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“Obamney” Nihilism: An Ornament of Frippery


Oh, you could spend some time quibbling with the particularly egregious howlers in Matt Stoller’s latest bit of Obamney nihilism. For example:

And on a policy level, whether you call it Romneycare in Massachusetts, or Obamacare nationally, it’s the same healthcare program.

That’s right — Stoller is trying to argue that national Republican health care policy is represented by legislation that every single Republican in Congress voted against. Because a Republican governor once signed similar legislation that Democratic supermajorities in one of the most liberal states in the country put on his desk. (If only that governor was a prominent national Republican so we could see how his support would hold up in a different political context.) In and of itself, this is someone who should not be getting paid to analyze American politics. It’s even inept on its own terms — surely he could at least give us the ridiculous “it was a Heritage Foundation plan!” red herring. What’s an idiotic argument about how Republicans really secretly favor comprehensive health care reform without patting yourself on the back for falling for a Republican con that makes Nigerian email scams look sophisticated by comparison?

Or this:

For instance, depending on the messaging frame the Obama campaign chooses, Mitt Romney might be a flip-flopping moderate, or a hard-right extremist. How will he act as president? It’s hard to know. Certainly, Obama didn’t govern as his supporters in 2008 expected, breaking significant campaign promises, such as a pledge to renegotiate NAFTA or raise the minimum wage.

To start with, the idea that because Prime Minister Obama didn’t get every single item on his agenda passed that we therefore can’t have any idea if there will be any significant differences in an Obama or Romney administration is…well, it doesn’t really require elaborate argument to address an argument that’s self-refuting. (Similarly, George W. Bush broke significant campaign promises to put a man on Mars and to privatize Social Security, so really there’s no difference between the Bush administration and the Obama administration.) Let me put it this way: Ross Douthat believes a less extreme version of this. I rest my case. But this is just run-of-the mill Green Laternism. What makes this argument really special is Stoller’s idea that in evaluating what a Romney administration would look like we should examine not what policies any leader of the national Republican Party will be committed to, but at the Obama campaign’s messaging. I guess this is how you end up arguing something as transparently foolish as “Romney is more liberal than people think.” Sadly, I think that Stoller really thinks that there’s no difference between the agenda a Republican governor of Massachusetts will pursue and a Republican president will pursue.

I could keep making fun of individual arguments all day, but that’s missing the forest for the trees. What’s most important about Stoller’s argument is what it leaves out — most of the people who stand to get most brutalized by unified Republican government. Women’s rights — whether reproductive rights or pay equity or any other issue — don’t rate a mention. Gays and lesbians — nothing. Anybody whose civil liberties or civil rights would vanish after Antonin Scalia becomes the median vote on the Supreme Court — nothing. The people who will suffer from the environmental regulations that will be rescinded or unenforced by a Republican-run EPA, so sorry. The vote suppression laws that will be given the matador’s cape by a Romney-headed DOJ? He doesn’t care, although he’s ostensibly concerned with creeping authoritarianism. The millions of people who will suffer needless illness or death when their health insurance vanishes from repeal of the PPACA or the savage Medicaid cuts in the Ryan budget — like the aforementioned constituencies they can go fuck themselves. However populist the language, to borrow Michael Tomasky’s apt phrase about Naderism Stoller’s kindergarten nihilism is an ornament of frippery.

Pretending that electoral politics doesn’t really matter, even if the argument isn’t quite as terrible as this one, isn’t a theory of progressive change. It’s about congratulating yourself for being better than the people engaged in the compromises of politics. To again quote Garry Wills, “[t]hose who decide they are too good for politics may be right, but they are often the least qualified judges, either of their own virtue or the system’s viciousness.”

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