Saturday, October 15, 2005

Cripes Again! Yet More Bad Ideas! (Plus: Bonus Critique of Third Way Twaddle!)

Ok, once more with feeling:



There is no point to playing the moderation game when you're up against people who have no interest in moderation.

Here's an example of why you're wrong:

Moderates must also maintain that Democrats can't afford to lose ground among swing voters by taking hard-line positions on abortion and gay marriage, though the basic right to an abortion and civil rights for homosexuals should remain central Democratic positions. In return, moderates would endorse an ambitious domestic policy agenda, the centerpiece of which would be universal health insurance but which would also include revisiting nafta and intense opposition to K Street-sponsored legislation like tort and bankruptcy reform.
Let's break this into its two constituent arguments:

1) moderates must not be "too extreme" on abortion and gay marriage, although they shouldn't abandon those completely.

2) The key to success is universal health insurance, revisiting NAFTA, and rolling back the regressionist tort and bankruptcy "reforms".

In other words, this is the standard "concede social issues that we're weak on, hit economic issues that we're strong on" argument.

Why doesn't this work?

Well, for #1, the problem is that you're up against a totalist opposition- they won't settle for anything less than total victory. They'll take the small concessions, mind you, but that won't stop them from painting the Democrats as the party of (what the push polls will surely say), "baby killers and fag lovers". Concession is MEANINGLESS, because the social conservatives are simply going to pocket the concessions and go further. They have to: this is, literally, an issue of faith.

And for #2, sorry, but this is a pipe dream. It's a pipe dream that's popular with a section of Democrats who advocated Iraq, are uncomfortable with social liberalism, and are running away from both and are looking to, I dunno, Canada as their policy inspiration. That's not necessarily a bad thing; while it has its problems, Canada's system is easily superior, provided its properly funded. (Monopsony has its uses.) The problem is that social and fiscal liberalism are irreversibly connected, and they're connected because their opponents want them to be connected.

Look: universal health care, progressive bankruptcy laws, fair trade (that's what "revisiting NAFTA" comes down to, although the US is hardly playing fair in that deal to begin with), fighting "tort reform"- or, as it's more properly called, "protecting corporations from the consequences of malfeasance"; all those things are liberal. Yes, liberal. Hell, universal health care is downright SOCIALIST.

The Dems will get nailed with the liberal label when they haul out those policies, and all the social conservatives will pile on as well, because attacking fiscal liberalism aids them in discrediting economic liberalism. The corporations and good ol' fashioned fat cats sure as hell won't support this sort of agenda, and will do their best to kill it.

When the corporations do come to kill it, they'll spend a lot of money and put on a lot of pressure. Sooner or later, it'll be enough money and enough pressure that any rationally calculating politician is going to bend or fold, and it's guaranteed that enough will do so to kill any real reforms. This will happen, no doubt about it.


Unless it's part of something bigger. Unless it's part of some sort of broader ideological outlook that the politicians and party draw on for legitimacy and support. If that's the case, then they need to stick with the policies, otherwise the program falls down, and they can't have that because it forms the anchor for their support. If you're willing to be a liberal and accept liberalism, then not only will the name calling not affect you, but it'll strengthen you. Call it "progressivism" if you must, but you have to call it something, and it has to be something real so that GlaxoSmithKline (or whoever) knows that you aren't going to bend.

After all, if they know that, they won't challenge you in the first place.

Anyway, Noam's piece is based on an article by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck called "the politics of polarization", under the aegis of the so-called "Third Way Institute". I read this piece a while back and commented on it over at Kevin Drum's blog at the Washington Monthly. I wasn't impressed with the report at all. In in the interest of good old fashioned economical laziness, I'll simply replay that comment here:


Now that I've read the Galston and Kamarck report, Kevin, I can say with certainty that it's thoroughly unimpressive.

Among the questionable tendencies I saw:

It tends to cite friendly sources instead of unbiased ones (including the authors' own work, without citing through to their original sources);

it rarely raises the question of *why* there are more conservative self-identifiers than liberal self-identifiers;

it doesn't address the issue of self-declared independents who are "leaners" to any great extent;

it doesn't address the utility of using self-identification in the first place;

it doesn't address the problem of single-issue voters to any great extent, which throws polling-based analysis right off;

it contains little in the way of policy prescriptions that haven't been tried since 1992 (to little effect);

it completely ignores the deliberate attempts by Republican leaning Catholic clergy to influence the Catholic vote...

...and most damningly, it attacks Democratic candidates for not being perceived as having "honesty and integrity" vs. their Republican counterparts, and yet simultaneously deride the kind of "framing" that allows Bush et al to be perceived this way as a "myth!"

Like too many "third way" articles (and this is, despite its pretensions, more of an article than a study) it completely ignores political agency and treats the political environment as a given that Democrats need to shift in reaction to. As I said earlier, that just allows the Republicans to use the agency they *already* have to shift the environment.

In any case, I'd seriously question the utility of the analysis of any organization that has Joe Lieberman as the honorary chairman of its national security policy wing. If its analysis was more thoroughly grounded in verifiable and tested theory that'd be different.

It isn't.

In fact, it feels remarkably theoretically incoherent.

Sorry, Kevin, but while I'm very interested in Hacker and Pierson's take on the situation, it's really not worth it to counterpose their analysis with this piece. There are just too many problems with it.

Oh, and one more thing: it spent a lot of time discussing specifically how liberal activists are "out of the mainstream", but didn't counterpose that against a discussion of how conservative activists are "out of the mainstream", despite the structure and style of their analysis clearly indicating that such a juxtaposition would be necessary.

That they *did* attack liberals and not conservatives not only weakens their analysis, but raises questions about the extent to which this piece is just a tool to bludgeon liberal Democrats with.


My opinion hasn't changed. This report was unimpressive; it was pretty much just a recycling of the same-old same-old DLC arguments, with the same old flaws. Yes, it had graphs, but the quantitative data was built on questionable assumptions, and was buttressed by equally questionable analysis citing mainly other "third-way" writers (if not the authors themselves.) It's a report for the sake of a report- something to wave at Dems who don't want to give up their hard-won Republican-defined "centrist" label. It's not worth the time or attention that has been lavished on it.

(Hence the reason I was so lazy. It's not worth the effort.)

Sorry, but strategy has to go a little farther than "if we leave out *this* issue, and focus on *this* issue, it'll surely bring the public onside this time!" Folks, it hasn't worked since 1992. It's not going to work now.

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