Thursday, December 2, 2010

Be a Citizen, Not a Subject

Regular readers will not be surprised that I heartily endorse Kevin Drum's "Barack Obama: President, Not King."

I'd only mention that whereas Drum puts the blame for liberal disappointment on the Democratic Party, not Obama, I'd push a bit harder on that.  Suppose you're a liberal and live in, oh, Henry Waxman's district.  Your Member of the House, both your Senators, and your president all did what you wanted; they couldn't do more not because of the Democratic Party per se, but because of Ben Nelson, and Evan Bayh, and Joe Lieberman, and a handful of others in the House and Senate.

Moreover, those Democrats didn't do what you wanted, in many cases, because they honestly disagreed with what you want.  And, in many cases (not Connecticut, of course), that's because politicians with your views would be hard to elect in those places.

In other words, it's not the president's fault, or the party's fault, or the structure of the government's fault: it's the reality of living in a democracy with 300 million other people.

That's a first pass at these issues.  One direction to take it from there is to think about the various good and bad moves that Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the other party leaders have made in the last two years: see for example Ezra Klein's assessment of Obama as poker player, or Drum's similar critique of the president.  There's nothing at all wrong with that at all (it's one of the things that I do, too; I think Harry Reid has done several things well, but should have been more creative in response to GOP tactics).

But for this post, I want to go in another direction, which is to directly address those, like Drum's correspondent, who think of themselves as "over" Barack Obama, or "nearly there."  (I'm writing this as if to liberals, since it's responding to Drum's reader, but it fits for conservatives or anyone else, too; just edit as needed).

What I'd say to them is: Barack Obama is not a king, and you are not a subject.  You are a citizen.  Act like it.  American political parties are extremely permeable: get active.  If things don't go your way, get more active.  If you've been active, stay in the game.  Expect disappointments -- you are one of 300 million, and many of them disagree with you. 

Democracy, real democracy, is hard.  I've said this before...democracy involves, as Bonnie Honig says, the "inescapability of conflict."  Full citizenship, then, means accepting that you're never going to really get your way.  You're never going to have the perfect politicians to support.  You're never going to have party leaders who "really" represent you in the sense of always doing what you want.  Full citizenship means continuing on, nevertheless, because you may be able to get somewhat less partial success if you keep working.

And don't kid yourself -- the other side doesn't get what they want, either.  Liberals are frustrated now, and conservatives excited by the results of the recent elections -- but ask any conservative if they're happy about public policy over the last any number of years, and you'll find that George W. Bush wasn't really a conservative, and Trent Lott wasn't really a conservative, and Tom DeLay betrayed conservatives, and Newt Gingrich, and if they're old enough, Ronald Reagan. 

It's a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy to believe that one can ever fully win, just as it's an illusion that the other side has ever fully achieved what it wants.

Yes, that's even more the case in a Madisonian system, but it's really fundamental to any kind of democracy.  It's not a function of particular institutions.  It's a consequence of, well, the human condition, of our fundamental plurality and differences, if I want to go and get all Arendtian on everyone. 

So what do citizens do?  They don't mope about whether the president they worked so hard to elect is who they hoped he'd be; they keep working.  They make choices: they decide whether to put their efforts into House races, Senate contests, the next presidential election, pressure on marginal Members of Congress to vote the "right" way right now.  Even knowing the next round will yield its share of disappointments and frustrations. 

Citizens, that is, learn what they need to know, and then make choices and act.  And win or lose, and then keep acting. 

Look, I perfectly well understand the incentives involved, and the bitter frustrations, too.  From one type of social science perspective, it's not exactly a surprise that liberals disengaged after the 2008 election and are now upset that many of the things they wanted didn't happen, just as it's no surprise that conservatives who sort of overlooked a lot of things George W. Bush and other Republicans were doing in the last decade are hypersensitive to what Democrats do now. 

But from another perspective, you don't have to do that.  You can engage.  You can get your friends who chose not to vote in 2010 to return to the polling place in 2012.  You can start volunteering for a candidate; you can give volunteer time or (if you have it) money to a primary challenger you think makes sense (which means, if you're a liberal, eagerly taking on a Joe Lieberman in liberal Connecticut, but thinking hard about whether to challenge a Ben Nelson in Republican Nebraska -- and I can't say what the correct choice is: politics is hard).  You can, if you're a liberal, try to win back the House seats the Democrats just lost, even knowing that you won't be ushering in anything better than the 111th Congress if you manage to do it, because you know that the 111th, for all the frustration, was still a hell of a lot better for you than the 112th will be. 

Presidents aren't kings, and if you treat them as if they are, you're behaving as a subject.  Don't do it.  Learn how your government works, and act as a citizen.


  1. The problem I have with our government is not that people disagree with me. It's that the people who disagree with me count more than I do because they live in rural states.

    At this point, I would support a much smaller federal government, if only to allow for the economically productive states to raise more revenue to do the things I care about (like increase funding for public transportation and encourage dense, urban, carfree neighborhoods).

    I've decided that the real "special interests" in Washington are the Senators and Congressmen from rural states and rural districts, who are more easily bought out by corporations and are less accountable to the people. If I could think of a realistic way to create a democracy in this country that used the one-person, one-vote standard, I'd be much more hopeful.

    Have you read the recent account of Iceland's troubles in the New Left Review? One of the causes of their economic crisis was a political alliance between a business elite and rural politicians who were over-represented in the government. Now that their country has collapsed, they're making plans to write a new constitution that will be more democrat. I'm afraid that the U.S., will have to collapse before we consider calling another constitutional convention to fix the Senate.

  2. Jonathan:

    To quote Bono, "Fucking brilliant."

  3. I agree with this post to a certain extent. I think that a lot of people disappointed with the Democratic Party in general and Obama in particular from a liberal perspective aren't exactly aware of how the American political system is designed to function. However Jonathan, I think you really downplay how the Republicans are misusing the system and the frustration of liberals as having to share a party with non-liberals that can't stand Republicans.

  4. Well, but.

    Yeah, democracy is hard. But it's made even harder when the nation isn't a full-fledged democracy in the first place. The United States was founded on a pact with the devil. The 1787 ConCon was a huge exercise in getting "buy-in" from the Southern planter class. "If one man can truly be deemed the Father of the Constitution, at least at the convention, it is ["Dictator John"] Rutledge [of South Carolina]. Of course, an unrepentant slaveowner as the Father of the Constitution is far less appealing than a young and radiant philosopher and future president, but Rutledge simply had far more influence on the final product than did Madison ... [Rutledge] put South Carolina on the winning side in both contests" that dominated the framing debates. (Lawrence Goldstone, Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Struggle for the Constitution.) The devil's pact here was giving in to the demands of people who believed it was God's work to steal other people from Africa and force them to spend their lives doing appalling stoop labor in rice paddies. (That was what Southern slavery was before the cotton gin.) Even in the 18th century there were plenty of people who knew this was wrong.

    So, OK, "seemed like a good idea at the time" and all that. But it was a horribly unstable arrangement that blew up completely in 1861. After massive destruction and 625,000 war dead, "the Slave Power" was, at long last, defeated and dispossessed. And what did the rest of the country do then? Renew the devil's bargain for another term by withdrawing federal supervision and letting terrorist organizations run the South for nearly a century on the basis of legalized apartheid. This led to new crises that were finally dealt with in the 1950s and '60s (Brown v. Board, the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, etc.). Result? The birth of the modern, reactionary Republican Party. That party, today, listens attentively to activists who still aren't reconciled to the 14th Amendment, the clearest expression in the Constitution of the Declaration's "all men are created equal / endowed with inalienable rights" philosophy. The 14th also codified the outcome of the Civil War -- which is to say that these awful people are still refighting that as well, with some of their officials even talking up secession and nullification again, astonishing as that is at this late date.

    In short, the United States, alone among modern developed nations, remains in hock to the illiberal politics of a regionally based minority that simply does not accept democracy's basic premises -- like, everybody's politically equal, everybody has rights, and if you lose elections you don't get to rule or to de-legitimize the party that beat you. It's a nation still effectively run by descendents of the people who thought that some are born entitled to a good life, and others are born to have their lives and labor stolen from them in service to the privileged. Yeah, OK, things are better than they were in the days of slaves in rice paddies. But it's not really democracy -- it's, at best, an ongoing argument about whether or not even to have a democracy. (I think that was Martin Luther King's essential message.)

    Other Western nations have had terrible struggles, and not all their policies are models of enlightenment. But at the moment, they actually are democracies in which the exhortations in this post would be more to the point. Calling for democratic participation in the US is much more problematic; here, it's more like a call to continue the Civil War by other means, and it's understandable that not a lot of people feel very inspired to do that.

  5. Very interesting comment by Jeff that makes me want to read and learn more about the ConCon and Rutledge.

    But in general, "amen" to the post and its sentiment. Get the f*ck involved.

  6. Jonathan, I completely get what you are saying. I'm a screaming San Francisco liberal, well ok in San Francisco I'm actually a moderate, but you get the point, I'm way left of center. I'm also a realist. I knew Obama was a moderate, I also understood that in '08-10 the Blue Dogs essentially played the traditional conservative role. I am fine with that. Did I get everything I wanted? No. Am I happy with what happened? Yeah. I think given what Obama and the liberal Dems were dealt, they did really well. BUT...

    ...and here's the but...

    I'm sick of Obama conceding the rightward position to the GOP before the negotiation begins. I'm also sick of the fatalism of the Dems. They give up before the fight even starts. When Scott Brown won health care was over!! OH NOES! No, it wasn't. But that didn't stop the feinting couch from overflowing. The tax cut issue is a replay. Did they not learn anything from Scott Brown's win?

    However, the Bush Tax mess is even worse than health care. This time the Dems have public opinion squarely in their corner, the political winner re: deficits, it's a political cudgel to hammer the GOP with...the GOP is more concerned with the rich than you and me and joe-sixpack and doesn't care about the deficit. How they screwed this up makes me want to vote for Ralph least then I know I'm voting for a loser.

  7. This is just wrong:
    I think you really downplay how the Republicans are misusing the system and the frustration of liberals as having to share a party with non-liberals that can't stand Republicans.

    The Democratic Party is not a party of liberals. It's a party that represents the interests of the working class and the middle class, a coalition of minority voices, people who believe in social justice, civil liberties, and good government. First of all, most of the groups listed above, good Democrats all, are definitely not liberals. Labor and the working class are not liberal. African Americans as a group are actually quite conservative in their economic and social views. The vast American middle class are largely moderates. Latinos and Hispanics are largely not "liberal." The kind of "liberal" that we see in the liberal blogosphere is a minority of the Democratic Party, even in California.

    And also, the strident "liberals" are not the "base" of the Democratic Party -- they are largely disaffected Greens and Naderites and would desert the Dems in a heartbeat if the Greens became a viable party. But who would make the Greens a viable party? The liberals -- and that would take work and organization and patience and coalition-building, something that "liberals" have been unable to accomplish, even in California. The strident liberal in the Democratic Party is the equivalent of the Tea Partier for the GOP.

    As a lifelong labor-style Democrat, please spare me these puerile tantrums over being "over" Obama. It's embarrassing. He's not your Britney Spears, he's the President of the United States of America.

  8. Yeah, the ability of the right wing via Fox News and the rest of the noise machine to systematically cause a majority of Americans to believe multiple blatantly false lies is a huge factor in the frustration. I would be a heck of a lot less frustrated if I didn't get my way after an honest argument as opposed to what passes for political discourse in America these days.

    James: I think the big factor keeping the all those liberals in the Democratic Party these days is that the Tea-Party-dominated Republican party can no longer be trusted not to screw the pooch. It's become apparent that W's "make your own reality" approach is the Republican philosophy, and you can't risk leaving them in charge by voting for a third party these days. I think American politics is going to become more polarized over the next few years as liberals realize their only hope of getting anything under the current system is to become activists within the Democratic Party.

  9. Remember Mike Tyson? Once, he was the greatest fighter in history, but we're long since over him. Biting off Evander Holyfield's ear pretty much cemented that for the once-mighty Tyson.

    In the days after that strange event, a big part of the narrative was Tyson's explanation that Holyfield had been head-butting him. TSN (Canada's ESPN) even put together a montage of a large number of Holyfield headbutts that were executed while the ref was on the other side of Tyson. Despicable stuff...from Holyfield, they said.

    15 years later, no one cares about those headbutts. Indeed, it would be impossible to mount a PR campaign to convince people to care. This is because biting a dude's ear off is so bizarre that any contextual factors (which always fade, anyway) do not mitigate at all.

    Tyson's fall illustrates the fact that we tend to perceive things in categories (e.g. those who bite off ears are definitionally freaks), and we care less about details (e.g. an inferior fighter, Holyfield, was cheating to defeat a better fighter, Tyson). Seems to me that politics often work much the same way.

    As a result, I have a lot of sympathy for the commenters here that lament Obama's apparent failing at managing his spin. Sure, you can pound the pavement until your feet fall off, shout in the public square until you're blue in the face, but if folks' perceptions don't square with your message, all your work won't change a thing.

    And, unfortunately, the Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, have been repeatedly headbutted by the Holyfields on the Republican right for years now. Holyfield was the champion, er 'champion', even if Tyson hadn't bitten off his ear.

    In a similar way, the Republicans appear to be 'winning' the war of ideas.

  10. I have no problem with liberals in the Democratic Party. I share a lot of their goals. I think their smug and rigid ideology gets in the way of moving towards those goals. Riding the outrage pony and throwing high-handed tantrums when they don't immediately get their way isn't exactly an effective strategy; on the contrary, it's often counterproductive to what they want to do. Bludgeoning and bashing people over the head who might want to engage constructively on *some* issues, when you are only a small fraction of the whole, doesn't seem like the best way to go.

  11. Your Member of the House, both your Senators, and your president all did what you wanted; they couldn't do more not because of the Democratic Party per se, but because of Ben Nelson, and Evan Bayh, and Joe Lieberman, and a handful of others in the House and Senate.

    Lets not forget that Obama won Indiana in '08. So Indiana isn't as much to the right as people think. Lets also remember that Bayh is a corrupt as-hole. And bitter and spiteful to HolyJoe. We know that neither of them(and you can include Ben Nelson) give a darn about what's good for the people of this country. Why you pretend otherwise is sad.

  12. I'm afraid I can't join the chorus of praise for your post, because I don't share your basic premise: that as a liberal I'm upset because things aren't going "my way." What this argument leaves out is certain realities - objective facts that are independent of my or anyone's proclivities. For example: Tax cuts for the rich presented as stimulative, when in fact most independent economists see them as weak tea indeed; loud concerns expressed about the deficit belied by pressing for tax cuts that will add significantly to it; concerns expressed about the harm being done to "the best health care system in the world" when by any measure, cost, outcomes, or both, we are near the bottom among developed countries; denial of global warming - as opposed to reasonable disagreement about how to deal with it - when the evidence for it is overwhelming; and on and on and on. I should add that years ago I would be making the same point about liberal positions, especially those related to the causes and cures of what was once a high crime rate. In other words, what you are seeing is not merely "I'm angry because not all Americans agree with me"; it's much more, "I'm angry because a continuous denial of reality by conservative Republicans, and a refusal or inability of Obama to confront them on that basis, is leading to long term and perhaps irreversible damage to my country." And that leads me to this point: Your assumption that as citizens we should become more engaged is naive in the extreme. To this observer, it seems clear that big money is distorting our entire political process. And the recent Supreme Court decision on this issue will only make things even worse. Engagement, liberal or conservative, these days requires big bucks. And lately the big bucks are all going the other way. Finally, while the Republican Party is now almost completely conservative, Democrats aren't; which means that a liberal's ability to push back against the conservative tide is far more limited. I for one would rather we had two real political parties, instead of one and a half.

  13. Folks,

    This is just a placeholder for now, just to let you know I do intend to respond to several of these comments, but I won't get to it for a while (crazy week!). Not that this should prevent y'all from responding to each other, but I did want to let you know I'm still around.

  14. A small follow-up to my earlier note. Andrew Sullivan just posted this: "I have rarely been more depressed by the political leadership in this country. At a time when everyone knows we need to be dealing with the debt, we are adding massively to it, because the Democrats and the president seem incapable of making the case for anything, and because the GOP is as ideological as it is politically autistic." He's hardly a liberal. Jonathan's advice: "Expect disappointments." Please - get serious.

  15. Since this discussion is continuing and Jonathan promises to say more, I'll mention one other thing the post put me in mind of: Albert O. Hirschman's discussion of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The post is making a strong appeal for "voice" and assuming that if frustrated liberals don't raise theirs, it's because they're mistaking citizenship for subjecthood and expecting politicians to solve their problems for them. But in Hirschman's terms, one could argue that what they're actually doing is "exiting" -- not by literally leaving the country (in most cases), but by "checking out" and more or less giving up on the political system, at least for the time being. That may be counterproductive, but it's not obviously wrong, because "exit" is just as legitimate an option as "voice" and might make more sense when (a) life has other things to offer besides political activism, and (b) the system is rigged, i.e. so poorly designed or so corrupted by money and entrenched power that there's no point even in winning because you still lose.

    To take an extreme case, Weimar Germany was a democracy too, but as things degenerated there, it wasn't obvious that the individual's best option was to learn how the Weimar government worked and "act as a citizen." For many people, the better choice was exit, i.e. getting the hell out, and for some it was internal exit -- just hunkering down in hopes of riding out the dark age to come.

    Yeah, yeah, this isn't Weimar Germany, blah blah blah. Well, maybe not. Or maybe not yet. But I do think we're looking at something like the moral collapse of the Democratic Party, and the giving way of some of the last legal restraints against straightforward, crypto-fascist oligarchical rule (Citizens United, the refusal to prosecute torturers and effective abrogation of the Geneva Conventions, the neo-Confederate secessionist and nullification movements, a major party holding a national security treaty hostage to tax cuts for the wealthy, and many other examples going back at least to the theft of the 2000 presidential election). If even Barack Obama won't stand up against this stuff, is it really my responsibility to? Or is my job to figure out how best to live my own life, here or wherever, and leave the country at large to its own devices while it charts its course to destruction, if that's what it insists on doing?

  16. Finally getting to at least some of this...sorry for the delay.

    To those who said nice things, Thanks!

    To those who said, yes, but, I wouldn't be frustrated if only [X],

    I don't agree. I mean, it would be nice if you got to have a President Bartlett who always has the perfect line for the occasion, but that's fiction. In the real world, pols are going to make mistakes -- they'll screw up a negotiation, they'll miss the chance to make a good speech, they'll choose to cut a deal when perhaps sticking to a position would have won. Of course, it's quite right to second-guess them, including forcefully, but at the same time it's worth keeping some perspective on it...and, perhaps, at least in part, a little more humility then I see in some places -- it's very possible that the president (or the Speaker, or whoever) really does know something that makes what he or she is doing a lot more sensible than it looks.

    For those whose [X] is about the other side, well, yes, but that's politics. The other side is allowed to have its own standards for what counts as evidence. For example, on economic policy, no one has to go by what the consensus of most economists is. They're allowed to believe what they want to believe. Sure, if what they believe seems (to some of us!) to be far fetched or even blatantly false, we wish there was a referee to penalize them for it...but, in politics, there is no such person. Which is, again, why democracy is so frustrating -- but it's also why democracy is, at least in my opinion, a very good thing.

    Anyway, I will clarify one thing. Sheldon says that my advise is "Expect disappointments." Well, yes, but that's only the half of it -- the other half is to keep fighting, despite the inevitable disappointments.

    Look, I understand that fighting hard is a lot easier for most people if they can be absolutely convinced that they have Truth on their side. Nevertheless, I don't think democracy goes very well with Truth. Which is yet another reason, I think, that democracy is hard.

  17. On Jeff's (first) comment...

    I think it has three points. One is mostly a historical argument about the Convention...I think we can put that aside, because I think we both agree that it ultimately doesn't affect how one should react to today's political system.

    Second, there's a tour of the actual political history of the nation. I have no disagreement with that history, except to point out that it's a partial truth; what's discussed is indeed central to the political history of the nation, but it's not the only important history.

    Third, I see what I think is a slight of hand around democratic theory. It's quite right that America was not a democracy to the extent that a large chunk of the population was enslaved, and then to the extent that a large chunk of the population was denied full citizenship. But that's simply not the same thing as saying that Madisonian (and I know Jeff doesn't like that, but...) democracy -- that is, anti-majoritarian democracy with separated institutions sharing powers -- is not "real" democracy.

    To do that, you need an argument about democracy, not an argument about history, or an argument about who is winning. Perhaps the most important thing I believe about democracy is that democracy is neutral with who wins -- it is not, despite what many people, including many democratic theorists, think, a system of government that one can identify because it produces wins for the Good Side (however defined). No, democracy is rule by the people (not The People, but citizens in all their individuality and groups), and the people can be and quite often are totally wrong about things, including very important things.

    So if you want to say that a polity isn't a democracy because full citizenship is restricted, I'll listen to that argument, and if you want to argue that one form or type of democracy is better than another, I'll listen to that, too. But to (essentially) say a polity isn't a democracy because the Black Hats win political fights...well, I'm not going to agree with that at all, even if I fully agree about who the Black Hats are.

  18. Thanks for replying, although I noticed this only by accident and would hope you would raise these issues in a new post at some point where more people would see it and respond. (Also, BTW, you mean "sleight" of hand -- an archaic word that survives only in that idiom, for some reason. Anyway.) I would just clarify that I didn't say it's not a democracy because the Black Hats win political fights. I said it's not a democracy because -- or, to the extent that -- it's RIGGED so that the Black Hats win the fights. If they win because the people agree with them, even stupidly, that's democracy; if they win because of bad system design, or the sheer influence of money, or because large numbers of people are disenfranchised, or because no party actually voices what people want, or because the ballots in Palm Beach County are too confusing, then that's not democracy. And my further point is that it's not unreasonable for people to choose "exit" instead of "voice" in such circumstances, even if the exit in question takes the form of internally "checking out" or washing one's hands of the whole mess.

    I think the big factors here are the flaws of the Madiso-Rutlegdian constitutional design interacting in toxic ways with the influence of big money. One could debate whether the latter is really a kind of rigging of the system -- if people agree to let Fox News and a bunch of high-dollar attack ads tell them what to think, and then march off to the polls to ratify the wishes of the moneyed classes in elections, then maybe that's still popular consent of some twisted kind? Well, I don't think so, for this reason: In the long view of history, it's going to be obvious that the current system is corrupt. We agree to call it "democracy" now because we've been taught to and it's what's present to us, but someday, G*d and climate change willing, it will be looked back on the same way the patronage /gentry-dominated / "rotten borough" system of pre-Reform Act Great Britain is looked back on now. That system had democratic features, including elections, parties, parliamentary representation and debate, etc., and the Black Hats of the time didn't win all the fights. But on balance it clearly was not expressing the will of the people (or even just the men) of Great Britain. It was rigged.

    There's an argument, today, for starting the 30- or 50-year process that might, eventually, when most of us are old or dead, lead to an equivalent American Reform Act, something that would de-rig the system and make it a real democracy. I applaud the people who are willing to take on that job. But life is short and there are other things to do (and other countries to live in, for that matter -- countries that aren't perfect but are much closer to actual democracies). So I just wouldn't call on people to do it in the spirit of the original post here. And while I agree we shouldn't be "subjects," I do think that a representative system presumes that I can't do all the heavy lifting myself, and that having elected Barack Obama et. al. to get some things done for us, we're entitled to expect them to do those things and to get mad at them if they're not not fighting hard to.


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