Monday, February 05, 2007

Lieberman is a bad senator

I’ve been going back and forth on this issue for quite a while and it seems that every time we make some progress we slide all the way back to square one. Here’s Aaron on the subject of Lamont’s primary opposition to Lieberman:

And my fear regarding Lieberman wasn't Connecticuters with pitchforks, it was the stupidity of pushing somebody out of the party for ideological differences on one (albeit important, but hardly all-encompassing) issue -- of purity utterly dominating diversity, in other words. That seemed (and still seems), well, illiberal.

This is a very strong argument. It's not just that it’s bad strategy for Lieberman’s constituents to vote him out of office because of the war - with the seniority and experience Lieberman has gained from many years in the senate it would be relatively straightforward to argue that he was worth keeping despite not representing Connecticut very well on some issues - according to this argument it’s illiberal.

If you accept that the primary process as a democratic expression of Connecticut voter’s interests it’s difficult to take this argument seriously. After all, the point of a primary is to figure out which candidate best represents the members of that party. Whether a candidate is voted out on one issue or many is immaterial. But that the point. If you accept this argument you probably don't think that Lieberman failure in the primary was the result of the democratic expression of voter discomfort with his policies. You probably think Lamont’s primary win was the result of illegitimate (though legal) swaying the electoral process.

The most obvious culprit for what could illegitimately sway the election is money. But Lieberman and Lamont both spent about the same amount (roughly $20,000,000). Lieberman got about 75% of his funding from out of state rich folk and PACs while Lamont took the John Edwards route of pouring his own cash into his senate campaign. Money just wasn’t decisive in the primary. Registered Democrats in Connecticut had equal opportunity to hear both Lieberman and Lamont and choose Lamont as the person who best represented their views.

Aaron had more to say on this but I'll stick to this for now. I want to make sure what I've gotten thus fair isn't wrong before proceeding.

Update: Reworded for clarity.


Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca C. Brown said...

I won't comment on these ideas as if they were Aaron's, because clearly there's more context than this post offers.

But let's take the "illiberal" comment, pretend for argument's sake that Aaron really meant it, and springboard from that into a larger discussion about what it means to be liberal.

Where in the definition of a political liberal does it declare that social progressiveness has to be coupled with tolerance of stupid ideas? "Liberal" literally means easy-going, accepting, and open-minded. Political liberalness is totally different, and there's no reason that political liberals should be any less forgiving than political conservatives of individuals who defy that ideological group's stances.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

Okay, so I'll respond with three points:

1. My complaint is not with Lamont, his campaign or the people who voted for him in the Connecticut primary. It's with those elements of the netroots that specifically tried to torpedo Lieberman over the Iraq issue, contributing money and publicity to his opponent. And truth be told, Lieberman isn't my favorite Democratic politician by a country mile. But I still think that their behavior is roughly equivalent to the NRA's attempts to sandbag politicians that it dislikes -- though, again, the NRA also doesn't claim to be speaking for the entire Republican party when it does this. In my view, this is a (completely legal) perversion of the way that the democratic process is supposed to operate (cf. Federalist 10) and I'm not going to shrink from my description of it as illiberal -- because it is.

2. Rebecca, I guess my question for you is: who controls the definition of "politically liberal"? The Democratic party didn't begin with Howard Dean and if we held everybody in the party to a strict ideological account by that rubric, where would that leave Clinton, FDR, LBJ, Kennedy, etc.?

3. Also, Tom, I'm curious, do you somehow see Lieberman's reelection by a very substantial margin, again even while being flanked by a legitimate Republican and (the absurdly rich, ergo self-financed) Lamont, as somehow less of an example of the democratic process than the primary? If so, why?

Diego said...

I think it’s a bit silly to fixate on a single thing someone said, but anyway, I think there may be a bit of confusion here between two ideas that are not necessarily incompatible. Liberalism refers to two things in our culture. First, it refers to an academic political discourse. Second, to the views of liberals.

Aaron was referring to the technical academic illiberality of a party voting against a member with a stance at odds with the mainstream stance in one particular issue. Since academic liberalism suggests that a political system is optimal when it tolerates a diversity of views, anything that limits or reduces that diversity can be seen as a contraction of the liberal phenomenon being observed, and therefore of the goodness that liberalism embodies. At time A you had 5 different views. At time B you had 4 different views. The diversity of views shrunk. Liberalism shrunk. Less good.

But what Aaron seems to have been suggesting (correct me if I’m wrong Danger Dwarf), is that the contraction of liberalism that ousting Lieberman represented was not only dumb of Democrats (given Lieberman’s mostly good liberal voting record), it also has some bad philosophical implications.

My feeling is that that’s a huge stretch. One should expect the number of diverse views to constantly expand and contract in a liberal political system, or within the parties that it contains. Voting against Lieberman in the primaries was tactical. It was a purge, but to suggest it signifies the beginning of a period of ideological rigidity (or something like that) is kind of melodramatic.

Strangely, for a US political liberal to insist on maximal academic liberalism could be self-defeating. American liberals’ ideological laxity may be one of their biggest competitive weaknesses. I’m going through “The Right Nation” right now, a very interesting book that discusses how impressively well-organized the conservative movement is. Ideological purity may not be pretty, but it can be very effective in winning votes. And that sucks.

Aaron said...

Ha, I just had Tom read that. Ideological rigidity does help to win elections in the short-term, but it also tends to break rather than bend on intellectual grounds and isolate political moderates rather than convert them on more practical grounds.

Paul said...

So just to be clear, Aaron, the problem with Tom's "sunk cost fallacy" argument is that it's too reductive in that it applies only to some insignificant minority of people, but your complaints about "elements of the netroots" is not too reductive?