Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Tribalism of Elite Democrats

[I apologize for posting this so late, but the issues I tried to address in it are still depressingly timely.  I considered simply ditching it, but then I realized that some posts I wanted to write assumed and referred to things I'd written here, so I'm just posting it even though I'm far from satisfied with it.  Today's unexpected -- by just about everybody, I think -- Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, for example, has spawned a deluge of Obamabot self-congratulation that adds weight to this post, as messed-up as it is.]

Speaking of practicality, there was a dust-up in the comments under a post at alicublog the other day.  (There are no permalinks to the more than 150 comments, so I'll just quote extensively.)

Roy Edroso gracelessly conceded defeat in the Walker recall, buying the corporate media's take on the whole affair.  Didn't even mention that the Wisconsin Senate is probably going to flip to Democratic control, preferring to go by the ancient liberal adage, "If life gives you lemons, flop down squalling because it's not candy."  (This also takes the form, "If President Obama doesn't give you the pony he promised you, blame the stupid voters.")

After awhile the alicublog regular aimai changed the subject (on page 5 of the comments):
I just had that morning meeting with Elizabeth Warren I mentioned a couple of posts ago. She is wonderful. You couldn't ask for someone who has a better grasp of the entire range of historical and economic factors that undirgirded American Success in the past (while acknowleding that many communities were left out of the American Dream) and also a better grasp of what she would do once in the Senate to fight for better policies.  
However, she radically underestimates how stupid the voting public is. One of the people in the room asked her how to talk to [the idiots] who think that we can't handle any social spending until we've cut the deficit? This is clearly an issue of persuasion and narrative about which she's spent a lot of time thinking. She launched into a, sadly, incomprehensible parable/discussion about three buckets of spending. We all got lost midway through. I'd been biting my tongue all the way along because who am I to interrupt a candidate during a stump speech to a group of moneyed supporters? But I basically interrupted and said "  You say "When your family is in financial difficulty you invest in the future. You pay on your mortgage. You pay on your kid's education.  You never take a look at your family's situation and say 'I know, lets starve the baby to death and cut grandma's meds" in order to pay the note on the car.'"  At the end of the meeting she actually thanked me and said "I'm going to use your line: would you rather feed your baby, or the banks?"
Had a long talk with some of the populi at the vid store afterwards. Guy said to me that he and his wife were definitely going to vote for Warren, because they are dems, but they don't like her personally because she comes across as such a "schoolteacher." After kicking the idea around a bit we came up with the following slogan for her "Send the Scary Teacher to Washington" and "Warren! Washington's Afraid of Her."  My point here, and I do have one, is that we are always talking policy but the voters are always choosing on personality.  
That closing sentence is remarkable, coming from someone who has repeatedly brushed aside policy in favor of personality where Obama is concerned.  Last year, for example, she wrote (via):
Whatever my feelings about Obama's centrism I've got to say that he and Michelle really adorn the White House. As a couple they are just...well...magnificent and the children are fucking adorable (same age as my two so I really feel for them). The huffpo lineup of former first ladies and their dresses at these state dinners was like the evolution of humanity from grotesquely old and billowy faux victoriana to blooming, statuesque, youth.
Perhaps "we" talk about policy, but "our" hearts (or other parts, lower down) still overrule mere principles in the end.  Ironically, though, aimai's advice to Warren struck me as sound enough.  Her story makes me suspect that Obama has a lot to answer for in not appointing Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Warren appears to be the kind of technocrat who can work very effectively as an appointee (which is probably why Obama didn't appoint her: effectiveness was what her opponents feared in her), but isn't really suited to pressing flesh and communicating with the public.

The policy / personality dichotomy is bogus, though, like so many dichotmies.  The lies that the Republicans and the Democrats grind out are usually a mixture of the two: Mitt Romney flipflops on every issue.  President Obama is destroying the economy.  Obama's 2008 victory was due mainly to personality and marketing, plus revulsion at the malfeasance of Bush-Cheney.  The voting public isn't stupid so much as ignorant, and as Josh Billings said, the trouble isn't that people are ignorant but that they know so much that isn't so -- and that's as true of elite Democrats as it is of lumpen Republicans.  It's part of the job of a professional to explain what he or she is doing in terms the client can understand.  (As Daniel Ellsberg once said, though, politicians are professional liars.  That has to be at least part of the problem.)   To jeer at the clients/voters because they don't understand when you speak to them in plain jargon is like the stereotypical American tourist, convinced that if she only speaks loudly and clearly enough, these dumb foreigners will admit they understand plain English after all.

It says something, I think, that so many smart Democrats threw tantrums over Scott Walker's victory in Wisconsin.  Yes, it gave the Republicans some propaganda, but that doesn't mean the Democrats have to fall for it.  Exit polls in Wisconsin show that voters weren't gulled by Walker's big spending: they were uncomfortable with the idea of the recall itself.  That's not stupid or ignorant, because if it had worked, Republicans would have adopted recalls as their newest political toy, and every Democratic politician who looked at all vulnerable would have had to fight off recalls funded by the Koch Brothers.  I think it's also significant that the yammerers ignored the likelihood that the Wisconsin State Senate is going to flip Democratic, which should have been good news for them. (The recount is in progress as I finally post this.)

Another lefty troublemaker in the thread remarked that calling the voters stupid is, if nothing else, bad strategy, which produced a shitstorm of abusive ad hominems and distortions from the party loyalists, including aimai.  That's only to be expected, and it's not my subject here.  On page 7 of the comments, aimai summed up:
I think the only thing remaining to be said is that idiots need good representation too. Voters have one thing to trade, in this democracy, for good government: their votes. But the vast majority of citizens don't vote, and the vast majority of voters don't vote on policy or logic or history but rather on tribal loyalties and misunderstood rumors.  It isn't their fault that both parties benefit from depressed turnout and low voter control over government positions. It isn't their fault that a corporate owned media controls information in such a way that it is nearly impossible to figure out who is doing what to whom in congress. My point to Warren is really to point out that the ins and outs of policy issues--who voted for what amendment--is not relevant to most voters. They can't figure it out. They don't know for sure what a Senator does or how Congress works.  And many of them, lets be honest, don't see why they should bother to find out.  She is pitching her argument towards people who know a lot but that is not the majority of voters. She is pitching her argument to the sensible "middle" who remember a better America and believe in a better America for all. But that is not the swing voter in MA. The swing voter is a resentful ex Republican who wants to spite everyone for the fact that the state is run just fine by Democrats and there is a black man in the white house.
"... the vast majority of voters don't vote on policy or logic or history but rather on tribal loyalties and misunderstood rumors."  Reading this, I find myself wondering briefly if perhaps aimai meant to include herself in that vast majority of tribal voters; but of course she doesn't, she's one of the wise few.  (She denies that she's an elitist, but it's hard to see what else she could be if she sees herself as one of a tiny minority of voters who find "the ins and outs of policy issues" relevant and have the smarts to "figure out who is doing what to whom in congress."  That's okay, I don't necessarily object to elitism; it's just that self-styled elites always seem to be inferior.)

"Voters have one thing to trade, in this democracy, for good government: their votes." That's the trouble, isn't it? A vote and a token will get you on the subway.  $250,000 and a vote, on the other hand, will get you regular golf dates with the President.  Of course citizens have more than their votes, even before they vote.  They can work for candidates they support; they can run for office themselves.  After the election, they can write to their government, they can call, they can organize protests.  That last, of course, doesn't go over well with governments, because it may bring actual pressure to bear on them.

aimai remarks on the deplorably low turnout of voters at election time.  She also knows that both parties like it that way, and probably knows (but doesn't say) that the last thing either party wants is a large infusion of new, previously unregistered and inactive voters into the pool, and both parties have worked actively to prevent this.  In light of this, it's really disingenuous to blame the voters, call them idiots, etc.  Even a 75 percent turnout of eligible voters for a national election would cause panic among our national elites.

Since I began working on this post, another thought has been nagging its way from the back of my mind.  Both parties are comfortably beholden to big corporate and financial money, and the (extreme) minority interests that money represents.  They have only the barest interest in the concerns or interests of the majority of Americans, except to get the legitimacy that comes from their votes, and increasing proportions of the public recognize this.  The legitimacy of any government (and I'm not talking here about a particular administration but about the institution itself) depends on its ability to persuade the public that it serves their interests.  I think the American government is losing its legitimacy rapidly.  One of the worst things about Obama is that he got a lot of people's hopes up, deliberately, and then crushed them.  Personality cults have always been part of American politics, but now they are all that national elections are about.  The best we can hope for is the emergence of a new third party that would really try to represent the interests of the mass of voters; the worst could be much worse.  But for the foreseeable future, it looks like we're in for more empty, incredibly expensive spectacles, like the one that is still four long months from its climax now.