Monday, March 22, 2010

The Anti-Political Pathology of the American "Left"

I haven't linked to anything Glenn Greenwald has written in a very long time. This is partly because I have not been paying nearly as much attention to US politics since Obama's election. This is partly the recoil from paying way too much attention to everything in the lead-up to the election, and partly an attempt to inoculate myself against the mind-numbing depression caused by the daily ups and downs of the political "conversation" in the US. My dad works for a senator, and I can see the toll taken on him by the ceaseless chatter and clatter of the thousands of little Don Quixotes at work slaying the dragons of their political opponents, and by the nauseating stew of opinion and analysis served up by the news media. I sort of made up my mind that the guy I wanted to win had won, and I wasn't ready to be disheartened by attending to the daily atrocities committed by the best-guys-available-at-the-time.

His basic claim is that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party sucks at politics. They suck at politics because they are incapable of making a credible threat to vote against the tiniest incremental improvement on some issue where they would like to see major reform. Their mantra is, "Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," but the effect is that the "better than nothing" becomes the enemy of the good. The HCR debate has guaranteed that the Obama administration will never make any major moves to placate progressives within the party because they know full well that the progressives will always back them no matter what. The progressives have destroyed any leverage they might have had with the administration because they have proven themselves unwilling to sink the health care bill, even though it lacks any of their "must have" provisions.

First of all, I think this analysis is spot on.

Second, I think it can be generalized to cover much of the dynamic that obtains between (relatively) liberal and (relatively) conservative blocs in most major political debates in North America. In short, liberals suck at politics because they aren't willing to accelerate the contradictions. The notion that things might have to get worse in order to get better, and that a responsible effort to make things better therefore has to accept making things worse as a valid strategy -- this is beyond the pale of most liberal thought.

If the anti-war "left" had decided to make life really hard for Bush, they could have. Obstructionism is obviously not an entirely lost art in US Congress, and those opponents of the war who had the misfortune of not being elected members of the legislature could have been infinitely more extremist in the expression of their opposition to the war than they were. But that would have entailed making life worse for people other than Bush as well -- soldiers, one's fellow citizens, one's family, etc. It would have meant taking on board the responsibility for causing deaths, even. Being anti-war could not be passed off on one's conscience as being anti-killing, or anti-suffering, or the like. It would mean taking a decision against a concrete policy or act, rather than against only abstract generalities. (If you've decided to oppose this war, then nothing prohibits you from making war against those who would take us into this war, but if you have "decided" to oppose War, there is very little you can do to stop any actual war, which will always be a concrete course of action, carried out by people with guns.)

This unwillingness to make things worse in order to get what you have decided upon as your goal means the progressive left will always get steamrolled by those who are willing to say "Give me what I want or I'll destroy something both of us care about."


Pietro de Simone said...

great post! kind of like blogging with a hammer! Not to nitpick or anything, but I think your focus on the so-called "base" of the Dem Party is a stronger point than the focus on Dems in Congress selling bullshit policy. If there was a constituency out there, (like an anti-this war movement,) DEMANDING Change and willing to FIGHT, and thus willing to lose, rather than snarking to themselves about Glenn Beck, then could we expect better policy?

Will Roberts said...

Thanks. In general, I'm sympathetic to the argument that we get the government we deserve -- not because it is simply true so much as because it motivates self-critical activity. However, I think there really is room for elected officials to lead by taking hard decisions and crystallizing an issue.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Of possible interest to you: apparently (I'm only hearing of this for the first time now) Glen Beck and company have been telling a story in which Obama is deliberately acting to accelerate the contradictions following the alleged teachings of Piven & Cloward.

Will Roberts said...

Thanks for the tip, Jacob! The annals of conspiracy grow ever thicker!

anotherpanacea said...

You know I'm sympathetic, but posts like this bear more than a passing resemblance to the sorts of things that "Tea Party Patriot" say when they're worrying how abortion is an American Holocaust and the decrying the Republican Party for failing to live up to their promises.

This isn't quite the non-liberal leftist art of government I thought you were aiming at....

Will Roberts said...

Joshua, I swear you're just trying to pick fights. Which part of what I said bears what sort of resemblance to which things said by which "Tea Party Patriots"?

Moreover, I don't think politics and government are the same thing. Politics is the public struggle for hegemony. Government is policy. As I said in the previous post, I think conservatives are generally better at politics than liberals, but that liberals own government.

This is not to say that the Right is *great* at politics. Obviously, the Repubs lost big time on this one, and they did so because they gave in to their tendency to make the opposite mistake from progressives -- they refuse to work with the opposition no matter what. I've written about this tendency on the Right before:

anotherpanacea said...

I'm sorry, Will. Perhaps I'm misreading you?

I took this: "In short, liberals suck at politics because they aren't willing to accelerate the contradictions." to be a criticism that advocated doing what liberals balk at doing, as your blog title certainly does, accelerate the contraditions! Which you go on to spell out: "making life worse for people other than Bush as well -- soldiers, one's fellow citizens, one's family, etc. It would have meant taking on board the responsibility for causing deaths, even."

And that, yes, does sound like the kind of radical call to action that Sarah Palin is right now advocating: "Don't Retreat, Reload." I'm not friends with Sarah Palin, and I can't ask her to tamp down her rhetoric and be heard, but I know you a little, and I can express my disapproval at your apparent advocacy of "causing deaths, even." I just don't think it's a good time in American politics for friendly reasonable folks to advocate violence, even elliptically.

If I've misread you, I apologize.

Will Roberts said...

I'm as opposed to Palin's rhetoric as you are, but that doesn't mean I'm opposed to all advocacy of violence. That's what I was trying to say with my bit about opposing concrete policies or acts rather than abstract generalities.

What do you think it would have taken for domestic opposition to stop Bush's Iraq war? Because the abstract non-violence of the anti-war crowd (including myself) cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives.

anotherpanacea said...

I don't think there's a single act of violence that the American left could have engaged in that would have prevented the war, though some of them (such as assassination) would have deepened it by destroying the legitimacy of the antiwar movement.

Since that's the case, I guess I'm saying that the war in Iraq was unpreventable. It couldn't-have-been-otherwise. I'm not sure I want to be committed to that claim, but for now I really do wonder what possible counterfactual activity on the left could have made things otherwise. That's a disheartening thought, but its tragic conclusion doesn't make it false.

Since you're in favor of concrete opposition and advocacy, I think you might offer some suggestions here.

anotherpanacea said...

One thing that's not so tragic about the thought is that, if there was nothing we could have done to prevent the war, then our abstact non-violence didn't cost those lives. Rather, the concrete actions of the President, his officers, and soldiers on the ground cost those lives.

We generally say that collective responsibility requires some mechanism of accountability. Doubtless you'll see this self-justifying or a convenient impotence, but I think there's a difference between saying 'it couldn't have been otherwise' and giving up on developing the tools for perpetual peace in the future. Powerlessness over the past doesn't excuse us from future actions, etc.

Will Roberts said...

Come on. A million people showed up in New York -- and at least half that number in DC -- to commiserate about our powerlessness. We had immense wealth at our disposal. We had fame and access to the media. We had access to positions of economic, infrastructural, and governmental power. And all you can think of is assassinations?

Would it have destroyed the legitimacy of the anti-war movement if ten thousand people had burned down their own houses in protest? If 500 people had shut down I-80 in Pennsylvania for a week? If a thousand people had invaded the White House? If a few Senators had shut down the Senate? If all those anti-war actors had used every single public appearance to speak out against the war? If anti-war folks had joined the military in large numbers in order to disrupt military bases from within?

I have no idea if any of these things would have "worked." But I think we all felt powerless from the get go, and came to an a priori judgment that there was nothing we could do that wouldn't a) be futile and b) make things worse by causing more harm to us/the economy/our legitimacy/whatever. But that's precisely the thinking that I'm both tired of engaging in and convinced does nothing but guarantee political impotence.

If the progressives in the House and Senate had obviously been willing to scuttle any health care reform that didn't include a public option, e.g., we might have ended up with no health care reform at all, or we might have ended up with a smaller reform package that could have picked up support from a couple Republicans. I don't know. But certainly we were never going to end up with a public option if people weren't willing to gamble on those outcomes by making a public option non-negotiable.

anotherpanacea said...

Well, those are some options. This does sound an awful lot like the sorts of things that militias and Tea Party Patriots discuss. I'm glad my reading comprehension hasn't faltered, I guess.

Just shooting from the hip: arson is illegal, so the first twenty people who burnt down their houses would end up in jail, especially if they still had mortgages. (There's a guy who demolished his house after it was foreclosed... same problem.) The 500 folks who shut down I-80 would be met by 150 SWAT and end up in jail while moderates distanced themselves from the movement.

Post 9/11, I'm not sure how you'd have gotten 1000 people into the White House or what you'd hope to accomplish there.... It's not like the was was actually being run from the West Wing, this is what the Pentagon is for. Plus, in the midst of your planning you'd be infiltrated by FBI/Homeland Security and they'd "discover" you were planning violence and arrest you, like they did with the much less radical NYC Republican convention protesters.

It'd have been interesting if a few Senators shut down the Senate the way that the Republicans have begun doing, but I thought we were talking about non-liberal leftists, which they're not.

Actors with "anti-American" opinions? A time-tested, bad strategy, which has always proven counter-productive. Join the military? Now your body belongs to the Army and they can separate the activists and pack us off to the front lines with hoo-ah types.

This list is better than an abstract call for concrete action insofar as it's not a performative contradiction, but you haven't yet offered a suggestion that seems likely to have succeeded, that couldn't have been co-opted, and that wouldn't, for instance, have won the 2008 election for McCain/Palin or justified major crackdowns that would have made things worse before they got disastrous.

This is basically why Kantian/Rawlsian public reason is so seductive: even if you have radical goals and are willing to consider extreme methods, political liberalism still presents itself as the best strategy for accomplishing anything worthwhile.

I guess "justice delayed" is the only justice there ever is.

Will Roberts said...

Those who can't or won't think no one can or will. The civil rights movement was just as impossible until it happened.

And willingness to go to jail is one of the things missing.

And I was only talking about the anti-war movement -- you're the one who keeps importing the non-liberal left from the previous post into this one. Certainly there were congress-critters who claimed to be against the war.

And, finally, my contention is that Kantian/Rawlsian public reason has never and never will accomplish anything at all, but only baptizes results achieved by other means. Political liberalism isn't a strategy, its a norm.

Will Roberts said...

One more thing. I *still* deny this claim: "This does sound an awful lot like the sorts of things that militias and Tea Party Patriots discuss." It looks like the same "sorts of things" only if you ignore (or abstract away from) both the ends and the effects of the actions. But actions are only the actions they are by their ends and their effects. To take an obvious example: the assassination of Lincoln by Booth was not the same sort of thing as the attempted assassination of Hitler, and I think you have to be quite a relativist to look at the two and see similar deeds.

anotherpanacea said...

The civil rights movement had plenty of precedents and was far from impossible: suffrage, temperance, and the progressive movement in general had used similar techniques and achieved success. More to the point, it was a thoroughly liberal movement rooted in equilibertarian rights-claims.

The Indian non-violent anti-colonial movement had more of this 'impossible' (or at least unprecedented) tenor, so we might talk about that.

"But actions are only the actions they are by their ends and their effects."

A good reminder, though we should be careful to distinguish intentions ("ends") and effects. I maintain that the actions you've advocated would likely make you responsible for effects indistinguishable from those of the Tea Party. These would surely have been unintended consequences, but they were foreseeable, which is probably why no one tried them.

In any case, I really like the historical counterfactual question about the Iraq War you've raised, so I may take it up at my blog in the near future. It's especially fitting as so much energy goes into re-litigating the "Bush lied" controversy after Karl Rove denied this in his memoirs. For both the liberal and the non-liberal left, that obsession with deception is curiously misplaced emphasis and attention.

LFC said...

Once the Bush admin decided to launch the Iraq invasion (after going through the motions of trying get a second resolution at the UN Sec Council), I think it unlikely that any actions by those opposed to the Iraq war could have prevented its being launched.
One might ask whether those parts of the anti-Vietnam war movement that used violence hastened that war's end. Probably they did not. Indeed, did the anti-Vietnam war movement as a whole affect US policy in Indochina at the time? Only, it might be argued, in the indirect sense that it made certain escalatory moves politically unfeasible, but Johnson was already disinclined to all-out escalation and full-scale invasion of N.Vietnam for other reasons (including fear of Chinese intervention,e.g.).
Given the line-up of political forces at the time of the Iraq invasion, with a number of Dems willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt on WMD, and given that the US state was not collapsing and the govt maintained control over the police, army, Natl Guard etc, the counterfactual becomes hard to sustain. What is perhaps interesting in retrospect is not that the anti-war mvt did not stop the Iraq war but that the considerable majority, I think, of the participants did not contemplate much beyond peaceful protest, in some contrast to the Vietnam case. There was nothing remotely comparable to Chicago '68 in the run-up to the Iraq war (not that it would have stopped the war if there had been).

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