In Praise of Jane Hamsher, et al: Redefining the Art of the Possible
Jane Hamsher has been taking a lot of flak in recent days for coming out against the Senate health care reform bill as well as for suggesting that “both the [progressive opponents] and the tea party activists are saying almost the exact same thing about the Senate bill” and that the “painfully obvious left/right transpartisan consensus that is coalescing against DC insiders of both parties appears to be taking everyone by surprise.” Although not actively opposing the final Senate bill, Glenn Greenwald offered similar sentiments about the common ground between the Tea Partiers and the far left, noting:
Whether you call it “a government takeover of the private sector” or a “private sector takeover of government,” it’s the same thing: a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else’s expense. Growing anger over that is rooted far more in an insider/outsider dichotomy over who controls Washington than it is in the standard conservative/liberal ideological splits from the 1990s. It’s true that the people who are angry enough to attend tea parties are being exploited and misled by GOP operatives and right-wing polemicists, but many of their grievances about how Washington is ignoring their interests are valid, and the Democratic Party has no answers for them because it’s dependent upon and supportive of that corporatist model. That’s why they turn to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh; what could a Democratic Party dependent upon corporate funding and subservient to its interests possibly have to say to populist anger?
Hamsher then followed through on her assertions by agreeing to take her case to Fox News, for which she was criticized as being “naive.” Finally, today we learn that she has teamed up with none other than Grover Norquist to call for Rahm Emanuel’s resignation due to his actions with respect to Fannie and Freddie. The criticisms of Hamsher and to a lesser extent Greenwald, have been echoed by several of my fellow Gents here at the League.
Underlying these criticisms of Hamsher seems to be an assumption that: 1. From a liberal perspective, it is inarguable that the Senate bill at least makes things better; 2. Hamsher is insane for finding common ground with Tea Partiers in opposition to bailouts that were sold as necessary to prevent a Great Depression; and 3. Hamsher is insane for thinking the Tea Partiers have any actual common ground with her, and that they may actually have similar values to her.
The first two of these criticisms, however, demonstrate precisely why Hamsher and Greenwald are ultimately correct about the common ground with the Tea Partiers. Specifically, these criticisms assume that “the experts” are always right, and that the average voter is unqualified to assess the normative merits of a particular government action. So, the message is sent that progressives like Hamsher should STFU since Paul Krugman thinks that the bill, while imperfect, is at least an improvement from the status quo. Similarly, on the bailouts, Hamsher (as well as, I assume, all the Dem legislators that voted against them last year) should STFU and support them because the experts say things would have been really, really bad without them [NOTE: I am not offering an opinion here as to my thoughts on TARP]. In each case, Hamsher is expected to weigh the acknowledged normative costs less than the claimed normative costs because, well, she’s neither an expert nor an insider; she’s dismissed as being unrealistic and unserious merely for assigning different moral weight to the acknowledged normative costs from the experts. Unfortunately, last I checked, being an expert economist or scientist doesn’t give one authority to tell people how to make moral calculations.
This is, at root, precisely what the Tea Partiers have been ranting about, and Hamsher’s critics have short memories and misunderstand the nature of the Tea Party movement, believing it to be all it has been caricatured to be, and no more. Let us be perfectly clear, then: for all of its foibles, manipulation by GOP-aligned interest groups, and occasional absurdities, the Tea Party movement is fundamentally libertarian at heart. Yes, as with any protest movement, there are those who ensure that the underlying mission is obscured by commingling their other pet issues with the core of the movement. But if you look to the founding principles of the Tea Party movement, as well as to the people who actually started it, you will find a strong anti-corporatist and anti-elitist message, a complaint about being told by their government what they are and are not supposed to care about. The core of this message is that of an increasingly wide swath of Americans who feel disenfranchised by a government that has long-since ceased to take the needs of individual voters and the taxpayers seriously.
It is also no coincidence that the progressives who seem to most understand this are people like Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald. During the darkest days of the Bush Administration, the libertarian precursors to the Tea Party movement often found solace in Hamsher’s and Greenwald’s valiant efforts on behalf of civil liberties and leadership on the warrantless wiretap issue, which itself had profound corporatist undertones. Hamsher and Greenwald further engaged in quite a bit of direct collaboration with movement libertarians, with Hamsher engaging Bob Barr in a highly sympathetic interview during the Presidential campaign and Greenwald writing pieces for TAC and the Cato Institute.
Interestingly, quoting Ed Kilgore, Greenwald’s post notes how the divide on the left over the merits of the health care bill represents a deeper philosophical divide over the appropriateness of the “use of private means for public ends.” This is an interesting quote because it mirrors precisely Tea Party and libertarian attacks on Big Government. Of course, progressives who oppose such actions do so while emphasizing the problems of private interests dominating government, while right-leaning libertarians and Tea Partiers will more likely attack the “use of private means for public ends” on property rights grounds. But these different points of emphasis are but two sides of the same coin, with public choice theory and arguments about regulatory capture providing a useful nexus.
I have no idea whether a union of the far left and the Tea Party could form a broad-based political movement. Certainly, there are many divisions; then again, there are already many divisions within the existing political coalitions that get swept under the rug, and at a minimum there is no reason that the two sides couldn’t coalesce for the limited purpose of advocating reforms to make government more responsive and in touch with its citizens.
Still, a mere 18 months ago, probably less, the blogosphere was a very different place. Many of the folks now painted by lefty establishment bloggers as anti-government zealots had stronger relationships with the left side of the blogosphere than the right, while the right side of the blogosphere consistently portrayed us as pro-defeat or pro-terrorist or worse. I personally learned a lot about the American far left during that time – enough to make me believe that the (very) long-term future of libertarianism lay with the Left rather than the Right. I have little doubt that folks like Hamsher and Greenwald learned their share of lessons about libertarianism during that time as well, and especially about the nature of the libertarian critique. It hardly seems far-fetched to think that they remember those lessons and remember how we were all collectively derided for not being “Serious People.”
Indeed, Greenwald has perhaps never been so prescient as in his spirited 2007 (pre-newsletter) defense of Ron Paul, where he draws the parallel between the attacks on Ron Paul from Serious People and the 2004 attacks on Howard Dean. Back then, Greenwald wrote:
Where things are going relatively well, and the country has a healthy political dialogue, perhaps there isn’t much of a need to expand the scope of ideas that we consider “normal.” …But our country isn’t doing all that well right now. Our political dialogue isn’t really vibrant or healthy. It seems rather self-evident that it is preferable to enlarge the scope of ideas that we consider and to expand the debates that we engage. The “norms” that have prevailed over the last six years have led the country quite astray and are in need of fundamental re-examination, at the very least. That a political figure (or pundit) clings loyally to prevailing norms isn’t exactly evidence of their worth, let alone their mental health. The contrary proposition might actually be more plausible.
There is no reason to think things have gotten better in this regard, and the views of Howard Dean and Ron Paul on health care are no more “fruitcake” now than they were on the War on Terror in 2002-2008. Perhaps the Tea Party movement represents a chance for all the fruitcakes and moonbats, left and right, to actually stand up and be heard rather than allow a handful of corrupt establishment figures to dictate the terms of the debate.
That the Tea Party movement has grown to include many of the same people who derided us as fruitcakes in 2002-2008 is of no matter; what matters is whether the underlying critique of the Tea Partiers is compatible with progressive anti-corporatist critiques and whether those critiques are still being dismissed by the establishment as “unserious.”
The answer, on both counts, is “yes.” If politics is the Art of the Possible, then maybe such a union could finally expand the scope of the Possible.