Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Political Battle over Modernity: Part II

Let's get back to business... the latest serialized essay. This time about the pragmatic nuts and bolts of waging war against a pragmatic civilization...

The Political Battle over Modernity


Keep remembering, throughout this study, that our topic is political methodology. While I make no effort to conceal my preference for one side over another in today’s dismal dichotomy, that preference is not the issue at hand.

(In fact, the thing that I object to most strongly is the secretive monopoly of power by elements that seem determined never to allow accountability to flow again. If the other side ruled under these circumstances, I hope and pray that I would be as loud.)

No, we are not here to compare the relative merits of liberal or conservative worldviews. Rather, the matter that now concerns us is the profound difference in strategy and tactics that have been employed by left and right, during the last two decades of political struggle.

It is in this area of methodology, planning and skilled execution that one side has become utterly dominant simply because, in the purely Machiavellian sense, it deserves to be. Because the right-wing has rationally come up with all of the best moves -- both licit and illicit -- in order to grasp control over this civilization’s reins of power.

Meanwhile, the left seems bound and determined to do everything it can possibly do, to lose.

Take the example we touched upon in Part One. In contrast to the liberal trend of ideological exclusion -- creating lists of rigid positions that any decent liberal must hold --- the greatest Republican accomplishment has been coalition building -- something that Democrats once prided themselves upon.

Indeed, the current GOP leadership has impressively managed to unite dozens of disparate forces that have very few values in common. These groups range --

* from apocalyptic fundamentalists to atheist-libertarians.

* from traditionally reticent isolationists, all the way to aggressive neo imperialists.

* from protectionists and nativists, all the way to those who want our borders thrown wide open, exporting mid-level jobs while importing cheap undocumented labor.

* from budget balancers, all the way to wastrels who bring astounding new heights of chutzpah to pork barrel chicanery.

* from those who define healthy entrepeneurialism according to the rate of small business startups, all the way to those who judge capitalism healthiest when it maximizes the bonuses of top corporate CEOs.

The unification of all these contradictions - and so many others - under a single Big Tent is a remarkable accomplishment and testimony to consummate political skill. How was it achieved?

The answer is remarkably simple. To every possible interest group, the leaders of the right say this:

“You hold one opinion that may loosely be called ‘conservative.’ Therefore please feel free to consider yourself a member of our camp -- and vote with us -- no matter how many other, contradictory opinions you might also maintain.”

Think about how different this is, from the reflex on the left.

“You hold one opinion that doesn’t fit what we call ‘liberal.’ Therefore you must be a conservative, no matter how many other, progressive opinions you might also maintain.”

This point cannot be reiterated often enough. It has suited elements of the left to define “liberal” rigidly, while leaving the word “conservative” vague, encompassing everything they dislike. This tendency has suited their opponents just fine.

Take, for example, the renowned futurist and former Jerry Brown advisor, Stewart Brand, who recently called for progressives to re-evaluate four crucial positions that (Brand contends) have become obsolete in a new century. Among these four flawed but ‘politically correct’ positions is the near-automatic reflex to oppose nuclear power, even as a stopgap to help fuel economic growth and fight poverty while reducing emission of greenhouse gases. Brand contends -- with supporting evidence -- that much good might arise from new uranium-cycle plants that are made in America -- and which will therefore be subject to intense scrutiny -- rather than letting the nuclear power design standard be established in less open societies. Yes, many problems would have to be overcome. But careful application of fission technology might offer a possible bridge to the true, long-term solution -- sustainable, renewable energy sources combined with high efficiency and conservation. (see: http://www.heatisonline.org/contentserver/objecthandlers/index.cfm?id=5232&method=full)

You can well imagine how this proposal was received on the left. Even though Brand’s goal remains as progressive as anyone could ask, he was excoriated as a tool of the establishment. This only illustrates that, to many on the left, any deviation from a standard list of requisite opinions must automatically mean that you are on the other side. (e.g. http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2005/5/12/17722/5888)

Ironically, this reflex has suited the GOP leadership, just fine. It allows them to be just as inclusive as liberalism is exclusive. The result, as we have seen, is an incredible coalition of contradictory factions that now classifies themselves - and reliably votes -- as Conservatives.

(Note that this coalition is maintained, despite the fact that half of these “conservative” constituencies never get a single thing that they actually want! At best, the budget balancers and prudent internationalists, the supporters of small business and responsibly-managed borders, have been paid lip service. Even the hardcore anti-abortion community, loudly cheered by the Bush entourage, has yet to receive a single tangible and effective action from the neocon leadership. Not even one, after five years of totally monopolized power. And yet, they remain loyal, partly because lip service is satisfying and partly because no other camp will welcome them.)

How did supposedly smart liberals allow such a lose-lose situation to develop? One in which political suicide is the order of the day?

True, it can be personally satisfying to disdain and reject those who disagree with your party line. (See: http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html) And yet, how can any smart person not have noticed how politically self destructive this has been?

Alas, the neoconservative game plan appears ready to play out successfully, yet again, next political season, as the most active and vigorous elements in the Democratic Party left eagerly repeat this “gift” to the right.

,.. next... The routine rhythm of liberal self-destruction...

or return to Part 1: Ideas for Rescuing Modernity


Anonymous said...

At the risk of straying further off topic..

What do I tell those that are concerned about nuclear waste? (the possible leakage, the incredibly long deterioration time, the effective destruction of whatever resource is used to contain it)

Hell, those are all of my conerns myself, and I'm trying to keep an open mind about nuclear power.


Anonymous said...

As long as we're on this topic, has anyone else here read either/both of "The Blood of the Liberals" and "The Return of the L word"?

Both take a good long look at where liberalism has been (the return of the L-word is more of a short near textbook, the Blood of the liberals is longer, but more entertaining as it covers three men, each a generation apart and how their life and politics played out (Jeffersonian Democrat liberal, New Deal Liberal, and Post 60's/Watergate/Reagen-Bush-Bush 2 era liberal.)


Don Quijote said...

Take the example we touched upon in Part One. In contrast to the liberal trend of ideological exclusion -- creating lists of rigid positions that any decent liberal must hold --- the greatest Republican accomplishment has been coalition building -- something that Democrats once prided themselves upon.

You' ll have to show me that list, cause as a card carrying leftist, I have yet to see it despite being aware of the general positions leftist hold.

pro-civil rights

Don Quijote said...

As a follow up:

Democrats have positions, Republicans have a theme (pro traditions, pro America, pro Family) and a media perfectly willing to do anything to sell the party line (FOX, talk radio).

What being pro traditions (usually religious), pro America or pro Family means is open to daily interpretation, they all mean different things depending on what the goal is this week.

This week, we will use the pro-Tradition theme to sell the Bankrupcy bill, next we'll use the pro family theme to sell another bill.

At the end of the day the only thing republicans care about is money and power, if they have to destroy the ecosystem to make a buck, they'll do it.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of repeating old news, Mr. Brin's readers may wish to take a look at RadDecision.blogspot.com, a unique look at nuclear power endorsed by Stewart Brand.

This is a link to "Rad Decision," a techno-thriller novel about the American nuclear power industry. Written by a longtime nuclear engineer, it provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of a nuclear power plant and how an accident might be handled. There is no cost to readers.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand

All sides of the nuclear power debate will find items to like, and dislike, within Rad Decision. I’m not sure myself what the future of nuclear energy should be. What I am sure of is that we will make better decisions if we understand what nuclear energy is right now.

James Aach

Rob Perkins said...

"At the end of the day the only thing republicans care about is money and power, if they have to destroy the ecosystem to make a buck, they'll do it."

This kind of demagoguery is exactly the sort of callow position I was talking about a couple of posts back.

David Brin said...

Jon, please put nuclear waste in perspective. This is a classic case of liberal ideological overshoot.

Can you, right now, point to a single person who has died of an American nuclear waste spill? I can point to a whole lot who have died of our excessive use of coal and oil and other wastrel practices, and a lot more will.

BECAUSE of our intransigence over nuke waste, most of it is stored in insecure pools near our major cities. The reason? Because maybe, um, well, Yucca Mountain may only be safe from small scale leakage for TEN thousand years, instead of the requisite HUNDRED thousand.

Say what? Even if it were just a HUNDRED years, we should move all that stuff away from our cities, right now! Then spend a hundred years arguing about what our next move should be. Honestly, won’t we develop better containment methods in the meantime? (Far more likely - we’ll simply find better uses for such rare elements and use new robotics to mine the storage facilities, like Fort Knox, someday.

Even if the worst happens, civilization fails, we collapse, and Yucca Mtn someday leaks. Um, then, won’t things be better because it’s all in one place? This is prize dopiness. And an example of many dozens of areas that liberals could make real progress in their OWN agendas, by giving a little to moderate conservatives in some chosen areas. By negotiating a release of a new, super-careful nuke program, they might get a tradeoff of new auto/truck efficiency standards and a ten-fold increase in renewables research. A win-win for civilization.

No, the liberals are not monsters. Their moderate wing is the most modernist element left in our civilization. They have many, many good things on their agenda, and under Clinton they LESSENED secrecy instead of exponentiating it...

...but they are obstinate and doctrinaire and political imbecilles... and thus they are primarilly responsible for the fact that we are now ruled by monsters. This essay is about how they managed to accomplish that.

Speaking of which, fpoole, puh-lease. The liberals are exercising political correctness in whom they want to associate with. That’s stupid and politically suicidal, but it is ENTIRELY different than the administration squelching public dissent and accountability, concealing a million crimes of graft and theft and outright treason.

Don Quijote... EXACTLY! If you deviate even slightly from that list, you are automatically a “conservative.” Keep adding to the list! You’ll keep finding things that, if you demurred in a gathering of lefties, would get you ejected from the room. And THAT is why the “L Word” has become hated by most americans. Despite a hundred of our greatest accomplishments being credited to Liberalism.

In contrast, you simply do not understand Republican inclusiveness. To be a conservative you do NOT have to be pro- all those things you listed. All you have to do is pick ONE from a melange of so-called “conservative” stances and you are welcome on their side.

You are viewing conservatism though the innane ideological lens of the left, which sees things as unified party lines. But the right is not like that at all. And I mean at all. Take off the lenses. Study your enemy. It is what I’m trying to get you to do in this article.

David Brin said...

Phew! Thanks guys! That was fun. I got to rail EQUALLY at both left and right!

In number of words, that is.

Anonymous said...

I’d like to point out that even if unintentionally, we are all somewhat guilty of assuming those who disagree with certain points we make are automatically affiliated with a specific political party. My “defense of Diebold,” as it was put, led some to conclude I was conservative. That’s disappointing, because it has become our standard knee-jerk response to pigeonhole individuals based on a few opinions. I’m an agnostic, progressive, technologist hawk. It never occurred to me that liberals would automatically exclude me and conservatives would claim me as one of their own, but this post opened my eyes to a truth I hadn’t contemplated.

Great post, David. I think you encapsulated the current political landscape with some incredibly astute observations.

Anonymous said...

There's a book out there called Cruchy Cons that I await with interest: I might finally have a label for myself.

I think you've nailed it with inclusivity/exclusivity pattern of the political spectrum. As a homeschooling, environmentally aware, fiscally-concerned, family oriented woman who opposes abortion, I am not going fit neatly into anyone's catagories. I suspect that the vast majority of the population fits neither into a perfectly conservative or liberal mold. Finding people I can work with on the issues is more important to me than if they tally up exactly with my beliefs. Geez, I might learn something from them.

Buckeye Girl

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin:

I've been lurking here quite some time, and your blog has become something I check daily.

This most recent post is spot on. Keep up the good (and important) work.

Adam, Stefan's cousin(?), one of those atheist libertarians (note the small "l") that the liberals ostracize and the conservatives welcome.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the nuclear power option:

We will need a combination of energy efficiency and increased power generation - one or the other will not allow our economy to survive.

For me, even conventional nuclear reactors are preferable to hydrocarbon fuled generators. But if you consider Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors (LMFBR) as an option, everybody wins. There is a great article in Scientific American about these, and some stuff on the web.

LMFBR will use something like 98% of the available energy in the uranium ore, as opposed to the wasteful 2-12% in an conventional fission reactor. On-site electrorefining of the spent rods will yield plutonium/uranium sponge which can't be used for nuclear bombs and gets put right back into the reactor, so you only have one point of security. The eventual by-products only have a half-life of a few hundred years, as opposed to tens of thousands as with conventional fission, so storing waste in Yucca Mountain (or wherever) is a lot easier to design and handle. Plus it consumes plutonium (as well as spent uranium), so we have a place for all the unneeded Pu around the world - the US buys it and destroys it making power. Same goes for conventional nuclear waste - no more storing in pools. The reactors are safer than light-water reactors. If you lose power to the pumps, convection keeps the liquid sodium circulating. If you lose the sodium, the reaction is easily stopped with any neutron absorber.

And we decrease our dependence on hydrocarbons and that unstable political arena from which they come.

Anonymous said...

Make that *agnostic* libertarian, (and supporter of nuclear power).


Anonymous said...

This is definitely a phenomenon that has bugged me as well- as someone who is only slightly more comfortable with the Democrats than the GOP, and mostly because I was I was raised in a family of Dems. After all, how do you "place" someone who is for free trade, balanced budgets, a limited social safety net, pro-gun, anti-affirmative action (for the most part), anti-political correctness, and supportive of a strong interventionist millitary; yet is also pro-choice, environmentally concerned, worried about anti-science attitudes on the right, secular, pro-gay marriage, pro-separation of church and state, supportive of the secular state-run education system, pro-drug legalization, skeptical about "market mysticism", opposed to the Iraq war and worried about the worldwide effects of resource depletion and globalization?

Yeah, there really isn't a party for me.

At the moment.

As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in "The Future of Freedom" (one of the few political books of the last few years worth reading), the two major American parties are essentially meaningless, as far as an underlying philosophy is concerned. Unlike agenda-driven parties that never win American elections (Greens and Libertarians) or foreign major parties with actual governing philosophies (as we see in Europe or parts of Asia), the meaning of an American political party- and it's driving philosophy- changes with each election cycle. The GOP of Reagan isn't the same as the GOP of Gingrich, Dole, or now Bush. Same goes for the Democratic party of Kennedy, McGovern, Clinton, and now Dean.

And things will be different in '06 and '08. Will we have McCain Republicans? Guiliani Republicans? Frist Republicans? Clinton II Democrats? Clark Democrats? Warner Democrats? Biden Democrats?

All of these would be different parties, with different governing styles, agendas, philosophies and platforms. I didn't particularly like the Kerry party, but I supported it anyway, given the alternative. I would have preferred a Clark party. In 2008, who knows? Maybe I'll back the McCain party or the Guiliani party- or perhaps the Clark, Biden, Warner, or (if no other options are left) the Clinton II party.

But yes, the problem that David brings up is very real, but there are some ways in which it can swing the other way as well. For instance, if you're in South Dakota, the Democrats are much more moderate and inclusive than their Republican counterparts. The SD Democratic party will gladly welcome a pro-lifer, an anti-gun control NRA member, or a fiscal tightwad as a candidate- whereas you'd be hard-pressed to get on the ballot as a pro-choice, pro-gay, or pro-gun control Republican- that's just the way the political landscape is.

Now, the reason for this exclusionary perception is probably directly tied to the political landscape in the country's major media centers- the Dem-dominated New York and California. These are places where successful GOP candidates are forced to moderate themselves (Pataki, Ahnold, Guiliani, etc.)- and Dems can be as shrill and base-oriented as possible without too much threat to their electability. (SD's representative, Stephanie Herseth, would almost certainly be a Republican if she lived on the coasts; her pro-defense, pro-gun and fiscally restrained "blue dog" politics put her in the same middle as I'm in).

So, I think that this exclusion-inclusion dichotomy is a function of political geography- as is the perception of it being a nationwide phenomenon.

Tony Fisk said...

This is an interesting take on what ails the American politic.

One question, though: how does all of this translate to votes? If the Republican side admits all comers with a smidgin of traditionalism while the left indulge in exclusion, how come the vote is pretty even, even with Diebold on side?

The following is an Australian perspective.

Quoth Brin:
the greatest Republican accomplishment has been coalition building -- something that Democrats once prided themselves upon.

The (left leaning) Australian Labor Party is usually viewed as being the party of hangers on: (the left, trade unions, greenies..etc). Interestingly, one thing some of these factions are wont to do (to the dismay of the executive) is indulge in 'branch stacking': enrolling all their members in one seat or other so they can swing who's on the ticket. (ie your counter-gerrymander tactic)

The Liberals are less heterogenous, although they have a long standing association with the rural based National Party. Even so, the current political lexicon is peppered with terms like 'big/small l' (referring to how degrees of government centralisation) and 'wet/dry' (referring to degrees of economic rationalism)

(Amusing bit of semantic thought control: given how chummy Bush and Howard are, the term 'liberal' can't be vilified too openly... I'm sure that would count as sedition under our new anti-terrorist bill. Unless the libs change their name!)


Nothing new on the al Jazeera story. (I'd still like to know what's with the gag about a 'joke';-)
You might want to check out the staffers' blog: Bon't Bomb Us (damn arab mod'nists. Who dey kiddin'?)

Unamaerican, but still a case of a true conservative standing up to the party animal: an excerpt from a recent speech by Malcolm Fraser:

The departures from the principles underlining that Liberal Party are substantial and serious. The party has become a party of fear and reaction. It is conservative and not liberal. It has not led in positive directions, it has allowed and, some would say, promoted race and religion to be part of today's agenda. I find it unrecognisable as liberal.

On a lighter note, this satirical piece inspired by the anti-terror bill might raise a chuckle or two (apart from cat owners)

David Brin said...

Tony Fisk asks: "One question, though: how does all of this translate to votes? If the Republican side admits all comers with a smidgin of traditionalism while the left indulge in exclusion, how come the vote is pretty even, even with Diebold on side?"

The answer is simple, Tony.

In poll after poll, whenever tha American voters are asked -- in a NEUTRAL and unbiased manner -- how they feel about specific issues and policies, the results are astonishingly clear. Policies generally associated with the democrats win by overwhelming margins.

Ranging from open government to environmentalism, from fuel efficiency standards to science research, from border control to mixed and mature use of Pax Americana power. From budget balancing to foreign policy. It is simply no contest.

Moreover, deep in their hearts, most Americans know which party stood up to end ages of truly heinous discrimination based on race and gender and religion... horrific shames. We know that one of the greatest of all human accomplishments was our quashing of those ancient nasty impulses. For the right now to pretend they were behind this effort, all along, is simply outrageous.

No, the fact is, on the issues, there would be no contest. It has taken ALL of the machinations and plans that I am describing, for the right to eke out the two narrowest victories in a century.

That, and utter insanity on the left, deliberately offending millions of people for the sake of symbolism. What idiots.

What has happene

Anonymous said...

Congratulations David! You have just managed to summarize Rush Limbaugh's take on the differences between Liberals and Conservatives. I knew you were a closet listener....

Also, to the earlier post - it will be an Allen/Condy Republican ticket in 2008.

Anonymous said...

Time for me to put on my contrarian hat.

I was "pro-nuke" at a time when being pro-nuke was akin to professing a liking to sucking out the brains of live kittens.

I had the pleasure of attending of one of Brand's lectures earlier in the year, and watched in amusement as a wave of discombobulment washed over the Portland audiance when he described the new generation of safer reactors.

Nevertheless . . .

A lot of the rhetoric surrounding the new wave of nuclear power boosterism sets my teeth on edge.

One common smug: "If you tree huggers hadn't opposed nuclear power we wouldn't be worrying about the greenhouse effect."

Um, yeah, right. No one could seriously expect nuclear power to totally replace oil and coal in a span of time less than decades. But that's besides the point. Statements like this are ideological spin. This smug is less about advocating nuclear power and more about attacking environmentalists. It stinks of Talking Point. It probably came from the same kind of big-industry think tanks that spent the '90s denying that global warming existed.

Then there's the "It's the solution to all our energy problems!" trope. Um, maybe, but again that's not the point. I can't help but think this sort of rhetorically-charged high-power boosterism is designed to keep people from thinking straight. Not about whether to increase our use of nuclear power, but how to go about it.

I want to see more use of nuclear power, but I want to see it done right. The first step is to avoid the mistakes of the past:

"There was nothing wrong, and there is still nothing wrong, with using nuclear energy to make electricity. But the rules of the game must be fair, so that nuclear energy competes with other souces of energy and is allowed to fail if it does badly. So long as it is allowed to fail, nuclear energy can do no great harm. But the characteristic feature of ideologically driven technology is that it is not allowed to fail. And that is why nuclear energy got into trouble. The ideology said that nuclear energy must win. The promoters of nuclear power believed as a matter of faith that it would be safe and clean and cheap and a blessing to humanity. When evidence to the contrary emerged, the promoters found ways to ignore the evidence. The wrote the rules of the game so that nuclear energy could not lose. [...]

When a technology is allowed to fail in competition with other technologies, the failure is a part of the normal Dariwnian process of evolution, leading to improvements and possible later success. When technology is not allowed to fail, and it still fails, the failure is far more damaging. If nuclear power had been allowed to fail at the beginning, it might well have evolved by now into a better technology which the public would trust and support. There is nothing in the laws of nature that stops us from building better nuclear power plants. We are stopped by deep and justified public distrust. The public distrusts the experts because they claimed to be infallible. The public knows that human beings are fallible. Only people blinded by ideology fall into the trap of believing in their own infallibility."

-- Freeman Dyson, Imagined Worlds


P.S. If you have the opportunity to catch either Stewart Brand or Freeman Dyson giving a lecture, grab it.

wkwillis said...

Actually, all the mining magazines say we are short on uranium reserves to the point of not having enough to keep the current generation of light water reactors running to the end of their lifespans.
Of course, we could take apart all our nuclear warheads like the Russians are doing and that would stretch things out a little.
Building nuclear reactors does not appear to be an option. It's not like we can find more uranium ore anyplace. Geiger counters have got all the surface stuff and we haven't found any large new deposits for a while. It's not like the seventies when we were tripping over bigger, richer, deposits than we had ever seen before.