Last week, Republican Scott Brown won the special election to fill the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy before his death. This probably means that the health care reform package the Democrats spent much of 2009 trying to cobble together will die. "The reason it will die," Jon Stewart explained, is that Democrats have been reduced to "an 18-vote majority in the Senate, which is more than George W. Bush ever had in the Senate when he did whatever the fuck he wanted to do." What gives? I have three thoughts:
pass the Flavor Aid

As Brown surged past Martha Coakley in the polls, liberal blogs speculated about what would happen if Coakley lost. Could the House and Senate reconcile their versions of the health care bill before Brown was seated? The consensus was that, no, they didn't have time; the House would have to simply pass the Senate bill word-for-word, thus sending it to the president's desk without subjecting it to the inevitable Senate filibuster. People were upset, as the Senate bill was much worse than the House bill, which in turn was much worse than what Obama campaigned on, which in turn was much worse than the health care systems offered by most every other developed country. It seemed like the worst-case scenario. Explicitly dismissed in these analyses was the actual worst-case scenario, which was that the Democrats, with a 78-seat majority in the House, 59 senators in its Senate caucus, and control of the White House, would react to losing a single Senate seat by completely giving up on the centerpiece of their agenda. After all, giving up would be political suicide! The Democrats would have shown themselves incapable of getting anything done, even with a supermajority. They would be on record having voted for a bill that is currently unpopular due to Republican lies about "death panels," without giving that bill a chance to become law and become popular as people benefit from its provisions. And yet this is exactly what seems to be happening.

How is this possible?, aghast commentators have wondered. How can the Democrats' response to the loss of one seat be to break out their best Jim Jones impressions? "We must die with dignity!" Talking Points Memo published a sampling of reader opinion — here's a representative sentiment:

How can you work so hard on something, spend so much time and man hours, get so close, and at the first hint of trouble, walk away like that? Where is the courage of their convictions? They have none. They're cowards.

And another:

The stimulus bill in the spring showed us what was coming. In the face of a historic economic crisis, Democrats negotiated against themselves at the outset [...] I simply can't answer the fundamental question: "what do Democrats stand for?"

Nate Silver noted that "it's easy to forget today that the White House and the Congress had successfully shepherded health care reform to the one-yard line." The football metaphor is apt. Football players act just like Democrats. I mean, have you ever watched football? You've got these guys marching up the field, but most of the time before they get there they chicken out and start going the other way! Cowards! And then they can't even commit to going the other way — they indecisively meander up and down the field, unable to decide on a direction. Don't they believe in anything?

This sort of thing isn't limited to sporting events. We saw it in action back in 2001, on that fateful Tuesday in September. You had these planes, and then four of them turned evil and started heading for landmarks in New York and D.C. Three of them hit their targets, but fortunately for us, one of them apparently didn't have the courage of its convictions. In fact, like the Democrats, it turned suicidal and plowed into a field.

The point here, obviously, is that it is a fallacy to treat a group as though it were a person. As the Supreme Court recently proved, this fallacy is far from uncommon. And, actually, sometimes it's a useful way to think about things. For instance, when I got my book published, my contact at Harper Collins penciled in the vast majority of the promotional budget to support the paperback, given that it didn't seem as though 16-year-olds were likely to be spending a lot of their pocket money on $25 hardcovers. I asked why we were doing a hardcover at all and she said it was for legitimacy; i.e., a book going straight to softcover was like a movie going direct to video, but that I didn't need to fear because only paperback sales would be used to evaluate the book's performance. Then she left and never came back. About a year later, someone completely different whom I'd never heard of canceled the paperback based on the hardcover sales. See the game here? By shuffling staffers around, Harper Collins was able to break its promises to me without any individual going back on her word. A corporation isn't a person, but I think that to most accurately capture the dynamic of the situation you need to be able to say that Harper Collins lied.

But you also need to recognize that this sort of thing doesn't work when you're talking about United 93. The people on the plane didn't "turn evil" and no one "chickened out" — one group (the pilots) lost control of the plane to another group (the terrorists) which in turn had their plans thwarted by a third group (the passengers). In the football example, no one is cowardly and no one is indecisive about which direction to go — the reason the players go back and forth is that there are two teams. You might say that this analogy doesn't apply to the Democrats because they're just one team. But if you do, you must be kidding.

poutine is a "sometimes food"

When I learned that Scott Brown had won, my immediate reaction was, "That's it! I'm moving to Canada!" Of course, I have the same reaction whenever I hear a dog barking or Trader Joe's discontinues a cookie I like, so that's nothing new. And in fact, as I've mentioned before, the structure of the Canadian government is every bit as fucked up as its American counterpart, largely due to the fact that it uses a first-past-the-post system in a country with more than two major parties. Examine the following result from Lizzie's district (or "riding," in the Canadian parlance) during the 2006 election:

Jennifer Bergis
Sheila Orr
Andrew Lewis
Gary Lunn
Patricia O'Brien

This is not a conservative riding. 63% of the vote went to candidates to the left of the declared winner. But because that left-wing landslide was split three ways, the guy who got barely a third of the vote went to parliament.

The formation of the Canadian government is also decided on a plurality basis, so Stephen Harper has been the prime minister since 2006 even though his Conservative party has never won more than 38% of the vote or 47% of the seats. Why don't the other parties, which together constitute a majority, band together? Pretty much for the same reason the voters don't: they believe in different stuff. The NDP is an unabashed social-democratic party. The Liberals are progressive by American standards but are still basically a neoliberal party analogous to Labour in Britain. A little over a year ago the two parties announced that they were forming a coalition to dissolve the Harper government on a confidence vote and take over, but Harper responded by shutting down the parliament for two months — not for the last time! — and during their time off the Liberals elected a new leader who decided to throw in with Harper.

On the surface, the American system is quite different. With Connecticut for Lieberman having failed to establish itself as a broad-based organization, the U.S. continues to be dominated by only two parties. However, I would submit that, to a great extent, this is an illusion. Let's compare. Canada has five parties that have drawn enough support to be represented in the debates accompanying federal elections. Two don't really fit onto the political spectrum found in the American federal government. One, the Bloc Québécois, is a separatist movement which obviously has no analogue in the U.S. Another, the Green Party of Canada, is very different from the Green Party in the U.S. and those in the rest of the world. While its foremost issue is protecting the environment, it advocates right-wing economics and market-oriented approaches to achieve its goals. I'm from California and we've had two governors, Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who fit this mold quite neatly, but elsewhere it's considered a pretty weird mix. So let's set these two aside.

Woody Allen famously said that "sex is a beautiful thing between two people. Between five, it's fantastic." In that spirit, rather than divide the North American political spectrum in half, let's split it into five chunks. On the right, advocating uncompromising social conservatism, laissez-faire capitalism, and military responses to international conflict, we find the vast majority of the Republican Party, including nearly all of its senators, and on the Canadian side, some of those members of the Conservative Party who came over from the Reform Alliance. On the left, championing social democracy, trygghet and lagom, we find Canada's NDP and, in the U.S., Bernie Sanders in the Senate and maybe one or two guys in the House. What people in these two groups have in common, and what distinguishes them from the three centrist groups to follow, is their embrace of truly transformative social change, not just incremental evolution. So those on the center-left in the U.S. — people like Sherrod Brown, Sheldon Whitehouse, Barbara Boxer, Al Franken — might well like to see America evolve into something more like Canada: single-payer health care, regulations to keep the banksters from destroying the economy with their greed, marriage equality, that sort of thing. But they would likely react with horror to the idea of the United States turning into an anarcho-syndicalist society like Anarres in The Dispossessed, whereas someone farther left like Dennis Kucinich might well give that idea the thumbs-up. Similarly, the center-right in Canada would like to see the country more closely resemble the U.S.: lower taxes and consequently greater income inequality, more military spending, fewer environmental regulations to get in the way of exploiting the Alberta oil sands (already the single biggest source of CO2 pollution in the world). But even Stephen Harper would recoil at the agenda of Southern Republicans like Trent Lott who yearn with various degrees of explicitness for a racially segregated Christian theocracy.

So here's the point. In Canada, the left is represented by the NDP. Ten years ago, it looked like the U.S. Green Party might someday achieve that level of legitimacy, but that hasn't panned out; leftists who go with the Greens can't really hope to win office beyond a few municipal posts in college towns, leaving them to go independent (Sanders, Ralph Nader) or try their luck with the Democrats (Kucinich).

The Canadian center-left is represented by the Liberal Party. In the U.S., this segment of the political spectrum forms the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

The Canadian center is divided among the Liberals, Greens, and Conservatives. In the U.S., the center of the political spectrum falls squarely within the Democratic Party. This is the position from which Barack Obama has governed. Yes, the teabaggers scream that he's a socialist, but when you put Wall Street figures in charge of the economy, expand America's commitment to neocon wars abroad, attempt to giftwrap tens of millions of citizens and present them to the insurance companies... you cannot claim to be any farther left than this.

The Canadian center-right constitutes the present government. This is the Conservative Party of Canada, especially that branch of it that came over from the PCs rather than the Reform Alliance. And in the U.S., this chunk of the political spectrum also falls within the Democratic Party. Take Mary Landrieu. She voted for all of Bush's tax schemes, for wiretapping, for oil drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge, for the legalization of assault weapons... the list goes on. And she's not even the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. Meanwhile, who among the Senate Republicans can claim standing in the center-right? Olympia Snowe? Maybe Susan Collins? Most everyone else is on the right. Seriously, when John McCain is considered one of your moderates — John McCain! — you are a far-right party.

A Senate staffer wrote to Talking Points Memo to lament that:

I can't help but feel like the main emotion people in the caucus are feeling is relief at this turn of events. Now they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done. While I always thought we had the better ideas but the weaker messaging, it feels like somewhere along the line Members internalized a belief that we actually have weaker ideas. [...] I simply can't answer the fundamental question: "what do Democrats stand for?"

It seems to me that to say that the Democrats believe they have weaker ideas is to fall into the single-actor fallacy I mentioned in part one. I mean, if you believe an idea is weak, then by definition, you don't actually believe it! Right? Maybe I need to take some theology classes or something. But it makes a lot more sense to me to put it this way: the center-right members of the Senate think that center-left ideas are wrong. Which is why they tried to strip them out of the bill. When people say the Democrats "negotiated against themselves," it's akin to the old canard that "Saddam Hussein gassed his own people." Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Arab, and the people he gassed were Kurds. The fact that both groups were folded into a British-imposed coalition called Iraq doesn't make them the same. In the United States, the center-left, center, and center-right have formed a coalition called the Democratic Party in order to avoid falling into the Canadian trap and handing the government back over to the right. That doesn't make them the same either. What do Democrats stand for? Different things!

horseshoes and hand grenades

Under the Canadian system, the differences among the various groups that make up the Democratic Party wouldn't matter. By running under a party's banner, candidates commit to the policies of that party's leadership; aside from the occasional "free vote," members of parliament must vote as instructed or get booted from the party. When I first learned this, I was a little taken aback — what's the point of a legislature full of bridge dummies? — but the example of the U.S. Senate has shown the answer: the point is to get shit done. So why is it that, as Jon Stewart noted, the Republicans manage to do pretty much whatever they want when they have tiny majorities, but the Democrats can't do anything with overwhelming ones?

It seems to me that there are a couple of reasons. One has to do with the composition of the chamber, as detailed in the previous section. Take the 108th Congress (2003-2005), in which the Senate Republican caucus consisted of 51 members and the Democratic one of 49. Eyeballing the list, I'd say that it looks like the Republicans break down into 44 on the right and seven in the center-right. Meanwhile, the Democrats could count maybe ten in the center-left, 24 in the center, and 15 in the center-right. The Republicans only had 51 seats, but the right and center-right together had 66. They could therefore get shit done (emphasis on "shit" in this case). Now look at the 111th Congress (2009-2011). Until last week, the Democratic caucus had 60 seats, but that broke down into something like one on the left, 13 in the center-left, 28 in the center, and 18 in the center-right, while the Republicans could now be split into perhaps four in the center-right and 36 on the right. And in the American system, every vote is a free vote. That means that to pass something, you need 50 votes. Without the center-right, the Democrats only had around 42, and so centrist legislation such as the House health care bill didn't have a prayer of passing. In fact, thanks to the filibuster, which allows a minority party to hold up a vote until 60 senators vote to cut off debate, only legislation that can win the votes of pretty much everyone from the left to the rightmost end of the center-right has a chance of becoming law. Which is how we ended up with a health care bill that was essentially authored by people like Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, and Joe Lieberman, and may yet gain another primary architect in Republican Olympia Snowe.

But this isn't entirely political. The other reason for the disparity between Republican effectiveness and Democratic ineffectiveness is cultural, specifically in terms of what victory means to each side. For an illustration of what I'm talking about, let's hop back to 2008.

The rule of the contests for the Republican nomination was that the winner received the prize. So, for instance, Florida had 57 delegates; when John McCain beat Mitt Romney by a margin of 36% to 31%, McCain received 57 delegates and Romney received zero. Missouri had 58 delegates; McCain beat Romney 33% to 29%, and received 58 delegates while Romney received zero. Virginia had 60 delegates; McCain beat Mike Huckabee 50%-41%, giving McCain 60 delegates and Huckabee zero. You get the idea. California did things a little differently, awarding delegates to the winner of each congressional district; still, when McCain beat Romney 42% to 35%, McCain won 158 of California's 170 delegates, leaving Romney with 12.

On the Democratic side, the overwhelming favorite was Hillary Clinton, and her team, headed up by Mark Penn, tried to go for the early knockout by winning the big states. For the most part, they succeeded. For instance, in the California primary, Clinton beat runner-up Barack Obama by an even bigger margin than that by which McCain defeated Romney: it was 51%-43%. And so, of California's 370 delegates, Clinton received... 204. While Obama got 166. Ohio was another big one, with 141 delegates at stake. Clinton again won by eight percentage points, 53%-45%, and thus won... 74 delegates. While Obama got 67. Clinton won the Texas primary 51%-47%; of the 126 delegates awarded, she received... 65. While Obama got 61. What Penn hadn't taken into account was that the Democratic interpretation of victory was different from the Republican one and that coming close was nearly as good as a win. So when Obama defeated Clinton in Idaho's caucuses by a margin of 80% to 17%, he garnered ten delegates to Clinton's two, and thus more than made up for Clinton's win in Ohio or the one in Texas. By the end of the process, Obama had racked up about a hundred more delegates than Clinton had for roughly 52% of the total. Obama thus received the nomination... and Clinton got the nod for Secretary of State. Remember, these are the Democrats — close counts!

The different rules in play for each party's nomination process reflected their different attitudes toward victory. When the Republicans had control of Congress, it was winner-take-all. 51-49 means we get everything and you get a nice hot cup of shut the fuck up. When the Democrats took over, the rules reverted to proportional allocation. 60-40 means we get 60% of the input and you get 40% — that's fair, right? No? You want more? Okey-doke! The working group that Max Baucus put together to draw up a health care bill was split 50/50 between the two parties — or, to break out the spectrum again, one representative from the center-left, three from the center-right, and two from the far right. (Seriously, Baucus — Mike Enzi?) Baucus wasted months trying to get juice out of this turnip. Those were months that it turned out the Democratic caucus didn't have.


In 2008, with the economy in freefall, two seemingly endless wars grinding on to no apparent purpose, and a major American city still recovering from having been reduced to a Third World disaster area, 53% of the American electorate voted for a candidate who ran on a message of transformative change. Now many are disappointed because it appears that no substantive change will be delivered. Quite a few commentators have blamed a lack of willpower on the part of Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular. But that's like calling someone a coward for going to a Thai restaurant and ordering everything one-star. Is it cowardice, or just a dislike of spicy food? Or maybe the target of your scorn is there with Grandma and Grandpa, and they're the ones ordering for the table. I mean, yeah, I'm not going to rule out spinelessness entirely as a reason why the Democrats have been so ineffective. But I think it has much more to do with the fact that American society and government are structurally incapable of escaping this ongoing clusterfuck.

First, consider the composition of the American electorate and of the government it elects. In Canada, the center-right and right have banded together to establish a plurality, and the center-left and center, so used to having that plurality themselves, are still unwilling to ally with the left in order to retake power. In the U.S., centrists don't have the luxury of being that stubborn. 46% of U.S. voters stuck with the Republicans even after eight years of Bush/Cheney. That's enough people on the right that it requires almost the entire remainder of the political spectrum to band together in order to overcome it. And that's what happened: a coalition of center-left, centrist, and center-right groups ran together as "the Democratic Party" in order to get over the 50% mark. The problem is that such a broad-based coalition is ideologically incoherent. You had people saying that we needed to nationalize the banks and others calling for more tax cuts and maybe a quick little war against Iran. Thus the Democrats' response to the financial crisis turned out to be one of those classic compromises between the firefighters and the fire, the economic equivalent of running around with a hose to dampen the biggest conflagrations while the house continued to slowly burn down like the one in Synecdoche, New York. Health care reform was the same story even before Scott Brown entered the picture.

Second, the practices of the legislature with its free votes and veto power for everyone prevent the electorate from changing the direction of the country very much, even when dramatic change is drastically needed. Beltway pundits tend to consider this a feature rather than a bug, but it's a bit like driving a car whose steering wheel will only move about five degrees no matter how hard you yank on it. When you're about to head over a cliff, that's a problem. Especially given that voters, seeing that they're still heading for the cliff, tend to frantically swerve back and forth rather than apply steady pressure in the proper direction. (Incidentally, when I started this article a week ago this was the main point I wanted to make — the above 4000 words are what the introduction turned into. Sigh.)

Third, not only does getting anyone left of center into power require allying with the center-right, and not only do Senate and even House rules give the center-right all the power within that coalition, but attempts at change are further compromised by centrists' compulsion to compromise even with those who remain outside the coalition. This compulsion reached particularly dysfunctional proportions in 2009, when Senate Democrats were so successful at reaching across the aisle that a Republican actually joined their coalition... thus requiring them to find yet another in order to prove themselves "bipartisan." And you can't really say that we didn't know what we were getting into! Barack Obama's whole schtick was that blue was no better than red, that every segment of the political spectrum had something to offer. If the New Orleans Saints operated the way that Obama and Baucus and other Democrats do, they'd let the Minnesota Vikings play 28 of their minutes in the Super Bowl. And yet what was the alternative? Hillary Clinton wasn't going to fight against the power structure; she campaigned on her ability to work within it. John Edwards said he would, but he was a fraud with a center-right record on his political résumé and a near-term fetus in the uterus of the Youtube poster he'd been fucking on the side. (He probably would have tried the same thing with Lonelygirl15 but I think she was backing Chris Dodd.) No Democrat who had any prayer of getting elected would have made any headway against the power structure. And seeing that, voters are swerving in the other direction, even though that means heading more directly over the cliff.

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