Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Business As Usual

Now that David Broder has passed away (and obviously, the fact that I despised his "journalism" doesn't mean I'm glad he's died), there's a case to be made for David Brooks taking up the mantle of Lord Priest of High Broderism.  After all, he's certainly high up on the list of American pundits who are quite convinced that bipartisanship is automatically the highest goal, rather than compromise being just a tool (however reasonable) to be used to advance one's priorities and policies.

High Broderism is one of the things in this world I truly despise.  Lots of people I disagree with, lots of things make me angry, but HB tips me into full-on loathing.  I realise that almost everyone, to varying degrees, can be guilty of starting from a position and then working backwards to the justification - and I'm most certainly not excluding myself in that - but there's something uniquely enraging about one's default position being "Everyone must meet in the middle", partially because it requires a very narrow and thoughtless model for reality (it is a rare issue indeed that can be divided into a simple 1D scale), but mainly because in the 99.99% of cases in which the most plausible arguments are coming from a point some distance from the centre, you're required to ignore/marginalise/attack them in order to perform your balancing act [1]. For all I dislike dogmatic conservatives, and for that matter, dogmatic liberals (both of whom are far rarer beasts that the Acolytes of Broder think they are), at least they don't tart up their refusal to think outside their own mind-set as being the antidote to people refusing to think outside their own mind-set.

Indeed, even that doesn't entirely capture how worthless High Broderism is, because it misses one critical point: the most well-known HB proponents (Broder himself, Brooks, and to some extent George Will and latter-day David Frum) don't actually start out at the centre, they start out at their preferred point on the line (which in all four cases is between centre right and right, to differing degrees, but in theory you could have a left-leaning purveyor of High Broderism - and no, Richard Cohen doesn't count) and then use the most inane arguments imaginable to try and convince observers that they really are in the centre, honest.  It's following this obviously ludicrous doctrine that leads to people saying things like "FOX is biased, but so is MSNBC", or "Obama is no different from Bush".

Note that this is not, I repeat not, an argument against people who consider themselves in the centre, mainly because as far as I can see people in the centre are there not because they believe the centre is by definition correct, but because over the thousands of discrete issues people have to consider and deal with, they find themselves tugged to the left roughly as often as they do to the right.  That's fine.  I don't agree with them, obviously, but that's fine.  That's holistic [2].  Nor is there anything wrong with taking each individual issue, listening to the multitudes of takes on both sides, and then figuring out where you lie (indeed, that's what you're supposed to do).  It only gets stupid when people confuse "On balance, I am in the middle" with "The middle must always be correct".

That's what's wrong with HB in theory.  In practice, things get murkier still, because their professed love (idolisation, really) of bipartisanship miraculously disappears the moment the people they support get into power.  In that, they are much like the Republican Party itself, who have only two settings: "We must move beyond partisan politics" and "Elections have consequences", depending on their current political fortunes (naturally, in situations like this, where they control the House but the Democrats control the Senate and White House, they have no problem arguing both simultaneously).  That's just standard political hypocrisy, of course (as oppose to the specific brand of political hypocrisy that defines 21st Century Republicanism).  What's surprising is how completely Broder and his acolytes swallowed the idea.

This is all back story (plus venting, obviously) to give some context to the latest developments in the continued attempts to avoid a government shutdown.

Government shutdowns are bad.  Obviously, they're bad on their own terms, because a country needs to be run, and I'd hope not even the most ardent Galtian libertarian maniac would think it a good idea to just stop everything all at once (though I'm probably being overly optimistic), and they're additionally bad because a whole mess of people end up without wages, at a time in American history where unemployment is grazing double digits and the economy could really do without people stopping spending (which of course they're already doing, in case they need the money during a protracted shutdown).

You don't need to take my word for it.  Both sides know a shut down would be bad, and the reason I know they know is that they're both screaming to the roof-tops that the other side secretly want it.  You don't accuse your enemies of secretly desiring something if you think it'll play well.

So, has a deal been reached?  Well, yes, for a bit.  But then the Republicans apparently backed away from it because - I'm not making this up - it would require bipartisanship to work.

Working on what I believe is a reasonable assumption - that Harry Reid isn't going to lie on the record and that a refusal to comment from GOP aides makes the story likely to be true - the Republicans have gone from demanding bipartisanship whilst out of power, to ignoring the idea when in power, to actively spitting on it when they could use it.

I'm just flagging up how far we've come in all of six months or so.  I'm also recording for prosperity the following prediction: David Brooks will not mention this development.   He will continue to tongue-bathe Paul Ryan for being "courageous" [3], but there will be no space in future columns (I'll let him off his most recent one, since at the time the Republican move hadn't been confirmed) for him to decry that his previously sacred tenant - that bipartisanship is what's best - has been abandoned by the very people he insisted be offered it only two years earlier. If it does get mentioned, it will be in a single sentence that starts with "True, Republicans XYZ, but Democrats ABC" and goes on to explain why the shutdown is everyone's fault.

Anyone want to take the other side of that bet?

[1] You can learn to recognise the tactics once you see them in action enough times.  One particularly common method is to find one statement by any given person you find particularly stupid (Keynes suggesting the government should bury treasure and pay people to find it, say) and then use it as a reason to ignore anything else they ever say or do.  That person is now "unserious", which we'll come to later.  Another option is to link them to someone you already dislike, making them unserious by association (see Wright, Reverand).  A third is to find an issue on which your target's opinion intersects with that of an idiot, and pretend that their reasons for holding that opinion are the same as well. 

[2] As Chris Rock once said "There are some things I'm liberal about, and some things I'm conservative about.  Crime, I'm conservative.  Prostitution, I'm liberal".  

[3] Note that this has a very different meaning to the one understood by Sir Humphrey Appleby. In American politics everyone is either "courageous", "principled", or "unserious".  "Unserious" means being on the left. "Principled" means being on the right, and pretending not to notice a coherent application of right-wing policy approaches would destroy the country.  "Courageous" means actually trying to apply those policies, but only those ones that will screw the poor and the elderly.

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