A Note On Ideology and "What Works"

by dday

To follow up on Digby's post about the potential inclusion of $300 billion in tax cuts in the Obama economic recovery package, I'll start by noting that these were, for the most part, campaign promises. It's why I remember Kevin Drum and others saying that Obama had not successfully fought against the great Tax Revolt, even as it showed signs of running out of steam. He would insist that we was offering a tax cut for 95% of Americans and tossed out tax incentives like they were candy, even while he was talking at the same time about other economic goals. Once you play on that side of the field, those lobbyists who know how to cram tax loopholes into Congressional bills start licking their chops.

Now, his plans would probably make the tax code more progressive, which is good. The tax credits for businesses that don't lay off workers, for example, seems good, as well as eliminating the ability for corporations who paid no federal tax to apply for the credits. Then there's the "Freakonomics" proposal to reduce withholding, so that workers will get a little bit more in their paychecks instead of a lump sum, which may lead to more consumer spending. And this article leaves out some of the details. But aside from the fact that tax cuts didn't stave off the current recession, and that this limits the pool of money for infrastructure and public works projects to a insufficient level, the worst part of all of this is the fact that it appears the Obama team looks at tax cuts as a way to get Republicans on board. Here's the deal: there are only two Republicans in America, at most, that need to be "on board" with something like this, and if a new President and a Democratic Senate can't flip them, I don't know why they even try anymore. This looks like an example of a bias that the Obama team has had for a while, that everything has to be bipartisan and attract the support of both parties, because only then can it be legitimate.

Incredibly, there's a quote in the WSJ article from am Obama spokeswoman that goes: "We're working with Congress to develop a tax-cut package based on a simple principle: What will have the biggest and most immediate impact on creating private-sector jobs and strengthening the middle class? We're guided by what works, not by any ideology or special interests."

That's just not true. If you were guided by "what works," you would take out the reams of nonpartisan charts about what works best as stimulus and go with those programs that provide the biggest and most immediate impact. And they are NOT broad tax cuts. But the holy grail of bipartisanship has been intertwined with "what works," leading us to more use of the tax code (and magically, the repeal of the Bush tax cuts for the rich have vanished). And so that IS being guided by ideology. It's setting the policy at the midpoint of the Republican caucus to ensure some support from that side of the aisle. That's not only ideological, it's Republican in character.

The reason we have seen an explosion of citizenship in the past year, as this TAP article argues, is actually because of partisanship, because both sides made an argument, because people were excited to line up with either alternative, and because they were enabled through new technologies to break down what were seen as barriers to entry. It was partisanship, however, that spurred the citizenship.

The rebirth of civic participation this year is not a product of experiments in deliberative democracy or a new interest in league bowling. Rather, it is based on party politics, coupled with and accelerated by new opportunities provided by the Internet. Skocpol's claim that "conflict and competition have always been the mother's milk of American democracy" tells part of the story. Just as social-movement theorists might have predicted, the major innovations came from outsiders, like members of MoveOn.org, who wanted to challenge the system. At the time when it led opposition to the Iraq War, MoveOn represented a point of view that had little support among political elites, which meant it wouldn't have been able to use conventional tools of interest-group politics even if it had wanted to. Instead, it turned to the Internet and created a new model of mass mobilization.

Unlike the mass-membership national organizations that Skocpol described, which asked for a single act from each member -- a donation -- MoveOn engaged its members through a never-ending flow of transactions -- petitions, letters to Congress, polls, contests. In his book The Argument, Matt Bai writes that MoveOn's members were typically ordinary suburbanites who have been "isolated for too long, entirely disconnected from each other and despondent over the rise of Republican extremism." Thus, MoveOn built exactly the kind of dense local networks Putnam dreamed of and connected them to national debates as Skocpol hoped [...]

Evidence suggests that people who are strongly engaged in politics and hence likely to volunteer for campaigns are strongly partisan and tightly clumped around the ideological poles (they are strongly liberal or strongly conservative). If this is right, online activists are unlikely to follow Obama if he moves toward a post-ideological politics of citizenship and may even use Obama's own machine to organize against him (as they did within MyBarackObama.com when Obama announced his support for controversial wiretapping legislation). By rebuilding the Democratic Party around a model that is friendlier to decentralized online participation, Obama is both making it easier for Democratic activists to organize in protest against overly "moderate" decisions, and forcing Republicans to adopt similar organizing techniques in order to win elections.

That's just a sample, I invite you to read the whole article.

We're not going to see Obama walk into the Oval Office and sign this bill, so there's some time to bring this around to the right direction. And again, I hope this is just a trial balloon. But if the debate in Washington devolves into one side vowing bipartisan love fests while the other side plays the same partisan game, those civic bonds will break down, or at least to the extent that they are tied to Obama. Politics draws its breath from the conflict of ideas in the public square. Those who have been energized over the past couple years will not take kindly to an Administration that calibrates itself at the midpoint of the opposing party to ensure wide support. Even Bill Clinton, who was supposed to be the master triangulator, put out a tax plan that did not receive a single Republican vote. Somehow he, and the economy, survived.

What's most dangerous about this is the effort to corral 75-80% support just for the sake of doing so. Not only is it unlikely, it will end up really eroding Obama's ability to draw on popular support to govern.

Update: from digby --- I just wanted to intrude on dday's post to encourage you all to read the article to which he links called "Can Partisanship Save Citizenship" by Henry Farrell. It is very illuminating.


...I want to further intrude on my own post to link to Krugman's view, via his blog, on the tax cut rumblings.