The politics of reform and the politics of blame

Democrats often think they face a choice between making politics an argument about whom to blame and making it about forward-looking policies. In fact, the second requires the first—especially now.

Mike Lux’s outstanding post at OpenLeft points out that Democratic policy narratives’ unpopularity  leaves candidates in November two choices. They can fold into a defensive crouch whereby they distance themselves from mainstream Obama-Congressional Democrat policies.  Or they can change the narrative by attacking corrupt and unaccountable corporations just as forcefully as Republicans attack big government. He rightly thinks the latter is a much better strategy: people are suffering and looking for someone to blame, and in a “blame election” the Democrats had better point the finger away from themselves.

Lux speculates that Washington elites mock such strategies because they grossly underestimate mid-Americans’ populism, their feeling of being ruled by huge actors whose actions they can’t affect.  That’s true.  (Many of my friends, who almost all have advanced degrees, thought that Al Gore’s attack on “powerful forces” in 2000 was a rhetorical error.  In fact, it was the core of his appeal, and won him the election.)  But there’s something else going on.

Many of us who try to care about good policy think that politics should be “deliberative”: not in the complicated, contemporary political philosophy sense where we sit around making seminar-room arguments—though Obama in weak moments seems to long for that too—but in the sense of being forward-looking, focused on solving problems and achieving results.  The politics of blame, from this perspective, is an annoyance or a distraction. A grownup whose spouse knocks over a pitcher of iced tea picks up the pitcher and keeps more tea from spilling before—or even better, instead of—yelling at the spouse.  BP spilled the oil; loose regulation allowed them to do it; campaign contributions, Dick Cheney, and the malaportioned Senate were all factors in producing loose regulation (and Salazar didn’t help much).  All of these facts are relevant to future policy.  None, the devoted policy-maker pleads, is anything but a huge distraction, and maybe a source of bad decisions, when it comes to figuring out how to clean up the spill and compensate the victims.

But we live in a representative system.  Legislators should not be concerned only with their relationship with one another.  And elections are not exercises in deliberation.  They’re a mechanism whereby people who would normally have no power occasionally get to exert some.  Voters hope to choose representatives who will fight on their side, and to make those politicians fear for their future prospects if they don’t.  Most voters lack time to deliberate, or even to keep up with the issues. They’re looking for signs that the professional politicians who do such things full time care about the same things their constituents do, in spite of rampant professional incentives to the contrary.

Elections, from a voter’s perspective, are a device for separating loyal agents from phony ones.  And while politicians would like nothing more than to stress only the positive and make no waves, voters have every reason to demand the contrary.  Nothing shows true commitment—in the technical, Schelling sense of something that demonstrates a real decision because it can’t be taken back—like naming an enemy.  It’s precisely because a corporation might be a useful ally in working out a future policy that denouncing it in terms that threaten to burn bridges involves real sacrifice, and has real meaning.  A sometimes-canny negotiator like Obama can often have it both ways: calling the enemy on the carpet and then naming the price for future kind words.  (The GOP says Obama uses “Alinsky tactics.”  Would that he used them more.)  But that only works if one names the enemy first, and risks the possibility that the enemy will remain simply an enemy, will refuse to make the deal.

An exclusive focus on forward-looking policy forgets one thing: democracy.  Not only is expertise at making good policy different from the right to make policy; the two aren’t even particularly related.  The right to make policy is earned through elections, elections are earned by proving loyalty, and politicians prove loyalty, in part, by the enemies they make.  If it makes us policy types feel better, right now there are plenty of corporations who deserve to be named as public enemies, who have done their level best to sever any tie between their profits and the country’s welfare.  The rising-tide-lifts-all-boats variety of capitalism will be strengthened, not weakened, by changing that.  There are always tradeoffs between blame and reform, but fewer now than at any time in memory.

Political ethics constitutes a lot of what I teach and study for a living.  When I post on subjects like this—as opposed to a poll or a scandal—I consider my position very carefully. I am willing, like Mark, to call fouls against my own side.

And I say: blame away.

(via J.P. Green at The Democratic Strategist).

Update: While I still think I’m right, I’m no longer as sure about it as I was yesterday.

Second Update: I realize that the previous comment left my opinions clear as mud.  The truth is that I wanted to think some things through and lacked the time on an extraordinarily busy weekend.  I’ll try to post some revised thoughts tomorrow, in a new post as well as down here for reference.

Third Update: I’ve posted some further reflections here.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

7 thoughts on “The politics of reform and the politics of blame”

  1. This is an interesting post. In going through the channels on cable, I happened upon the movie "W" running and watched just a bit of it. There was a scene where Junior is trying to sell Poppy on the Willie Horton add campaign. After previewing the ad, Poppy is impressed but indicates it will have to be outsourced…and Junior responds, "already done".

    For Dems afraid of losing the corporate donations, they need to figure out that the money comes from being in power, not from having these folks as great friends. If it makes them feel better, use a surrogate to bash the corporations. Bashing the corporations at the root of almost all evils would be enormously popular with a lot of voters. People have watched serial layoffs, corporate executive compensation excess, outsourcing, and other miserable practices and they hate them. Health Care, environment, and so many other ills can be connected to power of corporations. Workers know that their wages and benefits are suppressed not for benefit of shareholders, but accrue to the privileged few at the top and that connection needs to translate at the ballot box.

    Barbara Boxer should have ads queued up showing Carly F picking new upholstery for her corporate jet on the same day thousands of HP workers got pink slips.

    The Republican class warfare that began in 1980 and that continues today, has compromised government, and the courts, and the media. People are living in fear of falling off that cliff out of the middle class or working class.

  2. "their feeling of being ruled by huge actors whose actions they can’t affect."

    After watching Congress enact health care 'reform' despite massive public opposition, that feeling IS kind of to be expected… It's only going to get worse after this fall's lame duck session, I expect.

  3. Yes, Brett, but what most people understand but you seem not to, is that the list of those huge actors is much longer than:


  4. Maybe in your world. In my world, my 23-year-old world, where my friends and I are getting paid less than we were 3 years ago for doing the same kind of work when we graduated high school, where we can't work our way up even with degrees, and we're the first to get laid-off, and we're never eligible for any benefits, and can't afford health insurance unless we are in school… in our world, in my world, we're mad at YOU for not giving us much of a world to begin with. But how do you appease a group that hates their parents and yet has no choice but to live with them?

    The government… we're apathetic about the government unless gay-marriage or charming mixed-racial men are involved.

  5. and, Professor, why are you not so sure about your position now? You don't think the ends justify the means? … or whatever.

  6. It was more a matter of tone and of having second thoughts about mixing my professional credibility with a contingent political judgment (probably a bad idea). The politics of blame still seems to me like a good idea–but my thinking it a good idea doesn't have a whole lot to do with my scholarly work in political ethics.

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