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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interminable Meta Mid-Term

I want to say something about why I like both Atrios and BooMan, even though I think both their substance and their tones are rather different in ways you might expect to matter more to me than they do. And through this discussion I mean, somehow, on top of that, also to talk a bit about the larger question of the so-called "enthusiasm gap" and the relation of the blogipelagic-left to the Democratic Party in the face of looming mid-term losses that may or may not be terrible for the country in ways that will have to be paid for in some awful fashion.

This is obviously a stupid kind of thing to wade into when all is said and done, since it is surely too meta to play out in differences in actual behavior and hence isn't a difference that makes the least difference from a pragmatic standpoint (and that's quite apart from consideration of how utterly marginal is the blog in which these meta comments are being published in the first place), but, what the hell. Just writing it down helps to clarify my thoughts, and maybe will provoke responses that clarify them further still.

Atrios has been making the point repeatedly lately that Democrats are in trouble for the mid-terms mostly because the economy sucks, which is at least partly but definitely not entirely because the policies the Obama Administration championed didn't work out as promised. Since Atrios has been pretty much in the same boat with Krugman in predicting that these policies would not work out as promised and saying why, it seems to me his rather contrarian tone and current disgruntlement are reasonably well justified.

He even totally gets the critiques from folks like BooMan, who rightly insists we pay attention to process constraints that shape stated policy aims and not jump the gun and assume compromised efforts always signal true ideological commitments, since there is always a crucial gap between the logical and the political route from where we are to an outcome. In other words, rather than pretending that Obama doesn't understand the logical case for single-payer or that the failure of the public option was the result of his stealthy devotion to corporatist ideology, one should take into account whether or not Democrats ever actually had the votes to get a public option under the present circumstances and whether that kind of calculation should or should not figure in the strategy of a President one votes for to govern as well as to move the country in a more progressive direction. Among other reasons, that's why Atrios has focused so much attention on HAMP -- where the disastrous outcome wasn't ordained by legislative constraints but shaped by palpably false economic assumptions and aspirations.

Anyway, Atrios also says that he plans to vote for Democrats in November and he seems to expect most of the people who care enough to know enough about the things he is talking about on his blog are likely to vote for Democrats in November, too, and so he is saying it doesn't make a lot of sense to accuse him and other righteous higher-profile critics of certain Administration policies (and I mean righteous in a good way not a sarcastic way, Glenn Greenwald's critique of Obama's civil liberties record seems to me another example of such) of having a major hand in the "enthusiasm gap" that is figuring in likely Democratic losses in November.

BooMan, on the other hand, thinks it is better to direct attention to the batshit insanity of Republicans and to the average Americans who really benefit concretely from compromised but still progressive investment via the stimulus and auto bailout in American jobs, health insurance reforms, student loan reforms, credit card reforms, financial regulation and so on. I happen to see the sense of both of their points, and don't consider them as particularly incompatible.

Noises from the Administration excoriating "the professional left" or demanding the Base "buck up" or "stop whining" seem weird to Atrios (whereas they seem to put wind in BooMan's sails a bit, especially to the extent that he thinks they are directed very particularly at Jane Hamsher -- I keed! I keed!) because Atrios doesn't believe that the political junkie contingent is really what Democrats should rightly be worrying about, first of all because Atrios expects them to vote the right way anyway (although one wonders whether he expects them also to be doing more-than-negligible GOTV as well), whatever their disgruntlement, and second of all because he thinks they tend not to be the ones suffering the worst want and insecurity or at any rate to be uninformed enough to be blaming such suffering and insecurity on Democrats more than Republicans who are really fuelling the enthusiasm gap, such as it is. (Not included in any of this riff, by the way, is the real possibility five weeks out that crazytown Republicans peaked too soon and Democrats might well surge in time to curtail unmanageable damage to precarious Democratic majorities.)

I think that Atrios is pretty persuasive on this -- as on many things. I have spent plenty of time excoriating self-appointed more-radical-than-thou folks who comment in the Moot here at Amor Mundi, just because I think I have attracted more than my fair share of commenters whose radicalism takes the form of arrantly foolish declarations of GOP/Dem equivalence and palpably defeatist declarations that they plan to take their ball and go home, not vote, embark on yet another quixotic Third Party circle-jerk, or what have you. Such people certainly do exist, and I certainly do think they are wrong (however much I usually share their sense of what ideal outcomes would look like in the social justice and permaculture fronts, and even if I do at any rate agree with such of their critiques that focus especially on the growth of the Imperial Executive and the Surveillance-Security State under Obama, not that I understand why agreement there produces much reason to sit out this mid-term election or hand it to Republicans of all people), but I think that in focusing on them I have sometimes had a skewed sense of the prevalence of their mindset among those who are described as "unenthusiastic" Democratic voters.

All that said, while I do largely agree with Atrios that his refusal to "clap louder" in Obama's general direction is the farthest imaginable thing from a problem the Administration needs to be focusing on (if that's even what they are doing when they say these "buck up" sorts of things), I do also think Atrios underestimates the potential force of his blog as an incubator of ideas, connections, pithy formulations, useful frames that might have a hand in mobilizing greater enthusiasm.

I'm not saying he's not the problem but he's not the solution either -- since laughing at stupidity really surely is part of the solution -- and I'm not presumptuous enough to think I have a right to tell Atrios what he should use his blog for when what he is doing is plenty valuable as is to many folks, me included, and bloggers should determine for themselves what their blogs are for -- but I do happen to think that Atrios has seemed a bit demoralized this last year, and I wonder if part of that demoralization has to do with the loss of the hope that he could make more of a difference with his blogging than he thinks he has done, a lack I think is a premise of his conclusion that the question of his personal impact on the "enthusiasm gap" is exhausted by the fact that he is personally voting rather than whether others might vote or not, differently or not, according to what he does as a blogger.

To shift my attention back to another blogger I regularly read, to both my profit and pleasure, although I think BooMan's posts sometimes seem irritatingly pedantic or apologetic to engaged left commentators of the blogipelago when he delves into procedural and structural constraints that hobble more desirable healthcare or financial policy outcomes and then dismisses the more readily digestable logical and ideological cases one finds elsewhere in the blogipelago for those more desirable outcomes (need I say, overgeneralizations are rampant here in what I'm saying?), I think it is crucial to grasp that the substance of what BooMan is providing does not seem to me to be castigation so much as education. Part of the reason I mention this is because it seems to me Atrios at his best has been as much an educator as a gadfly, and I'm not sure he has found his way yet to doing both things in the Obama era as he did so wittily and devastatingly in the Bush era, at least not as much.

I do think that it is crucial to hammer over and over again on procedural realities precisely because people tend to want to focus on figures and narratives congenial to a moral vantage on the political and are hence enormously vulnerable to demoralization in the face of the exhausting, heartbreaking, convulsive progress of reform and governance. I think BooMan's repeated insistence that we remember what unprecedented GOP obstructionism in the Senate has meant is indispensable when the contrary narrative glibly refers to ineffectual Democratic majorities, as if the GOP is irrelevant to the picture. Without the constant reminder of the structural constraints that form the procedural context for legislative outcomes one tends instead simply to create cartoon caricatures of Democrats just as bad as Republicans even when, for example, 96% of Democrats voted to facilitate the repeal of DADT and 100% of Republicans voted to frustrate the repeal of DADT, in others to treat an instance of nearly perfect antagonism instead as a difference that makes no ideological difference.

The radical but still partisan-reformist Democratic left in the blogosphere must in my opinion never forget the phrase (I believe it originating with the Fabian socialists, but it has been taken up across the labor and anarchist lefts as well) "educate, agitate, organize" -- my former students reading this blog are no doubt rolling their eyes at my endlessly repeated recourse to this phrase -- and the indispensability of each to the work of ongoing reform from where we are, peer to peer, toward sustainable equitable diverse consensual secular social democracy in our shared world.

I think progressive minded people have something of a tendency to forget the ongoing need to make the case for elementary notions -- such as why, even at their worst, accountable governments devoted to the general welfare are indispensable to the provision of some public goods that "competitive private enterprise," even at their best, are structurally incapable of providing, such as why taxes are not theft but the price we pay to live in a civilization and those who benefit most from physical and legal infrastructure of civilization should expect to pay more to maintain that civilization from which they have benefited more so that those who are no less indispensable to civilization may also contribute to it as peers, such as why those who decry central planning of the economy and equity for all citizens but who advocate public spending on defense in an era of industrial/informational/technoscientific competition are advocating central planning stealthed as Defense and welfare only for the rich beneficiaries of military contracts, such as that given the existence of tax brackets even the richest of the rich only pay the highest tax rates on that highest portion of their wealth and hence there is little disincentive to common collective enterprise, risk-taking, and problem-solving imposed by the higher taxation of the flukes of fashion, random windfalls, and inheritance that the highest tax rates address themselves to in the democratizing effort to ameliorate pernicious aristocratic wealth concentration.

I think the left forgets to repeat what has become obvious to us, forgetting that repetition of the obvious forms the sound discursive foundation on which progressive reform depends to provide reassurance and solace and context in the belly of the beast of the vexations of reform itself.

The blogipelago has not yet revealed the full extent to which it can contribute to the education, agitation, and organization on which progressive reform depends. That is the context, I think, in which we should weigh overwrought meta ruminations of the kind in which this post has so foolishly indulged. I do hope folks keep reading Atrios and BooMan both, but neither of those worthy fellows need my endorsement to draw eyeballs their way! Whether or not demoralization is present in our neck of the global media complex, whether or not that demoralization is a factor in an enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans heading into these mid-term elections, whether or not that enthusiasm gap will lose Democrats Congressional majorities to the ample cost and distrust of this Republic are separate question from the question whether or not bloggers can contribute to the educational, agitational, organizations resources on which ongoing and upcoming reform in the service of social justice and sustainability depend for their indispensable flourishing.

1 comment:

Dale Carrico said...

What you cannot know simply from reading this blog-post: It is the iceberg tip of a massive conversation I had with my boyfriend on the telephone while he was at work and I was putting off schoolwork here at home just now, after which I just wrote all this down without thinking about it very much but in the expectation of returning to it later.