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November 1, 2010
 by Steven Hill

BOMBS, BOMBS EVERYWHERE; EUROPE PONDERS AMERICA’S RETURN TO BUSH-LITE…Yesterday when I was in Istanbul, a bomb went off in Taksim Square, not far from where I was staying. As Taksim is one of the one of the main thoroughfares of this energetic city of 13 million people, chaos ensued and suddenly police were everywhere. My taxi driver, speaking only a few words of English, was able to communicate that he was in Taksim when the bomb went off. “Grand BOOM!” he says, shaking his head, looking grave. He indicates that it was a Kurdish suicide bomber who attacked a police stand, killing 10 cops, but news reports are not so certain. There is much speculation that it could also be an Islamic radical, and the initial news reports say either two, or possibly zero people are dead, but quite a few are injured. Yet within an hour or so, people seem to be back to “shopping normal” in the trendy areas around Taksim Square, though Taksim itself remains shut down.

Later in the day I arrived in Frankfurt airport to the headlines that the German police had found a bomb on a cargo plane (it was later determined that the flight passed through Germany on its way to the UK, where the bomb actually was found). In both the Frankfurt and Istanbul airports the security seems to be about the same, no extraordinary efforts visible to the passing eye, which is surprising but also a relief. Airports already are such a hassle to get through, a constant reminder of the advantage of taking trains in Europe whenever practical distance-wise, since the security is less draconian and you don’t have to arrive an hour or more in advance.

Any Americans who think that Europe’s efforts in the war on terror (perceived as inadequate by many Americans) results from them not understanding or appreciating the impact of the September 11 attacks in New York City aren’t appreciating the fact that Europeans have lived with this kind of low intensity conflict for years. Indeed, blowback from unwise American foreign policy decisions in the Middle East during both the Obama and Bush administrations washes up on Europe’s shores first, since it is in much greater proximity to the zone of conflict. Europeans have learned to live with this kind of insecurity in a way that Americans are still getting used to.

Europe contemplates America’s return to Bush-lite.For the past couple of weeks there has been much speculation in the European media about the U.S. election on November 2. I also have received a lot of questions about it during my speaking tour, both from audiences and journalists. Europeans are perplexed, to say the least: how could Americans have turned away so dramatically, with the election of Barack Obama, from the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, only now to contemplate a return to them? They also are puzzled by the Tea Party movement, which seemingly wants to roll back the last two years and return to how things were at the end of the Bush-Cheney years, which Europeans pretty uniformly regard as a disastrous time, both economically and foreign policy wise. Even conservatives in Europe are scratching their heads over their transatlantic allies (“What, Americans don’t want health care?”). Asked one Swede, “How can these Tea Party people say ‘Get government out of my Medicare -- don’t they know Medicare IS a government program?” If Europeans could vote in America’s November 2 election, there is no doubt how they would vote.

This in some ways is the greatest measure of the divide in the transatlantic alliance. Even the so-called “far right” in Europe is nowhere near as conservative as the Tea Partiers or GOP Congress members; indeed, in most ways the far right is to the left of the Democratic Party, which is fairly startling to contemplate.

So it has been one of my tasks to have to explain to puzzled Europeans what is happening to American politics. My view is that it mostly boils down to the overuse and abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, which has fostered a toxic obstructionist politics. The filibuster has been used by Republican Senators on average twice a week to stall everything, but it used to be deployed only a few times a year. Obama hasn't even appointed numerous positions a president typically appoints because the Republicans would have filibustered those nominations, thereby clogging the Senate's calendar and leaving less time for his legislative agenda. Paralysis has become the norm. In my view the obstructionist filibuster is the single greatest reason for the gridlock that is frustrating so many Americans. As proof, I would offer this thought experiment: imagine how different things would have been if Obama only needed 51 out of 100 Senators’ votes instead of 60. The health care bill wouldn't have been so weak, AND wouldn't have taken so long to pass, leaving more time for the rest of his legislative agenda. The same with financial re-regulation; the climate change bill would have passed; as well as possibly a second (smaller) stimulus more precisely targeted at infrastructure, shovel ready jobs, etc.

I don’t believe that many Americans agree strongly with the hard core Tea Partiers who grouse about a “government takeover of health care, return of big government,” etc. What most Americans are upset about is the sense that not much has been done for them personally or for people they know (at this point just about every American, or someone they know, has lost their job or their house or both). There’s a feeling that the noose is tightening , even as banks and auto companies got bailed out. The banks and CEOs have returned to raking in handsome profits, but virtually none of it is trickling down. And that has led to a great sense of frustration, anger, even betrayal that Fox News/Tea Party types have exploited effectively (a type of populism that is not all that surprising -- recall the early 1990s recession, which gave a boost to populists like Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and his "peasants with pitchforks" speeches, etc, -- we should EXPECT to see an increase in populism at this point in an economic downturn, whether in the U.S. or Europe. Their influence will last no more than one or two election cycles unless this downturn proves to be particularly long lasting). For example two of my GOP family members voted for Obama, even though they didn’t necessarily agree with him on everything; but because generally speaking they saw him as the best candidate for moving the country past the Bush years, i.e. in a new direction. Now they are upset at Obama, not necessarily because they disagree with what he has done but they view him as INEFFECTIVE. To people like them, the Tea Party is a thumb in the eye to the system, a pox upon both the Dem and Rep houses. They are not very tolerant of excuses e.g. "blame the filibuster," and the fact that throwing out Dems brings back the same crowd they voted out last time requires a depth of thinking that they aren't willing to engage in. That's the problem with populism/"thumb in the eye" politics -- it's a gut level response that lacks any memory or historical insight.

Like a coyote chewing off its own leg. But the Tea Partiers have little in the way of solutions to offer toward the challenges that America faces. It’s mostly a nostalgic movement, looking backward toward some golden age that never existed. And so the American electorate is going to careen from one side of the aisle to the other, not finding satisfaction, and will only get more frustrated and angry. The best metaphor for understanding the American electorate right now is that of a coyote with its leg caught in a trap, suffering in pain, so now it is chewing off its own leg to get out of the trap. Grisly, I know, but that's about as accurate a description as I can think of.

And just think, much of this situation could have been avoided if only 51 votes were needed in the Senate. I am not generally so reductionist in my thinking, but in this case I really do think the filibuster is the elephant in the living room, in terms of understanding what has dragged down American politics into the current cesspool. That’s what I have conveyed to my European audiences.

Steven Hill 11:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

Your dispatches from Europe have been most interesting.

I'd like to offer a little observation here on the question of who's to the left or the right of whom. This is a tricky matter. Now then, I realize it isn't your purpose to write a dissertation on this issue, or to shine an ultra-precise mega-laser on what is fundamentally a loose figure of speech (the "left/right spectrum", that is to say). Any loose figure of speech, after all, is going to break down if we subject it to intense analysis on any one specific narrow spot.

I accept, then, that we can't expect a huge amount of explanatory power from a simple and loose figure of speech. And I also think you've got a point when you say that European conservatives (and maybe even European ultra-rightists) are in many or even most ways to the left of American Democrats. That is true, at one level. At another level, however, it probably isn't true. And at yet another level, it's hard to tell.

All right, what am I talking about here? Well, the starting point in the different countries is different. Now then, I don't have in mind here that business -- which gets mentioned so often in connection with these matters -- about how America is so much bigger and more diverse than any number of European countries (taken singly). Nor do I have in mind the obvious historical differences, etc. Rather, I have something much simpler in mind.

In order to clarify this point, I'm going to simplify things severely. That is, I'm going to pull a stunt of the sort to which economists so often and so famously resort. (The caricatured extreme form of which, of course, is to assume a can opener on a desert island -- you know that old joke, don't you?)

Let's assume, then, that no political issues exist except those which bear on socio-economic questions. Thus, there are no "hot-button" issues of the American kind: no gay-marriage controversy, no fight over gun control, no ... (you know the list). The justification for doing this, essentially, is that the left/right spectrum has probably only really ever made sense -- since the emergence of the socialist movement, at any rate -- when it has been understood in socio-economic terms. (I hope I'm not being a hopelessly parochial semi-Swede when I say this.) Of course, in many countries and at many times, people have tried to stuff all sorts of other questions into the left/right spectrum as well; however, these other issues have never really fit the model very well. Socio-economic questions are complicated enough. Trying as well to fit in hot-button issues and socio-cultural questions is, almost certainly, to ask far too much of a loose figure of speech.

Let's simplify quite a bit further as well. That is, let's reduce the vast panorama of socio-economic issues to one: parental leave. And let's try to figure out what's left and what's right in regard to that one issue. Then, if answering that question proves to be tricky and ambiguous even in regard to that one specific issue, then I think I'll be justified in concluding that I've demonstrated my point: namely, that the question of who is to the left or right of whom is a tricky matter.

That is to say, it's a tricky matter when one tries to give a single answer to said question ACROSS different political systems -- political systems which have different starting points (different starting points, that is, in terms of the policies which are already being implemented at any given time).

All right, enough setting of the stage; let's consider the example.

Let's say someone makes a bold proposal. The proposal is to establish a system of parental insurance in which parents can take six months off from work upon having a child, and get 50 percent replacement pay from a social-insurance fund when they do so. (Let's further say that either the mother or the father can take the leave, or they can share it in various ways, etc.)

So, is this a left-wing proposal or a right-wing proposal?

Well, that depends -- on the starting point. And what do I mean by the starting point? I mean, quite simply, the policies which are already being implemented in that area! In Sweden, the proposal in question is a right-wing one, because instituting it would mean a huge CUT in the benefits which are presently available in this area. In the United States, on the other hand, the proposal in question is a left-wing one, because instituting it would mean a huge INCREASE in the benefits which are presently available in this area.

So, essentially everyone in Sweden takes for granted the existence of a parental-leave scheme which is light-years to the left of anything proposed by almost anyone in the US. Does that mean that essentially everyone in Sweden is to the left of essentially everyone in the United States? Well, yes -- at one level: the level of their short-term programme on the question of parental leave. However, measuring a person's left/right position on the basis of his/her short-term programme is probably not the best way to go (at least for most purposes). That's because a person's (or a movement's) immediate programme doesn't just indicate where it is that that person or movement wants to go; it also indicates what the policies are that are presently being implemented in the relevant area. That is to say, the short-term programme gets FILTERED through whatever the prevailing situation is at present.

Why is this? Well, the basic reason is simple: political actors are pragmatic. They don't ask for the entire universe immediately; they don't urge us to cover the entire distance in a single bound. They may WANT to take us on a very long journey; they also understand, however, that any trek -- even a very long one -- begins with a small first step. And from which point is that first step initially taken? From the point at which the country in question finds itself at the time -- i.e., from the policies which are being implemented in said country at the time in question.

For this reason, then, the short-term programme offered by most political actors rather closely resembles whatever it is that's already going on within the policy area in question in a given country. That is, the immediate proposals made by practical political actors TRACK the status quo quite closely. This doesn't mean the political actors in question necessarily LIKE whatever the status quo happens to be in any particular case; not at all. It's simply means that they don't consider it helpful to make proposals which diverge all too markedly from the status quo. Such proposals are namely not, in the great majority of situations, FEASIBLE. And practical political actors are allergic to making proposals which aren't feasible.

Okay, I grant you, there are a FEW political actors who ask for the whole universe immediately. These folks make no distinction between their short-term, their medium-term, and their ultimate programme: all these things get rolled up into one. The Spartacus League was like that, for example. (At least they were when I was at UC Santa Cruz, back in the day. Are they still around?) Another example would be the folks at For example, any number of their minimum proposals -- an immediate end to all restrictions on immigration, for instance -- only make sense if they're applied simultaneously with their maximum programme (socialist revolution across every last square inch of the entire planet, with a worldwide government being instituted which immediately accomplishes the great leap from the Kingdom of Necessity to the Kingdom of Freedom, etc. -- why do Trots seem to specialise in this kind of fevered dreaming?).

Pretty much all other political actors, though, make a sharp distinction between their short-term and their long-term programme. And it's only their long-term programme, I would say, which provides a really fair measure for their position on the left/right spectrum.

As I see it, namely, the really revealing thing here is not what the actor in question proposes as an immediate measure in a specific situation; rather, the revealing thing is where that actor really wants to go.

Unfortunately, of course, such a method of measurement is difficult to "operationalise" (lovely word!). It's easier, at least most of the time, to measure instead by the actor's immediate program. That's because there's a lot more for us political analysts to chew on in the case of the immediate programme: most of the time, namely, political actors expend their effort on working out and presenting their specific short-term proposals. (Well -- leaving aside the usual vague rhetorical hot air, which most listeners dismiss most of the time.)

As for their long-term proposals -- well, those things are typically left rather vague and ceremonial. They're things to be trotted out on solemn occasions -- for bonding rituals and the like. It's isn't easy, moreover, to ascertain just how seriously such declarations-for-the-long-term are intended.

All right, let's return to the example above: parental insurance. I'm sure Carl Bildt (say) has never proposed -- at least not in public -- to cut Swedish parental leave down to six months at 50-percent replacement pay. He namely takes it for granted that, for the foreseeable future, Swedish parental leave is going to remain longer than six months, and it's going to continue to offer a rate of replacement pay higher than 50 percent. Any immediate changes he proposes in this area are going, therefore, to remain modestly within these bounds. The most he might do at some point in the foreseeable future is to propose something like, say, 10 months at 60-percent replacement pay.

I'll bet as well, moreover, that Paul Krugman (or even the Communist Party USA, for that matter) has never proposed that parental leave in the US be immediately increased to six months at 50-percent replacement pay. These folks namely take it for granted that, for the foreseeable future, parental leave in the US is going to remain shorter than six months, and it's going to continue to offer a rate of replacement pay lower than 50 percent. Any immediate changes they propose in this area are going, therefore, to remain modestly within these bounds. The most they might do at some point in the foreseeable future is to propose something like, say, 4 months at 30-percent replacement pay.

So, does this mean Carl Bildt is to the left of the US Communist Party?

Well, no; that wouldn't really follow. Things only look that way if we take these folks' short-term, immediate political proposals as the sole (or at least overriding) measure for their position on the left/right spectrum. And for most purposes, I'll warrant, such an approach isn't the right one to take. The better measure, as I see it, is where it is that these folks really want to go. And the CPUSA, I'm quite sure, wants to go to a place (ultimately) which is far to the left of where Carl Bildt wants to go (ultimately).

And finally the best approach, in my view, is to use several different measures all at the same time (although that is messy, I grant you -- because the different methods of measurement often generate contrasting findings). I've suggested here, for example, that we complement an analysis of actors' short-term programme with an analysis of their long-term programme. Another approach might be to ask who or what it is that these political actors represent (and against whom): i.e., their social-structural function. And other approaches, I don't doubt, could offer something as well ...

To sum up: the question of who is to the left or right of whom is really rather tricky.

Posted by: Peter Mayers on November 15, 2010 at 6:21 AM | PERMALINK

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