The Politics of Failure
April 3, 2012
As some of you reading this blog know, it is interesting for me to ask, Why do politicians propose things that cannot possibly succeed? The latest example of this phenomenon is Paul Ryan and his budget, which he proposed despite the fact that he knew it was DOA, “Dead On Arrival.” So, the simple question is: Why did he propose it?
Before proceeding, it is important to recognize that politicians often support what they know to be losing causes. FDR’s “court packing plan” comes to mind, as does JFK’s support for the Bay of Pigs invasion early in his presidency. Often, it is argued that these proposals and policies were just mistakes made by otherwise shrewd and capable politicians. But suppose they weren’t mistakes; suppose they were proposed and undertaken despite the fact that the politicians in question knew they would fail. Then the question becomes: Why didn’t the losers care about “losing?” How did “losing” benefit these politicians? And the general answer is: Because “losing” helped to preserve their power.
So, back to Paul Ryan and his budget. Why did he propose what he had to know would be a losing budget? Let me count the ways.
First, by proposing the budget he proposed, Ryan can impress the more extreme elements of his party. “Hey, look at me: Look at what I am willing to propose. I am as principled as you.” And Ryan can do this with no fear of succeeding and actually having to live with his principled budget. Ryan lives in the best of both worlds, satisfying the more extreme members of his party while knowing that he will not have to live with the results of such extremism.
Second, the failure is not his fault. It is “the system” that is to blame because “the system” does not allow for extremists to succeed. So by failing, i.e., by assuring his own failure, Ryan actually “educates” and even restrains the extremists he seems to want to please. “Hey, guys, look: We tried the extreme and it would not work, could not work. And now we have to be more moderate, adopt a “pragmatic” [read “business pretty much as usual”] approach.”
Third, Ryan reinforces the story line that our political system is torn by two diametrically opposed groups – “liberals” and “conservatives” – and so almost nothing significant will or can get done. No large changes are possible given the dysfunctional character of our political system as in the phrase so popular these days, “Washington is broken. Our system does not work.” So, once again, we are stuck with the status quo and those who have given us the status quo, politicians like Paul Ryan. As we are stuck with the status quo, then Paul Ryan – and other party regulars – should keep power or be kept in power.
Fourth, the regulars in the Democratic Party vociferously oppose Ryan and appear to refuse to compromise for the same reason, to preserve their power. They decry Ryan and his allies as “radicals,” as dangerous “insurgents” and themselves as those who are fighting for “real change,” which of course cannot succeed given the fact that “Washington is broken.” The result is little more than a politics that aims at preserving and fortifying the status quo and, therewith, their own power.
So, one result is that while both factions sound like advocates for change, by proposing changes that cannot succeed, our “two” parties are actually supporters of the status quo. And by supporting the status quo as the only “realistic” option, they each preserve their power even while the well being of the nation deteriorates. This is what I mean by saying that our political system is today “corrupt.”
So, Paul Ryan’s budget not only failed, it was intended to fail. Ryan’s agenda is to preserve his power and the power of the regulars of the Republican Party and the failure of his budget helps secure those results. A politics of failure also serves to fortify in the people a feeling of impotence, as well as a conviction that politics is almost always a futile endeavor. Our system is “broken,” our problems are “intractable,” and we the people must listen to those who hold the levers of power as they are “as good as it gets.”
And this latter lesson is perhaps the most important part of Ryan’s agenda because he and his cohorts are playing a dangerous game. That is, it is a game he and his cohorts will lose should the people get angry enough to realize that the status quo is not their only option, that change, real change, is not only desirable but possible. This is one way of understanding what happened in the 60s, when the people rejected LBJ’s politics of failure in Vietnam, rose up and tried to take control. And it might be added that this is why the 60s are so often presented as a dangerous time for the republic, a time of dangerous unrest and rebellion. It was such a time, and especially for the ruling class. In republics and those places that still aspire to be republics, such rebellions take place periodically and as Jefferson knew, “a little revolution” every so often in the political world is as healthy as storms are in the natural world. Ah, for a “political Katrina.”