Monday, July 25, 2011

George Packer on the Debt Ceiling Debate

I have written very little about the main issue in America right now because I have nothing to say but pointless, sputtering vituperation. However, let me pass on this bit of wisdom from George Packer:
The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation,” drew a distinction between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”—between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences. These ethics are tragically opposed, but the true calling of politics requires a union of the two. On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism. Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad.
I don't think that's entirely fair to Obama, who has enough ideology to insist on some sort of tax increase. But I think he nails the contrast between them.


Unknown said...

I would say two things. First, I don't think it's fair at all to Obama. Obama ran as the kind of guy who would encourage compromise; with him, it's a moral ideal, not just technocratic difference-splitting. This is one of the things that attracted me to him, for the reason that I had felt that W's admin really had no interest in hearing from my sort of person or leading them at all; he acted as the president of those who voted for him, not of the country. Of course, right-leaning types feel the same way in reverse. Obama has been doing what he can to reverse that.

Second, Packer writes about the Hartzells, whose father has not been able to find work for a while and whose only support is government entitlements. He thinks Obama should show more leadership on the ideals side and represent these people more aggressively. It seems to me that until folks like the Hartzells stop either not voting or voting for rightists because they identify with them culturally, and instead start casting liberal votes, the kinds of ideals Packer supports are not going to be well represented.

John said...

I don't know if you read Matt Yglesias, but he harps all the time on the idea that bipartisanship is not possible with ideologically coherent parties like we have now. I worry that he is right and wonder what that means for the future of our mixed system.

Unknown said...

I find this blog consistently interesting. Why should I read others?

I'm not sure what evidence Iglesias cites, but it's not clear to me that either party is actually any more ideologically coherent than they were twenty years ago. In fact I suspect that part of the shrillness comes from the fact that both parties are more or less unhappy coalitions--the Republicans in particular. We've said it before, but it bears repeating: American Empire neocons, big business establishment types, Christian fundamentalists, and libertarians really don't have that much in common.

It's certainly possible that we're headed to A Bad Place, but I don't expect it. I just don't see the comparison between our times and our divisions and those of, say, the 1860s. Or compare our national outlook today with that in, say, 1937. Of course, a lot of folks were probably feeling pretty sanguine in about August, 1929. But I just don't see a truly deep mood of crisis in the country.

John said...

Compared to the twentieth century, the parties are more coherent now. The most conservative Democrats in both the House and the Senate have more liberal voting records than the most liberal Republicans. Things like the perfect party line voting on the Affordable Care Act are rare in US history, especially in the Senate. The refusal of the House Republicans to make budget compromises is also rare; budgets used to be written by guys like Tip O'Neil in smoke-filled rooms.

No compromise stands used mainly to be taken against integration. I think that is a clue to what is going on. One of the major conservative/liberal fault lines used to be race issues, and then gender issues, but with those mostly inoperative in Congress we see both sides moving toward taxes and the budget as the place to define their partisan identities. This isn't the end of the world but it means it will be much harder to pass budgets now.

Unknown said...

The parties do seem to be more coherent in the legislature. Perhaps you're right. I do now remember reading that thingie about the most conservative Dem and the most liberal Republican. Yipe!