Sunday, September 21, 2008

Before Going Back To The Campaign by Anthony McCarthy

I have myself quite cheerfully been both a country-music fan and a feminist for years – if Camille Paglia is the cosmos, so am I. When some fellow feminist doesn’t like my music (How could you not like “You are just another sticky wheel on the grocery cart of life”?), I have always felt free to say, in my politically correct feminist fashion, “Fuck off.”
Molly Ivins, I Am The Cosmos; Mother Jones, October 1991

The ways that smart people think that get them into trouble has always been interesting to me. Being politically on the far left of the scale, the political aspects of that have been the major focus of my writing. It’s not the ideals or even much of the analysis of the left that are wrong, as this weeks collapse of the financial fairy tale castle again proves. So the failure to convince an effective majority of the population isn’t due to just being wrong. Our agenda is democratic, egalitarian, promotes the common good and saves the biological basis of life. That of our political opponents does the opposite.

It being essential to save our species and almost certainly life on our planet, our political success, the left, actually taking power and making laws and policy and CHANGING the ways we defeat ourselves, is the most important issue there is. A good part of our problem is that pretending is often easier and more pleasant than facing the unpleasant truth. But the truth will out in the end. We are at the time of reckoning in every way. Taking your own advice is a way to foster confidence that you might be on to something. So the left should face the facts of its past failure too.
It was through trying to figure out that problem that the inadequacy of how we look at the world came to assume a greater importance. A faith in the efficaciousness of the behavioral and social sciences and the melding of those with genetics is endemic to the left. I’d guess that those have largely replaced liberal religion, Marxist theory, and even basic liberal civics in a large part of how leftists back up their ideas. George Lakoff’s present influence is symptomatic of that faith. Looking at it in as generous a light as possible shows mixed or inconclusive results. The scientifically vetted and clearly meat-headed “General Betryaus” idea was no rip roaring success. I don’t think the results flowing from that sector have been very useful politically. They haven’t led to our having a better chance of winning elections.

The latter day successors of social Darwinism not only do that, they knock the legs out from under the basic agenda of the left. We can’t be right about even the possibility of democracy and equality if any form of biological determinism is true. When you look at their absurd research methods and the amount of myth you have to swallow whole to believe they’re right tends to leaving them behind and wading into life without the leaden life preserver of their dogmas. I’ve tried to bring up instances when determinism has been politically important to what happens and the inevitable disasters that result. Democratic politics is all about results, making things better. Nothing that doesn’t have that result is politically valid.

The predictable responses of the fans of Dawkins et al has been that they are politically liberal. I’m not entirely sold on their liberalism but, as I’ve said about some leftists, they can just as easily be our own worst enemies. Quite frankly, I don’t feel very good about someone who opposes a return of sodomy laws if they undermine the very concepts of equality and freedom that led to their being abandoned in real life. There is a reason that these guys are popular with Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks.

Having rejected the methods used in the social sciences you get left with those most unscientific but probably more successful political methods, noticing things and consulting the hard lessons of experience. Those unfashionable methods, I am fully convinced, are as good as we are ever going to have.

I very strongly suspect that the mania for free markets in the society at large got its biggest boost with Milton Friedman’s load of garbage shown on PBS* a number of years ago. Those possessing a certificate of higher education in the United States depend a lot on what is shown on TV for its common received wisdom outside of their specialty. We’re not as far removed from the plebs as we like to think. And, as a group, we aren’t notably more industrious about continuing education. Once an idea is lodged in our collection of bromides and aphorisms, replacing them for others isn’t very easy.

With the series of disasters following the path Friedman and his allies have brought us, why that isn’t seen as the equivalent of economic Lysenkoism is an interesting question. I’m at a loss to understand why anyone would have kept their faith after the S&L crisis of the 90s, never mind having the same ideology that led to that being the predominant one persist to cause the disaster we are in today. Harry and Louise seem to have needed more than one jolt of experience to wise up. I think part of that is the same kind of faith in anything with the trappings of science. You have to remember that in a lot of universities that economics is taken as one of the social sciences. It’s been pointed out by others here that a lot of economists seem to believe themselves to be biological scientists these days.


We The People are a motley and scruffy lot. Democratic politics can’t attempt a basic scrubbing of the necks and ears of the electorate. You can’t attempt to completely eradicate and “correct” basic beliefs that you don’t like, certainly not in the time frame that we’ve got to work with in an election cycle. The attempt carries a guarantee to produce a self-defeating backlash. You are not going to “end faith” in God, the wearing of synthetics or even an addiction to forms of entertainment you find annoying. Leftists need to grow up and face that the electorate as it is now is what we’ve got to work with. Our politicians, the real ones who get elected, face that basic fact every single day, they have to or they get out of politics. Leftists political impotence has in no small part been due to the insistence of many of the loudest that facing this most basic fact of democracy, is a form of selling out.

Another of the big problems of the left is the instance that our politicians be, if anything, even more correct than we would like the electorate to be. Having just pointed out that it is the far from surgically clean electorate that gets to choose who is a real politician, instead of a pretend politician, expecting this of our elected officials is about the stupidest attitude we maintain.

There is no politician in our history who did more of what the left wanted than Lyndon Johnson during his presidency. He also did quite a bit which was among the worst a president has done.

As an aside, I think if he hadn’t listened to some of the product of our most prestigious universities, he might have avoided a lot of the worst. He would have probably been re-elected in 1968.

Lyndon Johnson was a rude, crude, bigoted, sexist, unscrupulous and ruthless and rather conservative politician. As Hillary Clinton pointed out during the campaign, he also delivered those laws that are the highest achievement of our democracy to date. His legacy is that which has been under constant attack for the past forty years. If he had gotten us out of the Vietnam War he might have been able to count on the left supporting him. We’ll never know. Someone like him, today, couldn’t get elected with the support of the left.

Nancy Pelosi is the actual high water mark for the left in out entire history to date. Her record as Speaker has had to deal with the real effective limits on what she can do. She doesn’t have the power to keep the Republicans and conservative Democrats from blocking the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party. The majority she has to work with is small and often unstable. I believe she is doing as much as she possibly can under the real limits of her power. That she has to watch out for attacks from the left is a problem but she’s got larger problems she has to deal with.

One of the responses to the posts I did here last weekend asked “ .... how do we push the Dems leftward? And how do we punish them when they move right”? Well, the left has tried to inflict punishment on Democrats. The abandonment of Democrats in 1968 for Eugene McCarthy (no relation worth mentioning), clean Gene in countless other presidential farces, Barry Commoner’s candidacy in 1980 (still got my pin), Nader in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008, Lord knows how many others in between and in races for lower office, all of those have been attempts to “punish Democrats” for not doing what we want. It is an idea that has been given the test of time and has failed, failed absolutely and in the worst possible way.

Unfortunately, the attempt to punish Democrats in that way has, more often than not, led to Republicans taking office and doing a hell of a lot worse than what Democrats were guilty of. And it has led to the marginalization of the left within the Democratic Party. Republicans have used the power they got from those elections to free broadcast media of fairness and equal time provisions, silencing the left, allowing the rise of right-wing hate talk radio and TV and the further marginalization of the left in the general culture. When you look at the record and find that much failure an idea should also join the Lysenko list of political futility.

The part of the left that has taken that most the superficially gratifying road of getting even isn’t large enough to make the threat effective. We’d have to be able to prove our ability to decisively deliver electoral victory, in the first place, to do that.

Our future depends on making effective coalitions, with those we like, with those we don’t especially like. That’s the only way that the left is going to exercise any kind of political influence for the foreseeable future. The road of leftist puritanism leads to nowhere. The other road might be “ahead but much too slow” but at least it leads somewhere worth trying. Maybe I’ll see you there.

* I seem to recall PBS put it on in “response” to the series by Galbraith on the history of economics. For anyone who missed the Galbraith, it paralleled his wonderfully entertaining book “Money”.