Can we learn anything from the Democratic spat?

Between Clinton and Obama, that is.  One thing we learn is just how unpleasant a politics of confrontation can be and that’s no matter what your political point of view.  Most voters don’t define their views along the distinctions set down by the policy wonks.  So if you wish to start a political conflict to get your way on the wonky issues, that means you also end up starting a war — possibly unintended — on identity politics and also power politics.  Furthermore at least one of the sides in that war will care more about winning and seizing/keeping power than about policy per se.  Over time that’s the side most likely to get its way.

We also learn that the American public polarizes along undesirable fault lines, observes a fight and puts a pox on both houses, and in general becomes more cynical about politics.  Think about this before pursuing polarization and quasi-class warfare.

The implication, however, is not that you always should stay put.  After all, today’s status quo is a) highly imperfect, and b) the result of the ugly identity wars inherited from the past and surely that is not sacred either.

Nonetheless constructivist attempts to remake America will, by political debate, be reshaped along traditional fault lines.  That means your good idea — be it libertarian, progressive, or whatever — had better be pretty robust to mangling by the stupid, the emotional, the cynical, and the ill-informed.  It also means your policy analysis had better start with a good understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the United States and try to build in a sustainable direction with the weights and the angles favoring what you wish to accomplish.  Tocqueville, Montesquieu and Madison look smarter and smarter all the time.

A while ago the progressives told us that we needed to fight a battle against the Republicans to reshape America.  Now there is a prior battle within the Democratic Party itself, noting of course that the hedge fund managers are sending most of their donations that way.  And even Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein can’t agree on which candidate is the real progressive.  How many steps further backward will be taken?  We haven’t even gotten to the point of trying to write progressive legislation or get it through Congress.

Resist the temptation to put the backward steps into the category of "the utopian should."  Such a move runs as follows: "OK, we didn’t do that, we should have done that.  I never predicted we would do that.  I just should we should have."  (Libertarians I might add often commit a similar vice.)  That response is non-falsifiable and so you can hold on to it all you want, but you’d get further by embracing the evolutionary yet non-Panglossian tradition in political thought.  Similarly, libertarians should take more seriously the idea that Sweden should build on its current strengths as well.

I’ll be frank: I’m not rooting for Hillary Clinton.  But that’s not for any instrumental reason or for that matter for any quasi-libertarian reason or not even for the many reasons you’ll find outlined by Andrew Sullivan.  It’s for purely subjective and arbitrary reasons and I won’t say more than that (though I could).  Maybe I’d drop that dislike if she’d wave around a copy of Fredric Bastiat but in the meantime there you go.  Note also that I am hardly the most biased person evaluating this political race and that I didn’t feel this way a year ago.

The bottom line is this: real world political debate is not fundamentally a macro-cosm of the thought processes of a smart person, or of one smart person debating another.  The politics of confrontation usually turn ugly. 

Comments

Well-put, Tyler. One thing, though. Hillary has "waived" Bastiat. She hasn't mentioned him at all. But she hasn't waved him. :-)

"We also learn that the American public polarizes along undesirable fault lines, observes a fight and puts a pox on both houses, and in general becomes more cynical about politics. Think about this before pursuing polarization and quasi-class warfare."

I don't see much data to support this claim. Record turnout in later primary states seems to do it some discredit.

We should remember that media formulations like "the politics of..." don't describe the political experience of most voters. Low information is low information about both policy, confrontation, personal destruction and the like.

Tyler, I would like to see you revisit this post at the beginning of September, after the Democrats have had their convention. There has been some intra-party ugliness with the Democrats, but I expect it will look rather different when we are no longer in the midst of it. One of the main problems here is the long, drawn-out primary campaign, which makes at least half of the back and forth between Clinton & Obama grow increasingly bothersome to those who are following the campaign closely.

Also, I don't think that Klein or Krugman see the candidates as a "real" progressive and, what, a "fake" progressive? They may disagree about which of the two is more progressive, but then again, didn't they both agree that Edwards was the most progressive of the lot?

We can also learn a few things about confusing structural realities with a state of nature. The fact that the democratic nomination process appoints delegates proportionally have given the mistaken impression that there is FAR more division among democrats than among republicans. Given the proportional allotment system, a strong second place platform is seen, superficially, as "tied" with the first place platform. We can partially blame the media for hyping up the difference and the division, but that isn't completely fair. The structure of the democratic nominating process has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the media image of democrats (that we are deliberative and not prone to strong decisions) and republicans (that they are decisive in their decisions). But apart from the media the divisions between BHO and HRC seem so ugly and polarizing because they both seem so poised to win (superficially).

In some senses, you are partially correct. I think that democrats (in the last 35 years) have been more prone to division and internal strife than republicans. I STRONGLY believe that one of the reasons John Kerry lost in 2004 was that the anti-war base (that showed its colors in 2006) was pushed away from the election (it could be that grabbing that base would have lost and equal or greater number of independent voters, but I don't see too much traction on that idea). However, it takes a good deal more to get republicans divided. They TALK a good game about dividing along internal lines, but in the end they know who the enemy is: democrats. They close ranks around the president and around the candidate. Democrats historically do not.

Isn't it true, though, that the Democrat coalition holds more mutually antagonistic groups than the Republicans. A couple off the top of my head are:

Gays and African-Americans (the most homophobic ethnic group according to survey data)

Jews and African-Americans (also the most anti-Semitic)

African-Americans and Hispanics (the most anti-Black ethnic group according to survey data)

The Poor and the Elite. Dems get the poor vote, but also the Hollywood and Wall Street uber-wealthy votes and, more importantly, money.

Unions and Wall Street.

Poor whites and everybody else (gays, blacks, rich whites, feminists, etc).

The Republican coalition has it's faultlines, too, but the Democrats seem inherently more vulnerable to identity politics divisions.

Werner Herzog's "Fata Morgana" begins with what seems to be a shot of a jet airplane landing over and over again. Eventually even the most patient viewer starts to wish the plane would just crash.

"Furthermore at least one of the sides in that war will care more about winning and seizing/keeping power than about policy per se. Over time that's the side most likely to get its way."

well thats a good description of the movement GOP

and of course the Dems are more fragmented, thats a well known state of affairs. The GOP is the wasp bourgeois party; the dems are anyone who isn't.

There are ideological differences between the two (somewhat overemphasized above) but it's worth noting that their voting records are very very similar, and votes tell better than speeches.

But it's hard to defend the claim that ideology is what separates the two camps. I.e., that having different positions on some issues would have made one of them much stronger. This is a particular example of the commonplace that personality and identity rather than party or issues defines American politics.

Would Obama own the African American vote if he were 100% white instead of 50%? Would Hillary still be in it if her last name was Rodham?

"Change you can believe in" is a long way from "54 40 or fight".

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