A Good Place to Start

By Paul Cezanne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Apples are just like oranges. Spread some peanut butter on an apple wedge, spread some peanut butter on an orange slice, same difference. Am I right?

Of course not.

As explained in this blog’s first post ever, the major theme here will likely be the myths and misunderstandings that bedevil contemporary American politics. It is my good fortune then that David Roberts at Vox has just written a clearer, more interesting and detailed piece than I could ever write about one of the more persistent, and malignant, myths out there (via). This would be the idea that both major American political parties are filled with equal numbers of uncompromising extremists and are equally to blame for Washington gridlock, so obviously splitting the difference between the two sides will result in good solid middle-of-the-road policies and we can all have a pony.

Using as a hook some unsophisticated views of politics held by otherwise sophisticated people in the tech world, Roberts dismantles the notion that both-sides-do-it is a valid way to understand our politics. Roberts finds Tim Urban at Wait But Why using both-sides-do-it-politics-is-stupid-bro to explain the failure to enact a revenue-neutral carbon tax, a “logical” policy for reining in emissions and dealing with climate change. I happen to mostly agree with Urban on the policy! However, he could not be more wrong about the reasons such a common-sense policy has not been enacted yet.

In 2009, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES). It was then “defeated” in the Senate, but here defeated means that it never came up for a vote because a minority of Republican senators wouldn’t allow it. Democrats held a majority in the Senate at the time, but the Republican minority was in the process of perfecting its unprecedented, total obstruction strategy. Simply put, Senate Republicans began serially abusing the filibuster to require 60 votes to move all legislation, a tactic previously used mostly in special circumstances. Soon after Obama’s inauguration, Republicans were filibustering routine legislation and executive branch appointments. In hindsight, whatever you think about the policy merits, it is practically a miracle that the Affordable Care Act ever passed.

So why didn’t the new House of Representatives in 2011 re-introduce climate legislation? You win a year’s free subscription to this blog if you guessed “Republicans made huge gains in the 2010 midterm elections and took control of the House of Representatives.” From 2011 on, climate legislation has been dead-on-arrival, and even deader-on-arrival since Republicans took over the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections.

There is a more nuanced narrative of how ACES failed in the Senate, in which Obama and other Democrats are not blameless. At bottom, though, the both-sides-do-it myth obscures the harsh reality that most Democrats wanted ACES to pass and most Republicans opposed ACES and opposed the idea that climate change is even real. ACES and a bunch of other bills would be law if not for Republican opposition and obstruction. The climate policy that Urban prefers definitively does not land in the middle of the two parties’ climate policy views. His policy preference lands squarely on the dirty hippie side of the aisle.

I happen to like most of the bills Democrats tried to pass starting in 2009. Maybe you do too, or maybe you don’t. The important thing is to understand that the two parties have very different agendas. The both-sides-do-it-there-must-be-a-great-policy-that-splits-the-difference myth is a myth. Throwing up our hands and blaming extremists on both sides in Washington for gridlock misses the point. The Democratic Party has a platform that it believes in and would like to make law. The Republican Party has a different platform.

This is a topic for a different post, but the parties have sorted themselves ideologically and there is little room for crossing the aisle and compromising anymore. It means the parties now stand for very different things, and the most right-leaning national Democrat is now to the left of the most left-leaning national Republican. The average voter probably doesn’t agree entirely with either party. But the average voter tends to have a set of beliefs that are somewhat consistent with one party or the other. This really is not that hard, and the first step is to shed the both-sides-do-it trope. A voter may agree with most of the Republican Party’s agenda. But she shouldn’t kid herself about where the parties stand and the likelihood of compromise. There is no middle ground between (R) all abortions should be criminalized and (D) abortions should be equally accessible to all women all over the country, or between (R) build a giant Game of Thrones-style wall and deport all people living in the country illegally and (D) create a path to citizenship for these people. This applies to most policy problems at the national level.

It would be great if the two parties could compromise in good faith and move the country forward. They are just too far apart on most issues in their current incarnations. Voters need to stop complaining about how neither party is willing to act on a particular issue when one of the parties clearly is. With those both-sides-do-it blinders off, voters can determine a strategy for easing gridlock in Washington. Hint: figure out which party you agree with most, and work to give that party unified control of Washington. Easy answer, difficult task!

UPDATE: I now see Paul Krugman has also written about Roberts’ piece. Krugman uses it to try to explain why tech types and others fall for both-sides-do-it. Check it out.


10 thoughts on “A Good Place to Start

  1. You lay your fingers so lightly on the relativism of apples and oranges. The two parties aren’t equally obstructionist. Their opposing views and actions are not mirror images of each other. Why do we know this?


    • Good question. Since the late 70s the Republican Party has moved much, much further to the right than the Democratic Party has moved to the left. Check out the striking graph in this post by Jonathan Chait:


      Perhaps the best example of why the two parties are not equal partners in obstruction is that almost every Republican of consequence has signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to never raise taxes under any circumstances. This makes it impossible to strike any bargains on big issues. Obama and many Democrats have been willing to cut spending and tweak programs in ways they’d rather not in exchange for more revenue, but Speaker Boehner and the Republicans have rebuffed them at every turn. This also happens to expose the idea that Republicans care about the deficit for the fraud it is.


      • dsfjr,

        Be careful conflating all the Republicans into this well used straw-dog. There are rational explanations for many of the Republican positions that began well before the 1970s. Using respected regressive studies academics still debate which of the colossal “moves” to the left that occurred between the 1930s and 1970s had real benefits on society. So to begin your survey from the late 1970s (when the current move to the right began) is already to misrepresent both the pendulum and the Republicans. While the data seems to show that many of our federal humanitarian programs have had undeniable benefits across the board, some also have not. It is also true that there is never funding for all the desirable programs. So some Republican pushback was always in the cards. That said, in my opinion there is the sense that republicans are unwilling to come to the table on any issue, favoring a status quo, but I want a more nuanced explanation why the two parties are not equally obstructionist.



  2. Some times things are not particularly nuanced. What does it matter to the discussion at hand that northern Republicans helped pass civil rights legislation and welfare programs over the course of the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s when that species of Republican is extinct today? I’m writing about the Republican party as it exists today.

    You give the game away with “there is never funding for all the desirable programs.” Of course there is. It’s a matter of priorities and policies. The Democratic party believes in creating universal pre-K, expanding Social Security, expanding Medicaid, and preserving Medicare (among many other things!) and is willing to raise the revenue needed to make these things happen. Republican push back is “always in the cards” because REPUBLICANS TODAY DO NOT BELIEVE IN SOCIAL WELFARE PROGRAMS. It’s not an accounting debate.

    If you don’t believe in these programs, just say so. But it’s wrong to frame this as a “both-sides-are-to-blame” issue when the two sides have entirely different priorities. From my point of view, Republicans are to blame for blocking Medicaid expansion because REPUBLICAN STATE HOUSES ARE BLOCKING MEDICAID EXPANSION. Republicans are to blame for no climate change legislation because REPUBLICANS IN THE SENATE BLOCKED CLIMATE CHANGE LEGISLATION. Republicans are to blame for no path to citizenship for illegal immigrants because REPUBLICANS IN THE HOUSE BLOCKED A PATH TO CITIZENSHIP FOR ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.


    • Republicans today are not the Republicans of old, and I shouldn’t conflate the Parties with the Right and Left. In my opinion you correctly identify raising new revenue as a core sticking point between today’s Democratic and Republican parties. While I believe humanity’s cosmic endowment is ultimately sufficient to go around, I disagree that there is funding for all desirable programs that should be enacted today. The Republican’s smaller government movement has been growing for some time. I remember an interview with Clinton in which he claimed he brought both sides of the aisle together by balancing new programs with financial offsets, keeping them budget neutral. Bush the Younger disingenuously expanded government and waged war while not raising taxes but instead borrowing dollars on our future tax base. Coupled with the ensuing financial crisis, the further increase of leverage and thus interest payments, the loss the jobs, the offshoring of corporate wealth, the need for infrastructure, accelerating climate and technological change – don’t get me started – both the Federal government and the citizenry are relatively poorer than at any time in the last twenty years yet there are more desirable programs in need of funding than ever before. That has bred a kind of populism that the right may have intentionally used to hijack the Republican party into fiscal obstructionists. There is also an element to Tea Party Republicans that see themselves as self-sufficient though that be not true.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s