Policy in an age of post-truth politics
Photo: White HouseAs Joe Romm noted the other day, Ezra Klein has an interesting column in WaPo making the case that, in terms of policy, Obama “is a moderate Republican of the early 1990s.” Putting aside the emergency measures responding to the economic crisis, Obama’s signature initiatives have been a health-care bill modeled on Mitt Romney’s and a cap-and-trade bill modeled on George Bush Sr.’s. Both of those original policies were successful, but when Obama took them up, Republicans fled en masse. Says Klein, “as Democrats moved to the right to pick up Republican votes, Republicans moved to the right to oppose Democratic proposals.”
I agree with Kevin Drum that those policies were never truly Republican: They were compromises Republicans felt forced to accept to avoid worse (i.e., more liberal) policies. It’s probably fair to call them centrist. Either way, I’m not sure “moved to the right” is the best way to describe what Republicans have done.
For decades Republicans have single-mindedly pursued a few core goals: reducing taxes on the wealthy, dismantling the post-war social welfare state, and freeing corporations from regulatory restraints. Sometimes that has meant short-term compromises and half-measures, sometimes it’s meant exploiting culture war resentments, sometimes it’s meant a pose of moderation (compassionate conservatism). Very often — almost always — it’s meant couching the agenda in other terms, since it is, if you poll it directly, wildly unpopular with the public. Americans want to tax the rich more, protect entitlement programs, and put tighter rules on corporations.
Republicans thus talk about “taxes” and “spending” and “regulation” in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.
In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They’ve realized that their rhetoric doesn’t have to bear any connection to their policy agenda. They can go through different slogans, different rationales, different fights, depending on the political landscape of the moment. They need not feel bound by previous slogans, rationales, or fights. They’ve realized that policy is policy and politics is politics and they can push for the former while waging the latter battle on its own terms. The two have become entirely unmoored.
So it’s not that they “moved right” on some policy spectrum when Obama took office. They just adopted a new political strategy, namely total, unremitting, hysterical oppositionalism. Mitch McConnell accurately foresaw that it was the only thing that could revive the battered party after 2008, and it has paid off richly. Conservatives are becoming less reticent about voicing their real agenda, but the agenda itself never changed.
The political logic behind Obama’s center-right health-care plan (and center-right cap-and-trade plan, and too-small stimulus with too many tax cuts, and too-mild financial reform) is that there is a “center” in the policy spectrum, and that if he chooses policies located there, moderate Republicans, by virtue of their previous policy commitments, will be forced to work with him, and he will get credit for being reasonable and centrist, which will translate into votes, victories, and political momentum. That has been the basic approach of his presidency. Unfortunately, it reflects a naive policy literalism that is absolutely ubiquitous on the left.
What happened instead? On policy after policy, Obama began with grand, magnanimous concessions (see: offshore drilling) and waited in vain for reciprocation. He adopted center-right policies … and was attacked as a radical secular socialist Muslim babykiller. Every Dem proposal, no matter how mild, has been a government takeover complete with confiscatory taxes, death panels, and incipient tyranny. The fusillade of lies began early and has continued unabated.
Now, on the naive, positivist view, the media and other elite referees of public debate should have called a foul. Republicans should have been penalized for opposing and maligning policies that they’d supported not long ago, for brazenly lying, and for rejecting all attempts at compromise. They chose the strategy; the strategy should have been explained plainly to the public.
But the crucial fact of post-truth politics is that there are no more referees. There are only players. The right has its own media, its own facts, its own world. In that world, the climate isn’t warming, domestic drilling can solve the energy crisis, and Obama is a socialist Kenyan. (Did you see Obama’s birth certificate yet? If he had that much trouble convincing people he was born in the country, how did he expect to convince them he’s a reasonable moderate?) Obama can back centrist policies all day, but there is no mechanism to convey that centrism to the broad voting public. There is no judge settling disputes or awarding points. His strategy — achieve political advantage through policy concessions — has failed. His approval ratings are down and the government is headed for a train wreck.
Yet still there seems to be this craving, in Obama and sooo many other self-styled pragmatic, post-partisan moderates, to take the politics out of politics. To have an Adult Conversation. To be Reasonable People, to draw forth other Reasonable People with the power of ideas and together transcend petty partisan squabbling and move forward with a Commonsense Agenda based on Shared Values. (Are you tingling yet?)
It’s a nice idea but it’s not how American politics works. There is no huge class of uncommitted independents waiting to be persuaded. There are no Reasonable People behind the curtain, pulling the strings. The selling points of the conservative agenda — small government, free markets, patriotism — have no motive force of their own. They are not binding and command no intellectual consistency (which is why the endless, tiresome charges of hypocrisy from the left are so fruitless). They are the politics, not the policy, and the two are not connected. The policy, the motive force among conservative elites, is a defense of America’s oligarchic status quo and a redistribution of wealth upward. It is those voices that speak in the ears of our political class and that agenda that commands the assent of one and a half of America’s two parties. It’s not hard to see why: our political system is choked with veto points, vulnerable to motivated minorities, insulated from public opinion, and flooded with money.
It is genuinely difficult to say what, if anything, can rally the left’s diverse constituencies into a political force capable of counterbalancing the influence of the country’s oligarchy. The much-maligned greens had a pretty damn strong run at it. As I said before …
… environmentalists pulled together a huge coalition of businesses, religious groups, military groups, unions, and social justice groups. They got a majority of U.S. citizens on their side, as polls repeatedly showed. And — here’s the kicker — on the back of all that work, they got a majority of legislators in both houses of Congress on their side.
In a sane world — and in other developed democracies — that’s what success looks like.
But in the U.S. political system, it wasn’t enough.
I’ll tell you what I don’t think will work: Dems using policy concessions to try to win political fights. Somehow Andy Revkin picks through the wreckage of the climate fight and concludes that one of the culprits was “a failure on the part of the major environmental groups and their allies to compromise earlier in the legislative effort to address climate change.” Of course cap-and-trade itself was born as a compromise, and at every step of the process the climate bill was compromised further and further until there was almost nothing left of it, but at no point did all that compromising change the politics a whit. It didn’t move the needle at all. What does Revkin take from this? We needed even bigger compromises, even earlier! Some how, some way, those unreasonable hippies must be to blame for this.
Revkin and the Breakthrough folks would have us believe that policy differences are at the root of the failure to dethrone fossil fuels. It’s just the wrong ideas, the wrong five-point plan. The climate bill that passed the House had R&D spending, consumer rebates, clean energy incentives, efficiency standards, development programs for clean cars and low-energy buildings, and a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions. But it just had the wrong mix of those policies, you see. A different mix, with more emphasis on R&D, would have brought Reasonable People out of the woodwork!
Matt Nisbet says, “We really need to get beyond power politics on climate change, where almost anything goes to win politically in the short-term.” Yeah, that’s the problem: the left was just too darn merciless on the climate bill, too united, too willing to spend money and primary opponents and stay on message. Too much focus on power, that’s what went wrong! Again that forlorn, undying hope: that the politics can be taken out of politics.
If we do compromise more, quit talking about pollution, get rid of any penalties or limits or mandates, and just ask for some research money, Republicans will join us on that, right?
No. And not a theoretical no. Not a prediction. They have rejected those overtures before and they are rejecting them as we speak, mocking and attacking green R&D and any form of support for clean energy or low-carbon infrastructure. It’s not that they disagreed with green groups about the best way to get beyond fossil fuels; they disagreed about the need to do so. That is the policy, even if the politics was “all of the above.”
Yet even now, still, everyone wants to think that they could have won the climate fight if greens had only listened to their clever policy approach. If they could just get the hippies to shut up, they could show the referees how reasonable they are, and the referees would call it in their favor.
But the referees have left the building. Policy is policy. Politics is politics. First you figure out what you want — in my case, I want clean energy, dense land use, and economic justice — and then you take every chance to make progress toward those goals. Meanwhile, you wage political war with the tools of politics: money, message, organization, solidarity, and a healthy dose of ruthless opportunism. Policy concessions aren’t just a poor weapon in that war; they are no weapon at all.