Counterfactual as Counter Argument (With Update)

3 08 2011

A couple of projects–a Moot Court appellate advocacy competition and beginning production on a sketch comedy show–have kept me away from my beloved Same Subject. This post, unfortunately, deals with something I read on Matt Yglesias’ blog. I put off writing it because I don’t want to turn my Same Subject into “one sided arguments with Matt Yglesias.” But he makes a point that so perfectly distills Beltway myopia that I had to point it out:

Quoted at length:

I was reading Corey Robin’s rountable discussion of lefties wondering what the deal is with Barack Obama and kind of choked over the idea, expressed by one participant, that “I really see no daylight between his and both [Irving] Kristols’ politics.”

This kind of thing always makes me want to pursue the follow-up question: “compared to what?” I remember well the contention that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between George W Bush and Al Gore. And, indeed, there wasn’t. Both wholeheartedly embraced American military hegemony as a foreign policy and the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” approach to international economic policy. Both emphasized improved education as the key to long-term prosperity, both valorized capitalism as an engine of growth, and neither in any meaningful way challenged the various prevailing economic and social dogmas of the era. And yet looking back in concrete terms, it seems to me that the 2000 election turns out to have been one of the most consequential in American history. That’s because while both Bush and Bill Clinton pursued policies from within the paradigm of the elite American ideological consensus of the post-Cold War era they actually pursued very different policies….In a sense, all American Presidents have been cut from the same bland consensual cloth. But in another sense, American public policy obviously changes from time to time often in important ways.

I’m going to admit off the bat I don’t know what “consensual cloth” is. But other than that, I think there’s something to Yglesias’ thinking that the left and center-left needs to accept: we can’t prove any of that stuff about Gore being better than Bush. And as evidence, I’ll point to the presidency of Barack Obama.

Has Obama been better than McCain would have been? Actually, we have no way of knowing. In the wake of economic disaster, a President who started with massive majorities has ratcheted state institutions rightward in every area. Would Democrats have held onto their huge 2008 majorities in 2010? Maybe. Would McCain therefore have had to move towards the center to get anything done? Maybe. No way to know. Here’s something we definitely know: nobody who voted for Obama expected his administration to behave the way it has. Putting austerity first, no meaningful disciplining of Wall Street, executive power grabs, illegal wars, hostility to organized labor, increased deportations of undocumented residents–none, literally none of these things, were expected when he was elected. So with the admittedly significant exception of judicial and administrative appointments, there’s no way to know what Gore–champion of NAFTA, DLC darling–would have done when he got into office.

When Gore Saved NAFTA

More importantly, it cannot responsibly be used as a counter argument to the idea that the ruling cliques of the two parties are significantly different. Yes, people said Bush and Gore were essentially the same (in part because they tripped over each other to agree during the debates), the whole “Gush & Bore” meme. But, “See how bad Bush turned out to be?” is not proof either way. For all we know Gore, like Obama, would have sprinted right to prove his bipartisan bona fides, emboldened Republicans and otherwise moved the country rightward. Would he have been as reckless, as devoted to gutting regulatory regimes? Probably not. But would have Gore shown restraint in the wake of 9/11–had it happened–and risked the “weak on defense” thing Democrats so fear? Seems unlikely. Would he have resisted the military-industrial push to invade Iraq? Who knows? Clinton for his part passed NAFTA, slashed regulations including Glass-Steagall, abolished welfare, and in fact oversaw the financialization of our economy that has brought so much misery to so many millions while making a small minority wealthy beyond imagination.

Yglesias admits something actually kind of startling here–that Bush and Gore were both “Washington Consensus” politicians, in other words, neoliberals–in the broadly understood sense. Well of course, Washington Consensus neoliberalism is an outgrowth of anti-New Deal reaction. The New Deal represented a serious turn away from the ruling consensus in Washington that had prevailed for generations. Roosevelt saw the writing on the wall, that stubborn adherence to the economic consensus of the past would not only have dire consequences for millions of Americans but could lead to a violent and sudden overturning of social institutions. Fundamental reform of state and social institutions is possible for Presidents to pursue. The idea that all Presidents can do is effect marginally different degrees of regulatory, tax, and monetary policy–coincidentally, apparently, always still within neoliberal or conservative parameters–is simply wrong. Enough already. President Obama is a center-right President, George W. Bush was a right-right President, and Bill Clinton was a center-right President.

Yet, left wing critics of the Democratic Party and the President are portrayed as “purists” or wild-eyed radicals for suggesting that maybe pouring literally billions of dollars of cash and labor power into electing Democrats every two years is self-defeating in trying to build a center-left/left wing movement to push the state in that direction. Want to primary Obama? You’re just trying to be “cool” (or as one nitwit termed it, “emo”). Or, perhaps, you don’t “believe in economics,” as though the monetarist lens of left neoliberals is the only economics. America needs at least center-left leadership, with a vibrant left wing to hold them to account. Fabricating a history wherein President Gore would have been a 180 degrees of difference from Bush is a weak counter argument meant purely to justify continued fealty to establishment Democrats and a neoliberal consensus with a dismal record.

UPDATE: Not long after posting this, via Jamelle Bouie I came across this post by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, arguing that Presidential power is extremely limited by the process of governance in D.C. He refers to Bush’s domestic policy as “moderate”:

Contrary to his reputation, Bush mostly succeeded by pressing a moderate, and sometimes even liberal, agenda.

While I find this hardly believable, it rests on definitions of “moderate” and “liberal” that are up to debate, and so certainly reasonable. When I asked where such claims were made during Bush’s presidency, Drum helpfully pointed me to this piece. Fair enough.

But obviously this means there is a serious gulf between what Yglesias says here and what Drum (and others apparently) believe: that Bush was in fact a moderate or even liberal. If Bush’s presidency was moderate or even liberal in domestic issues, was the 2000 election really one of “the most consequential in American history,” as Yglesias says? And based on what, the idea that a Democratic President would have been resisted right wing pressure in the wake of September 11th–an atmosphere were Democratic leadership voted overwhelmingly for the PATRIOT Act and the Iraqi War Resolution? If there really would have been little or no difference between Bush and Gore (or later McCain and Obama), and the entire argument that there would have rests on counterfactual arguments about what “probably” would have happened, the case that electing Democrats is key to advancing progressive politics dwindles.


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12 12 2011
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That was a truly amazing article!!

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