Monday, April 05, 2010

See, you all just want to be self-righteous

'Purging moral questions from politics is both impossible and undesirable. But today's tendency to turn every contentious issue into a moral confrontation is divisive. One way of fortifying people's self-esteem is praising them as smart, public-spirited and virtuous. But an easier way is to portray the "other side" as scum: The more scummy "they" are, the more superior "we" are. This logic governs the political conversation of both left and right, especially talk radio, cable channels and the blogosphere.

Unlike economic benefits, psychic benefits can be dispensed without going through Congress. Mere talk does the trick. Shrillness and venom are the coin of the realm. The opposition cannot simply be mistaken. It must be evil, selfish, racist, unpatriotic, immoral or just stupid. A culture of self-righteousness reigns across the political spectrum. Stridency from one feeds the other. Political polarization deepens; compromise becomes harder. How can anyone negotiate if the other side is so extreme?'

So, then a plague on both their houses, but mainly the right; 'talk radio, cable channels and the blogosphere' are the widely used code for raving right wing lunatics.

Why are American politics so poisonous at the moment? Not for the first time, I would moot two likely reasons. The end of the cold war meant Americans had no external enemies worthy of the name, so all their psychic venom was reserved for 'internal enemies'. And because 'progressivism' has been so comprehensively debunked, and yet American lefties don't know it, and don't want to know.

Anybody with even a passing interest in the 20th century will have noted how the basic tenets of 'progressivism'- a massive state, state ownership of the means of production, central planning of the economy and society, high taxes, cradle-to-grave economic security guarunteed by the state, 'social justice' by fiat, the elimination of the free market, the complete absence of personal responsibility and the negation of individuality- have been tested to destruction. Over and over again, societies all over the world have tried them, and collapsed as a direct consequence.

All over the world, these progressive tenets are now in high disrepute- except in America. China, Russia, India, France and many other smaller countries have ditched progressivism because they tried it and it doesn't work.

So what millions of American independents, conservatives and libertarians can't understand is, why Americans lefties think these long-discredited policies will work in America.

If Obama, Pelosi and Reid were proposing ground-breaking new policies based on demonstrably sound economic and public policy research, would they be getting this response? Perhaps, if they interfered with the economic arrangements that have made America the worlds greatest ever economic superpower. But then again perhaps not.

But what was absolutely guarunteed was that interfering with American economic arrangements by implementing the tired failures of 'progressivism' was always going to provoke an intense reaction.

There is no question that lefties throughout the twentieth century believed that socialist/marxist/leftist meant supremely moral. No matter how many people were murdered by communists, no matter how much pain and suffering communist regimes caused, lefties always believed that they were on the moral high ground. Contrast the hysterical vilification of Agusto Pinochet (three thousand murdered) with the almost complete ignoring of Pol Pot (three million murdered). When communists killed people, there was always a queue of people with excuses at the ready to minimise, rationalise and legitimise. When anti-communists killed communists, there was a huge megaphone at the ready to denounce, vilify and excoriate.

This ability to skew reality in its favour allows communism to extend its shelf life as a viable system of governance in places like America, where it was never tried.

'A culture of self-righteousness reigns across the political spectrum. Stridency from one feeds the other. Political polarization deepens; compromise becomes harder. How can anyone negotiate if the other side is so extreme?

Dangers are plain, as political scientists Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams argue in their book "Disconnect: the Breakdown of Representation in American Politics." Using opinion surveys, they show that polarization is stronger among elites (elected officials, activists, journalists) than the broad public. About 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans consistently classify themselves as "moderates." By contrast, political activists tend to identify themselves as "very liberal" or "very conservative." But it is the political class of activists that "dominate the political agenda" and determine "how the debate is conducted."'

Only a Democrat or Democrat sympathiser could have written this. As a description of recent political events in America, is is garbage. There are not two extreme polarised elites. There is one extreme left elite, the Democrats, and one moderate, ineffective confused elite, the Republicans. Most of the Republicans long ago lost any contact with conservative ideals and policy positions. Most of them voted for the bailouts, medicare expansion, 'No child left behind' and many other bipartisan expansions of the role of the state in America. George W Bush was a big-government Republican, and most Republican senators and congressmen are too.

What has happened since the Obama disaster unfolded is unprecedented in US politics. A huge swath, probably sixty percent or more of the electorate, suddenly find themselves un-represented by either of the large political parties. They can not distinguish between the behaviour of the GOP and the Democrats. Only a few minor voices on the fringes voice their own concerns and beliefs, people like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party leaders. These fringe voices have neither office nor lobbying power, and yet they reflect accurately the views of a large majority of Americans- in small government, proper free markets, low taxes and low public debt.

Their new-found voice may be strident and forceful, but it is neither ideological nor is it extreme. The content of their ideas is the core of what America has thought and done for hundreds of years. It is the antithesis of novelty fad ideology- it is the tried and trusted wisdom of hundreds of years of experience.

So it is highly disingenuous of commentators like Samuelson to paint the situation of two intolerant extremes engaging in pleasing posturing for the sake of psychic benefit. As far as I can tell neither side is doing that. The Democrats are genuinely ignorant, and genuinely passionate about their terrible defunct socialism; and the American people are genuinely knowledgeable about the tried and tested ideas that America is based on, and passionately want them re-instated to their hallowed place in national life. The GOP- well, who cares?

The Samuelson thesis, the 'politics of self-esteem' is at best a misreading of the situation, and at worst an attempt by one side in the debate to muddy the waters for electoral advantage. It fails completely to credit that sixty percent of Americans might have a concrete understanding of the public policy issues at stake, and refuse to amend that understanding at the behest of career politicians for whom it is inconvenient and awkward. Americans even understand that there is going to be pain attached to the greater gain- that to get their country back to something like fiscal and governmental health there are going to have be higher taxes to pay off the deficit, and a great reduction in government programs. Some programs will need to be eliminated completely. Are they willing to pay that price? You bet.

For both Democrats and Republican politicians, this is bad news. It means less opportunities for graft, and less important institutions to preside over. Boo hoo. I'm sure they'll get over it somehow.

It seems that every week, some new crackpot distortion of the state of American politics is generated by the great lefty intelligentsia as a means to explain the enormous distaste for lefty thinking and lefty policy. In sum, they all don't amount to a hill of beans.

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