Why Christopher Cook is Wrong, and Incrementalism is (Often) Good

I would like to thank my friend Doug Haxall for bringing the article in question to my attention on Facebook, where the following response probably would have been too long to post.

I am reminded of a famous quotation from Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps our greatest and most successful of political incrementalists. Of the Louisiana 1864 constitution, written under Union occupation while the war was still going, which emancipated slaves but did not grant them the vote or guarantee them civil liberties, Lincoln said, “Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be, as the egg is to the fowl, shall we not sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it?”

This article in the Atlantic argues against the sort of incrementalism Lincoln believed in, and claims, in essence, that the best response to extremism is an equal and opposite extremism. Since Republicans, in recent years, are always militantly taking the most extreme stance possible, Democrats should not allow the goalposts to be moved by starting off from a moderate negotiating position — this would be the centrist, pragmatic Hillary Clinton approach, which in Cook’s view is a false pragmatism that “capitulates before the fight even starts.” This argument is compelling, logical, and attractive — but, ultimately, completely and catastrophically wrong.

(The reasons why it is wrong transcend the current Bernie vs. Hillary debate among Democrats, a debate which in my view is a rather silly distraction, since lawmaking authority in our system is given not to the President but to the legislature, and the path to any significant change, progressive or otherwise, runs through control of the national Congress, which in turns relies heavily on control of the state legislatures, which is something that Democrats and progressives, with their fixation on the glamour of the Presidency, pay far too little attention to.)

One way to understand the wrongness of the anti-incrementalist stance is through simple game theory. In a two-party system, if one party takes a consistent extreme stance, and the other party replies with an equally extreme alternative at the other ideological pole, voters will be faced with two extreme positions, without the possibility of hedging their bets with a centrist compromise. Perhaps the voters will choose the extreme we hope they choose — but is there any particular reason to believe that they will not choose the other extreme instead? In fact both the extreme right and extreme left seem, in our present political moment, to dramatically overestimate the chances that the whole country can somehow be persuaded to go along with their own radical agendas. The Bernie Sanders camp, for example, relies on the deus ex machina of a “political revolution” powered by a sudden 50% increase in voter turnout, solely among voters who agree with Bernie Sanders. Is this likely to happen? The fact that primary turnout, and therefore enthusiasm among the party base, is much higher for Republicans so far this primary season, would seem to suggest that it is not.

In any case, if we simply take a neutral position, and say that in the event of two extremist agendas competing from the ideological poles, each has an equal 50% chance of being chosen by the voters, then it follows logically that by moving from a moderate to an extreme position, we have surely increased the probability that the other side’s extremist agenda will become a reality. In other words, the lame-ass moderation à la Hillary may constitute settling for less — it’s debatable — but it also undoubtedly lowers the chances of a Ted Cruz agenda prevailing at the national level. What we’ve done, in game theory terms, by taking a more extreme position, is simply to increase our “beta” — that is, our risk. We have gambled big by allowing an increased chance of (what in our view would be) a catastrophic loss.

So the question becomes, is this the moment to gamble big? How much are we willing to risk losing? How sure are we that 2016 is the year when running a big bluff will pay off? Is the year in which Donald (fucking) Trump leads the GOP field, the year in which ISIS and Ebola have combined to fan the flames of nativist paranoia in a manner reminiscent of 1919-1921, the year to move a big stack of chips onto the box marked “radical progressive change”? These are the questions progressives trying to determine which approach is truly “pragmatic” should be asking themselves.

But let’s move away from the world of theory, and talk about actual public opinion. A major part of the argument in the Cook article is that the Republican strategy, of militant intransigence, wins out in the long run — because the extreme positions taken by the GOP actually move the needle of public opinion in the long run.

This is quite plausible, isn’t it? Doesn’t it stand to reason that the fiery rhetoric of Ted Cruz and the Republican Right is far more compelling, to the average voter, than the mushy, uninspired policy wonkiness of the Clintonites?

Except for this: it just hasn’t happened. If this theory were true, one would certainly expect to have seen a massive shift of public opinion rightward over the last seven years, as Obama’s cautious centrism and efforts at compromise have been met, every time, with astonishing virulence and extremist rhetoric from the GOP.

And yet just the opposite has happened. On issue after issue, Americans have moved left, sometimes only slightly, but perceptibly, during the Obama years. Americans are more likely now than in 2008 to see economic inequality as a problem — and to be open even to those policies labeled as “socialism” to address it. (Sarah Palin’s angry jibes against “wealth spreading,” somehow, have not had the desired effect.) More Americans favor Obamacare now than when it was voted into law — despite six years of nonstop extremist rhetoric against it from the ranks of the GOP — and a single payer system, while still not about to be voted into law, is a more palatable option after several years of the ACA than it was before. The rapidity with which we have moved toward gay marriage and marijuana legalization — and more importantly, general public acceptance of these things — would never have been predicted as recently as a decade ago.

Could it be that voters can actually recognize the difference between intelligent moderation and half-cocked extremism? Could it be that Obama’s patient reasonableness, despite the scorn heaped on it by supposed “true progressives” like Cornell West, is actually more persuasive than the shrill ideological screeching of the GOP? I think it is, and I think Obama’s saintlike patience — as famously dramatized by the “Anger Translator” sketch — is one day going to be seen as his greatest weapon.

Still don’t agree? I would suggest this: talk to a Republican. Do they feel they have reaped great benefits — in terms of policy victories, public opinion shifts, you name it — from the GOP’s approach over the last seven years? Answer: they do not. If anything they are far more frustrated than Democrats. Their party has succeeded in obstruction — and absolutely nothing more — in a period when they control both houses of Congress and have a President who is more than willing to seek compromise.

In my view, the Republicans, had they chosen to, could easily have implemented a comprehensive center-right agenda — a Mitt Romney agenda — across many issues, with some Democratic support in Congress and with Obama’s acquiescence for the sake of getting things done — that would have been an extremely durable platform for further moves to the right.

Instead, they have postured, ranted, screamed during the State of the Union, shut down the government, threatened the United States’s credit rating, denied Obama’s US citizenship, and railed against the threat of Sharia law. They have chosen rhetoric over substance, threats over negotiation, extremist principles over moderate policy victories, time and time again. They have, in brief, done exactly what Christopher Cook believes Democrats should start doing — and they have lost. Big time. Repeatedly.

They have controlled both houses of Congress for two and a half Congressional sessions and have precisely zero to show for it. Nada. Nothing.

If the Republican party’s overall strategy during the Obama era is a test case for Christopher Cook’s recommended move towards greater extremism for Democrats, it seems quite clear that Democrats should run away from it as fast as they would from the bubonic plague.

I actually believe this overstates the case somewhat; in fact there are times when embracing principle, and holding out for the whole loaf or none at all, is the right play. And it takes a great political leader to sense those moments when circumstances suddenly open the door for massive, sudden, far reaching legislative change — as happened during FDR’s first 100 days in office, for example. Far more often though, progressive change happens when a charismatic and principled leader outside the political arena — like Martin Luther King — and a savvy, moderate politician — like LBJ — calculate what is achievable, and converge from their different positions to get the best result they can — like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, LBJ’s whole career on civil rights, as chronicled by the brilliant Robert Caro, is a series of case studies in the efficacy of principled political compromise.

I am far less convinced of the value of uncompromising stands on principle by actors within the political system — like the Republicans under Obama, or, for that matter, like what Bernie Sanders is promising. I must admit that I am a bit baffled as to what Sanders hopes to accomplish — Sanders, who understands the American legislative process as well as anyone alive, and who surely knows, to a 100% certainty, that the admirable legislative program with which he is firing up so many young people, has absolutely no chance of ever being enacted into law while Republicans control the House? But I think the answer is, he shares Christopher Cook’s view — he believes that his campaign’s uncompromising stance on principle will move the needle of public opinion. I am dubious. I can’t think of a single time in our history of presidential elections when an extreme candidate on either side has moved public opinion through his uncompromising adherence to principle — though I can think, without much effort, of examples of candidates far outside the mainstream who lost to centrists in landslides (Goldwater, McGovern come to mind). And while it certainly is admirable to bring young people away from apathy, into the political process —when they realize Bernie is peddling something he can’t deliver, how is that not supposed to simply increase their cynicism and disillusionment in the long run?

One final note: I don’t believe that the Republican strategy of conscious, purposeful extremism that Chris Cook seems to envy is really, in fact, a strategy at all. I think it is the sign of total disarray, a party that has lost all cohesion and is incapable of doing anything other than pandering to the craziest elements of its base. I think at the very least it is fair to say that no GOP strategist could have planned to have Donald Trump and Ted Cruz duking it out for the party’s presidential nomination. To argue that the current dysfunctional circus that is the GOP is going to succeed in moving the country ideologically to the right is nothing short of ludicrous. The voters created this madness all by themselves — the most partisan Republican primary voters, who demand from their conservative politicians rigid adherence to the worldview of Rush Limbaugh, and complete, unadulterated pandering to their uninformed ideological fantasies — who are leading that party down the road to irrelevance, infighting, catastrophe, and defeat. Theirs is not a path we need to follow.