History takes odd turns. Take the case of Vaclav Havel – the Czech dissident playwright and poet, of the avant-garde of the time. After the Prague Spring – the first attempt by the locals to get the damned Soviets out of Czechoslovakia – Havel got more and more political, and in 1977 he was involved with that human rights manifesto Charter 77 – he got famous, and went to jail for a time for that. But the 1989 Velvet Revolution – the end of Soviet-style communism in those parts – ended up with Havel finding himself the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia, and then the first President of the new Czech Republic. He was a hero in what used to be called the Free West – we awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and he addressed a Joint Session of Congress and all that. Czechoslovakia had joined the new world. What had happened wasn’t the fall of the Berlin Wall or anything, but it was a pretty amazing.
But something was odd. Havel had always loved that Czech rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, and was a big fan of The Velvet Underground, in tight with Lou Reed, and he had always been a big Frank Zappa fan – those two approved of each other. How did Havel end up a major international political hero? As Czechs go, it’s not like he was the noble and earnest and heroic Victor Laszlo in Casablanca – Havel was all hyper-intellectual irony and slyness, full of nuance and subtlety. Think of him as the polar opposite of Sarah Palin.
The oddity of what had happened had always puzzled Havel. As he once said, “There’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side.” Things don’t usually work that way.
And there’s a reason for that. Intellectuals, as a rule, don’t really care much about winning. They’re more interested in solving the problem at hand – they are less interested in who gets the credit than they are in untangling the puzzle itself. It can be a mathematical proof, or who really wrote the Shakespeare plays, or the DNA structure of something or other, or something to do with celestial motion or some economic oddity, or figuring out what really happened with some historical event. In such efforts asking who wins is a meaningless question. The point is to solve the problem at hand. You collaborate with others – you build on each others’ ideas. You solve the problem.
And if the problem at hand is a thorny public policy issue – what tax rates will both stimulate growth and provide the revenues to keep things running, or how best to deal with terrorism, or nuclear arms proliferation, or regulation of the financial markets – the intellectual is the one who is always asking what works best, or might just work adequately, or maybe what will do the least harm. The point is to solve the problem. Yep, it’s nice to get credit for solving the problem, but it’s even nicer to solve the problem. That’s why you were elected to office after all, to solve problems.
And that describes most Democrats. As a rule they don’t seem to have that killer instinct – to win at all costs. It drives their supporters crazy – it drives Obama supporters crazy. Democrats don’t seem to want to get down and dirty and expose the other side as fools or tools of the rich and big corporations and obviously clueless. They don’t want to jam their opponents, expose them and embarrass them, and then make them pay dearly for their uninformed and absurd positions. All they want to do is solve problems, not preen for potential voters. It’s pretty pathetic, politically. That what the hard left has been saying about Obama – see Michael Moore’s message to Barack Obama – “Please take off your pink tutu, because it’s time to put on the boxing gloves and go fighting for the people.”
But Obama doesn’t have it in him. All he wants to do is solve problems. He thinks that’s his job. And he seems to think that involves engaging his Republican opponents, and actually listening to them, and arguing the fine points with them – and sometimes doing what the left thinks is appalling, as long as it gets the job done. You want to solve the problem at hand. Winning something somehow isn’t that important. In fact, it hardly seems a consideration at all. And the left weeps.
But the problem is that his opponents don’t think like that at all. And Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly explores that in a column on sabotage:
Consider a thought experiment. Imagine you actively disliked the United States, and wanted to deliberately undermine its economy. What kind of positions would you take to do the most damage?
You might start with rejecting the advice of economists and oppose any kind of stimulus investments. You’d also want to cut spending and take money out of the economy, while blocking funds to states and municipalities, forcing them to lay off more workers. You’d no doubt want to cut off stimulative unemployment benefits, and identify the single most effective jobs program of the last two years (the TANF Emergency Fund) so you could kill it.
You might then take steps to stop the Federal Reserve from trying to lower the unemployment rate. You’d also no doubt want to create massive economic uncertainty by vowing to gut the national health care system, promising to re-write the rules overseeing the financial industry, vowing re-write business regulations in general, considering a government shutdown, and even weighing the possibly of sending the United States into default.
You might want to cover your tracks a bit, and say you have an economic plan that would help – a tax policy that’s already been tried – but you’d do so knowing that such a plan has already proven not to work.
If that sounds familiar that’s because all that has been proposed, and is, in fact, the agenda of the new Republican-controlled House. This is the opposite of problem-solving. This is about winning at all costs. And Benen points to Matthew Yglesias commenting on this:
I know that tangible improvements in the economy are key to Obama’s re-election chances. And Douglas Hibbs knows that it’s key. And senior administration officials know that it’s key. So is it so unreasonable to think that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner may also know that it’s key? That rank and file Republicans know that it’s key? McConnell has clarified that his key goal in the Senate is to cause Barack Obama to lose in 2012 – which if McConnell understands the situation correctly means doing everything in his power to reduce economic growth. Boehner has distanced himself from this theory, but many members of his caucus may agree with McConnell.
Which is just to say that specifically the White House needs to be prepared not just for rough political tactics from the opposition (what else is new?) but for a true worst case scenario of deliberate economic sabotage.
Benen also points out that budget expert Stan Collender had already predicted that Republicans perceive “economic hardship as the path to election glory.” And Paul Krugman noted a recent column that Republicans “want the economy to stay weak as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House.”
And Benen adds this:
As best as I can tell, none of this analysis – all from prominent observers – generated significant pushback. The notion of GOP officials deliberately damaging the economy didn’t, for example, spark widespread outrage or calls for apologies from Matt or anyone else.
And that, in and of itself, strikes me as remarkable. We’re talking about a major political party, which will control much of Congress next year, possibly undermining the strength of the country – on purpose, in public, without apology or shame – for no other reason than to give themselves a campaign advantage in 2012.
Benen argues now might be a good time to ask if Americans are okay with this:
For months in 2009, conservatives debated amongst themselves about whether it’s acceptable to actively root against President Obama as he dealt with a variety of pressing emergencies. Led by Rush Limbaugh and others, the right generally seemed to agree that there was nothing wrong with rooting against our leaders’ success, even in a time of crisis.
But we’re talking about a significantly different dynamic now. This general approach has shifted from hoping conditions don’t improve to taking steps to ensure conditions don’t improve. We’ve gone from Republicans rooting for failure to Republicans trying to guarantee failure.
Is that what Americans votes for in the midterms?
To be fair, Benen links to a previous item where Jon Chait had suggested that we all should be cautious about ascribing motives:
Establishing motive is always very hard to prove. What’s more, the notion of deliberate sabotage presumes a conscious awareness that doesn’t square with human psychology as I understand it. People are extraordinarily deft at making their principles – not just their stated principles, but their actual principles – comport with their interests. The old Upton Sinclair quote – “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it” – has a lot of wisdom to it.
I don’t think many Republicans are actually trying to stop legislation that might help the economy recover because they know that a slow economy is their best route to regaining power. I think that when they’re in power, consequences like an economic slowdown or a collapsing industry seem very dire, and policies to prevent this are going to sound compelling. When you’re out of power, arguments against such policies are going to sound more compelling.
Benen concedes that’s fair, in a way:
Under this line of thought, Republicans have simply lied to themselves, convincing one another that worthwhile ideas should be rejected because they’re not actually worthwhile anymore.
But Jon’s benefit-of-the-doubt approach would be more persuasive if (a) the same Republicans weren’t rejecting ideas they used to support; and (b) GOP leaders weren’t boasting publicly about prioritizing Obama’s destruction above all else, including the health of the country.
And he also points out that this apparent sabotage isn’t limited to economic policy:
Why would Republican senators, without reason or explanation, oppose a nuclear arms treaty that advances U.S. national security interests? When the treaty enjoys support from the GOP elder statesmen and the Pentagon, and is only opposed by Iran, North Korea, and Senate Republicans, it leads to questions about the party’s intentions that give one pause.
So something has changed in our politics:
Historically, lawmakers from both parties have resisted any kind of temptations along these lines for one simple reason: they didn’t think they’d get away with it. If members of Congress set out to undermine the strength of the country, deliberately, just to weaken an elected president, they risked a brutal backlash – the media would excoriate them, and the punishment from voters would be severe.
But I get the sense Republicans no longer have any such fears. The media tends to avoid holding congressional parties accountable, and voters aren’t really paying attention anyway. The Boehner/McConnell GOP appears willing to gamble: if they can hold the country back, voters will just blame the president in the end. And that’s quite possibly a safe assumption.
Benen argues that it’s time to talk about this:
If a major, powerful political party is making a conscious decision about sabotage, the political world should probably take the time to consider whether this is acceptable, whether it meets the bare minimum standards for patriotism, and whether it’s a healthy development in our system of government.
And Kevin Drum at Mother Jones agrees:
But here’s what’s really remarkable: virtually no one in any position of authority has picked up on this since Collender first suggested it. On the Republican side, practically everyone from the party leaders on down is thoroughly convinced that Barack Obama is one or more of: a socialist, an appeaser, a Chicago thug, a racist, a would-be killer of grandmas, and a president who wants to undermine everything that makes America great because he’s ashamed of his country. This is just standard rhetoric from Fox New pundits, radio show hosts, rank-and-file members of Congress, and party poobahs. It’s hardly even noteworthy anymore.
But the mirror image of that – Democrats saying that Republicans are deliberately sabotaging economic recovery – is virtually invisible. Krugman finally said it yesterday, but that’s it among high-profile liberal leaders. For the most part they’re just not willing to go there. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between the conservative noise machine and the liberal noise machine. One is noisy, the other is… restrained.
Or you could put it another way. Democrats like to solve problems, and Republican like to win. There’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side.
Drum also adds this:
For what it’s worth, my own view isn’t that Republicans are consciously trying to sabotage the economy. Rather, I think it’s really easy to convince yourself of things that are in your own self-interest, and that’s mostly what they’ve done. A bad economy is in their self-interest, so they’ve convinced themselves that every possible policy to improve things is a bad idea.
Digby, on the other hand, suggest such sabotage was always there, it’s just that the efforts were always covert and the politicians were always careful to keep up the fiction that they put the national interest above all else, so something has changed:
I think it’s just another step in the degradation of our societal norms. We are not living in a country anymore in which there is even a consensus about something as immoral as torture, so why should political sabotage be beyond the pale? And the mainstream media, which Benen points out should be charged with bringing some perspective to these issues and calling attention to the fact that the Republican Party is actively working to undermine the national interest, is so deep into their “Church of the Savvy” that they literally laugh at this phenomenon and then proceed to call balls and strikes as if it’s a sport to find out who can win with the most cynical strategy.
And she tells a tale of what she just saw on MSNBC:
Andrea Mitchell interviewed Senator Richard Lugar, elder statesman and nuclear disarmament specialist. He was extremely agitated that the Senate was about to scuttle the START treaty for reasons that were petty and unintelligible to anyone who cares about the idea of a loose nuke or accidental launch of an ancient soviet missile. (One would have thought that group would include all elected officials, but clearly not.) Anyway, she interviewed him and then had on Ambassador Richard Burt who negotiated the original START treaty back in 1991. She said, “I haven’t seen Richard Lugar that fired up about this issue in quite a long time, and it’s because, on the face of it, what is the explanation? When you read this treaty, the preamble to the treaty, what is the explanation for saying that this is bad for U.S. interests?”
He replied, and I kid you not, that he thinks Republicans only want nuclear treaties to be signed under GOP administrations. Mitchell, of course, just said “ah” and blithely carried on as if they were talking about Karl Rove’s election strategy and that was that.
And Digby has her theories:
Perhaps one can attribute all this to the new media world in which everyone is now a political pundit and so strategy is considered a moral value in itself. And it’s certainly the case that those who live inside the conservative media bubble believe that Obama is a Muslim socialist terrorist sympathizer so, in their view, stopping anything he does by definition isn’t sabotage, it’s patriotism. (And when you saw people interviewed at the Glenn Beck rally, many of them simply couldn’t believe that Beck repeatedly called Obama a racist – so it’s possible that many right wing citizens haven’t totally abandoned these social norms, but that they just don’t realize their leaders have.)
Whatever the case, I do know that the old “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue” thing is long gone in national Republican politics and they are just blatantly proclaiming themselves to be virtuous by undermining the national interest in order to win elections. That is now seen as a positive good, not a shameful unpatriotic act. Because in American life, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
And perhaps it’s best to see Paul Krugman said in his column, Axis of Depression:
What do the government of China, the government of Germany and the Republican Party have in common? They’re all trying to bully the Federal Reserve into calling off its efforts to create jobs…. It’s not as if the Fed is doing anything radical. It’s true that the Fed normally conducts monetary policy by buying short-term U.S. government debt, whereas now, under the unhelpful name of “quantitative easing,” it’s buying longer-term debt. (Buying more short-term debt is pointless because the interest rate on that debt is near zero.) But Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, had it right when he protested that this is “just monetary policy.” The Fed is trying to reduce interest rates, as it always does when unemployment is high and inflation is low.
Krugman argues that the case for Fed action is overwhelming, and reasonable (or even boring to some of us) – but there’s the China-Germany-Republican axis of depression. China and Germany are accustomed to running huge trade surpluses and this messed that up for them. But why the Republicans are joining in this attack is puzzling:
Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues seem stunned to find themselves in the crosshairs. They thought they were acting in the spirit of none other than Milton Friedman, who blamed the Fed for not acting more forcefully during the Great Depression – and who, in 1998, called on the Bank of Japan to “buy government bonds on the open market,” exactly what the Fed is now doing.
Republicans, however, will have none of it, raising objections that range from the odd to the incoherent. The odd: on Monday, a somewhat strange group of Republican figures – who knew that William Kristol was an expert on monetary policy? – released an open letter to the Fed warning that its policies “risk currency debasement and inflation”… not explaining why we should fear inflation when the reality is that inflation keeps hitting record lows.
Two Republicans, Mike Pence in the House and Bob Corker in the Senate, have called on the Fed to abandon all efforts to achieve full employment and focus solely on price stability. Why? Because unemployment remains so high. No, I don’t understand the logic either.
So there you have it. China and Germany want America to stay uncompetitive; Republicans want the economy to stay weak as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House, so they win.
And the economist Brad DeLong offers this:
Paul Krugman sees a material interest link: he sees German and Chinese governments that seek a continued large U.S. trade deficit to allow their export surpluses, Republican politicians who think trashing the economy is the way to majorities, and economists who think that supporting Republican politicians is the road to influence. I don’t think that can be a complete explanation: very few people are comfortable living with the idea that they are villains wreaking destruction on the world for their own narrow advantage.
But maybe they have convinced themselves that wreaking destruction on the world for their own narrow advantage is patriotic, as they are the Real Americans, or something.
And “BooMan” offers this:
There is a high degree of cynicism in how the Republicans operate and that certainly helps explain why they don’t support certain things that they used to support. But regardless of some shrewd and ruthless hypocrisy, and regardless of what the true leaders of this country really think about Gods, Guns, and Gays, the real driver of the current Republican Party is the narrative they tell each other every day in their little media loop of FOX News, hate radio, and their various online outfits.
A few years ago, Republicans believed in climate change. Then they decided to spread doubt about climate change through their Wurlitzer. Now most Republicans doubt that climate change is occurring. It’s important that they’ve been using their Wurlitzer to say that the government both cannot and should not stimulate job creation. It means that most rank-and-file Republicans now believe that to be true. It also means that the Republicans can’t disown their cynicism now that they are partly responsible for creating jobs. They’ve taught their base to believe that the only way for the federal government to create jobs is to lower taxes and regulations. They are oblivious to all evidence of what creates strong, weak, and no stimulus to an economy.
It’s just odd:
There are smart people in the Republican Party who know that the economy is going to suck for the next two years and that people are going to suffer. Some of them know that the federal government can do something about it and that cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans isn’t going to help. They might even be worried that the American people will punish them if they refuse to do anything or to work with the president in any constructive way. But they’re helpless to change course because they’ve poisoned the minds’ of their base. And, it’s not only their base, because I think most incoming freshmen are true-believing dittoheads.
Focus entirely on winning, and spread nihilist nonsense, and you may win, but the nonsense persists, and then there’s real trouble:
If you wanted to design a party to destroy America’s economy, you couldn’t do much better than the current GOP. But are they going to do it for purely cynical reasons or because they’re crazy? The answer is – a little of each.
The top echelon – the movers and shakers – have never been social conservatives and the only ideology they’re wedded to is keeping as much cash for themselves as possible. They probably don’t want the U.S. economy to suck for the next two years, although most of them are smart enough to win at the casino either way. But the lower level Republicans, including a good percentage of their caucuses? They’re going to fuck everything up because they’re crazy.
Are they crazy? They want to win. And they did win. They won big. And problem solving is for the intellectuals, the nerdy wonks, the losers.
And of course the only place this conflict was ever resolved was in Czechoslovakia, in 1989 – and Vaclav Havel is still puzzled by that.