Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Liberal pragmatists never talk about the long term

Ian Williams has laid out a point you've probably heard before: a recession in the next four years seems likely, and the party whose president presides over it is screwed. Of course, neither of these predictions are at all certain - but both of them strike me as absolutely plausible. A survey of 31 economists suggests that the next downturn will hit in 3 years, according to Bloomberg, which cautions that "Barack Obama's successor" will have to "bring a plan to fight the next recession." Meanwhile, it's long been a political truism that "positive real growth matters when voters cast their votes for president" (343, Kahane).

If we take these considerations seriously, some extraordinary possibilities are on the table. A Clinton win this year will would mark the first time since Truman that Democrats have won three consecutive presidential elections. There's every reason to assume that voters would punish Democrats in 2020 for any recession that we get in the next four years, just as they punished Bush for the 2008 recession, and that whoever Republicans nominate next time around will be our next president. Conversely, if Trump were to preside over another recession, it seems somewhat unlikely that Republicans would be able to escape blame in 2020 for dropping the ball once again.

I don't think that any of these are at all safe predictions, but they're certainly as plausible as anything anyone else is saying. Which brings me to what I actually want to ask: why don't our liberal "pragmatists" ever even consider the advantages of taking a strategic loss?


As our Democratic intelligentsia never tires of reminding us, progress is a long game. Realism and pragmatism mean accepting short-term losses and compromises for the greater good. Political wisdom and maturity is about recognizing that we can't get everything we want every time; savvy pundits and politicians know what fights to avoid and which causes are lost.

From all of this, it would seem to follow quite directly that it might, on occasion, make sense to lose an election. Perhaps, as in 2016, historical and economic conditions suggest that whichever party wins this election is likely to lose the next two or three. Perhaps a constituency is, in the long-term, better off disciplining their party by withholding their votes for one election cycle than they would be if they just let the party take their support for granted. Perhaps the balance of power is such that any cent donated or hour volunteered for a presidential campaign would be better spent on down-ticket races. (This is certainly the sort of calculation party officials make when allocating party resources.) There are a near infinite numbers of possible reasons why, on occasion, it might make sense for Democrats to take a strategic loss.

And yet not only do we never hear "pragmatists" actually argue this - as a rule, their rhetoric decisively rules out the very possibility. For instance, it's perfectly obvious that the go-to "we must protect the Supreme Court" can and will be invoked in every presidential campaign until the end of time as a "pragmatic" position - even though it might actually make sense to lose a seat or two in the short term for the sake of protecting more seats in the long term. Only the most immediate stakes and outcomes ever deserve our attention, and in every election, for every seat, every position and every principle is up for compromise except one: the Democrat must win.

Of course, it's entirely possible that we won't have a recession in the next 4-8 years. Even if we did, it's possible that the voters wouldn't hold whoever wins this election responsible. Perhaps if we somehow did some kind of long-term analysis of likely electoral outcomes and consequences over the next several decades, we would find that voting lesser-evil every time is preferable to periodically disciplining one's party and accepting a short-term loss. These are all defensible arguments; suffice to say that they aren't the kind of arguments our pragmatists ever actually make. Taking the long-view is what pragmatists do, but few who call themselves pragmatists actually are.