Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Corrosive Politics of Pessimism

As I have argued many times, the staunch pessimism of the left, where every victory is a defeat in disguise, is a bug not a feature of current progressive practice. Matt Yglesias--who keeps on cranking out great stuff since he escaped from the commissars at Vox--makes this point in the context of the very successful CARES act which has generated amazingly little enthusiasm on the left.
"With the relief bill squared away, the time is right to consider a question the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal asked the day after Christmas: why didn’t the success of enhanced Unemployment Insurance ever enter the narrative as a progressive success story?
[Mike Konczal
For the last 7+ months I’ve been saying that the Left should claim, highlight, and center the fight over extending the massive expansion of UI, not just as an important program but as a model for reinvigorating Social Security.
My read is that this didn’t happen. Why is that?]
I think there are a lot of specific ingredients that went into this, some good and some not so good. But I also think those specifics came together the way they did because there’s a norm in American progressive politics of looking at every glass as half empty.
Basically, the understanding is that whoever can paint the darkest possible portrait of the status quo is the one who is showing the most commitment to the cause. And you see this norm at work across climate change, health care, criminal justice reform, the economy, and everything else. If you’re not saying the sky is falling, that shows you don’t really care. A true comrade in the struggle would deny that any progress has been made or insist that any good news is trivial.
I tend to think this approach to politics is counterproductive — it’s psychologically and emotionally exhausting, out of touch with people’s lived experience of the world, and ultimately demoralizing and un-motivating. But even if it does in some sense work, it’s simply not true.
In my recent post “A better way to cure recessions,” I noted that the personal savings rate is up in the United States (down from its peak when everyone got their $1,200 but still well above the pre-pandemic baseline) and also that “unlike during the Great Recession, the 67 percent or so of the public who owns a home and the 55 percent of Americans who own stock have seen their net worth rise.”
In the very next paragraph, I acknowledged that this is happening “amidst stories about overwhelmed food banks from San Antonio to Miami and beyond” but I got a lot of blowback for pointing out that most people are doing okay as if that was a way of dismissing the suffering of the minority of people who’ve lost their jobs and are now in desperate need of relief.
Similarly, back in late May, I ran into accidental intra-office controversy by pitching a piece about how police killings of African-Americans had become less common since Ferguson. My thought was that this was good, it showed that political pressure for reform was delivering results. But it was heard by many people as dismissing the problem, or ignoring the lived experiences of people who’ve suffered at the hands of the police.
And of course you see this on climate change, which is legitimately A Bad Thing but where the most keyed-up activists want you to believe it’s literally an existential threat to continued human existence.
When Barack Obama first took office, his administration enacted a bunch of progressive legislation. Bouts of activist legislating normally generate a thermostatic backlash, and Obama’s was no exception. But he managed to end his term popular, and has remained popular since, and most of his legislative achievements remain on the books. Everyone — including Obama — concedes that these achievements were not perfect. But to actually celebrate them as big achievements worth clapping for and taking credit for would be to mark you out as very much not a true progressive.
So I think the left’s attitude toward CARES needs to be seen in that light. Do you judge the Affordable Care Act on how much it helped people compared to the status quo ante or on how far it diverged from a hypothetical perfect health care bill? I’d be inclined to say the former, but the conventional left approach is the latter....
I want to convey that I really do appreciate the appeal of centering your thinking on an idealized end point and then complaining about all the ways that Obama or the CARES Act or whatever else fell short. After all, compare what I am saying we should do with UI and what CARES did with UI, and CARES looks terrible:
It did nothing to address the incredibly stingy base benefits in most states.
It had no automaticity so it expired awkwardly midway through the crisis.
It not only relied on our antiquated benefits administration system, it did nothing to improve it.
But it doesn’t make sense to do politics this way. One reason is because the model where you sketch out an idealized policy endpoint, then wage political combat, then win, then implement your vision just isn’t how anything actually happens. Not only was Social Security’s rollout bungled from a macroeconomic point of view (they started collecting taxes years before they collected benefits), it wasn’t until 20 years after the original Social Security Act’s passage that benefits were expanded to huge swathes of the population. Then it took 20 more years to get automatic cost of living adjustments. And the program still has some weird lacunae that leave out certain categories of state and local government workers, and doesn’t really meet the needs of the very elderly in an aging society.
Medicaid has been a policy triumph, but the initial program LBJ signed into law in 1965 was tiny compared to today’s Medicaid juggernaut that was largely the result of dogged work by Rep. Henry Waxman in the 1980s, some judicious interventions by the Clinton administration, and then the Obama-era expansion which lives on as a series of state-by-state fights.
The point is that politics is a process, and that’s especially true in a country like the United States that has a lot of institutional veto points. I won’t redo the entire slow boring of hard boards schtick, but the idea that past victories were single decisive battles won at unique moments in time is an illusion. Brown v Board of Education was the culmination of a 15-year litigation strategy that started with a law school case in 1938. But even though the NAACP won in court in 1954, real desegregation didn’t happen until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which in turn built upon the Civil Rights Act of 1960 and its predecessor, the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
It would of course be absurd to be satisfied with any of those interim outcomes, whether on health care or retirement security or civil rights, and it’s just the same with Unemployment Insurance. But successful movements claim victories as victories, highlight the ways in which their victories have helped people and debunked critics’ fears, and move on to build the case for new things. Politicians who do the spadework of getting things done should be praised and not ignored, and while journalists should of course highlight shortcomings, we should also bring perspective to bear. We had more articles written about benefit administration problems than we did about the reduction in poverty — that doesn’t make sense journalistically and it’s not politically constructive."
Yglesias is exactly right about this. It has always been staggeringly obvious to me that pessimism dramatically undermines the appeal of the left. Why on earth would anyone sign up with a movement that believes the situation is so hopeless? What’s so inspiring about that?
Nothing. Yet the left persists in promoting a viewpoint that leads to paralysis and inaction, rather than robust action and positive change.
The left wasn’t always like this. Historically, the left has been identified with a belief in the future and the feasibility of dramatic improvements in human welfare. That is how I saw it when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s and I was happy to join.
But something went wrong in the 1970’s. The great hopes of the 1960’s went aground on the harsh realities of stagflation and then rising inequality and a resurgent right. It was indisputable that progress in important ways was slowing down rather than speeding up as most on the left had hoped.
Various significant electoral defeats for the left followed--most famously the rise of Reagan in America and Thatcher in the UK. And anti-government ideology thrived, both in politics and economics. The idea that government was the problem, not the solution, gained political credibility that would have seemed unimaginable in previous decades and economics became dominated by theories that glorified the results of the untrammeled market.
If that wasn’t bad enough, new threats like global warming emerged that cast doubt on the future of humanity writ large. Scientific progress, which once spurred visions of flying cars and lives of abundance and leisure, now seemed powerless to stop the apocalypse (if not complicit in bringing it on).
Optimism went out of fashion on the left where it has remained to this day. Instead, the left concentrated on reminding voters just how terrible things were becoming. And there was certainly a lot of plausible material along these lines, as Western capitalism continued to underperform in terms of both growth and the distribution of benefits from growth. Data accumulated over time documenting this poor performance—particularly in the early 21st century and in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis--which the left duly promulgated.
Even the great victories of the left in the social realm tended to get lost in this litany of despair. Not to mention concrete policy victories such as those secured by President Obama. In short, when the left was winning, it often acted as if it was losing. Not surprisingly, the desired surge in left support has not materialized.
It is time to recognize that pessimism convinces no one. Marx was wrong about the immiseration of the proletariat and contemporary leftists are wrong about the immiseration of the middle class. What is correct is that progress has slowed down, not that it has stopped or reversed. What is correct is that people want to move up from their current life, not that they believe there is nothing good about their current life. What is correct is that pessimism makes people less likely to believe in positive change, not more likely.
So a different, more positive attitude is in order for the left. And it starts, as Yglesias argues, with touting recent victories and advances, rather than bad-mouthing them.

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