Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Politics of Futility

This morning’s rebuttal by Kevin Drum against Matt Taibbi’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders strikes a familiar note.  A lot of the commentary on the Democratic contest has taken the form of policy differences between the two candidates don’t matter because nothing much can be enacted because of the Republicans/public opinion/supreme court/zeitgeist/etc.  This is a politics that takes futility for granted.

Here are some phrases excerpted from Drum:

“But anyone who thinks Bernie could make a dent in this is dreaming.”
“....neither Hillary nor Bernie would be able to do much about it.”
“....neither one will accomplish much....”
“....there's virtually no chance of making progress on this....”
“....if you're disappointed by Obama, who's accomplished more than any Democratic president in decades, just wait until Bernie wins. By the end of four years, you'll be practically suicidal.”

The error in this way of thinking is that it’s all static, no dynamic.  It’s a judgment of what is feasible under current political conditions.  It assumes away even the possibility of changing those conditions.  If you think about the Reagan presidency’s long run effect on America, for instance, how much of it was about specific policy victories versus the shift in agenda and discourse that has been with us ever since?

What rankles a lot of us about Obama is not that he compromised, but that he pre-compromised by watering down his proposals before they were challenged, compromised down from that, and then acted and spoke as if none of this had been a compromise at all—as if his deepest desire was to leave the political context as unruffled as possible.  A lot of Bernie’s appeal is that he promises to do the opposite.

10 comments:

Lord said...

In fact, it is not just about what is to be done but the likelihood of actually doing it and how much ruffling accomplishing nothing.

Peter said...

Good post.

Thornton Hall said...

Did you read the Kevin Drum post?

Kevin Drum has a style where not much is a very big deal, we've seen most things before, and when you get to the meat of somebody's argument, often, it's a "nothing burger." You read that style and say "politics of futility."

On the other hand, if Matt Taibbi is on the case it's a big fucking deal, because, you know, that's all the man does. He's a BIG DEAL.

On the other hand, Matt Taibbi very rarely knows what he is talking about.

The Kevin Drum piece, that you didn't read, pointed out that, as usual, Taibbi is talkin loud and sayin nothing. What the piece is not about is giving up and negotiating with oneself. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

ProGrowthLiberal said...

Precomprised! That single word sums up why Obama did not achieve more.

Denis Drew said...

Your post reminds me of the argument against the neoliberal, "bad Samaritan" position on unrestricted free trade: a developing country might be the most efficient -- for its own good -- producer of a set of goods for one day (think Korea shipping human hair and fish); but not for one or several decades.

Obama got Obama care through but what was his next act? Whatever he thought should be the next stage should have been what he talked about all the time: the educational pulpit. Imagine how much different this country would be if everybody knew -- just was aware; I'm not saying it should change their position -- that the minimum wage was $11 an hour in 1968 and per capita income has doubled since. If that knowledge were a necessary condition of his getting re-elected everybody would know.

“But anyone who thinks Bernie could make a dent in this is dreaming.”
“....neither Hillary nor Bernie would be able to do much about it.”
“....neither one will accomplish much....”

The biggest single thing we can do to reverse all the other pathologies (pay, health, crime) is to re-establish broad labor union density. This can be done at the state level -- thinking WA, OR, CA, NV, IL, NY, MD. The only thing holding it back anywhere (everywhere!) is that the labor market is the only market where intimidation and muscling is not sanctioned (in any "noticeable" way by law (try to take a movie in the movies and tell them you were just kidding -- see ya in a couple of years fella). Make union busting a felony at the state level -- states may add to federal labor law, not subtract -- progressive states where Repubs can't block that and watch the idea spread of it's own good results.

Do something for those blue collar supporters of Trump -- actually do something to reverse their decline -- and watch the Dem party come back.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Indeed, Obama precompromised on some things, but in some cases the compromises came during the legislative process with him not realizing he was being sucker punched by those he was dealing with. The clearest and probably most important case was ACA ("Obamacare") in which while he walked in with the basic Hillary/Romney plan, he gave up certain things in negotiation with Republican senators, most notably the public option to obtain the support of the nauseating Grassley of Iowa. As it was not a single GOP voted for it in the end, with some of them openly calling for Robert Byrd in his wheelchair to die before he could cast the crucial vote for cloture of the filibuster against the final bill.

So, there is a real issue here, but indeed the post is correct that a harder push may lead to a longer term change of views and environment.

Bruce Webb said...

Barkley in mid 2008 before Obama got elected two bloggers alarmed at his reliance on neo-lib economic advisors who were alarmed at this apparent openness to compromising on Social Security managed through a third party to get a policy paper into the hands of the campaign team. It may even have made a difference, at least the rhetoric moved a tiny bit. And at least one of those bloggers felt good.

This piece appeared right before Inauguration Day on some blog called 'Econospeak' by some blogger with the unlikely name 'Barkley Rosser Jr.' So take that for what you will. http://econospeak.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-bruce-webb-and-i-helped-save-social.html

"At a certain point, Bruce and I composed a memo laying out the above facts and some others that was sent through channels I shall not discuss to the highest levels of the Obama campaign. Soon thereafter came the change in position to move this proposed change off to 2019, although this decision may have had little to nothing to do with our memo. But I still hold to the position of that memo and hope that Obama is not listening too closely to Summers now on this matter."

Lets just say that our hopes of fundamentally changing the course of the new Administration were not entirely borne out.

Bruce Webb said...

"Indeed, Obama precompromised on some things, but in some cases the compromises came during the legislative process with him not realizing he was being sucker punched by those he was dealing with. "

And in other cases with his decision to name an initial economic team led by Austan Goolsbee and filled out by health care guy David Cutler and retirement security guy Jeff Liebman all a full year before the election. In Summer 2008 these choices were a tiny bit balanced when Jason Furman was brought on board but by Fall it was abundantly clear that the ultimate call would be made by the (pre-come to Jesus) Larry Summers. For whom Cutler and Liebman (both of KSG) could be rightly seen as early emissaries from the Rubinista/Harvard camp.

Obama made his economic policy choices abundantly clear by every single addition he made to his team starting in late 2007, far before he had any idea what legislative challenges he would face. Not to mention that he was actually delivered into 2009 with 60 Dem Senators and a House majority. The pure fact is that Obama on economics pre-compromised his pre-compromises a full year before his election by selecting as head of his economic team a guy who got a gushing profile from George Fucking Will. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/03/AR2007100302003.html
The Democratic Economist
By George F. Will
Thursday, October 4, 2007
"Is Goolsbee dismayed about widening income inequality? Yes, but with a nuanced understanding. The stagnation of middle- and working-class incomes, and the anxiety that has generated, is, he says, a most pressing problem, but policymakers must be mindful about trying to address its root cause, which Goolsbee says is "radically increased returns to skill."
"Economics is the only academic discipline that in recent decades has moved in the direction that America and much of the world has moved, to the right. Goolsbee no doubt has lots of dubious ideas -- he is, after all, a Democrat -- about how government can creatively fiddle with the market's allocation of wealth and opportunity. But he seems to be the sort of person -- amiable, empirical and reasonable -- you would want at the elbow of a Democratic president, if such there must be."

In 2007 Obama deliberately chose to model his economic philosophy on a guy who got approving reviews from George Will. Goolsbee was the pre compromise that came before the pre compromise to listen to Larry Summers pre compromise the stimulus package. To blame all this on Bill Nelson and Joe Lieberman and claim that Obama came handcuffed to this discussion is crap. Which I for one was calling out in real time right here and at Angry Bear and at MaxSpeak.

Bruce Webb said...

As one of his very first acts to reach out and work with Congress President Obama set a meeting with the House Blue Dogs. Feb 9, 2009. What? You would think that maybe this first meeting would be with the Congressional Black Caucus? Or Congressional Progressives? NOPE!! Obama wanted to set the right tone.
http://bluedogcaucus-schrader.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/blue-dogs-meet-with-president-obamaToday, members of the fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition met with President Obama at the White House to discuss the need for long-term fiscal reform, including ways to balance the budget and bring much-needed accountability to the federal government. Blue Dogs have been longstanding advocates of responsible fiscal policy and have committed to working with the President and leaders in Congress to take meaningful steps to put the country back on a path to fiscal and economic sustainability.

“We appreciated the opportunity to talk with the President today about the Blue Dogs’ long-term fiscal priorities,” said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), Blue Dog Co-Chair for Administration. “I’m optimistic that the Blue Dogs will continue to work with the President in a strong partnership to ensure that the federal government has the kind of long-term budget enforcement tools that are necessary to reduce our national debt and stabilize our economy in the long run.”

“The primary focus of our meeting with President Obama today was the importance of long term fiscal reform,” said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA), Blue Dog Co-Chair for Communications. “After eight years of reckless fiscal policies and out-of-control deficit spending by the Bush Administration, we have found ourselves buried under a mountain of debt that has left our country vulnerable on a number of levels. It is encouraging to have a President who is committed to developing a realistic plan to restore the fiscal health of the country, and the Blue Dogs look forward to being partners with President Obama in his efforts.”

Those of you who are 'futbol' fans might be thinking things like "Own Goal" right now.

A H said...

Drum "In the Senate she demonstrated that she could work with Republicans. Yes, it was always on small things, the GOP being what it is these days. Still, she built a reputation for pragmatic dealmaking and for her word always being good."

This is the best argument for bernie I have read yet!