How Can Both Left and Right Believe that they are Losing?

Tyler Cowen writes,

the new book by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, and the subtitle is How the War on Government Led Us To Forget What Made America Prosper. It is well written and will appeal to many people. It is somewhat at variance with my own views, however. Most of all I would challenge the premise of a “war on government,” at least a successful war.

This reminds me of a puzzling phenomenon that I have noticed. If you read narratives of recent history from the perspective of the left and the right, each side believes it is losing. One could dismiss this as marketing strategy. If our side is winning, then why is it urgent to read my book or donate to my organization?

But I think it is possible for the each side to sincerely believe it is losing.

The left presumes that government can solve problems. We have problems. Therefore, we must be losing!

The right presumes that the government causes problems. We have problems. Therefore, we must be losing!

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26 Responses to How Can Both Left and Right Believe that they are Losing?

  1. Blackbeard says:

    I have had exactly this discussion with my liberal friends many times. I argue that their side is clearly winning (gay marriage, dramatically increased government spending, Obamacare, higher taxes, reduced military spending as a percentage of GDP, etc., etc.) and yet the large majority of citizens say they are unhappy with the direction the country is going in. Could it be, I ask, that the policies they favor are moving us in the wrong direction? Yet they refuse to concede that things are going their way. Only total eradication of every Republican/conservative would satisfy them, it appears.

    • Daublin says:

      I appreciate the effort to be charitable, but I think it has to be some kind of bias. Not necessarily “marketing”, because that implies there’s a specific person or group of people who are controlling this feeling. I figure it’s more an emergent idea of the kind that will show up any time people live in a bubble. Politicians are just taking advantage of this idea, but they aren’t the source of it.

      Among my friends, there really is a steep lack of knowledge about how anything works and about what our federal government has been doing, including changes that happened under Obama. They don’t know and don’t have time to learn; they’re into politics as a pastime, mainly during work hours when they can’t simply go watch TV.

      Most people in favor of Obamacare don’t even know about the employee mandate being delayed so long. Likewise for Frank-Dodd, if they’ve even heard of it. They think Obama has been a pacifist who would never keep issue drone bombings, keep the torture camp in Guantanamo open, or negotiate troop *increases* with Iraqi leadership. For that matter they don’t realize that the TSA is part of Homeland Security, which reports straight to the U.S. president, and thus could be stopped by executive order from doing anything the president would prefer not to happen.

      They don’t know that drugs ever go off patent, or why they’re ever on patent to begin with. They just think that drug companies are evil, in a general sense.

      In local politics, they don’t understand how any business ever works, and so they largely oppose any form of development. Just say the word “develop” and they are against it. It will increase traffic, you know. They also cannot contemplate that a floating price for tap water would ever be possible to implement, much less yield improvements. They’ll ask, what about poor people, as if prices only ever float upward.

      They don’t know these things, and don’t care to spend their time learning them. They’re only going to study politics to the extent it’s more fun for them than playing Candy Box or Farmville, or reading inspirational essays. An Us versus Them story keeps things entertaining. An author at Mother Jones can endlessly talk about this bill or that politician or this other study of the Republican mind, and make an interesting story that will entertain anyone who is able to read. So that’s what they do, and the whole thing just keeps going.

      This isn’t a process you’d want to use for making any important decisions.

    • Dean Boulding says:

      Whaaaaat? Gay marriage was decided by a conservative, Republican-nominee-dominated SCOTUS. By any real measure government spending is lower under Obama than Reagan. Obamacare has allowed millions to purchase health insurance at prices they can afford, reducing long-term burdens on public health care funding. Taxes are much, much lower than they were in the latter half of the twentieth century. Military spending I agree with you, but what multiple of the rest of the world’s spending would you suggest (already about 1)? I hate to let the facts get in the way of your beliefs, but why do you post from a position of such ignorance?

      • Ozgun Torcu says:

        As far as I see Blackbeard suggests that recently Liberal ideas have implemented and thus Liberal side isn’t losing. I think you should see things in a more marginal way. Saying that government spending in Obama era is less than Reagan’s doesn’t counterargument the fact that it has increased during Obama’s presidency. Also Senate being Republican doesn’t change the fact that gay marriage is a liberal idea.

        • mulp says:

          Individual choice in who to love is liberal, and having other people decide who you will have sex with based on furthering some collective objective like increasing family wealth and power or creating children to labor for the collective is conservative.

          So, why do you oppose liberalism in marriage?

          Individuals should not be allowed to make choices for themselves on mutual commitments like marriage?

          Is gay marriage a problem because you lose your freedom to control other people’s mutual commitments based on your view individual choice can not be allowed?

          I find it odd that giving individuals greater freedom to chose for themselves is seen as Obama oppressing people.

          If you were to argue that forcing pacifists to pay taxes to fund mass murder in war is a violation of religious liberty because even an invasion is best handled by individuals defending their property, or by passive resistance, or even welcoming the invaders, then I’d believe you were serious about freedom from the oppression of taxes, which are theft. Instead, it’s me forced to pay $100 for things you deem absolutely necessary, but $1 going to things I consider necessary, is an abuse of power and an outrageous violation of your liberty.

  2. Brandon Berg says:

    Possibly some sort of cognitive bias that causes people to weigh losses more highly than victories? Loss aversion, basically.

  3. Jeff R. says:

    In my experience, it seems to be the whole neoliberal revolution of the seventies and eighties combined with DC v. Heller and the failure of Congress to pass gun control legislation that allows people on the left to craft their underdog narrative. Seriously, some of these people still don’t understand Carter’s deregulation of airlines and interstate trucking except as some sort of right wing extortion plot.

    • John Dougan says:

      I have found that the Carter era deregulation of beer production leading directly to the craft beer revolution generally is easier to get through their heads and makes a good starting point to lead to the rest.

  4. CMOT says:

    The decline of belief in organized religion leaves the need for a feeling of decline, damnation and redemption unrequited. People are overprinting these memes on their politics to fill the void.

  5. Handle says:

    It’s always possible that most of the members of both parties think they are losing to ‘the establishment’ or ‘to Wall Street’ or ‘to the big money donors’ and so forth. We’re not even though a quarter of the year, but I feel justified in already nominating ‘establishment’ as the overused political-commentary-word of 2016 like ‘narrative’ was in 2015.

    Since the parties are hardly monolithic – as we are relearning and observing daily during this election season – the feeling of ideological betrayal and frustration at the hands of their coalitions’ comparatively moderate gatekeepers can be shared. Ideological purists or absolutists will always feel frustrated by those who insist on pragmatic strategies, who have to build support for compromises and bargains, and who also have to, well, sell out, to have enough money to triumph in the democratic game.

    So, take immigration. 90% of Republicans can feel they are ‘losing’ on immigration because the party elites and big business donors are stubbornly Kempian and often pro-amnesty / pro-open-borders, and meanwhile Obama is using executive orders to nullify legislation. Meanwhile, most of the left can feel they are also ‘losing’ because the open-borders-with-ACA-and-other-benefits goal hasn’t yet been delivered to them (though both Sanders and Clinton promise to do it if elected).

    Still, these are matters of subjective perception and, whatever truths about party dynamics may be embedded in them, they do not accurately reflect the real state of affairs. The right is in total disarray and nearing collapse. There is no way to look at things like Obamacare, Obergefell, compulsory transgender showering in high schools, prosecutions of cake bakers, female infantry, etc. (I could go on all day) as anything but tremendous triumphs for the left. And if Clinton wins – and currently the odds are that she will – we will also get a Warren Court II.

    • Dain says:

      One thing missing from this list of triumphs is anything relating to the economy. Many on the more radical left will admit to social issue wins but lament that capitalism continues apace unabated. Precarious employment, the abuse of “independent contractor” status and more.

      It’s hardly obvious the left is winning on the labor front.

      • Handle says:

        How the New Left came to switch focus to the culture war and identity politics and come around to ‘neoliberalism’ and a comparatively more business and markets friendly view that the old Marxists is a long, fascinating and criminally under-told story.

        But the truth is that to the extent the left is ‘losing’ on these matters (which I do not even accept except for the purpose of argument), it remains a fundamentally internal struggle between absolutist ideologues and pragmatic elites, as those ideologues will readily admit in their constant complaints attributing their frustrations to the “establishment center-left”.

  6. djf says:

    “The left presumes that government can solve problems. We have problems. Therefore, we must be losing!”

    This is not really how the Left thinks. For them, government not being big enough is a problem by definition, without regard to the existence of “problems” in society. The “problems,” whether real or not, exist for the Left as a rationale for enlarging the government; whether expanding government will solve or ameliorate them is irrelevant (though of course they don’t say that). This applies even to “inequality”: if they really cared about “inequality,” they would not favor increasing immigration. So I would rephrase your statement as follows:

    “The left presumes government should always be bigger. Government could be bigger. Therefore we must be losing!”

    The thinking on the Right does not correspond symmetrically to this: nobody politically significant on the Right wants unlimited reduction of government (even domestically) the way the Left wants to expand government indefinitely.

    In addition, the Left has an emotional investment in seeing themselves as iconoclastic rebels against an unjust social order. It is an essential part of their marketing pitch to the young and to older people who still think like 20-year-olds (such as Bernie Sanders). And if they were to admit they were winning, they would logically have to accept at least partial responsibility for the problems we face (the collapse of the middle class, the 2008 financial collapse, failing schools, etc.). Which they are.

  7. BC says:

    I would modify Kling’s statements slightly. The Left wants Bigger Government than we have. Therefore, it must be losing. The Right wants Smaller Government than we have. Therefore, it must be losing. It’s the difference between (not) having what one wants vs. wanting what one has.

    I will say that there tends to be more optimism when the Right is in charge, and I would include the Bill Clinton administration as one where Right-leaning economic policies prevailed. When the Left is in charge (Carter and Obama administrations), the opposition Right has obvious incentive to paint everything in a negative light. The Left *also* has a negativity bias because one of their core beliefs is that America is unjust and, therefore, Government needs to fix it. During these periods, when the unemployment rate drops below 5%, both Left and Right ask what’s happening to labor force participation. When the Right is in charge (Reagan through Bush Jr), the opposition Left has incentive to look for the negative. Their typical reaction to strong growth, for example, will be to ask about distribution (which can never be perfectly equal). The Right, however, paints a positive picture as evidence that their policies are working. A Democratic administration with Right-leaning policies leads to an especially optimistic mood. The Left will not want to be too critical of the Democrat, and the Right will see vindication of their policies.

  8. collin says:

    Easy: Both sides are losing. The basic Reagan/Clinton neoliberalism treaded increased the free market competitiveness at the cost of the old social order. We saw the dramatic increase in two income families in the workforce which allowed blue collar male wages to decrease without having family incomes diminishing. But with equal access to the workforce, women/wives/mothers are more focused on careers and not protecting the local social order, The Church.

    Notice, Trump core voters are non-going Church Christians and the higher the population goes to church weekly, the lower his vote.

  9. Lord says:

    For libertarians, it’s about the size of government. For conservatives, it is about who is in control. For liberals, it is about the kind of society they want to live in.

    • djf says:

      The “kind of society they [the Left] want to live in” being Brazil.

    • Andrew' says:

      Those all apply to libertarians, maybe least of all the size of government.

      To liberals and conservatives it is all about painting eachother as evil jerks.

    • Daublin says:

      Among my friends, you have the republicans and democrats swapped. All my Democrat friends are obsessed with the specific people who are in power. My Republican friends, which are few, would be happy if everyone would start going to church again and just be nice.

      You don’t need to control power when you live in a good culture. People just know what to do, and when they transgress, everyone around them can spot it, without needing to consult the fine print in the legal code.

  10. S says:

    One side is loosing. The other side is winning slower than they would prefer. Could it be any other way?

  11. Maximum Liberty says:

    I think it is similar to loss aversion. Each side forgets its “wins” because “that’s the way things ought to be” and remember their “losses” because they are so contrary to the way things ought to be. For example, if I don’t like gun control, I only think of the Heller decision as as a win when someone threatens it, because that’s the way things ought to be. But if I like gun control, it bugs me all the time, because it’s so obviously wrong.

    • Daublin says:

      As a nit, I think everyone in the U.S. favors gun control. That’s the standing law of the land, and there’s no significant movement to undo that. You have to submit to a background check to buy a gun.

  12. charlies says:

    It’s a way to signal partisanship and ideological purity.

    If the world is not a catastrophic string of victories for “the other side” then you are probably a moderate.

    Hacker & Pierson are distinguished political scientists, but are now in the career phase where they churn out books that simply serve to justify the academic-left wing of the democratic party.

  13. Joe In Morgantown says:

    > Obamacare has allowed millions to purchase health insurance at prices they can afford,

    “Allowed” is a strange word for a mandate designed to get poor 20-somethings to subsidize rich 50-somethings.

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