A Very Silly Person’s Lament on American Democracy (Rantish)

This might be the most positive and hopeful post about the Republican Party I ever write. Paul Krugman’s pet insult – “Very Serious Person” – is more important to understanding America’s policy failures than most people realize, and goes well beyond economic illiteracy. More than anything, without understanding VSPness (henceforth “vispy”) – one can never comprehend how the Democratic Party screwed up so much in the past five years.

When I say “screwed up”, I’m not talking about Larry Summers or Bob Rubin, easily the most visible anathema of the Party’s left wing. The Democrats are vertically infected with vispiness in a way the Republican party is not. While many often talk about the GOP as a more “hierarchal” party (considering the nature of their primary selection process) – Republicans are freer and more iconoclastic.

What the neoliberal wing of Rubin is to Democrats, the neoconservative wing of Wolfowitz is to Republicans. But the establishment neocons are dead. Or will be dead soon (have you seen Dick Cheney or John McCain recently?) They inspire no one within the Republican ranks and reek of responsibility for America’s most embarrassing decade.

Let me be clear, I’m not (necessarily) a radical left-wing critic of the Democrat party. I want Summers at the Fed and I think Rubin has suffered far more blame than he deserves. But I worry about what it takes to get to the top. Not for the clearly brilliant young hotshots like Summers (one of Harvard’s youngest tenured faculty) but for the dumber tools in the shed. The guys who went to all the top schools, did all the right things, are smarter than the average guy, but are still kind of dumb. These are the people that have no original ideas of their own, but move the party forward in their own minuscule way. They are the people reporting to the guy reporting to the guy (reporting to the guy) reporting to Tim Geithner. Maybe they held a policy job at a think tank or made it through lower positions at Goldman. Or something.

The only way for this bland hero to advance in the Democratic Party, is to tow the Very Serious Party line. This will never bring them to the top, but it will secure their position as a kinda-sorta-maybe top official within the Democratic Party. There is no room for iconoclastic ideas. Not if you want a safe path to the top. You can’t ever become an iconoclastic insider.

Ron Wyden is a great example (except he’s by no means dumb). He is hugely influential, if only by forcing the Party a tiny-weeny bit to the left, but will never ever play a role at the top echelons of the Democratic Party. Wyden’s influence starts and ends with his status as an elected representative of the State of Oregon. Elizabeth Warren: ditto. They influence ideas, and perhaps even inspire the left-leaning youngsters in the party, but will never emerge as serious players in the Executive Branch.

Republicans are nothing like that. There is no party line to tow. Sure they have profoundly idiotic ideas and their constituents have a donkey’s understanding of economics. (Not that Democrats are that much better). But the kicker is the only way to become a Republican champion is iconoclastic flair. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and even Sarah Palin are hardly “establishment” in the sense of representing prestigious ideas. Not good ideas, prestigious ideas. That is the definition of establishment.

John McCain was never the “maverick”. The Tea Party and Sarah Palin are. The Republican party demands a level of fresh thinking absent from the upper-middle ranking Democrats. A great example is the budget passed by the Senate Democrats (boring: a laughing matter, really) and the imaginatively forceful one passed by the House Progressives, which is comparable in magnitude to the Ryan Budget. The only difference is the House Progressives are a joke to Whig Democrats. The Ryan Budget is taken seriously among the Republicans.

A lot of people – liberals, wonks, “reformist” conservatives, whatever – treat the Ryan kind of nonsense as just a radical idea that has no hope. That is true, but only one side of the coin. On the other is proof that Republicans can pursue fresh and different ideas: ranging all the way from Chris Christie’s loud personality to Paul Ryan’s nutty-nutty budget.

That’s not to say any of the ideas are good, or that we’d be better off with a Ryan Budget than the not-here-not-there-blah Senate Budget (we wouldn’t). However, the Seriousness that plagues the Democrats has handcuffed them from embracing a single idea that the wonkish left deems to be smart. Land taxes. Single-payer healthcare (do you even hear them talk about it). Immigration permit markets. Oil nationalization. ENDING THE DRUG WAR. (Oh, no, let’s just wait seven years and when our approval ratings fall we should make some funny noises about those mandated minimums. Is there any reason the joker of a half-man that is Eric Holder still has a job).

Rather, the biggest debate of the day is whether a handful of people pay 35% or 39%. As if that matters. The Democrats are engaged in a hopeless match of maintaining the ’90s status-quo (which, granted, was quite good) not of policy, but of intellectual climate. At least the Republicans are redefining the debate.

My argument is hardly a call for more leftism in the party. I was hopeful about Elizabeth Warren but she’s been a real disappointment on monetary policy, which she clearly misunderstands. I want more rightism and leftism. The Democrats have poisoned themselves into believing compromise is the arithmetic mean of two dipshit ideas.

Paul Krugman, to my knowledge, has not said any of this, but has insinuated its implications in a way few other commenters acknowledge. His qualms go – almost 25 years after he won the John Bates Clark award – well beyond the economic. They are cultural and political.

I have never been inside the back rooms of Democratic policy action. But I can only imagine a few ex-think tank dudes sucking up to whatever they think Obama or Sperling or Geithner or Summers wants to hear.

In Rand Paul or Ted Cruz I see silliness. Mutated, confused, idiotic silliness. And that the Republican Party is tolerant to such makes me fearful for my own.

  1. rpenm said:

    “The Democrats have poisoned themselves into believing compromise is the arithmetic mean of two dipshit ideas.”

    Well put. I might steal that line.

    An alternate to your structural-difference-between-parties hypothesis: VSPyness/iconoclasm is simply a function of whether a party is in or out of (presidential) power. Establishment ideology is just weaker when party leadership is in question or the party has suffered electoral defeats.

    • rpenm, thanks for the comment. Interesting idea, I’d have to think about that. But I would note establishment politics were pretty strong even during the Bush and Reagan presidencies. And the Republican establishment was very forceful during Clinton. Rand and Ron wouldn’t have stood a shot at national attention until recently.

  2. Sad Paul Ryan said:

    VSPs are so because of structural factors. The essence of being a VSP is being of the entrenched and powerful elite.

    I think you’re mixing up two points here. Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin aren’t VSPs because of temperament, but since their policy preferences move in the direction that serious elites would prefer, at least on the economic front (even if they overdo it sometimes), they pose a backlash danger to the advancement of the VSP consensus. The fact that the unreformed Democratic economic agenda battles the money and power advantages of, say, employers and rich capital owners poses accommodationist problems to Democrats when they appear on the VSP stage. They have to make significant ideological compromises to get a seat at the table that Republicans only really have to make when it comes to their social policies (which are out of the VSP mainstream). And, in any case, lots of realities of the economy (e.g., weakened labor law, the doctrine of corporate personhood and free speech, the malapportionment of the Senate, various winner-take-all phenomena that often funnel money to incumbents and otherwise advantaged parties, and the solicitousness of the government towards a small minority of monied people over the general public) entrench the status quo, which is actually closer to what the Republicans/right want more than it is to what the Democrats/left want. (A good demonstration of this: our Gini coefficient, lower levels of class mobility compared to peer countries, and finally, a comparison of the Republican Party’s ideology against that of most other dominant conservative parties around the world, as well as that of the Democratic Party’s against that of these same centre-right parties in the OECD.)

    Fact of the matter is, life is pretty good for the Serious, and the fact that it will stay good for the next generation of Serious as well as the cloistered nature of VSP elites means it doesn’t much matter what Republicans are saying, as long as they prevent Those Democrats who would change life for the VSPs from exercising that power. But, of course, since Those Democrats aren’t much liked by VSPs, they don’t get much play in VSP circles or the media. The Republican situation, mind you, is as it is because they have largely achieved their goals (I mean, ending SS and Medicare are still out there as rhinos to be hunted, but old people vote, so they’re relatively safe) and the Republicans still left who aren’t fat and happy with their lot are running into the wall of political near-impossibilities and trying to fracturing their party in an effort to see whether they can realize them. That is to say, if they had a better handle on things and held their liquor as responsible VSPs would, they could enjoy themselves in peace.

  3. bmcburney said:

    The truest general statement that can be made about our political parties is: “Republicans think Democrats are stupid and Democrats think Republicans are evil.” To be sure, some members of both parties think that members of the other group are both evil and stupid. For the most part, however, Republicans believe that they will be able to convince Democrats if Democrats would only listen to Republican arguments. Democrats, on the other hand, do not believe they should listen to Republicans’ arguments. Since Republican arguments are motivated by evil, to open oneself to such arguments is to stray from the one true path. Thus, as it is often said, the political right looks for converts, while the political left looks for heretics (and both find what they look for). Republicans care about and think about ideas and principles. Democrats care about and think about people and their group identity.

    We see this play out in the post above in two ways. First, of course, the nominal point of the post is that Republicans seem to be more tollerant of people with hetrodox ideas. Second, the post demonstrates the point it makes. Since the main point of the post is not obviously hostile to Republicans Ashok must take care to prove his Democratic bono fides by spending much of post insulting them and their ideas. Ashok does not bother to explain why Paul Ryan’s budget is “nutty” and my (possibly inadequate) search of this site indicates that he has never posted a word about it. Personally, I don’t think he has ever read anything which Paul Ryan has written regarding his “nutty” budget. I doubt he has any real understanding of Rand Paul’s political principles or their theoretical basis. For both Ashok and his readers, Ryan’s budget ideas are self-evidently “nutty” because they are the ideas of a Republican. Ashok cannot even bring himself to accurately describe Republicans’ tollerance for a variety in POLITICAL THOUGHT. Instead, he is forced to describe what he sees as a tollerance for people who have different ideas (all bad, evidently, but bad in different ways). For the Left, attempts to engage and understand heterodox ideas creates the danger of heresy, disgrace and exclusion from the elect. You might ask Larry Summers about that.

  4. TravisV said:


    Why On Earth do you prefer Larry Summers over Janet Yellen?

  5. Chris G said:

    Devastating. And spot on. As someone involved with the Democratic party here in MA I see that behavior in spades. Tow-the-lines functionaries percolate up far more frequently than they should. (They shouldn’t at all.) Recently declared gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley is a prime example. I remain at a loss to understand her popularity within the party but it was apparently “her turn” to be senator when she won the Democratic primary in the special election to replace Ted Kennedy. (She won the primary 2:1 over a well-qualified progressive candidate who isn’t afraid to stand his ground, Rep. Mike Capuano.) I actually consider it a bit of good fortune that Scott Brown beat her. If she’d been elected she’d have been virtually impossible displace. We’d never have elected Sen. Warren.

    (Somewhat related: A few thoughts on the false equivalence of extremism on the right and on the left – http://www.robustanalysis.net/extremists-on-the-left-and-right/)

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