Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Big Picture: For Obama and the Democrats, Ideology is the Enemy

The urgently necessary recovery package nearly sunk when President Obama was too deferential and aloof in his support for it, and was only resuscitated when he launched a full-throated campaign for the package, beginning with what the media described as a partisan speech in Williambsurg, Virginia before an audience of Congressional Democrats. Still, many observers including myself fear that the bill Obama will sign may not be up to the task because it acceded too much to the wishes of the center-right in the Senate. So why would I say that Obama and the Democrats must remember that ideology is the enemy?

It begins with how we define "ideology" or "ideological". To be non-ideological does not mean being nonpartisan, does not mean being in the center of the current spectrum in Washington. The way we see it, Campbell Brown of CNN, whose show is called "No Bias, No Bull" and says her goal is "keeping them honest", is far more ideological than a so-called "leftist intellectual" like Paul Krugman, who calls for a stimulus bill of twice the size and nationalizing the banks. Krugman's clear goal is economic recovery, while Brown wants to expose the wastefulness of big government. Krugman cares about what works for people's lives, Brown wants to make an ideological point.

President Obama's Inaugural Address was an anti-ideological manifesto, and as the Strike, Lady Strike, and I stood out on the Washington Mall in the cold, we marveled at Obama's ability to rise above ideological labels so as to become far more effective. It was very un-fitting, however, that my girlfriend the Picturette had to leave D.C. the afternoon before so she could go to her first day of class in her Economics PhD program. On the plus side the perpetually cold Picturette avoided freezing, but I missed her during the speech because she has showed me how life works a lot better when we put away our assumptions about how things are and our predetermined postures on what we should do about it - our ideology - and instead see the world as it actually is, and evaluate actions based on whether they work. Now, anyone who knows me will howl in protest that I'm still very opinionated, but they should admit that I'm not nearly as ideological as I used to be. For example, I used to think that guys who went to the gym were all self-obsessed airheads who cared way too much about their looks, but the Picturette disabused me of that ideology, and now I value going to the gym because of the positive results. Another example is that I used to only cook with olive oil, believing that cooking spray was inauthentic and made the food taste bad. The Picturette showed me that cooking spray is healthier and doesn't affect the taste. The Picturette became more confident in my cooking when I proved that my goal was health and taste, and not some vague notion of authenticity and purity. The point is that ideology is harmful to delivering results, and being ideological makes you less popular and less credible.

This is especially true when desperate times demand urgency of action, and we have to compromise even the more principled elements of our ideology because doing nothing is not an option. I'll give you one more personal example: a little over a year ago, the Picturette and I took a trip through the South, and after a wild night on Bourboun Street in New Orleans, the Picturette needed a new camera. We were driving through Mississippi, and it quickly became apparent from conversations at gas stations that the only option was to go to the Wal-Mart near Jackson. Ideologically, I am opposed to spending money at Wal-Mart because of their labor practices, how they've destroyed small towns, their political contributions, etc. etc. If I had refused to let us buy the camera there, they wouldn't have had our 20 bucks, which would have done nothing except make me feel self-righteous. And we would not have a camera to document our journey, and more importantly for my sake, the Picturette might have taken the first flight home, or at the very least would not have listened to my input on anything else because she could not have trusted that I was acting in our best interest, and not in the interest of our ideology.

This same logic applies to the economic recovery. Due to the urgency of the situation, I have never felt less ideological. In other words, I really don't care what measures are taken to get the economy moving again, as long as they work. For example, with times this desperate, I would be in favor of big tax cuts for business or handouts to Wall Street bankers who got us into this mess or longer work hours for nurses- policies I would normally despise - if I was convinced by experts that those were the policies necessary to turn the economy around. We can't be concerned with what "undeserving" groups we're "rewarding", as long as we can trust that the policy is being done with the best interest of the economy in mind. By the same token, we should not trust anybody who makes arguments about the economic recovery that are rooted in anything other than what's most effective. Those are ideological arguments, whether they come from libertarians who just don't want government spending because it offends their principles, or from "proud centrists" in the Senate who want to trim the stimulus to show that they're more responsible, and just as importantly to populists who are outraged that Wall Street is being bailed out, and to environmentalists who are outraged that there's too much in the stimulus bill for highways. For policy-makers and analysts in Congress, the White House, and in the media, the questions can not be: am I comfortable with this? does this sound good? but rather one question, and one question only: does it WORK?

Economic libertarianism would be the most destructive ideology in this context, but fortunately its proponents have very little policy-making power, and will have even less after their conduct in this debate, as the Strike discussed. There are two other groups that sound more reasonable but are also prey to destructive ideology: proud centrists, and vengeful populists. The most prominent proud centrists are the Senate deal-makers in the stimulus bill, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Susan Colllins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. To their credit, they did vote for this urgent measure. But these centrists forced significant changes to the final bill by cutting aid to states, cutting money for school construction, cutting money for disease prevention and preventing smoking and many other necessary programs, and what was particularly galling and almost unfathomable is that they never explained why this would be better for the economy. Time and again, they said that it demonstrated fiscal responsibility, because the bill was too "big", and there was already plenty of money in there. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC tried to get Ben Nelson to explain how these cuts would improve our economic prospects, and he simply had no answer, saying that to people in Nebraska, spending $100 billion on education was still a very big number. This ideological argument is simply unacceptable in a time of economic crisis. We should be getting the consensus of the experts who clearly demonstrate that their only goal is economic recovery, see what their estimates are, and spend accordingly. If your house is burning down, you don't want the fireman saying that although the expert analysis says that we need 500 gallons to put out my fire, using 500 gallons sounds like an irresponsibly wasteful amount, and he really should only use 300 because people in his neighborhood would say that sounds like enough. We would say, "Use however much water is necessary to put out this fire!"

Unfortunately, liberals are facing a similar problem. My dad has been advising the Treasury Department on a housing plan that would help stop foreclosures by asking taxpayers, the banks, and homeowners to make a bargain. From an ideological perspective, the downside is this could reward some irresponsible homeowners and some greedy lenders, and that offends Congressmen who want to appear populist. The problem is that the self-styled populists' intransigence is stopping any action, and forcing more and more of the populace into foreclosure, so populist ideology is hurting the very people it's supposed to be defending. There is the same problem with the financial recovery: bankers have been greedy and shortsighted and irresponsible, but we'll have to leave the punishment up to God because sending bankers to jail doesn't keep people in their homes or put food on the table. This is one of those times when we're going to have to hold our noses and reward some unsavory institutions because the only goal has to be: turn the economy around.

Of course, there's also a political component to this, one that it seems Obama has realized: in this situation, it's completely unnecessary to use ideological arguments to advance the cause of progressivism, and in fact it's counterproductive. First, even in normal times America is a place that generally distrusts ideology, and successful politicians learn to wrap their agendas in a non-ideological, "this is what works" rhetoric because that is far more appealing to swing voters than ideologically-rooted arguments. This is even more true in times of crisis - politicians and political parties who appear to be putting their ideological demands above what's necessary to get the economy out of the tank, who appear to be standing on principle in the way of you getting a job, are going to be swept aside. So if progressives want average people to listen to their ideas, they should take great pains to show that these ideas are driven by delivering better results for people's lives, and not ideology.

Finally, we have to look at the Big Picture. A few billion dollars here or there, while something, will ultimately have very little impact on whether the country moves in a progressive direction. The one thing that will matter is whether a government controlled by the Democrats can effectively turn the economy around. If it can't, then the achievements we've listed on the right side of the page will be crushed like so many sandcastles by a tidal wave of conservative anti-government counterreaction. But if Obama can, if a Democratic-led government delivers economic recovery, then most people will vote Democratic for a generation, conservatism will be completely buried, and progressives will have more of a mandate for their vision than we'll know what to do with.

1 comment:

  1. Posted at 4:20! Haha, were you smoking when you wrote this? Just kidding, nice job Slater!