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.



Y'know, this sounds well and good and all, but...is Obama really to the right of Clinton? Of Carter? I'm confident that he's to the left of Carter, and I think he's fairly similar to Clinton, but likely to the left. Is the Congress elected in 2008 to the right of the ones elected in 1994-2004? Certainly not. What about the Congresses elected in 1980-1984? I don't think so. The Congresses elected in 1986-1992? That's a harder call, but it's not particularly obvious to me that those older Congresses were to the left of the current one.

I do think there was a big shift in the 1970s to 1980s, in which most liberals decided that markets were pretty effective at certain things (so liberals could support a market-based acid rain solution, and current liberals can support market-based health care and climate solutions. Now, people differ on this...some on the left will argue that the difference between the right and the left is that the right likes markets while the left doesn't. Others, as I said post-1980, argue that the difference between the right and the left are their goals, and whether or not to harness markets to achieve those goals is a technocratic problem, not an ideological question. If you're in the first group, you believe the country moved to the right; if you're in the second group, in my view there's no reason to believe the country has turned to the right. I do think there's a large gap between those two groups, though.

Steven Rubio

I can't get a bead on Obama yet ... I'd say the jury's still out on him. As for Congress, that's an interesting point. I want to say that Republicans have moved to the right of even the Newt era, and I think as long as the Democrats act like 41-59 puts them in the minority, they seem to have moved to the right. But you're correct, I can't really say that about the Congresses as a whole, which means the previous sentence must be nonsense.

As for the left's opinion of markets, it probably depends on how far left you go. I still don't know much about the guy who wrote the above, but as far as I can tell, he thinks the Kos crowd is too moderate. I'd say that there is an element on the left that doesn't like markets. I'd say that there was a time when they represented the margins just outside of the Democratic Party ... that the most liberal Democrat still believed in markets. I think both major parties continue to believe in markets. But I can't shake the feeling that whereas once the socialists were on the outside looking in, now the most progressive liberals also find themselves marginalized.

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