Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, January 18, 2010

Realism, Idealism, Narcissism in the Politics of Democratization Here on Earth

About Obama's reasonably good proposal to fine the biggest financial institutions to get back taxpayer dollars that bailed them out despite their irresponsibility and in a way that introduces the first of what one hopes will be many structural and regulatory dis-incentives to the re-emergence of such reckless institutions and practices I wrote on Saturday: "Not bad at all."

I went on to comment:
I have no doubt that Republicans will roar incoherently about socialism while at once whomping up anti-governmental populism fed by the very abuses and distress Obama seeks to address here, meanwhile the left, rather than supporting the President, will accuse him of being a Bush-lite stealth corporatist even before Congress fails to implement this minimally reasonable intervention, pretending that the failure of a carefully crafted compromise somehow provides evidence that whatever incomparably more radical intervention they happen to advocate in the abstract (as Obama himself surely would prefer more radical interventions in the abstract as well, having both a brain and a heart as he does) would somehow have a better chance to get implemented than the moderate intervention that can't get through.

In the Moot, an annoyed "Mathmos" sputtered in reply:
Ah, those dang shrill pouty leftists and their Naderite deadenderism. What I wouldn't give for them to frame and see and think about things the way I do. If only they were capable of putting actual Democratic political results in the context of a personal, involved understanding of Obama's true intentions, as I do. If only they feared the indecorous stints of Republican dominance enough to embrace Democratic Third Way politics as the sole Realistic/ Pragmatic/ Sensible/ Serious/ Possible alternative, as I do. If only they understood that a political wing is defined not by steadfast adherence to political aims, and the pressuring necessary to achieve them, but by the very subordination of those aims to the organizational interests of the Party brandishing the right cultural markers, as I do, etc.

Now, for one thing, since I do regard myself as a leftist -- being, after all, an anti-racist anti-corporatist anti-militarist gender-queer feminist green social democrat who advocates universal single payer healthcare, a universal non means-tested basic income guarantee, free life-long public education, and democratic world federalist governance -- it does feel odd to me to find myself distinguished from leftists in such formulations. Also, I will cheerfully concede that I do indeed wish that leftists who agree that some of these are desirable outcomes as well as sharing with me a sense of "the left wing of the possible" given the circumstances that actually beset us would "frame and see and think about things the way I do." Surely that follows rather naturally from the fact that I actually mean what I say and say it because I hope it is useful in the way of getting at those outcomes given where we actually are? Why would this be treated as some stealthy attitude on my part demanding sarcastic exposure, or even the least bit surprising in fact?

I agree with the pseudonymously-monikered "Mathmos" (how brave the Internet makes people!) that "[s]teadfast adherence to political aims and the pressuring necessary to achieve them" is indeed what defines the proper activist left. I just know that "pressure" doesn't mean stamping your foot and pouting at reality. "Pressure," to be efficacious, has to be attentive to actual context. Otherwise, one's "steadfastness" is just theatre, and claims to "radicalism" too readily become indulgences in narcissism.

"Mathmos" falsely claims that I am advocating Third Way politics which I happen to disdain as a matter of fact (I am assuming "Third Way" is being used in the sense actually deployed by the Clintons and DLC politicos as well as by Blair's Labour), presumably because they think anybody who struggles to connect ideals to outcomes in a pragmatic way must be a Clintonian triangular. This is false and even cartoonish, but by all means "Mathmos" should stick to it if it makes them feel better. There's quite a lot to feel miserable and distressed about in the present state of US and global politics, so who am I to steal from the "Mathmos" such wee self-deceptions as get them through the night, I suppose?

As for "Mathmos" declaring that I advocate "subordination of [left political] aims to the organizational interests of the Party brandishing the right cultural markers" I am eager to see some evidence in any of my writing for this. I advocate challenges to Democratic incumbents whose voting records are to the right of their constituencies, I advocate running candidates in "unwinnable" districts in the interest of longer-term progressive education via campaigning, and I advocate the institution of instant runoff voting district by district (we recently won it here in Oakland where I live, for example) to render third-party candidacies non-spoilers as they certainly do function in the actual world as it is actually instituted here and now. None of those stances squares with an attribution to me of preference for "cultural markers" over political substance. Given that "Mathmos" seems to be defending disdain for pragmatic possibility in favor of strident manifesto-declarations, I am inclined to direct precisely that charge their way instead. I am intrigued to know what "cultural markers" I am presumably preferring to actually democratizing efforts at education, agitation, and organization.

"Mathmos" also falsely claims that I pretend to read Obama's mind when I simply deny he's a seeeecret eeeevil Bush-lite corporatist just because he can't unilaterally impose his progressive will in an actually diverse, actually undercritical polity whose governance is organized by separation of powers at every layer. This doesn't mean he gets a free pass for everything he's done (for example, I think the stimulus should and could have been larger and that a too-optimistic assessment of the economy yielded a mistakenly scrawny stimulus that didn't translate into enough jobs, and I also think he has been both clumsy and pointlessly slow in addressing DADT and DOMA out of a misreading of both the mainstream cultural landscape in the US and that of his own base on lgbtq issues), but none of this causes me to mistake Obama for anything but the most progressive President since FDR which I still think he clearly is in both his words and actions. And I do indeed believe painting Obama otherwise is both straightforwardly wrong on the facts but also reveals an unrealistic understanding of political reality that does nobody any good, whether they agree with me or not about what is desirable in the abstract in the way of democratizing aspirations.

The reality of literally unprecedented monolithic Republican obstructionism in a Senate with a filibuster is that every Senator among the 60 who caucus with the Democrats (a non-negligible minority of whom are very conservative in some of their views) has veto power over any legislative efforts, and many are willing to use it opportunistically or in the service of actually conservative ends. Media sensationalism and complacent adherence to conventional wisdom as set by incumbent interests also skews access to reliable information about policy outcomes and the stances of actual officeholders in ways that amount to voter disenfranchisement via mis-information and fraud in what remains a notionally representative democracy.

That is reality. You can pretend digging your heels in and demanding more radical outcomes is somehow more achievable than the moderate ones that can't get through the DC slaughter house, but that doesn't really make sense to me. You can decry my own honest efforts to grasp what the left wing of the possible actually looks like or to assess Obama in light of what I take to be possible as my own stealth corporatism or cynicism or whatever, but that doesn't really make sense to me either.

When I discuss Republicans (or for that matter, futurologists) in a snide way it is usually because I think they are lying in a facile way or being egregiously stupid and my tone reflects that. I don't really think "Mathmos" thinks I am being either deceptive or dumb, however much they disagree with me. If all the "Mathmos" ultimately means to communicate is that we disagree with one another about what is possible for the left or for a left President under the present circumstances, and that I think pointlessly strident unrealistic demands are demoralizing and divisive rather than invigorating for actually practically democratizing left politics, I think all that is fairly obvious.


The Mathmos said...

“[R]eality”, “unrealistic”, “reality”, “reality”, “reality”, “reality”, “unrealistic”.

With all due respect, I believe there’s real danger in hugging the Overton Window so tightly.

I don’t see neoliberal dominance in political thinking, or conservative dominance in issues of public mores, as having been achieved by careful, cautious application of political savvy and due respect given to the mainstream “Reality” some 30 to 40 odd years ago, but by shamelessly conspiratorial and/or demagogical means, and through the constitution of a variety of voting blocks, advocacy groups and powerful partnership all more than willing to demand radical adhesion to their vision. In point of fact, it was this very radicalism that helped them set up their vision as an alternative to the tired, ineffectual ideologies of (pick one) “Big Government”, “Moral Relativism”, “Liberal Intellectualism”, etc.

Why are women’s rights so easy to jettison during policy negotiation by a double-majority Democratic administration, but single-payer gets barely a mention as being against “American tradition” (as said by Obama), all of this in 2009? One voting block is feared, the other trips over his own feet making excuses for “political Reality”, “the leftwing of the possible” and other tripe.

Dale Carrico said...

Why are women’s rights so easy to jettison during policy negotiation by a double-majority Democratic administration, but single-payer gets barely a mention?

I mean, are you serious? Is that a real question? Is there no answer to that question for you that does not require you to posit Obama as a stealth corporatist or posit a Democratic/ Republican Party equivalency thesis?

You are pretending (you can't actually believe it, can you?) that the "double majority Democratic administration" exists when it doesn't. It is as simple as that.

You are either dishonest or confused. Democrats have a majority in name only, because, once again, historically unprecedented and monolithic Republican obstructionism gives every Senator caucusing with Democrats (including DINOs like Liebermann and Lincoln and anti-woman reactionaries like Nelson) de facto veto power over every legislative effort.

You seem to want to pretend that by "talking tough" or "sticking to principle" these realities can be wished away, but they can't. And then when compromised crap gets pushed through or indeed nothing at all gets through, you seem to want blame those who are working to achieve best outcomes rather than the ones who fighting them.

Again, I am to the left of the center-left Obama and so I am not in fact happy with everything he has done, nor do I fantasize that even if he helmed an administration with an actually-existing double Democratic majority he would do everything I would like.

But I think it is simply straightforwardly wrong to believe that Obama is getting what he wants because he is a stealth-corporatist, or that the left could get more than we are getting just by bulldozing forward as though we had support we actually don't have but actually do need to get anything accomplished, or that there is no difference between the literally-crazy actually-authoritarian Republican Party at this moment and Democrats among whom are respected figures who happen as well to be the most progressive, pro-labor, green, feminist, multicultural folks with any access to legislative power in the whole US at this moment.


The quip about me hugging tight to the Overton Window would be more forceful if it actually connected to what I am saying. But it just doesn't. More of that "reality" problem I have with you.

I actually believe that when Obama redefines "bipartisanship" as center-left views and then pins Movement Republicanism to Limbaugh and the Tea Partiers that this is pragmatically effective nudging of the Overton Window to the left. This is the very sort of thing for which he gets pilloried by the "uncompromising left."

The Mathmos said...

This will be the last comment by me for tonight. I know how you hate being offered copy-paste segments, but I think this has particular relevance, relating to your belief that Obama is the impotent resident of the White House, hands-tied, while conservative Democrats in their about-a-dozen scuttle the party's majority. As appealing as such a scenario appears, it has its detractors:

“I'm really surprised that there's anyone, especially Matt, who actually believes this -- that the Obama White House is merely an impotent, passive observer of what the Democrats in Congress do and can't be expected to do anything to secure votes for approval of the health care bill it favors. As the leader of his party, the President commands a vast infrastructure on which incumbent members of Congress rely for re-election. His popularity among Democrats vests him numerous options to punish non-compliant Democrats. And Rahm Emanuel built his career on controlling the machinations within Congress. The very idea that Obama, Emanuel and company are just sitting back, helplessly watching as Max Baucus, Kent Conrad and the Blue Dogs (Rahm's creation) destroy their health care legislation, is absurd on its face.


What does that vast disparity reveal? If anything, Blue Dogs -- virtually all of whom represent more conservative districts -- are more vulnerable and thus more dependent for re-election on the White House and Democratic Party infrastructure than progressives are. If health care fails and the Obama presidency weakens, they will bear the brunt of the voters' desire to punish Democrats. The White House would have at least as much leverage to exercise against Blue Dogs and centrists. They just aren't doing so. In fact, they're doing the opposite: they're protecting them even as they supposedly impede what the White House wants on one of Obama's signature issues.

This isn't to say that Obama can single-handedly control what Congress does. It's possible that even with maximum leverage exerted, a President can still lose. But there isn't any leverage being exerted against anti-public-option "centrists" and Blue Dogs. There's just no effort being made. The White House seems perfectly content with what the centrists and Blue Dogs have done thus far; the only anger they have shown, as usual, is towards progressives who are demanding robust reform.”

Dale Carrico said...

I don't believe Obama is "impotent." Are you even debating me in good faith?

I already offered two examples (and I could provide more) in which I indicated that Obama has made a mistake -- too small stimulus, too clumsy and slow on lgbtq issues -- and had the power to do more.

I also think he has accomplished quite enough of substance with this Congress in reinvigorating our diplomacy, in pushing through the stimulus with all the infrastructure and green jobs in it, in Lily Ledbetter, among countless other things, to give the lie to any charge of impotence. Indeed, Congressional Quarterly declares Obama more successful than any President since LBJ. I actually disagree with that assessment but no more than I disagree with the foolishness of declaring Obama "impotent."

I think it is a straight up and actually flabbergastingly demonstrably false statement to say Obama "made no effort" to support the public option when he endlessly reiterated his support of it in public and behind closed doors in ways that cost him political capital.

The Blue Dogs weren't going to capitulate on the public option due to Obama applying more "leverage," whatever that is supposed to mean -- that is just magical thinking -- and the Majority Leader can't discipline wayward members of his caucus when he needs them for every vote, not just this one, in the world created by Republican obstructionism.

The numbers are real, I'm not making them up, the "super-majority" is fanciful given the veto power conservative members of the caucus have been handed by Republicans.

The choice isn't between a cartoon fantasy declaring Obama impotent (which presumably you read me as saying when I'm not) or a cartoon fantasy declaring Obama omnipotent (as when Greenwald admits the obvious, that "Obama [cannot] single-handedly control what Congress does").

In between is a reality in which Republicans really are engaging in obstructionism in a literally unprecedented way, giving all of the 60 Senators caucusing with Democrats, many of whom are conservative in some of their politics and a few of them nearly as obstructionist as the Republicans themselves are, effective veto power over every legislative effort.

I have no idea what Presidential "leverage" is supposed to mean that Obama isn't displaying enough of, unless maybe unleashing a black-bag squad to rough up DINOs or something. I believe Obama is pushing for most progressive possibly outcomes given a more monolithically obstructionist Republican party than he expected, a more cravenly opportunistic cohort of DINOs at the margin of the Senate's Democratic caucus than he hoped, and given the irresponsible silliness and gossip-mongering of a corporate media in a time of obvious crisis that has to be experienced to be believed.

By the way, I agree that Conservadems in Conservative districts have more to lose by scuttling healthcare and bringing on an anti-dem wave election that will pick them off first of all than they do by helping get this Democratic priority through and invigorating the Democratic base and independents who like action more than inaction whatever it looks like. But just because that is true doesn't mean that Conservadems will agree or act on that agreement. Nothing they do suggests they are reasonable in the face of these sorts of pressures, quite to the contrary, like most conservatives they seem scared to death and easily corralled into self-destructive behavior in defiance of sense.

The Mathmos said...

I don’t wanted to fill up your comment space with too much of the article (and I wasn’t sure how to format multiple levels of indentation/quotation), but there are other parts of interest in Greenwald’s piece. The White House’s behavior regarding healthcare reform is contrasted with its reaction to the threat of congressional opposition by progressives of the war supplemental bill:

“ When it comes to defiant progressive members of Congress -- as opposed to supposedly defiant Blue Dogs and "centrists" -- the Obama White House has proven itself extremely adept at compelling compliance with the President's agenda. Consider what happened when progressive House members dared to oppose the war supplemental bill which Obama wanted passed:

The White House is playing hardball with Democrats who intend to vote against the supplemental war spending bill, threatening freshmen who oppose it that they won't get help with reelection and will be cut off from the White House, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said Friday.

"We're not going to help you. You'll never hear from us again," Woolsey said the White House is telling freshmen

When progressives refuse to toe the White House line, they get threatened. Contrast that with what the White House does with Blue Dogs and "centrists" who are allegedly uncooperative on health care -- they protect them:

The Politico’s Jonathan Martin reported this morning that Rahm Emanuel warned leaders of liberal groups in a private meeting this week that it was time to stop running ads attacking Blue Dog and "centrist" Dems on health care.

I'm told, however, that Emanuel went quite a bit further than this.

Sources at the meeting tell me that Emanuel really teed off on the Dem-versus-Dem attacks, calling them "f–king stupid." This was a direct attack on some of the attendees in the room, who are running ads against Dems right now.

What does that vast disparity reveal? […] ”

It seems that the White House has quite a bit of power to ensure congressional compliance. Of course, if the situation is a complete deadlock as you describe it, it’s quite possible that even exercising that power wouldn’t suffice to ensure a majority; but as Greenwald puts it, NO power is being applied against the Blue Dogs – their obstruction is even protected from liberal critique by the White House.

Dale Carrico said...

The White House is pressuring the actually pressurable in the service of best possible but rather crappy outcomes, and not indulging overmuch in the ritual pressuring of the non-pressurable to no purpose. You can say that pressurable progressives should become comparably unpressurable but that just means nothing happens at all until the numbers of the sensible can overcome the obstructionism of the irresponsible, and the fact is that part of being sensible always means is being more pressurable than the irresponsible. Your analysis sounds too much like high school personality contests. I daresay some of that is in play -- we can leave Maureen Dowd that sort all that out, shall we? -- but frankly I think this is straightforward pragmatic calculation in the face of harder limits than you are willing to concede exist, leading you into magical thinking and fighting people on your side more than people fighting against you. Let's end it here, you can just go ahead and think the worst of me and we'll just move on from there, I'm fine with that.