Thursday, September 2, 2010

More on My “Not Getting It”

Yesterday, I asked readers for some help in understanding the Democratic complaint, voiced by Russ Feingold among many others, about Republican politicians’ sinister effort “to destroy” the Obama presidency. An obliging anonymous reader offers a bill of particulars that invites me to complete the thought behind yesterday’s post:
“I hope you['re] kidding. The right has pursued the tactic, from about the middle of the 2008 campaign, that Obama is illegitimate, and not entitled to his office, his position, or even the formal respect nominally the office of the presidency.

“Here is a short list of the litany of charges widely thrown in Obama's direction by the right:

1. Obama was not born in the United States, and is not entitled to be president.

2. Obama is actually a Muslim, only pretending to be a Christian.

3. Obama is a secret Marxist / Socialist / Nazi, whose underlying agenda is actually the destruction--not the promotion--of the interests of the United States.

4. Obama was not legitimately elected: widespread voter fraud by Acorn was sufficient to throw the election (believed by > 30% of registered Republicans).

5. Obama is a blustering incoherent fool, the tool of radicals such as William Ayers, that cannot even form a rational sentence without the help of a Teleprompter.

6. Obama is actually a racist, dedicated to wreaking revenge on white America for slavery. . . .

“None of the above are constrained only to ‘fringe’ political players, but were repeated over and over by mainstream players within the Republican party, and the supporting media infrastructure (Fox News, Limbaugh, former executive branch officials, etc.)”

“This is a fundamentally different tactic than that taken by the left with respect to Republican presidencies. They generally took the form of ‘Bush is dumb,’ or ‘Bush lied to push policies that the public would not have otherwise supported,’ or ‘the Republicans are so vested in the evils of government that they cannot run a functional one.’ . . .

“What the conservatives have done is considerably more sinister. From Day One of the Obama administration, they have made a determined, sustained, and concerted effort to hollow out the president, the respect that is shown towards him, and the essential legitimacy of government, even in times of opposition.”
It goes without saying that Obama’s political opponents would reject any suggestion that they'd treated Obama more unfairly than Democrats treated George Bush. But let’s stipulate to the factual accuracy of the charges the reader enumerates (while reserving judgment about his ultimate evaluation of these putative facts). That still wouldn't make the idea that there’s something especially “sinister” about Republican opposition to the Obama presidency any more intelligible to me.

People believe all kinds of implausible political things. Pollsters tell us that a significant number of people think that the government of the United States is covering up the fact that we’re routinely visited by UFOs, that the Bush administration had something to do with 9/11 and, yes, that the circumstances of Barack Obama’s birth disqualify him from the presidency. Yet the fact that some people in any political coalition have crazy beliefs doesn’t make it civically irresponsible for politicians to represent that coalition's political preferences. In a representative democracy we expect entrepreneurial politicians to process inchoate public sentiment into a public will by presenting voters with a series of binary choices between political alternatives. The record of the voters' preferences over successive elections constitutes the definitive evidence about what ultimately counts as public opinion about political alternatives.

So we can’t understand how popular opinion informs the political process without distinguishing pertinent information about the distribution of political preferences among the electorate from distracting noise. I’ve commented before on the voluminous, and as far as I can tell unprecedented, polling data that substantially more voters oppose than support nearly all of Obama's signature policies less than two years after his election. Moreover, the results of a series of elections since 2008, most notably the election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat on the promise that he’d oppose ObamaCare, suggest that the unpopularity of Obama’s agenda isn’t just an artifact of polling techniques or the last news cycle. All of this sounds to me like the makings of a pretty definitive explanation of Obama’s present unpopularity.

When Russ Feingold suggests that Obama’s unpopularity is explained less by the unpopularity of his agenda than by the operation of economic forces outside his control and a sinister Republican disinformation campaign, he’s saying that the voluminous evidence that most voters don’t like Obama’s policies is just distracting noise. The real information, he suggests, is that shameful Republican disinformation campaign has taken hold of public opinion despite Obama's having had every opportunity to rebut it.

That’s an awfully convenient thing for liberals to believe, especially if we're determined not to contemplate the possibility that Obama's agenda is a lot less popular than we thought and hoped it is. I still don’t get why anyone who took a deep breath could really think that this thesis about the unreality of genuine opposition to Obama's policies is more plausible than, say, the notion that Obama secretly adheres to the ideology of Williams Ayers.


Scrooge McDuck said...

Hey Ron. Scrooge (formerly Anomymous) here...

I'm not sure that our viewpoints are "bridgeable," but let me elaborate a bit on what I wrote before, and you can see whether it makes any sense to you.

I was born in the late 50s, and for my formative years, there was a much greater degree of consensus in the culture, the media, and in national politics. There were disagreements, of course, but with the exception of racial politics and the Vietnam War, there was pretty broad agreement on the form of our government, and a degree of consensual trust that--by today's standards--looks almost charmingly naive.

Starting with Bush's Sr.'s 1988 campaign, and dramatically heightened during the period of the Gingrich speakership from 1994 to 1998, the previous rules of political engagement were dramatically revamped. Republicans played politics as "total warfare," with a degree of vitriol and backhandedness that were almost revolutionary to mainstream types like myself (e.g. the ouster of Jim Wright from the congressional speakership, blaming Susan Smith's murder of her own children on "liberalism," wanton accusations that the Clintons were involved in drug running, murder, and treason, and pursuing an entirely party-line attempt to impeach Clinton in the lame duck interregnum between a Republican and Democratic congress).

Mainstream Democrats simply do not play the political game the same way the Republicans currently do. Nor do they think that it is proper, or ethical, or desirable. While the Democrats are (generally, but not universally) more focused on policy, the attacks from the Republicans center on fabricated and wedge issues, and the utter destruction and delegitimization of their opponents.

You alluded to the "unpopularity" of the Obama agenda, but remember, that is a post-hoc perspective. And remember, also, that the bills passed were entirely consistent with his campaign promises:

1. In February 2009, 67 % of Americans approved of the way that Obama handled the stimulus. (per Gallup)

2. Health care reform, also, was broadly supported in June 2009, with a positive majority of Americans supporting "major reform" (55%) over "minor adjustments" (43%) to the health care system.

3. Needless to say, regulation of banking and capital markets to prevent another, similar, financial crisis were wildly popular, initially.

These are the three hallmarks of Obama's "agenda" since his inauguration. So why are they unpopular now?

The primary answer is simple. Raging rivers of bullshit, undermining the need and perceived integrity of the administration and its agenda. An irresponsible opposition party that systematically spreads outright falsehoods about the Obama bills, and potential alternative policy options (Death Panels, government "takeover" of 1/6 of the economy, the "abject failure" of the stimulus to improve the economy, allegations that the banking bill will *increase* the likelihood of future bail-outs, and on and on and on).

Added to which is a droning parallel thread of allegations that Obama is a scary, scary interloper, a socialist-Marxist-facist-muslim-radical interloper, whose real agenda is to destroy the United States, and hand it off to terrorists.

(continued on next post due to site limitations...)

Scrooge McDuck said...

This is not the way that a responsible opposition acts. Sorry. And THAT is what Feingold and us other whining pussies are complaining about. We have a certain picture of our country, and our political system, that is still rooted in the political consensus that stretched from Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, and in the notion of a political dialectic that will best result in good outcomes and good policy.

None of which is to say that the Democrats are responding well in this new political environment. They do not have the ideological or message discipline that the Republicans do, and they do not explain their political goals and policies well (although, to be fair, this is partly a result of being more interested in good policy than political cohesiveness). And they seem oblivious to some of the more teeth-grating aspects of the nominal liberal agenda (including nanny statism, the cluck-cluck paternalism of much of the political discourse, the totemization of diversity, etc.)

However, many of the current difficulties are a direct result of the Democrats attempts to create good policy this term. The health care bill is, yes, very complex. But the individual components are highly interdependent (e.g. guaranteed issue and compulsory insurance). Republicans who know better claim that they can statutorily remove “pre-existing condition” limitations on health insurance without destroying the entire fabric of private insurance. Or by making the specious claim that tort reform and intra-state competition can fix all the essential problems of our current system (for the record, malpractice payouts comprise about 0.7% of our current health spending).

When you have an opposition party that is not serious about governing, that outright fabricates information about its opponents and their agenda, and that conceals a good part of their own actual agenda (the elimination or radical reduction of Social Security and Medicare, for example), you have created a system in which it is virtually impossible to construct good policy.

One alternative, which I suspect you may endorse, is for the Democrats to adopt some of the tactics of the opposition, and engage in some fabrication and media discipline of their own. If that ever happened, the political culture of the United Status would die an irretrievable death: and the natural consequence would be an electorate as cynical and disengaged as those in Russia.

Demosthenes said...

You could have saved us all a lot of time, Scrooge, by just saying the following: "We're the white-hats. They're the black-hats. The only reason they win is that they're ruthless and we're just too pure and naive. And oh, how I long for the days when Republicans would just lose gracefully."

As for this paragraph:

"When you have an opposition party that is not serious about governing, that outright fabricates information about its opponents and their agenda, and that conceals a good part of their own actual have created a system in which it is virtually impossible to construct good policy."

...well, I can draw only one of three conclusions. 1) You were not alive between 2002-2006. 2) You were not paying attention to American politics between 2002-2006. 3) Your mind is possessed of a truly staggering capacity to deal with cognitive dissonance.