Self-Defeating Left

The People's Front of Firedog Lake

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian (a left-wing Jesus), bitterly feuding splinter groups — the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front, and on and on — all hate each other more than they hate the Romans. The Self-Defeating Left (SDL) is nothing new and is so widely recognized it needs no introduction.

The SDL has plagued every Democratic president starting with Roosevelt — yes, even FDR. It gave us Bush & Cheney (remember Ralph Nader's 2% share of the Florida [#vote] in 2000?), and it is about to usher in Romney and a T-Party Congress. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and in-fighting.

There are two types in the SDL:

  1. SDL extremists (like [#fireDogLake]) despise or even hate the most effective progressives.
  2. SDL regulars are disappointed because of unrealistic views of the past and of present obstacles.

The self-defeating extremists view it as their job to demoralize progressives and, if possible, convert them to bitterness.

What You Can Do

First, don't listen to the extremists. They are [#not progressives].  Second, if you are an SDL regular or know one, take heart. Many things that seem discouraging are actually signs of smarter thinking than we've had in the past. The first step is to see the past clearly -- it was far less rosey than extremists claim, and by comparison Obama is actually doing better against heavier odds. For example, LBJ, that master of Congress, alienated his base so badly that he could not even run again (and his 500,000 troop escalation of the Vietnam war deserved that reaction).

Here are three important illusions to dispell: 

How Flawed Thinking Causes Self Defeat

A fundamental logica fallacy causes all the trouble. The "logic" goes like this:

  1. It would be good to have X (for example an end to war).
  2. Obama should just (1) say "I'm for X," or (2) do X immediately.
  3. Obama is not doing (1) or (2), and he knows he should.
  4. Obama must be a Republican.

So what's wrong with that? Usually #2 is wrong. Here's why:

  1. Saying "I'm for X," may have no effect. And doing X may be impossible.
  2. Either may cause a very harmful backlash.

The world contains many powerful and mean-spirited forces. Some are obvious, but many are stealthy. Although the left claims to know this, in practice they forget and assume that Obama could easily overcome all such forces if only he would speak out. This is the illusion at the heart of the flawed thinking. Evil is powerful, we need much more power before we can overcome it.

A Facing Reality Will Make You Happier

Strange as it may seem, admitting the power of the dark side, should make you happier.

If we face up to how tough the struggle for a better world actually is, and shed our illusions about the rosy past, we will be rewarded by the discovery that many are on our side who we thought had betrayed us. This is worth the candle. If you have the courage, click the three links above.



[=fireDogLake] For example see FireDogLake,
where blogger Attaturk leads the attack on Obama's Sept. 8, 2011 "Pass this jobs bill" speech. His rant about how many people Obama has killed is accompanied by a poster suggesting mass-murderer Charles Manson would make a better president. The 48 following comments generally agree with him, and none disagree.
[=not progressives] Spouting ultra-left slogans, like Stalin or Jim Jones, does not make you left. The test is, are you actually being effective at making the world a little better.
[=vote] Yes a fair recount might have saved Gore. And a bit of charisma might have, and X might have and Y too. But none of that negates the fact that if Nader had not gotten in the way, Gore would have won easily, and we would not have had the Iraq war.
[=PopNotes] Just hover over green-underline links above to see the "pop" notes.


Rose-Colored Glasses

Rose-Colored-Glasses.jpgBefore President Obama was elected, I lived in dread of two outcomes, that he would not be elected and that he would be elected. No one shared my twin concerns. But I was absolutely sure that if he was elected, progressives would be dreadfully disappointed and would turn on him.

And so they did. And they were surprised at "who he really was." And I [#was not]. Neither was I surprised with their disappointment and resentment. The test of a good theory is its ability to make predictions of non-obvious outcomes, so I say my theory of political dynamics passed with flying colors, and the hunches of self-defeating progressives failed.

One thing I had going for me — I'm old. I had seen this before with Clinton, Carter, LBJ, and in local politics. I also had a theory of why it happens; that comes under "Complex Strategies."

But I didn't know the half of it, and Jonathan Chait does. He's done the historical research and his article takes a fascinating look at this phenomenon back to Roosevelt.

Warning: the following history is a bit dismal,
but the point may not be what you expect, so check the Conclusion 

Obama is compared unfavorably to Clinton, the master politician:

  • Clinton took office in a recession and tried to pass a $19.5 B stimulus package. It was blocked. He tried for $15.4, and that got killed.
  • Obama passed a $787 B stimulus in three weeks. That's $100 B more than Bush got passed for his six years of the Iraq war.
  • Clinton raised the top tax rate and passed an earned-income tax credit — Liberals were disappointed.
  • He failed to integrate gays into the military. 
  • Bob Herbert of the NYTs said "“The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread …  because he tries so hard to be liked by everyone.”

Carter was a complete disappointment.

Obama is criticized for his Afghanistan surge, and compared to Johnson (LBJ) the president who knew how to get things through Congress.

  • LBJ's Vietnam surge was 480,000 troops, 16 times bigger than Obama's Afghanistan surge, and LBJ's lasted much longer. And that war cost 50,000 American lives, two million Vietnamese and untold Cambodian lives before it was over.
  • The left held frequent protests to call him a murderer, and drove him from office.
  • Then it was so disappointed with Humphrey that he lost to Nixon.

Kennedy is hard to match in our Memories:

  • Three months after taking office he launched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba — a complete fiasco almost leading to [#nuclear war].
  • Kennedy lacked the votes in Congress to push his civil-rights legislation, so he placated James Eastland, a powerful Jim Crow senator from Mississippi, by nominating the arch-segregationist judge William Harold Cox to the federal bench.


  • Liberal columnist Max Lerner decried Truman’s mania for “cooperation” and his eagerness “to blink [past] the real social cleavage and struggles,” attributing this pathological eagerness to avoid conflict to his “middle-class mentality.”  (I'm quoting Jonathan Chait)

Roosevelt, the president most often used to belittle Obama:

  • He ran against Hoover's high deficits and immediately passed an austerity budget. Ooops. Then in 1937 he repeated the mistake.
  • After 5 months in office he created the "Federal Emergency Relief Administration" (WPA) and funded it at half a billion. Relative to his economy, that's still 5 times smaller than Obama's stimulus. 
  • Roosevelt's Social Security bill passed the House 372 to 33 with 81% of Republicans voting for it and with 64% of Republican Senators voting for it.
  • In spite of having such a strong hand, the meager benefits were financed by a regressive tax, and domestic workers and other black-dominated professions were excluded.
  • By Executive Order 9066, he sent 110,000 Japanese to internment camps for a year and half, most of them US citizens.
  • Imagine if Obama had done something equivalent.


The point is not to condemn these presidents. Sometimes they were mistaken but many times they had to make painful tradeoffs  I have left out their accomplishments, because my point is only to show that the past has never been so rosy as the memory of it when we use it to condemn the present. So let us take off the rose color spectacles and have a look at what real presidents are up against and how they deal with fickle friends and implacable foes. Next: Complex Strategy.




[=was not] I'm not saying that I could
see through Obama before the election. That's a tiny bid true, but mostly I'm saying, "He still is who you thought he was, he just has to look different as President than as a candidate." I foresaw his change in appearance. In fact, if you listened closely he warned us this had to happen. (see Complex Strategies)
[=nuclear war]  The invasion led Castro to accept Russian missiles. This led to the Cuban missile crisis, which is the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. 
[=PopNotes] Just hover over green-underline links above to see the "pop" notes.


SDL History

When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?
New York Magazine (link)
By Jonathan Chait, published Nov 20, 2011. (Clean PDF)

In a rush? Here's a half-length version of Chait's long but superb article.

Jonathan Chait

If we trace liberal disappointment with President Obama to its origins, to try to pinpoint the moment when his crestfallen supporters realized that this was Not Change They Could Believe In, the souring probably began on December 17, 2008, when Obama announced that conservative Evangelical pastor Rick Warren would speak at his inauguration.  ... On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow rode the story almost nightly: “I think the problem is getting larger for Barack Obama.” Negative 34 days into the start of the Obama presidency, the honeymoon was over. ...

“We are all incredibly frustrated,” Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, told the Washington Post in September. “I’m disappointed in Obama,” complained Steve Jobs, according to Walter Isaacson’s new biography. The assessments appear equally morose among the most left-wing and the most moderate of Obama’s supporters, among opinion leaders and rank-and-file voters. In early 2004, Democrats, by a 25-point margin, described themselves as “more enthusiastic than usual about voting.” At the beginning of 2008, the margin had shot up to over 60 percentage points. Now as many Democrats say they’re less enthusiastic about voting as say they’re more enthusiastic.

(“I’m like everybody, I want more action,” an apologetic Chris Rock said earlier this month. “I believe wholeheartedly if he’s back in, he’s going to do some gangsta shit.”)

There are any number of arguments about things Obama did wrong. Some of them are completely misplaced, like blaming Obama for compromises that senators forced him to make. Many of them demand Obama do something he can’t do, like Maddow’s urging the administration to pass an energy bill through a special process called budget reconciliation—a great-sounding idea except for the fact that it’s against the rules of the Senate. Others castigate Obama for doing something he did not actually do at all (i.e., Drew Westen’s attention-grabbing, anguished New York Times essay assailing Obama for signing a budget deal with cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid that were not actually in the budget in question).

I spend a lot of time rebutting these arguments, and their proponents spend a lot of time calling me an Obama apologist.

Some of the complaints are right, and despite being an Obama apologist, I’ve made quite a few of them myself. (The debt-ceiling hostage negotiations drove me to distraction.) But I don’t think any of the complaints—right, wrong, or ­otherwise—really explain why liberals are so depressed.

Here is my explanation: Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.

Bill Clinton
"The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread." —Bob Herbert, New York Times, 1993. (Photo: Steve Liss/Liaison/Getty Images)

One variant of liberal disappointment has taken the form of resurgent Clinton nostalgia. Hillary Clinton, removed from the undertow of partisan combat in her role as secretary of State, has enjoyed soaring approval ratings, while Bill has burnished his credentials with a book on fixing the economy. If Bill Clinton (or Hillary Clinton—admirers tend to blur their identities) were in charge, pine their devotees, they wouldn’t have rolled over on the economy. They’d have fought the Republicans on the stimulus and won. “If Hillary gave up one of her balls and gave it to Obama,” James Carville told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last year, “he’d have two.”  ...

It is odd that Bill Clinton’s imagined role as ass-kicking economic savior has become the object of such extensive liberal fantasy. We don’t have to speculate as to what Clinton would have done if Republicans had blocked his economic stimulus. It actually happened. Clinton had campaigned promising a stimulus bill to alleviate widespread economic pain, with unemployment at 7.5 percent at the start of his term. Like Obama, Clinton needed a handful of Republican senators to pass it (Obama needed two Republican votes to break a filibuster, Clinton three). Clinton’s proposed stimulus was $19.5 billion. Unable to break a Republican filibuster, Clinton offered to pare it down to $15.4 billion. Republicans killed it anyway, creating an image of a Clinton administration in disarray.

Certainly, the circumstances faced by Clinton were different. (For one thing, the recession was far less deep and passed its worst point shortly after he took office, making the case for stimulus less urgent.) Still, nothing in this episode suggests Clinton possessed any special communicative or legislative skill that would have enabled him or his wife, had either held office in 2009, to pass a larger stimulus than the $787 billion bill Obama signed. [Note: this is what Bush spent in 6 years on the Iraq War.]

Clinton did enjoy one major triumph in his first year, when he passed a budget bill that raised the top tax rate, expanded the earned-income tax credit, created a new national-service program for graduates, and reformed other parts of the budget. This was the progressive apogee of the Clinton administration. Liberals at the time viewed it as a sad half-measure. ...

Six months into Clinton’s presidency, after he had abandoned his effort to integrate gays into the military, Bob Herbert summarized what had already settled as the liberal narrative: “The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread … He doesn’t seem to understand that much of the disappointment and disillusionment is because he tries so hard to be liked by everyone.” Hardly anybody contested that portrait. ... 

After Republicans swept the midterm elections, Clinton moved further rightward. He famously declared that “the era of big government is over” and brought in reptilian operator Dick Morris—not yet the right-wing conspiracy-monger seen on Fox News these days, but distinctly right of center—as his chief political adviser. He signed a welfare-reform bill containing such Draconian provisions that several liberals resigned from his administration in protest. ...

"He has failed by both the general standards of competent administration and the special standards of the liberal agenda." —Editors, The New Republic, 1980 (Photo: MPI/Getty Images)

Today, Carter is remembered as a president anchored in liberal values, a revision of history both conservatives and Carter himself are happy to leave uncorrected. But the truth is that Carter’s domestic agenda carried only small bits of liberalism, and those small bits (a consumer-protection agency, tax reform) met with total failure in the Democratic Congress.

Before Carter came Lyndon Johnson. You probably remember this presidency didn’t go well. Protesters outside the White House were calling him a murderer every day; he was challenged in the Democratic primary and pressured to quit his reelection race. So strong was the animus against Johnson that it transferred almost completely undiminished onto his successor, Hubert H. Humphrey, a liberal stalwart. (The demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 were, of course, directed not at Richard Nixon or even Johnson but Humphrey, whom angry demonstrators stalked on the campaign trail until the election.) [Note: LBJ's "surge" in Vietnam was 480,000 troops compared with Obama's 30,000, it lasted much longer and kill roughly ten times as many Americans.]

Kennedy’s domestic agenda slogged painfully through a Congress controlled by a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. He campaigned promising federal aid for education and health insurance for the elderly but didn’t get around to passing either one. The most agonizing struggles came on Kennedy’s civil-rights agenda. His soaring campaign promises quickly grew entangled in a series of bargains with Jim Crow Democrats that liberals justifiably saw as corrupt. Kennedy understood he lacked the votes in Congress to push the civil-rights legislation he promised. He placated James Eastland, a powerful Jim Crow senator from Mississippi, by nominating the arch-segregationist judge William Harold Cox to the federal bench. 

Liberals are dissatisfied because they are incapable of feeling satisfied.

"A weak, baffled, angry man." —The Nation, 1946  (Photo: American Stock/Getty Images)

Harry Truman has become the patron saint of dispirited Democrats, the fighting populist whose example is invariably cited in glum contrast to whatever bumbling congenital compromiser happens to hold office at any given time. In fact, liberals spent the entire Truman presidency in a state of near-constant despair. Republicans took control of Congress in the 1946 elections and bottled up Truman’s domestic agenda, rendering him powerless to expand the New Deal, as liberals had hoped he would after the war had ended. Liberal columnist Max Lerner decried Truman’s mania for “cooperation” and his eagerness “to blink [past] the real social cleavage and struggles,” attributing this pathological eagerness to avoid conflict to his “middle-class mentality.” 

"Many liberals are saying good-bye to hoping and praying." —William Harlan Hale, Common Sense, 1934 
(Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images)

An exception to this trend, but only a partial exception, is Franklin Roosevelt, the most esteemed of the historical Democratic president-saints. Roosevelt is hard to compare to anybody, because his achievements were so enormous, and his failures so large as well (court-packing, interning Japanese-Americans). But even his triumphs, gleaming monuments to liberalism when viewed from the historical distance, appear, at closer inspection, to be riddled with the same tribulations, reversals, compromises, dysfunctions, and failures as any other. Roosevelt did not run for office promising to boost deficit spending in order to stimulate the economy. He ran castigating Herbert Hoover for permitting high deficits, then immediately passed an austerity budget in his first year. Roosevelt did come around to Keynesian stimulus, but he never seemed to understand it, and in 1937 he reversed himself again by cutting spending, helping plunge the economy into a second depression eventually mitigated only by war spending.

Liberals frustrated with Obama’s failure to assail Wall Street have quoted FDR’s 1936 speech denouncing “economic royalists,” but that represented just a brief period of Roosevelt’s presidency. Mostly he tried to placate business. When he refused to empower a government panel charged with enforcing labor rights, a liberal senator complained, “The New Deal is being strangled in the house of its friends.” Roosevelt constantly feared his work-relief programs would create a permanent class of dependents, so he made them stingy. He kept the least able workers out of federal programs, and thus “placed them at the mercy of state governments, badly equipped to handle them and often indifferent to their plight,” recalled historian William Leuchtenburg. Even his greatest triumphs were shot through with compromise. Social Security offered meager benefits (which were expanded under subsequent administrations), was financed by a regressive tax, and, to placate southern Democrats, was carefully tailored to exclude domestic workers and other black-dominated professions. ...

Progressive senator Burton Wheeler complained that FDR, “for all his fine talk, really preferred conservatives to progressives.” And actually, the Roosevelt era had the same pattern we see today, of liberals angry with the administration’s compromises, and the administration angry in turn at the liberals. In 1935, Roosevelt adviser Rex Tugwell groused of the liberals, “They complain incessantly that the administration is moving into the conservative camp, but do nothing to keep it from going there.”

And this is only the liberal mood during Democratic presidencies.

For almost all of the past 60 years, liberals have been in a near-constant emotional state of despair, punctuated only by brief moments of euphoria and occasional rage. When they’re not in charge, things are so bleak they threaten to move to Canada; it’s almost more excruciating when they do win elections, and their presidents fail in essentially the same ways: He is too accommodating, too timid, too unwilling or unable to inspire the populace. (Except for Johnson, who was a bloodthirsty warmonger.)

Conservatives are an interesting counterexample. While they are certainly capable of expressing frustration with Republican presidents, conservative disappointment is neither as incessant nor as pervasively depressed as the liberal variety. Conservatives are at least as absolutist as liberals in the ideological demands they make upon their leaders, as evidenced by the willingness of large chunks of the base to commit electoral suicide by nominating the series of clowns and half-wits who have taken turns leading the polls alongside or even above Mitt Romney. At the same time, they are far less likely to turn against their president altogether. They assail the compromise but continue to praise the man. ...

Why? Because conservatives are not like liberals. They think differently.


The 1968 Democratic convention—“which consisted of spokespersons for about 253 major ideological factions giving each other the finger through clouds of tear gas,” as Dave Barry put it—is the sort of scene that could not occur within the Republican Party. Or consider the contrast in style between the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. These two movements, allegedly mirror images of each other, perfectly display the differences between the right and the left. The Occupy activists abhor anything that would force any member to subsume his or her individual autonomy to the greater good. Did the drum circles drive everybody else to distraction? Too bad—you can’t tell the drummers what to do, man.  ...

Democratic Party politics, obviously, do not have the anarchist style on display at Zuccotti Park for almost two months. But liberals’ chronic discontent with their leaders is a fainter version of the same impulses. ... 

Republicans are focused only on dismantling government, and the great movements to reform politics have all come from the left. Some liberals attribute their disappointment in Obama to the excessive hopes he raised about representing better, cleaner, more uplifting politics. But the euphoria surrounding Obama’s election differed only in degree from that of previous presidents. Clinton was the Man From Hope, touring the country with Al Gore and promising the renewing spirit of a younger generation. Carter frequently pledged, “I will never lie to you,” and moved the 1976 Democratic convention hall to tears.

Is it really likely that all these presidents had the same flaws?

What, by contrast, are we to make of third-party activists like Thomas L. Friedman or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz? They have a president who supports virtually everything they want—short-term stimulus, long-term deficit reduction through a mix of taxes and entitlement cuts, clean energy, education reform, and social liberalism. Yet they are agitating for a third party ...  the closest Friedman comes to explaining why we should have a third party ... is to say that such a party “would have offered a grand bargain on the deficit two years ago, not on the eve of a Treasury default.” He agrees with Obama’s plan, in other words, but proposes to form a new party because he disagrees with his legislative sequencing.

As political analysis, this is pure derangement. It’s the Judean People’s Front for the Aspen Institute crowd. But these sorts of anti-political fantasies arise whenever liberals are forced to confront the crushing ordinariness of governing. 

There is a catchphrase, which you’ve probably seen on bumper stickers or T-shirts, that captures the reason liberals have trouble maintaining political power: “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” At first blush it sounds constructive. If you consider it for a moment, though, the line assumes that there are two modes of political behavior, bitching and revolution. Since the glorious triumph of revolution never really pans out, eventually you’ll return to the alternative, bitching. But there is a third option that lies between the two—the ceaseless grind of politics.

Which brings us back to Obama. ... Activists measure progress against the standard of perfection, or at least the most perfect possible choice. Historians gauge progress against what came before it.

By that standard, Obama’s first term would indeed seem to qualify as gangsta shit. His single largest policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, combines two sweeping goals—providing coverage to the uninsured and taming runaway medical-cost inflation—that Democrats have tried and failed to achieve for decades. Likewise, the Recovery Act contained both short-term stimulative measures and increased public investment in infrastructure, green energy, and the like. The Dodd-Frank financial reform, while failing to end the financial industry as we know it, is certainly far from toothless, as measured by the almost fanatical determination of Wall Street and Republicans in Congress to roll it back.

Beneath these headline measures is a second tier of accomplishments carrying considerable historic weight. A bailout and deep restructuring of the auto industry that is rapidly being repaid, leaving behind a reinvigorated sector in the place of a devastated Midwest. Race to the Top, which leveraged a small amount of federal seed money into a sweeping national wave of education experiments, arguably the most significant reform of public schooling in the history of the United States. A reform of college loans, saving hundreds of billions of dollars by cutting out private middlemen and redirecting some of the savings toward expanded Pell Grants. Historically large new investments in green energy and the beginning of regulation of greenhouse gases. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women. Elimination of several wasteful defense programs, equality for gays in the military, and consumer-friendly regulation of food safety, tobacco, and credit cards.

Of the postwar presidents, only Johnson exceeds Obama’s domestic record, and Johnson’s successes must be measured against a crushing defeat in Vietnam. Obama, by contrast, has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes—expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime. So, if Obama is the most successful liberal president since Roosevelt, that would make him a pretty great president, right?

Did liberals really expect more? I didn’t.  ... Yes, his accomplishments were more substantive than Nixon’s or Clinton’s, but they were not quite the sweeping, nation-transforming stuff [Reagan liberals enjoy recalling in horror. In terms of lasting change, Obama probably has matched Reagan—or, at least, he will if he can win reelection and consolidate health-care reform and financial regulation and tilt the Supreme Court further left than he already has.

And yet Obama will never match among Democrats Reagan’s place in the psyche of his own party, ... They are going to question their leader, not deify him, and search for signs of betrayal in any act of compromise he or she may commit. This exhausting psychological torment is no way to live. Then again, the current state of the Republican Party suggests it may be healthier than the alternative.



[=1] Sample
[=PopNotes] Just hover over green-underline links above to see the "pop" notes.


Python Paradox

bees.jpgThe far left hates each other the most

This is such an infamous left problem that Monty Python satirized it in "The Life of Brian."  Only the far left is this hilariously sectarian, but the tendency plagues the left as a whole. This is demonstrated by progressives turning on Obama rather than fighting the Tea Party. Of course, most progressives are not so confused, but enough are, that they stymie the rest.

So what causes the Python Paradox? It all stems from a single mode of thinking:

  1. I'm right, he's wrong. (inevitable)
  2. It's totally obvious that I'm right (fatal error)
  3. Since it's obvious, the other guy knows I'm right. (logical, given #2)
  4. Since he does the wrong thing anyway, he's bad. (logical)

For example: (1) I'm right; the drug war is stupid and Obama should stop it. (2) This is totally obvious, it kills 1000s with no results. (3) Obama is smart so he knows this. (4) But he refuses to stop it, so he must have some evil intentions.

Thinking you're right and the other guy's wrong is not the problem, because that's inevitable and there's a good way to deal with it. Step 2 is the Python Fallacy—the cause of the Python Paradox. We'll come back to that shortly. Once you take this step, then steps #3 and #4 are completely logical and cannot be faulted.

The Python Fallacy. If something is totally obvious to you, it does does not mean it's totally obvious to others. Two other possibilities: (1) You just might be wrong (once in a blue moon). (2) The other person could be confused.

So why doesn't the far left get this? Why can't people at least admit that the other guy might be an idiot instead of evil? That would be so much nicer. And, if the other guy is just confused, then he's worth talking to and trying to set straight. But if he's evil, then just hate him.

In other areas of life—sports, business, military, etc.—people are not so nasty. They are happy to just conclude the other guy's an idiot and try to set him straight. They don't have to hate everyone they disagree with.

The Fix. It's far more helpful, and  much more often correct, to think like this:

  1. I'm right, he's wrong.
  2. It's totally obvious to me, but he's not so smart.
  3. So he's not likely evil, just confused, or just maybe, I made a mistake.
  4. So let's try to figure out why we disagree.

Let's put that into practice:

  1. I'm right; the drug war is stupid and Obama should stop it.
  2. Obvious to me, but perhaps Obama knows something I don't.
  3. So he's not likely evil, just confused (overly worried) or perhaps he knows he couldn't and it would just cost him the election.

Learning to think like that—which is how scientists argue—is the necessary first step toward progressive politics. So why is that so hard?

  • Why the far left is so sure their ideas are obvious.
  • The missing idea: Strategy.
  • The far left won't change, so what do we do?



[=PopNotes] Just hover over green-underline links above to see the "pop" notes.


Not So Obvious

There are two areas where people get really nasty—politics and religion. Those are the same two things you "should not discuss at the dinner table."

Why are these two different from other topics?  The difference lies in how people "know" they are right:

  • I'm right because it's logical (most of life)
  • I'm right because it's immoral to think anything else (politics and religion)

People don't trust their logic as much as they trust their own morals. So when they "know" something because of their religion (or political morals), then they are really, truly 100% sure.

And since it's so obvious to them, they think it must be obvious to others, or at least to anyone who isn't evil. Now you might think that the problem is that religious beliefs are not always right, and you'd be right. They are not. But it turns out that's not the most common problem.

The usual problem is that people bundle two ideas together, one moral and one strategic. But they don't notice that the second one is strategic, because when they think religiously, or morally, they think strategy shouldn't enter the picture.

For example: Some says: "The drug war is bad, so Obama should stop it now." Quite likely they are right that the drug war is bad. But then they tack on their strategy for ending it: "Obama should stop it now." That's a complicated statement, because doing so may well prevent him from doing other good things, and maybe he can't even do it. That's why the second part is strategic.



Strategy Is Good


Why do progressives think there's just one obvious strategy?

  1. They are strategically challenged and can think of only one strategy.
  2. The don't even think it's a strategy — it's just "right."

1. Strategically challenged: If you think strategy is a bad idea, you won't be very good at thinking up strategies. And, progressives tend to think strategies are nefarious schemes that should be shunned. Just "speak truth to power." Job done. Oh, sometimes they envy Carl Rove's dirty tricks, but again, this is the "nefarious" view of strategies. But progressives aren't into nefarious so they prefer to lose honorably than think strategically. It's sad, because there's nothing immoral about [#good strategy].

2. Just do the right thing: There can be only one right answer, and that's what should be done. I know what's right, and if you don't, there's something wrong with you. Believe this, and anyone who disagrees with you is on the wrong side. Their north star is in the wrong place. Now "the right thing" is not always so obvious, but that's not my point. Even if we agree on the right thing, that's our goal and it, almost always, it will be a struggle to achieve.

The problem is people think, somebody (not them for sure and usually the President) can and should just "do the right thing." This is where understanding the Dark Side comes in. That's next, but for now, hold this thought — it ain't as easy as it sounds. Actually getting the right outcome, is complex. Extremely complex. And, natural people arrive at different approaches, especially if they are in the thick of the battle and thinking hard. And those are the kind of people who get the job done, not the Monday-morning quarterbacks.

Bipartisan Strategy

Pundits large and small criticize Obama most mercilessly for his bipartisan strategy. And perhaps it is a great mistake. But what I find striking is that the critics always attack a straw man, and never the mention the likely argument in favor of a bipartisan strategy. In fact the critics appear to be strategically challenged in the extreme.

The straw man: Obama believe that if he's nice to Republicans long enough they will come around.

Here's a paragraph from Paul Starr's book Remedy and Reaction xlnk.gif, on Health Care Reform.


The search for bipartisan support had advantages beyond whatever Republican votes it might net. Even a few Republican votes for the bill would provide political cover for Democrats from states that went for McCain. Some extra Republican votes for the legislation would also reduce the ability of any individual senator to extract special-interest concessions. And the effort to work with Republicans fulfilled Obama's promise of an open-minded, inclusive process.


What to Do?

Here's the contradiction. Sectarians criticize cooperators, but cooperators, try to cooperate, so they don't criticize sectarians. The result is sectarians get away with their destruction.

Put another way, Sectarians judge well-intentioned progressives as sleazy or evil, but cooperators, do not make the sectarian mistake, so the recognize that sectarians are mainly just confused. Since they view them as well intentioned, they respect them and withhold criticism.

Both the sectarians and the cooperators are involved in an unhelpful dynamic. The only way to break this is for the cooperators to change. They should not give up their view that sectarians are well intentioned, but they should listen to an old and wise proverb:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Sectarianism is truly the road to hell, and it should not be tolerated by the cooperators. This cooperators should speak out and dismiss sectarian nonsense. This is particularly difficult because the sectarians always say they are more "left," in other words, holier than those they rail against, and this "holier than thou strategy fools many." But there is nothing holy about the sectarians, and they are generally "more left" in the sense that Stalin was "more left."

The Dark Side

darth-vader.jpgThe far left is fond of proclaiming the power of corporations. For example, adBusters' Micah White, who sparked OWS, speaks of the "overwhelming power of corporations." Yet he hopes to achieve "reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall act" and the "the revocation of corporate personhood" by camping out in parks and holding all-day General Assemblies with up to 500 people. These have gained press coveraged, but the gap between that and reversing the Supreme Court is so fantastically large that Mr. White must have no comprehension of the power he is up against.

It is likely, though I can't prove it, that no president could stand up to the full weight of corporate power and survive politically. That doesn't mean presidents don't have backbones, that means the world is not such a rosy place as the self-defeating left (SDL) extremists (for example Firedoglake-com) like to think. This is why, even the best politicians must act strategically.

The Petty Dark Side

But it's the petty Dark Side that determines the crazy maneuvering that makes the daily papers and looks so dispiriting to the SDL regulars. Lets look at a well-known case, the health care bill and the reconciliation process.

Background: The senate can pass any bill 51 to 49, but if the 49 choose to, some of them can filibuster and block majority rule. But if 60 Senators vote for "cloture" that ends the filibuster. So, in reality the health care bill needed 60 votes — unless it was a reconciliation bill. That type of bill can only be used once a year and no filibuster is allowed.

The SDL reconciliation myth: The first part is that Obama blocked using a reconciliation bill because he wanted bipartisan support, which [#any fool could see] was impossible. The second part runs as follows.

"If the Democrats had used reconciliation, a more progressive health care reform package could have been passed almost a year earlier. Instead every Democratic senator had to walk the plank by voting for the bill. That meant the bill had to be changed to appease every member of the caucus. At almost every step, the Democratic leadership made stupid decisions."  —SDL extremists at Firedoglake.

The actual story:

  • According to the Byrd Rule, reconciliation can only be used for tax and spending measures.
  • According to Sen. Kent Conrad xlnk.gif (D-ND), Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee that oversees xlnk.gif reconciliation, "reconciliation for comprehensive health-care reform wouldn’t work." The Byrd rule "would mean the insurance market reforms and delivery reforms would be stricken." The result "would look like Swiss cheese."
  • So a complete health-care bill was passed by the House, 220 to 215 on 11/7/2009, and the vast bulk of the Affordable Care Act xlnk.gif was passed, 60 to 39, by the Senate on 12/24/2009.
  • But the differences could not have been ironed out under the Senate's 60-vote requirement, so ...
  • The House passed the Senate version on 3/21/2010 by 219 to 212.
  • This was signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010.
  • But to get the House version passed some deals were made concerning modifications, and a few other improvements were needed.
  • So we have the "Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act," to clean up financial-only details.
  • Two chunks were passed by the House on 3/21/2010. And rest was passed by the House, and all of it by the Senate (56-43), on 3/25/2010.
  • It was signed into law on March 30.

Some conclusions:  Obama and the leading Democrats fought hard and strategically for all they could get, and as a consequence it passed by the narrowest of margins. This meant holding on to every single Senate Democrat and independent in the crucial Senate vote, and letting go of some Democrats in all other votes. Compared to, say Roosevelt's passage of social security with huge margins from both parties, while leaving equally huge amounts of progressive policy on the table, this was extremely hard fought and brilliantly strategic.

But, given the Senate's filibuster rule and small-state bias, the most conservative Democrats, and those who lobbied them had tremendously disproportionate power, and they used it. This is the petty Dark Side that causes us to lose faith in those we should trust. We can't see them exercising their power, or we think there's some magical way around it, but the Dark Side really is powerful, and progress is slow.

Another health care angle — some Darth Vaders:

The left was also incensed by the deal the White House cut with Big Pharma prohibiting, as part of the legislation, direct negotiations with Medicare over prescription drug prices and excluding medicines imported from Canada. In return, the industry group PhRMA agreed to find $80 billion in discounts to Medicare, and to pay for an ad campaign supporting the legislation.

Was this wise, or was it a sellout? Given that there was not one vote to spare in the Senate, and only 7 in the House, I would say that it was. But let's consult the man who knows best, John Boehner.

In the letter, which Boehner forwarded to the executives of PhRMA's member companies, the House Minority Leader charges that PhRMA's alliance with the White House on health care reform amounts to appeasement. "Appeasement rarely works as a conflict resolution strategy," Boehner writes. "The simple truth is, two wrongs don't make a right. And the short-sighted health care deal PhRMA struck with the Obama Administration at your urging provides confirmation of this time-tested maxim on an epic and tragic scale."  —TPM xlnk.gif

The health insurance industry wrote an $86.2 million check to the Chamber of Commerce to mount a campaign against the legislation. “If Obama and the Democrats had been in a stronger position politically, they could have insisted on stronger cost containment and avoided making as large concessions to PhRMA and the hospitals as they did.” —Paul Starr

P.S. On Reconciliation:

There have been several other attacks on Obama for not using reconciliation, but a bill must be tagged for reconciliation early on, so the original Health-Care bill was tagged in April 2009. That used up the reconciliation quota for 2009 (one a year). I believe the actual Reconciliation bill that was passed March 25, 2010, used up the quota for 2010.



[=any fool could see] "Maybe if a single person in Obama’s team of “political experts” had understood this most basic of political realities [Republicans won't vote for taxes], health care reform would have been passed months ago using reconciliation–instead of wasting time chasing the futile hope of bipartisanship." Firedoglake
[=Byrd Rule] Senator Robert Byrd's (D-WV)
[=PopNotes] Just hover over green-underline links above to see the "pop" notes.


AdBusters and OWS

Micah White, an old-left
sectarian in disguise

Micah White, of Adbusters, the guy that sparked OWS with a tweet, has issued a manifesto against his most recent mortal enemies: MoveOn,  Ben & Jerry (yes, the ice cream guys) and Obama (see links below).

He doesn't want Occupy consorting with Dems and certainly not with Rs. So what's left of the 99%? Only those who follow Micah's over-the-top crazy plan to hold all-day OWS "General Assemblies" and pass "a Tobin tax on financial flows, reinstate the Glass-Steigall Act, and revoke corporate personhood." Say what?!

I know this sounds too fantastic to believe, but he says it all plainly on Huffington Post. Obviously, if OWS follows Micah it will self destruct—hopefully just fizzle without doing too much damage. But it will damage at least the spirits of the good people who supported its call for a fairer economy. And that's why its important to speak out.

Progressives are generally cooperative, and so they get suckered into cooperating with strident sectarians who hate cooperation. The only hope is for the cooperators to learn to stand up against these crazies. A first small step is the petition I've started on MoveOn. No it will not change OWS. But if it gained popularity it could help progressives start to think about their sectarian problem, which is their main cause of failure.

What's going on? Within OWS there is a turf war between those who fear that some OWSers may be induced to work for Obama and those who support Obama. Since MoveOn supports Obama and has also helped fund some non-violent training for OWS they are under attack by Micah and others for trying to co-opt OWS. Same with Ben and Jerry.

Micah claims that by staying pure, and separate from politics, that the OWS encampments and general assemblies with spark an American revolution and "topple the corporate power structures in this country." In reality this is just the old-left sectarian path, that is so familiar that Monte Python satirized it years again in The Life of Brian. The hilarious Palestine-Liberation-Front clip is here.

A Turf War Worth Weighing in On

OWS-black-bloc-protesters.jpgIf progressives are every going to make progress, we must isolate the crazies who always show up to take advantage of legitimate social movements. Yes, these people (like the Black Bloc of OWS pictured at the left) will claim they are being discriminated against and that we are not as dedicated and pure as they are! Don't fall for this nonsense, and don't let your friends fall for it. 

This is not a minor problem. The crazy sectarians not only cause chaos within the progressive movement but give the right wing an endless supply of photo opts and quotes for their propaganda machine. And such propaganda is most effective because it contains a kernel of truth. There really are "moonbats" on the left.