This has been an important week for us at DC. As we have been making new efforts to reach out to our audience and potential contributors, we also have been working on making the site more fully functional. I hope that long time visitors notice the improvements and that new visitors look around. Let us know what you think, and please join our discussions.
I think DC discussions this week were particularly interesting as we addressed the issue of the relationship between institutional and political practices, on the one hand, and ideals, on the other. We have been considering how our ways of doing things are related to our values.
Democratic Ideals versus Plutocratic Realities
In the ongoing debate provoked by Martin Plot, there is the question of what is wrong with American democracy. Scott, informed by my response to Martin, wants to underscore that it is not only, or even primarily, a systemic problem, it is more crucially a problem of action. He criticizes “factoid based media, money based politics and narrow interest based legislating,” which have inhibited informed political action.
Jeffrey Dowd, who also identifies himself as Jeff in his replies, seems to agree with Plot that the possibility of an open politics is gravely diminished because of the workings of corporate power.
Michael is deeply concerned that the pressing issues of the day are not being addressed as they are overshadowed by ideological conflicts.
This is a full range of judgment, the basis of alternative political positions. I think the different characterizations of the situation are informed by competing ideals. I respect these differences and am interested in the alternative insights and interpretations they suggest for accounting for what has happened in the past, but also as a way of orienting future actions.
If Jeff and Martin are right, we can expect one pro – corporate move after another in the coming two years, with Obama triangulating and doing the work of corporations, perhaps doing so more efficiently than Bush would have. (This parallels the far left’s account of FDR and the New Deal).
If Scott is right, the only way of avoiding this is to act against Obama when he compromises on the fundamental principles. I am not sure whether Martin and Jeff think that this can lead to a positive outcome short of a radical shift in political strategy, in Martin’s account. This includes for Jeff, in response to a post by Daniel Dayan from a few weeks ago, a possible shift in media policy. He suggests the need for “a new ‘fairness doctrine’ that goes beyond the request for equal time and instead finds some way to fairly judge the accuracy of claims made on “news” stations…” (Of course the problem with such proposals, which I have no doubt Jeff is aware of, is that the “somehow” is very hard, reminding me that democracy is indeed in the details).
If Michael is right, we should look for openings for practical actions in addressing pressing problems, and support those on the left, right and center who make that possible.
I would suggest that each of these positions are in a sense a part of the Obama’s project, moving the center to the left, where he will sometimes appear as a feckless compromiser, and at other times like a happy warrior.
Note that his “sell out” to the Republicans this week in the form of the compromise that includes the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich is quickly being followed by a call for a fundamental reform of the income tax code, in which the issue of justice will become a matter of serious debate. (link) And as far as selling out is concerned, even Paul Krugman, a clear critic of Obama’s compromises, concedes that “President Obama did, after all, extract more concessions than most of us expected.”
Arjen Berghouwer strongly criticized me for my position on WikiLeaks. But I think it’s interesting to note that we actually agree in our sociology, and our ideals, as we disagreed in how we interpret what the significance of WikiLeaks is. He emphasizes that this was a “one-off dump.” And reflects upon how as such it lends critical insights into the limitations of secretive and manipulative diplomacy, opening up critique and the possibility of a more just international order.
I actually don’t know for sure whether the dump has much of a critical function, or whether it does irreparable damage to our foreign policy, as Senator Lieberman and others speak of espionage. Rather my point here has been that of a simple micro-sociologist. Without the possibility of maintaining a distinction between front stage and back stage, social interaction is not possible, and I think because of the actions of WikiLeaks maintaining this distinction in the field of interaction called diplomacy is becoming ever more difficult. Thus, diplomacy will be either weakened or more secretive and elitist, Arjen major normative concern. I share his concern, just don’t know why he thinks WikiLeaks’ is a “one-off dump.” Rather it seems to me that it is part of a dangerous trend.
The Optimistic Note
On a much more positive note, I think the way ideal and practice can be combined in the establishment of positive social change was elegantly revealed in Rachel Sherman’s post. Lauren asked whether the new Domestic Workers Bill of Rights will have any consequences beyond the symbolic. Jeff thinks that it will, by encouraging those who are “well-intentioned, employers engaged in paternalistic labor relations” to do the right thing. But he makes an additional, and I think very important observation, the law “formalizes some important labor standards.”
This, in my understanding, is Rachel’s main point. She seems to be a student of Hannah Arendt here (though I am pretty sure she actually isn’t). The passing of this bill and the formal enactment of the law are as important as the results the law yields. Politics as a means is an ends. Through much of labor history, workers rights have excluded the rights of people of color and of women. This law represents the beginnings of a legal correction of this. The action of the labor movement, Domestic Workers United , is as important as the details of the law. To be sure Domestic Workers still will be exploited, but they now have gained significant formal and legal standing, as a result of their own actions, in addressing the problems of their exploitation, and as Rachel underscores their struggles are at the center of some of the major issues of our times. A major ideal is sustained and extended. It empowers a workers movement, as they achieve, limited, practical results.