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Comment on ‘The Underpants Gnomes Theory of Reform’ (Paul Krugman, 01/21/10)

January 21, 2010

Comment on:

The Underpants Gnomes Theory of Reform

New York Times | January 10, 2010

Paul – I think you’re mischaracterizing the opposition of progressives a bit here. While I can’t claim to speak for everyone, my antipathy towards the “take what we can get” mindset is that it perpetuates the Democrats chronic, dangerous self-ghettoization.

To my way of thinking, it’s more important for the Democratic Party to rehabilitate its brand in the eyes of the American people than for it to win on any one policy initiative. The principle here is that a weak, constantly compromising party is not only ineffective and unable to inspire any real commitment on the part of the vast majority who share its values, but that even its milquetoast successes will ultimately be undermined by the vastly more competent Republican Party.

The problem here is much bigger than healthcare reform (though I’d be quick to add that I agree that healthcare is a major issue); it’s the accelerating breakdown of our form of government by the almost total abdication by Democrats of their duty to be a faithful vessel for progressive values. I believe that you and many whose values I share are woefully – sometimes it seems willfully – ignorant of the Machiavellian tactics necessary to win in the current political environment. And while I’d join you in decrying that environment, only a fool fights the day’s weather. So, your framing of the case as “absurdity + magic = desired outcome” is just wrong. The proper framing is that it’s acceptable to lose a battle in service of the larger war.

Tactically speaking relative to healthcare reform, it’s pretty clear to me that most American’s just don’t yet feel enough pain to do what’s necessary. So the tough, fair-minded approach is to let them wallow until they’re really desperate, at which point the national mood will switch and the opposition will have a much harder time foisting its fraudulent claims on the public. The principle is that REAL reform is worth waiting for.

The meta-message here is that we need to rebuild our political capital, stop wasting it on tilting at windmills, and – above all – internalize the hard political fact that we’re useless unless some significant chunk of the American populace sees us as capable of actually doing useful things. That will mean learning to tolerate our – largely accurate – frustration that we could make the world a better for long enough to let the pain build. Only then can we be in a position to render our values into effective policy.

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