Policy, Politics, and Strategy

Back in January, Freddie DeBoer wrote a post in which he noted the absence of a genuine left in the mainstream political blogosphere. He astutely observed that the distinction between the moderate and extreme left is generally formulated in terms of differences in tone–the calm ratiocination of an Ezra Klein versus the fiery polemic of a Glenn Greenwald. But in terms of their political allegiances and their policy preferences, all of these people are just regular mainstream liberals.

DeBoer went on to accuse most of the mainstream liberal bloggers of being neo-liberals, in the sense that they a) favored deregulation, globalization, and the general expansion of market relations; b) were instinctively more hostile to people on their left than to people on their right. Whatever the merits of this accusation, it started the discussion off on a hostile note. There was some discussion from folks like Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias, but then the conversation kind of trailed off.

Now, however, the debate seems to have re-started on a somewhat sounder footing. Once again, it started with somebody crticizing Matt Yglesias for being a neoliberal–in this case, Doug Henwood. For a while, it seemed like a rerun of a sterile debate that counterposed thinking about policy to thinking about politics. But Noah Millman came up with a good summary of what is actually at stake: the integration of policy analysis into a larger theory of politics. Henry Farrell then intervened with a framework that I think is very helpful:

He seems to be muddling three very different things together – “policy proposals,” “theories of politics,” and “actionable programs to rebuild the American left.” “Policy proposals” are clearly what he’s most comfortable with – proposed institutional or regulatory changes that would lead to attractive policy outcomes. And they are obviously good and important things to debate.

But equally obviously, they are not the whole of politics nor anywhere near it. Policy is not made, in the US or anywhere else, through value-neutral debate among technocrats about the relative efficiency of different proposed schemes. Hence, the need for a theory of politics – that is, a theory of how policy proposals can be guided through the political process, and implemented without being completely undermined. And this is all the more important, because (on most plausible theories of politics) there are interaction effects between policy choices at time a and politics at time a+1. The policy choices you make now may have broad political consequences in the future. Obvious examples include policies on campaign spending, or union organization, which directly affect the ability of political actors to mobilize in the future.

Here we have three distinct elements of a comprehensive left political strategy:

  • Detailed policy ideas
  • Short-term political strategies for building a coalition to implement policy ideas.
  • A long-term strategy for pursuing policies that strengthen the coalitions that can win and sustain progressive policies, rather than undermining them.

To some degree, there can be a division of labor between these three levels. It’s really too bad that Matt Yglesias somehow ended up in the middle of this debate again, because he isn’t really the issue. He’s focused on policy, and that’s fine–we need to have detailed policies lying around that successful political coalitions can draw on when they get into power. But to some degree, everyone has to have at least a basic idea about how the three levels fit together. Otherwise, as Farrell says, policy thinkers “have difficulty thinking about the interactions between short-term policy proposals that they like and the political conditions that might make these and other proposals achievable, and sustainable after they have been brought through.” This is where the criticism of policy wonk bloggers as neoliberals is correct–more so in some cases than others. There is a tendency to believe that politics happens by having good ideas and convincing people of them, rather than through the clash of power and interest.

My only real contribution here is to point to a specific example of the above contradiction playing out in our current politics. There has been a lot of discussion lately of Suzanne Mettler’s work on the submerged state: government policies and services that people benefit from but don’t realize that they benefit from. For example, the majority of people who benefit from the mortgage interest tax deduction don’t think they use government programs. This phenomenon is directly linked to one of the Left’s political problems: as J.P. Green points out, anti-government sentiment is still widespread among Americans even at a time when the need for regulation and intervention in the economy should be most obvious. That kind of attitude is very hard to combat if people aren’t aware that they benefit from government programs: “get the government’s hands off my Medicare”, and so on.

And I think you can directly connect this to the problem that Farrell addresses: neoliberal policy thinkers who lack a theory of politics, and hence don’t think carefully about whether they are promoting policies that will ultimately undermine the political basis for being able to win elections and enact progressive legislation. Specifically, they will often favor policies that grow the submerged state. This may make sense from a narrow policy perspective, since it does actually help people. But because it isn’t visible, it doesn’t do anything to increase the number of people who think that government programs make a positive difference in their lives.

This problem also arose in the adminstration’s attempt to stimulate the economy. To take one very specific example: consider the tax cut that the Obama administration passed. This was an income tax cut of $400 to $800 per year. But instead of sending people checks, the administration decided to quietly reduce the amount of withholding from paychecks. From a technical policy wonk standpoint, this was a perfectly defensible idea. The idea, based on Sunstein-Thaler “nudge”-type theories of libertarian paternalism, was that if people didn’t notice their temporary windfall they would be more likely to spend rather than save it. The consequence is that doing the tax cut this way makes it more effective as stimulus in the short run.

But the downside is now clear: most people didn’t realize they got a tax cut at all. From the policy wonk perspective, of course, that was the point–but it meant that Obama didn’t gain anything politically from having cut taxes, and Republicans could still go around claiming that he had raised taxes.

As the old saying goes, you may not be interested in theories of politics, but theories of politics are interested in you.


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