politics is to want something

søndag, mars 29, 2009

In Defense of Partisanship: Part One, All Politics is Political

Americans love to hate political parties. From the founding of the Republic, parties have been seen as dangerous barriers standing between people and their government. Parties are left completely out of the design of the state as constructed by the Constitution, and early American writing on politics treated their inevitable formation as an almost pathological social problem. As we all know, President Obama plays this stream of public opinion masterfully, even if his “post-partisanship” looks a little strange in the face of Republican discipline in Congress.
Personally, I’m a big fan of parties, mostly because I’m a big fan of organizing as a tool for generally less powerful people to tip the scales in their favor. I certainly understand the allure of politics without parties. Watching cable TV news makes even hardened politicos like me wish for a world with less polarization and conflict. But this longing is a mistake.
At the core of the anti-party argument is a quintessentially American evasion of the political. From the Founding Fathers through to the remarkably successful turn-of-century Progressive movement, we have labored under the utopian notion that there exists a discoverable, apolitical “common good” that is obscured and threatened by corruption, partisanship and self-interest. This thread of American political thought is reflected in contemporary appeals for politicians to “put aside their differences” and just “do what’s right” or “fix all the problems”. A more sinister version of this same desire to rise above politics can be seen in totalitarianisms of both the Right and the Left: if you hand the state over to the right “Folk” or class, politics will simply disappear.
The fact is that there is no such thing as a single “common good”. We don’t all agree on what the best solution is for a problem, or even what the problems are. That’s not a bad thing. What one person sees as the good society would be a dystopia for another. The world that John McCain wants to live in is substantively different than the world that Howard Dean wants to live in. They may agree on sugar imports, but such questions don’t necessarily define their politics. This is true even at the most local level, long a site of the most extreme illusions of non-partisanship. A libertarian small business owner, a hippie and a construction worker may all agree that potholes should be filled. However, despite the old adage, there are, in fact liberal and conservative ways of filling those potholes. Income tax? Parcel tax? Privatized road maintenance? These are all options that imply ideological preference and have huge social and economic repercussions.
Thus, all politics is political. In a democratic society, the way we go about making these decisions is by allowing citizens to choose between policies, even if this is done through representatives. In the United States, however, too often we don’t actually choose between policies or even ideas- we choose strictly between people. “Vote the man (sic), not the party” is so widely held a notion that it sounds almost un-American to disagree.
But voting for individuals doesn’t eliminate those difficult political decisions, it just takes it out of the hands of the voter. Instead of voting based on policy preferences, or even small but effective clues as to policy preferences like party identification, legally nonpartisan elections or “post-partisan” political culture encourages votes based on any number of pieces of information: name recognition (which can be bought), charisma, cultural affinity, gender biases or ethnicity.
Before I get accused of blatant idealism, let me also say that of course, there are also fundamentally competing interests in society. The point here, as well, is that the balance of those interests is achieved through politics. Nowadays, every politician everywhere hopes to score points with the electorate by denouncing “special interests”. What is almost hilariously obvious, however, is that the only common definition of “special interest” appears to be interests which the given politician opposes. Just as “pork” is any sum of money not spent in your own district, any group that you don’t like becomes a “special interest”. Here’s the thing: labor and business are competing interests, as are environmentalists and agribusiness. To the extent that government has a role in mediating those competing interests, we shouldn’t seek to depoliticize the process.
The idea of a disinterested, neutral set of elected officials serving as judges deciding which of these interests will prevail is as fundamentally undemocratic as it is unlikely. If the role of elected officials is to reflect the will of the people, elected officials should be voted in or out based on their views of how these interests should be balanced. Parties play a role in this process, as well, giving voters a clear sense of which collection of interests a politician is aligned with.
In the next section of this essay, I will look at the consequences of the restraints we’ve put on party activity. Of particular interest is the rise of nonpartisan voting systems at the local level, which has lowered voter turnout and advantaged candidates with strong social and financial capital. California’s Progressive experiment with effectively eliminating partisanship at the State Legislative level, thus handing governance over to industry lobbyists is another important case.

The "S" Word and it's strange American Career

“Christ, do I hate socialism and socialists. Scum like Daraka - esp. his spiritual brethren running the Legislature - are why I left CA in the first place.”
- Joseph Turner, comment on Flashreport.com

Socialism. Is there a more dreaded word in American politics? Judging from the talking points of Republicans and their cheerleaders, there just couldn’t be. Granted, the histrionics over at Fox News does remind one of a hundred Chicken Littles with a hundred little doomsday messages. When everything is a sign of the sky falling, it’s hard to be taken too seriously. Nonetheless, the argument that the Obama Administration is leading the country on a long march to socialism is pretty unavoidable nowadays.
As is generally the case in the facile world of American political discourse, one can find a lot of irony in conservatives’ over-use of the “socialism” charge. Last Fall, it was easy to hear Sarah Palin boast that in her bucolic State, natural resources are owned by the “people of Alaska”, and so it’s only natural that every Citizen receives an annual check paid from oil receipts. She would then go on to snidely readbait the bejeezus out of Obama’s health care, taxation and public investment plans. I couldn’t help but think about what would happen if some crazy Democrat ran for Governor of California calling for the people to take ownership over our considerable natural resources. I think it’s a safe bet that someone, probably someone who voted for Sarah Palin, would call that crazy Democrat a socialist.
In the minds of most Americans, “socialism” is at worst a synonym for totalitarian Communism, and at best some dangerously European government-run threat to cherished freedoms. Such a perception exists hand in hand with majority support for national health insurance, well-funded public education and a public hand in guiding financial markets- a fact that today’s Republican Party leaders are painfully aware of. It’s that visceral reaction to the word itself that has made it the go-to talking point for tearing down even modestly progressive policies over the past century. When you can’t beat it on its face, just call it names.
And so, conservatives use the word to tar almost any policy they don’t like- whether or not it has anything to do with anything any real-life socialist would advocate. Lately, the gigantic bailout packages being pushed by the Obama Administration are the main targets. Nevermind that spending a lot of money isn’t in itself socialist policy: if it were, Ronald Reagan would be the movement’s poster boy. To the extent that there is any consensus about what socialism actually is, it boils down to democratic control of the economic power-levers. Dumping a gazillion dollars into private firms with scant oversight (let alone public control) may be smart or stupid, but it sure as hell isn’t socialism.
Conservative ire is a little closer to the mark when it comes to Obama’s proposed budget. Thankfully, the Administration’s spending priorities are certainly more social than those of the Bush/Hastert era. Still, spending more money on education, infrastructure and social programs doesn’t make a body socialist. Calling it so reveals a lot about just how far to the right the Republican Party actually is.
In response to these old canards, the Obama administration has stuck to its own proven formula of painting the opposition as hopelessly ideological and their own policy priorities as eminently pragmatic. However, in more progressive precincts, it’s not uncommon to hear almost private mumblings of “if only…” To this point, Robert Scheer has written a wonderful piece about the missed opportunities of the Administration’s expensive but not expansive recovery agenda (be sure to read the comments). The Nation recently featured a surprisingly disappointing “debate” between progressives over the relevance of socialism in today’s political reality.
Perhaps the most illuminating debate, however, is the one brewing between the Obama Administration and European leaders- in which Obama’s calls for massive, internationally-coordinated stimulus spending is meeting a cold reaction from Continental governments, most of them led by parties of the Right and Center Right. While some American conservatives point and say “aha!, the President is even more socialist than those froo-froo eurosocialists”, the facts point to something significantly different at the root of the disagreement. According to many European leaders, the strong social safety nets and regulatory regimes prevalent in Europe make gigantic spending packages less urgent. In most industrialized countries, spikes in unemployment aren’t the catastrophes they are in the United States, where private health care, chaotic housing markets and a dogged refusal to consistently support domestic industry conspire to create the cycle of misery the Obama Administration is working hard to stave off. To oversimplify: they don’t need emergency “socialism” in Europe because they already have something closer to the real thing. I don’t remember my 8th grade English lessons well enough to say that that is an “irony”, but there is definitely something poetic going on.
These differences get at the real tragedy behind our current political predicament. If it weren’t so easy to derail progressive policy by painting it red, we might have more institutions that would make the present crisis easier to manage. Why do they have these mechanisms in other countries? Not because Europeans are any smarter, more sophisticated or just plain cooler than Americans- it’s because political parties and social movements influenced by socialism have been a powerful part of the democratic order everywhere but here. I don’t know that the “s” word will ever be a normalized part of the political debate in the United States, or that it is worth expending much energy on rehabilitating it, but I do know that we are poorer because of its vilification.
Truth be told, there actually are socialists in the United States, and some of them are Democrats or support Democratic candidates. Among progressive intellectuals, there isn’t the same reflexive fear of the vocabulary of socialism as there is in the realm of electoral politics, which is a mixed blessing. More generally, there are scores of constituencies (and at least one whole State) which have chosen to elect representatives who either embrace or are nonplussed about the socialist label. Republicans worked hard to redbait Ron Dellums, but Berkeley and Oakland sent him back to Washington year after year.
Here’s the dirty secret, conservatives: it’s true that the left of the Democratic Party would be right at home in mainstream parties labeled “Socialist” or “Labor” in other countries. So what? These aren’t wacky fringe parties: they win elections and achieve important victories for environmental, social and economic sanity. They include such subversive enemies of freedom as Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair. Incidentally, any honest mapping the politics of the Republican right, which includes open calls for religious-based government, justifications for torture, appeals to racism, and a crude Social Darwinism onto politics abroad would produce interesting results as well. Take a conservative Republican and throw them into Italian politics, and it would be hard to avoid the F word. No, not that one.
The gut-punch impact of the socialist label provides delicious possibilities for sound-bite politics on the right. Any connections between “admitted” socialists and Democratic politicians are put to wide use. If you can dig deep enough and find a purported socialist supporting a Democrat, that’s proof positive that they are socialists, too. Thus, the fact that Barbara Ehrenreich supported Obama, however critically, means that Obama is, well, you get the point. On a tiny scale, I’ve seen this dynamic first hand (again, don’t miss the comments).
Like full-blown McCarthyism, the chilling effect of this tactic is part of a deliberate strategy to marginalize any policy positions that don’t conform to the anti-government orthodoxy of modern conservatism. Unfortunately, it means that for survival’s sake, there is an understandable tendency for Democrats to give the stiff arm to the left. What’s most perverting about this system is that as a matter of course, the same thing doesn’t happen to elements of the Republican Party which embrace views are no less radical. The end result is a massive skewing of political discourse to the right, even though on individual policies, there is deep support for many of the left’s ideas.
The chill runs deep. In fact, as I write this little essay on my little blog, I’m painfully aware of the fact that everything I say can and will be used against me in a context not of my choosing. So, why write it? Because I agree with Robert Scheer- it’s just stupid to ignore the good things that socialist movements have achieved throughout the world because Newt Gingrich or John Fleishman will call people names.
This would all be strictly late night beer or coffee sort of discussion if it weren’t for a coming political battle that will put this dynamic front and center: health care. Achieving the humiliatingly overdue goal of universal health care will test the mettle of the Obama administration. We are likely to produce a more expensive, less efficient, less universal system in part because our side will be afraid of the inevitable name-calling.
Michael Moore’s Sicko (which I liked a lot) did a reasonable job of dramatizing the mobilization of anti-socialist rhetoric in the scuttling of several waves of health care reform efforts. The footage of Ronald Reagan’s first foray into politics as a shill for the insurance lobby should be required viewing. Moore’s film raised the important points that passing national health care doesn’t lead a country to socialism, and, once established, national health systems or national insurance systems become quite popular and durable- kinda like Social Security, which was also denounced as a red Trojan Horse in it’s day. But Sicko held back on marking an equally important fact- in almost every case, national health care systems were adopted because of governance by (or pressure from) movements that were not afraid of the “s” word.
In other words, you don’t have to be a socialist to think that health care for all is a worthy social goal. But in the coming months, you might wish that someone would stand up and say “so what?” when good policy is called bad because it carries a whiff of socialism.