Jon Chait and Will Wilkinson got together on some sweet, Democrat-defending neoliberalism, going after poor old Tom Frank with the whole “you don’t know the complicated maths!” routine. Chait, of course, is the Andrew Cuomo of the hippie punching press, holding the Mickey Kaus Endowed Chair of Fake Liberalism and spending most of his time raging that anyone to the left of Zell Miller has a national forum at all. He writes for New York magazine, but he would fit in better if it was called Albany. Chait is the ultimate endorser of Teh Politics, the leader of the club of a political philosophy that takes as its central precept that nothing ever, ever changes in politics, ever, unless those remorseless and all-powerful Republicans decide to colonize another planet like the Borg. Thus any political project that isn’t manifested by a bill currently sitting on the President’s desk ready for signature is never worth starting. Which is useful to comfortable centrist white dudes with lifelong tenure among the Very Serious set.
The notion that all political projects that weren’t started by the Congressional White Caucus are doomed is belied by the entire history of a) American politics, b) America, and c) politics, but that’s of little concern to Chait. Chait so long ago slipped into pure self-parody that he now seems to think that unearned condescension is not only all that’s required to win a political argument but that it’s the universal grammar of all human language. I really don’t think the man is capable of considering someone else’s political position without Googling “how do I make my writing more smirky?” He writes the way Brainy Smurf talks.
Now, where someone like Wilkinson, whose politics have never been part of a meaningful mass movement (unlike, say, Thomas Frank), gets off looking down his nose at the supposed political impossibility of Frank’s preferences, I don’t know. In any event, Wilkinson has a moment of clarity when he writes, “the party that succeeds in pulling the median in its direction gets more of what it wants and is forced to concede less of what it doesn’t. This, I think, is the kernel of truth nestled inside Mr Frank’s fulmination.” This is not a kernel of truth; it is the only meaningful truth. Politics is a fulcrum. The center is defined by extremes. Conservatives have won overwhelmingly in the last half century or more– certainly including in the Obama era– not because of overwhelming demographic advantage (which they don’t have) but because they have ruthlessly and with great discipline moved the center, since the Goldwater days. That’s how you get a Chicago liberal constitutional law scholar community organizer President who gloats about cutting food stamps as a way to prove his seriousness and drones Muslim kids like it’s going out of style. (Jon Chait just suddenly got aroused without knowing why.) Move to the right to win the House? They’ll just move with you, the way they have for the last twenty-odd years. They are so much better at moving to the right than you’ll ever be, Democrats. Clinton’s triangulation looked good for about, oh, 18 months before Gingrich showed him what tacking right actually means.
Things in politics change, but they change through demand. I give you the opening section of Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm:
… the American right had been rendered a political footnote–perhaps for good.
The wise men weighed in. Reston of the Times: “He has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage.” Rovere of the New Yorker: “The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” “By every test we have,” declared James McGregor Burns, one of the nation’s most esteemed scholars of the presidency, “this is as surely a liberal epoch as the 19th century was a political one.
The rest, of course, is history. Conservatives won. And they won not despite losses like the Goldwater campaign, but precisely because of them: because they are and have been entirely willing to lose individual elections if it means dragging the fight to the right, and in doing so setting the middle in such a way that even when Democrats win, they lose. Every time some Tea Party candidate defeats an establishment Republican and loses an election, the national media laughs. But the center will have been established, and future Republicans will know that they must move to the right to ward off such primary challenges, and eventually they’ll win, in large measure because terrified Democrats will refuse to make any meaningful attempts to define their party or what it is for. And so when Democrats ride an unprecedented electoral wave, inspired by the most incompetent and corrupt administration in a hundred years, and invest incredible political capital to barely scratch out a legislative win for their health care plan, that health care plan is the one written by Heritage. That’s how conservatives win.
Conservatives do not allow their politicians to say “we can’t push for that, because of Teh Politics.” They make demands, and they enforce those demands through the primary process, and that in turns changes the politics. Democrats preemptively declare defeat on all things, and the Jon Chaits carry their water.
Now for Chait this is all fine– he doesn’t want things to change. Congressional Republicans for Chait serve the exact same function that New York Republican legislators serve for Cuomo: they are a permanent excuse for stasis. Hey, man. Those Republicans. What are you going to do? And so just as is true for Cuomo, there is no responsibility for Chait to ever fight for anything at all. He has the permanent, powerful, built-in excuse for why we’re not going to make any progress, and so he can concentrate on doing what he really loves, which is telling snide jokes about radical leftists, which in his mind includes, like, Tom Daschle. I imagine that Chait would feel total panic if, for a moment, he spied a genuine left-wing political opportunity. But then, he’s paid not to.
But I’m not sure what’s in it for Wilkinson. He’s recently gotten kind of wishy washy about the whole politics deal, seeming to go back and forth between “maybe I’ll write arch neoliberal brow furrowers about liberals that are ideologically convenient for The Economist” and “maybe I’ll draw another doodle of Henry Rollins.” I like Wilkinson and some of his work, but this is boring stuff, and of no particular use for his own project. How does he get to his groovy, open-borders minarchism by aligning with Jon Chait in seeing nothing but political impossibility around him? I don’t have a clue.
I love this, by the way: “Ezra Klein is an incisive analyst with an extraordinarily detailed grasp of policy and a crisp, bland prose style.” Do you think Wilkinson’s opinion of Klein is connected to the technocratic neoliberal nerdbro style they share? I’m thinking yes! Klein’s greatest strength, beyond modelling eyeglasses, is his recognition that being without principles will always be seen, in Washington, as the highest principle of them all. He is fond of saying that he has no ideology, only empiricism, which is like saying you never get wet because you live underwater. But to the degree that he is associated with a certain Saturday-morning-cartoon moderate liberalism based on NBER data and good vibes, it’s fair to ask: how’s all of that going for him, Will? How’s it going for all of us?
Update: One country, two major political parties, two broad ideological orientations. One side has responded to unprecedented electoral defeat by embracing its passionate base, pulling the center towards that base, treating ideological extremity as healthy and beneficial, and politically punishing members of the party that fail to support the ideological project. The other side has responded to unprecedented electoral defeat by insulting its passionate base, chasing the center as it moves towards the other party, treating ideological extremity as inherently shameful and destructive, and politically punishing members of the party that dare to support the ideological project. The former has had tremendous political success, despite the fact that it was obvious to all serious people, at one point, that the country was against them. The latter tries the same thing again and again and again and is always surprised when it fails to achieve its policy aims.
American politics is Republicans saying “I’m the true conservative” and Democrats saying “Don’t worry, I’m not a liberal.” If you think that the former’s success is written in the stars rather than thanks to that basic political strategy, you’re writing yourself out of politics and calling it maturity.