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The Retrospective Perfection of Great Democratic Presidents

[ 208 ] November 5, 2010 |

One commenter in the third party thread argues that people arguing against implausible heighten-the-contradictions arguments have their own, similar problem:

the even-handed liberal in me must point out that the alternative is just as unbounded across the middle.

1. Vote for Democrats, who will always and up spitting on you, and running to the right.
2. ???????
3. Profit!

This argument only works, however, if we assume that under extant institutional and cultural conditions a substantially more progressive governing coalition (and hence something closer to European social democratic policy outcomes) is possible, that the timid centrism of many Democrats and the legislative outcomes of the about-to-be-concluded Congress represent correctable tactical failures. My position is that a substantially more progressive governing coalition (president+median votes in both houses of Congress) almost certainly isn’t possible, and that the domestic policy disappointments under the Obama administration are not the result of strategic and/or tactical failures by progressives.

Another way of looking at this is to consider presidencies that most would consider progressive models. Outside of a few dead-enders, most of us can agree that projecting much more progressive preferences and the ability to achieve them on Hillary Clinton is farcically implausible. But perhaps a more superficially plausible comparison is with FDR. If FDR could be a great progressive president without these compromises, why can’t Obama? But the problem is, this FDR who was relatively uncompromising is a complete myth. If you think that health care reform kowtowed too much to corporate interests, consider the first segment of the New Deal that essentially consisted of establishing corporate cartels. If you’re appalled by Obama’s foot-dragging on gay and lesbian rights and by health care reform not going far enough, consider the fact that the (very skeletal and parsimonious) social programs of the New Deal were deliberately constructed so as to largely deny benefits to African-Americans (while FDR did almost nothing about the egregious abuses of the apartheid states of the American south.) Think Obama’s civil liberties record is pretty terrible? You’re right! But it’s hard to argue that anything he’s done can top the internment of persons of Japanese descent based on security justifications that were largely known within the administration to be false or frivolous. (FDR’s own initiative, too, not merely an unwise decision to defend the awful policies of his predecessor in court.) If you’re outraged by selling out progressive interests, kowtowing to reactionary forces, and third-of-a-loaf social reforms, you can have a field day with FDR.

LBJ — who is invoked much less — is actually a better case. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and (especially) the 1965 Voting Rights Act are as close as you can get to uncompromising progressive triumphs, and a great deal more worthy legislation passed under his watch. But even in insanely favorable circumstances (massive majorities with unusually large numbers of progressive Republicans willing to collaborate, halo effect of an assassinated president, booming economy) Johnson was unable to pass anything remotely resembling universal health care, and then there’s his cronyism botching Earl Warren’s replacement (which effectively rendered Brown a dead letter by the early 70s) and…the whole Vietnam thing which (defensibly) prevented the most progressive president of the 20th century from even getting his party’s nomination to run a second time. And remember, these are the strongest cases — your Clintons and Carters don’t get close to these records for various reasons, and we won’t even get into allegedly progressive presidents like Wilson and Jackson whose blemishes arguably outnumber their virtues.

Is Obama comparable to the best and most consequential of these figures, with all context considered? It’s way to early to say, and he may not be. Certainly, no president under current circumstances is likely to have the reconstructive effects of FDR. He can be fairly criticized for many things, and there are areas where his perfoamnce has been disappointing even given realistic expectations. But there’s no point in comparing him to a baseline of progressivism no American president has ever approached.

The bottom line is that people don’t pay enough attention to structural factors. The high number of veto points, the modest malapportionment of the House and the gross malapportionment of the Senate all conspire against progressive reform and make it much easier for relatively coherent conservative governing coalitions to form than progressive ones. The rule is that periods of reform are very rare, and reforms (with some very unusual exceptions like civil rights under LBJ) are modest, incremental, and involve buying off a lot of reactionary stakeholders — and FDR very definitely isn’t an exception to this rule. It’s pretty implausible that this is just the result of generation after generation of progressives making tactical mistakes or not doing enough to challenge the Democratic Party.

Comments (208)

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  1. Walt says:

    I don’t see how you can think this and not regard it as a sign that on economic issues, progressivism is a failed political philosophy. On social issues, the Left has had many successes, but on economics we have achieved very little, and lost much of the ground we once had. If your argument is right, then structurally progress is essentially impossible. I guess that frees up at least one Tuesday evening a year for bowling or other fun-time activities.

    • +1 from me. And while my ‘heighten the contradictions’ approach is, I’ll admit, more than a bit crazy in certain respects I think its considerably less crazy than expecting any real progress.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Except that I don’t agree that any progress short of European norms doesn’t represent progress. The New Deal and Great Society really did make the system less inequitable — as does the ACA — and that matters.

      • Very true. But its equally true that the subsequent actions of Republican presidents and congresses have succeeded in undoing much of that progress and effectively cancelling out many, if not all, of the gains. For example – increases in the poverty rate over the past 30 years.

      • Walt says:

        Right. But for once the structural factors were aligned, and the best we could do was the ACA. At this point the Republicans have been so successful at demagoguing it that I bet they have a real shot at repeal before the main provisions go into effect.

  2. Hogan says:

    Saying that progressive change usually won’t come from presidents isn’t the same as saying that progressive change is impossible.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Sure, but the context of the discussion is about how to evaluate Obama and the Democratic Party and how they might be replaced with something better.

  3. Holden Pattern says:

    Awesome. So the Lemieux position is that the best we can do is vote for palliative care, since the corpus is slowing committing suicide. I admit that it rather feels like that to me.

    But when faced with this sort of analysis, I’m puzzled by the violent rejection of Daragh McDowell’s heighten-the-contradictions argument. If it’s impossible to do anything under the existing structural constraints, it’s not clear that palliative care is the right answer.

    • Robert Farley says:

      “If it’s impossible to do anything under the existing structural constraints, it’s not clear that palliative care is the right answer.”

      How does this in any way follow from Lemieux’s argument?

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        See above. Highly suboptimal reform != “nothing.” The New Deal and Great Society were compromised in many respects but that doesn’t mean that they were trivial or irrelevant. That’s the whole point of the argument — policies (and the public officials responsible for them) should be evaluated on whether they improve the status quo, not on whether or not they achieve some abstract and probably unachievable level of justice. Heighten-the-contradictions arguments only make sense if you think that incremental remedies of injustices should be ignored, which is silly.

        • Holden Pattern says:

          What you call highly suboptimal reform, I call palliative care.

          The question I am asking is this: we seem to be barreling full tilt into a new Gilded Age, except now we’re doing so facing down Peak Oil and Global Warming.

          The problem is that the price of suboptimal reform at the margins seems to be ever-increasing inequalities of wealth and power, which in turn render additional suboptimal reform even more suboptimal and less feasible. Under this model (which differs in terminology, but not really in structure from the Lemieux model), the best that advocates of social justice can hope for is that the revanchists hired by the oligarchs are so incompetent that occasionally we’re allowed to wipe up some of the shit they’ve smeared on everything. And again, the price for being allowed to do that seems to paying rent to the oligarchs.

          So despite the contempt-laded rejection of the question I was asking, it seems that the bright lights who run the joint here are basically saying that even though the shit sandwich keeps getting more expensive, and the bread gets thinner every time, at least there’s some bread.

          • Except that your position isn’t empirically supported at all – the New Deal and Great Society redistributed wealth and reduced inequality in big, measurable ways.

            The decline that’s happened in the meantime isn’t because we pursued liberal reform and it didn’t work, but because we stopped doing liberal reform for forty years.

            • Holden Pattern says:

              Except that your position isn’t empirically supported at all – the New Deal and Great Society redistributed wealth and reduced inequality in big, measurable ways.

              OK, and you thought I was starting from 1932 because why? What exactly in the context of my comments would give you the idea that I was talking about anything except the last 30 years or so of conservative* dominance? (*by which I mean not only insane movement conservatives but also the big-money courtesans who control policy in the Democratic party).

          • Scott de B. says:

            We made it out of the last Gilded Age ok, despite conditions far, far less favorable to liberal policies.

        • Holden Pattern says:

          I should also say that I’m not actively advocating a heighten-the-contradictions model. I vote for palliative care every election.

          I’m just asking at what point the payments for the shit sandwich would be too high for the incrementalists.

    • DrDick says:

      My problem with the heighten the contradictions model is that empirically it does not seem to work. Just looking back over the past 40 years I see no significant backlash against Nixon, Reagan, or Bush I & II. Indeed, rather than driving Democratic politicians further to the left, it seems to push them to the right. If he were more politically competent, Obama would be giving Clinton a run for his money as the best Republican President in the past 40 years.

      • I disagree. Before the entry of Obama into the race (and to be fair his subsequent spectacular fall from grace) John Edwards was the first presidential candidate in my lifetime I can recall talking openly and (relatively) frankly about poverty and income inequality. He actually got Clinton and Obama to denounce Reagan in a debate rather than acquiescing in his hagiography through persistent silence. And by all accounts he almost came out for single-payer (though I admit that ‘almost’ committing to revolutionary policy is pretty weak tea and the equivalent of ‘almost’ getting pregnant.) It wasn’t much – but it was something.

        • DrDick says:

          I am rather older, having cast my first vote against Nixon in 1972, and have seen the Democratic Party move progressively to the right since then. I also was an Edwards supporter, but he and Kucinich (who was totally marginalized from the outset) were the lone progressive voices in that race and he was never the front runner. From the outset, Obama and Clinton dominated the race. I think this example really makes my point rather than contradicting it. There will always be outliers, but the trend is clear.

        • Except that Edwards tanked (I voted for him anyway). I think the case you need to argue against here is McGovern – the man pursued a noble course of staking out a wide gap between himself and Nixon. The results were not good.

          • DrDick says:

            I voted for McGovern. What the “lesson” the Democrats learned from the Nixon administration is that they had to become more “corporate friendly.”

      • Walt says:

        Doesn’t seem to work? The Republicans just did it. They deliberately prolonged the economic crisis so that they could put themselves back in power.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          Do you think those contradiction-heightening Teabaggers are going to get “their” America back?

          Of course not! They just reelected the K-Street Project.

          Nobody’s denying that making things worse can reelect the party that you avoided in order to “heighten the contradictions.”. Bush’s presidency led to Democratic gains. But it didn’t lead to real change.

          • Precisely! Which is why my position is a) by all means support politicians making ameliorative marginal changes but b) recognise the problems are structural and advocate tirelessly for challenging those structures, and be prepared to withdraw support from the Democrats if they refuse to do so.

            • L2P says:

              Wow. Just wow. Your position, translated into what people can ACTUALLY DO, is:

              1. Support federal democratic candidates (because even the worst blue-dog Liebermanite makes marginal changes for the better as progressives see it);

              and

              2. DO NOT support democratic candidates, because only a handful of democratic candidate for federal office advocate structural changes to the process.

              I think you’ve just invented a new Turing test.

              I get that you hate the filibuster, but you need to move on.

              • You’re right that could have been phrased better. The point is that it should be a key and ideally non-negotiable demand of progressives that candidates support structural change or they will withdraw support – just like being anti-choice and pro-gun is for the Republicans. Everything after that be prepared to negotiate on – eg supporting marginal change like ACA instead of more progressive alternatives and other ‘half a loaf’ economic solutions. But make sure there’s a bottom line that at least holds out the prospect of eventual legislative action beyond making things slightly less bad at a somewhat slower pace.

  4. Paula says:

    No shit, Sherlock.

    The bottom line is that people don’t pay enough attention to structural factors.

    There is no cohesive progressive movement in this country because, thus far, most populism tied with the working class has been racially segregated. As far as I can tell, progressivism hasn’t been enough of dominant force among the populace to fail or succeed.

    I think this conversation might be better served if there was some kind of distinction between grass-roots activism and electoral politics. Electoral politics is slow and often yields less-than-ideal results, but one can’t really say that progressive grass-roots movements share in this failure.

    • anniecat45 says:

      WHAT progressive grass roots? Where the hell were they on Tuesday? One of the things I think progressives ought to do is back up one step from elections and start trying to seed some progressive grass roots. It’s great to run a more progressive candidate, but if such a candidate loses to a Republican because s/he’s too progressive for the minds of the voters, we don’t accomplish a single thing.

      And re LBJ, I am convinced that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts only passed because of the immense shock and horror reaction to the murder of John Kennedy. And yes, I am old enough to remember that era.)

      Re economic progressivism — the Great Society programs of LBJ were in place for less than a decade. Richard Nixon started to cancel and gut them the instant he took office. We haven’t really HAD progressive economic policies since 1980 when Reagan took office.

      And re the Supreme Court and LBJ — IIRC Senate Democrats refused to support him re Thornberry and Fortas’ nominations, handing Richard Nixon two vacant seats on the Supreme Court the moment he took office. Also IIRC, Thornberry was about on a level with a lot of prior Supreme Court nominees, and Fortas’ so-called financial irregularities would not have had any traction if Democratic senators hadn’t had an attack of nobility and refused to support him. Nice work, guys.

      Sorry for the rant but I just get so bloody sick and tired of the Democratic circular firing squad.

    • Paula says:

      Interesting set of replies. I should distinguish “grass roots organizations that have been doing work in local politics for a long time” from “whiny pseudo-activists online”, I guess.

      From what I can tell, the only nominally committed “leftists” who made noises about staying home are people online.

  5. djw says:

    Walt, Daragh, and Holden above all seem to work with the assumption (or, in Holden’s case explicit assertion) that political change on the margins of a very flawed and unjust political order simply isn’t significant or important enough to be worth bothering with. That, I think, may be a good way to frame the fundamental chasm in political attitudes here. I think that assumption is as indefensible as they think it’s self-evidently correct.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Or what djw says. I also note that the people upon whom the contradictions will be most heightened generally don’t believe this crap — the African Americans who supported Nader in 2000 could fit in a walk-in closet.

      • I think that’s a gross misreading of my position. I believe that marginal improvements remedying injustice are significant and important – I was one of the one’s applauding the passge of HCR as ‘something’ even if I think its still largely inadequate.

        BUT – I do not think that those changes are nor can be sufficient to ameliorate the deleterious effects of the structure itself. I also think that the structure is increasingly unstable, and that while marginal remedies can prolong its existence they cannot save it.

        If my JesusLand vs. Greater Canada scenario is too far-fetched (and I agree, its more than a bit crazy but then so was an indpendent Republic of Belarus not too long ago) try this. Suppose I started a political movement with the goal solely of electing Senators on a platform of total lockstep obstruction of all Senate procedures on all issues until the Senate adopted normal rules of parliamentary procedure (bye bye filibuster) and for good measure voted on a series of constitutional amendments designed to make the voting system more proportional and the inequity of territorial based representation (say elect the House by PR-STV, and the Senate is increased to 200 members and elected by party list.)

        Now I think these are all changes which would enormously increase the quality of legislation and the responsiveness of the legislature to the needs of its constituents rather than corporate interests. But I also believe that you could only accomplish them by being fully willing to engage in a hostage situation – literally nothing gets through the Senate unobstructed (including things like raising the debt ceiling, or appointment of generals to fight ongoing wars etc.) and no Senator escapes electoral challenge unless they fully embrace the programme – no matter how many Rick Lazios that puts in the Senate. And I’m willing to be relatively Straussian about it – sell it to North Eastern libs as a googoo measure, and southerners as an anti-big gummint measure.

        This will do a LOT of damage. More the longer it takes to get self-interested Senators on board. But the rebuilding process will be ten times easier, and the actual ability to effect progressive change incalculably improved after it is done. So is it morally superior to effect a short-term acute decrease in living standards and increase in political dysfunction to ensure better future results, or to restrict oneself to marginal improvement of a dying system?

        • L2P says:

          *What do we want? NOTHING!*

          *When do we want it? NOW!*

          Progressive policies are virtually certain to bloom from THAT coalition. It makes a Naderite run at denying Gore the presidency look like an almost Machiavillian bit of political strategy.

          • I’m not saying that arguing for electoral and political reform is going to set the world on fire, but I think you’d be surprised what spoilers can accomplish if they’re willing to go all the way with it.

          • Pepe says:

            CLASS 1: MANDATORY BLAME—MUST BLAME AT ALL TIMES

            1) Ralph Nader
            2) The 2.9 million people who voted for Ralph Nader

            CLASS 2: BLAMEWORTHY PRIMARILY WHEN NO CLASS 1 GROUPS ARE BEING DISCUSSED

            1) The Supreme Court
            2) George Bush
            3) Katherine Harris (may be removed from this class in the future due to increasing obscurity)

            CLASS 3: ARGUABLY RESPONSIBLE, THOUGH MAINLY IN NARROW PROCEDURAL WAYS

            1) Al Gore

            CLASS 4: MAY HAVE SOME DETECTABLE LEVEL OF RESPONSIBILITY BUT NONE WORTH MENTIONING

            1) Bill Clinton
            2) Joe Lieberman
            3) The Democratic Party

            CLASS 5: ENTIRELY BLAMELESS

            1) ~200,000 Democrats in Florida who voted for George Bush
            2) Millions of Democrats throughout the nation who voted for George Bush
            3) ~1 million Democrats who didn’t vote at all in Florida
            4) Republican voters in general
            5) People who voted for any of the seven other political parties in Florida whose totals exceeded the 543-vote difference between Gore and Bush
            6) The entire non-voting American public

            http://www.distantocean.com/2010/10/democratic-blame-calculus.html

            • DocAmazing says:

              Well, you can’t blame Al Gore–he made a movie!

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              1) ~200,000 Democrats in Florida who voted for George Bush
              2) Millions of Democrats throughout the nation who voted for George Bush

              I never cease to be amazed by Naderites who bring this up as if it’s some devastating argument. Isn’t that, ah, kind of hard to square with the key underlying claim of the Nader campaign that the Democrats would have won if they’d only run well to the left? And who has ever said that Democrats voting for Bush is a good thing?

              • Pepe says:

                I voted for Gore actually.

                But the liberal class, in our age of neo-feudalism, is now powerless. It offers nothing but empty rhetoric. It refuses to concede that power has been wrested so efficiently from the hands of citizens by corporations that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty are irrelevant. It does not act to mitigate the suffering of tens of millions of Americans who now make up a growing and desperate permanent underclass.

                http://theragblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/chris-hedges-collapse-of-liberal-class.html

                I don’t believe that the Democratic Party is reformable, even by increment. I refuse to participate in the game any longer. And I’m hardly alone.

                You can blame me all you like. I blame the Dems, and their apologists.

              • DocAmazing says:

                With Obama, the Dems did win–and by a nice margin–by running well to the left. Did you not notice that he used as his slogan an English translation of Cesar Chavez’s “Si Se Puede”? Did you not notice the promise to end the Iraq war? Did you not notice the promises about health care?

                Give up the cowflop about the US being a center-right nation. Americans love their Social Security and their other entitlements. That’s the part that you sell, and that’s what Obama did, for a time. It won for him.

            • matt says:

              What Pepe wants to do here is pretend that Naderites aren’t on the list. 2 wars, foreclosures, unemployment, torture etc. etc, etc.

              Yeah Nader’s on the list. And we’ll think about forgiveness after he apologizes. But why apologize when you’ve got apologists.

              • Pepe says:

                That’s funny. I blame the Dems.

              • jeer9 says:

                If a couple of million more voters in safe states like CA, NY, and MA had voted for Nader in 2000, the Green Party might have reached the 5% threshold and might now be providing a left incentive for the Dems to behave. Instead, we now get arguments for highly suboptimal improvements at the margins. And when the Catfood Commission suggests we cut SS, the apologists will scream of course but then move on to another issue for highly suboptimal improvement – always with the threat that if you hit me one more time I won’t vote for you until 4 PM.

        • socraticsilence says:

          Such a plan would never, ever work- it may be because of you unfamiliarity with the American System of governance as opposed to a parliamentary system but and this is assuming you ever somehow got a single Senator elected much less enough to enact policy (and I’ll note that its be more than 150 years since a third party was able to elect more than 2 Senators of its party to office- basically since the Whig turnover- unless one seriously counts Dixiecrats as a seperate party rather than a faction of the Democratic Party)- even if all that somehow happened- simply passing your proposed amendments through the Senate wouldn’t be enough- you’d then have to get them ratified in 33 states. Something that would allow your opponents to use state by state opposition to slow any momentum and crush your amendments- see the ERA.

          • I’m fully aware of the requirements to amend the constitution. Again this was a thought experiment, not something I think is viable (though theoretically a blocking minority of obstructionist Senators could inform the statehouses that the Federal spigot is officially off until they accede to our constitutional demands.)

        • djw says:

          The electoral scheme you envision here strikes me as nothing more than an exceedingly futile and pointless effort to exercise political power. If the Senate’s internal rules shift in a sane, majoritarian direction, I can say with virtual certitude it won’t be because of a strategy like this. How many voters do you think you can mobilize over procedural rules? Once again, much like with your earlier implausible fantasies about peaceful secession, I really don’t know quite what to make of them.

          On the bigger picture presented here, it’s hard for me to come up with a response to this because I struggle to engage this kind of deterministic certitute about future history. The future you sketch is certainly plausible, but I there are far too many variables and uncertainties for this kind of certainty. Maybe you’re right that in the end whatever we’re doing now won’t matter much in the long run. But, of course, in the long run we’ll all be dead.

          • The only real projections I’ve made thus far are that a) the current model of low-regulation, low tax capitalism pursued by the USA is unsustainable in the long run b) the political structures of the Federal government are unequal to the task of reform. I do not think either of these are wide of the mark.

            I agree – mobilising a coalition in support of procedural reform would in fact be exceedingly difficult. If I was seriously in favour of such a strategy I’d argue in favour of a party that based its goals around structural political reform and mobilised small, but crucial blocks of progressive voters, with potential tactical alliances with right-wingers, that could plausibly threaten to act as spoilers against major party candidates that refused to get on board.

            The broader point is, as many people have argued on this thread, if progressives do not plausibly threaten to shift or withdraw their support from the Democratic party if it does not at least attempt structural reform, then the Democratic party will never attempt structural reform. Its that simple.

            • djw says:

              I agree – mobilising a coalition in support of procedural reform would in fact be exceedingly difficult.

              You misunderstand me–that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying (barring some very unexpected external changes) it would not be possible. To think otherwise is to pretty dramatically misunderstand the nature of what can and cannot be accomplished with the mobilization of political power.

              • djw says:

                Or to put it a slightly different way, you scheme wouldn’t actually do any damage at all, because you’d never mobilize enough voters to change the outcome of a Senatorial election.

              • Or to put it a slightly different way, you scheme wouldn’t actually do any damage at all, because you’d never mobilize enough voters to change the outcome of a Senatorial election.

                I think thats not necessarily true. And I think mobilising coalitions on the back of systemic change (such as reforming the Senate, amongst other platforms) becomes easier the more apparent it becomes that the current system has failed.

            • John says:

              If one accepts your premises, the logical response would seem to be political apathy and disengagement.

        • “This will do a LOT of damage. More the longer it takes to get self-interested Senators on board. But the rebuilding process will be ten times easier, and the actual ability to effect progressive change incalculably improved after it is done.”

          The problem with this is that you’re assuming no public backlash against the interim chaos.

        • John says:

          What in the world are you talking about?

          You present, on the one hand, an actual practical course (Liberals do their best to win Democratic majority and then pass the most liberal bills they can into law); and, on the other hand, a completely impossible fantasy, and then say that you prefer the completely impossible fantasy.

          That’s bully for you, I guess, but what does it have to do with the real world.

          • You present, on the one hand, an actual practical course (Liberals do their best to win Democratic majority and then pass the most liberal bills they can into law); and, on the other hand, a completely impossible fantasy, and then say that you prefer the completely impossible fantasy.

            No. I think that course one is wholly insufficient to the actual problems facing the USA. I present a rather implausible, but I don’t think totally impossible, example of how the current structure could be changed to allow for realistic prospects of progressive policy goals being realised.

            Again – my position is that try as the Democratic party might, and with all the good intentions in the world, the structure of the system will prevent anything but pallative care being applied. The focus therefore should be ‘what comes next’ and how best to achieve it.

      • DocAmazing says:

        I’m probably the only guy here that has worked with revolutionary African-Americans and Latinos. There are actually a non-trivial number of Communists and labor organizers of color. Lots of people in minority communities are pretty damn unimpressed with political change on the margins, and they are indeed pursuing a heighten-the-contradictions approach–as well as working the political circuit. As I’ve pointed out before, it’s not either/or; working within the party structures will get you so far, but at a certain point you have to get out and push.

        • Scott de B. says:

          Yes, Communism! That’ll fix our problems!

          • DocAmazing says:

            Working with revolutionaries to organize politically is no more supporting Communism than working with corporate donors on charity programs is supporting neo-feudalism. However, I’m used to knee-jerk Red-baiting, so do continue. I’m sure you have a large contingent of organizers and volunteers to bring to the table, right?

            • larryb33 says:

              actually, I think working with corporate donors on charity programs is kind of close to supporting neo feudalism.

              • DocAmazing says:

                It’s what I have to do on a regular basis to get resources for the MediCal kids I treat–the taxpayer-supported programs aren’t sufficiently well-funded. I’ve been dancing with the devil for a long time now, but I’ve been able to retain at least some autonomy. Let’s see how long that lasts…

    • Walt says:

      I know that you’d like to tar me with the Nader brush, but I’m the most moderate of moderate liberals here. It wouldn’t surprise me if on policy I was to your right. But every President from Carter to Bush Jr.has moved economic policy to the right. In the wake of a gigantic disaster, the best Obama could do is move things slightly to the left, a move that might not even survive past 2012. If it’s structural, I don’t see how you can look at that record and not conclude the inevitable outcome is total defeat on all fronts.

    • I wish people like that would coach football teams. It would be a pretty entertaining game.

  6. Stag Party Palin says:

    I am not criticizing Obama for doing too little (I could, but I’m not). I’m on his ass for doing too much – for being a constitutional scholar that believes the president can have a US citizen killed purely on his say-so. Etc., etc. He has done for constitutional rights what the Shrub could only dream about.

    BTW, it seems to me that FDR’s statement, approx “Now make me do it,” applies here. The Nixon administration passed the Clean Air Act. LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act. Neither of them did it because he had a dream.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      He has done for constitutional rights what the Shrub could only dream about.

      Obama’s civil liberties record is indeed poor, but this really isn’t true. What does Obama believe the executive can do that Bush didn’t? How many people has he ordered to be tortured?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        How about claiming the right to assassinate American citizens away from the field of battle without any judicial oversight?

        I honestly don’t remember Bush claiming any such executive power.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Well, essentially they argued that Article II allows the president to do anything is terrorism can be invoked, so I don’t see why that wouldn’t be covered.

      • Stag Party Palin says:

        I would say that the Obama administration has taken up the same positions as Bush did, spoken out more clearly for them, and added the imprimatur of both the scholar and the liberal (as he is defined by the right) to them. We thought Bush was wrong, and he lied about what he was doing. Now Obama is doing the same thing openly. At the time, Bush could only dream about being so open.

        How many people has Obama ordured tortured? I don’t know. Perhaps none. OTOH, how many tortured people has Obama gained redress for? How many legal obligations has Obama reneged on? Not reporting a crime is a crime too, innit?

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Not reporting a crime is a crime too, innit?

          It is! Again, I’m not defending his record, just saying that Bush was better isn’t true.

          • Holden Pattern says:

            That’s awfully faint praise. As long as we’re not as bad as the LRA, we’re OK!

            I would say that by endorsing Bush administration’s policies, Obama has locked them in as the new normal. And has done so consciously and knowing that’s what was being done. The Bush positions on civil liberties, aggressive war, show trials, state-sponsored assassination and perpetual imprisonment, are now the new baseline American positions, and can no longer be viewed as an abberations. That’s appalling.

  7. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    I continue to reject the assumption that the only politics is electoral politics, so that any outcome which is not immediately achievable in the electoral sphere is essentially impossible.

    Those great civil rights achievements of the Johnson administration wouldn’t have happened without the civil rights movement.

    The correct response to Scott’s more or less accurate assessment of the politically possible c. 2010 is not to settle for it (Scott’s view) or make things worse in the vain hope that things will then somehow automatically get better (Daragh and company).

    The right response is to work to change the possible. And in our system that’s work better done in the streets than in the voting booth.

    • Murc says:

      I sort of take it as a given that when Scott says a more progressive governing coalition isn’t possible right at this moment, there’s an implied endorsement for going out and making it possible in the future. I could be wrong.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        I’m sure Scott wouldn’t object to so doing.

        But I would argue that we need to do it. And we need to start doing it now.

        While I join Scott in rejecting the notion that incremental reform = nothing, he seems much more prone to accepting (what passes for) incremental reform than I do.

        It’s better to drive this country into the ditch slowly than quickly, I agree. But IMO this administration is still driving this country into the ditch.

        • I’m not arguing for things ‘automatically get better’ once things get really bad. Nor am I arguing that one should actively move to make things worse. I am arguing that things are going to get considerably worse under current structural conditions no matter what. Marginal improvements, while admirable, are insufficient to reverse the decline.

          There’s a strong case to be made that the best course of action is to focus on making those structural changes rather than to compromise in exchange for marginal improvements. I believe, unfortunately, this will lead to an acceleration in the decline. I think long-term, this will be less harmful from a social justice perspective than a gradual one. I also think it holds out a better chance for structural change if progressives are ready and willing to make the argument, as well as being able to demonstrate that they were correct in their diagnosis of what the actual problems are and engaged in sincere efforts to address them.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I continue to reject the assumption that the only politics is electoral politics

      I note only that nothing in either post says or implies otherwise.

    • Anonymous says:

      IB, you’re one of the best blog commenters around. You’re flat out right about 85% of the time, and the other 15% you’re wrong in smart, important and challenging ways. That said, this post is an excellent example of what’s going to keep you out of the inner circle of the hall of fame for blog commenters. Even when you agree with Scott (and people like him), you must find a way to frame your own position as just to the left–just a little bit more radical–than his. As several people, including Scott, have pointed out, there’s nothing in this post that contradicts your view on the potential and necessity of various forms of non-electoral politics. And as someone who’s read Scott’s blogging for some time, you must surely know that he’s never committed to the position you attribute to him. But your apparent need to distinguish yourself from him in some way–because you’re just a little more to the left than him–leads you to this kind of somewhat preening “Here’s the perfect middle the rest of you are missing” kind of post.

      Again, my praise is entirely sincere and I hope you’ll consider taking this comment as constructive criticism, rather than a personal attack.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Thanks for the praise…and the truly constructive criticism.

        I think you misread my motivation, but your critique is otherwise entirely fair. I do think that I basically agree with Scott here. and I should have focused on that agreement more.

        However, I’m really not invested in being to Scott’s left. I am, however, really convinced that progressives need to focus more on non-electoral politics. So I find the discussion of how we should vote a bit frustrating. Still, I do basically agree with Scott. My sin here is less a need to be more left and more the classic “why aren’t you blogging about what I want to blog about?”.

  8. DivGuy says:

    I certainly agree with the above, but I don’t think Scott has argued anything that goes against that. He’s just saying that, in the narrow sphere of electoral practice, we should opt for the best of the possible.

    Then, during the 99.99% of the time when we’re not in the voting booth, we’re hopefully spending as much time as possible organizing, calling, knocking on doors, raising money, doing all the boring stuff that produces the conditions for change.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      And yet we’re spending our time blogging, rather obsessively, about what we do in the voting booth.

      My own take on the dsquared post (which is where this all began) is that while it is almost certainly a better idea to vote for the Democrats than to vote for someone else (or not vote at all), at least in competitive races, if your choice of who to vote for is your most significant political act, you’re doing it wrong.

      • Scott de B. says:

        I don’t think we spend all our time blogging about what we do in the election booth.

        We do tend to spend a lot of time immediately after losing an election talking about the election booth, for fairly obvious reasons.

  9. Murc says:

    Nitpick; I don’t think you can really say that FDRs reputation as a non-compromiser is a complete myth. This is a dude whom, when the Supreme Court kept shooting him down, gathered his allies in the Senate (and in fact took it on the road as a campaign issue) and basically did the political equivalent of putting a gun to the Courts and daring them to make his day, ushering in a shift in American jurisprudence that has made just about all significant liberal economic reforms since then possible.

    There’s also the fact that a fair number of people don’t bitch at putative progressive leaders in Congress or the White House for COMPROMISING, but for either preemptively surrendering or simply having really STUPID negotiating tactics. (There IS also bitching at them for compromising, grant you, but I try not to do this myself too much because laws, sausage, all that.)

    • Erik Loomis says:

      OK, but the courtpacking scheme was probably FDR’s biggest mistake. It really hurt him electorally in 1938 and fed into Republican narratives of the royal presidency. So I don’t know that this is a good example. I guess he wasn’t compromising here–but he made a colossal error.

      • jeer9 says:

        Bingo. And it was intentional.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Well…

        Court packing exacted a huge political cost for FDR, but it did pressure the Court.

        And though this certainly wasn’t his intent, the conservative dislike of a string executive branch was arguably the most attractive thing about post-war conservatism for the couple decades that dislike lasted. Certainly looks better than the Unitary Executive!

        • John says:

          There was, of course, the switch in time that saved nine. But the main thing that moved the court to the left was that the four horsemen died or retired.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            Agreed.

            I think the court packing attempt had a more complicated result than is sometimes suggested, but if one has to call it a failure or a success, it was clearly a failure.

            • Ed says:

              You don’t have to call it one or the other. It failed, but it did put pressure on the Court and the Four Horsemen. I’m surprised that anyone is even arguing about that.

  10. wiley says:

    When there is a choice between voting for two evils, vote for the lesser of two evils (stupid). More evil is not going to help. Not voting is not principled. If we were given a choice between Hitler and Stalin, I’d say that it might not matter, but otherwise a lot of the left seems to be thinking too much about “principle” and thinking too little about reality.

  11. LosGatosCA says:

    1. Obama made some critically poor judgments on the economic front. He underestimated the depth of the problems – how is another question. He put the wrong people in charge.

    2. If he had been smart enough with the proper advisors he would have still been at a major disadvantage with respect to FDR since the severity of the prior administration’s policies were fully understood and there was 4 years of non-progress in FDR’s case. Plus the magnitude of Hoover’s errors were greater.

    By analogy, if Obama had realized that he assumed office in January, 1930 heading toward November, 1932, not March, 1933 heading toward November, 1936 he should have acted differently.

    3. Obama did not inherit the legacy of a slain leader with the consummate insider’s understanding of the legislative process like Johnson did.

    Consequently, both FDR and Johnson took over in situations more favorably disposed for their relative success and were better prepared. Add Obama’s team’s lack of realization of the urgency and magnitude of the issues, lack of recognition of the political risks, and Obama’s personal lack of understanding in making inappropriate personnel decisions top to bottom for his economic appointments stands out.

    In March of 2009, I thought I understood Obama’s strategy to be that in 2010 and 2012 people still wouldn’t have jobs but they would say, ‘At least I have health care.’ And delivered urgently to move quickly to address other economic issues. But by August, 2009 it became clear there was no urgency and that even more stupidly, the health care changes wouldn’t even take full effect until 2014.

    So, the strategy became clearer to me. No job, no urgency, no health care changes right now.

    The rest is pretty predictable.

    • jeer9 says:

      I wish people would stop suggesting that Obama is stupid or flawed by poor judgment. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s all about getting re-elected. Now, instead of having to play the inscrutable gatekeeper thwarting progressive reform, he gets to take on the role of defending the remnants of constitutional order and social welfare from a bunch of crazies who want to dismantle it further. It’s an Oscar-winner, played previously by William Jefferson Clinton. And we’ll be so happy for the incremental improvements at the margin that we won’t understand why people are so frustrated with Republican policies masquerading as some sort of failed liberalism. Rinse. Repeat.

      • Anonymous says:

        He’s not that smart.

        • djw says:

          Nobody’s that smart.

          Jeer9 is making the 9/11 truthers look sensible by comparison.

          • jeer9 says:

            Live and learn, so they say. I guess he’s just incompetent and the behavior of Democratic presidents over the past eight decades just miraculously, coincidentally, seems to repeat itself.

            • Scott de B. says:

              I would be very happy if the behavior of Democratic presidents over the past eight decades continued to repeat itself for the next eight decades.

              • DocAmazing says:

                Right. So we get another NAFTA, more concessions on reproductive rights, more bank deregulation…

              • jeer9 says:

                DocAmazing,
                They really are a clueless bunch, thankful for whatever scraps the rigged system tosses them. Whether it’s Roosevelt packing the courts to anger everyone and distract attention away from much-needed further reform, Truman starting the Korean War, Kennedy and Johnson escalating the Vietnam debacle, or Clinton and Obama with their neo-liberal policy concessions, the Democratic apologist remains pleased with highly suboptimal improvements at the margins. It’s what the battered wife thinks is the best she can get. As I mentioned upthread earlier, if a couple of million more Dem voters in safe states like CA, NY, and MA had voted for Nader in 2000, the Green Party might have reached the 5% threshold and might now be providing a left incentive for the Dems to behave. Instead, we get apolgies for why we’re still in Afghanistan and increasing our investment, why torturers can’t be prosecuted, and why the bailouts were necessary. And when Obama’s Catfood Commission suggests we cut SS, the apologists will scream some more of course but then move on to another issue for highly suboptimal improvement – always with the threat that if you hit me one more time I won’t vote for you until 4 PM.

  12. LosGatosCA says:

    Plus when Obama had his ‘fire the air controllers’ moment, he re-appointed Bernanke.

    He has created the greatest cognitive dissonance for his own party since Bush I raised taxes after ‘read my lips.’

  13. LosGatosCA says:

    I have to clarify the prior point – Bernanke’s appointment is among the pattern of actions that created the cognitive dissonance, not nearly the sole cause.

  14. Charrua says:

    Scott, I understand your point, but your position seems to be that people should resign themselves to voting only on the not-as-bad-as-the-other-guy basis and that their own political philosophy has no chance. It may be true, but as an argument, it’s not exactly effective, you know?. Have you ever seen an ad with the “It’s not what you want, but it’s not as bad as the other products” slogan? Do you think it would sell?
    And that’s your best argument for voting Democrat!!! You can’t be surprised by the lack of enthusiasm and grumbling; it’s a small wonder that hardcore liberals keep voting at all.

    • LosGatosCA says:

      It worked for Meg Whitman. Oh, that’s right.

    • Scott de B. says:

      I would rephrase it.

      If progressives wish for more progressive electoral outcomes, they have a much, much better chance persuading an electorate consisting of Democrats (by operation at the local party, candidate-selection and primary stages) than an electorate consisting of Democrats + Independents + Republicans.

      In other words, if you can’t get your preferred candidates nominated within the Democratic party, they wouldn’t have a chance in the general election anyway.

    • djw says:

      It may be true, but as an argument, it’s not exactly effective, you know?

      Actually, the empirical record for this argument is very, very strong as only a vanishingly tiny number of leftists vote for anyone other than Democrats.

      • Genuine Question – what’s the time line for those figures? Because I visibly cringed everytime Kerry pulled out that ‘reporting for duty’ line, and can’t remember a single policy he proposed that wasn’t almost utterly worthless. But (if I could vote in the US) I would have pulled that lever for him as hard as I could to get Bush out. Now that we’re back in a period where we can reflect and remember ‘oh wait, Democrats in charge is certainly less terrible than Republicans in charge, but is still in many important ways terrible’ you might see those numbers drift back to protest groups.

  15. bobbyp says:

    Yes, FDR did little in an overt manner for blacks. This, of course, explains why ever since that time blacks vote Democratic Party overwhelmingly.

    But he did do a few things…things that blacks picked up on, massively shifting their political allegiance.

    Managing perceptions is not magic, but it can be of great importance. Whether it’s something Obama doesn’t believe in, or simply cannot master, I simply do not know.

    But I know this. It would not have taken much for the Administration to come out swinging hard for the public option and concede later. I’d wager if they had done so, we would not be having this conversation.

  16. bobbyp says:

    PS: Blacks and FDR, Roosevelt, Eleanor, which see.

  17. TT says:

    Politicians are bound to disappointment you, especially the ones you vote for. But what is the alternative? President Thune? President Palin? More often than not, in a large, complicated country with innumerable interests competing for favor from the state, the least-bad option is the only option. Do I agree with Obama’s continuation of much of Bush’s record on civil liberties, his preemptive surrender on the public option, and his refusal to repeatedly kick Wall Street in the balls? No. Will I vote for him in 2012? In half a heartbeat. And yes, it’s because I will have nowhere else to turn to. But that’s not an ignoble sentiment. That’s just politics.

    • LosGatosCA says:

      The problem isn’t your vote. It’s not even the bases vote in general. Standing up strongly attracts low onformation voting independents who don’t know anything other than whether they think a candidate is resolute in playing to win while being true to their personal values.

      Successful, compromising pragmatists just need to master the skill of seeming to be resolute and unyielding by picking the right fights.

      Never fighting is not inspiring.

  18. pv says:

    I’ve come to see supporting Democrats as a mere warding off of evil until something mostly external to the current system–changing demographics, a massive technological advance, something–changes the system. I think it possible that in the long run, convincing people that, say, humans are causing global warming is more important than convincing people in your neighborhood to vote for Democrats (changing minds before changing laws, I guess, but I might be applying a view as an animal rights/welfare advocate–a tiny fraction facing a resistant culture requiring a long view of change–to other matters).

    But…one ought to ward off evil where one can, too.

    • pv says:

      Here’s my metaphor:

      If you are under siege by vampires, start cutting wooden stakes–but while you’re cutting the stakes, keep a ring of garlic around your neck.

  19. CharleyCarp says:

    I’ve been drawn into this discussion at CT and The U, and won’t repeat here what I’ve said there. Just writing to note that Truman is missing from the discussion, and suggest that folks look for Alben Barkley’s speech at the ’48 convention.

    And on the general topic, I think there is absolutely room for a real progressive faction within the Dem party, and if the people who want there to be one would build it — from the ground up, winning state and county offices before getting all wound up about whining about federal positions — real change is possible.

    I have no time at all, though, for a faction that can’t get 15 people into the 7,000 state legislative seats going on about what they would do if they could convene (and run) a constitutional convention.

    • Holden Pattern says:

      And on the general topic, I think there is absolutely room for a real progressive faction within the Dem party, and if the people who want there to be one would build it — from the ground up, winning state and county offices before getting all wound up about whining about federal positions — real change is possible.

      Works in theory, but in the one state where I’ve seen people try that (because I live there), they had a brief run of success at putting at least some progressives in the Democratic Party power structure committee, and the top-down money players (existing electeds, former electeds, their cronies) promptly crushed any further hope of progress by ensuring that the old-line insiders voted against any really progressive positions and also making sure that the internal party money flows stayed opaque and under the thumb of the money players.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        and that should be…

        “Democratic Party power structure / committee membership”

      • CharleyCarp says:

        Understood. But if you can’t beat them inside the structure, you’re not going to be able to beat them out on the open plains either. I mean, this is just a variant of ‘we can’t get enough senators to back our position, so let’s have a constitutional convention to weaken/eliminate the Senate’ position.

        I think state and county structures, and elected offices, are the most available. And yes, you need the offices too, because the money people can’t/won’t turn their backs on people with power. Nobody said it was going to be easy — it’s certainly a lot harder than simply cheering on some vanity celebrity candidate who’s going to be a single digit spoiler.

        • DocAmazing says:

          Once again: it’s not either/or. Have people challenge the exist party apparatchiks at the local level and mount third-party challenges to force the apparatchiks to address leftist concerns.

          • Scott de B. says:

            I think it is either/or. You can’t make a credible effort within the Democratic party while also building a third party from scratch. The resources simply don’t exist to do both.

            • DocAmazing says:

              Well, they definitely don’t exist if you’re making it a point to exclude third-party voters, revolutionaries, labor organizers, and other people you find distasteful. There are a great many people out there organizing and donating money to causes other than the Democratic Party. Were the Dems to do what Obama did in 2008 and invite these various groups into the fold, you’d see a lot of action. However, if the Dems do their usual “ew, hippies and commies, don’t get any on you!” routine, they lose.

            • Pithlord says:

              More important, you can’t persuade loyal party members when you are undermining the party somewhere else. Two tracks never works.

              • Holden Pattern says:

                Oh, if only the insiders with the power might begin to understand that. Instead, we are told to STFU and buy the shit sandwich no matter how steep the price or thin the bread the because the Republicans are CRAZY.

              • DocAmazing says:

                Right: that’s why the Dems lost this time out. They undermined the labor/LGBT/left part of the party, and everybody else was unpersuaded.

  20. CharleyCarp says:

    And IMHO, the senator-elect from KY is not fit to scrape gum off the shoe of the original ‘veep.’ I think we can all agree on that.

  21. partisan says:

    About the Fortas nomination: if LBJ had chosen Brennan (or possibly Goldberg, who ideally might still have been on the court), would Thurmond still have been able to successfully demagogue the issue?

  22. PunditusMaximus says:

    The only problem with this analysis is that it assumes Republicans don’t read it too.

    If the GOP knows that incremental reform can lead to real change, they’re going to start mobilizing against incremental reform, too.

    The other problem is more complex: FDR and LBJ, whatever their policy failures, obviously advocated for good policy, and they took time and energy to incorporate or co-opt progressive leaders and masses. Obama has made clear that he will oppose policy proposed by Progressives because it is proposed by Progressives. And this unwillingness to advocate moves all the way down. How can we reasonably persuade people of things we believe to be true if our “leadership” consistently claims that they are not?

    Anyways, this is all irrelevant. We needed action on the economy, on the financial sector, and on climate change. We got 1/2 of two of them; Obama is officially about 33% better than Bush. And given what we know of Bush as a human being, that’s horrifying.

    • Scott de B. says:

      You forgot healthcare reform. Obama is at 50%. Wait, forgot about withdrawal from Iraq. That’s 60%. Stopped torture, that’s 75%. Oh, and the Credit Card Bill of Rights, student loan reform, increased investment in green energy…

      • DocAmazing says:

        What withdrawal from Iraq? There are tens of thousands of military personnel there, including special operations units, and truckloads of mercenaries. What stopping torture? Bagram and Gitmo are still operational, and no one is monitoring them.

        It’s not even half a loaf; it’s a picture of a loaf.

      • larryb33 says:

        Stopped torture? What’re you smoking?
        Anyway, in 2010 it is not so clear to me that a Democratic administration post 9/11 would not have pursued at least one endless war.

  23. larryb33 says:

    Silly me. I must remove the stars from my eyes. Why ever did I vote for Nader? Yes, yes, there was welfare reform..and Nafta..and the repeal of Glass Steagall..telecommunications act…Kyoto…
    But I must remember, these “achievements” were balanced with highly progressive measures such as well..let me think. Oh yeah! No more “drive by deliveries.” What else? What else?
    Oh never mind.

  24. charles pierce says:

    Scott — Thanks for at least mentioning poor old Lyndon. I have been on an All The Way With LBJ Revival kick for 10 years now. If people can shine up a crook like Nixon and a senile figurehead like Reagan, progressives can at least spare some flowers for the old Texas coot who go so much done.

  25. At the risk of sounding smug in the face of tragedy – and for the record I think what Governor ‘Kill ‘em all and let god sort ‘em out’ Perry and his goons are proposing is horrific – I think the heigthen the contradictions ‘strategy’ is about to get a massive shot in the arm.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      I think you’re massively and tragically wrong about this.

      It’s the same mistake that people like Jeff Rosen make when they claim that if it weren’t for Roe v. Wade, women being forced to travel long distances to go to states with available abortions would create massive pressure on other states to legalize abortion.

      Nonsense.

      Poor people die and starve in this country all the time at zero political cost to the people causing the dying and starving.

      Every other industrial democracy has had national healthcare for half a century and the massive failures of our healthcare system have yet to produce enough pressure to create real heathcare reform.

      If Texas and other states withdraw from Medicaid, the only necessary result will be more suffering. By itself, their deaths won’t speed real reform one minute.

      • I hope you’re wrong and I’m right for obvious reasons. I have to believe something as basically, obviously necessary to even a modest safety net such as Medicaid could not be repealed without a massive backlash (Notice Republicans in article maintaining some pretence of giving a shit about provision of care and cautiously opposing bill.) Maybe I’m just imposing my own political-cultural blinders onto the situation.

        But when you’ve got GOPers on the right clamouring for evil legislation, and Dems on the (for want of a better word)’left’ clamouring for neutral to kinda bad legislation, you end up with a lot of really bad legislation. The the Republicans win and enact their evil preferences anyway.

        • DocAmazing says:

          That’s a pretty fair summary of the last twenty years of US legislation.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          Here’s the problem: the at-best unproven heightening-the-contradictions strategy involves playing with people’s lives.

          My assumption is that, electorally speaking, the best we get in the short-run is the lesser evil. And none of us have enough knowledge of, or power over, the future to say that helping the greater evil win will change that situation. But we know that it will hurt people on the margins (indeed, the fact that it will hurt people on the margins is an assumption of the heightening-the-conradictions strategy).

          When it comes to destroying the lives of the most vulnerable in our society, those who sew the wind may reap the whirlwind.

          • djw says:

            This is an excellent summary of what I find not just strategically foolish but morally abominable about acting on “heighten the contradiction” strategies. It involves a pathological indifference to the most vulnerable in society; using them to test out your own personal theory about the path of history.

            (And Daragh, if you think it’s probable that Republicans in Texas will pay a political price for screwing the poor, your lack of understanding of American political culture is deeper than I’d previous assumed, which is saying something)

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              +1.

            • larryb33 says:

              Really? I was working for a community action agency when welfare reform was passed. All I could think at the time is “this may fly when the economy is rolling along, but what about when we hit some bumps?”
              It seemed like the consequences would be pretty horrible for the most vulnerable.

              • DocAmazing says:

                Remember, it’s only immoral to make the lot of the poor worse if you are a leftist; for Bill Clinton to do it is merely being responsible.

            • I’ll go ahead and just agree with the defences that larryb33 and DocAmazing have laid out below.

              As for the snark supplied by djw – could it perhaps be that the Republicans will suffer for screwing the poor is at least partially because the Democrats will not credibly attack them for screwing the poor? Or embrace and promote normative frameworks that are at least somewhat different from hyper-capitalism? Or because Democratic-leaning voters and interest groups won’t credibly threaten to withdraw support if they don’t? Or work to mobilise those effected by anti-poor legislation into support of ACTUAL policy remedies rather than letting the Democrats treat them as simply banked votes?

              And there are certain things we can know from holding our nose and supporting the lesser evil in the short run – we can know that for the 2, 4, or 6 years in which Lesser Evil is in office basic structural problems will not be addressed. The poor will continue to be screwed – albeit perhaps, in a slightly kinder and gentler manner. We will also provide absolutely ZERO incentive for Lesser Evil to transition to Morally Neutral, or even Slightly Good. In fact we encourage the creation and maintenance of the corporate duopoly which is the root cause of many of the problems we are animated about addressing. Y

              ou claim I’m ‘morally abominable.’ I could equally make the claim that you’re willing to turn a blind eye a large group of suffering people (that is increasingly expanding) because the people causing the suffering are letting you feel good about yourself by saving a few. So your exhortations for ‘lesser evil’ are little more than unbelievable narcissism. (In the end this is all hyperbolic and mildly hysterical because we are in fact debating this on a blog, and there are many non-electoral political means for addressing social problems that many people here have advocated and FWIW, I will also add my endorsement too.)

              I’m not arguing for absolute moral and political purity. I recognise that compromises always have to be made at some point – but a compromise should at least bring us further along the road to achieving fundamental goals, rather than bandaging up problems while leaving their causes unaddressed. Ultimately you have failed to provide even ANY scenario in which the basic, structural problems the country faces which are leading to entrenched and persistent human suffering will be addressed by continuing a ‘lesser evil’ strategy. I’m arguing we vote for people who at least recognise the roots of the problem and are prepared to address them, rather than Bart Stupak and Joe Lieberman.

              At some point this is also a question about what the whole point of having a democracy is if the citizenry cannot even contemplate advocating for and voting for certain policy changes because ‘their’ party will tell them that they’d just love to make things better, but gosh darnit its just politically impossible (a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one) and will be blamed even by people who agree with them in principle for ‘spoiling’ elections when the ‘lesser evil’ candidate was still basically offering EVIL! And I fail to see how in the long-term perspective there is a great moral distinction between voting, and advocating for ‘worse, but slower’ over ‘worse, but faster’ instead of at some point insisting that a candidate offer ‘better.’

          • gmack says:

            I think IB is right about this too, but I would add something further. My problem with the “heighten the contradictions” model of social change is not that it is callous and immoral, but that it is politically naive.

            The suffering that the Texas proposal will produce might lead to any number of outcomes: it might lead to a restoration of welfare state guarantees; it might lead to even further rollbacks or other attacks on the poor. The problem with the “heighten the contradictions” model of change is that it assumes that a collection of “facts” (demographic, or the facts about how conservative policies lead to negative outcomes) speak for themselves. But this is clearly false: as we currently see in the face of ongoing unemployment problems (which are downright catastrophic in many parts of the country, such as Ohio, or among certain demographic groups, such as African Americans), it is always possible to reinterpret various problems or facts to support whatever political ideal you happen to have.

            If we want to create the sort of society we want to see, I’m afraid we’ll need to do more than wait for conservative policies to fail and then hope that the public will magically turn more to the left. We’ll need to articulate actual alternatives, and these alternatives will actually have to make sense to various constituencies. And we’ll have to organize and create new networks of power, so that we can pressure the political system to move in new directions.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Agreed, with the addendum that it’s callous and immoral and politically naive.

              • gmack says:

                Absolutely. It’s not an either/or but a both/and.

              • If we want to create the sort of society we want to see, I’m afraid we’ll need to do more than wait for conservative policies to fail and then hope that the public will magically turn more to the left. We’ll need to articulate actual alternatives, and these alternatives will actually have to make sense to various constituencies. And we’ll have to organize and create new networks of power, so that we can pressure the political system to move in new directions.

                I 100% agree with this, and think its closer in fact to what I’ve been arguing for (if not always completely clearly.)

                BUT – if those new networks of power are applying pressure to the system (or being more honest – the Democratic party) to effect real change, then it must be prepared to withdraw support from the Democratic party if it fails to effect real change.

                And Scott – while I’m not particularly thrilled that you and djw have decided to assert moral superiority over me, tell me this: how is it not ‘callous and immoral and politically naive’ to pledge near unconditional support for the Democratic party simply to keep out the Republicans without exerting credible pressure for them to enact progressive policies?

              • gmack says:

                Daragh McDowell,

                Yeah, as I reflected on my post, I began to think that I was being moderately unfair to what you are arguing. I think we agree on the core point, which is that the withdrawal of Medicaid is potentially disastrous, and that just hoping that the disaster will automatically lead to people flocking to to the left is not sufficient.

                Regarding your larger point, I think it depends upon context. Voting is one tactic among many in political action, which is partly why I find this discussion to be somewhat frustrating; there’s this weird moralism about whom you vote for, but there seems little reason to see it this way. I think Nader’s campaign in Florida in 2000 was politically stupid, but I can understand (and even advocate for) voting for Greens in places like Capitol HIll in Seattle (if the only opposition that, say, Jim McDermott has comes from the left, then one pushes him in that direction). So: sometimes it might make sense to withdraw support; sometimes it makes sense to take half a loaf. But none of these decisions make damn bit of difference without various activist movements that can give these platforms, rights, and strategies life.

              • But none of these decisions make damn bit of difference without various activist movements that can give these platforms, rights, and strategies life.

                100% agreed, so much so that I took it as read. I think my larger point, is that these platforms and movements cannot be yoked exclusively to the Democratic party and have to be able to draw clear distinctions between avoiding letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and simply capitulating to the less bad and to refuse to do the latter.

              • djw says:

                these platforms and movements cannot be yoked exclusively to the Democratic party and have to be able to draw clear distinctions between avoiding letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and simply capitulating to the less bad and to refuse to do the latter.

                Agreed wholeheartedly. (But, if it’s general election time, and a Republican might actually win, anything other than voting Democratic is pretty squarely in “perfect as of the good” territory)

              • Agreed wholeheartedly. (But, if it’s general election time, and a Republican might actually win, anything other than voting Democratic is pretty squarely in “perfect as of the good” territory)

                Two questions – first what if it’s say, Castle vs. Bayh, or Collins vs. Lieberman? And that’s a genuine rather than snarky question.

                Secondly, in real terms how is supporting the Democrats in every electoral contest not effectively yoking oneself exclusively to the Democratic party? Because at the end of the day you’re still in the same position – Democratic elites will feel free to establish their ‘moderate’ credentials by pissing on hippies safe in the knowledge that push comes to shove, they’ll get their vote anyway.

              • djw says:

                irst what if it’s say, Castle vs. Bayh, or Collins vs. Lieberman?

                Depends on the details, but generally, yes. Recall that we probably wouldn’t have the ACA with an R occupying either of those seats (of course, I support primary challenges when strategically viable, despite the 2006 failure of this strategy). And, of course, moderate Republicans who vote straight party lines are extremely pernicious creatures in their own right–fawned over by the idiotic media, extracting concessions in bills they’ll never vote for anyway, etc etc. At the end of the day the Demints et al are worse, because every once in a while the moderates do vote against their party, but the difference between them and the “moderates” is vastly overrated.

                econdly, in real terms how is supporting the Democrats in every electoral contest not effectively yoking oneself exclusively to the Democratic party?

                I am one of the many people who has argued that substantial progressive change requires a host of non-electoral political efforts, and those often have little to do with the Democratic party, which is both right and good. To re-state the obvious, the reason it makes sense to focus efforts to shift the window of possibilities in a progressive direction through non-electoral rather than electoral politics is quite straightforward–while it *may* not work, there is at least a track record of such efforts being productive in some cases, there is no equivalent track record of success for “heighten the contradictions” strategies, and a far greater chance for catastrophic consequences in (predictable) failure.

              • I am one of the many people who has argued that substantial progressive change requires a host of non-electoral political efforts, and those often have little to do with the Democratic party, which is both right and good. To re-state the obvious, the reason it makes sense to focus efforts to shift the window of possibilities in a progressive direction through non-electoral rather than electoral politics is quite straightforward–while it *may* not work, there is at least a track record of such efforts being productive in some cases, there is no equivalent track record of success for “heighten the contradictions” strategies, and a far greater chance for catastrophic consequences in (predictable) failure.

                DJW – at some point you still have to assemble a legislative majority that will vote to enact progressive change – particularly when it comes to reform of political institutions. Unless you’re willing to withhold support at some point, that simply isn’t going to happen, unless you can paint for me a scenario where the Democratic party becomes substantially more progressive through a gradual takeover of its internal mechanisms, AND primaries result in a slate of progressive candidates, AND these candidates maintain opposition to an entrenched status quo without meaningful pressure in the opposite direction, AND they all (or a sufficient number get elected) AND that this all happens before the underlying structural problems that are the actual cause of most of the problems they seek to address does not cause the system to collapse in on itself, as I argue it probably will.

                Again – I’m not arguing for ‘heighten the contradictions’ as a ‘strategy.’ If the Democrats could offer a sub-optimal reform program that led to a more stable structural foundation which could be improved and built upon I’d be all ears. My position is that what they can reasonably expect to accomplish under current conditions is effectively pallative care – ie things WILL get worse, probably intolerably so and its really only a question of how fast they do. Therefore it is essential that progressives begin to direct their energies in more mid to long-term useful political solution – getting people to the lifeboats and off the sinking ship, not exhausting them working the bilge pumps.

              • djw says:

                Unless you’re willing to withhold support at some point, that simply isn’t going to happen,

                As I’ve made perfectly clear, it seems beyond obvious to me that withholding support from the democratic party until they do something they’re never going to do is a strategy that would never attract enough people for anyone to notice, and in the unlikely event that that ceases to be true, would still fail spectactularly to achieve its stated goals. There’s exactly zero reason to believe your strategy would be successful in the universe we live in, based on pretty much everything we know about the nature of political institutions and political behavior.

                This, by the way, is completely independent of what our society “needs.” (I agree it would be very valuable, but your language of necessity smacks of structural functionalism–the system needs X, therefore some way of accomplishing X must exist). I have no response to your demand come up with another way addressing this “need” because I don’t have one. I don’t fancy myself that kind of visionary anyway. But my failure to offer an alternative strategy to your goal doesn’t make your idea any less of a dead letter.

                I’m not arguing for ‘heighten the contradictions’ as a ’strategy.’

                Correct me if I’m wrong but you seem to be suggesting that we should (if not right now, very soon) launch a program of not voting for Democrats who don’t endorse a set of reforms they’re never going pursue anyway. Again, no one will ever notice such a campaign, but if they did that would lead to Democrats losing and Republicans (who understand politics well enough to avoid such a strategy) would win more often. In other words, you’re advocating making things worse in the short term in the hopes of some future long term goal. This sacrifice is justified by the belief that bad things were going to happen anyway on this path, so who cares if they happen now or a few election cycles down the road? If this isn’t a heighten the contradictions strategy, perhaps we’ve been using the terms differently, because this is pretty much exactly what I mean by it.

  26. Scott Lemieux says:

    If a couple of million more voters in safe states like CA, NY, and MA had voted for Nader in 2000, the Green Party might have reached the 5% threshold and might now be providing a left incentive for the Dems to behave.

    Er, I think you mean “and made it much easier for Republicans to win presidential elections while providing no benefits whatsoever.” As another Green has already conclusively (if inadvertently) demonstrated, the Dems have far more votes to lose on the right than the left — a fact that is even more true in marginal congressional seats than in national races — and whether Nader gets 2.2% or 5.1% of the vote is irrelevant to anything. Your theories of causation are consistently just bizarre.

    • jeer9 says:

      I await your appraisal of the Catfood Commission’s suggestions and the Congress’ reaction during the lameduck session with bated breath. And yes, Nader was a horrible candidate, but a third party alternative remains the only way to move the Dems left, though you seem pleased, like a battered wife, with the occasional scraps thrown your way. I think most pragmatic Americans hold both parties in utter contempt and don’t see much distinction. Discouraging alternatives to the bruised and abused, however, seems to be motivated by the best of intentions. As for causation, I agree with Karp’s view that it is not Big Business and Corporate Power that undermines reform but the two parties themselves who play a game, using corruption and special privilege to maintain their authority and keep the best interests of the public from ever being served. Call me crazy. Call me a conspiracy-mongerer – but Obama’s behavior after this latest landslide only convinces me further that reform from within is a fool’s game. There will always be indispensable enemies whom the apologists mischaracterize as structural in nature.

      • John says:

        The Republicans have moved consistently to the right for 50 years without a third party challenge to their right.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          1)The Catfood commission was a terrible idea, but last I checked it lacks the authority to enact legislation and its recommendations aren’t actually going to pass.

          2)Again, as the data provided by Nader defenders in this very thread demonstrates, third party alternatives will do nothing to move Democratic presidential candidates or Democrats in marginal districts to the left. (As John says, the only way to do that is through primaries.) So third parties (especially ones that aren’t cross-cutting) in our system offer huge risks and essentially no benefits. Conservatives understand this perfectly well.

        • jeer9 says:

          And this is surprising why? The Republicans would like a monarchy. The Dems are “supposed” to represent the average Joe.

        • DocAmazing says:

          What was the Tea Party? How ’bout the militia movement?

          The Republicans embrace their radicals, draw electoral and financial strength from them, and accommodate them. The Democrats exile their radicals and wonder why the Republicans make electoral gains, then decide that it must be due to their policy preferences.

          • gmack says:

            I think it’s more complicated than that; in fact, Republican attitudes toward their radicals depends upon the context. Throughout much of recent Republican history, for instance, they struggled to keep the Birchers out; now, they embrace them. But throughout they have been able to maintain something that the left does not currently have: a set of core ideas (even if they are somewhat in tension with one another), and ongoing movement activism that gives these ideas life.

  27. Scott Lemieux says:

    Oh, and another of the countless missing piece of your causal chain: matching funds or no matching funds, the Greens don’t get anywhere near 5% of the vote in 2004. I hate to tell you, but only vanishingly tiny minority of progressives thought that the “throw the election to George W. Bush because he’s a harmless moderate not much worse than Gore” strategy worked out well. Whether the Greens could have bought a few more ads is irrelevant when most prospective voters hold them in utter contempt for very good reason.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      To be fair to the Greens, only a minority of Greens actually embraced the strategy you describe, which is why David Cobb beat Ralph Nader for the Green Party nomination in 2004.

      I don’t disagree about the underlying failure of the Green Party enterprise, which is why I’m no longer active in the Green Party.

      I do think you misstate the party’s political vision, which was built around structural reforms like IRV (which, incidentally, Nader personally opposed precisely because he was, in fact, a believer in heightening the contradictions and spoiling elections).

      It was not entirely unreasonable for Greens to assume that Democrats would come to embrace such reforms in order to prevent Greens from “spoiling” elections they’d otherwise win. In fact, Democrats did no such thing.

      Like the GOP, the Democratic Party is deeply committed to the political status quo, including its least democratic features like first-past-the-post and the filibuster in the Senate.

      Even when it appeared to many Democrats that Greens had spoiled the 2000 presidential election (and let’s just stipulate that this belief was held in good faith), they calculated that it was more useful to be able to treat third parties as bogeymen to whip progressives into line than to initiate reforms that would structurally eliminate the spoilage problem.

      In fact, spoiling an election–or even appearing to spoil an election–takes a pretty perfect storm, which is what Florida was in Y2K. Yet another reason why the strategy of electoral spoilage/contradiction heightening adopted by Nader implicitly in 2000 and his followers explicitly ever since is a total fail.

      • DocAmazing says:

        Even when it appeared to many Democrats that Greens had spoiled the 2000 presidential election (and let’s just stipulate that this belief was held in good faith), they calculated that it was more useful to be able to treat third parties as bogeymen to whip progressives into line than to initiate reforms that would structurally eliminate the spoilage problem.

        This should be repeated (see? I just did!) often–If Nader’s run truly did throw the 2000 elections, the reasons that it did can and should have been fixed once Dems were in a position to do so. They didn’t. Why they didn’t comes down once again to whose checks they’re cashing.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          I support IRV, of course, but substantial electoral reform is an enormously difficult proposition — path dependence is extremely strong, and for reasons djw has explained it’s virtually impossible to generate the mobilization that would be necessary to overcome entrenched interests over institutional reforms. Democrats might have been motivated to prevent spoilers, except that as everybody with the exception of Jeer9 understands Nader’s suicide-bombing in 2000 made third-party challenges from the left irrelevant for a long time. I’ll grant that not all or even most Greens believed in Nader’s strategy* — as Jon Chait says, Nader was sort of the house radical of his own campaign — but politics has little do with fair. When your standard-bearer decides to put the most reactionary president in nearly a century in office, you’re not going to recover even if he doesn’t speak for you.

          *It should also be noted that the failure of the Greens to get enough safe-state votes wasn’t just a coincidence. Nader deliberately chose not to focus on attracting safe-state liberal voters — because electing Bush was the central goal, not an incidental byproduct, of his campaign.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            I don’t doubt that achieving electoral reforms like IRV would be extremely difficult. But the Democratic Party did not even notionally sign on to the idea. There’s a vast grey zone of things that the Democrats support in theory but that are either effectively impossible to achieve in practice or about which they don’t actually care: DC statehood and EFCA are two outstanding examples that spring to mind. Even I’d actually achieving these changes would be difficult, it’s telling that, after the 2000 elections, neither IRV nor electoral college reform was added to the platform.

            As for the Greens and safe state votes in 2000: one of the many frustrations of that campaign for GP activists is that there was virtually no coordination between the candidate and the party. Nader never joined the Greens and never shared his lists with it is essentially hostile to political parties as such.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

              Whoops…. I hit the ” submit” button by mistake! That last ‘graph should conclude:

              Nader never joined the GP and never shared his lists with it. Indeed, he’s basically hostile to political parties as such. While the Nader campaign itself was behaving basically as Scott described, the party at the state and local level was very much trying to accumulate safe state votes. And, as I note above, the 2004 nomination battle between Cobb and Nader was fought over this very issue….and Nader lost.

          • DocAmazing says:

            Again, you’re overlooking the biggest part of the Dems’ failure to act: their largest donors don’t want the problem fixed.

            Once you view the actions of the Democratic Party through the lens of its corporate donors and not its rank-and-file, its actions make a great deal more sense.

          • jeer9 says:

            except that as everybody with the exception of Jeer9 understands Nader’s suicide-bombing in 2000 made third-party challenges from the left irrelevant for a long time.

            Which even further explains to the weak-minded few why Obama feels free to slap the progressive left. He is very confident that he will appear a model of sanity next to the Republican nominee. And since most Americans, though they don’t want to consider themselves liberal, approve of SS, Medicare, ending two futile wars, and holding the banksters accountable, they will hold their noses and vote for him. Democratic pundits then shriek with joy that the electorate has returned to its senses.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Since, according to you, this happened after a very consequential third-party run, your argument is self-refuting. Third party runs from the left can be effective at electing Republicans, but they do nothing to move Democrats to the left.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

                I’m basically with you in this argument, Scott. But I think your conclusion here is overly broad.

                For example, a very good case can be made that Henry Wallace’s presence in the ’48 presidential race helped push the Democratic Party to the left on civil rights.

                Whether or not third party runs from the left move the Democratic Party to the left varies on a case by case basis. I agree that “spoiling” (or appearing to spoil) Democratic victories does no good whatsoever. But out of at least half a dozen left third-party presidential campaigns over the last half century, precisely one might plausibly be accused of having had this effect. Like I say elsewhere on this thread: spoiling takes an absolutely perfect storm to happen. Most of the time it doesn’t.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

                Whoops….I should have proofread that more carefully…

                But out of at least half a dozen left third-party presidential campaigns over the last half century, precisely one might plausibly be accused of having had this effect.

              • jeer9 says:

                Not consequential enough, however, because too many people like yourself argue that the system can be reformed from within, even if electing right-leaning Dems like Obama provides only highly suboptimal improvements on the margins as we slide toward fascism. I got it. It’s an inspiring vision and at least affords occasional opportunities for light, which is more than Karp’s dark view provides. I seem to remember LaFollette’s efforts resulting in some changes in Republican party behavior (maybe it’s my imagination), though he was crushed eventually by the oligarchs. Yep, you’re right. Best to stick within the system.

          • I support IRV, of course, but substantial electoral reform is an enormously difficult proposition — path dependence is extremely strong, and for reasons djw has explained it’s virtually impossible to generate the mobilization that would be necessary to overcome entrenched interests over institutional reforms.

            So the lesson is, never try? Again – if you don’t make your political support contingent on the party supporting and advocating certain policies, its a dead cert they’re probably not going to bother too much with those policies.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Leaving aside the fact that the number of people who will withhold their votes based on procedural reform issues is essentially none, the effect of making one’s support contingent based on endorsing IRV would be 1)no IRV, and 2)more Republican governance. So what’s the upside?

              • Leaving aside the fact that the number of people who will withhold their votes based on procedural reform issues is essentially none,

                First off, electoral reform is more than procedural reform – its fundamental and it effects outcomes and coalition building in real and consequential ways. Secondly that’s only true because a number of progressives (like yourself) are arguing that it is somehow illegitimate or immoral for other progressives (like myself) to withhold support from Democratic candidates under all but the most extreme circumstances because otherwise the Republicans would win. Secondly, I think you’d be surprised just how much of Liberal Democrat support in the UK is based at root on their support for electoral reform. Different system yes – but also large group of progressives willing to withhold support from the larger progressive party over issues of principle. Result? Labour has had to, gradually and grudgingly but perceptibly, move towards a position that is pro-electoral reform. At some point, it really is that simple.

              • djw says:

                First off, electoral reform is more than procedural reform – its fundamental and it effects outcomes and coalition building in real and consequential ways.

                The second half of this sentence is absolutely true, but I have no idea why you think that’s inconsistent with calling electoral reform procedural. Elections are a democratic procedure. Ergo, reforming them is a procedural reform. There’s no earthly reason to think procedural reforms are somehow trivial or unimportant–Scott and I certainly don’t hold that view.

                Secondly that’s only true because a number of progressives (like yourself) are arguing that it is somehow illegitimate or immoral for other progressives (like myself) to withhold support from Democratic candidates under all but the most extreme circumstances because otherwise the Republicans would win.

                The causal argument you advance here is profoundly absurd. Scott and I are skeptical in the extreme about attempting to use electoral politics to attempt enact procedural changes that would potentially undermine the political power of existing politicians because we believe that electoral politics has limits as a tool for change. This is based on actual knowledge of voting behavior as well as the path dependence of institutional power structure. If every opinion leader to the left of Tom Friedman spent the next decade extolling voters to adopt such a strategy, it wouldn’t be any more viable than it is today.

                I think you’d be surprised just how much of Liberal Democrat support in the UK is based at root on their support for electoral reform.

                I’m not entirely ignorant of UK politics, so I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that. It’s also not a matter of mere coincidence that the UK has the LDP and the US has nothing of the sort. I invite you to think a bit harder about some possible reasons why such a party doesn’t exist here.

              • I have no idea why you think that’s inconsistent with calling electoral reform procedural.

                Reading it as a blog post it smacked somewhat of Luntzian word-smithing to downplay its importance. But I admit that was probably me over-reading while in an argumentative mood, so apologies.

                This is based on actual knowledge of voting behavior as well as the path dependence of institutional power structure. If every opinion leader to the left of Tom Friedman spent the next decade extolling voters to adopt such a strategy, it wouldn’t be any more viable than it is today.

                I’ve spent my time in the political science trenches myself, so please don’t talk down to me. I could equally point out to you that there is a wealth of new research on the effects of high-information voters and what might be termed ‘thought leaders’ on the behaviours and preferences of low-information voters. So on the contrary – if everyone to the left of Tom Friedman was clamouring for electoral reform you just might see Democrats actually supporting it, and arguing for it, and VOTING on it which is the only way it will ultimately be achieved. But that’s not the point – we agree on almost everything in terms of goals and the importance of non-electoral poltiics, except for your belief that the Democrats will not change their behaviour and policy preferences either way if progressives credibly threaten to defect. I’m pretty sure that’s BS.

                I’m not entirely ignorant of UK politics, so I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that. It’s also not a matter of mere coincidence that the UK has the LDP and the US has nothing of the sort. I invite you to think a bit harder about some possible reasons why such a party doesn’t exist here.

                Invite all you’d like. Certainly parliament is a huge factor, as are it being a smaller state with a competent amd well-funded public broadcaster. But MOST important has been its possession of a significant progressive voting bloc that has refused to simply align itself with Labour for the purposes of defeating Tories. I’ll go back and think long and hard for as long as you’d like on costs of political entry, class structure, and constituency geography as much as you’d like but at the end of the day I (and many millions of other voters) voted Lib Dem because I beleived their policy platform was significantly better for the cause of human happiness and good governance than any other party, and I decided that supporting them even though they had (at the time) almost no chance of political power was more ethically justifiablly (and politically satisfying) than engaging in lesser-evilism.

              • djw says:

                Obviously, I’m not going to convince you of everything, or vice-versa; You have some pretty deep misunderstandings of what is possible through electoral politics, and the extremely sticky features of American political culture that explain why a strong progressive political party didn’t emerge and probably wont. So, I’m going to pose one last question for you, and then let this discussion go. While I share this view to some degree, it seems to me you’re more committed to a stronger version of it than I am, as it’s necessary to your deterministic views about the future trajectory of American politics.

                But that’s not the point – we agree on almost everything in terms of goals and the importance of non-electoral politics, except for your belief that the Democrats will not change their behaviour and policy preferences either way if progressives credibly threaten to defect.

                I want to press you on a potential contradiction in your thinking here. On the one hand, you seem somewhat sympathetic to another, far more deranged commenter who likes to use the term ‘duopoly’–the idea that the two political parties in the US are the junior and senior partners, if you will, in promoting and protecting the interests of capital, and the public good be damned. On the other hand, you believe that the Junior partner in this arrangement is vulnerable to an electoral threat from the left–from the very people who insist that the interests of the public good (not to mention the poor and vulnerable) should be placed above capital.

                A party can look for more votes on the edge or the center. When faced with a third party challenge, they pretty much always head to the center to replace those votes. This trend is widely known and understood, but if anything, it seems even more likely to be true when a movement from the left challenges a party that’s largely captured by capital.

                Apologies for excessive snarkiness/rudeness throughout.

            • djw says:

              So the lesson is, never try?

              In this case, where ‘never’ covers virtually all short and medium term futures I’m capable of imagining, the answer is quite clearly yes.

              The lesson is to understand the potential–and limitations–of the situation that you’re in. To attempt to, say, garner enough support and buy off enough powerful effected interests to provide health insurance for tens of millions of uninsured is a pretty ambitious thing to do (although I get the sense you don’t agree), and it happened to be within the realm of possible outcomes. To get a large portion of Democratic politicians and officials is to sign on to a reform program that would undermine their own political power is so obviously a non-starter that I can’t conceive of a way to go about explaining why without being astonishingly condescending.

              It’s like if I were, say, trying to push for a bus route to serve my neighborhood, so I wouldn’t have to drive to work every day, you’d be shouting at me about how I’ll still just be stuck in traffic anyway, and I’ll always be stuck in traffic until I start flying to work.

              • jeer9 says:

                To get a large portion of Democratic politicians and officials is to sign on to a reform program that would undermine their own political power is so obviously a non-starter that I can’t conceive of a way to go about explaining why without being astonishingly condescending.

                And the result is: the very politicians who should be looking out for their own interest on this matter lose in the next election. Who gains by that? The duopoly. Because people become frustrated, apathetic or indifferent. The duopoly exerts its power by making certain the people’s needs are never met. If they are met, holy shit, people might think participatory democracy works and exercise an independent streak. Mustn’t let that happen. I apologize for the condescension.

              • The lesson is to understand the potential–and limitations–of the situation that you’re in.

                Which is exactly what I’ve been doing, as well as making the argument that the choice is not between awfulness and improvement at slow pace, but rather awfulness and awfulness at at somewhat slower pace. Under those circumstances I believe the better option is to challenge the systemic limitations rather than resign oneself to them.

                To attempt to, say, garner enough support and buy off enough powerful effected interests to provide health insurance for tens of millions of uninsured is a pretty ambitious thing to do (although I get the sense you don’t agree), and it happened to be within the realm of possible outcomes.

                No, I agree Healthcare was a titanically difficult legislative achievement and bravo to Obama and the Democrats for achieving it. My point is the fact that such a relatively minimal set of reforms could occur only the most favourable conditions since the 1960s and still be so hugely difficult should tell us something is wrong with the constraints in which we operate and it is – in the medium and long run – to challenge them rather than accomodate them.

                To get a large portion of Democratic politicians and officials is to sign on to a reform program that would undermine their own political power is so obviously a non-starter that I can’t conceive of a way to go about explaining why without being astonishingly condescending.

                I find it equally difficult to avoid being astonishingly condescending when asking the question ‘do you think if there was a credible threat that failure to support reform would undermine their power to greater degree (i.e. losing an election) they might change their mind? Do you not think that adopting such a posture rather than ‘lesser-evilism’ might produce similar rethinks among elites?’

                It’s like if I were, say, trying to push for a bus route to serve my neighborhood, so I wouldn’t have to drive to work every day, you’d be shouting at me about how I’ll still just be stuck in traffic anyway, and I’ll always be stuck in traffic until I start flying to work.

                Its nothing like that. Its as if you were pushing for a bus route for your city and you voted for the Democrat for city council even though he explicitly ruled it out as being ‘politically impossible’ (translation: the local auto-dealerships are bankrolling his AND the Republican’s campaign) and then went on your blog and told everybody who thinks bus routes are incredibly important are naieve, callous and morally abominable for voting for candidates who actually support bus routes.

          • Ed says:

            Democrats might have been motivated to prevent spoilers, except that as everybody with the exception of Jeer9 understands Nader’s suicide-bombing in 2000 made third-party challenges from the left irrelevant for a long time.

            We’ll see about that, I guess, although the odds are still heavily against it happening soon. I would be more inclined to blame the Florida Dems who voted for Bush, a goodly number,or who stayed home and didn’t vote at all….

  28. larryb33 says:

    @DocAmazing,
    Sorry I did not intend to single you out as a corporate suck up. I’m sure that you do what you have to do. I just finished reading a book called The Monster which tells the story of the mortgage melt down. It focuses more on the predatory lenders (although of course it does discuss Wall Street’s ultimate complicity). One person who comes out looking especially bad is “New Democrat” Deval Patrick who was easily coopted by Ameriquest after serving as an assistant AG under Clinton (and investigating said mortgage lender).

    • DocAmazing says:

      Oh, I’ve eaten plenty of lunches supplied by drug companies. The secret is to finish eating, wipe the corners of one’s mouth gently with a paper napkin, and then prescribe generics.

      • larryb33 says:

        Oh, that’s nothing then. I was thinking more on the lines of using fair housing advocacy groups as window dressing.
        It was heartening to read in The Monster that state AG’s that were bringing a class action lawsuit against Ameriquest were immune to the mortgage lender’s attempts to bring them to their side by feting them in a “get to know your defendant” (my description) dinner.
        There were some good guys in the book. Even a couple of politicians!
        I’ll recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the con men culture of SoCal.

        • larryb33 says:

          a little more relevant to the discussion: Clinton era reforms of predatory lending were pretty ineffectual which pretty much encapsulates all that was wrong with the Clinton administration. Anything vaguely progressive was more “feel good” and ultimately toothless.
          On the other hand, policies promoted by Clinton and favored by the right and the corporatists did have teeth.

  29. Moved down for ease of reading

    As I’ve made perfectly clear, it seems beyond obvious to me that withholding support from the democratic party until they do something they’re never going to do is a strategy that would never attract enough people for anyone to notice, and in the unlikely event that that ceases to be true, would still fail spectactularly to achieve its stated goals. There’s exactly zero reason to believe your strategy would be successful in the universe we live in, based on pretty much everything we know about the nature of political institutions and political behavior.

    That’s a hell of a negotiating strategy you’re pursuing there – the Democrats will never sign onto a program of vital structural reforms, so we should just shut up and accept it rather than even attempting to pressure them into doing so.

    This, by the way, is completely independent of what our society “needs.” (I agree it would be very valuable, but your language of necessity smacks of structural functionalism–the system needs X, therefore some way of accomplishing X must exist). I have no response to your demand come up with another way addressing this “need” because I don’t have one.

    I’m pretty big on electoral systems I’ll admit, but the evidence is pretty strong that the quality of US Democracy (that is the responsiveness of the government to the preferences of the citizenry) is shockingly low. I believe that this is a critical problem to address if we want to enact real progressive change, and therefore it is important to mobilise coalitions and political in support of these goals. Simply (and rather haughtily) declaring it’ll never happen, so don’t bother trying smacks to me of fatalism.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but you seem to be suggesting that we should (if not right now, very soon) launch a program of not voting for Democrats who don’t endorse a set of reforms they’re never going pursue anyway. Again, no one will ever notice such a campaign, but if they did that would lead to Democrats losing and Republicans (who understand politics well enough to avoid such a strategy) would win more often. In other words, you’re advocating making things worse in the short term in the hopes of some future long term goal. This sacrifice is justified by the belief that bad things were going to happen anyway on this path, so who cares if they happen now or a few election cycles down the road? If this isn’t a heighten the contradictions strategy, perhaps we’ve been using the terms differently, because this is pretty much exactly what I mean by it.

    Fine. I prefer to conceptualise it primarily as a strategy of supporting, voting for and mobilising on behalf of candidates willing to support actual improvements rather than pallative care. If that ‘heightens the contradictions’ its a side-effect, not a primary goal. I could equally condemn your strategy as ‘fatalism’ but there you go.

  30. djw says:

    That’s a hell of a negotiating strategy you’re pursuing there

    Perhaps this is part of the problem. I’m perfectly aware this isn’t a good negotiating strategy. When I wrote those words, I was attempting to describe the reality in which we live, not offering a trial run for some as of yet non-existent social movement’s negotiating strategy for a confrontation with the Democratic party. That would be a strange thing to do, because this non yet existent future social movement probably won’t listen to people like you or me, anyway.

    • I have to think a bit harder (and do a bit more work on my thesis) before I can give a proper answer to your excellent question raised above. I’d also like to express appreciation for the apology and extend my own apology for excessive snarkiness and rudeness on my part. I think we can all agree its pretty easy to degenerate in conversations like this especially when the medium is a comments thread. In any case, in the interests of common ground, civility and general bipartisanship, let us all agree that THIS is going to be frigging hilarious.

  31. Holden Pattern says:

    Reading through all of this, it’s pretty clear that the consensus among the savvy is that the right thing to do is:

    1) vote for decreasingly-effective palliative care no matter how shitty the shit sandwich is because the Republicans won’t even bother with a saltine on either side of the sandwich. Or don’t bother to vote, because it’s kind of the same either way for most people, and you’re better off putting your energy into items 2 and 3.

    2) try like hell to lift oneself up into the rentier class where you can exploit a few other people the way the ruling classes are exploiting you, because people who work for a living are pretty much completely fucked for the foreseeable future.

    3) enjoy the current resources as much as you can — eat all the sushi you want before the fish are gone, buy a fancy car if you can afford it before the gas is gone and the bridges all collapse from neglect, buy fancy electronic toys before the grid collapses from neglect, eat, drink and be as merry as you want consistent with your ambition under #2, because there’s fuck-all you can do to actually change anything.

    4) hope that the contradictions aren’t catastrophically heightened at some point in the medium term future when the natural effects of (1) and (2) meet the known structural resource limitations of the physical world.

    Seems to me that the savvy folks have made a far better argument against the utility of voting if you’re on the left than d-squared ever could.

  32. DJW – In answer to your question:

    I want to press you on a potential contradiction in your thinking here. On the one hand, you seem somewhat sympathetic to another, far more deranged commenter who likes to use the term ‘duopoly’–the idea that the two political parties in the US are the junior and senior partners, if you will, in promoting and protecting the interests of capital, and the public good be damned. On the other hand, you believe that the Junior partner in this arrangement is vulnerable to an electoral threat from the left–from the very people who insist that the interests of the public good (not to mention the poor and vulnerable) should be placed above capital.

    I am somewhat (emphasise somewhat) sympathetic to the ‘duopoly’ model. I think that there are key areas – such as financial market regulations – where the capture of both parties by vested interests is extreme to the point where few meaningful differences exist. Democrats may have passed FinReg rather than nothing, but FinReg is weak enough that its arguably not significantly better than nothing. I would argue that there is a similar lack of all-but trivial differences on gun control, normative frameworks regarding abortion, taxation, activist government, certain aspects of foreign and security policy where the status quo is harmful to well-being etc. and where progressives have legitimate and significant differences with the Democrat party as it is currently constituted.

    Now I think that this situation can at least partially be explained by the fact that liberal Democrats and progressives have been too willing to take an accomodationist and ‘lesser-evil’ stance rather than insisting that their continued electoral, monetary and organisational support is contingent on certain ‘red lines,’ as opposed to conservative Republicans and activists (basic stuff like requiring Democratic Senators vote for cloture on Democratic bills or Congressmen to vote for and defend the main planks of the party’s platform would be a start.)

    A party can look for more votes on the edge or the center. When faced with a third party challenge, they pretty much always head to the center to replace those votes. This trend is widely known and understood, but if anything, it seems even more likely to be true when a movement from the left challenges a party that’s largely captured by capital.

    That assumes there’s still a significant centre available for capture, or at least a large enough group of centrist voters to offset the defection of left-wing Democrats. I would argue, with a fair bit of empirical data to back me up, that this isn’t the case, that even ‘moderate’ Republicans are highly unlikely to support an even more centrist Democratic party. When faced with significant and credible challenges from the right, the GOP has generally accommodated its ‘rebels’ rather than move to the centre, precisely because its rebels are willing to defect – this has led to electoral failure in some cases, but not all and has been a key element of the shift in political discourse towards the right. My position is that if Democratic partisans were more willing to put more pressure on their leaders through credible threats to defect (ensuring Democratic electoral defeat)then Democratic candidates will pay more attention to their priorities and attempt to incorporate them into their platforms. This could also have the additional salutary effect of helping to shift the national discourse towards the left.

    But this all requires at some point a willingness to defect and articulate and promote alternative policy platforms and candidates, to force Democrats to compete for votes on their left. Otherwise Democrats will simply continue to take advantage of the benefits of ‘capture’ (extra resources) safe in the knowledge that there is little they can do to alienate their base – which is a big part of why we’re in the position we are now with regards to continuing, gradual decline and why I don’t think we can address it without some form of rethink of the political strategy.

  33. Don says:

    I am opposed to immigration “reform” (amnesty). This country is overpopulated, and 21 million Americans are out of work.

  34. [...] expected.   The fact is that Obama is the second most progressive president since FDR*, and FDR wasn’t significantly more progressive – however much people like to quote the “I welcome their hatred line,” the key [...]

  35. [...] The idea that the success of FDR and LBJ was in their ability to steamroller Congress is a myth. Let’s go to Sides again: The short answer: presidents don’t often succeed in persuading [...]

  36. [...] is likely to share their values in an absolute as opposed to relative sense. Progressives are prone to idealizing past Democratic presidents — although I note that if anything especially with FDR this is rather more common among the [...]

  37. [...] == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}Bill Scher has an important article distinguishing the fantasy FDR and LBJ from the real ones: The necessity of corporate support for, or at least acquiescence to, liberal [...]

  38. [...] The Baseline For Presidential Evaluations [ 0 ] September 5, 2012 | Scott Lemieux var addthis_product = 'wpp-262'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true,"data_track_addressbar":false};if (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}Evidently, whether you’re “disappointed” with Obama or not depends on the baseline.   I do agree that, compared to other actually existing presidents, his record can’t be considered disappointing at all — somewhat better than Clinton and vastly more accomplished than Carter.   And comparisons with LBJ and FDR do indeed tend to understate the more favorable contexts they were dealing with and (at least in the latter case) tend to airbrush the very substantial errors of his presidency. [...]

  39. [...] to take the bird in the hand rather than the magic pony in the imaginary bush, and since Johnson was a Democratic president nearly a half-decade ago rather than a contemporary one I assume almost nobody would disagree. But as the fact that we’re no closer to [...]

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