Why political fights seem pointless and dangerous

Tags

, , , , , ,

When you live in Massachusetts, you hear from our tireless senator Elizabeth Warren a fair amount. I try not to think about her, but the other night, when the New Yorker interviewed her on NPR as I drove home, I didn’t turn off the radio! Who would have thought? She’s more friendly and rather less a crusader when she gives an interview. I didn’t feel she was trying to use her super-abundant energy to blow me right out the door.

She must have used the word fight several dozen times. You want to put in a request: find another word. We have to fight this, fight that, fight together, fight for one thing, fight for another, fight for today and fight for tomorrow. At last she uttered a remark that shows how candid a politician can be. She said, when we fight together, when we work to win, “that’s power.” All of a sudden you realize she’s not just singing the team fight song in the school auditorium. She has a concrete and well formed goal when she urges people to fight with her.

Sufficient strength means your party wins. The more votes your party has, the stronger it is. Strength in politics means power. When your party undertakes a fight for the middle class, winning means you get to tell the middle class what you plan to do for them. Believe me, in the progressive vision, winning does not mean you plan to leave the middle class or anyone else alone. It means your party dictates what will happen.

When your party undertakes a fight for the middle class, winning means you get to tell the middle class what you plan to do for them.

No one should be surprised that a politician would think in those terms, but usually politicians do not speak so honestly about their aims. They cloak references to control in the language of public policy, beneficial change, and other polite concepts. When Hillary Clinton talks about uniting all of us, you know she does not mean it, but her rhetoric at least tries to present itself as ameliorative. She does not try to enlist you in a war.

Not so with Elizabeth. For her, the word fight is not a metaphor. She crusades every day. She wants to improve life for everyone except her enemies, and to defeat your enemies you need power. You cannot win when you are weak and without spirit. You win only when you are strong and willing to fight. If you don’t want power, don’t slow down those who do.

Elizabeth doesn’t actually say you should get out of the way, but she does speak to true believers. The crusade is everything. Join me in the fight, she says, over and over. This emphasis is so striking to me because it places such a premium on winning, a truly unsavory idea in this era that so badly needs to renew the democratic ideals of compromise and collaboration. For me the political arena is a place where people work out arrangements where they can live together, where people interact only when they want to. If you want to consummate an incipient divorce, an incubus the nation cannot shake, you fight.

Politically, we nurture mutual rights and responsibilities in democratic communities in order not to fight.

Politically, we nurture mutual rights and responsibilities in democratic communities in order not to fight. If people feel secure in their relations with others, groups of people interact without interference from other authorities. If you commit a crime or some other sort of outrageous act, assertions of authority become legitimate and necessary. Otherwise assertions of state power arise only when somebody wants to control you. When I hear someone throw down fighting words, I see someone who wants to assert control.

In Warren’s world, one group fights to exert power over other groups. Everything is a fight. You fight to win. When you don’t win, other people who have more power get to say how things will go down. If you don’t win, someone else does. War makes victory the supreme value. During the Peloponnesian war, Athenians show up at Melos with their navy and their army. They want the island to prevent it from falling to their enemies.

To acquire strength, you have to fight, and win. It is a terribly shallow way to think about politics. It is also self defeating, since in time you will always find opponents stronger than you are.

The episode reminds you how the mentality of power affects strategies of war. When the Melians protest they mean no harm to anyone, Athenians insist they don’t mind how many enemies they make: enmity from the people they conquer demonstrates their own power. Similarly, the stronger a political party, the more power it has to make others submit, and the less it has to worry about how many enemies it makes. To acquire strength, you have to fight, and win.

It is a terribly shallow way to think about politics. It is also self defeating, since in time you will always find opponents stronger than you are. If your measure for success is power, you will always die a failure. Meantime, the people you try to control try to escape or resist. Either way, they will hate you and live to take you down. One’s measure for success has to be greater than assertion of control at the expense of other people’s freedom.

Afterthoughts

Elizabeth Warren won election to the Senate in 2012, the same year Barack Obama won reelection. During Obama’s presidency, Americans repeatedly voted against Democrats, because Democrats smugly forced them to buy health insurance. Now that Obama is out of office and ACA is seven years old, roots of opposition to Democrats are more complicated. Yet if Democrats want to restore good faith with voters, they will help Republicans repeal the individual mandate. Nothing else they try to accomplish during the next four years will succeed if they do not undertake this simple measure.

Democrats will argue that the mandate underpins the whole structure and rationale of ACA. No, it does not. ACA has no more structure than a four hundred pound jellyfish. Neither does the law have a single rationale. One important goal of the legislation is to bring as many Americans as possible under the health insurance umbrella. I am confident, though, that removal of the mandate would not markedly reduce the proportion of people who have health insurance. The symbolic value of repealing that one requirement would be substantial. Over the long term, Democrats could decide whether the goal of universal coverage is still worthwhile.

ACA has no more structure than a four hundred pound jellyfish.

The partisan battles of the past twenty-five years or more have come at a cost. Presently both major parties have exhausted themselves. Yes, at present they both have a lot of activist energy running through their systems. They have taken on new vigor, for both parties because the Donald won the White House. When I say they have exhausted themselves, I mean their intellectual gas tanks are empty. If you tried to write down substantive ideas that inform their goals, beyond winning, you would come up with almost nothing. The parties have policy positions, but policy positions are not ideas. You cannot work back from their respective policy positions to anything coherent. You will find self-interest, a desire to win, and little else.


Related article

Why Do So Many Americans Think Democrats Are Out of Touch?

Related books

This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class

Revolution on the Ground