Jonathan Bernstein has put up another of his useful “don’t believe the hype” notes from his Plum Line position at the Washington Post. Having already disposed of 3rd party fantasies, he takes on (my renderings) “surprise candidate,” “presidency bought by big spenders,” “brokered convention,” “Republicans depressed by crappy candidate,” “electorate moved by big debate” among other popular election themes, before moving to a modified re-statement of his political scientist’s credo:
Politics combines regularities that can be observed and extrapolated from — and human action, which is unpredictable. And so there’s every chance that at least something will happen that really is a break from the past. Which means that every prediction or Iron Law of Politics should have a clear caveat that it’ll only work if people behave as they normally do. Which almost always is the case. Except when it isn’t.
I’m going to flatter myself with the notion that my numerous comments at JB’s plain blog (leading to this recent exchange – me, him) helped encourage JB to emphasize that final caveat. The remaining question, and I would (continue to) argue the only truly interesting question, is what about the shape of the current political-historical moment suggests that the framework is shifting, or even coming apart, and whether it could do so fast enough to matter in relation to our conventional expectations regarding those (not quite) Iron Laws JB mentions.
One favorite known unknown in contemporary political conversation is “Europe”: It plays a similar role to “Iran” in ’08, the assumption being that the exogenous event – war or economic calamity over there – might completely alter the electoral framework over here. In regard to conventional political discussion, which under the influence of political science as well as American tradition is highly economistic, “Europe” translates as “re-worsening economic performance makes Obama’s already difficult re-election equation all but impossible.”
Alternatively, an unexpectedly short-term positive (relatively expansionary) outcome in Europe might boost short-term US economic growth prospects, meaning that the path of least resistance and of likely success for Obama and his coalition would lead through the “normal” (postwar traditional) neoliberal framework: Things seem to be getting better, incumbent wins, everything stays pretty much the same at least on the surface. In short, we could go back to sleep for a year or two, and push any sharpening of contradictions into the future for at least another cycle.
The other two alternatives are “double dip recession” and “economic apocalypse.” In the former case, Obama would have the seemingly very low odds task of persuading the public that his perceived failure to re-make the world to our liking was still something better than what the Rs would do in his place: “The deluge is rising, buy our lifeboat.” This approach is similar to what the late Tony Judt called the “social democracy of fear.” It arguably has worked politically in Western democracies at historical turning points – the key example for us being FDR’s progressive liberalism vs. the Depression and associated challenges to democratic capitalism.
Judt’s idea does help explain how familiar social welfare and insurance programs were built up over the course of the 20th Century, but the underlying message is not how Americans since World War II have been used to thinking of our politics. We have inherited a politics of ascendancy, or, more popularly, “exceptionalism.” Americans imagine that America is always getting better, bigger, happier, and, if it isn’t, they have been able to afford venting their frustrations on whoever is in charge, while little changes.
The closer the “double dip” is perceived to be “apocalypse,” the more attractive the lifeboat, and also the greater the potential for a new political framework that replaces those not-really-Iron Laws of bourgeois political science as practiced by JB and his colleagues, from center-right to center-left, within the punditocracy and academe. Whether Obama is capable of jumping all the way from the neoliberal lifeboat to the more radical-transformative dinghy that many of his supporters thought they were voting for in ’08 remains at best uncertain, as does the different question of whether the jump will or could be successfully landed, but the crisis that makes centrist political science untenable would correspond to, be the same as, the crisis that makes centrist politics untenable.