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18th century political thinking in the 21st

danps's picture

In 2006 Matthew Yglesias posted "The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics" at the now-defunct site TPM Café. He wrote how he enjoyed reading Green Lantern comic books and briefly explained how the power rings from the series worked, then added:

But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

His frame of reference at the time was the neoconservatives' push to start bombing Iran. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were already going poorly, it would seem the case for yet another war was not compelling. But Yglesias pointed out that the neoconservatives' rationale literally could not be refuted: "Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will."

This was (and is) an appealing way to look at the mindset of the more bellicose foreign policy thinkers. Military power is treated in practice as omnipotent. There is nothing it can't accomplish, as long as you apply enough of it for a long enough time and, to coin a phrase, stay the course.

Apparently that was too delightful a metaphor to leave to just one use, because it began to get adapted to new situations by liberal bloggers. Last week Richard Mayhew used it in the context of health care reform:

Again, in an ideal world, a Medicare buy-in at 55 or even better, full Medicare expansion to 55 would be a significant improvement over putting the 55 to 64.999 age cohort on exchanges. But just believing that there is an easy way to get there is Green Lanternism or belief in the power of the Bully Pulpit ™.

The new context, then, is that advocating for a better system amounts to insisting on an ideal world - and to also believing there is an easy way to get there. Invoking new Green Lanternism is especially popular among progressive defenders of the president. Criticizing Barack Obama from the left is unsavvy; lobbying for better policy is the height of impractical, self-defeating naïveté.

The other place I encountered this attitude recently was on the right. Earlier this summer I visited my state representative and voiced my concerns over this incident in Ohio. Within the first ten minutes he'd said words to this effect three times: The oil and gas industry is very influential, so nothing is going to get done.

Attitudes like this have nothing to do with having a level headed, non-magic powers based outlook. They have instead to do with inculcating a sense of fatalism and resignation among activists. It can't be done, is the message, not because it's impossible but because it's hard. It's something like a politics of Newtonian physics. Look at this big thing, it will be difficult to move, it's too heavy, don't bother, and especially don't ask me to help. It's a waste of time. It can't be done.

That's a very convenient way for leaders to let themselves off the hook for doing nothing, but really it's a coward's excuse. No one is asking you to do everything, and no one expects that a single application of sweet reason will entirely reform an entrenched system. The process of change - the point of engaging others unsympathetic to a position - is persuasion, which works on a smaller scale. Maybe even the political equivalent of a subatomic level.

I told my representative: I don't expect you to turn Columbus on its head over this incident, just use it as an opportunity to discuss it with your colleagues. It's a good example of why reform is needed. The spill was small not because there because was technology in place to limit it, or because there was effective remediation in place once it happened. It was small because there wasn't that much to spill. We got lucky, in other words. Bring that up to other representatives.

Persuasion almost never happens like a thunderbolt. It happens with accumulated moments over time that lead to a tipping point. It's not an event but a process. A refusal to persuade on an issue is a sign of indifference or hostility to that cause - not a reflection of sober judgment.

Political reality is not a fixed and unchanging quantity. Inertia is overcome when the mass of support for an issue slowly gets chipped away. That big heavy thing might not move today, but if nobody bothers then it never will. And you know what? Sometimes there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Sometimes the thing will move when the impact of a tiny action gets unexpectedly amplified. Either way, there is no reason for those who genuinely support an issue to sit on their hands - or discourage others from acting.

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Submitted by lambert on

I just got exasperated over at NC with a similar mindset that rejected concrete plans because not socialism. I called them the Socialist underpants gnomes

1. Collective ownership of the means of production

2. ????

3. ????

(Stage three of the "real" underpants gnomes is, of course, "Profit!")

Point being that if you can't demonstrative a contextually relevant concrete material benefit from socialism, your case for socialism sucks.

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

As you said, you have to make the case and you have to provide a context. Socialism would be a big change, and it seems a lot of socialists see socialism as self-evidently wonderful. In other words (to them), the 99% is already basically on board and all we have to do is take down The Man. Which again, as you write, no: Make the case.

A big change like Medicare For All is slightly different because Medicare already exists as a thing in the world. No one needs to imagine it. And it's very popular, too. So in that case a simple slogan is enough for most people to understand the concrete benefit.

There's a somewhat similar dynamic on fracking. There's one camp - led by a fairly prominent group (for the movement) in particular - that advocates a "citizens bill of rights" type initiative. It almost amounts to nullification of state laws. It says, we have a right to clean air and clean water, no one can take that away from us. They are among the unalienable rights from the Declaration of Independence. So the group basically says, pass this and defy the state. Make them sue you and force the courts to weigh in, and if the courts go against you then take a hard look at the court system.

It's really confrontational, long ball stuff, but again: concrete benefit? It's not obvious to average citizens what a community bill of rights will do, even if the community has already been impacted by fracking. A challenge at that level would take years to wind through the courts, and in all likelihood the law would be suspended during that process. So business as usual while everyone waits for the result.

There's also a hint of condescension in their comments on other approaches. Words to the effect (greatly simplified) that working through a corrupt system will only produce corruption. So an effort to repeal the nondisclosure laws is a fool's errand. Unless, you know, there's another spill.

With them and with the socialists you describe, it's always about a single big leap to utopia. But the implication behind it is that the sheeple will follow along, are already on board, or don't need to be bothered with. I understand the appeal of that approach. I for one would be much happier (I think) if I could simply impose my will on the world. But it's been my observation as both a commentator and an activist that trying to get even something small accomplished requires some minimal consideration of the heretics and the unwashed masses.