by Eric Martin
John Cole uses news of resistance among certain Democratic lawmakers to some of President-elect Obama's tax cut proposals as an occasion to delineate between the virtues of healthy debate vs. the vice-like tendency to engage in the dread circular firing squad.
Let me be clear. I think this is a good thing. This is healthy. They are debating actual ideas, and there are disagreements, and hopefully they will work them out and come to a healthy endpoint. Maybe the Republicans will pull their heads out of their collective asses and decide that in the wake of the DOW dropping 80,000 points and massive unemployment and five quarters of negative growth there is something more important than capital gains tax cuts, Elian Gonzalez, Terri Schiavo, and the fairness doctrine, and join in the debate and act for once in good faith and with the best interests of the country in mind. A man can hope.
At any rate, I don’t think of this as the Democratic circular firing squad. When I think of that, I think of the kind of idiocy we have experienced the last few weeks, when DiFi gets butthurt about Panetta because her ring was not kissed enough and says things that she will have to walk back from in the future. Or when a bunch of people get upset at the number of vaginas in the cabinet and we are told we might as well have elected Rush Limbaugh. Or Rick Warren speaks for 3 minutes at the inauguration and Democrats everywhere shriek that Obama hates gays and some idiots go so far as to cancel their inauguration parties. Or anything Harry Reid has done since November 4th or whenever any jackass anywhere states “That is not the change I voted for” when the man isn’t even in office yet. That sort of nonsense, is to me, at least, the true Democratic circular firing squad.
Not actual debates about policy.
I tend to agree. Not only are such debates healthy, they are vital to the formation of good policy. The ability to engage in such dialectical exercises - with the likelihood that those policies that emerge victorious in the competition of ideas will be implemented - is what makes liberal democracies more efficient than more autocratic models. Democracy has its advantages, this is one of them, and we would be foolish not to utilize it to the fullest.
Along these lines, I'm hopeful that the Obama administration can bring about a return to a method of governance modeled on the embrace competing ideas - not fear of dissent - both within the White House and Washington at large. That was one of the more grievous structural flaws in the Bush administration's approach to governance - and the way the Republican Party acquiesced to that approach. A recent essay by Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry on the likelihood (or lack thereof) of the emergence of an autocratic model of governance to compete with liberal democracies speaks to the deleterious nature of the dynamic:
[A]utocratic hierarchies have to contend with limitations on their performance because of weak accountability and insufficient flows of information. Their top-down, closed structure chokes off information from outside sources and distorts it, due to the imperatives of political control. Closed political systems are prone to policy mistakes arising from bad information. The historical record of tyrannies, despotisms, and dictatorships bears this out. Contemporary autocratic capitalist regimes show much greater capacities than their precapitalist predecessors, but they are still intrinsically impeded by censorship and the absence of open debate on policy alternatives.
The Bush administration was, at the very least, effective at maintaining a remarkable degree of top-down discipline within the White House and within the Party ranks on Capitol Hill. Dissent was simply not tolerated, and any bit of data or intelligence that called into question the advisability of policies and directives from on high was dismissed, downplayed and discredited. Recall, the Bush administration literally discarded reams of valuable scholarship on Iraq and the post-invasion environment because, well, because that work contemplated the potential for phenomena that would be considered outside the best-case-scenario, hoped-for outcomes. Real-world obstacles were treated as bad PR. The intelligence failures followed a similar arc, both before the invasion and during the occupation. Policy was based on the political, not the empirical. The outcomes were unsurprising.
There is room to criticize Obama's proposed stimulus plan: some could plausibly argue that certain of the tax cuts are less than ideal in terms of delivering stimulus and/or job growth. Others still, that the plan fails to optimize infrastructure spending and international cooperation. Which says nothing about hoped-for well-reasoned criticism from the right. To achieve that, however, the GOP must abandon another vestige that predated the Bush administration's tenure, but reached its apex in terms of fulfillment during that eight years. I'm talking about the cult-like dedication to tax cuts and deregulation as panaceas to rectify any problem, or as lubricants to perpetuate any boom. Again, Deudney and Ikenberry offer a germane paragraph:
At the same time, Americans should always acknowledge that there will be variation in the preferred liberal democratic model and that the United States is not always the best or the fullest embodiment of liberal democracy. In particular, the tendency to equate Western liberal democracy with the Reagan-era antigovernment ideology and the minimalist "Washington consensus" version of state regulation does injustice to the protean character of the liberal model and the often important ways in which appropriately crafted state interventions are essential for its success. The Western liberal model has flourished because of its capacity to creatively mutate in the face of new problems and challenges -- and its next adaptations to problems such as the current financial meltdown may well produce a new balance between the state and the private sector. As the world becomes increasingly liberal and democratic, there are growing opportunities for even the most successful liberal states -- such as the United States -- to learn from their partners.
Not just from our partners, but from our recent past - which the GOP seems to want to deny as just another piece of bad data that doesn't fit the narrative. In that vein, the solutions to the current crisis proposed by the GOP thus far involve making Bush's tax cuts permanent, and enacting a new round of sizable capital gains tax cuts. Oh, and stave off any new regulatory regime or state-based reform of the health care system.
Color me shocked.