Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Democrats

So everyone is up in arms about my post about the Democratic party.

William Buckley is supposed to have said that he would rather be governed by the first 500 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.  I'm not a big Buckley fan, but if he really did say this, then it's one of the smartest things he's said.

Imagine that you are advising a black person, or a Social Security recipient, about a similar choice:  whether he will fare better under a government run by the Democratic party or by affluent white liberals.  I don't think it's even remotely a close call.  The Democrats are heavily - heavily - committed to racial equality and a strong social safety net.  Social Security is arguably the crown jewel of the New Deal, and in any case it has to be seen as one of the most enduringly popular social programs of all time.  The Democrats would sooner gouge out their own eyes than privatize it.

Now admittedly, as I said in my original post, a lot of this is structural.  It's awfully hard to adopt a platform of white racial superiority if your existence depends on keeping a lot of black voters happy.  Likewise for Social Security.  Affluent white liberals, free from such influences, can go wherever science or economics takes them.  Everything, from whether the races are equal to whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, is up for debate.

And I mean, I've got nothing against affluent white liberals.  I am one, if you don't scrutinize my finances too closely.  [Or if you substitute an "e" for an "a." - ed.]  So maybe my point is too obvious - of course the Democratic party is more trustworthy when it comes to the basic elements of a good society.  That's baked into the cake because the Democrats are a political party and affluent white liberals are a bunch of feckless dilettantes.  The outcome was preordained - not a fair fight.

But I think it's worth bearing these things in mind.  All too often democratic politics (note the lower case "d") is pilloried as some kind of cesspool of interest-group influence and ignorance.  If only the affluent white liberals were in charge!  I think this is terribly wrongheaded.  Sure, politics is subject to all kinds of pathologies, and elites really do sometimes know what's best.  But it's worth reminding ourselves who has earned our trust and who hasn't.


Blogger Sarang said...

There's a very limited sense in which I agree. I think affluent people are likelier to find Dave's reasons for voting third-party persuasive because they are less likely to be directly harmed by conservative rule. For the same reason, they are also likelier to favor utopian experiments of various sorts: they have less skin in the game. Because the Republican party is terrifying and because one should be at least somewhat small-c conservative about overhauling functioning programs to look for technocratic solutions, it is probably true that it is dangerous to leave AWLs alone to run things.

This has nothing to do with "trust."

Moreover, it does not get you anywhere near Buckley's position. The Democratic party is well to the left of the median voter, and the phone book people would likely be reactionary in the same ways as the median voter.

6:32 AM  
Blogger James said...

Just to be clear, Buckley was shitting on the Harvard faculty, not the Democratic party. It just so happens that I agree with him about the relative merits of democracy and technocracy, though I don't have a hard-on for the Harvard faculty. At least, not in the same sense.

Being a Democrat, I would probably rather be governed by the first 500 Democrats in the Boston phone book than the first 500 people. But that's a different question.

Basically what I think is that the Democratic party is one of the best and most successful institutions for human flourishing in the history of the world and I think it doesn't get nearly enough credit.

The discussion about third-party voting is obviously connected, since I think a lot of people frivolously vote for non-Democrats in important elections. But I see that as a different question. All politics is local, and every election is its own thing. There are also game-theoretical considerations in play - you have to decide whether it's more important to put a Democrat in office right now or more important to push the party toward your vision of justice. Personally I strongly favor Democrats in office right now, but I'm not denying it's a legitimate question. What drives me crazy is the impulse to take power away from elected officials entirely and put it in the hands of "people like us." That is a much more dangerous tendency in my view.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

Dunno. I'm not a history buff but it seems that almost all of the Democrats big accomplishments took place in the '60s, little before and little since. You also get Social Security, and maybe you want to toss in the Securities Acts, Roe v. Wade(?), amendments to the civil rights act; Obamacare seems pretty up in the air to me; recent financial regulation seems pretty equivocal (and of course they take the rap for financial deregulation as well).

Against this you have to weigh the Korean War, a conflict which killed millions and whose aftereffects are still ruining peoples lives today; the Vietnam War, which ditto, kids are still getting their limbs blown off by weapons we dropped in Southeast Asia; their participation in the war on drugs and the "tough on crime" trend which has taken back many of the civil rights gains of the '60s; the Obama civil liberties crackdown; the pivot towards death squad foreign policy under Clinton and Obama; etc.

You're going to want to object that the Democrats are not really responsible for all these things, but I have generally limited myself to acts that were done by Democratic leaders. A subtler objection is that, sure, Democrats have ruined countless lives in their attempts to appear tough on crime, but that's just because of the background political environment; they were worried the Republicans would eat their lunch. That might be true but I think it amounts to giving up the game. If the Democrats aren't responsible for bad moves, because they were just too politically expedient to pass up, how many good ones are they really responsible for?

I think a modest thing you can say is that the Democrats put out some good social legislation mostly in the '60s, and that shifted the political equilibrium so that they were more-or-less permanently committed to them. Thank god the Republicans are so racist, or the equilibrium might shift again!

It also seems to be true that some form of democracy is better than despotic rule by the wealthy class, but if that's all you had to say you should have said it straight to Alan.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

Well, I am being a little unfair, because it's probably Democrats who tend to favor social service expansions, etc., even when they are not major legislation.

But in general if you look at US policy, foreign and domestic, over the last 60 years or whatever, there is a lot of bad shit to contend with, much of it steadily getting worse over the decades. So e.g. the Civil Rights Act was good for black people, obviously, and I don't think black people are wrong when they mostly vote Democrat (look at the other guys!). But black men have seen their incarceration rate increase by like 300% since 1960. This seems like a pretty big strike against the political system, Dems included.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

But anyway if you can kill millions of people in unnecessary wars and still be one of the best institutions for human flourishing the world has seen, then there are lots of strong competitors. Can the Democratic party really measure up to Modern Israel? The Catholic Church? Victorian England? Modern China? The Roman Empire? The early Caliphate? The Mongol horde?

1:06 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

You're misunderstanding me re: Buckley. There is (even in Boston) a distinction between the first 500 names in the phone book than the first 500 solid Democrats in the phone book. I suspect that (on many issues, though not e.g. managing the Fed) the first 500 Boston Democrats would be preferable to the Harvard faculty, which (having very few conservatives) would in turn be preferable to the first 500 names in the phone book -- which presumably include "Independents" and Republicans, whom one would rather not be ruled by regardless of their representativeness/ordinariness. (In this sense I must confess I am a small-l liberal much more strongly than a small-d democrat: democracy is on average a better way to further liberal ends than enlightened despotism. But that's another discussion.)

Yes, my previous comment was implicitly making the game-theoretical observation that one bad thing about affluent liberals is that they are likelier to want to play the long game because they have less to lose from bad/hostile govt. in the short term. I tend to believe that the ways the short term bleeds into the long term are too significant to be cavalier about (the way unemployment becomes unemployability for example).

About the credit thing, I don't find the Q. especially interesting but Dave's points have some force. I buy, at least in part, the idea that economic fundamentals largely determine election outcomes, and that the Democratic pretense to favor various policies they disliked on the merits for electoral reasons has been a substantive disaster with no political payoff.

2:23 PM  

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