damages, season premiere
you know i’m a sucker for this stuff

the ratchet effect

If there’s one thing I hope the students in my critical thinking class take with them after the fact, it’s that we need to apply our analysis not just to the opposition, but also, perhaps even particularly, to ourselves. I am always wary of being sucked in … this naturally makes me an easy mark … I’m pretty sure if you went back through last year’s blog posts, you’ll find someone who was in love with Obama’s charisma but felt compelled to resist the attraction every time it appeared, until the day I entered the voting booth and proudly voted for the man who would become our first African-American president.

Today something was forwarded to me via email that, on first reading, seemed so close to what I’ve tried to articulate over the years that it was spooky. So of course, I decided I needed to examine it, find stuff to rip apart, and post about it here. I haven’t really found anything yet, beyond ad hominem stuff. It isn’t new, so it’s entirely possible someone else has already done the ripping. But …

Michael J. Smith wrote a book called Stop Me Before I Vote Again. The chapter that was forwarded to me is called “The rightward ratchet (and how the Democrats help keep it going).” The ratchet effect is well-known enough to warrant a page on Wikipedia: “some processes cannot go backwards once certain things have happened, by analogy with the mechanical ratchet that holds the spring tight as a clock is wound up.” Smith applies this effect to an analysis of major-party politics in the USA. I’m not sure what I think of the entirety of his case, but one part certainly rang true to my way of thinking:

The American political system, since at least 1968, has been operating like a ratchet, and both parties -- Republicans and Democrats -- play crucial, mutually reinforcing roles in its operation.

The electoral ratchet permits movement only in the rightward direction. The Republican role is fairly clear; the Republicans apply the torque that rotates the thing rightward.

The Democrats' role is a little less obvious. The Democrats are the pawl. They don't resist the rightward movement -- they let it happen -- but whenever the rightward force slackens momentarily, for whatever reason, the Democrats click into place and keep the machine from rotating back to the left.

Here's how it works. In every election year, the Democrats come and tell us that the country has moved to the right, and so the Democratic Party has to move right too in the name of realism and electability. Gotta keep these right-wing madmen out of the White House, no matter what it takes.

(Actually, they don't say they're going to move to the right; they say they're going to move to the center. But of course it amounts to the same thing, if you're supposed to be left of center. It's the same direction of movement.)

So now the Democrats have moved to the "center." But of course this has the effect of shifting the "center" farther to the right.

Now, as a consequence, the Republicans suddenly don't seem so crazy anymore -- they're closer to the center, through no effort of their own, because the center has shifted closer to them. So they can move even further right, and still end up no farther from the "center" than they were four years ago.

There’s a lot more to Smith’s argument, and like I say, I don’t know what to make of much of it. But I’ve long argued, not that the thinking of the “average American” has moved to the right, but that our definition of “the center” has changed, so that the center of today is further right than it was in the past, which means the liberals of today are more like the centrists of the past. And the liberals of the past today look like extremists. Smith’s construct fits with that, I think, and relates to something I wrote awhile back, that “liberals” are often spoken of as a separate entity from “Democrats.” Here, it would seem that liberals can either join the Democrats in a move towards the right (“center”), or risk being labeled extremists who no longer matter.