Cross-posted from my Live Journal.
An old joke about academia:
Q: “Why are battles in academia so fierce?”
A: “Because the rewards are so small.”
At first it seems like a non-sequitur, which means it's not so much funny as silly. But if you think about it, the punchline is true by itself: rewards in academia are quite small. The salaries are lower than they are in industry; the apprenticeship period (not only the tortures of graduate school, but the poorly paid non-tenured posts that follow) is especially long and difficult; the list goes on and on. Then the real humor of the joke hits. It expresses a bitter truth in a terse, relevatory way. Imagine you've gotten lost in the woods in the prime of your life and you've gotten stuck in a fetid swamp or bog along with other similar unfortunates: after years of struggling against them just to keep from being drowned, you manage to find some tiny patch of land on which you might actually sit and rest. Think you can take it without a bloody struggle? Of course not. Think you can keep it without resorting to dreadful violence? By this time, your sensibilities will be so coarsened that you probably look forward to such battles.
Believe it or not, I'm not trying to impugn the academic enterprise as a whole (although I probably should) or the young people who want to join its ranks. The earnest supplicants often don't know what they're getting into (see Dorothea Salo's ‘Straight Talk about Graduate School’ and her harrowing ‘A Tale of Graduate School Burnout’ for details) and every sufficiently advanced society needs intellectuals, and academia is the institution entrusted with producing them, although it generally turns out blinkered, socially inept specialists in micro-disciplines. Society needs those people too, but the two types shouldn't be confused. Instead, I want to raise the question: why are the rewards so small? I don't have an answer, and taking on the question seriously could be a lifetime's work. But now that I've got the question in your mind, here's a variation on the first joke:
Q: “Why are battles on what passes for the opposition in America so fierce?”
A: “Because the rewards are so small.”
And the question again: why are the rewards so small? My suspicion: the major organ of oppositional politics in America, the Democratic party, is absolutely committed to being the minority party.
Explaination by way of interrogation:
Wait a minute. The Dems are only the opposition party now, and the same goes for their status as minority party. Your suspicion is internally incoherent.
Consider the regnant organization within the Democratic party, the Democratic Leadership Council. It has repudiated the New Deal/Great Society positions, foresaken a mass base for a big business constiuency, and adapted an electoral strategy known as ‘triangulation,’ where candidates' positions supposed to be in the ‘center’ between current conservative and previous New Deal/Great Society ones. It therefore caters not to swing voters but swing business interests. Since the Republicans assiduously serve business at large, those disaffected sectors of the business community that will seek relief from another party will always be a minority of business interests. Add to this the DLC's neglect of mass politics and you have an organization that is, by definition, serving a niche market. Even worse, the members of that niche are transients; if one industry sector is out in the cold one electoral cycle, it may be brought into the Republican/plutocratic fold by the next one.
At this point, my interlocutor might give one of two objections:
1. Well, that's just the DLC, and not the party.
2. The New Deal/Great Society positions weren't viable; they had to go.
There's not much to the first one: Clinton, Gore, Lieberman, Kerry, and Edwards (to run through the past few Presidential tickets) were all DLC. Howard Dean was not substantially opposed to the DLC (remember his “I was a triangular before Clinton” line?) but tried to wrap its ideology in populist rhetoric; Joe Biden, first in the ring for the '08 race is DLC; and then there's Hilary Clinton. If the poster boy for taking back the party is just trying to repackage the DLC's ideology as “edgy,” then the project isn't just doomed but rather a con job, plain and simple. So much for that.
The second objection is more difficult to address because you have to get at the intentions of the person making the statement, and that's something I'm loathe to do. Did those programs fail to reduce poverty? That's an empirical issue, and a complex one; I confess I don't know the answer. But is that what's meant when people say the New Deal/Great Society (or more commonly, Welfare State) programs weren't working? It's not clear. The objection is sometimes a coded appeal to racism, sometimes an expression of frustration with the liberal rhetoric of the time, sometimes an expression of frustration at the inability to counter the right-wing tropes that gained currency during the late 70s, etc. But those aren't objections worth addressing; best to stick to the narrow, economic question. Whether or not the Welfare State policies worked, poverty, income inequity, access to health care, and other class issues all remain serious problems in this country. Ignoring a problem does not fix it; simply declaring it a non-problem does not make it so. Income inequality has been getting worse and its fair to say we're in a health care crisis now. Advocating trade policies that will benefit only a tiny minority of the population while exascerbating the aforementioned conditions is politics is reprehensible to begin with, and considering that those interests are already served by the dominant party, it's stupid to boot—but only if you're interested in being the dominant majority party.
Those of you who haven't stopped reading in disgust are either nodding your heads in agreement or wondering what brought this on—or both. What got me thinking about this was a comment by the shadowy Turbulent Velvet at his own blog, UFO Breakfast Recipients:
Let's take any vicious card-carrying wingnut and put them in the grilling chair on some mythical lefty news show. Let's accuse them of sneaky complicity with abortion bombers, or Pat Robertson, or PNAC, or a mountain militia. What will their answer be? Think about this, because you already know the answer. They'll say: "I'm not a member of X and I can't really speak to their views. You'll have to ask one of their spokesmen about that. What I do know is that..." And it's back to the talking point. If you press the point with an aggressive quotation from the Bad Fringe group, they'll say: "Well, I don't agree with all of that. But the crucial point is that..." And it's back to the talking point. No triangulation. Minimalize being baited into open confrontation with anyone else in the coalition. I hate to put this way, but yes: stick to the ISSUE.
And I want to say to the managerial left: how fucking hard is it to do that? It's a good and reasonable way to avoid fragmenting a coalition for no useful gain.
From the fifth comment here.
The tactics outlined are, of course, the exact opposite of Dem/DLC tactics: attack your Fringe groups, even (especially) those that are not BadTM, and align yourself with a modified version of your opponent's position. At first it seems like a sure formula for losing, right? Well, that depends on how you define winning. If I'm correct and the DLC intends to cater to the ever-changing members of the temporarily disempowered business sectors, then it's the right tactic. It's a small party, but it's a stable one. It'll take the Presidency (and perhaps a majority in one but not both chambers of Congress) whenever the excesses of the Republicans threaten capitalism in the US, find some new way to keep the Ponzi schemes going (or replace the old ones with new ones) and then settle back into its preferred mode as minority opposition once M→C→M' is working reliably again. Of course, to do that, it has to play so-called progressives for suckers, to whom I say De te fabula narratur—the tale is told of you. Or, if you prefer, you're the punchline.