The Liberal Dilemma

Kevin Drum wrote an interesting post about the Democrats’ dilemma in dealing with a hardcore opposition that literally doesn’t care if their policies cause human suffering. (Indeed, they actually promote it, only they call it "tough love".) Democrats are always in the position of having to choose between some specific thing that will alleviate some suffering (however temporarily) in exchange for some heinous Galtian thievery and they end up taking the short term relief because they believe they have the responsibility to help people in the best way they can. Unfortunately, when dealing with nihilists, you end up creating more and more circumstances where such deals with the devil are necessary.

Thought #2 comes from Andrew Sabl, who takes on the question of what liberal opponents of the tax deal propose to do next if it’s voted down. Andy says he doesn’t really have a great answer here, but that his focus is largely on the long term, not the immediate future: "how can we change baseline expectations so as to achieve progressive outcomes in future negotiations?" Dave Dayen makes a similar point here.

I haven’t thought this through carefully, but I think there’s a big problem with this framing. It assumes that our weakness is mostly with negotiating tactics: Democrats need to demonstrate that they’re willing to accept a whole lot of wreckage if they don’t get their way, and once they’ve done that Republicans will realize that they have to start compromising.

But there are two problems with this. First, there’s a real asymmetry between liberal and conservative goals. Liberals want active change. This means they can’t just obstruct. They have to figure out a way to build a supermajority coalition for complicated legislation, and that means compromise. And everyone knows this. So compromise is baked into the cake. But conservatives, to a much larger extent, are often OK with simply preventing things from changing, either as their first best or second best position. For that, all you have to do is maintain a very simple position among a minority caucus. No real coalition building or compromise is necessary.

Second, political coalitions are simply too public to sustain an artificial bargaining posture. The problem with the Democratic caucus isn’t that they negotiate badly, it’s that the Democratic caucus is genuinely fractured. And again, everyone knows it. You can’t pretend you’re willing to go to the mat against high-end tax cuts when there are half a dozen Democratic senators who support high-end tax cuts and Republicans know there are half a dozen Democratic senators who support high-end tax cuts. To fix this, you need more liberal Democrats, not tougher leadership.

In any case, Andy’s whole post is worth a read, especially his second point, which I think is a genuine and growing fracture point within the liberal coalition:

Civic republicans vs. non-republican liberals. Civic republicanism (small “r,” of course) is an awkward label for a common position: that the fundamental issue of our time is the ability of the rich, and corporations, to game the political system and prevent the rest of us from exerting true self-governance….In contrast, a non-republican liberal position is that giving material sustenance to the poor is more important than whether the rich get paid off, however regrettable and undeserved that is.

Andy describes himself as "mostly a liberal but with growing sympathies for republicanism," and I’m pretty much in the same place. Maybe a little further along, in fact, though I still find myself nearly always supporting compromise positions that genuinely help people in the here and now. The last couple of years have certainly put a dent in that attitude, though. The rich have rubbed our faces a little too hard in the fact that they simply have no interest in what’s good for the country, only what’s good for their own bank accounts.

I think that’s happening to a lot of people and it’s a true moral and ethical dilemma. The result of this constant capitulation though is that liberals are participating in their own defeat and weakening themselves for future battles every time it happens — and ending up causing more human suffering in the process.

Jack Balkin makes the argument that the "parliamentarization" of our politics, with the Republicans establishing ideological cohesion, makes it inevitable that Democrats will also coalesce into a parliamentary-style party and do the same things when they get in the minority. If that’s true then I suppose one could anticipate that it would mean most liberal policy would advance from a minority position as they "hold hostage" the Republicans in the same way the Republicans are holding Democrats hostage today. But even assuming you could get ideological cohesion among the Dems (which I doubt) I’m afraid this moral dilemma would preclude them from being successful. You have to be willing to kill some hostages to be successful at this game.

The question is then, what to do? Bill Black and David Cay Johnson have some ideas. They say you have to deal with the Republicans like you deal with bullies — confront or outsmart. Of course, I think we all know situation where you find out that the people you think are your friends really side with the bullies (or in girl world — the popular girls) instead of you.

Anyway, this is a central problem for liberals and progressives as we try to go forward dealing with the Republican wrecking crew and their allies in the Democratic Party. I don’t know what the answer is.

 

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