Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Partisanship and oppositionalism

Dagood writes about mindless oppositionalism, but I think he misses some important considerations. First, he does not clearly explicitly present oppositionalism and extreme partisanship as a specifically Republican tactic. The Democratic party and the liberal intelligentsia struggles to work up the bare minimum of the partisanship necessary for an intentionally adversarial political system. Second, although it seems obviously true that the right-wing and Republicans are extremely partisan, Dagood fails to make the case that their partisanship is mindless or contrary to their interests.

Politics is an adversarial system. We employ an adversarial system when the parties do not share common goals. The legal system is adversarial precisely because the goals of prosecution/plaintiffs are fundamentally opposed to those of the defense. The only commonality lies in the process, not in the outcome. Any "higher level" outcome, such as the "interests of justice" is supposed to emerge from the adversarial process; it doesn't inhere directly in any of the parties' duties or obligations*. Indeed none of the parties can have a direct mutual obligation to the interests of justice, because the legal system exists to determine which of the parties interests actually do represent the interests of justice.

*AFAIK, with my Law & Order J.D. the prosecution in the criminal justice system does have an inherent obligation to the interests of justice: they cannot prosecute a defendant they believe to be not guilty and must disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. I suspect this obligation is often honored more in the breach than the observance.

Contrast this principle with a non-adversarial system such as science. Although there is tension and conflict in science, there is a larger meta-principle in science that all scientists have a common goal: the discovery of truth. Each scientist has an inherent obligation to seek the truth, although they are, of course, expected to argue vigorously for what they sincerely believe to be true against those who sincerely believe alternatives. A scientist — unlike an attorney — does not "win" if he successfully blocks the discovery of truth in favor of his own mistaken opinion.

(I do not at all intend to disparage attorneys here. The justice system has a fundamentally different kind of goal than the scientific process, and even as a communist, I believe an adversarial legal system is superior to any plausible alternative, especially a legal system modeled more closely on scientific investigation.)

Partisanship and oppositionalism on general principles are ineluctable features of any adversarial system. An advocate often cannot reliably predict the outcome of an opponent's action: in an adversarial system, it would be sheer folly to permit an opponent to prevail when you could thwart him, even if — and especially if — you're uncertain of the outcome. (The exception (again relying on my Law & Order J.D.) is that it's counter-productive to oppose actions when you're confident you'll lose.)

It's difficult — almost impossible — in an adversarial system to rationally criticize only an opponent for oppositionalism: such a criticism would be obviously self-defeating. But it's also odd to criticize both sides for oppositionalism: an adversarial system is by its nature oppositional. Of course the right wing and the Republican party does criticize the "oppositionalism" of left wing and the Democratic party, but this criticism succeeds only because the Republicans rely directly on delusion (false ideas about objectively truth) among their voters and popular support.

Indeed, the entire narrative of oppositionalism as a negative has been pushed by the right wing and Republicans for no other reason than to undermine the effectiveness and power of the left wing and Democratic party in an inherently adversarial system. And it's a narrative that's working not only in their own popular support, but also working in the liberal intelligentsia, charged with forming and evaluating liberal policy and ideology.

We can't and shouldn't criticize oppositionalism in general in an adversarial system, but we can and should, of course, criticize mindless or unwarranted oppositionalism. But what makes oppositionalism mindless or unwarranted?

Oppositionalism is unwarranted when an advocate opposes something she knows or ought to know is in his or her interests. Dagood offers two examples: he excluded opposing evidence (improperly introduced by his opponent) in a civil trial that later would have helped him, and he remarks that the health care bill presently before congress appears to be in the interests of the right wing and Republicans.

There are two ways to evaluate the first example. He doesn't say so explicitly, but presumably Dagood believes he should have known that the evidence he excluded would have helped him. He didn't rely on general principles when he couldn't have known the outcome, he allowed his reliance on general principles to lazily shortcut an analysis he could have performed. Perhaps not his finest hour as an attorney, but what conclusion can we draw from this example, other than even competent professionals sometimes make mistakes?

We cannot draw the conclusion that we should never rely on general principles, nor can we draw the conclusion that we should not rely on oppositionalism as a general principle in an adversarial process. Reality is far to complex to make every decision on the basis of analysis. There are too many cases where analysis cannot give us even a high degree of confidence. We have to rely on general principles, and a principle is general rather than universal precisely because it is not always correct. Assuming that the opposition are not complete idiots, the general principle seems entirely warranted that if the opposition wants it, it's probably not in your interest to allow it. (Of course we should be careful too: the opposition may not be completely incompetent, but neither are they omniscient, and they will make mistakes. But I think Dagood is trying to make a larger case than that we should just be careful.)

The second example is much more interesting: He makes the case that the health care bill (or a "good" bill, one with elements that have already been proposed and successfully defeated) would decrease taxes* and lower health care costs. The right wing wants lower taxes and lower health care costs, therefore their opposition to the health care bill has been contrary to their own interests, and thus constitutes mindless oppositionalism.

*Technically, I believe the intent is to lower the budget deficit, also a stated goal of the right wing and Republicans.

But keep in mind that the stated goal of a political party in an adversarial political system is not to get some policy implemented, it is to successfully elect members of the party to political office. It can easily be against the latter interest to allow the opposition to implement some element of one's own agenda, and especially for the opposition to take credit for that implementation. Clearly the Republican party officials might easily have good reason to oppose the Democratic implementation of a policy to which they would otherwise agree. Unless we can prove that blocking or obstructing the health care bill would be contrary to electoral success, we cannot call the party opposition "mindless" or irrational.

It is more to the point that the voters and popular support for the right wing really do want lower taxes and lower health care costs, and their opposition is irrational.
All they know is their leadership, in the form of media personalities, is whipping them into a frenzy of how the Democrats want to do….something. How the President proposes…something. Because the Democrats and the President is a “them”—they must oppose it! Not for what it is; not for a certain ideology. But because the other side wants it.
I just don't see this analysis as persuasive or correct. It seems fairly clear from even a superficial examination of the news that people who support right-wing politicians are very deeply deluded about the facts, a lot of facts. But it is precisely this delusion about the facts that argues against specifically mindless oppositionalism. The people aren't against the health care bill just because it's a Democratic initiative, the people are against the bill because they sincerely (albeit incorrectly) believe it is contrary to their interests.

There's something deeper going on in the right-wing than simple oppositionalism, mindless or not. The powers-that-be on right-wing have an agenda, an agenda that's seems more substantive than simply winning elections for members of the Republican party. They've lost too many elections (especially in 2007 and 2009), elections they could have won by modifying their ideology and policies. They have been remarkably disciplined about maintaining their core ideology even in the face of electoral defeat, far more disciplined than the left-wing and the Democratic party.

(Indeed the Democratic party seems unable to minimally function even as a partisan advocate in an adversarial situation. To draw a legal analogy, it's like they are a defense attorney faced with a prosecution that continuously tries to introduce prejudicial, irrelevant and unlawfully obtained evidence; it is their objections, not the prosecution's actions, that appear to be prejudicing the case before the jury. (Unlike in the law, in politics the "jury" — i.e. the voters — hears all the procedural actions.))

You do not achieve this kind of discipline without something indistinguishable from an underlying agenda. And this agenda cannot be successful unless it resonates with something deep in the human psyche, or at least in the psyche of a lot of people. As anyone who has debated Christians quickly learns, delusion requires not just ignorance but the active cooperation of the deluded. The deluded must not just be unaware of the facts, but learn elaborate modes of thought to deny the facts and rationalize their dismissal. It seems implausible to believe that anyone would engage in these elaborate mental gymnastics without some deep underlying emotional basis, a basis more complex than superficial identification with a political party.

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