The House Edge

Via Krugman, an excellent post by Amanda Marcotte on the power of the Republicans in controlling the negotiations on the debt. Basically, her point is that whatever you think of Obama, the reason the debt struggle goes poorly for liberals is, unsurprisingly, the Republicans.

Democrats who are upset at Obama—like Krugman himself—puzzle me. Many liberals demand to know why he doesn’t demand more left wing policies. Much the same complaint, as Marcotte notes, was directed at Bill Clinton.

 If we use my crude materialist/nationalist/cosmopolitan model, we get the following: Obama, like most Democrats, is cosmopolitan. That means, essentially, he is out to improve the world, promote multiculturalism and human rights across the world, increase tolerance, increase economic and social equality, and so on.

The Republican party is a coalition of materialistic business interests, who promote laissez-faire capitalism (when it suits them) and in general pursue the philosophy of maximizing material wealth, and of nationalistic groups who demand that strict traditional social roles and values be upheld.

Like most triumvirates, this model has resulted in two ganging up to defeat the other one. Obama, like Clinton before him, is therefore completely at the mercy of the Republican party when it comes to economic issues.

One thing that will be noted by anyone who examines the phenomenon is that the Nationalistic wing almost never gets its way on social issues. Note, for example, that under Obama gays have been allowed to serve openly in the military. (Again, this had been something Clinton had also taken steps towards achieving.) The Republicans allowed this, by not fighting with nearly the same fury they put into the debt deal.

Almost all of this is quite obvious, and I am hardly the first to notice any of it. (For an excellent description of how this system works, read Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas.)  
So, in short, Democrats get to win on social issues—sometimes—as long as they do not tamper with the business interests. If they attempt to, the business interests will remind the nationalists that the Democrats put all this social liberalism into effect, and the Dems will promptly be voted out.

Again, this is where Thomas Frank is excellent: he points out that this scheme has been going on for decades now, and apparently the nationalists refuse to see it. 

It’s impossible to overemphasize that business interests and nationalism are almost completely opposed by nature. Nationalists have no use for businesses that know no national loyalty, and business has no use for non-materialistic bounds on where it may build factories or whom it may hire. Nationalists are not natural allies of the rich businessman who swears allegiance only to profits.

The alliance, therefore, ought to be fraught with incredible tension. That it isn’t is almost shocking; that it is considered the more stable and ordered of the two parties verges on miraculous—or supernatural, at any rate.

I suspect the price they pay for this shocking discipline is the number of… shall we say…”colorful personalities” they seem to attract. Paul Graham once pointed out that Democrats seem to be “earnest, but dull” compared to Republicans. I think this is because it’s impossible to honestly believe all of the things in the Republican party line without being a rather confused person. At least, I don’t see how you do it.

That’s not to say it makes no sense to have this strategic alliance between the nationalists and the materialistic groups—that’s what politics is all about, after all—but it is bizarre that it is regarded as completely natural.

This, by the way, is why they make attacks like this against the President. The constant “he is not one of us” drumbeat may play to racial issues, but it’s more than that. Almost every Democratic candidate Presidential candidate faces an allegation of not being “American” enough for some reason. 

It is absolutely necessary for the survival of this coalition that the nationalists remain convinced that the government itself is anti-American, or at least run by people who are when they make any attempt to regulate business.  If they don’t believe that, the greedy interests will not have the clout they currently enjoy. Until that day, Liberals will have to content themselves with the Obamas and Clintons of the world–people who do what they can with a bad hand.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?