Thomas Frank’s lastest profit-taking Salon column begins with the germ of an interesting argument about the problem of over-reliance on experts. Alas, from there it follows the typical path straight down Pundit’s Fallacy Gulf. Along the way, he makes the usual historical and empirical errors your really don’t need to be a fancy-pants political scientist to identify:
In 2010, the two parties repeated the act, with D’s embracing the extremely unpopular Republican bailout strategy (and a more modestly unpopular Republican healthcare program) and R’s pretending to be some kind of ’30s-style protest movement waving signs in the street.
Omitted: any national Republicans or state-level Republicans not governing alongside massive Democratic supermajorities who supported a massive expansion of Medicaid accompanied by a much more tightly regulated private insurance industry. I also note the implicit argument that the original Medicaid, which left large numbers of poor people ineligible, was “real” liberalism while the ACA’s version, making a significantly superior program available to everyone within 138% of the federal poverty line, was not. Nor do I think there’s anything particularly progressive about letting the entire financial system collapse in 2008. At any rate, the idea that the Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010 was focused on enacting a “Republican” agenda is simply absurd.
This particular howler is the culmination of the anti-history we’re familiar with:
This approach has had a number of successes. But its limitations are far more striking. I offer, as Exhibit A, last Sunday’s big Upshot piece in the New York Times, “Why Democrats Can’t Win the House” by Nate Cohn, another journalist known for his data-shuffling skills. Cohn asks why Democrats, who are the majority party, have so little chance of re-taking the House of Representatives from the Republicans this fall, despite the Republicans’ extreme misbehavior over the last few years. It’s a good question, and Cohn downplays the usual answer, that it’s all because of partisan gerrymandering. Instead, he points to the concentration of Democratic voters in a small number of urban Congressional districts, which has the effect of leaving the remaining House seats of a given state to the GOP.
Even so, these House Republicans are really, truly awful. Isn’t there a way for Democrats to beat them regardless of the geographic hurdles? According to Cohn, not really. Either Democrats have to appeal to lost voters (like “the conservative Democrats of the South and Appalachia”) by moving rightward, or they will have to “wait for demographic and generational change” to win the seats for them. And maybe that makes sense, given the assumptions of the lame school of political science that D.C. types always gravitate to—the kind in which there are but two poles in political life and politicians of the left party can only win if they move rightward.
It is this kind of strikingly unoriginal thinking, which I am sure is shared by the blue team’s high command, that explains why the Democratic Party looks to be headed for another disaster this fall.
Allow me to drop a single, disturbing data point on this march of science. You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, butthe opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the “center,” culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans’ NAFTA treaty into law. Taking economic matters off the table was thought to be the path of wisdom among expert-worshipping Washingtonians, but it had the unforeseen consequence of making culture that much more important for a large part of the population. Democrats were eventually swamped by all the crazy grievance campaigns of the right, which has splashed back and forth in the mud of the culture wars ever since.
First of all, while it’s true that Democrats nominally controlled Congress for most of the period between 1932 and 1976, the implicit argument that it did so through a an uncompromising commitment to economic liberalism is deeply wrong. For most of this period, Congress was in fact controlled by a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans. And even during the New Deal, conservative Democrats exerted substantial influence over legislation. (What Democrats had to “offer” the South was plenty of racial discrimination within the new federal welfare state.) The brief heyday of the Great Society, admittedly, was not similarly compromised, with the result that conservative Southern Democrats permanently exited the party coalition. Frank is obviously getting cause and effect backwards. It is true that the Democrats during the 1990s overcompensated, which is why the Democratic Congress of 2009-2010 was substantially more progressive than its Clinton-era predecessor, something you can get around only if you erroneously label longstanding Democratic priorities as “Republican” despite the total absence of previous or contemporaneous Republican support.
The key point here is that the obvious structural limitation that Cohn is discussing here — the fact that both houses of Congress overrepresent conservative, rural areas — was not absent during the New Deal era. The Democrats were able to control Congress for most of this period, but did so only by having a caucus loaded with members who make Ben Nelson look like Barbara Lee. The idea that these state can be won back by running economic liberals is pining for a past that never existed. Thinking about this period should also remind us that Frank is very wrong to think that the “crazy grievance campaigns of the right” only became relevant in the mid-1990s (and also wrong, of course, to trivialize civil rights issues, or imply that they’re somehow distinct from economic issues.)
Above: What Happened When Bill Clinton Took Economics Off the Table
The structural problem Cohn identifies is a longstanding feature of American politics. There has never been a time in which the Democratic coalition consisted entirely of robust economic liberals. Frank offers, again and again, “solutions” that just wish the problem away. Not only could the Democrats retake the House of Representative in 2014 merely by changing ideological positioning, but miraculously enough “agreeing with Thomas Frank about everything” is in every context a political winner. Again, you don’t have to be any kind of expert to see that this is just isn’t hard-headed political analysis; it’s daydream believing.
…Chait has more. As does Bernstein.
…and a slightly more positive Kilgore.