Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

The Endogeneity of Might and Right: “Uncle Mo” and American Politics

In Domestic Politics on March 29, 2010 at 10:07 am

Just before the big health care vote on Sunday, I wrote about the famous Clinton line from 2002 in which he said that the American people occasionally prefer someone who is strong and wrong to someone who seems weak and right.

Let’s call this the endogeneity of might and right problem. It works like this, if I don’t know how the world works, I have to rely upon signals from others. Much of what I mean by the word “works” is that it produces practical effects that are better to those that now obtain. Although I might prefer the optimum, I would prefer the better to the worse. This means that right action in practical life depends on what is possible. What is possible is a function of power or might.

This gets us to the endogeneity of might and right problem. Endogeneity here just means that we have a chicken and the egg problem. It is hard to know which one causes the other and what one would be without the other. They are related to one another in iterative cycles. Something is right if it works; it works if we recognize the virtue in its conception.

Although the power to produce effects is the most crucial, the power to frame them might matter nearly as much. This is why the right is so eager to work the refs by beating up on the media, and some times professors, for being biased in favor of liberal interpretations.

Now that Obama has won on health care. everything else he has done and everything he intends to do feels quite different. It is really quite an astounding change.  In the conundrum of the complicated world, many Americans now take the dots now before them, matched with a new understanding of how power is transforming practicality and to see the following: Obama saved the banks, stimulated the economy, carried the automakers through the trough, provided for national health insurance, nixed the middle man on student loans, and cut nuclear weapons. Building on this momentum he is surging in Afghanistan, peacemaking in the Middle East and re-regulating the financial system.

If this all works within discursive tolerances, then many people will conclude that it was the right thing to do, because what is right in a system like our depends more on what can be done than on what we wish were possible. We have no idea if his initiatives will work, but there is good reason the believe that Obama is in better shape now than he has been in over a year.

In the interest of time, I won’t say too much about this today, but I think today’s must read comes from Peter Beinart. The Conflict Resolution crowd will remember him, perhaps not too kindly,  for the muscular liberalism he championed in his book The Good Fight. Whatever their take on that argument, they will learn much from his article today in the Daily Beast. he is right on here.

As Dick Vitale says about basketball, much is explained by momentum in the game of politics. We are wrong if we suspect that the great middle of the political spectrum is fixed in their ideology. Ronald Reagan captured that middle and turned might into right. Those who pay little atytention to politics just want something to work and then their prediliection for a belief in a just world kicks in and they make that good by definition. This all the more important for the young.

My generation of X’ers took its cues from an environment in which what worked appeared to be a blend of corportate boosterism and individual initiative. We are therefore among the most committed of Reagan style classical liberals out there. Government is the problem because Reagan proved himself the stronger in the period in which we were first paying attention. Reagan’s bureacratic libertarianism (in which giant private bureacracies are given a free hand) worked because it was persuasively perfomed. It was therefore also good.

Young people today confr0nt a completely different horizon of interpretation. As always, the war is on for their worldviews. Who wins this contest will define the good for the coming generation. Beinart gets this just right today. Uncle Mo is with Obama, but there is a lot of time left on the clock. One thing is certain, now that health reform is law, he is fired up and ready to go.

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