I’ve been musing for a little while on this really quite brilliant post from Matt Yglesias really deconstruction, brick by brick, the self-righteous illusions of a certain set of holier-than-thou critics of, like, the system, man. While musing, my wife asked me, essentially, what was up with this Glenn Greenwald dude, and it led me to try and think what was going on here, and while I was tempted for a while to just repost the greatest blog post of all time and call it a day, I do actually think I have a nugget of insight here I might as well share.

The way I got here is basically to wonder “why is nobody on the right like this?” And by “on the right” I am excluding Conor Friedersdorf and other genuinely-libertarian people who think the security state is a bigger threat to liberty than higher marginal tax rates on the ultra-rich and focusing on the bulk of what we might call the conservative movement which, over the last half-century, has managed to move from “fringe group excised from polite society, itself excising its fringe from polite society” to “totally dominating one of America’s two major parties and itself being dominated by its fringe.” In contrast, the American left as a movement has never really had that kind of power in American society even at its apex, mostly relying on a handful of well-timed crusaders, half-measures, lucky breaks, and incremental patchwork progress despite being roughly even in numbers or close enough to the parallel “core” of the conservative movement.

The simple answer, though, which is “conservatives have basically become increasingly skilled at using existing institutions, like primaries, to enforce their will” is only the next turtle down. It’s not like progressives haven’t tried – and sometimes succeeded! – to use primaries to challenge, pressure, or replace conservative Democrats. But systematically they haven’t embedded the fear of their wrath deep into the firmware of Democratic officeholders the way the conservative movement has done with Republican officeholders. So why is that?

I have a guess, and it has to do with the ideological nature of these movements. Conservatives, fundamentally, see themselves as restorative (the more pejorative word might be reactionary). They believe that there was once a past where things were as they should be, but somehow things have become polluted and corrupted, and so we need to purge those elements and restore what once was. Now, exactly when that ideal era was seems up for debate (the 1950s? The 1850s? The 0050s?) and there’s a lot of selective remembering and historical fudging going on, not to mention some conflicts between the hypernationalist element of the ideology and the bemoaning-the-fallenness-of-our-current-state element of the ideology (hence why Colbert’s subtitle “re-becoming the greatness we never weren’t” is so ingenious), but that’s the impetus, and it is extremely compatible with working within the system. The system is not the problem; it’s all those viruses and bacteria, and conservatives are the antibodies. The body politic is sick, but it can be cured (even if it requires the equivalent of the Milwaukee Protocol).

Progressives, on the other hand, were rather aptly summed up by various brothers Kennedy riffing off George Bernard Shaw and each other: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” Progressives believe that, even if the path is not linear and progress intermittent, that history has been a process of improvement for a destination not yet arrived at, and that things could always get better, could always be better, and should always be better. To the extent that they look to the past, it is less often (though not always) because things were better than but for lessons for how to make things better in the future. They are often prone towards utopianism and revolutionary fervor, and their lack of attachment to the status quo and their lack of anchor to some past glory means they are not only much more willing to discard existing aspects of the system they don’t like but they are much more willing to discard the system altogether and even refuse to have nothing to do with it for fear of infection or corruption. The body politic is sick; it must be quarantined to contain the disease.

Here’s another metaphor – progressives are Jews, still waiting for the Messiah to show up, and conservatives are Christians, waiting for him to come back.

And this has huge consequences. It’s why conservatives, no matter how many rejections, failures, SNAFUs, and embarrassments they’ve suffered in their quest to take full control of the American system of government, have never relented, whereas progressives have failed to do exactly that. The key is organizational resiliency – look at the way progressives reacted to the 1972 election and the way conservatives reacted to the 2012 election. In fact, the immediate reaction was the same; but with conservatives it lasted a couple months and with progressives it lasted three decades. That was a long time when the Democratic coalition was basically reduced to internecine squabbling between constituencies and insidious takeover-by-concern-trolling of mushy privatist centrists.

The meta point is that politics has ideological roots that can’t really be disentangled from its economic, policy, and interest group components. This is why I never really buy into the simplest models of median voter theory or election results being purely driven by economic variables (Jonathan Bernstein was hinting at that a little, here, but I’m say humbug to his subtlety and break out the giant magic hammer). It’s also why I tend to scoff at public choice theory, which Matt Yglesias ingeniously summarized last week as the “tedious formula of …[taking] “political economy” [scholarship] when done by a political conservative …[and] acting as if the exposé that the politicians and regulators behind some given move weren’t pure as the snow itself constitutes a policy argument.” Certainly many politicians and regulators have motives and incentives that economics as a discipline is well-equipped to explain and expose. But they have many that don’t. Egypt’s first elected government collapsed, in part, because they inherited a civil service that was a mix of mismanaged, neglectful, and actively hostile. Yet when George W. Bush sat down in the Oval Office after one of the mostly controversial elections in American history the bureaucracy kept on ticking like nothing had changed because they believed in doing their jobs. That’s not to say they’re immune to incentives, just that ideology is an incentive structure all its own and one that is difficult to model in the nice simple arithmetical way that material incentives are.

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