Tuesday, November 11, 2014

After the Floor--Putting Humans in Charge

After the Flood—Putting Humans in Charge

As expected, the Democrats were demolished last week.  Their losses, invariably characterized as a wave with an enhancing adjective (epic, tidal, monumental) really are hard to grasp without acknowledging reality—those voters who did turn out engaged in a remarkable exercise of repudiation.

They deserved every last bit of the licking they took.  Not because of any of the usual reasons, not even because of the public perception of Mr. Obama’s performance.  They lost, to paraphrase a friend, because they have no unifying ideas—they are just a collection of special interests, and when it came to casting a ballot, those interests weren’t very interested.

My friend is a “soft” conservative who is enthusiastic about all the wonderful new people the GOP has just elected.  As you might guess, I’m considerably more sanguine about the immediate future—as a precaution, I checked my passport and made sure the apartment had extra water and dried foods.

But still, he’s right.  The Republicans offer some coherence even beyond Obama-bashing.  They are pro-business, anti-tax, pro-religion, pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-drilling, anti-environment, etc. etc.  The ground they stand on is very logically laid out.  There are some intra-party disputes, but those disputes are largely of degree and not of direction. The Democrats don’t bring the same consistency to the table.  Their philosophy is a bit akin to your aging uncle who is still living in the 1960’s—what's left of his hair is in a pony-tail, he’s still playing vinyl, still has one of the original Honda Civics, and still has a basement finished in knotty pine.  He’s actually a very good guy, but on his horizon is a fuzzy, warm egalitarian place where everyone has enough, and no one is burdened with excessive responsibility. 

The Democrats think that their utopia is superior to that of the Republicans—a stark, cold one where contraception and abortion are denied, the babies are then put out on the ice with nothing more than a Bible and a rifle, and the only ones who survive are those who can swim in the globally warmed seas. 

Morally, I can make an argument for kinder and gentler, but practically and politically--not within the construct that the Democrats are defending.  By focusing on a system-wide safety net, a web not only of support but also of constraint, they are estranging themselves from individual aspirations and individual accomplishments. Ask nothing of people, and you run the risk of having them give you what you asked for.

This point was driven home to me last Thursday, when I was fortunate enough to attend a conference sponsored by Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society, and Common Good, “The Future of the Individual: Social Protections Constricting Innovation and Accomplishment.”  The panels included Philip K. Howard, who is the Founder and Chair of Common Good, a non-partisan organization devoted to legal reform and the reduction of bureaucracy, three Nobel Prize winners, Edmund Phelps, Robert Schiller, and Daniel Kahneman, along with people like the philosopher Esa Saarinen, Mark Taylor, Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia, and William Brody, former President of Johns Hopkins and now head of the Salk Institute

With some differences in nuance, the panelists all agreed that Western nations were all organized in a way to reduce individual initiative and choice.  This governing philosophy applies not only to governments but also to many large corporations, resulting in a stifling of innovation in both the public and private sector.  To grossly oversimplify, you aren’t asked to get something done, rather you are told how to get it done, and observance of form is more important than actually accomplishing the task. 

The net is either poorer performance, or even non-performance, and a sense of estrangement from the entire process. Their solution is greater empowerment of the individual, the reduction of regulatory overhead and superstructure, and the creation of what Howard called a “corral” with an “open area for human responsibility.”

It is a very powerful argument, but doesn’t take note of a serious hurdle.  Change such as the panelists want requires both a real desire for individual freedom, and a political climate that is willing to experiment.  I am not sure we have either, rather, I think we have one in which the winners are the purse-holders for those freedoms.  

The first problem is that most people don’t really believe in individual freedom as a unifying concept, except in the abstract. They really don’t buy the “corral” idea.  Rather they prefer to see freedom on a spectrum—freedoms they passionately want for themselves, freedoms that don’t touch their lives and they are roughly neutral on, and “anti-freedoms”--freedoms they passionately want to keep others from exercising.

The second is that our political system has developed a peculiar form of inflexibility, in that neither party seems able to accommodate much internal variation from orthodoxy, but both need to find ways to attract less monolithic “swing” voters in the general electorate.  Rather than move on ideas, they focus on packaging and tactics.

This leaves the voter to be treated as a shopper.  You can hone a specific message compatible with a specific market for a particular freedom or anti-freedom. If it is something resonant with that market (a classic example is the 2ND Amendment) the rest of your “product” doesn’t come under such close scrutiny.  These voters you interest aren’t necessarily single-issue as much as issue-prioritized—but they are highly motivated, and they go to the polls.

When you think about this, it makes perfect sense, because most people are both informed by their own life-experience, and self-interested.  You saw this last week, when the 65 and older crew voted at twice the rate of Millennials.  What did the Seniors want prioritized? Social Security and war (they were for both.)  The Millennials wanted more education and more economic opportunity. Part of the (tactical) story of last Tuesday was that Mr. Obama and the Democrats were unable to persuade younger voters to turn out, in large part because of the (practical) reason that the President and his party haven’t really been able to show they can deliver on what Millennials need the most.   

That Senior vs. Millennial voting behaviors demonstrate the central paradox that the Democrats face.  The things that Seniors voted Republican for—socialized medicine (Medicare), risk-free pensions (Social Security) and an aggressive and muscular military and foreign policy, all require the large scale “Big Government” action that the modern state does tolerably well. The things that Millennials want—better education and work opportunities and a vibrant economy, are things that centralized government fails at.  That should tell the Democrats that their core organizing electoral principle no longer works.  It’s time to change, the sooner, the better.

The Democrats have been offered a huge opportunity—in defeat, they should re-think why they were rejected, and forget every tactical excuse.  They should seize the mantle of personal responsibility and personal empowerment, not just in the bedroom, but also in the economic sphere.  They don’t need to be Republicans—in fact, the GOP is just as much in love with state action as the Democrats are, and have no problem outsourcing government to corporate interests and social issues to organized religion.  The electorate isn’t all that much in love with that either.  Rather, Democrats should challenge themselves, as the conferees suggested, to strip the superstructure of bureaucracy and entrenched interest, including their own.

Once they do that, once they decide what they really want to accomplish, what beans they really want, rather than just how to count them, then they can truly “put humans in charge.”

They might surprise themselves.  Those humans just might appreciate the trust.

November 11, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)