Tuesday, April 19, 2011

More about suckers

As if to prove that my opinions are the exact rehash of an axis loosely defined around Duncan Black and Heather Parton, there's been a recent article about liberals as suckers. Since linkrot will undoubtedly make anything on the Washington Post's web site go away soon, it's by Sally Kohn, and has the unwieldy title "Liberals pride themselves on being tolerant. Are they really just suckers?" Sample quote:

What is the problem here? Is it a lack of leadership from the White House, a failure to out-mobilize the tea party or not enough long-term investment from liberal donors?

The real problem isn’t a liberal weakness. It’s something liberals have proudly seen as a strength — our deep-seated dedication to tolerance. In any given fight, tolerance is benevolent, while intolerance gets in the good punches.

In a word, no. That misses the point. As does digby's discussion of the article. The problem is not that liberals are being suckers in their negotiations with the Right. The problem is that they are being suckers in their negotiations with their own leadership.

The article assumes that Obama and ordinary progressives/liberals have the same interests, and the same mindset, so that if Obama is mushy in his talks with the GOP, it's just another example of liberals not being firm enough in defending their beliefs. Their mindset is assumed to be the same as his. Or, in a slight variation, Obama isn't firm because ordinary liberals don't want him to be. That may be true, for all I know, but also misses the point. Obama's interests, and Democratic leadership interests more generally, are not the same as those of the people who they purport to speak for.

Obama wants what's good for him. Some leaders might be motivated by loyalty downwards, but it's become abundantly clear that Obama has none. But that's a distraction too. Institutionally, the Democratic Party has to please powerful constituencies that have a lot more leverage than the liberals/progressives, who can be safely written off as having to support the party no matter what. The same isn't true of the banks.

This is a very typical agency problem, and as is typical of our society, which is increasingly dominated by elites, it's handled badly. Look at corporations and their management, say. Are the interests of management really aligned with the interests of shareholders? Or look at the way that high unemployment just isn't a problem for elites in America at all.

The only way that liberals can get Democratic leadership's interests to align with theirs is to credibly threaten to make them lose. It's not hard to understand at all. Liberals have no leverage over the Right, who are going to keep on doing their own crazy thing without asking whether liberals approve of it or not. Ordinary liberals have no way to "get tough" with the Right in a legislative sense, because they aren't legislators. America is a representative democracy, after all, not a direct one. They can only help to choose the people who will do the actual legislative or executive negotiating. And it's that interface between voters and Democratic pols that they've been complete suckers with regard to. All the leadership has to do is utter one more bleat about "look how crazy the GOP is!" And yes, they are crazy, and the Dem leadership has been very lucky to have such crazy opposition. But if the base is always going to blink first, well -- we know how that goes.

Would a re-run of the Bush years be bad? Yes, it would. Would it be worse than the Obama years -- which codify everything that Bush did wrong, make it bipartisan, and ensure that liberals can never win even with the best possible electoral result, in exchange for a few token victories? No, I'm not sure if they would. Before Obama, liberals at least had hope in the electoral process. Now there is none.

Edited to add: obligatory Greenwald. Obama really is a con man who is systematically doing everything that he promised differentiated him from Bush. But so what? In our culture, con men are admirable. The people who we have contempt for are the suckers who let the con men get away with it. See, for instance, any movie about cons.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Suckers are a bore

Looks like Greenwald agrees with me, instead of vice versa! No, not really. But what he writes here is what I (and other people of course) have been writing since Year One of Obama. There is nowhere for the loyal progressive to go. Obama will not only not listen to them, he will actively work against them in order to gain credibility as a moderate.

I've already listed the consequences for the upcoming Presidential election. There is now nothing that progressives in the U.S. can do, at the national level, that will not hurt them in the near term. Oppose Obama, and they get blamed if he loses, derided as of no account if he wins. Support him, and get less than nothing if he loses, and he returns to hippie punching nonstop if he wins. "Hippie punching" is a good descriptive phrase, but in more serious terms this means starting wars, killing and torturing people, and generally shredding civil liberties, as well as completely failing to do anything about global warming.

A lot of Greenwald's article is well-worn themes (to me, anyways) about how the GOP didn't force Obama into this, and how Congress didn't force Obama into this. When he e.g. refuses to close Guantanimo, it's because he doesn't want to, not because he can't. He's a failure as a President both on the principled and pragmatic levels. Where I disagree with Greenwald is where Greenwald writes that a rational politician would of course kick his base when it brings a benefit and no cost. I know that Greenwald is writing rhetorically, but that is "rational" in the same way as a lot of short-term economic thinking is rational. Politicians don't obtain long-term success for their policies by alienating their base.

What can progressives do at this point? Well, the two readers of my blog know what I did -- I became some kind of anarchist. (I'll write more about that sometime, after delicate spousal negotiations about what we can do with our joint resources towards what is essentially a side interest of mine.) This does as much nothing as continuing to be a progressive does, but it at least does not involve being a sucker.

I've seen some progressives come up with various Rube Goldberg plans -- support Obama later, but not now, or do electoral politics only at the state and local level. I know of precisely one jurisdiction, Wisconsin, where state politics seems worthwhile at the moment because of its ability to send a general message. Otherwise? Well, maybe.

A lot of the discussions that progressives and the left generally are having strike me as the same "failure is not an option" nonsense that (digby, was it?) criticized so trenchantly around the Iraq War. Failure is certainly an option. "Failure is not an option" is one thing that people who suffer from terminal diseases say on their way to acceptance. The U.S. in particular is well on its way to failure on a variety of levels, a failure that Obama has only exacerbated by failing to provide a real choice.

If failure looks likely, then really all you can do is hope for a lucky break. If that break comes, do you want it to be wasted by absorbing whatever energy there is right back into the support of some other Democratic pol, who will use it to maintain the same failed system? Or, if we're reduced to hoping for a break, why not hope for a larger one?

The title of this post is from one of my poems, written during the Bush era, but even more relevant now. Don't blame Obama, enablers. Of course people look up to a successful con. Just decide to not be a sucker next time.

No use to blame the con men
We're heard it all before
Everybody loves a con
But suckers are a bore