Thursday, November 8, 2012

I Would Prefer Not To

The former (she's still working, I've retired) co-worker who posted this commented, "so true, if our elected officials did this a lot more would get done!"  I see variations on that theme a lot, on Facebook, in the letters to the editors of newspapers, in the comments sections of online newspapers, and in the magnanimous victory speech of His High Mightiness, our newly-elected President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties .  And it makes no sense at all.

I don't dispute that Republicans in Congress and elsewhere have done their best to obstruct President Obama's agenda for the past four year for mainly partisan reasons.  One reason I consider this obvious is that they refused him courtesies they've freely granted to Republican Presidents, like raising the debt ceiling.  Like Democrats who suddenly embraced policies under Obama that they denounced under Bush, they were clearly motivated solely by party hatred.

It should be remembered, however, that bipartisan cooperation brought us the Vietnam War, Don't Ask Don't Tell, the Hyde Amendment, the North American Free Trade Agreement, welfare "reform," the Defense of Marriage Act, the repeal of Glass-Steagall and other dismantling of important protective regulations, the invasion of Afghanistan, torture and indefinite detention, the invasion of Iraq, the attack on Libya, drone warfare, No Child Left Behind, the current murderous sanctions against Iraq, and the Bowles-Simpson Commission, and many other wonders.  It looks poised to bring us a further assault on Social Security and Medicare, and more austerity generally (except for the top 1%) in the name of deficit reduction.  I doubt that my co-worker, or the many other people I've seen calling for "working together", would think that all of those were positive developments.  (That's assuming that they know what most of them are, which I also doubt.)

A dozen years ago, the now-late Alexander Cockburn wrote after the defeat of Al Gore:
First a word about gridlock. We like it. No bold initiatives, like privatizing Social Security or shoving through vouchers. No ultra-right-wingers making it onto the Supreme Court. Ah, you protest, but what about the bold plans that a Democratic-controlled Congress and Gore would have pushed through? Relax. There were no such plans. These days gridlock is the best we can hope for.
Alas, this time around there's a good chance that Barack Obama, Harry Reid and John Boehner will sit down and reason together over the deficit, with disastrous results.  Maybe not -- Boehner has hinted that he's still not on board with higher taxes for the rich -- but I expect Obama will be ready to waive that demand if it gets him cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  We'll see.

There are times when refusal to cooperate is a good thing.  I supported the Democratic state legislators in Wisconsin and Indiana who fled their states to try to block destructive Republican initiatives.  Would I support Republicans who did the same thing?  Yes, if (but only if) they were really opposing bad legislation.  It's not enough, as I've said before, to stand by your principles: your principles have to be good ones.  And who decides what are good principles?  I do.  You do.  We all do.  But we don't necessarily agree.

And that's the trouble with JFK's bromide above.  Who could possibly disagree that we should work together for the common good, rising above cheap partisanship for the good of the country and the world?  Has anyone ever disagreed?  Certainly not many.  Most people are sure that their position, their answer, is the right one.  So where do you go from there?  Most people have no idea.  I think that reasoned, informed debate is one tool.  I have learned a lot by watching intelligent, informed, rational opponents articulate their disagreement.  The outcome may not establish the right position or the right answer, but it often establishes that at least one is wrong, and that is a good thing to know.

But a lot of people hate debate.  Like Lady Augusta Bracknell, they dislike arguments, which are always vulgar and often convincing.  Or as too many people have said, "Arguing on the Internet is like competing in the Special Olympics -- even if you win your [sic] still retarded!  LOL LMFAO! ROFL!!!!"  (This canard seems to imply that these people would approve of debate elsewhere than the Internet, but I don't think so; at least, when I've asked them where debate and argument should happen, they don't have an answer.)

And if I have learned one thing from the past election season, it's that an election campaign isn't the right place for a debate either.  Not even the official Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates.  On their own account, Democrats no less than Republicans have no idea what to do when someone disagrees with them about the issues or the positions of the candidates, so they fall back on abuse.

But I've written about that enough in the past several weeks.  The main point is that negotiation isn't about debate, though it may include some along the way.  Nor does it promise "the right answer," perhaps especially in politics.  This is a point that party loyalists will make when their own side is criticized, though they will abandon it when they're criticizing the other party.  And I don't believe it would make any difference at all if party labels were set aside, because in politics other factors are at least as influential as party: money, seniority, the coming elections.  And more than two sides are usually involved.

If two parties sit down to negotiate in good faith, the result will not necessarily be good.  It's like voting: there is no reason to believe that voters will make the "right" choice, but the point is that they have a say (at least in theory) and therefore some accountability, if only to themselves.  In the real world it's likely that both sides are negotiating in bad faith.   It might be quite bad, but principles aren't involved.  I have to keep reminding myself that this applies to negotiations in government.  Remember Barack Obama's failure in bargaining for his stimulus package, where he unilaterally offered tax cuts to the Republicans before they'd even asked for them.  That's a lack of basic competence, which should be borne in mind by those who think of Obama as their mighty shield against the Republicans.  Obama can't even play ordinary chess very well.  In service of his corporate donors and cronies, he knows how to strongarm his fellow Democrats and to a slight degree the Republicans, but that's not chess-playing, that's main force.  Which is also a factor in negotiations.

But still, one thing we should have learned from the past four years is that Obama isn't as smart as he thinks he is.  (Do I think I'm smarter?  I really have no idea.  What I think is that years of hanging around with America's elites has made Obama less smart than he used to be.  In his place I might have made the same mistakes.  But the point is that he made them.  I've noticed that some former high US officials have admitted that they did the wrong thing while in office.  Either they said so explicitly, or did so tacitly by adopting different positions after they were out of office.  And they can't be accused of not knowing what real politics is like (a popular attack on non-politicians when we dare to speak up).  The key question then is how to make those different positions feasible or workable for politicians while they're still in office.  There's much talk of what is "politically possible" and "politically impossible."  The pressures on politicians to get rid of social programs, to cut taxes on the rich while maintaining social programs for them, to wage wars of aggression and terror, are obvious enough.  So what kind of pressure will make them do the opposite?

You can't blame him for doing that, a politician's apologists protest: Look at the pressure he was under.  To me it has long been obvious that the remedy is to put pressure on him (or her) to do something else.  If nothing else, it would remove the excuse.  One could say to the politician in question: you'll be voted out of office whatever you do, so you might as well do what you yourself agree is the right thing.  It might not be the right thing; he might just be telling me what he thinks I want to hear.  But that's not important here: the important thing is to take away the excuse.  Probably he has more excuses up his sleeve, but enough pressure should force him to acknowledge that they are excuses.   And then, to quote the psychoanalyst at the end of Portnoy's Complaint, we may perhaps begin.