Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Nature Of Power

Hint: If you give them the rope, you'll lose.

Glenn Greenwald:

There's a fundamental distinction between progressives and groups that wield actual power in Washington: namely, the latter are willing (by definition) to use their resources and energies to punish politicians who do not accommodate their views, while the former unconditionally support the Democratic Party and their leaders no matter what they do. The groups which Obama cares about pleasing -- Wall Street, corporate interests, conservative Democrats, the establishment media, independent voters -- all have one thing in common: they will support only those politicians who advance their agenda, but will vigorously oppose those who do not.

Progressives keep forgetting that a win for the Democratic Party is not a win for progressives. We are the bastards at the family picnic and will only be tolerated as long as we don't draw attention to ourselves. We have no power at all and our non-stop string of losses proves it. Even when we win we lose. John Caruso:

What I like best about the the health care drama in the US right now is how nearly everyone is fighting on the other side, unwittingly or otherwise. We've got Democrats working to save Obama's nationalized version of Romneycare, while Republicans are doing everything possible to defeat insurance-purchasing mandates that would give even greater power and wealth to their corporate patrons in the health insurance industry.

Back to Greenwald:

Similarly, the GOP began caring about the Tea Party only once that movement proved it will bring down GOP incumbents even if it means losing a few elections to Democrats. [my bold]

What is the goal--to win elections, or to increase progressives' power so winning an election means progressive policies are enacted? Winning elections is not achieving our goal. It is utterly illogical to devote time and money if we don't benefit from those actions. If all you want is to say "We're Number 1!" then you've achieved your goal, but if your goal is to gain power, you've wasted your money and time.

When your methods don't work, use different methods. Don't keep using the same methods and insist that you've won when it's perfect obvious that you haven't achieved your goal.

The far right doesn't mind losing some elections as long as they increase their power. You cannot win over powerful forces if you are not willing to fight them. The tea baggers would rather lose than elect someone they don't want in office. The Republican power structure needs their votes. The tea baggers are withholding those votes until they get something back. That gives them power.

Of course they are fooling themselves as well; they are advancing the goals of their corporate leaders, not tax-payers, but if they were smart they wouldn't be tea baggers. They are achieving their goal--putting people in office who say they will shrink the size of the government.

That is exactly what progressives will never do. They do the opposite; they proudly announce: we'll probably be angry a lot, and we'll be over here doing a lot complaining, but don't worry: no matter what, when you need us to stay in power (or to acquire it), we're going to be there to give you our full and cheering support. That is the message conveyed over and over again by progressives, no more so than when much of the House Progressive Caucus vowed that they would never, ever support a health care bill that had no robust public option, only to turn around at the end and abandon that vow by dutifully voting for Obama's public-option-free health care bill. That's just a microcosm of what happens in the more general sense: progressives constantly object when their values and priorities are trampled upon, only to make clear that they will not only vote for, but work hard on behalf of and give their money to, the Democratic Party when election time comes around.

I'm not arguing here with that decision. Progressives who do this will tell you that this unconditional Party support is necessary and justifiable because no matter how bad Democrats are, the GOP is worse. That's a different debate.

We take crumbs and pretend we've been given the entire loaf of bread. Congress doesn't care about anything but money, and right now they're chowing down on a great big ole Screw You sandwich.

The point here is that -- whether justified or not -- telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any self-interested, rational politician -- meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle -- will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional. And they're well-advised to do exactly that.

Power is given, not taken. If you are willing to fight to keep and/or gain power, you have to refrain from giving your power-your vote-to someone who will give almost nothing in return, even if it will hurt you in the short term. Giving away your vote and getting nothing in return will guarantee that we remain powerless.

Correction added to comments.


Downpuppy said...

Glenn goes way off the rails with this definition -

Any self-interested, rational politician -- meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle --

It's a definition of corruption. Power for its own sake is a hideous motivation, and anyone who admitted to it would be rightly spurned. Most politicians have subtler needs - to feel appreciated, to do something good - or are just in it for money. If they're in it for money, write them off, they'll eventually plump for plutocracy. The salvageable need to hear from those that they respect when they go bad.

Glenn has accepted McArdle's framing, and he needs to have his kuckles rapped, not praise for this.

Susan of Texas said...

I don't agree. People become politicians because they want power. Our society doesm't spurn that at all--they love it. We worship power. No rational person goes into our political system thinking that they'll get power without giving something in return and keeping the big donors happy.

I don't know any politicians so I can't attest to their motives, but I see what they do. It is very rare for a principled person to survive in politics. It's rare for him or her to get anything done that will make a difference, and that only happens when they give up something big in return.

Caruso is even more cynical than I am--he says politicians are in it for one reason--to get laid.

Downpuppy said...

Getting laid is a human motivation, a lot closer to wanting to be appreciated than to rational self interest.

Knocking on 5000 doors running for city council hoping for groupies requires a ton of irrationality.

And in the end, George McGovern could have scored a lot more than Evan Bayh ever will.

Susan of Texas said...

Yes, I'm talking about real power on the national level. I'm sure there are a lot of people trying to do something good locally, but they don't need the kind of money that is inevitably corrupting.

I thought Greenwald was being sarcastic about "rational" part of his "rational self interest"! It's rational if you believe politicians want little else except to gain power and wealth. (To get laid, no doubt.)

I don't dispute that about Bayh, but if Tom DeLay can get a bunch of women in a hot tub it sure isn't because of his looks or charm.

fish said...

but if Tom DeLay can get a bunch of women in a hot tub it sure isn't because of his looks or charm.


nate said...

Go mention Nader on a progressive blog and see how long it takes before someone tears your head off.

The "lesser of two evils" mantra is deeply, deeply embedded in the progressive mindset, if there even is such a generalized thing.

Susan of Texas said...

Yes, I've been accused of supporting Nader although I've virtually never discussed him and I keep saying that we shouldn't waste money, time and votes.

Kathy said...

Seems both parties are just like sports teams, say 49ers vs. uh- Dolphins? Voters are considered to be little more than team fans, not a group that has or should have any say at all in how the game is played. And aside from "feeling proud of Your Team" it makes little difference to the voter-fan who actually wins.

Or that's how the Bankster/Wall Street Owners want it to be.

DocAmazing said...

Glenn has accepted McArdle's framing

Greenwald has worked with the Cato Institute in the past. He might just buy some of the underlying premises that McMegan is selling.

Susan of Texas said...

This is my framing--when somebody is bullying you, you aren't going to be able to stop him unless you're willing to risk getting hurt. It's only when you tell him, "go ahead and hit me, I don't care" that you get your power back. You have to be willing to take a beating, someone once said, if you want to win.

I think Greenwald is doing great stuff but I still try to assess everything he says on its own merits. I think he's right about this. Progressives are proud of their loyalty and ability to reason. (At least this one is.) That makes it very easy to manipulate us--we'd have to admit that we're wrong, but even worse, we'd have to admit that corporate control is so complete now that we'd have to lose a lot--a very, very big lot--before we get control back. Politics, jobs, credit, houses, education--all are manipulated or controlled by corporations.

We'd have to be willing to take a beating and that's terrifying. We won't be willing until we lose our houses, jobs and future, and that's terrifying too.

Anonymous said...

As long as we have the phenomenon of Democrats running against the Democratic party and platform every election, we're going to see progressive causes get tossed aside.

Only when Democrats once again decide that their principles really mean something will we see our causes move ahead. Until then, we're stuck voting for the lesser of two weasels.

Parmenides said...

The larger problem with Progressives is that with Republicans their coalition is very homogeneous which makes a narrative about their defeats and the loss of their supporters easy. When Progressives stop supporting your dealing with a huge disparate coalition of interests that makes it much harder to have a message or narrative of people falling away because of policy problems.

Michael Weston said...

Isn't part of the problem here to do with differences between movement progressives and movement conservatives?

Both appear to want to play the long game, i.e. be prepared to lose some battles in the short term in order to win the wars.

The difference is that progressives are more empathetic. When you threaten them with the terrible consequences of losing a battle, they buckle so that e.g. millions of people get health care, even without a public option.

Perhaps there are progressives out there willing to make that trade-off, but they're a very small part of the coalition.

Conservatives, on the other hand .... For them, the killing of innocents is part of the victory of freedom in Iraq.

There's more to it than that, but my basic argument is that progressives and conservatives are at heart different, so perhaps should pursue political goals in different ways.

Lotus said...

It seems to me that over the past two years, as euphoria has given way to disappointment, that more and more people are starting to realize that winning requires the risk of losing.

It's something I've been saying in the area of electoral politics for some time. In fact, it was 26 years ago that I wrote a piece on how Ronald Reagan's 1980 win was built on a series of "successful losses" by conservatives in earlier campaigns, "success" being defined as gaining ground in political influence and/or social acceptance of your ideas even as you lost the vote count.

It was, that is, only because those earlier conservatives were prepared to lose that later conservatives could win.

That same idea applies more broadly to all our efforts. As I said a few months ago,

at the end of the day it's not about personal benefit. It's not really even about winning, at least in the short term. It's about actually knowing - and caring - which side you are on.

Because the truth is,

[t]here is no guarantee of the success of resistance but there is a guarantee of the cost of acquiescence.

It's acquiescence that will bring the short-term illusion of victory but it's the "successful losses" that will ultimately produce real change.

John Caruso said...

Susan, I'm glad you found my posting useful, and I couldn't agree more with what you've written. One thing, though:

Caruso is even more cynical than I am--he says politicians are in it for one reason--to get laid.

I'm not sure where you got this impression, but it's not at all what I think. Maybe you thought this posting by Jonathan Schwarz was written by me (since I also post at A Tiny Revolution)?

Susan of Texas said...

I made a careless mistake--it was Jonathan Schwarz who made the remark about becoming president to get laid.

Susan of Texas said...

If Bob Altemeyer is right and 67% of the general population is authoritarian, there's not much we can do. A large number of Democrats and Republicans will support the power structure no matter what it does, which they obviously know. The political system won't change until it is forced to do so, and I can't see Americans rising up and taking over their government. We're much more likely to take our frustration out on each other for the next few years, as we have been taught to do.

John Caruso said...

I don't get why you removed my comment and substituted one of your own. But you're mistaken about Jon as well: he was talking about the motivation of men's DNA, not men themselves. It's a critical distinction which he didn't make clear enough, resulting in a lot of unnecessary confusion in the ensuing discussion.

Susan of Texas said...

Neither do I--I don't know what the hell I did. My best guess is that when I read your post in gmail I accidently deleted it after responding. I thought I just added a correction to the post and made my apology via email. I'm sorry once again.

John Caruso said...

Ah, maybe it looked like I'd sent email rather than commenting. No worries.

I couldn't agree more with your posting, by the way. I only wish more people would come to this realization (or in the case of so many who were already there in 2000, come back to this realization).

Susan of Texas said...

I found it--it was caught in the spam filter.