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The Non-Existent Non-Incrementalist Golden Age of the Democratic Party

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FDR12

With apologies in advance for two Freddie-related posts in 24 hours, I can’t resist this (and it’s worth discussing because it’s a particularly bald version of a fallacy shared by people with much deeper historical learning):

As the historian Kevin Kruse (whose book One Nation Under God is strongly recommended) observed, the obvious answers are “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” and “this is not a thing but assuming you mean the Fair Housing Act, yes.” The idea that the Social Security — which not only offered modest benefits but intentionally excluded large numbers of African-Americans — was not an example of incremental reform is quite remarkable. Even more revealing is the Medicaid example. Nothing makes it clearer that this fake-nostalgia for the REAL LIBERAL Democratic Party of yore is just a rhetorical cudgel with which to beat Democrats and not any kind of serious historical analysis than this. Apparently, a public health insurance program that required states to cover only a subset of people well below the poverty line was REAL, UNCOMPROMISING LIBERALISM while a public health insurance program that required states to cover everyone up to 138% of the poverty line is the hopelessly compromised neoliberal work of useless corporate sellouts. Right.

Some people tried to salvage deBoer’s hilarious wrongness by arguing that while the end products of the New Deal and Great Society might have been incremental reform rather than uncompromising triumphs, the process behind them wasn’t. But this is just as false. The Social Security Act did not arise only after FDR tried to ram an expansive, racially egalitarian version right down Congress’s throat. FDR was not, you know, a moron; he didn’t think he would be able to persuade the Southern Democrats whose votes he needed to provide generous public assistance to African-American constituents. Similarly, LBJ Didn’t. Even. Try to get comprehensive health care reform. Medicare and Medicaid were what he asked for, watered down by the conservative Democrats and Republicans whose votes were necessary to pass it. People who think that important legislation gets passed by presidents making opening bids far outside the expected negotiating space have no idea how presidential power works. (And, for that matter, have no idea how negotiating works. If the Mariners phone up the Angels and offer Mike Zunino for Mike Trout, that doesn’t mean that the Angels will then offer to accept Leonys Martin for Mike Trout; it means the Angels GM will stop taking your phone calls.) To say that a president “pre-comprimised” is often used as an insult, but it is in fact a sign that he knows what he’s doing. The lessons of FDR and LBJ — and now Obama — are the opposite of what this faction of the left thinks they are.

Anyway, we needn’t dwell on this because Freddie abandoned his inept history in record time, and pivoted to an equally terrible argument:

I see. So, having abandoned the claim that the liberal victories of the New Deal and Great Society weren’t “incremental,” we now have an argument that they prove that incrementalism is always a mistake. But this is insane, not to mention monstrous. (That Freddie was last seen arguing that if you point out that racists constitute a significant amount of Trump’s support you therefore ipso facto want the working class to suffer makes this extra special.) The options faced by FDR were “a horribly compromised Social Security Act” or “nothing.” The idea that FDR should have chosen the latter is nuts. If LBJ had held out for comprehensive health care reform, he would have gotten nothing. But of course this is the whole underlying fallacy of the argument (which, again, is worth discussing only because it’s far from unique to Freddie.) “Incrementalism” is not a choice FDR and LBJ made; it was a necessity. Majority coalitions to get the legislation you think the country needs in exactly the form you want aren’t something you can just declare by fiat. The fact that deBoer’s only remaining example of change that isn’t “incremental” literally involved a civil war that killed upwards of a million people tells you everything you need to know.

And this is why too many people are vastly overestimating the stakes of the 2016 Democratic primaries. The choice between Clinton and Sanders is not a choice between “incremental” change and an uncompromising “political revolution.” If Republicans control the House, we’re not going to get significant progressive reform, incremental or otherwise. If Trump drags the GOP down so much that Democrats take the House, that doesn’t mean that President Sanders would be able to get universal free public college education and single-payer out of Congress — the Democrats in marginal Senate and House seats that allowed for Democratic control of Congress will not, to put it mildly, be social democrats, and you need their votes to pass stuff. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing at stake in the outcome of the primaries — the incremental change of a Sanders administration would probably take a different form than that of the Clinton administration — but the differences are just far, far less than many people think. There are real choices being made, but the choices are not about whether reform should be “incremental.” That’s the form that major reform legislation takes even in unusually favorable circumstances in the Madisonian system.

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