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. 


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