Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"A cheap theory with a fancy-sounding name"

In the nineties, so-called "third way" Democrats - led by Bill Clinton - famously adopted a full range of policies and positions previously monopolized by Republicans. Most notoriously, for example, Clinton fulfilled his promise to "end welfare as we have come to know it" with the 1996 passage of welfare reform. En route, Clinton even went so far as to praise Republican politicians who cooperated with him in the effort:
This week the Republican leaders in Congress announced they are ready to work with me to pass a straightforward welfare reform bill I can sign into law... I look forward to working with Majority Leader Lott, Speaker Gingrich, and the Democratic leaders of Congress to do the people's business in the coming weeks.
Faced with a skeptical left, Clinton's politics-knowers explained at the time that praising Republican cooperation was actually part of a clever strategy for winning elections called "triangulation." Clinton chief political adviser and renowned leftist Dick Morris:
The president needed to take a position that...blended the best of each party's views...I saw triangulation as a way to change, not abandon, the Democratic Party.
Critics, however, had a different perspective. Christopher Hitchens:
[Morris] was hired on by Clinton and in particular at the instigation of the First Lady...he came up with a cheap theory with a fancy-sounding name...It's called triangulation... stealing your opponent's clothes is one thing, and moving to the center - as it's sometimes called, "middle ground", is another...but this really made it not a tactic, but the whole strategy. 
In other words, "triangulation" didn't have any actual policy or ideological endgame; it was just a way of winning office, and the "pragmatic" justifications were just ways of rationalizing base capitulation. Thus, the left critique holds that coalition-building with Lott and Gingrich did more than just guarantee Clinton a second term: it normalized austerity and budget cuts against the poor as the consensus agenda of the "bipartisan majority," as Newt Gingrich put it. Even in basic electoral terms, Clinton was making a tradeoff: Steven M. Gillon writes,
Dole wanted to prompt a third veto [against welfare reform] so he could continue to depict Clinton as a big-spending liberal on the campaign trail. But both Gingrich and Lott were interested in protecting their majorities in Congress and believed they would be in a stronger position if Republicans could go home being able to tell their constituents they passed a popular reform measure. 
The outcome was predictable: Clinton's collaboration with Lott and Gingrich helped him to defeat Dole, but it also helped the House and Senate protect the massive gains they had made in 1994, and prepared the rhetorical ground for George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" 2000 campaign.

*   *   *

There is, in other words, a distinct history of Clintonian coalition-building with right-wing Republicans, undertaken at the risk of normalizing their politics and at the expense of other Democratic candidates, simply to win the presidency. Yet twenty years later, there's reason to believe that we still aren't weighing central strategic tradeoff with any rigor, and that we're still bewitched by the language of Morris-style tactical wonkery.

Consider, for example, today's article by Brian Beutler insisting that "Liberals Have the Wrong Fears About Hillary's #NeverTrump Outreach". Beutler rejects concerns that, by accepting Republican support, "Clinton is validating their failures and helping to furbish discredited conservative crusades" - but his argument is puzzling:
...the term of art for what Clinton is doing is building a "permission structure" for Republican officeholders and Republican voters to overcome their partisan inhibitions and vote for her...recruiting trusted voices to do persuasive work is central to politics and coalition building.
The social psychology Beutler draws attention to here is interesting - but if anything, it affirms the concerns of Clinton skeptics. There are competing theories on why so-called "permission structures" work - older research suggested that people were just being biased by irrational tribalism, but as Thomas Ferguson explains, later research has tended to
suggest that voters are only acting rationally when they cut information costs by using shortcuts like partisan evaluate complex vectors of political variables.
Either way, the cognitive mechanism at work here inclines voters to agree with political allies. Obviously, this can cut both ways. If Republicans think they are getting "permission" from other Republicans to support Clinton, they may be more inclined to do so - but if Democrats think they are getting "permission" from Clinton to support Republicans, they may be more inclined to do so, too.

That's exactly what writers like Michael Tracey are getting at when they warn about "Hillary's tacit approval". Beutler insists that this is "not the permission structure Clinton's building," but what matters with a permission structure is not the intent of the architect - the mechanism of persuasion at work here is simply the association of a trusted voice with perceived affinity.

So if for example Democrats take at face value Clinton's praise of Henry Kissinger's "expertise" and "insight" - instead of seeing this as a completely cynical "triangulation" scheme to build a "permission structure", or whatever - the psychological bias at work may tempt Clinton's fans to agree with her. Similarly, when DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda warned that Clinton's campaign wanted them "to basically praise [Paul] Ryan...or at a minimum hold him up as an example," he is clearly concerned that the "permission structure" Clinton is building will bias voters in Ryan's favor - even though "this approach would probably not work with Members of Congress," for obvious reasons.

Ultimately, all of this talk about "permission structures" gets us no closer to the question at hand than the fancy-souding "triangulation" did twenty years ago. And since it relies on an insight that most people already find fairly obvious and intuitive - people are partisan, and biased to agree with their political allies - it's not clear what this tangent does add to our analysis. Liberals and various wonks think that Clinton is doing something strategically savvy by praising Republicans. Leftists and other wonks think that Republicans are getting something out of this, and that it may not be worth the price. Weren't we at this impasse in 1996?