Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Left, the Right, and the Iron Law of Emulation
From the Times Saturday morning:

When Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the liberal blog Daily Kos, proposed that Democrats vote for Rick Santorum in open Republican primaries, many of the site’s 1.6 million monthly readers protested.

Mr. Moulitsas wanted to prolong the Republican presidential nominating battle. “The longer this G.O.P. primary drags on, the better the numbers for Team Blue,” Mr. Moulitsas wrote as he introduced the plan, Operation Hilarity, on Wednesday. He said it would not take many mischief-making Democrats to swing some contests away from Mitt Romney toward Mr. Santorum.

In his place of eternal repose, the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan nods knowingly: this is his Iron Law of Emulation, which posited that entities in conflict increasingly come to mimic each other. I would suggest a corollary: the more intractable the conflict, the stronger the tactical resemblance.

Anyone who paid even semi-close attention to the 2008 election will remember Republicans, commandeered by Rush Limbaugh, doing the exact same thing to prolong and embitter the Clinton-Obama primary fight. Then as now, it made tactical sense while further eroding what’s left of the soul of American democracy.

As a human response, I find this understandable. As it becomes ever more difficult to maintain the fiction that our society is anything other than an oligarchy in which those at the top can fix the rules in real time to maintain their enormous advantages, it can’t seem anything other than rational to exert what little agency we have to likewise rig the game. The Limbaugh listener who voted for the despised murderous lesbian Hillary Clinton in an open Democratic primary solely to fuck up the Kenyan Muslim socialist Obama doubtless got a small thrill from doing so; likewise the Daily Kos poster who pulls the lever for the Christianist maniac Santorum just to thwart the goofy-yet-heartless plutocrat Romney.

But it just doesn’t seem, I dunno, sporting—and I think it misses the larger point. This ties to the inchoate but real sense that the Tea Party and the Occupy movement are pissed off about at least some of the same things: the said rigging of the game that allows elites, whether cultural or economic or both, to exert all the control. Wouldn’t it be better to focus our energies on shared goals of fixing the game rather than exploiting and reinforcing its flaws for very parochial ends?

At least for me, this vision of rewriting the rules to restore the fundamentals of our Republic explains the theoretical appeal of reform-minded entities such as Americans Elect. But the unfortunate reality is that Americans Elect so perfectly embodies that ultra-centrist and Beltway-centric mindset that emphasizes debt reduction and vague bipartisan collegiality over either true structural reform or tangible policy changes that it almost could be a caricature. It could have sprung full-formed from the brows of David Broder or David Gergen. It’s an almost absurdly elitist product within a vaguely populist and reformist wrapper.

(Sure enough, here comes Tom Friedman to raise the flag again on Sunday. Were the franchise limited to white middle- and upper-class men with bachelors degrees or higher, David Walker might approach Perot's numbers from 1992. Naturally, Friedman completely fails to grasp that Perot's appeal was less about his specific "program," such as it was, than his sense that people are friggin' pissed.)

The real question here, however, is of legitimacy. In a recent New York Review of Books article, Elizabeth Drew asks a question that initially struck me as somewhere between goofy and plaintive--"Can We Have a Democratic Election?"--but turns out to be very real, and very concerning. The functioning of our society rests upon shared notions of fairness and, if not equality per se, then at least the sense that we all face the same set of possibilities in life. If that dissolves, what's left is something we might call America, but that will become unrecognizably different from our best conception of that word.

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