Can Politics Make a Stone That’s Too Heavy to Lift?

By Dan Fejes. Cross posted from Pruning Shears

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.

* * *

Lambert here: The Beltway cliche for a Newtonian “Look at this big thing” is a “heavy lift.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Richard Kline

    The tipping point is, in the general case, a very good metaphor for the process of political change, and I support Fejes’ use of it here. One puts in advocacy and education over time to reach a saturation of perspective which can shift.

    Fejes is more subtle than most in remarking on sensitive dependence as well. The downside there, though, is that sensitive dependence tends to _lock in_ state arrays. This goes back to the ‘more force is the fool’s move’ tenor early in this post. An array may be sensitive initially, but once organized can be so robust that massive force merely musses its surface finish. One can wait centuries without a tipping point being reached.

    I would add what amounts to ‘the butterfly cusp,’ in the early literature on dynamical systems. That is, even in robust systems, one can reach arrays that can _and do_ change precipitously in a nonlinear fashion, once one goes over certain thresholds. Those thresholds may not be massive in relation to the system in a ‘tipping point’ sense,’ or occur due to any gradual accumulation at all, but act by disrupting the _organization_ rather than the mass of the system. In this sense, leverage matters more than force.

    Force can ‘kill the money,.’ That is the metaphor from safecracking when blowing up the blowing up the safe requires sufficient explosive force it destroys the objectives inside too. In that sense, a butterfly cusp is knowing when the tumblers are aligned, or one digit off, so that the entire system’s organization may can transform radically. (The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it serves.) Alternatively, one doesn’t use maximal force put proximal force, using a cutting system as in the film ‘Rafifi’ (worth seeing if you never have).

    Folks who want ‘force and more force’ are dangerous, because they pay no attention to the situation, and either kill the money or take out the building and everyone in it. At the same time, granular tipping point advocacy may be useless if not matched too or even causative of system instability.

    Ones strategy in principal had best differ if it’s a) a tipping point build up, b) a proximal force use of focal leverage, or c) a butterfly cusp where cagily disruptive action of little or now force undoes the system. What is remarkable, to me, in current putative progressive thought is the lack of understanding of the situation assessment. The same criticisms and very similar methods are applied regardless of whether they match the situation; the typical result is wasted effort and comically trivial effect to an outside viewer I suspect.

    What is the situation one faces? So little real thought seems given to that. Craving stability may be a good thing, but at the same time it’s often self-defeating from the standpoint of advocacy. One makes a safe little challenge, and when presented with the rare butterfly cusp leaps back to ‘normalcy.’ What is the _actual_ situation one faces, as nearly as can be assessed?

    1. Banger

      I like the general direction of your thought. But when you apply what you say to the “progressive” movement as suggesting they look at the moment, size it up, and act accordingly you’re implying some kind of will to do something or even be some kind of a whole. But there is no progressive movement as such just a gaggle of disjointed voices sniping from the edges of political life who have no collective interest in coherent action or, indeed, of coherent thought. Thus exploiting a butterfly cusp or even being able to see it is impossible because in a way there is no “there” there.

      1. Richard Kline

        Banger: ” . . . [T]here is no progressive movement as such . . .” Ahh, yeah. That wasn’t something I chose to speak to in this comment, however, though I’d certainly agree with you. One reason _why_ there is no progressive movement is the complete strategic incapacity of putative progressives. That was my indirect swipe in that direction, which actually detracted from my larger point.

        The broader issues about systemic shifts and how to achieve them have no political favoritism, they apply in general I would argue.

  2. El Guapo

    Nobody despises Obama because he failed to reform a corrupt system through sheer force of will. He is despised because he didn’t even fucking TRY to change it. Instead he applied his considerale willpower to the aim of saving and further entreching the corrupt system. The very opposite of what the well crafted ad campaign to elect him was based on.

    1. El Guapo

      Ok, I’ll try again:

      Nobody despises Obama because he failed to reform a corrupt system through sheer force of will. He is despised because he didn’t even f##king TRY to change it. Instead he applied his considerale willpower to the aim of saving and further entreching the corrupt system. The very opposite of what the well crafted ad campaign to elect him was based on.

      1. Banger

        Indeed! No one could me more to the point and more accurate and there’s not much more one can say though I’ll rattle on since I like to type.

        I was convinced at the beginning of the health-care “debate” (there was no debate) that we were at a moment where Congress, the media could be pressured by the public to enact sweeping legislation that would bring the U.S. in alignment with other developed countries. The method would have been pretty simple. Announce to the world that we do not need to stay with the square wheel but we can move a reasonably round one. The data, the studies and simple common sense screamed that reform would be a win-win for everyone and that Republicans would even have to go along grumbling and with some bones thrown to the big players which I won’t go into here.

        I had pegged Obama as a centrist and a pragmatist–I saw no evidence at all that he was much interested in appeasing the left. I knew from the beginning as the Democrats and the administration insisted on rolling out some distorted version of Hilary-care that it was all over and the fix was in. Why? The mainstream media did not present the facts and the data to the American people but began the usual horse-race song and dance to distract the public while the fix was on and new political arrangements were worked out between the heavy-hitters. The media would have presented these data and facts had the administration or important members of Congress insisted. If the mainstream leadership does not say something it exists, as far as the mainstream is concerned, it doesn’t exist. Our current system, as a system is insane and Obama’s “reforms” just make it insane in a different way that may be marginally better for society but does not come anywhere close to meeting the standards that exist around the world. It’s a crude and stupid mess with high overhead and I’m not sure that this old system wouldn’t have changed in a better way on its own–if fact I believe there were market and cultural forces within the health-care system that would have moved towards some sanity.

        I knew within weeks what the end-game would be and it disgusted me that it played out just how I predicted it. At the same time the Obamabots were in rhapsodies about one or another little bone thrown to the left and then taken away. The whole thing completely soured me on the left and I realized that, in reality, it had evaporated magically and we had, in reality, a President Romney.

        1. sufferinsuccotash, stupor mundi

          The mainstream media’s behavior re Obamacare was totally predictable and should have been taken into account from the very start. All one had to do was to refer back to the media’s treatment of Hillarycare. Obama couldn’t order the media to present facts and data on the issue–the only alternative would have been a massive propaganda campaign to sell health care reform.
          The difficulty for the Administration was that it never had any clear principles to invoke when it came to selling health care reform. The obvious intention was to just get on the record as doing something when the media could label as “landmark” and “historic”. So without something to sell there could be no intensive p.r. campaign and in the end no “Medicare for All” health care reform either.

            1. Banger

              No, the Hilarycare mess was very different. She went about it in a completely stupid way that was literally asking for trouble and Obama, like Hilary, never had any intention of real reform.

              I honestly believe that had Obama emphasized the facts–brought up the OECD comparisons over and over that the media would have responded–yes, reporters would have fought with editors but hey would have, largely, won the battle in my view and I know something about how the media works and how it intersects with power.

        2. skippy

          One must remember the Left of Old had callused hands, broad shoulders and intellect – solidarity to guide them. What foreboding image confronts today’s suits… eh.

          skippy… today we are reminded of thin men that challenged Empire by deeds of personal diminishment. Only to travel to Empire HQ, quixotic labor issue observed no matter where one was born. Was it a victory?

  3. psychohistorian

    These are the exact same arguments that I get when I propose changing the rules of inheritance to eliminate the power of the global plutocrats, many of which have been in power for centuries.

    I believe that this is the Gordian knot of our social agreement that needs to change and when accomplished will have a cascading effect on all the sick incentives in our current social organizations.

    We need to do some serious heavy lifting soon if mankind is to even survive, let alone thrive as a species going forward.

    1. allcoppedout

      The fix is in deep. One only has to look at our (UK) royal family’s devotees or the buffoons who run for President. If we were sane we’d be ashamed to be human. The past is a millstone round our necks and nearly all ‘collective memory’ untrue. Einstein is only a radical departure from Newton if you don’t know enough science.

      Private property and inheritance are key in our failure not to burden generations with economic rents and come up with genuine progressive strategies for a society not dumb enough to breed itself to death. The heavy lift is to democracy in which we can get necessary work done.

  4. casino implosion

    My generational cohort came of age in the Reagan era and the period of maximum triumphalism of the free market right and the Rubin Democrats. The victories of the Civil Rights movement were ancient history, and “protest” meant Free Mumia, giant puppets, exhausted balding sixties leftovers and an obsession with Central America. The fatalism comes all too easy to us.

    1. Banger

      The left, in fact, never quite recovered from the 1968 assassinations and the 1972 debacle. Disorganization in a system that rewards focus and organization will eventually make you irrelevant. The left in America refused to organize nationally into a coherent movement unlike the right which leveraged its influence excellently.

      By 1980 the left was finished and irrelevant and thus the constant sniping at the Roosevelt reforms eventually bore fruit as the center turned inexorably to the right and, in reaction, the left started losing its way in an orgy of political correctness, theatricality, narcissism, interest group politics and rigid, petty ideological disputes. Many of us who had anarchist and anti-authoritarian tendencies migrated to the right where the younger people seem to have migrated including people of your generation.

      1. Synopticist

        “The left, in fact, never quite recovered from the 1968 assassinations and the 1972 debacle…
        …as the center turned inexorably to the right and, in reaction, the left started losing its way in an orgy of political correctness, theatricality, narcissism, interest group politics and rigid, petty ideological disputes”

        I think that describes the left in the US perfectly.

      2. Richard Kline

        Banger, I’d argue you’re mistaken about the timing of the American Left if more or less right about the trajectory. Left politics continued to have a significant effect at the margins throughout the 80s. I say that as someone who lived through the era. Considerable effort was expended opposing nuclear power, and despite no outright ‘win’ nuke power steadily lost credibility due to erosion at the margins from this kind of opposition. Iran-contra did a great deal of damage to Reagan and his circle. Again, left opposition to Reagan’s Kill Latinos Now program did not lead to a head to head defeat, but the costs and failues of those politices tarnished Reagan’s team sufficiently that the Iran-contra affair got it’s hook in him and his. Those are two examples, but relevant I think.

        What really drove down the social democratic Left in the US were two factors, I would argue. The huge loss of union jobs in the 1974-1984 period was a body blow to the left. Communities who saw value in solidarity and in socially redistributive policies at the Federal level were decimated, while at the same time anit-unionism became a winning political ploy for those in either party, because it was Big Capital who was writing most of the checks thereafter and they have always hated unions.

        The second huge blow to social democrats and actual progressives in the US was the Gulf War. This was an intervention which should not have happened in the way that it did. Saddam was loathsome, etc., etc. An international go slow would have been better. The full on military response, however, proved _extremely popular_ with Main Street America. It became difficult if not impossible to talk down American jingoism thereafter. The net result of that was two-fold. a) American policy makers were far more likely to read military offensives as a vote getter. b) Internationalist reasons for interventions were delegitimized by the resulting opportunistic neo-imperialism.

        Epi-progressives were left the impossible challenge or arguing against post-9/11 adventures, which sapped the last of their credibility with the wider public. Now post-progessives have sunk into libertarian-with-a-small-l counterfactual rants, and don’t even remember what ‘solidarity’ ever was. Anglo-American post-progresives remind me of nothing so much as German Social Democrats c. 1931, demoralized, defeated, repudiated by the bourgeois, unwilling to face up to fascism even while abhoring it formally. Except German Soical Democracy still had a mass base in the working class. Anglo-American post-progressives aren’t a tenth that number.

        Any real left movement, whether black or red, will have to start from scratch. We’ve seen some signs of that from Occupy. I dislinke Occupy’s stiff arm to the rear guard of American progressives back in 2011—but now I see their point more than ever. After this recent Syria wrangle, it’s beyond clear that post-progressives are an utterly spent force without strategy, vision, memory, or more than a shred of conscience.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          Now you’re inventing terms — “post-progressive” — out of whole cloth to support an imperial venture that, to their credit, the vast majority of the American people rejected. Would you consider stopping? The hasbara on Syria is getting tiresome.

          Adding… And since Occupy is apparently not post-progressive — whatever that might mean — it will be interesting to see if there’s any signage supporting war with Syria at the upcoming #S17 events. Will there be, in your view? And if there are not, will you then apply the same strictures to Occupy?

  5. Banger

    I think this post misses the point. The reason why politicians who lean left don’t take up the effort of reform is that the stone is, indeed, virtually (not actually) too heavy to lift (just try lifting it!). The forces arrayed against reform are not just powerful they are tightly intertwined in a web that keeps the stone from being lifted. There is no coherent way to enact reform through petitioning the government.

    The notion that we can just discuss something make reasonable points and then politicians will assent to things that very powerful organized forces with proven track records of killing (politically) those who cross them, is stupid. Yet I see people on the left saying that if only we can get the word out our carefully reasoned reforms that benefit the people will come to pass.

    For example, what do you suppose would happen if a Congressperson were to criticize the policy of the Israeli state? It’s not that Congresspeople think Israel is infallible it’s that they know they are dead meat if they do say anything against the Israeli state and there are bodies to prove it! This is what makes me say things like “the left is dead” because still, to this day, leftist/progressives insist that if only people could look at, say, energy policy or health-care using reason that we could all come to agree to actual reforms. NO! That’s ridiculous and disgustingly jejeune. You have to take into account the political forces at work before you can arrive at political nodal points that Richard Kline in his great comment called “butterfly cusps” (an idea that we should think about more). Politics is a fight not a series of sermons that we all vote on–it is a battle of forces and martial arts and sports analogies are more important that “persuasion” through reason. That’s why the right laughs at the left with contempt and they’re right to do so.

    1. anon y'mouse

      what you say seems true. I guess the problem is not wanting to engage in that fight in order to have the upper moral hand, and knowing that many people are going to get hurt and even killed.

      also, that the other side has been poisoning the airspace for so long, and such that most Americans are predisposed against to begin with. the “left”, whatever that is, has a (as much as I hate to say it) a nagging, shrewish woman image rather than the manly empowering bootstrap can-do thing the other side has going for them.

    2. sufferinsuccotash, stupor mundi

      That’s because the Right sees politics as a continuation of war by other means, turning Clausewitz on his head. It’s not a difficult concept to swallow if you accept the premise that there’s really no such animal as a public interest(cw Maggie Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society’), only wealthy and powerful private interests which are the state’s duty to serve. This is why the Right is so much more skillful than the Left when it comes to tactics and operations; for the Right it’s ALL about tactics and operations. Who needs to formulate policies when the economic elite’s interests can pass for policy?

      1. Banger

        In defense of the right, it isn’t “only” about self-interest, power and so on. There is a strong ethical component to the right’s concerns which is why they ought to be engaged on that level and not demonized. Even some oligarchs believe their policies are, ultimately, good for the country and the world. Our job is to move towards some combination of dialogue and confrontation.

  6. diptherio

    Glad to see a little “complexity thinking” filtering in to the political discourse.

    Eventually, the initial conditions that have allowed our current political system (kleptocracy) to flourish will shift and the current system will no longer be tenable. In fact, the existence of the system itself tends to undermine the very conditions that make it possible in the first place.

    Our kleptocratic system relies on a naive populace that is willing to “play along” by paying taxes, obeying laws and regulations, and delegating social authority and the use of force to government actors. However, the more shameless and upfront the kleptocrats become in their thievery, the less the populace in inclined to play along.

    Case in point: I used to attend a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship (church for secular humanists) whose congregation is, by-and-large, composed of political liberals. The first time I brought up the idea of an anti-war tax protest I was looked at like a crazy person. That was years ago. But just last March the congregation (with no prodding from me) held a service to discuss just that idea.

    Eventually, even the dimmest marks get the picture.

  7. charles sereno

    This is hardly an original tactic, but now that Obamacare is on its way to become the new normal, it might be a propitious time to unite around a politically possible approach to single-payer health insurance. Fifty four forty or fight! Medicare for everyone at age 54 and 8 months! House Republicans are stirring in the corral. The 55-65 cohort represents a tempting bloc of voters. Don’t-touch-my-Medicare Tea partiers would be amenable to adding what they’d consider a safe group to their club. Even certain corporations would see that they could gain a competitive labor cost advantage. If such a plan could be passed (an impossible dream!), the cost benefits would be apparent almost immediately and the program could then be extended to younger cohorts.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Ted Kennedy’s plan was to reduce Medicare eligibility every year by five years until everyone was covered. If we had Republicans with an ounce of sense, they’d steal the Democrats clothes on that policy, much as Disraeli’s “one nation” Tories stole the Liberals clothes. They won’t of course, but at least that sets a baseline we can remember when it comes time to slit the throats of the legacy parties (much as Firestone sets a baseline for the Democrats, for much the same reason).

    2. Alexa

      No one would be happier than “moi” to see Medicare-For-All.

      But just found a video yesterday of Joe Lieberman describing the MFA “version” that was considered in 2009.

      From the video that I ran across yesterday, the only MFA program that was under consideration then was an “unsubsidized” buy-in.

      Joe Lieberman even stated that when they finished negotiating this “self-sustaining” version of MFA (which was an early buy-in for individuals age 55-64)–THAT NOBODY WOULD BE ABLE TO AFFORD IT!

      If I can figure out “how” to embed a video here, I’ll post it.

      FWIW . . .

  8. anon y'mouse

    the gov. representative was telling you the truth, and you just didn’t want to hear it. he was saying that everyone who has any kind of power to affect the situation has already been bought, that the side in favor of extraction has amassed their armies over the horizon that you don’t see. they do see them, and they know that your side has the equivalent of a hand-whittled toothpick that all must share between them like the blind witches of Macbeth.

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