Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hard Boards

Matt Yglesias likes to deploy Max Weber's famous quotation, "politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards," and in a terrific post today Matt recommends "On Politics" generally.  It's good, and I think it's a good thing for activists to remind themselves of, as they are forced to make difficult choices. 

In response, I'll trot out one of my favorite quotations about politics -- in this case, coalition politics.  It's from Bonnie Honig, and she is working from an essay by Bernice Johnson Reagon:
Coalition politics is not easy.  When you feel like you might "keel over at any minute and die," when "you feel threatened to the core," then "you're really doing coaltion work."
And the thing really do democratic politics, in a nation of 300 millions (and, really, even in a town of thousands), you sort of have to do coalition politics. If you're a supporter of health care reform, you don't get to just work with Ron Wyden, and Sherrod Brown, and Chris Dodd, and Barbara Mikulski.  You have to work with the Senator who just won't go along unless his constituents in the drug industry are taken care of.  You have to work with the Senator who really, truly, is pro-life.  And the Senator who has no policy convictions, or even substantive needs for his state, but s deathly afraid of casting a vote that will be perceived as liberal.  And then you start to realize that even your allies, the people that you think are all on your side, are different, too.  To be active -- to really engage -- in democratic politics means constantly being confronted with just how different everyone is, and how much that feels right and important and necessary to you is going to be threatened.  And to be active in politics means that you, yourself, have to collaborate in threatening those things that feel right and important and necessary to you, at least if you are going to get anything done.  It's painful.  It's painful when you some ways, more painful than when you lose.  Losing is like not participating; you get to sit back and pretend that you have no control, that Bad Guys are responsible for things that go wrong. 

Honig says, "To take difference -- and not just identity -- seriously in democratic theory is to affirm the inescapability of conflict."  Exactly -- because it's not just conflict between the White Hats and the Black Hats, but because coalition politics is conflict.  It's hard, and it's painful (although it's also potentially wonderful, and fulfilling, as Hannah Arendt tells us).  In the present work hard, you campaign, you give money, maybe you go door-to-door or work phone banks, and you hold up paint the signs and engage in passionate arguments with friends or relatives who Just Don't Get It...and then your candidate wins, but you find that politics doesn't stop there.  There are still deals to be made, and compromises to be had.  Because you didn't elect Barack Obama; you and millions of other people did, and some of them really, honestly, had different goals in mind than you did.  And you (collectively) didn't just elect Barack Obama; you also elected Bart Stupak, and Ben Nelson, and Jim Webb, and Blanche Lincoln, and you lost some too, so all of us collectively also elected Judd Gregg and Mitch McConnell and Michele Bachmann.  And Joe Lieberman.  Those elections were just as real as the ones that produced Obama (and Schumer, and Harkin). And you have to deal with the results of all of those elections.

No, coalition politics is not easy.  But it's the only way democratic way to get things done, and that, I think, has a lot of rewards.  Sometimes, you even get to win. A little bit. 

(Bonnie Honig, "Difference Dilemmas, and the Politics of Home," in Seyla Benhabib's edited volume, Democracy and Difference).


  1. Wow. Yes. Thanks for the reminder. This is a truly fine blog. I can't remember who recommended you -- maybe Ezra Klein? -- but I'm glad I subscribed.

  2. I also came here on Ezra Klein's recommendation, and I am hooked. Thanks!

  3. I was glad to read your conclusion and see how you slipped "democratic" in there. Because there's another form of politics that also gets things done - leadership politics.

    If our elected officials would stop being so officious and become elected leaders, things would get done more quickly and efficiently. Contrast Obama's administration to G.W. Bush's. Dubya got things done with ease - mostly bad things and mostly done via circumventing or fudging laws and mostly done with a swaggering, brutish idiocy and, of course, in secret - BUT HE GOT THEM DONE, DAMMIT.

    Obama's whole-of-government-and-private-sector-too happy friends party has the right heart and the right vision, but it's dragged on for a couple of years now and the alienate-nobody-at-all-costs style of governance has left those who care disgruntled and disheartened.

    I'd rather have an enlightened, benevolent dictator than a bunch of factious idiots at the helm as America fends off national decline.

  4. But you're right - it's hard to make lemonade out of the lemons on Capitol Hill these days.

  5. any feed back on this would be appreciated- my first blog on the far right


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?