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Liberalism's Bumper Sticker Problem

Ryan Lizza's latest must-read New Yorker piece is framed as the story of President Obama's abandonment of the doctrine of foreign policy realism and adoption of "consequentialism." It's filled with a lot of reporting that doesn't really advance that narrative but is really interesting anyway. I was amused by one advisor's attempt to boil this doctrine down to a bumper sticker:

“The project of the first two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against Al Qaeda, while rebalancing our resources and our posture in the world,” Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national-security advisers, said. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reëstablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’ ”

I'm not sure Rhodes understands what bumper stickers look like. Let's have TNR's crack graphics squad try that one out:

Might need some trimming.

The bumper sticker problem is endemic for American liberalism. On foreign policy, it's actually a murky split, with ideologies cutting across both party coalitions. But on economics, there's a persistent phenomenon of conservatives having clear bumper-sticker answers and liberals lacking them. That's because, as I've argued before, conservatism is philosophically anti-government in a way that liberalism is not philosophically pro-government. "Market good, government bad" fits on a bumper sticker. So does "Government good, market bad." The problem is that the former pretty well describes the Republican philosophy, while the latter describes the philosophy only of a tiny socialist fringe operating mainly outside the two-party system.

Liberalism is forever in search of a philosophy that can fit on a bumper sticker. It's always failing, because a philosophy of leaving the free market to work except in cases of market failure, and then attempting to determine which intervention best passes the cost-benefit test is never going to be simple.

Dana Milbank recently wrote an interesting column arguing that Obama's complexity as a thinker is both a source of strength (primarily as a policy-formulator) and a source of weakness (primarily as a politician.) He quoted some interested social scientists:

“What distinguishes Obama particularly is the depth and carefulness of his thinking, which renders him somewhat unfit for politics,” said Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia. “He is a brilliant social and political analyst, which makes it harder for him to play hardball or to bluff.”
Obama’s strengths and weaknesses come from his high degree of “integrative complexity” — his ability to keep multiple variables and trade-offs in mind simultaneously. The integratively simple thinker — say, George W. Bush — has one universal organizing principle that dominates all others, while the integratively complex thinker — Obama — balances many competing goals.
Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, found that politicians on the center-left (where Obama dwells) tend to have the highest degree of integrative complexity, followed by politicians on the center-right. Politicians on the far left and far right are the most simple.

Tetlock's quote shows that the problem is endemic to center-left politicians in the contemporary American political spectrum, not necessarily Obama as a personality. Liberalism is a more complex ideology. That certainly dovetails with my sense. There's a psychological equivalence between the certainty of left and right, but the midpoint of the mirror image does not happen to run right between the split between two parties. American politics today is a kind of one-and-a-half ideology system, with a Republican Party acting as the arm of a coherent conservative movement staunchly opposed to government, and a Democratic Party acting as a kind of catch-all for everybody who doesn't accept the conservative agenda. It's no coincidence that one party keeps producing leaders who think in simple ways, while the other keeps producing leaders who think in complicated ways.

Photo: AlishaV/Flickr