Towards an Opt-Out Button in Left-Liberal Debates

I’ve recently had a couple of interesting exchanges with valued folks about formal electoral politics and their connection to the question of what progressive politics ought to be in the United States.

In terms of the debt ceiling issue in specific, I feel like this is sort of the Cuban Missile Crisis of my middle-aged life and you know what? At this point I almost just want them to get it over with and fire off the policy nukes. Just go ahead and wreck it all, because if we’ve come to the point where there’s a significant political faction with real social foundations that so thoroughly hates its fever-dream boogeyman vision of “government” that nothing else and no one else matters, we’re just going to be stuck right at a perpetual blockade line, a permanent schism. Taken in isolation from the larger story of the last two decades, this moment alone is completely WTF crazy. You have one side in a negotiation whose primary policy objective they’re pushing for is, “Not allowing an almost certain meltdown of the global financial system in the next six months” and the other side saying, “If you want to get your narrow-minded policy objective, the prevention of a major global catastrophe, you’re going to have to eliminate most of the federal government and re-establish the gold standard and maybe resign from office too if we decide to really stick it to you. Hey, that’s what bargaining is all about, you gotta give some to get what you want.” It’s as if the opposition had told FDR he’d have to make major political concessions before they’d allow him to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor.

However, one thing that the first-term House Republicans who are in some way or another tied to the Tea Party have gotten right and the entire Obama Administration and almost all Congressional Democrats have gotten wrong ever since the day after the 2008 election is that the point of political power is not to reproduce political power for its own sake. When people voted for change, what they wanted was a a government that was less about the eternal dance of patrons and clients and more about undertaking dramatic, sustained steps to fix what doesn’t work in American life, and doing that with some sustained larger vision about where we want to be going, what we want to aspire towards, rather than just a bunch of technocratic tinkering.


At Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell makes some valid criticisms of the writing of Matthew Yglesias along just these lines. And yet I’m not very satisfied with where Farrell (or others endorsing the critique) leave off. Farrell argues that Yglesias and other conventionally liberal political bloggers like him focus too much on the crafting and implementation of policy not merely because that’s the beat they cover but as if policy is the alpha and omega of what “politics” in any sense ought to be. Farrell properly observes that this approach is completely lacking any theory of politics, any explanatory sense of why envisioned policies get designed and implemented, are opposed or impeded, or are never even considered as possibilities by government officials and representatives.

There’s a very narrow space within which it is reasonable to argue in a fairly pure technocratic fashion about good and bad policy design and to reasonably hope that the better policy could be adopted and implemented. Basically this only makes sense within extremely detailed, lower-level bureaucratic contexts where there is relatively high internal consensus about administrative rules and general objectives and extremely low rivalrous attention from competing interests which will gain or lose depending on which policy is adopted. In short, almost nothing.

On the other hand, almost any leftward theory of politics, however sophisticated or inclusive of various branches of thought, has its own problems when it comes to thinking past the recognition that short-term and long-term political outcomes are determined by interests, processes, histories and subjectivities that begin and end well beyond the defined boundaries of formal governance. The issues accumulate fast and furious, and are painfully familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the intellectual history of the modern left. (Some of those issues haunt various lineages of conservative or libertarian thinking as well.)

If political struggle is just about competing interests, isn’t progressive or left politics just the expression of the interest of particular classes, institutions or constituencies? If so, what makes those interests any more righteous or deserving of victory if you’re not one of the beneficiaries? If progressives claim to be able to see beyond or outside of their own self-interest to see some longer-term general good, what allows them to do so? If progressives can do that because of some analytic framework, can individuals with competing interests use the same framework and be persuaded of the ultimate rationality or accuracy of the analysis in the long-term? Or would good outcomes be those that favor the self-interest of progressives plus some finite set of non-progressives while also well and truly absolutely hurting some other social constituency at all time scales? Do you have to be an altruist to get beyond outcomes based on self-interest?

What actually leads to either short-term or long-term victories in political struggle? Just more resources and power? If so, what’s the point of even trying if you’re less endowed? Why isn’t political success endlessly and perfectly accumulative? Every round of political victory should lead to an even greater and more unassailable alignment of power behind a particular set of interests. By implication, it should also be profoundly unimportant to ever talk about or debate political outcomes: just count heads, money and resources which are interested in differing outcomes and see who wins, like slapping two cards down in a game of War.

Do constituencies, classes and institutions ever misperceive their short-term or long-term interests? Make mistakes? Equally, are some political outcomes the consequence of systemic interactions that no human being or human institution will ever be able to accurately predict or anticipate?

I could go on in this vein. There are library shelves groaning with two centuries worth of sophisticated writing about these problems and their numerous corollaries, but at this point in my life, I don’t find that corpus terribly helpful either for understanding political outcomes (past and present) or for answering my questions about what we’re supposed to at least try to do now, if there’s anything in fact to be done.

The more strenuously one insists that bad political outcomes are driven by social and institutional interests seeking to benefit at the cost of all other interests, with a clear rational understanding of the fit between the policies they demand and the outcomes they seek, the starker and potentially more hopeless the question of politics becomes unless by some chance there’s a nearly even distribution of competing interests or you’re in the camp of people who have superior resources. The Crooked Timber thread I’ve referenced here has a lot of commenters who observe that at some point, the job of politics is to forcibly punch through or otherwise overcome some oligarchic or dominant interests that prevent good policies or governance from happening. This sounds good as a way to rouse the crowd and sneer at the wonkish neoliberals, but try to take it past that rhetorical point and a lot of extremely rivalrous visions of praxis, with varying degrees of improbability and/or undesirability, start crowding into the room. Fight the power, smash the state, wait for the Multitude to get busy, build an anarcho-syndicalist commune: much of it doesn’t seem, as Yglesias observes in that thread, to amount to a terribly specific alternative to fiddling around with deferred tax credits for LEED-certified merino-sheep shearing in designated small-agribusiness zones.


This is the first time in a while that I’ve even tried venturing back into these kinds of discussions. There’s something about them that is not just emotionally distressing to me but seems so much to exemplify the dire and hopeless situation of the political present. On a visceral level, I really just do not want to be stuck in this kind of conversation, the kind where we’re debating who is a bad person for moving rightward or who isn’t a serious thinker or which particular text offers the proper critical framework for constructing a new crisis theory of capitalism.

My own answers to many of those long-standing questions are only partly derived at this point from my work as a scholar and intellectual, and are less and less appropriate to the norms of scholarly or intellectual discourse the older I get. I think individuals, institutions, communities don’t always or even often just defend their particular self-interest. I don’t think they often accurately understand or clearly express their interests, any more than I believe human psychology or agency is well-described by the sketch version known as homo economicus. I think political agency, whether expressed narrowly in the drafting of policy or broadly in the mobilization of resources and constituencies, frequently leads to unanticipated or surprising consequences, some unexpectedly good for almost everyone and others terrifyingly destructive even to the agents who initiated a particular course of action. I think it’s intellectually possible and morally desirable to understand people unlike yourself, even people whose aspirations and worldview are genuinely antagonistic to your own. I think totalizing ideologies and totalizing social philosophies are intrinsically ill-suited to explain the human past or set a course for the human future. I think language isn’t just a framing device or an instrumental apparatus for the production of consciousness and subjectivity. I think every imagined alternative to liberalism and modernity ends up reinstating both of them under the table as well as using both of them to generate complaints about their shortcomings.

Hang on. Let’s try again. Here’s what I want and I think maybe a lot of people, both Americans and otherwise, want. I want what my colleagues Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe call “good enough”. I don’t want to grab for the brass ring, be the alpha male, see my name in lights, have the penthouse apartment on the East Side. I don’t want to write out a lengthy policy manifesto on what American foreign policy towards 21st Century African states should be and then spend the next ten years taking meetings and writing op-eds to push my plan. I just want to do a good job as a teacher and a colleague and a father and a husband and a person. I want to earn a good living and enjoy what pleasures come my way without scheming every day for a better living and pleasures I can never have on what I earn now.

I don’t want to care very much about whether one particular implementation of TARP or another is better. I don’t want to insist that my kid’s teachers and school need to follow my exact pedagogical preferences. I don’t want to bring a court case because this one time somebody had my kid be part of a moment of silence before a fifth-grade class. I don’t want to regard myself as endlessly called upon to personally participate in the righting of every wrong I can see, understand or know about. I want to flip Marx around and get to the point where most of the time, the point of thinking and talking and writing is not to change the world but just interpret it and enjoy the interpretations of others.

Flip it. I don’t want anybody telling me what the fuck to do in my house. I don’t want my kid’s pediatrician who I otherwise like to quote me media effects research that I know a great deal about and regard with skepticism and make my daughter recite the appropriate catechism in order to get out of the annual exam without a lecture. I don’t want the guy down the street and his co-religionists to start relentlessly lobbying the school board to remove references to evolution from high school biology class. I want fellow professionals who push constantly for ever-more insane levels of meritocratic pressure to be structurally and culturally inflicted on our kids (or on my students at Swarthmore) to just cool it in public, if they have to be tiger moms and dads, to keep that as private as they would if their sex lives involved razor play and urinating on each other. I want to accept and marvel at human resiliency rather than build an endless managerial and supervisory apparatus for preemptively protecting every potentially vulnerable person from every potential kind of trespass or offense. I want rules and strictures to be a last resort rather than a leading preference.

In short, my political aspirations at this point could be summed up pretty well by Jon Stewart’s plea to just chill the fuck out, America, take the temperature down. Do reasonable things. Appreciate the genuinely tough questions in life and politics for what they are, and appreciate the different answers that people come up with to those questions. I think there is, if not a “moral majority”, a decent majority, a mellowable majority, who pretty much also just want life to be good enough.

A politics of “good enough” is not Obama’s politics. I don’t think there’s been a President in my life who more thoroughly represented a relentlessly meritocratic ethos and social constituency. He might be able to handle the chill out part, though, which the Republican Party and their loyalists absolutely and viscerally reject. But “good enough” and “chill out” are not particularly a big part of the discursive culture of online discussion either, and not particularly a common sentiment in the sociocultural world of professionals, academic or otherwise. So it is not just our leaders who would need to represent a mellower and more mature majority, but at least some of us who would need to tweak habits and practices, spend less time vigilantly patrolling the walls of our sometimes vanishingly small redoubts and more time hosting an open house.

There will still be plenty of unacceptable shit to be outraged by, plenty of things to care passionately about, plenty of good work for good people to undertake as well as plenty of barricades which must at all costs be manned.

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7 Responses to Towards an Opt-Out Button in Left-Liberal Debates

  1. Dan Miller says:

    This sounds a lot like David Roberts’ plea for what he calls “the medium chill” over at Grist. If you haven’t read it, you should.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Ah, I hadn’t seen that, but it’s very much the same–he’s also drawing from Barry’s work. Very nice. Thanks!

  3. I love this rant, Tim, and I really do miss you ranting on these topics (though I can understand your reluctance to get too invested in such conversations). I’m going to make use of this piece of yours, and David Roberts’s as well (thanks for the link, Dan!), in a class I’ll be teaching on simplicity and sustainability this fall–in which I’m also using Barry Schwartz’s book as one of the required texts.

    But (and of course you saw this “but” coming a mile away…), I have to go back to a point that we’ve argued about for years: are you really comfortable believing that “good enough”, that the “medium chill”, that the “opt-out button”, isn’t itself a rather complicated endeavor, requiring–if not on a personal level, than at least on the political one–a rather comprehensive project? Your plea for a decent majority that will “chill the fuck out” seems to quietly hope that the aggressive meritocrats, the Constitution-worshiping Tea Partiers, the Intelligent Designers, the Grover Norquist disciples, the neocons, the globalizing Friedmanites, etc., etc., aren’t actually what you observed at the beginning of your rant: groups which embody “significant political faction[s] with real social foundations”. If that’s what they are, why should they chill the fuck out? They’ve got their base, their fired up, and they’re winning! (Which you seem to acknowledge in suggesting that you almost hope that some of them get their way and crash the whole global financial system.)

    This is why I guess I can’t help but find myself more on Farrell’s side than on Yglesias’s. Yes, you’re correct that a desire to engage on behalf of simplicity and “good enough”–assuming that I’m right and that opting out alone won’t do it–will result in “lot[s] of extremely rivalrous visions of praxis, with varying degrees of improbability and/or undesirability” contesting each other. That’s exhausting, and creates its own problems, and isn’t any fun. But given the fact that, in my view at least, living a medium chill life depends upon, for example, as Roberts put it, providing “safe, accessible, pleasant public spaces and resources”, then I’m going to continue to believe that “fiddling around with deferred tax credits for LEED-certified merino-sheep shearing in designated small-agribusiness zones”, at least at the present moment, ain’t going to do the trick.

  4. Jeff Smith says:

    The problem I see here is that an argument like this is self-refuting. “Chill the fuck out” is also a call for people to adopt a certain view or posture toward the current state of affairs. Like any such call, including those of either left or right that sound much more strident, it therefore implies an analysis of that state, an assessment of it in terms of which features of it are good or bad, and a vision of what states of affairs are possible or desirable. You can’t escape having such ideas, even if you don’t articulate them or haven’t fully thought them through yourself, and you can’t help urging that vision on others when you speak in public like this. (Or you can, but only by making the act of speaking in public more or less pointless, like a declaration that you happen to have no strong preference in flavors of ice cream and don’t see why other people are so enamored of butterscotch or rocky road. Yes, you can “opt out” of the ice-cream discussion that way, but then why say anything at all?)

    So, the “good enough” posture amounts to saying: I see no reason to be politically active in opposition to the current state of affairs. That’s an assertion that aren’t any big injustices, or assaults on the poor and defenseless, or attempts to undermine the greatness of America, or [insert your possible social evil here] currently urgent enough to call for such opposition. Again, this is an analysis like any other, and when proffered to others it’s a political argument like any other. So it can’t also be an argument for not making political arguments, or even for less impassioned political arguments: Even a call for less passion implies a view of how good/bad things currently are relative to what they could be).

    Since we’re talking at this “meta” level, I won’t get into the question of whether things are currently good enough in America to warrant the position proffered here. I’m sure they’re pretty good for some people. But here’s another thing: Even the activists who most passionately argue for X or Y or Z in the public square are also, in nearly every case, taking some version of the “good enough” position themselves, since almost none of them join revolutionary organizations aimed at the forcible overthrow of the current system. They make their arguments, they go to their rallies, they publish their blog posts, they write to their congresspeople or whatever, and then they DO chill the fuck out, i.e. they go about the normal daily business of doing jobs and raising families and watching TV and so on. If their public arguments sound “totalizing,” that’s not necessarily because they’re any more ideological than someone who openly says that things are currently good enough; it’s because a certain kind of totalization is implicit in most arguments — i.e., the fact of arguing a point, any point, involves highlighting what you see as true and why, and downplaying or attempting to refute alternative views. To the extent that we’ve reached a point that lots of people feel they can opt out of this, can look around and say, chill out, life is good enough without engaging in a lot of explicit political arguments, that itself is a testament to the success of those who made explicit political arguments in the past when they needed to be made to correct the features of society that previously were NOT good enough.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Jeff, I know I’m already very much a TL;DR kind of blogger, but you definitely make me wish I’d gone on a bit longer.

    The politics of “good enough” is in my mind very much not opting out in the sense of being apolitical or non-political. Schwartz and others have a more formal word for the concept, “satisficing”, which I really hate the sound of. At the simplest level, Schwartz argues that satisficing is a decision rule about everyday choices which tends to produce much more satisfaction and peace-of-mind for people who employ it. If, for example, you don’t care that much about whether this detergent or that detergent is the best, and just figure that anything that’s not to expensive and works well enough, then you just grab something and pay it no more mind. If you want to always get the very best detergent at the very best price point, you’re a “maximizer”, in Schwartz’ view, and much more unhappy or unsettled as a result. Every choice or decision is perpetually accompanied by regret, as well as a tremendous amount of mental labor.

    Ok. So I think this is completely on-target, though I’ve never agreed fully with a corollary argument that Schwartz makes, which is the best way to compel more people to satisfice is to reduce the total amount of choices in a given system. The important thing here is that satisficing can be a much more comprehensive praxis in politics and life, not just about choosing which brand of baked beans to buy. And as such, it’s:

    1) an extremely active ethos, not a passive one, because it comprehensively disagrees with extremely powerful and prevalent frameworks present in consumer capitalism, social hierarchy, and the American political system. If you insist that you don’t need to be top dog, that having a basic level of comfort is sufficient, that a vision of social relations that is exclusively built around competition is unnecessary, and so on, you’re very much dissenting from dominant ideology.


    2) I think this is not just a kind of bourgeois “I got mine, fuck the workers”: I think satisficing is a concept that can be a powerful way to think about self and community all the way up and down the social hierarchy, and create social connections across class and hierarchical boundaries.

    Where I see this as an opt-out is at two points: first, in terms of a kind of sociocultural libertarianism (something that Russell knows is a pretty consistent vision of mine) in which I’d suggest that satisficing requires a much broader range of accepting divergent individual, familial and community preferences in cultural and social practice than many on the left seem prepared to accept and second, that many of the long-standing details and particulars that fuel left-liberal conflicts are themselves fueled by maximizing, that various political fractions don’t set goals like, “less discrimination” or “more income equality” but instead have extremely specific political objectives that become fetishistic over time and make everything less or different seem horribly insufficient. This is just an extension of seeing satisficing as an active political project: applying it TO politics means that you’ve got to learn to embrace a much broader range of outcomes as basically ok, and be much more general about drawing the line between basically ok and basically not at all acceptable.

  6. Jeff Smith says:

    Timothy, thanks, that’s a very helpful clarification. I completely agree with point #1 and have lived my own life that way (i.e. not striving / competing as much as was possible, settling for lower income in return for other satisfactions, etc.). I also agree that it’s part of the dynamic of political arguments and movements that they tend toward maximalism — or at least have incentives to sound that way, although as I said, in reality most activists settle for a lot less than they’re “demanding” and in that sense do seem to accept some version of a good-enough ethos.

    I’m left with the following, which you may or may not find helpful if you continue to write about this. (Maybe you feel it’s been covered already in those 200 years worth of political philosophy you mention.) In order not to sound like smug bourgeois complacency, it’s probably important that a program based on “satisficing” have some means of identifying those cases where urgency or maximilism actually is warranted and responding accordingly. For instance, in 1963 you had M.L. King and others demanding that federal power finally be used to smash the Jim Crow system for good. King’s rhetoric was all about how this was long overdue, “Why We Can’t Wait,” etc., and he was up against critics who in some cases granted his substantive arguments but in various ways asked him to “chill” about it (more or less the position of the group he was replying to in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”). So, “chill” and “good enough” were distinct political positions in those cases, and most people today would agree that they were wrong and King was right. Even Rand Paul kind of had to concede this last year, or least stop arguing the contrary.

    Fast-forwarding 50 years, how do we today decide which demands for urgent attention to something are truly urgent, and which we can chill about? Can we chill about global warming, for instance? About the conditions underlying the famines in East Africa? Etc. etc. What’s the principle for deciding this? You urge being “more general” about drawing the line between cases, but you seem to agree there’s a line to be drawn, i.e. that there are still some outcomes that are basically not acceptable, albeit fewer than the activists on all sides claim. How do we know which are which?

    It seems that there’s no way around, finally, getting into the weeds and evaluating particular issues, then engaging the activists’ claims on their own terms — trying to convince fellow citizens that “good enough” solutions are available or have been found for Issue X, despite the shrill demands from some quarters that Issue X be immediately addressed in such-and-such a specific way. The problem is, that’s still making political arguments, and therefore not really “opting out.” Or you can not bother to make the arguments, but then you’re still implying them by your (in)action while ALSO ceding the public square to the maximalists — which it seems is exactly what you’re saying you don’t want to do.

  7. lnakamur says:

    Cheers. This is the best piece of political writing I’ve read in years. I have had my head in the sand about the debt ceiling and can’t handle listening to the rampant irrationality and insanity that passes for political discourse right now. I just came from a month in the Netherlands where “good enough” is very much the ethos for everything. But they’re having their troubles too–apparently spending on non-STEM-related research has been slashed, and their 30 year history of support for new media arts has been eliminated, with resources going only to the preservation of the Netherlands’ considerable collections of traditional and “canonical” art. It was good living in a place where the quality of everything, like food say, is perfectly good and not cheap, and the same for everyone pretty much. Everyone goes to the same grocery store–Albert Heijn–which is worse than Whole Foods but much much better than the gas station, where many U.S. people buy their food now cause it’s what they can afford and where they can go. Most things are in the middle. At least for now.

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