I don’t typically read David Brooks, but DougJ induced me to. And his most recent column is an interesting one indeed. He starts by blathering about how he doesn’t like memorials these days, which can’t just be the subject of the column because that would be something Andy Rooney would do, but rather is the hook into the main argument of the piece. I can see how the basic takeaway would be “the elites are restless,” as Brooks is their Tribune. But I’m not so sure that’s the takeaway. Take this quote:

Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. […] Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

Brooks’s formulation here is that leaders are (not should be, but are, if I read him correctly) extraordinary people who are superior to us plebs, and they deserve our mainly uncritical support. This is not a shocking new concept for him, it’s basic neoconservatism. According to Bradley Thompson, the basic purpose of the public to neocons is merely to back great statesmen uncritically, in exchange for which we get the moral satisfaction of being part of The Nation. I have my issues with Thompson’s book, but Thompson’s argument is that neoconservatism is most definitely not an organic outgrowth of Western liberal thought, but instead is an alternately conscious and semi-conscious venture to subvert and roll back all that stuff, which is not only true, but obvious. Let me do some slight editing to his piece and tell me if it makes more sense (changes in bold):

The monarchy is built on a series of paradoxes: that kings have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that kings are superior to their subjects while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.

These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing the monarchy.


Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of being a subject. Being a subject is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary by birth; that God chooses our leaders but we have to defer to them and trust their great and abundant discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by the king.

I don’t know if America has a monarchy problem; it certainly has a subject problem.

Mind you, this doesn’t prove anything, but it’s incredible how easy those references fit in there, how easily you can turn this sort of argumentation into the something that made John Locke so fucking angry that he sat down and wrote two treatises in response to it. But that is essentially what neoconservatism is: reintroducing dormant and dead ideas with a few words changed so that people don’t just laugh at them. Brooks wants to restore the monarch/subject relationship as the normal one in the Western world, likely because that’s the only way his neocon pals would be able to get away with their grand theories of politics. But all this is profoundly un-American. A president is not superior to any other American, at least in theory. You can’t arrest the King, but you can arrest a president if they do something wrong. They hold no real power, it’s the public’s, and the president is merely the temporary caretaker of the office, as Reagan put it. The presidency was set up as a deliberate reaction to monarchy, in that it was (and is) a Constitutionally weak office that had to share power with other people. Brooks talks about Jefferson but has apparently never heard the widely-told story about how Jefferson delighted in being savaged by the opposition press, and saw it as a proof that he had succeeded in preventing the monarchy from taking hold. Deference is the opposite of what the man intended to be expressed toward him. I will grant that there has to be some level of trust for democracy to work–one has to assume that elected officials are doing their best (however imperfectly) to serve the country. We owe elected officials the ability to do their jobs, nothing more. And skepticism is actually good for democracy, as it leads to more scrutiny, while deference is often catastrophic–it let Bush explode the deficit during a decent economy, let Obama get away with civil liberties violations, etc. Brooks clearly envisions leaders overcoming corruption through character and sheer power of will, but that’s not often the case.

I do believe that most politicians are doing what they think is best for the country (again, however imperfectly). But what is clear at this point in our history is that their best simply hasn’t been good enough over the past decade, not by a long shot, but no matter what happens the same people remain atop the government, businesses, and media institutions that let it all happen. Within that timeframe we’ve launched a pointless, disastrous war in Iraq, watched a major American city sink beneath a flood, saw the global economy nearly go under due to hypercomplicated bond trading (which might still happen, BTW), and then had politicians terrified of doing what was necessary to shorten the recession. To a lesser extent, we had a debt ceiling standoff, too. I think it’s safe to say that elected officials got almost all of that stuff wrong, and the media reported little of it correctly at the time or since. But hardly any heads have rolled. How can that not make a person cynical? (Answer: that person supported all that stuff. As Brooks did.) Now, there might be some hidden narrative in those years of a strong, functional government and solid institutions that remain in decent shape beside being battered, but I don’t see it. And Brooks, naturally, doesn’t make a case, since he is the king of vagueness. Instead he reaches to the lazy man’s argument, unsubstantiated moral generalization:

It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

More people are cynical than they were during Vietnam, when the government carried out a multiyear policy of deliberate deception toward the public over the state of the Vietnam War? More people are cynical now than after Watergate, in which a president (oh, I’m sorry David, wise statesman) was ordering crimes and then having them covered up? Yes, I do think so. Because at least in Vietnam and Watergate they had Walter Cronkite. Us, we have Wolf Blitzer. And David Brooks.

{ 1 comment }

Interesting hypothesis:

One of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe. And the left really want to believe the duping hypothesis. It absolves them from blame and protects them from the need to look in the mirror or figure out what they stand for in the 21st century.

Here’s a more painful but ultimately constructive diagnosis, from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It’s more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programmes.

The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters’ hearts by promising to protect or expand programmes for elderly people, young people, students, poor people and the middle class. Vote for us and we’ll use government to take care of everyone! But most Americans don’t want to live in a nation based primarily on caring. That’s what families are for.

I personally don’t think Democrats will be able to achieve much more than parity among working-class whites in the conceivable future. Of course, getting parity would be a huge deal politically, and that might be possible. But the reason for not being able to get much more is pretty simple in terms of history: the glue that bound the working-classes to the Democratic Party was to some degree racialist, i.e. keeping the negroes in their place. The rise of George Wallace as a national politician coincided neatly with the first big civil rights victories, and working class voters flocked to him (more so than to Nixon) in 1968. Sure, many stayed with the Dems because of unions, but not all working-class people were in unions, and not all of those voted Democrat then or even today. Democrats aren’t going to get the 3-to-1 working class majorities that FDR got, and what’s more, it’s not clear they need to in order to win elections.

Still, I do think there is room for improvement, and this is a big part of the peril of centrism. It does have its uses. But to use it as practically a first principle, to make it as central to the policy and politics of a party, is just asking for trouble. It’s literally contentless, a relative rather than absolute term. Admittedly, liberals tend to be uncomfortable with absolutes, but some are really uncontroversial (i.e. injustice is wrong). Going to that instead of trying to find the geometric center of opinion could be helpful a lot of the time, and part of this is merely presentational. For example, instead of treating health care reform as the solution to a fairly wonky government finance problem (i.e. “bending the cost curve”), the argument should be that it’s unjust to leave people without it, and stupid too. That’s a moral argument. It’s one that is easy to grok and hard to dispute for most people. It’s an argument for USA Today readers, not for Economist readers*. Similarly, presenting financial regulation as a direct response to wrongdoing, and a way of keeping it from happening again, would have been a strong moral argument in its favor. Problem is that wrapping yourself presentationally in the concepts of justice, fairness, and liberty requires actually governing in ways that emphasizes the importance of these concepts, not just taking the pragmatic/easy solutions on offer every time. I think that, after the debt ceiling disaster, Obama got an inkling of this. That was a failure of centrism as much as anything else, so no wonder he started talking about fairness in strikingly moral terms. But an administration that continued the Bush bailouts and TARP without attaching so much as a single string, that declined to rigorously investigate Goldman Sachs and Merill Lynch and other prominent WS firms after the crash, and that declined to mention the Bush Administration’s torture record, is quite poorly positioned to start making moral arguments about fairness and justice.  They’ll come off as hollow and insincere at best. And Dodd-Frank was mostly a bust, too, one which gave the government a whole lot of new powers to respond to a crash without making said crash any less likely–in fact, Geithner stripped out most of the stuff that might have gone toward that. To say that bill was some sort of grand defeat for Wall Street is a joke, a few decent bits notwithstanding (i.e. the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). Obama delegated all that stuff to Geithner, and Geithner killed it softly in the regulation-writing process. The final bill is one that combines the worst of Wall Street whoredom with the worst of increased government power, which come to think of it is sort of true of Geithner himself.

All I’m saying is, for the next administration, if you want to actually make moral arguments for liberal ideas, instead of just hoping that the public will be so sick of Republican toxicity that they’ll go with you by default, you have to actually have the values you stand for straight on day one. Compromises will always be necessary, but the simple fact is that transitioning from super-pragmatic to strongly-moralistic is the sort of thing you can’t really pull off 3/4 of the way through a term.

*No offense to the Economist, which I prefer to the pretty crappy USA Today, but not many working-class people are subscribers is all.


… and vice versa. Just sayin’. I really don’t get why people think karate is a broad term that means any martial art.

Metavirus filed this under:  

..goes to Daniel Larison:

Many observers look at this apparent contradiction and readily assume that Romney wouldn’t actually conduct foreign policy as disastrously and recklessly as his campaign statements suggest he would. One way to make this unpersuasive argument is by appealing to campaign rhetoric: Romney can’t possibly believe the ridiculous things he says, and he’s just saying them during the campaign to mobilize his supporters, so no one needs to worry about what he’s saying. The candidate makes this a little easier to believe because of his willingness to say almost anything to win political support. At the same time, Romney is thoroughly untrustworthy for the same reason. Another way to resolve the contradiction is to say that Romney’s absurd hawkishness is shaped by his risk-averse personality. In other words, he grossly overestimates foreign threats, overreacts to them, and emphasizes the need for overwhelming military power and global hegemony because he is risk-averse, which does not mean that he is averse to conflict. Suppose that Romney’s risk-aversion doesn’t encourage prudence and restraint in the conduct of foreign policy, but instead promotes exaggerated fears of the capabilities of other governments that have to be countered and “preempted.” If that’s right, Romney might not seem reckless, but his foreign policy still would be.

Dead on, I think. And needless to say, putting another person who thinks that we can only survive by being preemptively aggressive toward other countries is not a good idea.

Lev filed this under: , ,  

News on public opinion about healthcare:

A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds 68% of Americans hope the Supreme Court will overturn some or all of the President Obama’s landmark health care law. Just 24% said they hoped the court “would keep the entire health care law in place.”

The Supreme Court is expected to decide a challenge to the law by the end of this month.

The breakdown: 41% of those surveyed said the court should strike down the entire law, and another 27% said the justices should overturn only the individual mandate, which requires most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.

I have to admit, this is a shock to me. I mean, I can’t believe it. Seemed like after the Affordable Care Act passed, Democrats just wouldn’t shut up about the damn thing. Talking up all its features, how it was going to change America for good. Couldn’t throw a rock in D.C. without hitting some Democratic functionary talking up health care reform, I hear. Oh, hey, look, it’s Spock!

Oh, wait, I’m in the Mirror Universe again! That was weird. I’ll be back in just a second.

Anyway, I seriously do not understand this party. They passed this law after a long, drawn-out ordeal. One would figure that they’d be proud of it and want to talk about it, to give meaning to the struggle. But no. After the Town Hall protesters, they basically just wished the whole thing would go away, and after it actually passed, the whole episode earned a shrug. To be fair, Obama has not forgotten, and has talked about it pretty regularly since then. Most of ’em, best as I can tell, decided to just hold tight until all the benefits were implemented, which is to say they were going to wait until 2014 to get into this debate. Oh, Blue Dogs, you truly are the gift that keeps on giving: insist on an accounting gimmick of delaying the benefits of the law for years so that you can feel good about yourselves as deficit hawks, then don’t defend the damn thing when the time comes. I find it difficult to see how anyone could think these guys are an asset.

Let’s just drop the pretense. The Democratic Party isn’t organized around leftism or liberalism, or even centrism. It’s become organized around fear. Fear of losing your Social Security and Medicare. Fear of losing abortion rights. And, ultimately, fear of Republicans. Now, it’s very true that Republicans do want to take away these things, and much more besides. But what Democrats always seem to forget is that taking away any of this stuff is unbelievably unpopular, and if Republicans actually did it (or tried to), they’d get absolutely hammered. The attitude here shouldn’t be, “OMG they’re going to destroy the building blocks of our country!” It should be something more like, “Yeah, you try that and see what happens. We’ll take you to the cleaners if you try, we’ll mobilize the public, and turn you into the modern-day equivalent of the Whigs.” The former is going to come off as whiny and defensive always, the latter sounds confident and maybe even inspiring.  It says, “You’re not alone and we can fight this,” while the former says, “We can’t beat these guys, we can only hold them off for a little while longer.” I can count on one hand the amount of Democratic leaders that even occasionally talk in the good way. Certainly, the rank and file doesn’t.

I don’t understand how Democrats just keep losing despite having much more popular ideas and policies, while Republicans keep winning despite nearly all of their ideas being totally unpopular. Or maybe I do. I suspect that this whole thing is part of the reason. Presentation. It’s hugely important and hugely overlooked. Republicans act like winners, and what do you know, they win a lot. Democrats act like losers, and they lose a lot. There’s no assertiveness to them most of the time, no sense that they’re eventually going to win the war of ideas, and they’ll keep fighting as long as it takes. They didn’t even want to keep fighting for the ACA after the Mimbo got elected, and Pelosi and Obama had to move heaven and earth to get them to do something. They were literally paralyzed by the Bush Tax Cut debate in 2010, to the extent they didn’t even take a vote on it for fear of negative ads. The debt ceiling was a huge panic moment, one from which not even Obama was immune. And a fair amount of Democrats were panicking over the contraception mandate too, only that time progressive women in the grassroots had to stand up and push Democrats not to pull another choke job there. They were successful, thankfully, because otherwise I’m quite sure it wouldn’t be there today.

I follow the politics of other countries to varying extents, and honest to God I’ve never encountered another political party that behaves this way. They panic when anything they propose hits a Republican attack (as though pulling it would assuage El Rushbo), whine about fear-based politics, and hope that the totebaggers will be so appalled by the Republicans that they won’t actually have to stand toe-to-toe with them and win the argument. But from what we’ve seen of Republicans in the post-Bush era, they crumple like a napkin when actually called upon to defend their positions. How empty was the Republican toadying to the Bishops? The public didn’t buy it, and they looked absolutely ridiculous. Rick Scott hasn’t been able to say two words to support his voter purges. These, and other positions are unpopular, as is the Tea Party. And Democrats also have grassroots supporters who are willing to be mobilized and become a part of the struggle, we saw that in 2008 and this year, and other times besides. Obama has largely (but not uniformly) been a check on this process, but one leader is not enough. This ought to be a wake-up call to powerful Democrats: if you want this law to stick around, you have to start to fight for it. Now. And don’t stop until Republicans are too bloodied to stand against it. If not, then that whole “century-long progressive dream” rhetoric really wasn’t all that true, now, was it?


If you are a progressive and have a couple of bucks to donate to a politician this fall, probably one of the smartest places to park it is with Rob Zerban, who is taking on Paul Ryan this year. Ryan has become such a GOP fixture that he’ll undoubtedly be swimming in SuperPAC money the whole cycle, so it’s a long shot. But the effectiveness of taking down important politicians is, I think, very underrated, especially more ideological and/or partisan ones. Had Mitch McConnell lost in 2008 (which very nearly happened), we would have had a very different past three years. It’s possible to imagine a Trent Lott or a Lamar Alexander actually trying to work with Obama, after having their unabashedly partisan leader dropped. But ’twas not to be. Anyway, a Ryan loss, or even a very close race, would have serious side effects going forward. Either one could damage the enthusiasm for his Plan in Washington. And if that doesn’t get you…

Anyway, this came in the email from Zerban’s campaign today: “[T]he State Senate now has a Democratic majority because of a big win in Racine, one of the main swing areas of Paul Ryan’s district.” Admittedly, this is a special election and a recall election, so who knows if this means anything. Maybe the guy he beat just wasn’t a very good candidate. But in what was, generally, a pretty good Republican day, a loss in Racine like this is…interesting.

Aside from this though, I’m staying away from blogging today. Can’t take all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Wisconsin. Same complaints over and over again.


Okay, I can’t take it anymore.

I’ve been reading through hilariously dour readings of the Walker & Flunkies recalls failing. Even the normally evenheaded Josh Marshall can’t resist some good doom ‘n’ gloom on this one. Losing to Scott Walker does indeed sting–the guy’s an unrepentant wingnut and a particularly cruel asshole. But to go this far is excessive:

This is also a big loss for public employees unions. There’s no getting around that fact. Just why that happened is another matter. But at the end of the day, victory is all that matters. Walker went big to destroy the public-sector unions in his state. And the labor movement went all out to take him down and lost. Wisconsin’s a pretty progressive, fairly blue-ish state. This result in this state has to embolden Republican governors across the country to think you can go for game-changing attacks on key Democratic constituencies like labor and not pay a price at the polls. Public employees unions across the country have feel like they have crosshairs on their backs. And they do.

The labor movement made exactly one tactical mistake in the recall process. Well, maybe more than one, but one that really mattered: they decided on recalling Walker without having someone in mind to replace him. It’s pretty clear that they hoped Feingold would do it, but they didn’t get a commitment from him, and it turns out that the Dems’ bench in the state is surprisingly weak. They needed to lock down someone who could make their case to the public, could appeal to their sense of fairness and decency, who could give meaning to their struggle against an authoritarian governor.

Instead they got Tom Barrett, the guy who lost to Walker in 2010 and just proved that was no fluke. Barrett was not labor’s man, but rather just an opportunist that the state’s Democrats rallied around equally opportunistically, because he seemed more electable. I somehow wonder if Kathleen Falk would have made a difference–she was, after all, a failed statewide candidate also–but she had one important advantage over Barrett. She hadn’t lost to Scott Walker a year and a half ago. Recrowning Barrett–who, again, was literally the same exact person Democrats ran in 2010–could only have cemented the idea in the electorate’s mind that this was just an attempt to win what they couldn’t win before, which is to say, just politics. Which is not how it started out, but it is what it became. Barrett’s campaign after seizing the nomination was pathetic and incoherent, trying desperately to latch onto something to take down Walker, because he didn’t really believe in labor’s complaints. His polling vs. Walker briefly spiked but started falling once he became the favorite to battle Walker.

So, labor made one mistake. They should have started with a candidate who could win, and lacking that, should have left it alone. Just trying to coast on the public’s disdain of Walker was a poor strategy, especially in a situation as unusual as this one. The assumption that this was going to be a referendum on Walker was unfounded. This fight has arguably strengthened Walker’s position, he’s now a survivor rather than a thug, at least unless (until?) the John Doe investigation comes to fruition. I don’t see how you can label the recall election (the election, not the recall drive) as a blow to labor, since labor couldn’t have been more beside the point once Barrett entered the picture. I couldn’t think of a worse way to frame it if you don’t hate labor.

Jon Chait, after hinting that the entire thing was misguided, echoes the prior sentiment:

But with a narrow victory over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker will keep his job, at least for two more years, for two main reasons. First, heoutspent his opponent eight to one, a staggering margin that is almost impossible to overcome. Second, large chunks of the swing vote bought into his procedural case against the recount, which is certainly not crazy. Exit polls showed the electorate favoring President Obama over Mitt Romney by a double-digit margin, suggesting the fundamental orientation of the state’s electorate has not changed much since 2008. […] But Walker’s win will certainly provide a blueprint for fellow Republicans. When they gain a majority, they can quickly move to not just wrest concessions from public sector unions but completely destroy them, which in turn eliminates one of the strongest sources of political organization for the Democratic Party.

Sure, if you want to waste a year and a half to achieve a temporary victory. Does anyone really doubt that Wisconsin will eventually elect a Democratic government again and reinstate bargaining rights? This was all about 2012, about defunding Democrats. Walker and Fitzgerald said as much. Why they even bother given SuperPACs I don’t know, though monomaniacs generally don’t just stop when it’s prudent.

And no, SuperPACs won’t be a permanent advantage for Republicans. Lots of times after changes in the electoral system, one party or another might find some obscure feature to exploit and make some short-term gains. But the system will eventually return to equilibrium, and Dems will have their SuperPACs too. Probably soon, as the Walker win will be interpreted as a big wake-up call in this department. This is not good news for fans of clean politics, but from a partisan perspective, it’s hardly going to matter for long.

Who can’t we blame for this loss? Barack Obama. Bill Clinton. Russ Feingold (I think he should have run, but he didn’t want to, and there’s no obligation to run for office). Who can we blame? The pertinent party committees (DNC, DGA) and the state’s Democrats for first hijacking the recall effort, turning it into a quasi-general election and then (in the case of the former two) just bailing. The leadership of the recall campaign, who allowed the movement to get taken out of their hands. And the dense individuals who dislike Walker but voted against the recall. I can see the logic for it, but there’s absolutely no reason to decline to take power when it’s on offer. To do so isn’t noble or honorable, it’s being a sucker. Republicans didn’t stick up for Gray Davis in my state in 2003, and they won’t stick up for a Democrat in yours either.


I don’t think this is entirely correct:

It’s been said that Obama might somehow be better off politically if the Court were to strike down the unpopular parts of the law (or even all of it). According to this reasoning, he could then avoid the problem of defending the law on the campaign trail and concentrate instead on issues on which the Democratic view is more popular.

This is nonsense. In the first place, in politics and the rest of life, it’s always better to win than lose. Winners win, and losers lose. Moreover, the invalidation of such a central achievement of his Administration would taint Obama’s Presidency forever. To casual followers of politics (and the Supreme Court), which is to say most people, it would look like Obama overreached in the way that the stereotype suggests that liberals often do–in expanding the size of government. In the event of a loss, Obama would blame the Court, perhaps for good reason, but for better or worse the Justices will have the last word… A loss in the Supreme Court would send the Democratic Party back to square one on the issue.

Sure, if the entire ACA goes down, it’s awfully hard to see how Democrats recover. A full-on attack on the Court would be required, and could have some success, but Obama isn’t in the position that FDR was in 1936. He  just doesn’t have the kind of political capital to wage this war during an election, considering the economy and public opinion.

Personally, though, I’m not sure that eliminating just the mandate would be that awful. Republicans rather cynically focused on that part of the law–which they came up with–because it was the least popular. Without the mandate, the law loses its most unpopular component. Really, after that the ACA would look a lot more like what Candidate Obama campaigned on in 2008, which would make the mandate pretty easy to retcon as something forced on him by insurers. Now the ACA is what he originally wanted it to be! It’s spin, but not bad spin. Such a ruling wouldn’t be a good thing to have happen (and it would have some damaging effects on the law’s effectiveness as a whole, not to mention that it’s junk law), but I don’t think it would be catastrophic.