Thursday, August 4, 2011

Understanding The Democratic Party's Function

Since I've fulfilled my "did he just write that?" requirements for the month, let me directly outline what I didn't write and why I didn't write it. I didn't say that both parties are the same. I didn't say that dismantling the current system means failing to participate in and influence it. I didn't say that Obama's weaknesses as a president and as a product of a deformed system means that he shouldn't be voted for in 2012. I didn't say we should start primarying Obama with The Perfect Liberal Messiah. I didn't say that the Democrats' institutional conformity and aversion to open liberalism makes them Too-Conservative or unfit for governance. Mostly because what's not patently wrong with these remarks is contented with being incredibly stupid.

The recurring ideological failure of the Democratic party's more liberal and dejected elements is their spoiled incapacity to internalize two truths at once. It's not a Betrayal of Your Ideals to simultaneously think that the system is innately incapable of producing positive results and that Democrats are our only hope of short-term functionality while planning long term alterations. In fact, it's the only logical conclusion you can come to. There's a reason why government shutdowns and economically catastrophic defaults aren't threatened when Democrats have comfortable majorities: it's because Democrats are a mostly-responsible and competent party that suffers because it belongs to a system and a series of incentives that are resistant to systemic improvement at a time when we're suffering from systemic disadvantage. Its weakness is a precise function of its desire to work within the established framework and its good faith - but baseless - belief that the system can be an engine for good. Their defining flaw as a party is that they're wrong. That doesn't make the party itself bad or useless. It makes them mistaken.

They're an enemy of institutional alteration, but very little of what they've done suggests that they're an enemy of the people. The same can't in any way be said for the Republican party. And, indeed, it's the modern Republican party's unique position in American society - and in history - that makes systemic evolution and Democratic support (at least in the short term) necessary. The Republican party is a body of acid kept behind an eroding dam, and the Democratic party is the patch on one of the dam's cracks that assures the dam's structural stability. If the Democratic party goes, the dam goes and we burn alive. It's that simple.

To put it in less alarmist, but no less dire terms; America is ungovernable as long as the Republican party has anything that resembles power. Time and again, Republicans have shown a creepily pervasive apathy to the suffering their most strongly supported policies and tactics will elicit, and that craven indifference is consistently bolstered by a fanatic insulation from anything resembling fact.

A proper government relies on functionality first and foremost with a desire for progression and evolution where it's possible. A Republican government relies on the dismantling of functionality, particularly if the characteristics that maintain government are actively resistant to their policy objectives. For a normal government, the institutions that guide governmental stability are things to be respected, maintained and strengthened. For a normal government, the elements that make government - and, indeed, your country - work are not open to compromise. For Republicans, they're something to recklessly and destructively threaten if it means that you can get what you want more quickly. They've indicated as much themselves:
“What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template. In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling it will not be clean anymore. This is just the first step. This, we anticipate, will take us into 2013. Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again. Then we will go through the process again and see what we can continue to achieve in connection with these debt ceiling requests of presidents to get our financial house in order.”

Creating a circumstance where congress is forced to vote on whether or not to suddenly crash the American and global economy wasn't just an extraordinarily repugnant measure undertaken for destructively partisan ends. Not for Republicans. Neither was forming a basis for "compromise" that changed a vote on whether to crash the American economy to a vote on how fast you want to crash the economy. No. "This is just the first step". Under crippling economic conditions, the Republicans decided to threaten to make those conditions immeasurably worse in order to attain a result that weakens our ability to strengthen our standard of living and mitigate the suffering of real people. And "this is just the first step". I take them at their word. And so should you.

As long as the Republican party exists, questions of progress will always, always devolve into defensive fights for basic survival. And as long as we care about the worst-case consequences and they don't, these will continue to be fights where "victory" is defined as whatever does the least amount of long term damage. This isn't just disastrous for political morale, it's unsustainable on any long term scale. Eventually two of two things are going to happen: the Democratic party will be rendered incapable of fighting because "compromise" has brought them to something that almost precisely resembles the Republican's maximalist position. And it would mean we're in a governmental environment where there's no taxes, no efforts to address systemic inequality (cultural or economic), no regulation of food, drugs and water, a dismantling and attempted privitization of life-saving social services, the legal codification of old, white men telling women what can and can't be inside of their bodies, the complete disenfranchisement of the politically weak/poor from our political system and the codification of corporate control as more of an uncontestable absolute than an unfortunate but still-correctable trend.

Our notions of justice, egalitarianism, income distribution and civil liberties are logically sound, but it's dishonest to avoid internalizing their status as long term abstractions that can only be entertained because we're in positions of relative wealth and high living standards. While very many of us are poor, very few of us are starving. Our basic provisions are, by and large, somewhat available to us and our living expectations are a function of quality standards that were established long before we were born. The unstated consequence of Republican policy is the total redistribution of wealth away from us, the complete removal of those standards, and the completion of our inability to regain them once lost. Which means that "justice, egalitarianism, income distribution and civil liberties" become secondary to wanting to stop you and your family from dying within the next several days because of an inability to procure food. Arguing for systemic evolution is wholly contingent on our attention being focused on what we want in the long term instead of being governed by uncertainty about our ability to get what we need in the short term. The simple fact is that Republicans compromise that and Democrats don't.

You can disagree with every single item in the Democratic platform. You can - with total clarity - see their capture by corrosive special interests. You can see how their attachment to the system limits their ability to act as effective tools for progress. You can see how the incentives of government opens them to internalizing the necessity of America's Sacred Cows like military spending, "government belt tightening" and the security/secrecy state. You can find them excessively meek and rhetorically incapable of fighting against Republican offenses. It couldn't matter less. As long as the choice between the Republican party and the Democratic party is the choice between starving and not starving, the choice will always, always be easy. If self-interest is incapable of making you understand that, then interest in the well-being of your fellow citizens should suffice.

The simple truth is that there are no Nancy Pelosi's in the Republican party. A fact which would be less meaningful if you didn't understand that there can't be any Nancy Pelosi's in the Republican party. No one's asking you to give up your beliefs, compromise your principles, sell out to evil or whatever other hyperbolic trope that's in vogue at the more popular "OBAMA BETRAYED US" blogs. What is being asked of you is that you keep in mind that progress is only possible and prudent in the presence of governmental functionality, and only one party is capable of offering that.

The debt ceiling debate wasn't just illustrative of the Republican's complete disregard for our living conditions. It was illustrative of the fragility of our institutions. Solid institutions promise stability and have contingencies to assure that stability when it's threatened. Poor institutions have weaknesses that allow nihilists to subvert the will of the government - and democracy itself - to enact a "compromise" that wouldn't be achieved without threatening the system itself. The debt ceiling debate went out of its way to not only prove that Republicans refuse to govern well, but that our very system gives them the tools to threaten chaos and catastrophe.

The choice between Democrats and Republicans is not a choice between who you unquestioningly support and who you don't. It's a choice between the party that can ensure your stability and survival and the party that can't. Very few things are simple, but this is. An embrace of radicalism doesn't require an embrace of stupidity. The more we fail to appreciate the usefulness of the Democratic party, the more we make it that much more difficult to grow beyond needing it.

While there might be some satisfaction in playing the "let's get rid of Obama" and the "I can't support x Democrat in y election" game, there's no utility to it.
As of now, there are no ulterior options, and if there were, there's almost no possibility that they'll be successful or relevant beyond the emptiness of protest voting. Right now, the choice isn't between government "working well" and government just "working". The choice is between government working or government not working at all - and I can't overstate how selfish it is to pretend that making the latter easier benefits anything but the ego of political purists. We don't live in I Get What I Wantland. We won't for quite a while. So please. To all progressives, liberals, union activists and Democrats who think that feeling "demoralized" is a valid reason for making illogical decisions with your vote. Grow up.

Edit: Nancy Pelosi is the picture of governmental/congressional competence. She effectively gets her party in line, she clearly states her party's beliefs, the beliefs she states are usually closer to correct than other members of the Democratic party and she makes sure that government not only functions and works, but she left no doubt about government's stability while she had the power to do anything about it (and she's even integral to doing that now). When I say that there can be no Nancy Pelosi's in the Republican party, I mean that the attributes that make her exceptional would exile her from Republican politics. Nature of the beast and all that.

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