Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Liberal Blind Spot

Here’s Paul Krugman saying something obtuse (emphasis in the original):
Nobody cares about [process] — they care about results. Nobody really cares about earmarks; they’re just code for spending less (less on somebody else, of course, not me). Nobody cares about civility and bipartisanship, which in practice are code for Democrats giving in to Republican demands. Nobody cares about parliamentary maneuvers: we can argue about the role of health reform in the election, but I bet not one voter in 50 knows or cares that it was passed using reconciliation (as were the sacred Bush tax cuts we must, must retain).

“If Obama had used fancy footwork and 2 AM sessions to pass a big public works program, and this program had brought unemployment down, Republicans would be screaming about the process — and Democrats would have comfortably held control of Congress. Remember the voter backlash against the way Medicare drug benefits were passed? Neither do I.”
Let’s leave aside the fact that what Krugman’s saying is empirically improbable. Voters seemed to care enough about process, for example, to punish congressional Republicans for misusing the Constitution's impeachment provisions in 1998.  And let’s not dwell on the fact that Krugman bent our ear off for eight years deploring alleged procedural irregularities allegedly exploited by George Bush. He had plenty to say, for example, about the Florida recount process that conferred the presidency on George Bush in 2000 and the legislative processes through which his tax cuts were enacted into law and he secured congressional authorization to prosecute the Iraq war. You could excuse a cynical soul for suspecting that what Krugman really means is that nobody does (or should) care about process as long as Democrats control the government and are doing the things he wants them to do. Yet, not being cynics ourselves, we’ll give Krugman the benefit of the doubt by presuming that his indifference to process is politically evenhanded.

But ask yourself this: could any reasonable person want to be the fellow-citizen of someone who’s not ashamed to say that it’s OK to cut procedural corners as long as you’re getting to the right public decisions? We care, and ought to care, about the procedural integrity of public decision-making precisely because we usually don’t agree on what counts as the right decision. That’s why the idea of "political legitimacy" is integral to our political affairs. A public decision’s having a legitimacy-conferring procedural pedigree is what generates an obligation on the part of citizens to abide by public decisions they think are wrong.  People who don't care about process can't sustain democratic institutions.

So what are we to say about someone who isn’t in the least ashamed to say that “nobody cares about process”? That’s not just a confession of bad democratic citizenship on Krugman’s part.  It's an aspersion on the civic character of everyone else that erodes the mutual trust it takes to make democratic institutions work.  The sad thing is that Krugman probably wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t reasonably expect that it’s the sort of thing that passes for refreshing candor in liberal circles.


Lone Wolf said...

If the Affordable Health Care Act was more popular, I suspect Republicans would have been afraid to filibuster it and, if they weren't, Democrats would have been rewarded for passing it through reconciliation. Maybe voters should care more about process. But I don't think Krugman's wrong about what they actually care about.

Anonymous said...

I have to keep reminding myself that Krugman is supposed to be a smart guy. The more I learn about what he thinks and his reasoning, the more I wonder was passes for being a "smart guy."