Saturday, May 28, 2011

More on American Politics

There is an article in today's New York Times [May 28, 2011] on Massachusetts and Scott Brown and upcoming senate election in 2012. According to this article, the election of Brown seems to be a pretty sure thing as, according to the article, the Democrats struggle to find someone who can beat Brown. It would seem from the article that there is a lack of potential leaders because, among other things, no one thought Ted Kennedy would die someday and, hence, no one groomed a successor. Of course, all of this assumes, which the article does implicitly, that the primary concern of Massachusetts Democrats is to win this Senate seat. That is, the article never explores the possibility that the Dems have other concerns and that, these other things considered, they would not mind Scott Brown winning re-election. That is, the re-election of Scott Brown is not the worse thing that could happen to the Democratic Party in Massachusetts or in Washington, D.C. That the Dems' primary concern is winning back the Senate is premised, at least in part, on the idea that they are the "liberal" alternative and that it is their commitment to "liberalism" that explains their actions and their desire to win back this seat. Hence, it is also necessary for the article to portray Ted Kennedy as, above all else, a "liberal," that is, as someone who sought power in order to advance "liberal" causes.

There are two assumptions made in the article that are not defended, because they are taken for granted. First, it is assumed that the most important thing for political parties is to win elections. That is, it is never in the interest of political parties to lose elections. Of course, it is amazingly easy to call this assumption into question. One example, obscure for almost everyone I am sure, occurred in 1912 when the Republicans and incumbent president William Howard Taft said, literally said, that they would prefer to lose the election rather than compromise with Teddy Roosevelt and his insurgent Republicans. And, of course, this is just what they did, they lost that election and were fine with that result. I can imagine a similar scenario being played out in 1968 by the Democrats if Bobby Kennedy had not been assassinated. That is, I can imagine the Democratic regulars going with Hubert Humphrey even though it would have meant losing the election. And, in fact, a similar scenario probably did play out in 1972 when the Democrats went with George McGovern even though they knew he would lose and lose big, which he did. What better way to discredit the insurgents than to show them that they were impotent when it came to winning the presidency? I have even heard it argued that this is what happened in 1996 when Bob Dole ran against an incumbent Bill Clinton and the conservatives in the Republican Party basically sat the election out, even though it meant that Dole would lose, which of course he did.

Secondly, it is assumed that what motivates, what drives our politicians is primarily a commitment to certain political causes rather than a commitment to maintaining themselves and their cohorts in power. So, when it is said in the article that Ted Kennedy was the one who brought unity to the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, this is understood to mean that that party and its members followed Ted because of his commitment to "liberal" causes. Hence, someone like Brown should be an anathema to the Democratic Party and it would never, ever let an opportunity pass to defeat someone like Scott Brown. But all of this analysis turns on the above stated assumption. If that assumption is faulty, then the analysis which follows is also faulty. Perhaps Ted Kennedy brought unity to the Democratic Party not by his unwavering commitment to "liberal" principles but rather by squelching any insurgency within the party that might arise. And in order to do this, it was fine with Ted if the Dems lost the governorship to Republicans like Bill Weld or Mitt Romney. And it could be that the Dems are quite prepared to sit this election out, to so speak, if that is what it takes to maintain the power of the party's regulars. And, conveniently, if they can persuade Elizabeth Warren to run for the seat, even though or precisely because an academic is the almost perfect foil for Brown and his down home, truck driving image, they can kill two birds with one stone as Warren is an insurgent who is upsetting things in Washington, D.C. Without Warren there, it would be easier for Obama and the Democratic regulars to work with the Republicans to insure that that new consumer protection agency does not do too much protecting and to preserve their own power.

But these two assumptions, that political parties want above all else to win elections and that politicians are driven by a devotion to certain causes, are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of those who are confronted with questions about them will simply write off the questioner as insane. But, what the heck, there are worse things to be called......

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