Monday, March 13, 2017

There will be no liberal counter-revolution

Brian Beutler warns that Republicans Should Fear What Democrats Will Do When They Return to Power. American politics, he writes, have proceeded on the "presumption that only Republicans are entitled to maximal demonstrations of power"; thus, we are on the cusp of the absolute dismantling of Obamacare, with no regard for its substantial support among much of America. But if Republicans follow through with this, Beutler writes, Democrats will abandon their "concern for achieving liberal goals through normal means"; and once back in power, we can expect a liberalism that "dispenses with all the pleasantries and enacts a simple, truly universal plan, like Medicare for all...by any margin".

Reading this, I can't help but be reminded of a passage from Al Franken's 2005 The Truth:
So not only was Bush inventing a mandate...[he also] intended to use his imaginary political capital to lay waste to the very pillars of middle-class prosperity...I swore then and there, if memory serves, to fight this bastard every step of the way.
We've seen this story before. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, only won the electoral college on the back of a deeply controversial Supreme Court ruling, and nevertheless advanced what was universally understood on the contemporary liberal-left as a radically partisan, norm-shattering agenda. When he narrowly won again in 2004, he claimed a mandate and immediately took aim at one of the core institutions of American liberalism, Social Security. The GOP pursued all of this with zero regard for the niceties of liberal proceduralism, demolishing en route a whole range of executive, parliamentary and judicial norms and practices that have never recovered.

And what did the Democrats do once they got in power? Almost immediately, Obama insisted that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." There was no counter-revolution. Even Obamacare, their most ambitious effort, was (as Beutler himself puts it) "by no means norm-shattering"; it was modeled after Romneycare and passed through ordinary parliamentary procedures.

The reason for this is simple: liberals are ideologically committed to procedural democratic pluralism in a way that the American right is not. Their priority is not the enactment of policy; their priority is adherence to a set of norms and processes and practices which they define as "good governance", and if this so-happens to achieve certain political outcomes, that's an added benefit. Compare this vision of politics with that of the so-called alt-right - or as Stop The Spirit of Zossen called them in 2009, the Movement:
[T]he Movement within the conservative base always plays a different game for a different prize. The Movement may speak in normal political talking points from ‘Republican’ institutions. Yet it isn’t not committed to Dahl-esque pluralistic politics. It has never sought or tolerated compromise or ‘moderation’. That’s because for the Movement, politics is existential warfare. Compromise is defeat.
The hard right has only become more explicit about this since then. But consider how Obama discussed American politics in his farewell speech:
Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. They compromised. They expected us to do the same.
That is the spirit of modern liberalism. And it's exactly what we can expect from our liberal Democrats even if they take back power, because this is what they believe in.  Near the conclusion of his piece, Beutler insists that
There are good reasons, other than respect for norms and comity, why Democrats didn't [pursue a maximal agenda] in 2009...
Perhaps the new number will be 2020 - perhaps it'll be 2024. But either way, expect to see that sentence again.