Monday, December 8, 2008

cynicism is corrosive to democracy

So, obviously, I'm not going to like this kind of post from Megan, which she has one or two of a week. Look, a big part of Megan's brand is taking shots at liberals, and that's ok-- she's a libertarian, and a conservative one, and I expect nothing less. She does it better than most. While I can't quite understand the utility in writing this same kind of post over and over again, that's almost certainly a product of my ideological leanings-- I don't get tired of Yglesias carving up conservative nonsense, after all. Everybody has their niche.

No, here's the problem with this specific post: it's a part of a common attitude that undermines democracy. It's always going to be in vogue to point out the naivete of people who, you know, expect politicians to do the will of the people. It's a pretty cheap point, right? "Hey, democracy doesn't actually work the way it's supposed to." Plenty of bloggers do it, I'm sure I've done it. The problem is that it has a self-fulfilling edge to it. Megan here mocks liberals for thinking that Obama might actually live out the dictates of democracy and honor the commitments and ideals he ran for president for. But her incredulity empowers his abandonment of those things. The more people say "you can't expect politicians to do what they've promised," the more you undercut the expectation that politicians actually have to do what they say. When the expectation becomes failure for politicians to live up to any promises, you're effectively excusing that behavior.

The people who actually expect politicians to live up to their word are exactly the people we shouldn't be discouraging, and certainly not for the benefit of appearing world-wise or savvy. Like I said, it certainly isn't on Megan alone. This happens all the time; the pose of the person calling others out on their idealism is a common trope. But it isn't just talking about damaging democracy, it is damaging democracy. A certain degree of idealism is a prerequisite for functioning democratic governance. Real democratic government is a hard enough venture as it stands without principled people stacking cynicism against it.

14 comments:

ryan said...

I'm not entirely convinced you're the best candidate for offering this particular critique.

You aren't being fair to Megan here. I didn't detect any cynicism in her post. If anything, quite the opposite: she is deflating those progressives who expected Obama not to do the will of the people by enacting programs which are not popular with anyone but the hard left. She isn't criticizing Obama's integrity, she's criticizing the degree to which the fact that he won seems to have convinced the left that they have a blank-check type mandate. They don't. The election was pretty close. Sure, it was a bigger win than either of Bush's victories, and quite dramatic when compared to either of Clinton's minority wins, but in terms of the popular vote it was almost identical to the 1988 election, only this time the electoral vote was a lot closer (365/173 rather than 426/111).

Poking holes in fantasies isn't cynical. Saying that elected politicians can be expected to do the will of the people isn't cynical. Cynicism may be corrosive to democracy, but so is painting those who disagree with you as cynical as a way of avoiding the substance of their arguments.

Freddie said...

Right, because calling people who are in any international context centrists "the hard left" isn't a way to avoid the substance of their arguments.

Jane said...

I don't understand why it's relevant that people in other countries are farther to the left. We don't include Saudi Arabia in our political spectrum in order to demostrate that, by international standards, the crustiest American social conservatives are really quite moderate.

In terms of American political culture, these people are hard left. They are so far from the center that there is absolutely no realistic hope of enacting even a plurality of their agenda. Let me make it clear that i also think there is no reasonable hope of enacting even a plurality of the libertarian agenda; that's not an insult, just a statement of fact. And I have previously made fun of libertarians who somehow get deluded into believing that the *real* problem is that we don't have proportional representation, or some other electoral chimera. The *real* problem is that the majority of Americans disagree with us on fundamental issues. That's also the real problem that the netroots have.

ryan said...

Tu quoque won't save you, I'm afraid.

E.D. Kain said...

Freddie, yes Europeans (not anywhere in the international context, just Europe) who consider themselves centrist might be akin to American hard-left, but that doesn't change the fact that American centrists are not far-left. And this is a discussion about American politics, not European politics.

So I'd say that's something of a cop-out response...

Freddie said...

In terms of American political culture, these people are hard left. They are so far from the center that there is absolutely no realistic hope of enacting even a plurality of their agenda.

And yet, somehow, we just elected not only a President but a large legislative majority based on principles entirely in keeping with this kind of sentiment.

This is the way of the American right at present: constantly talking about the extremity of your opposition while your movement slowly, publicly dies. You spend so much time declaring victory you don't realize that your agenda is getting left behind.

Tu quoque won't save you, I'm afraid.

ryan, do you want to talk? Or do you want to win the game of blog? You have skills in the latter. You are doing little for the former.

E.D. Kain said...

I would add that I agree completely with the folly of the American right as a whole. They are hapless for the most part, sans direction, a fragmented and often-times shrill, reactionary coalition.

Then again, I think that a center-right Party could hold up rather well to the liberals and center-lefters. A conservative party more grounded in realism, responsibility, and limited (but effective) government stands a real chance...especially if liberals take their agenda too far, too fast.

Jane said...

But the Democrats have gotten/enlarged a majority by electing more conservative Democrats, not by electing more progressives. The caucus as a whole has moved right, not left.

E.D. Kain said...

Jane, I would say that the country moves generally in a "progressive" direction in a very "conservative" manner. For instance, I would say that yes the conservative or centrist wing of the Democratic party was voted in, but at the same time, the country has moved much closer to accepting gay marriage and national health-care. So in that sense, the dichotomy of change in this country is inherently ironic. We are conservatively liberal, or perhaps liberally conservative. We move slowly and from the center, which is always shifting...

Matthias said...

This is the way of the American right at present: constantly talking about the extremity of your opposition while your movement slowly, publicly dies.

Oh, Freddie, I would have expected more of you... This is about as apt as those who said in 2004 that the liberal movement was slowly, publicly dying. It looked like a good call at the time, but I think we may appropriately mock those people. Don't set yourself up for that.

In 2004, describing the liberal contingent as "hapless for the most part, sans direction, a fragmented and often-times shrill, reactionary coalition" was so frequent it became a cliche.

Astute political observers watch the pendulum swing one way and expect it to come back the other way. Others see the pendulum swinging and, with no long term vision, imagine that it will forever swing their direction.

Freddie said...

As it is the fashion for my commenters lately to express disappointment in me, Matthias, I expect nothing less from you.

ryan said...

Obama's mandate is slimmer than many make it out to be, and contrary to what netroots partisans would like, Obama seems to be making administrative choices on that basis, in keeping with principles of democratic representation. Megan points that out, sniping at some of the breathlessness with which this has been greeted on the left, and you call her cynical.

Then you snark at me for pointing out the contradiction, I snark back, and you return the favor.

Both E.D. Kain and Jane seem to think that my original comment was appropriate, so I'm still not sure what your beef was there.

I must not be the only one having an off day.

Geoffrey said...

You lay a fair amount of caveat in front of it, but the bottom line is that you're engaging in extremely similar behavior to hers. If you replace "democracy" with "free-market capitalism", and "politicians" with "companies", then your post reads like someone chastising you, not her.

As one of her regular readers, I'll openly admit that Megan overindulges in the "some crazy liberals say...", which is usually caught by her liberal commenters (such as yourself) and rebutted - "wait, who is actually saying that? That's an extreme/fringe argument, not representative of mainstream serious liberals..."

But you have recently gone on a "some crazy libertarians say..." streak, claiming that nobody admits any problems with any free-market/capitalist systems, and watch how in vogue I am as I point out their naivete. Suggesting that every imperfect outcome is an indictment against capitalism itself is corrosive in much the same way as suggesting that every imperfect candidate is an indictment of democracy.

But I also agree with your commenters that in this case it's not an attack on those who thought democracy was working, it's an attack on those who thought they had bypassed democracy via Republic - they were expecting their successfully elected candidate to enact policies not endorsed by the majority of the public.

raft said...

you're all wrong.

i agree it IS corrosive to democracy when politicians run on on thing and do the opposite in office. that's absolutely true.

But that is NOT the problem here. the problem is that obama is doing exactly he said he would do during the campaign, but a bunch of morons managed to convince themselves--contrary to all evidence--that obama was either karl marx or a muslim terrorist.

people who fall into this category include everyone on The Corner, red state, max boot, megan mccardle herself, al giordiano, the kos kids, and an endless number of delusional bloggers/commentators. Stupidity is not limited to any political persuasion.

it's not "cynical" to make fun of people for not having the slightest clue what they're talking about. Obama was, is, and ran as a moderate progressive. It was backed up by his speeches, his policies, his books, his whole life. why would you expect him to anything else? be idealistic, but don't be a moron. It would be like if a pacifist supported Adolf hitler for president on the ticket of the War Party and then was shocked! shocked! when Hitler started invading other countries.

it is much, much better for our democracy if people don't have delusions about what kind of person/platform they are actually electing. If they didn't, obama would have beaten mccain by at least 30%. I mean, can any of you imagine if mccain were president-elect right now? How COLOSSALLY FUCKED would we be? yet 45% of people actually voted for the guy.

stupidity is by far the #1 most corrosive threat to democracy.