Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Rather an Attack on One's Convictions

I just finished reading Dangerous Convictions: What's Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress (Oxford, 2013) by Tom Allen, former Democratic Representative from Maine from 1997 to 2009.  I found it at the library, it looked like I could learn something from it, so I checked it out.

Having read the book, I'm of at least two minds about it.  It's a reasonably interesting book about Allen's experiences in the House, though I could probably have learned as much or more about the workings of Congress from any number of other books.  But Allen's main reason for writing the book is to bemoan the great partisan divide in our nation's politics, which he sees as a clash of ideological convictions. He puts most of the blame on the Republicans, of course, and with good reason.  He often mentions the question that passed through his mind and those of his Democratic colleagues when listening to their Republican colleagues speak on the floor: "Do these guys believe what they say?"

Many other people have asked that question.  Allen never quite answers it.  I'm not sure it matters all that much.  Allen raises good points about the Republicans' lack of interest in evidence (scientific or economic), their greater focus on individualism than on community, their denial of climate change, and so on.  He cites the usual savants -- Robert Bellah, George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt. (I've been stumbling over Haidt's name a lot lately.  I really would rather not read The Righteous Mind.)  Again, none of this is news to anyone who's been watching the Congressional follies of the past couple of decades, and I don't think Allen has anything new to say about it.  The best point he makes is that the Republicans have no serious and specific alternatives to the Democratic programs they reject and block; when they do get specific, as with Paul Ryan's voucher plan to replace Medicare, it turns out to be an embarrassment that costs them elections.  It's good to be reminded of that.

Allen has no serious or specific suggestions to resolve the political divide he's writing about, either, but that's okay because there's no way you can make someone listen to evidence if they absolutely refuse to.  Dangerous Convictions turned out to be a perfectly reasonable centrist Democratic book, about as intelligent as a partisan can get, and a useful overview of some major issues in American politics since the late 1990s.  Which means that Allen makes some revealing slips along the way.

For example, in recounting 9/11 and its aftermath, Allen says that "After al-Qaeda, the terrorist network in Afghanistan, was identified as the culprit, support for retaliatory action by our government was widespread" (69) and "Tony Blair and George Bush understood that al Qaeda could not have free rein in Afghanistan" (72).  This is not quite false, but when I take into account the fact that Allen never mentions the Taliban, who actually were running Afghanistan at the time, and whom we actually fought with our terrorist allies the Islamist Northern Alliance, something seems off here.  (Recently I saw a commenter at another site say that al-Qaeda blew up the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001 as an example of their "terrorism."  It was the Taliban who did that, of course, and it was an act of religious vandalism, not terrorism.)

When he gets to Bush's invasion of Iraq, Allen says:
Like most members of Congress, I had no reason at that time to question the possibility that Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons.  He had never denied that he did [!], and he had used them in the past [with full US support].  But I did not think that justified an invasion, since that would put U.S. soldiers within range of such weapons. That turned out to be the CIA's position at well.  The administration's terror-inducing speculation about a "mushroom-shaped cloud" appeared to be a fear tactic designed to cut off further discussion.  I had heard no evidence to support the claim that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons.  Moreover, I believed that the administration would have given any hard information about an Iraqi nuclear program to the UN inspection team led by Mohammed el Baradei, and he had indeed reported that there was no evidence of such a program [78].
That Bush (who, Allen laments, "heeded the neocons" on Iraq [82]) was contemplating a war of aggression, doesn't seem to impinge on Allen's thoughts.  That Allen "had no reason at that time to question the possibility that Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons," we've heard before.  (Of course there was a possibility that Saddam possessed such weapons; almost anything is possible.  But there was no real probability that he did.)  I wouldn't have thought Allen would be so willing to tell the public how easily members of Congress can be led astray.
For those of us opposed to the policy, there was a craziness to the administration's arguments and actions.  What they were doing was outside the bounds of our political experience.  They were stirring arguments they knew to be false, politicizing matters of war and peace, and above all, paying little attention to what would happen after Saddam's removal [85].
Really?  Lying, politicizing war and peace, and ignoring consequences were outside the bounds of the Democrats' political experience?  Don't you believe it.  Those are typical behavior among politicians of either party who want a war.  Look at the way the Obama administration has been lying about Iran's "nuclear program" all along; look at the way the assault on Libya was handled.  Then, if you need more evidence, look at the Democratic escalation of the US invasion of Vietnam, or Bill Clinton's intervention in Kosovo.  But as I say, this is normal and only to be expected from an intelligent Democratic partisan.

But the flaws in Allen's argument go deeper than these details.  When he discusses the "authoritarianism" he sees as the core of today's Republican mindset, he mentions a 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polzarization in American Politics by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, which 
sheds new light on political view that are heavily influenced by whether people are more or less authoritarian.  Those testing high in authoritarianism have a greater need for order and less tolerance for ambiguity than those scoring low on that scale...
On issues that are "structured by" authoritarianism, people's opinions are correlated significantly with how they score on a scale of more or less authoritarian.  Examples of such issues include (1) racial and ethnic differences; (2) crime, law and order, and civil liberties; (3) ERA/feminism/family structure; and 4) militarism vs. diplomacy.  On these issues authoritarians and their opposites tend to have markedly different views.  On others, like economic, health care, and environmental issues, the differences are not as wide and therefore not "structured by" authoritarianism ...

Hetherington and Weiler make a convincing case that the American electorate has recently "sorted" itself into the two major parties based on cognitive styles reflecting greater or lesser authoritarian tendencies [166-7].
There may be something to this; I haven't read Hetherington and Weiler.  It reminds me of another big study from more than half a century ago, The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno et al., full of tables and statistics and shit, which was widely criticized and I thought didn't have much currency anymore.  But I'm wary of Allen's use of the concept.  Maybe Hetherington and Weiler dealt with this, but it looks to me as though the same person can move around on the authoritarianism scale depending on the issue and whether he or she happens to wield political power at the moment.  Bill Clinton, for example, that big old softy, could sound like Dick Cheney or Dick Nixon when he was crossed:
"We're not inflicting pain on these fuckers," Clinton said, softly at first. "When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers." Then, with his face reddening, his voice rising, and his fist pounding his thigh, he leaned into Tony, as if it was his fault. "I believe in killing people who try to hurt you. And I can't believe we’re being pushed around by these two-bit pricks."
Remember Hillary Rodham Clinton's cheerful "We came, we saw, he died," about Qaddafy -- but hundreds, even thousands, of other Libyans also died in that little adventure.  And I'm sure I don't need to detail Barack Obama's willingness to kill troublesome foreigners, silence turbulent whistleblowers, and toss impertinent journalists into cages.  I'll agree that American politics is polarized, and that authoritarianism is a scourge, but remember that the reaction of some elite Democrats as the Republican Party swung right in Reagan's wake was to imitate them.  Gotta win those authoritarian votes!

Or take health care and other social programs.  Allen quotes an exchange that took place on national TV after the Supreme Court declared the Affordable Care Act constitutional:
After the Court upheld the law, Sen. Mitch McConnell was pressed three times by Chris Wallace on Fox News to explain how Republicans proposed to cover the thirty million Americans who would be covered under the ACA. McConnell’s response was, “That’s not the issue.”

WALLACE: You don’t think the thirty million people who are uninsured is an issue?

MCCONNELL: Let me tell you what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to turn the American health-care system into a western European system.
Isn't that interesting?  That was what the Obama administration said about its left critics: that we were mad because Obama wasn’t ready to turn American into the People's Republic of Canuckistan.  Glenn Greenwald has been showing since at least 2008 how Democratic loyalists began attacking dissenters who criticized Obama's policies, especially those Obama carried on from Bush. There's more common ground between the parties, when it comes to kicking the proles into line, than Tom Allen wants to believe.  Not that I blame him.

The same goes for the individualist/communitarian divide, which Allen also discusses at length: the Right is individualist in some areas, mostly economic (which Allen calls "libertarian" with a small l), and communitarian in ways related to their authoritarianism: religion, the military, jingoism.  Liberals and the left are communitarian in some ways, partly on economics and social programs, and strongly individualist on many social issues, like a woman's right to choose.  But it's often a toss-up and a matter of how you choose to look at an issue whether it's individualist or communitarian.  When a young gay kid comes out against the wishes of her family, is that individualist or seeking community?  Are "identity politics" individualist or communitarian?  Civil rights can be framed as individualist, or not.  I'm not sure this is a really productive way of looking at political controversy.  It's sort of like the born gay / lifestyle choice divide: I don't think it has much to do with people's views on whether it's okay to be gay.  Resolving it, or the individual/community binary, would probably just rearrange the furniture a bit, so to speak, without eliminating the political division.

Allen, of course, remains reasonable, conceding the faults of his own side: "We too can be wary of needed financial reforms of key government insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security" (174-5).  How narrow of them!  "Reforms" is the tricky word there.  Democrats have been trying to undermine Social Security at least since Bill Clinton wanted to privatize it but was foiled by the Republican attempt to impeach him.  Barack Obama prefers the death of a thousand tiny cuts, which he also pretends are "reforms," courtesy of his bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.  Reforms are one things, but first I need to know what Tom Allen considers "reforms."