Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Terrible Need for "Bad Cops" in Politics

There is one aspect of politics that might stress me out more than any other. It's the necessity of "bad cops".

By "bad cops", I mean hacks that make tendentious arguments that nonetheless serve to push the Overton Window in a desirable direction. I mean flamethrowers who make unreasonable demands out of their party which nonetheless provide countervailing pressure against pushes from one's political opponents. I mean primary challengers against okay-ish incumbents by novices who'd have no idea what they'd do with the car if they caught it, but who manage to put a little healthy fear in entrenched politicians.

I'll give an example: I think the New York gubernatorial race last cycle went about as well as possible. Andrew Cuomo is a talented politician, but his first two terms as governor were spent undermining progressive priorities in a way that really shouldn't be happening in as a blue a state as New York. Cynthia Nixon has no political experience and probably would not make a good governor, but by mounting a credible primary challenge from the left she put enough of a scare into Cuomo that he's been far, far better in his third term. So for me, the ideal outcome is exactly what happened: Nixon runs a credible campaign but loses. Scared Gov. Cuomo > Gov. Nixon > Complacent Gov. Cuomo.

But there isn't any real way to "support" a primary by a candidate who you don't want to win, you just want to be "credible". You can't vote for someone unless they get more than 40% of the vote. And sometimes these things backfire -- Jeremy Corbyn's initial nomination into the UK Labour leadership race, after all, was made by MPs who didn't really want him to win but thought his presence would generate a healthy "debate". Oops. The point is, these things are unstable. You never know when the hack arguments suddenly start being taken seriously as policy (or law) or when the flamethrowers will suddenly seize control of the ship.

Now to be clear, I'm not saying every controversy stemming from the wing to the center is "bad copping". For starters, the center can also "bad cop" towards the wings ("hippie-punching" is a good example).  More to the point, there are obviously perfectly good objections that can made to established practices (and, for that matter, perfectly good primary challenges against incumbents).

But certainly there are cases where we know what's going on is theater -- where the leadership really got the best deal that's feasible, but nonetheless it is beneficial in the long term for some people to yell "sell outs!" because it ends up improving the negotiating position the next time around.

And that's what drives me up the wall: it can and likely is simultaneously true that this sort of agitation is both objectively unreasonable (on occasion, conspiratorial) and that it is politically efficacious towards collective party goals. Even if you don't think that Pelosi is a sellout for not having impeached Trump within her first three months, it's probably useful for Democrats to have a loud and raucous contingent saying Pelosi is a sellout for not impeaching Trump in her first three months -- in spite, not because, of the fact that this is a clearly unreasonable demand. Again, it's healthy for Pelosi to have a little fear bit in her from her left flank. But it'd be supremely unhealthy for the dog to actually catch the car. The mainstream Republican Party certainly benefited from Tea Party extremism. Maybe they thought they were using it cynically, just as their bad cop. But it turned out, they couldn't actually control it, and the damage it's done to the country may well be irreparable.

Again, using the bad cops deeply unstable and risky (as the Corbyn example shows as well). Whether it's a posture taken cynically or earnestly, fraying norms around factual argumentation and reasonable expectations about political behavior are not easily mended once their tactical value has been exhausted.

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