Sunday, January 27, 2019

Rage Against the Broken Machine

Rage Against the Broken Machine
Peter Schultz

            At times when I ponder why I feel such anger toward our politics, really strange thoughts emerge, so strange that they are probably untrue. They might even be delusions. What follows is one such “delusion.”

            In reading Jane Mayer’s excellent book, Dark Money, every so often there is a passage about President Obama and how he dealt with the Republicans, many of whom were the recipients of Koch or other right wing money and, hence, part of the “radical right” that that money helped to create. In one instance, “President Obama reluctantly consented to many of the Republicans’ demands, including the enlarged exemptions from the estate tax. He campaigned against the Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 a year, but in December 2010 . . . he tried to convince his disappointed followers that this was the best deal they were likely to get. . . .” [291]

            And then again: After Paul Ryan had proposed a budget that would gut the government’s commitment to those in need while offering the wealthy tax cuts worth $2.4 trillion, “President Obama now proposed $4 trillion in spending cuts over twelve years, not all that far from the $4.4 trillion that Ryan had proposed.” [295]

            Now in my delusionary state, it occurred to me that Obama did not mind, in fact, he wanted to lose these battles over taxes and spending cuts to the Republicans. I’ll repeat that: Obama wanted to lose his battles with the Republicans over tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts to the tune of $6.2 trillion.

            There, I said it. And I know this sounds delusional and cuts against all we are taught about Democrats and Republicans fighting battles over policy that each party wants to win. It’s just like what we are taught and take for granted about our two parties and elections or about our government and the wars it chooses to fight. The goal, the only goal, is winning, winning policy battles, winning elections, and winning wars. To suggest anything else is sheer madness, sheer delusion. And so when Mayer tells us that Obama “reluctantly” agreed to Republican demands, we believe her even though she offers no evidence for this characterization. It just seems like common sense to us, as it no doubt did to Mayer herself. Obama wanted to win because all politicians want to win all the time. That is just common sense.

            But what if…? That is, what if Mayer isn’t right? And what if politicians don’t always want to win? What if at times they want to lose, lose policy battles, lose elections, even want to lose wars? Why would they want to lose? This makes no sense to us at all. I must be delusional.

            Consider this though: President Obama lost those policy battles with the Republicans but he still got re-elected in 2012. He and the Democrats lost the 2010 congressional elections big time but Obama still won the presidency again in 2012. Could it be that those losses actually helped Obama and the Democrats win the presidency in 2012? That is, could it be that Obama and the Democrats were well-served by losing those policy battles to the Republicans, that he and they knew they would be well-served, and thus he and they wanted to lose – and this even though he and they knew that the country would not be well-served by those Republican successes?

            And here is the nub of my “mad-ness”: That our politicians don’t act, as we assume they do, for the well being of the country. This is, it seems to me, the greatest myth of all, that our politicians are always well intentioned, always intend first and foremost to do what is best for the country, even though they might make mistakes at times or misconceive what’s best for the nation.

            Put this assumption aside and it is easy to entertain the idea that politicians don’t always want to win policy battles, elections, or even wars. Like most other human beings, politicians want success and its trappings, money, fame, and power. And if being successful requires losing at times, they will lose and lose quite contentedly.

            With regard to Obama and his losses, those losses, by emphasizing the Republican threats, would make Obama more appealing to much of his base insofar as he could – and did – present his decisions as “necessary losses.” “That’s the best deal available” he could and did claim. Plus, Obama himself then appears as the best possible option in the 2012 election. In fact, he could and did present himself as indispensable to the cause of holding off the Republicans – even while he was giving in to them. Obama lost the battles but he deserves praise. In losing, Obama stature was enhanced. And few bother to wonder about what happens to well being of the nation when the Democrats capitulate to the Republicans, insofar as such behavior implies that the Republican agenda is legitimate and so need not be defeated. Accommodation is the key. But to what? Success or the well-being of the nation? To success.

            So, in reality, both parties win, enhance their stature, while the nation loses. And this is an arrangement that neither party wants to or has any interest in changing. The Democrats go on capitulating to the Republicans, can go on losing even while protecting or even enhancing their status, their legitimacy, their authority. And the Republicans advance their agenda, thereby enhancing their legitimacy and their authority. Both parties are successful while the nation suffers, while political dissatisfaction grows, while our government is seen increasingly as incompetent, even as corrupt. This explains both why “Washington is broken,” as is said so frequently, and why very few in Washington actually want to “fix it.” Neither party has any interest in fixing what is broken so no fix is forthcoming.

            This may all be delusional, but it is certainly plausible. And if you doubt its plausibility, just ask yourself why our “broken” system isn’t ever fixed.

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