deal with guys like.. Dennis Kucinich, who demagogues the debate from the left.

    Two quick examples: The professional left points at Obama not closing Gitmo as promised and calls him a sellout, ignoring that the Senate voted 90-6 (when there were 58 members of the Dem caucus) against moving Gitmo prisoners into US Federal prisons. I repeat, 90-6.

    Second, the Public Option was not happening during that six month period the Dems had 60 actual votes in the Senate. Ben Nelson was never going to vote for it. Nor was Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, or a handful of others. I don't think the Public Option ever even had 50 declared votes in the Senate.

    And don't forget that Joe Lieberman put the kibosh on the 55+ Medicare buy-in proposal at the 11th hour for no better reason than he felt progressives sounded too excited about it.

  4. But, Jon, let's not discount 3rd parties actually having real policy consequences.
    Not by getting elected to anything: heavens no.
    But, they can send a signal to the parties that there are voters up for grabs. My favorite recent example of this is Perot. Perot offered 3 reasons to vote for him: opposing NAFTA, defecit reduction, and Perot was the only candidate in the race who was batshit crazy.
    After Perot's candidacy, the Dems moved (not Clinton, but Congressional Dems) to get anti-NAFTA votes (only union Dems opposed it at the time, by 2000, almost all Dems used the whole fair labor/environmental standards language). And both parties moved to balance the budget by the mid/late 1990s.

    Of course, pushing a 3rd party is a VERY weak strategy in general. It really only works at the presidential level, or with a true movement behind it (Progressives, for example). And if your issue could fit into either party's existing issue constellation (ie, deficit reduction, but we could also think of immigration reform here, and some others), then you don't know which party will more successfully move to incorporate your agenda. Your push for a 3rd party might end up yielding a surge of votes for the major party you like least (although you'd now like them more than you did before). So, pushing a 3rd party route only really makes sense for voters who have an issue that neither party deals with, that think that issue is paramount, and that are relatively indifferent between the two parties on all other issues.
    What's funny is that these are the people least suited to doing the "heroic" work as you put it. So, push your preferred party, if you have one. Push a 3rd party if you're the odd duck that has a strong issue preference but no partisan leanings. These ducks are pretty rare, though.

  5. Great post JB, if there is one thing I can’t stand its people like Friedman arguing the key to solving our political problems is to take the politics out of politics, to create a new anti-politics.

  6. Some third parties have been effective (when the American party system was very different) but they don't eliminate the challenges of coalition politics. In PR systems there are less ideologically compromised parties, but they still need to bargain for votes with the centrist sellout parties.

  7. Jonathan, I think you ignore the fact that libertarians have very few of their own to vote for. As a result, libertarians are often forced to vote for a third party or other longshot candidate. One of those candidates, Ron Paul, has actually created a significant (if small) political space for libertarians within the GOP. In this case, it’s the “magic” philosophically pure candidate who gave libertarians their opening into the liberal-conservative duopoly.

  8. This is all well and good but I think that you miss the urgency that many liberals feel about American politics. Many liberals believe that if the political landscape doesn't shift leftward soon than lots of real serious damage could be done on many different levels. Climate change legislation is a good example of this. More than a few people believe that if sufficient progress isn't made now than it would be to late relatively soon to really do much of anything. In foreign policy, many liberals believe that unless something changes that we face even more unnecessary wars of choice.

    Rightists probably felt the same after WWII, that if something isn't done soon than America will go Communist. The difference is that their policies inflict suffering on millions.

  9. Watching Obama and Boehner's ridiculous dog-and-pony show tonight, I thought of this thread and how, while Yglesias and Jonathan might be right about the tactical side of politics, what they're advocating may be a symptom of a disease that could kill modern democracy.

    The disease is this: I push for things I want, because I think they are the same things as my interests, but often I don't know what the hell I am talking about, so my wishes and interests routinely diverge. As an aside, this is one of the reasons I enjoy mixing it up on this blog. Eliciting pushback for conservative arguments from intelligent liberals is actually a not bad way to separate the wheat from the chaff; the ideas I'd defend and those that don't withstand scrutiny.

    Can the Tea Partiers, pushing Boehner to his $1 T/no revenue plan instead of Obama's $4 T/some revenue plan, generally tell the difference between the wheat and the chaff of their ridiculous misperceptions? Come on, no one in this room believes that.

    In fact, if you're looking for a movement that embodies Jonathan/Yglesias' recommendation, you needn't look further than the hardcore pro-lifers. How many of those folks have: 1) grappled with the implications of the abortion chapter in Freakonomics? 2) recognized that the overwhelming majority of pro-choicers are, by the words' definitions, 'pro-life'? 3) considered the implications of God/nature terminating the majority of embryos before they make it to fetal stage? 4) thought about religious leaders' tolerance for abortion, including none other than the Scientist of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas? And on and on. I'd bet that most such issue activists, generally, think very little about the larger implications of their positions, both for logic and on society, while nevertheless exerting a significant influence on the body politic.

    In more cynical moments it occurs to me that the only reason democracy > dictatorship is because dictatorships inevitably end up run by petty, money-grubbing Hugo Chavez-types. That if a closed society could solve the problem of pettiness at the top, they could make a pretty strong run at outperforming democracies, who end up crippled by pettiness at the bottom, in the form of issue activists who push ardently for things they may not fully comprehend.

    (This is why China is so frightening, frankly.)

  10. @CSH: two relevant references come to mind-
    1) Winston Churchill, either of his great democracy quotes.
    2) Plato's philosopher king argument.

    I've always maintained that the best form of government is Jarvis as philosopher king...few agree with me.

  11. ok what about - hard work or magic?

  12. Matt - Plato pretty much glossed over the fact that we, the common sailors below, regard ourselves as insightful as the philosopher kings thinking great thoughts up on the ship's deck.

    In this heady era of crowdsourcing and social-media fueled revolution, its not uncommon to infer that we, the mass of men who used to live lives of quiet desperation, can now join our disparate voices and collectively lead society toward utopia. James Surowiecki recently wrote a bestseller (The Wisdom of Crowds) that is sometimes taken as evidence for the collective intelligence of the hoi polloi.

    If you've read Surowiecki's interesting book, you know that his idea of 'crowds' is not at all like what most folks might think, such as the hordes of hoodlums you might find at a professional sports event. Surowiecki's 'crowds' all have some expertise on the matter being considered...which expertise, returning to Plato, is probably not a problem in the private self-regard of the ignorant sailors.

    From the standpoint of a functioning democratic society, misperceived expertise is potentially pretty disastrous.

  13. The most facile form of magic to believe in is that working harder will magically solve all your problems. Working harder can help. Sometimes it only inspires the other side to work harder too. You also need to find better arguments. Better presidential leadership would help. Sometimes the threat of exit helps too. None of these are a magic solution, but all of these are part of any real solution.

    In general, a good guide to how much "magic" is involved in a solution is to count the number of people who have to behave ideally for it to work. Expecting everyone to just vote harder is therefore the most magical solution. Without different ideas or different leadership, voters will not behave any differently.


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