Why Obama Won: Wishful Delusions of the Right and Left

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The ideological left and right are each pushing self-congratulatory narratives about Obama’s re-election.

To some on the left, this was a triumph of the progressive movement, a breakout from the political wilderness equivalent to the Reagan revolution.

To some on the right, this is proof the GOP should have nominated an even more conservative candidate, one uncompromising on issues from abortion to entitlements.

Most partisans probably know this is spin, not reality.  In politics, reality follows belief, so if they can convince the media to tow their lines, they have a chance to shift public opinion and turn their vision into reality.

But it won’t work.  Reality is stronger than fiction, particularly in this case.

Since Obama won, sensible Republicans are in soul-searching mode.  The mainstream wisdom – largely correct, I think – is that they need to close their gender, ethnic, and age gaps.  That means softening their stances on abortion, immigration, and gay marriage.  Advocates of this, determined to avoid another failure in 2014, are likely to launch a civil war against the fundamentalists who want more rigidity, not less, on those issues.

If the winds had shifted a bit and Obama had lost, Democrats would be soul-searching – as they should be now.  The mainstream wisdom would be that they need to close their own gender, ethnic, and age gaps.  That means softening their stances on taxes, spending, and government, to attract more working class, upper class, male, socially conservative, and new voters.  Advocates of this would likely be preparing for a civil war with the progressives of their party, who want more rigidity, not less, in favor of big government, higher taxes on the wealthy, and social liberalism.

The reality is that the Democrats won this time, but 2014 and 2016 are up for grabs.  If fundamentalists keep control of the message on the right, the GOP will likely lose.  But if progressives gain control of the message on the left, the Democrats will likely lose.  The elections thus become a race to see which side is most handicapped by its truest believers.

This is not disturbing to the ideologues, but it should be.  Progressives assume that if the social right undermines the GOP, they will ride into power, restore entitlements, tax business and the wealthy, and promote liberal social policies.  The social right assumes that if progressives undermine the Democrats, they will finally gain power, and enforce their social agenda on abortion, family structure, national security, and regulations.

But here is what the progressives and social conservatives perennially forget, or ignore:  they don’t control power in their party.  They only control the message.  Progressive and conservative narratives sell each of the two parties.  But they advance an agenda that protects and increases the power of vested interests. 

An array of entrenched interest groups hold a veto power over policy in Congress and most state legislatures.  Business, labor, institutional, and governmental groups may not always be able to pass what they choose.  But they can stop virtually anything they oppose.   That’s why gridlock is Congress’s most reliable product. 

In today’s system, where the left and right never collaborate, and rarely even engage, the only way to pass legislation is to secure the votes of almost every Republican (when they are in charge) or Democrat (when they are).  The only way to do that is to pass expensive bills – those that divert a lot of money to specific interest groups in specific districts, so that a “no” vote by the local Member of Congress is extremely unlikely.

That’s why, instead of relatively simple cost-cutting health reforms, the Republicans under Bush and the Democrats under Obama fashioned trillion-dollar monstrosities – Medicare B under Bush, and the Affordable Care Act under Obama.  Each offered sugar to the respective bases – sweeteners to make the policies look either conservative or progressive.  But each essentially rewarded a set of vested interests with hundreds of billions in guaranteed business.

The smarter alternative won’t be popular to express here, or almost anywhere.  It is for the progressives on the left and the economic and social conservatives on the right to form a new coalition – a more functional one than the existing framework. 

Simply put:  the vested interests that control both parties need to be isolated.  The people within both parties who actually care about their core principles need to unite with one another, and free the political process from obsolete sources of power.

That sounds impossible.  How can pro-choice and pro-life advocates agree?  How can small government and big government advocates unite?  How can market fundamentalists and welfare state advocates work together?  Their ideas are opposites.

But that is only at the structural level.  The left and right both translate their principles, which are fundamental, into institutional forms, which are more transitory.  They pretend that their principles can only be advanced through the precise structural arrangements that they have championed for generations.

Thus, the right insists that family values can only be advanced through the industrial model of the nuclear family, where a working father earns a living, a compliant mother provides love and household management, and two or three kids learn to mimic those roles as they grow older.

Similarly, the left believes that community values can only be advanced through 1950s and 1960s model schools, social security, and government support programs. 

But those structural norms are out of date.  It’s not that traditional families, traditional classrooms, or traditional entitlements need to be abandoned entirely.  It’s simply that they don’t work as well as they once did.  The institutions and structures need to be updated, to fit a more mobile, global, dynamic, information-based economy and culture. 

Pressing gay men to go back in the closet, marry straight women, and live a lie is no way to advance strong family values.  Pressing smart capable women to submit themselves to the decisions of men in this day and age is, well, futile.  The nuclear family – a relatively recent invention that replaced extended families and small villages – works for some, but not others.  Family values – the commitment to sacrifice self for children and family – can be advanced in a range of family and community structures, as I see every day here in San Francisco.

Here is a better path, for both progressives and conservatives.  Embrace your core values.  They don’t need to be compromised.  But let go of your attachment to forms and structures.  The nuclear family, labor union, school, and neighborhood of last generation are not intrinsically linked to your values.  Your values are more fundamental.  They can only be advanced through institutions that serve them in today’s economy and culture.

By breaking free of old institutions, you liberate your movements from old vested interests that care much more about their own preservation than advancing your values. 

Conservatives ought not be carrying an agenda framed for them by obsolete corporate interests looking to preserve their old forms, if doing so requires them to support subsidies that harm the economy, security and environment.  Progressives ought not be labor’s political tool, if that requires them to oppose needed improvements in government service or school management, funding, and choice.  

Today’s major parties unite interests that are increasingly incompatible.  The right unites major corporations, wealthy individuals, religious traditionalists, and white working class Americans.  To serve those interests, the party champions economic freedom, but resists economic responsibility. This placates people and companies who already have wealth, and those who hope to get it the same way.  It champions their right to profit from their initiative; but often shields them from the true costs. Why else would conservatives support massive subsidies of fossil fuel development, but oppose much smaller subsidies for emerging energy forms? The result of this bias is to privatize profits, but socialize costs. 

The left unites major corporations, labor unions, government agencies, celebrities, technologists, and the non-white middle class.  They champion social and cultural freedom diversity across these communities, but resists individual responsibility.  It wants people and groups free to express their cultural preferences and creative impulses as they see fit, but it often denies the costs that can be an early consequence of innovative social behavior.  The right finds it abhorrent that progressives would allow people free abortion and no-fault divorce.  But the left denies that anyone might actually abuse these privileges.  Women will invariably choose abortion only when it is the ethically right decision; couples will only marry when they are fully committed, and only divorce when they truly face irreconcilable differences, where the separation is best for all, including the children. 

The right and left both believe, genuinely, that they are erring on the side of what is usually correct.  They acknowledge that there is some social and economic damage that results from their oversimplifications:  occasionally pollution actually harms health or ticks up temperatures a bit; occasionally sex, marriage, and abortion are entered into casually with negative consequences; but each ideologue holds to the view that these happen only rarely, and that the consequences are readily manageable.  It’s important to them to hold fast to this belief – they fear if they don’t, their whole ideological frame could come crashing down, and they’d be forced to embrace the worldview they most detest.

In the real world, pollution is a cost that the polluter needs to be held largely responsible for, though society can step in sometimes to enable the experimentation that leads to overall gains.  In the real world, careless sex and living together without genuine commitment can cause great hurt and pain, and people need to be held largely responsible for their actions, though society can step in sometimes to soften the damage, because social experimentation too leads to overall gains.  This real world gets gray pretty quick.  It doesn’t accommodate either rigid worldview.

Freedom and responsibility are a matched pair. One can’t be sustained without the other.  All robust movements combine the two.  In today’s political pairings, the right supports freedom in the marketplace, and responsibility in the bedroom.  The left supports freedom in the bedroom, but responsibility in the marketplace.  There is some logic to these pairings, but it’s the logic of the 1960s, not the 2010s.  It’s time for to shift the alliances.

The political base of the right and left – social and fiscal conservatives on the right, and social libertarians and progressives on the left – both need to break their dependence on interest groups seeking to lock in yesterday.  They need to form an alliance, to advance their common ends. 

Conservatives share a common worldview – a belief that people are inherently selfish, and need discipline in order to serve society as a whole.  Free markets discipline people to create value and support themselves.  Family values encourage them to sacrifice their own interests so the family, and especially children, can flourish.

Liberals also share a common worldview – a belief that people are fundamentally selfless; that they will naturally provide for one another, sharing freely their mutual bounties.  For the social left to get the freedom they want, they need the government to forcefully correct unjust distributions of wealth so that each segment is fairly compensated for the contributions they naturally make.

To those of us who resist ideological beliefs, it’s self-evident that people are a mix of selfish and selfless, and that no system founded on the belief that they are only one or the other will function very well. 

Both parties house opposing forces whose agendas are in conflict.  Both rationalize their alliances to maintain power.

But those alliances have now served their purpose.  It’s time to sever them.  The legitimate interests of all the groups will be better served in a new formulation.

For individual initiative to yield broad prosperity, people need to be fairly rewarded for their efforts.  For prosperity to be sustained without constant war, the nation needs to wean itself from fossil fuel addiction.  For family values to enjoy a renaissance, they need to be applied to new family structures reflecting the modern world. 

President Obama won because, even in a divided nation, someone will.  He has no progressive mandate.  Had Romney won, he would have no conservative mandate.  To win in the future, both parties need to search for their souls.  They can pretend their souls exist only in the thin structures of their past; that they must serve yesterday’s vested interests, and force the world to accept their continued dominance, against the forces of change.  Or they can reaffirm that their principles are deeper than that; and that, at their root, the principles of the left and right are fully compatible, even necessary, to one another and the nation.