Monday, March 30, 2009

More on the fallacy of "the moderate"

In the U.S., we have an infantile view of political ideology. Perhaps it is born out of a two-party system (more vibrant democracies have more than two parties--we're actually the only highly industrialized nation that has only two parties of consequence) and its inherent bifurcating of issues into yes/no or good/bad or mine/yours. It is a truly immature form of governing.
Note: I say immature, which is ironic, since young voters are most likely to vote for third party candidates, thereby exercising their belief in a more vibrant democracy. Our older (and ostensibly more mature) voters become increasingly less likely to do so. Perhaps this should help us reorient our understanding of maturity?
At the same time, instead of operating in a non-dualistic system, we create a false paradigm of linear relationship. Such as can be seen in this diagram:

At the one end is liberalism and at the other is conservatism--as if there is no way in which they can have matching ideologies--implying that they are, indeed, polar opposites--and in the place of unity must certainly be in the mythical midpoint: moderatism.

I bring this up because of the new 'working group' forming in the Democratic Party, led by Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. A long-time Clinton associate and supporter of Sen. Clinton's campaign until he switched to then Sen. Obama. Bayh, given speaking time at the Democratic Convention, given access to the president, has now decided to make himself a kingmaker.

Bayh's op-ed in the Washington Post argues against this, while actually demonstrating that he is intending to do just that. His prime argument is this:
The stakes are too high for Democrats to fear a policy debate. Such debates produce better legislation. On nearly all important votes, a supermajority of 60 senators will be needed to pass legislation. Without Democratic moderates working to find common ground with reasonable Republicans, the president's agenda could well be filibustered into oblivion.
What is interesting is that he didn't suggest such a thing under the previous president, a time in which (arguably), his ideology was most needed and concensus building were most important. Instead, he stood on the sidelines. At the same time, he is making a bold, and fundamentally flawed (in the Shakespearean sense) argument if he actually believes that "moderates working to find common ground with reasonable Republicans" is an appropriate task for him and his group, "praised" by the White House and Senate Leadership. Friedmann would remind us to stay away from triangulation and attempts to intercede on behalf of someone else. I would say, Who gives you the right to decide policy for the entire Democratic Party? How can this be seen as anything but a power play? If he were truly post-partisan, he would be using many more carrots than sticks in this conversation.

He then makes the foolish argument that the country is "moderate". And conservative. Just not liberal. Moderate with more conservativism than liberalism. Or something.

What Bayh seems to be doing is to actually create a new party within the Democratic Party. Perhaps we should look at a different graph:
In this graph, you can see that the horizontal access demonstrates the spectrum of liberalism to conservatism. The vertical access shows the differing parties.

Bayh's idea is that Democrats have to allign themselves appropriately with the ideologically similar groups: liberal Democrats with conservative Democrats and that conservative Democrats are most like liberal (or his word: reasonable) Republicans, so they should hash out some compromises on the part of the party.

But look at the graph as I've composed it. Since we have already thrown out the previous understanding, Bayh's rationale doesn't seem to make sense. If you are a "left-leaning" Republican, why should we assume that the point of contact is with a "right-leaning" Democrat? What makes us so sure that they have more in common than the liberal Democrats? Isn't it possible that the so-called moderates (or liberal Republicans) are socially liberal and fiscally conservative and that conservative Democrats might be socially conservative and fiscally liberal?

Ah! But there's Bayh's argument! We're fiscally conservative like they are! Remind me again why we should have you speaking for the entire party?
We plan to be a positive force in our caucus, exemplified by the constructive role a number of us played in making reasonable adjustments to garner the GOP votes needed to pass the president's economic recovery package.
A package that ended with less money than both sides started with ($900 billion vs. $820 billion finished at $780 billion).
In 1993, the three of us, as much younger politicians, stood with great expectations as the last Democratic president was sworn in with big plans, a head of steam and a Democratic Congress ready to begin a new progressive era. In less than two years, it all came crashing down, with disillusioned moderate voters handing the GOP broad congressional victories in 1994.
Yes, but again, was it a lack of moderates in the Democratic Party and in the senate, running their own operation, and cutting their own deals? Shouldn't we suggest that Bill Clinton, a southern Democrat and neoliberal, is much different than Barack Obama, a midwestern Democrat and traditional liberal? Doesn't the Clinton agenda have more to say in its own failure (and impact on the Senate) than the Senate had in impacting the Clinton years? And don't we have something to learn from a 1976 election in which a conservative president (Carter) was compromised in the Senate by a liberal Democratic leader (Ted Kennedy)?

And if our problem is the confrontational mode of liberal/conservative (and the ensuing need to be moderate), how is the creation of a shadow, deal-making group of Senators going to bring about a different paradigm? Back in 2007, I made this post about the fallacy of "the moderate". What it means for us is that the operating principle of the moderate is to radically eliminate conflict, working at odds with some competing agendas while reinforcing other ones. In the other post, I use the example of Supreme Court confirmations and the filibuster rule. The moderates give away the confirmations to preserve the filibuster. In this way, the fundamental argument (confirmations) is given a lower priority than the side argument (filibuster rule). Compromise between moderates then cannot be seen as a reliable means of doing business, as the primary function of the compromise was to deal directly with the confirmations--not the filibuster. Secondly, its interest in preserving the law and minimizing perceptual damage is actually the classic definition of conservatism. Conservatives make bad compromisers since they are ideologically opposed to disrupting the status quo.

Now look again at the second graph. Why would we want conservative Democrats to speak for the President of the United States?

Also, look at Rachel Maddow's take. It is perfect.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"They're both doing it"

Let me start by saying this: I hate this statement. It is a pernicious and deceptive non-argument that operates with something I might call "fudged facts".
Fudged Fact - to misrepresent an otherwise accurate assessment by messing with its context.
Let me describe the issue and its problems.

You have no doubt been in the middle of a conversation/debate with someone when the other person suddenly makes the claim that "they're both doing it." The phrase, at its base, is used to suggest that two opposing parties are both guilty of the same problem. It is also most commonly used to refer to politicians in the Republican and Democratic Parties specifically.

The phrase is also commonly uttered on TV yakfests, such as The View or cable news shows. Some talking heads (pundits) employ it during real news broadcasts, and even some self-described Moderate politicians will use it to condemn both parties. I have complete faith that you've heard the phrase at some point--if not ad nauseam.

But here is why I consider it pernicious:
  1. It implies equality. The suggestion of the phrase is that since two opposing parties are doing something, then they are of equal guilt. This does not take into account the possibility that one may be far more likely to do it or has already participated in it to a far greater extent.
  2. It is an act of misdirection. It redirects the conversation away from what is currently being discussed. It is often the associations or experiences that are the center of the problem, but in misdirecting our focus, our attention is turned toward this presumed equality.
  3. It actually cuts off debate. It eliminates the very center of the argument and pulls us to the lowest common denominator. If two parties receive money from an energy company, but only one seems to re-write regulation to curry favor with the company, the act of bringing up the perceived equality in receiving funds keeps us from debating the actual problem, which is the legislation that produces the favor.
  4. It is an act of derision. It makes the claim that because persons A and B have this same association, they are both bad. This (again) brings up the lowest common denominator: A is actually perceived as less of a pariah if A and B are both pariahs!
The last implication brings up the prospect of 'taint'. This is a variation of poisoning the well. It brings equality among the unequal. Like the old stereotype that "one drop" of African American blood makes you African American (and therefore not white), the suggestion is that it doesn't matter how bad you are; if you have done something bad, then you are bad. Bernie Maddoff is equal to a shoplifter.

This may also imply that all crimes are equally bad--which could be the real reason why we can't seem to punish the Bush White House or Wall Street--we know better. We know that these crimes aren't equal.

When we paint with the same broad brush, we miss the actual differences--just as when we focus on the differences, we actually ignore the similarities. But in the case of the non-argument "They're both doing it," we are laying equal guilt and directing the conversation elsewhere, when the central concern must be what the one is doing. Let's use the above example:
Throughout the 1990s, one energy company (Enron) gave millions in campaign contributions to Republicans and Democrats. The ratio was something like 5-to-1 or 10-to-1 (favoring Republicans). They helped rewrite legislation in Texas under a Republican governor (who himself received many millions in contributions), reciprocating deals for the company, and even getting them exclusive access when he became President of the United States. The same company used the energy crisis in California to force its governor (a Democrat) to sign a reprehensible contract to save his state. Enron held millions of people hostage through a shady, quasi-legal contract. Further, under the Texan, the Enron contract was upheld and not investigated, even though there was clear evidence of extortion. In the late 1990s, legislation was passed by a Republican-controlled congress (and they overrode Clinton's veto) that allowed a company like Arthur Anderson to both audit and advise a company like Enron. These rules allowed Enron to exploit the consumers, make a killing on Wall Street, and make a fortune off of the backs of people that would later to the brunt of the abuse when Enron collapsed. So here's the checklist:
  • Enron greatly favors Republican candidates
  • Republicans grant access to Enron
  • Republicans re-write laws allowing Enron (and Arthur Anderson) to cheat
  • A Democrat is extorted and a state is held hostage
  • Enron's collapse generates millions for the board and CEOs
  • Investors lose everything.
The result: anytime this was brought up in the 2000, '02, and '04 elections, it was received with that great misdirection: but you just pointed out that "they're both doing it"! Yeah. Sure.