Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Art of the Possible

Possible does not include Unicorns and Ponies
In the latter half of the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck, perhaps the greatest statesman of his era, famously advised “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”. This has served as both an inspiration and a warning to politicians, activists and demagogues down through the ages. His point was clear - political leaders can only govern by accomplishment - any goal that is out of reach is not in the realm of politics - at least until circumstances place it into the realm of "the possible".  The opposite side of that coin is that leaders who consistently promise or demand the impossible quickly lose credibility and support as their promised policies never seem to actually materialize. The tea party has had to confront this reality in their headlong rush to repeal 'Obamacare'. Despite all their legislative and extra-constitutional manipulations, with a Democratic President in the White House that policy goal was never possible.

Which brings us, once again, the the 2016 Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Now a lot of my distaste for the Sanders campaign is not really Bernie at all, but rather the foul, obnoxious idiocy of many of his supporters. Their refusal to even consider that there might be one single tiny thing wrong with Saint Sanders, along with their willingness to immediately brand anyone who even asks legitimate questions as corrupt tools and closet right wing authoritarians characterizes the same kind of mindless ideological purity as we've been seeing out of the tea party right for ten years.

“Politics is the art of the possible, 

the attainable — the art of the next best”

Probably the most frustrating part of trying to have a rational conversation about Democratic presidential politics in 2016 is the immediate spittle flecked accusation that you are supporting the status quo, and if you'd just support CHANGE we could have all the stuff dreams are made of, from government paid healthcare to free college to the return of good manufacturing jobs to the US. If you're skeptical of these claims of unlimited political possibilities there for the taking, well, you must be benefiting from the status quo in some way or another, and are therefore a corrupt tool of the establishment.

Of course, this is deeply irrational. The status quo is the status quo - it exists for a reason, and that reason is a deeply entrenched political equilibrium. It IS true that if there was a pent-up demand in America for a systemic shift to a Democratic-Socialist political economy, then it would be possible to make that shift. But if that was the case, it would be happening. Instead, Sanders received millions of fewer votes than his more traditional primary opponent - the promised 'revolution' never materialized.

In the end, the facts are simple and obvious, and cannot be obfuscated by name-calling and temper tantrums. America is not a particularly 'liberal' electorate. If you passionately believe in the Sanders message, you are far from a majority in the US - you represent the left wing of the more liberal of the two major political parties. You don't want to hear it, but your views are 'extreme' in the context of American politics, and are entirely offset by a large, extreme far right constituency. The House of Representatives is structured at the level of the congressional district, of which there are many more low-population rural examples than diverse, cosmopolitan urban types, which results in generational Republican majority of that legislative body. Republicans control 31 of 50 statehouses.

These are not problems that can be wished away. This is the political reality in America today. It's interesting that for all the accusations of dishonesty against Clinton, she very clearly ran a more honest campaign than Sanders did. While Sanders was promising a revolution that would sweep away a hundred years of conservative governance and replace it with a far-left Denmark style high-tax/high service system, she was telling the truth about what could be accomplished against an unprecedented, even insane level of political obstruction from the Republicans.

There's nothing wrong with aspirational goals. But if that's all you have, you end up with nothing. It's better to recognize the limitations and obstructions one would confront as a leader, and do the hard work necessary to make change where change is possible. Anything else is irresponsible governance.


  1. I find it kind of mordantly funny. This season, I am accused of being a "Shillary Troll" from people who don't ant to hear that Sanders has no actual path, to being called "idiot" from the right, when I mention that Hillary's attacks are, without fail, pretty much baseless.

    In my Klark Kent life, I often have to tell people the real world reality. Like, if you eliminate 3 doors t 100 bucks, it doesn't offset a 4000 dollar hot tub.

    I have spent much of my time working in n urban milieu that was devastated by white flight, freeway destruction, and racism.

    I find the Bernie fanaticism funny. They always point to the massive turnouts. The never mention the fact that with all that turnout, they never seem to manage any actual votes....

    you know, mikey, that I am far more likely to go for idealism.

    but the craziest thing is that in a recent election, I was constantly yelled at as "Stupid" by someone I thought of as friend. But my disagreements overwhelmed any personal connection, and that is something I do not understand.

    1. Yeah, that's an interesting one. The more carefully and thoughtfully you evaluate the issues, policy proposals and candidates, the more likely it is that someone will call you 'stupid'.

      It's kind of self-refuting...

    2. Now that I think of it, YOU have also called me stupid...