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Revisiting the Dealbreaker Fallacy


During the last election season, djw wrote a superb post about the illogic of using “dealbreakers” rather than a holistic evaluation of candidates. At least two commenters in a thread yesterday inadvertently demonstrate why the approach makes no sense in the course of defending it.  Lets start with Ethan Gach, who describes my position as “voting for Democrats unconditionally will lead, over the long term, to better liberal outcomes” while his position involves “making support conditional upon the pursuit of certain key policies,” because “you can’t change the party “you have” while you’re continuing to stand by and support it.”  In these short sentences rest of lot of errors and bad ideas:

  • Obviously, nobody is saying that support for Democrats should be “unconditional.”  There have been occasions in American history where partisan coalitions were very loose, and who to support would depend on how you prioritize particular issues.  In our current partisan configuration, however, wherever you are on the political spectrum between democratic socialist and moderate liberal Republicans are much worse than the Democrats on many major issues and better on literally none.  I understand this makes analysis more boring than some might like, but refusing to adopt a strategy that would make things worse in many respects, with the costs concentrated on the most vulnerable, in order to (ineffectually) advance “Arbitrary Pet Issue X” is not the same as “unconditional support.”
  • And, of course, voting for the better candidate in the general election will not in itself lead to more liberal outcomes, or at least to outcomes as liberal as they could be.  Fortunately, politics goes not begin and end with general elections — things like primaries and activist pressure can exert influence much more effectively than withdrawing support from Democratic general election candidates, an all-downside no-upside strategy that’s crapped out disastrously twice in the last dozen presidential elections with no successes to point to.
  • One reason the threaten-to-hold-your-breath-until-you-get-the-shiny-toy approach doesn’t work is that to have any chance of being effective there has to be substantial collective agreement on which “key issues” to prioritize.  Individual messages are worth nothing.   And at that point, you might discover that many fellow liberals do not, say, think that DRONES! are a more important issue than health care or reproductive freedom or anti-poverty programs, even before we get to the fact that walking away from Democrats in the general election over DRONES! wouldn’t even lead to any improvement on that specific issue while making things much worse on many dimensions liberals care about.  Political coalitions don’t work based on ultimatums.
  • As if to illustrate, one dealbreaker that Gach suggests is a “bigger stimulus package consisting of less tax cuts.”  The obvious problem here is that Obama’s proposal was both bigger and much better-distributed than the one the Senate passed with one vote to spare.  Should liberals abandon the Democratic Party if Obama is unable to get the Republicans and conservative Democrats who all had vetoes over the bill to abandon their preference for a smaller, more tax-cut heavy stimulus though..er, having the leadership to bully lantern the Overton Window, details later?  And, by the way, why are Susan Collins and Arlen Specter circa early 2009 supposed to care if a subset of liberals announce a Dramatic Exit from the Democratic coalition?  What’s the theory for how that’s supposed to work?  The White House-centrism of these analyses isn’t accidental and is another reason why they’re bad.
  • And finally, as I said in comments, if believe that “you can’t change the party “you have” while you’re continuing to stand by and support it” you’ll have to explain either 1)what third party to the right of the Republicans or mass conservative exodus from the polls has handed an election to the Democrats since 1972, or 2)why you think Republicans have drifted well to to the left since 1972.  Because if it’s impossible to change a coalition from within it, one of these must be true.

Now, let’s turn to Dilan Esper, who has what he thinks is a gotcha: “I wonder if Goldberg would vote for a pro-lifer if the Democrats nominated one. Centrist, mainstream Democrats speak from a position of privilege on this issue. The party respects their red lines. In contrast, the party pisses on pacifists, protectionists, communists, and other parts of the left. The people whose red lines get respected has no right to lecture the people whose red lines do not as to how to vote.”  This argument fares no better:

  • Both Goldberg and I, in fact, support Democrats who don’t fully embrace our opinions on abortion.  I can’t speak for Goldberg, but I was certainly under no illusion that unified Democratic control of the federal government would lead to, say, a repeal of the Hyde Amendment.  I haven’t suggested I’d walk away from the Democrats forever if they don’t replace Harry Reid as majority leader over his support for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, or argued that Democrats should reject the ACA over the Stupak amendment.
  • It’s true that Democrats won’t have a presidential candidate who is in favor of overruling Roe v. Wade.  But this is because this is the national majority position.  If support for abortion rights was as unpopular as pacifism or communism, I sure as hell would have to support candidates who rejected my position.   Supporters of civil rights had to endure a Democratic coalition saturated with segregationists throughout the New Deal era, and they didn’t get to 1964 by walking away.
  • And there are plenty of issues on which the Democratic Party doesn’t (or didn’t) respect what would be my “red lines” if I embraced that foolish way of thinking about politics: the war on (some classes of people who use some) drugs, the prosecution of torturers, the escalation in Afghanistan, and until very recently LBGT rights, for starters.
  • The previous point reflects the fallacy that runs throughout Esper’s arguments: the utterly erroneous assumption that the underlying disagreement is ideological rather than tactical.  As Erik puts it, “it makes no sense to say that leftists have this political strategy and liberals have that political strategy.”  Matt Stoller, a plain-vanilla left-liberal who was a big fan of the right-of-Obama Howard Dean, doesn’t embrace nihilism because of the purity of his commitments but because he’s a poseur.  There are plenty of people to my left who understand tactical voting; there were plenty of centrists in 2000 who were dedicated Gush-Borists.  Indeed, one need look no farther than Esper himself, who is to the right of anyone on the LGM masthead on domestic policy but has never met a heighten-the-contradictions argument he doesn’t like.  This argument is, at bottom, wholly unjustified self-congratulation that fails to comprehend the nature of the disagreement.

On a final point, I’d note that there’s never been a viable candidate for president who someone who thought in terms of “dealbreakers” could reasonably support.  (What has Obama done that’s worse than Vietnam or FDR’s civil rights record? And those are the best presidents of the last century. And don’t get me started on Lincoln’s rejection of abolitionism.)  Which is another way of noting that the “dealbreaker” way of approaching electoral politics is puerile and useless.

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