Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Red October

Backward to utopia!

For 16 days this month, conservatives in Congress deliberately shut down the federal government and threatened to default on the national debt, thereby destroying the world economy, in an attempt to force Democrats to repeal Obamacare and accede to their entire economic agenda.  How do conservatives justify such shockingly irresponsible and ruthless tactics?  There are three basic defenses they give and, like so much of American discourse, they revolve around the question of the proper relationship between the citizenry and the political elite.  That is, who really represents the people?

Conservatives loudly answer, “We do!”  In the first defense of their tactical radicalism conservatives claim to represent a majority of American opinion, a majority that hates Obamacare, big government and the size of the federal debt.  Call this the populist defense.  Conservatives represent the people against a governing elite that has become an unresponsive ruling class, a technocratic, snobbish, culturally alien aristocracy, imposing heavy regulations and stiff taxes on a public it disdains, while exempting its cronies and contributors.  In this view the American people are noble and the government, captive to special interests, fails to channel that nobility.  Obamacare is merely the most recent and most egregious liberal imposition.  In fact, it’s so onerous and so indicative of the further horrors waiting to leap out of the liberal imagination onto the backs of the American people that anything is justified in trying to stop it.

But the populist defense just fails.  Public opinion polls do show a majority opposed to Obamacare, but it’s a slim majority, and a sizeable part of the opposition comes from the left, from those who wish the government was more involved in health care, either through a public option or a single payer plan.  Also, individual parts of the law are quite popular.  Most Americans do agree in theory that both the federal government and the federal debt are too big.  But those anti-government convictions evaporate in the harsh sun of majority support for particular government programs like Social Security and Medicare, programs so popular that most Americans would rather raise taxes than modify them or reduce their benefits.  The 2012 Republican candidate for president promised to cancel Obamacare on his first day in office; he lost decisively.  Democrats retained control of the Senate, and Republicans lost the national popular vote for the House of Representatives (but held the House because of misrepresentative districting).  And most importantly, most Americans explicitly condemn the confrontational tactics conservative have employed.  The majority supports neither conservative ends nor conservative means.  Indeed, conservatives know this all too well; it was recognition of public disfavor that convinced GOP leaders to surrender.

The second conservative defense is less easily dismissed.  It admits that conservatives are a minority (albeit a sizeable one) and that conservatives did in fact lose last year’s elections.  But, it demands relief from the impositions of big government – Obamacare in particular – on the basis of respect for minority rights.  Call this the libertarian defense.  Conservatives bravely stand for the principle that no one, conservative or otherwise, should be coerced with individual mandates, excessive regulations, high taxes, or any other unwelcome control from the government, even a majority controlled one.  John Hayward of RedState.com (his italics):

The only way to prevent power from building to a dangerously explosive pressure is to install a relief valve in the political system: the right of meaningful dissent, which means the right of refusal.  The majority wants to do something I disagree with?  Fine, knock yourselves out.  Let me know how it goes.  You might even persuade me to get on board, one of these days.

The populist defense claims that the people want to be left alone.  The libertarian defense claims they have a right to be left alone.  In the libertarian view the American people are something of a menace, a thoughtless mob using the blunt instrument of the federal government to oppress resistant minorities.  Government fails because it’s too expansive; it interferes and intrudes more than it should, much more, definitely, than the Founders wished, more than the Constitution allows.  The Constitution was explicitly created to preclude modern liberal paternalism and conservatives are therefore permitted to override it (for example, by putting the national credit in question or enforcing Senatorial supermajorities) in order to protect it.  They’re also justified in generously amending it to return it to its original purpose of outlawing modern liberalism.  Radicalism in the service of tradition seems to be a way of life for this crop of conservatives.

Does the Constitution prohibit the welfare/regulatory state?  This is much too big a question for this small essay, but decades of Supreme Court decisions, going back to 1937, answer in the negative.  Even Obamacare’s mandate that individuals purchase health insurance under threat of a tax penalty has been deemed constitutional by a conservative Supreme Court presided over by a conservative Chief Justice.  The libertarian principle, that there are individual rights which no legislature may infringe, is a vitally important principle, one which we violate at our peril.  But it’s not obvious that one shouldn’t be coerced into supporting a health insurance system that sooner or later one will come to rely upon.  Everyone pays taxes for public schools, even people without children.  The libertarian defense is not an obvious sham like the populist defense, but unless one is an anarchist absolutist who believes no coercion is ever justified, it’s not so self-evidently compelling as to justify the radical confrontationalism of early October.

The third conservative defense is similar to the populist defense, in that it sees Obamacare as the imposition of a non-representative ruling class, but it makes no pretense of speaking for a majority.  It charges that Obamacare lacks moral legitimacy because of how it was passed.  For one thing, it was passed without any Republican votes; as noted conservative writer Charles Krauthammer puts it:

From Social Security to civil rights to Medicaid to Medicare, never in the modern history of the country has major social legislation been enacted on a straight party-line vote.  Never.

And it was passed through non-standard legislative procedures, using budgetary rules to avoid a Republican filibuster.  Red State columnist Daniel Horowitz wrote on October 4th:

Obamacare was passed through budget reconciliation.  So when they felt it was convenient for them to inject Obamacare into the budget process; namely, for the purpose of avoiding the 60-vote threshold, they were more than happy to do so.  Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Now that we have approached the implementation date, which coincides with the budget deadline, it’s time to use that same process to uproot a law that is unworkable and unpopular.

When in the middle of the 2010 Congressional healthcare debate, the very blue state of Massachusetts sent a Republican to the Senate expressly to stop Obamacare, Democrats overrode this “unmistakable message of popular opposition.”  Democrats started this game of flouting legislative and democratic norms; when Republicans play grand obstructionists they are just responding in kind.  Call this the hardball defense.  In the hardball view the parties are ruthless gangs and the American people are the turf they fight over.  (The hardball defense, of course, does nothing to defend the conservative debt ceiling demand to enact their entire economic program; it can, at best, justify extraordinary measures only for stopping Obamacare itself.)  To Krauthammer, Democratic legislative chicanery was so dismissive of dissident views and so ruthless in its determination that it more that justifies the angry, combative Tea Party response it provoked:

It’s the Democrats who gave life to a spontaneous, authentic, small-government opposition — a.k.a. the tea party — with their unilateral imposition of a transformational agenda during the brief interval when they held a monopoly of power.  That interval is over. The current unrest is the residue of that hubris.

The hardball defense, in effect, accuses Democrats of acting like Leninists.  Yes, Leninists; but in a particular way.  Vladimir Lenin redirected Russian Marxism from a broad-based, democratic, trade union movement into a small, dedicated, aggressive vanguard party which alone perceived and expressed true proletarian class consciousness.  He believed the workers as a whole could never fully grasp their objective situation and could not become the basis of the coming socialist utopia without the strict direction of such a vanguard.  Lenin’s primary contribution to political theory is the notion that an ideologically enlightened cadre can understand and represent the people better than they can themselves.  And when an unlikely procession of historical events led to the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the raising of the red flag over St. Petersburg, Lenin used that seizure of state power to impose a Communist transformation upon an unwilling society.  What Krauthammer, Horowitz, etc. are saying is that modern liberals feel justified in imposing Obamacare and other big government social programs because they believe they understand the economic interests of working people better than those working people themselves.  The Democrats won complete control of the federal government in 2009 and 2010 only because of the unlikely combination of revulsion against the outgoing Republican president plus the celebratory appeal of a black presidential candidate plus a terrible financial collapse; they used that power to force their centrally-controlled medical insurance scheme upon a people who’d made it clear they didn’t want it.  Liberals are convinced, because of their technocratic arrogance and their over-educated sanctimony, of their right to act in the interests of the little people.

Of the three defenses, this is the only compelling one.  After all, Democratic criticism of recent Republican brinksmanship is procedural; no one disputes their right to oppose Obamacare or negotiate over the budget, only whether they should do so by shutting down the government or threatening a default.  And Democratic procedures for enacting Obamacare would not make a shining example for a civics textbook.  But neither were they as unsavory as conservatives portray.  Obamacare was one of the main planks of Obama’s 2008 election platform, an election he won by a substantial 7 point margin.  That same year, Democrats increased their Senate majority to 59 out of 100 seats and their House majority to 257 out 435 seats (having received 56% of the vote).  After passing economic stimulus in February of 2009, Democrats turned to healthcare.  And Krauthammer dismisses the notion that Democrats genuinely tried to be bipartisan about it:

The Democrats insist they welcomed contributing ideas from Republicans. Rubbish. Republicans proposed that insurance be purchasable across state lines. They got nothing. They sought serious tort reform. They got nothing.

But failure to include two (seriously flawed) policy proposals does not constitute Leninism.  Democrats spent months negotiating with more tractable Republicans Senators like Mike Enzi, Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch and Olympia Snowe, trying to get them on board by suggesting less generous and more market-centered plans.  Many Democrats, possibly including Obama, might have preferred Medicare for all, but they refrained from pushing that because of resistance from within their own caucus (not much of a Leninist monolith there), even though single payer has garnered majority support in some polls.  And yes, only Democrats voted for Obamacare, but that was because Republicans boycotted it as part of a deliberate political ploy to deny it bipartisan legitimacy. They did negotiate with Democrats at first, but it’s hard not to conclude they did so in simple bad faith with the deliberate intention of delaying the bill’s passage in order to discredit it in the public mind.  Historically, major social legislation won support in both parties because historically the parties were not ideologically consistent.  Before the great post-60’s political realignment there were liberals and conservatives in both parties.  Consider Krauthammer’s list of major social legislation: Social Security, Civil Rights, Medicare, Medicaid.  He seems to celebrate them, but he neglects one very interesting point: they were all liberal initiatives that are tremendously popular now that were strenuously opposed by conservatives at the time.  Indeed, opposition to such initiatives was what defined them as conservative!  In 1961 Ronald Reagan, then a famous actor and aspiring conservative activist, famously predicted the enactment of Medicare would mean the death of freedom, a stance that might deepen the confusion of present-day Tea Partiers holding signs reading “Keep government out of my Medicare!”  If liberals waited for conservative support no important social legislation would ever be passed.

And why should Democrats have been forced to reach Horowitz’s 60 vote threshold?  He’s referring to the filibuster, a Senate rule which requires 60 or more Senators to allow a bill to come to a vote.  (Forgive the following short walk through the weeds of legislative process, but it’s necessary to clarify a point important enough that Tea Partiers claim it justifies their aggressive tactics.)  Historically the filibuster was invoked infrequently, but after 2000 it began to be used more and more until now it has almost come to be considered part of the normal functioning of the Senate.  This violates the spirit (if not the letter) of the Constitution, which demands super-majorities for specific votes (such as ratification of foreign treaties) and requires nothing more than simple majorities for most votes.  The Democrats had 60 votes after the defection of Arlen Specter in April of 2009 and passed their version of Obamacare in the Senate in December.  But they lost the 60th vote on January 19, 2010 when Republican Scott Brown won the special election to fill the seat emptied by the death of Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion.  Brown had indeed campaigned with the promise of maintaining the filibuster against Obamacare and thereby preventing its passage.  The House of Representatives had passed its own version in November, but Brown’s election and promise of filibuster meant the House and Senate bills could not be negotiated through normal procedure.  Democrats, determined to pass universal health care after decades of effort, decided the House would simply pass the Senate bill as it was and make any desired changes through supplementary legislation passed in the Senate via the budget reconciliation process, which doesn’t require 60 votes.  It’s only the passing of this smaller accompanying act (which contained only budgetary changes to the main bill) that Horowitz is complaining about, not the passage of Obamacare itself.  If conservatives were justified in using an extra-Constitutional device like the filibuster to block Obamacare in a repudiation of huge Democratic electoral victories, why were Democrats so unjustified in using budget reconciliation to pass minor changes?

There’s a word for ruthlessly using technicalities to win on policy: hardball.  But hardball is not the same as Leninism.  On the other hand, parties tend to employ hardball when they lack broad popular support.  Was that true of Democrats and Obamacare?  The Democrats had won the presidency and large majorities in both houses of Congress by running on – among other things – universal healthcare.  But wait: “among other things.”  People vote for all sorts of reasons and not everyone that voted Democrat did so to enact Obamacare; though, by the same token, probably not everyone who voted Republican did so to block it.  If there was overwhelming popular support for Obamacare – as there had been for Social Security, Medicare, etc. – it would have been quite hard for Republican members of Congress to vote against it.  The final Senate version passed in the House by only 219 to 212; 34 Democrats voted no, hardly an overwhelming acclamation.  This is where Krauthammer’s charge of Democratic partisanship has some validity. 

The last decades have seen increasing polarization, and a relatively small majority supported universal healthcare while a sizeable minority vehemently opposed it.  Democrats did try to mollify that polarization by modeling their healthcare legislation upon moderate proposals by the two most important conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and touted by Newt Gingrich and other Congressional conservatives, and passed into law by the Republican governor of Massachusetts.  Conservatives responded with legislative stonewalling, some even conceding that they had never seriously meant their own proposals but only pretended so to undercut liberal plans.  Indeed, over the course of the healthcare debate, liberals reached out to conservatives and were repeatedly rebuffed.  Most of that rebuff was political and cynical – more hardball – but some of it was based upon honest differences over the role of government in a free society.  That is, by 2009 polarization had grown to the point that, reasonably or not, conservatives honestly wanted no universal healthcare to pass.  When the Democrats passed genuinely contentious legislation in such a polarized atmosphere and through such unorthodox methods it was bound to exacerbate polarization and partisan bitterness.  It’s true that much of that polarization before the passage of Obamacare was part of a deliberate conservative strategy designed to increase polarization, but Democrats need not have responded in kind.  Hardball against your opponents may be appropriate revenge for the hardball you’ve endured, but, contra Krauthammer, Leninism as retribution for Leninism is not so glibly justified.  And when Democrats used hardball to overcome lack of popular support it was a genuine example of the Leninist attitude.  But the most objectionable example of Democratic Leninism was the dismissal of Scott Brown’s election.  When such a blue state replaced its longtime very liberal Senator with a Republican expressly for the purpose of blocking Democratic legislation, it constituted an unmistakable loss of popular confidence.  When Democrats determined to pass Obamacare anyway it expressed greater trust in its own ideological analysis than in public opinion.

But Republicans have been guilty of the Leninist attitude as well, and more systematically and to a greater degree.  George W. Bush acquired the presidency with less than 48% of the popular vote, but he governed as if he’d won a broad conservative mandate.  From the Bush era to the present, conservatives have consistently pushed for upper end tax cuts, claiming to represent widespread populist demand for them; there isn’t any. Even during the Great Recession, conservatives have anguished over the debt in the name of a public that is actually much more concerned about jobs.  But the real problem of conservative Leninism is that it’s baked right into the cake of conservative populism.  Consider again the conservative defenses of this month’s confrontationalism.  The populist defense claims conservatives represent a majority when they clearly don’t.  Seems like everyday political deceit; but is there something more?  The libertarian defense claims, in effect, that conservatives should be exempt from certain government actions, even those democratically passed and duly adjudicated.  And as we saw, hardball tactics typically indicate lack of popular support, and October’s hardball conservatism seems to lack all scruples about thwarting popular will.  Do conservatives feel themselves in possession of some alternative to a numerical majority that conveys comparable, or even superior, authority?

It’s a mainstay of conservative folklore that Republicans loose presidential elections when they nominate mushy moderates, like John McCain and Mitt Romney, and win with full-fledged, reliable conservatives, like Ronald Reagan (he may constitute that entire list).  They really seem to believe, against all evidence, that the American heart belongs to them and can be made to beat vibrantly again at the entreaties of a true-blue conservative savior-statesman.  That is, conservatives believe they understand the American essence in a way non-conservatives just cannot.  Only they appreciate the almost perfect constellation of cultural and political institutions – a free market, a religious and temperate populace, and divided and limited government – bequeathed by the Founders; and only they feel the appropriate urgency of freeing ourselves of liberal corruption and returning to that original bliss.  That’s what it means to be conservative!   This inside knowledge of the true American cultural essence is what endows conservatives with the moral-political authority to override mere numerical majorities.  This is conservative cultural Leninism: the belief that all true Americans are conservative beneath the skin, and if not, then they aren’t true Americans and they’re views need not be respected.  This attitude is widespread, habitual and fundamental on the American right.  And it’s this minority populist arrogance which is the true justification for the shockingly hardball conservative strategy of shutdown and debt threat, a strategy that constitutes the single most egregious act of Leninism in generations.

All political movements, even democratic ones, must have leaders and experts; in a word: elites.  There are subtle and complex issues that much of the public – actually living private lives detached from the inside baseball of modern government – simply doesn’t appreciate.  Consider that the citizenry wishes to not raise the debt ceiling.  They are correct in thinking that raising it allows the government to acquire more debt, but they don’t seem to understand that it allows the government to acquire more debt in order to pay for government spending that Congress and the president have already agreed upon and are legally committed to spend.  Failure to raise it would prevent the government from paying its already existing debts, which the world financial system rests upon; such failure would likely lead to global economic Armageddon.   This is a simple matter of fact upon which the public is simply wrong.  Congressmen, Federal Reserve governors, department heads, news professionals, academics, advisors and bureaucrats understand this issue in ways that much of the public does not and probably never will.  That’s not a slam against anyone.  The American people generally display reasonable and balanced judgment; they have good instincts.  Consider their reaction to recent Republican extremist tactics.  But it’s not the job of private citizens to be informed on every aspect of fiscal policy.  Responsible, informed, prudent elites are as necessary to a functioning democracy as is a free and responsible populace.

Of course, not all elites are responsible.  During the debate over Obamacare, Republicans filled the public discourse will all sorts of dishonest accusations: death panels, socialized medicine, government takeover, etc.; such lies continue now in the implementation phase. The public, with its own ideological inclinations and its less-than-perfect knowledge of the issues can be too susceptible to propaganda and obfuscation.  That susceptibility helps explain much of the change in opinion on healthcare between Obama’s election and Scott Brown’s.  This is one of the inescapable limitations of democracy.  (Sometimes the elite falls prey to its own propaganda: apparently several Republican Congressmen seem to think a default would actually be beneficial!  But what’s forgivable in the general public is unbearably shameful in a public servant.) 

Acknowledging the people’s imperfections opens one up to the very charge of Leninism, a charge that can be quite powerful in a country with such a deep populist tradition.  Such accusations arise, for example, whenever a party tries to explain its own electoral failure.  In a democracy you’re obligated to believe that your side loses (either from messaging failure, but that’s the lamest copout there is, or) out of ignorance; i.e. the people don’t realize how wrong they are.  Conservatives believe people vote liberal for the free government goodies; they are morally weak and don’t appreciate the moral satisfaction of economic independence and personal responsibility.  Liberals believe people vote conservative out of mistaken beliefs about the moral nature of capitalist outcomes.  They believe that big government humanizes capitalism and makes it work for everyone rather than just the rich; when working people vote against liberalism it must be that devious conservatives are manipulating their cultural and racial fears.  Obama famously said in 2008 (in a closed-door meeting) that when working people feel the economic squeeze, “it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  But Leninism does not consist in believing the people are mistaken or limited; it consists in believing one is justified, based upon one’s possession of special ideological truth, to act on important issues against the public’s clear wishes.  Democracy is necessary because without accountability elites run the system for their own benefit.  If democracy without elites becomes a mob ripe for demagoguery, elites without popular control become an aristocracy.  Leninism is an alibi for an aspiring aristocracy.

But even liberals at their Leninist worst, as when passing unpopular transformational legislation, or conservatives at their even worse Leninist worst, as when threatening to blow up the world economy unless their losing economic agenda is enacted in full, are radically different from historical Marxist-Leninists in one very important way: neither one is a small, purely intellectual movement.  Both liberalism and conservatism are broad-based popular movements.  Both the Democratic and Republican parties are small “d” democratic parties in that the grass roots of each party has enormous influence over its policy.  Indeed, the Republican establishment and business leaders lament how powerful the Tea Party insurgency has become within the GOP.  The actual Lenin led his vanguard party to violent revolution and totalitarian control and no reasonable person fears those things in America in the foreseeable future.  But the Leninist attitude is a serious threat to national comity and unity; it exacerbates polarization; it makes people angry; it robs them of their pragmatism and generosity; it makes them less receptive to reason and compromise and more susceptible to propaganda and demagoguery.  And there is one other very important and quite fortunate difference between Lenin’s red October of 1917 and the red state Tea Party insurrection we just endured:  Our red October failed.  Thank goodness.  And thank the good sense of the America people.

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