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18th Century Political Thinking in the 21st

In 2006 Matthew Yglesias posted “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” at the now-defunct site TPM Café. He wrote how he enjoyed reading Green Lantern comic books and briefly explained how the power rings from the series worked, then added:

The political mirror or an exhibition of ministers for April 1782

The political mirror or an exhibition of ministers for April 1782

But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

His frame of reference at the time was the neoconservatives’ push to start bombing Iran. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were already going poorly, it would seem the case for yet another war was not compelling. But Yglesias pointed out that the neoconservatives’ rationale literally could not be refuted: “Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will.”

This was (and is) an appealing way to look at the mindset of the more bellicose foreign policy thinkers. Military power is treated in practice as omnipotent. There is nothing it can’t accomplish, as long as you apply enough of it for a long enough time and, to coin a phrase, stay the course.

Apparently that was too delightful a metaphor to leave to just one use, because it began to get adapted to new situations by liberal bloggers. Last week Richard Mayhew used it in the context of health care reform:

Again, in an ideal world, a Medicare buy-in at 55 or even better, full Medicare expansion to 55 would be a significant improvement over putting the 55 to 64.999 age cohort on exchanges. But just believing that there is an easy way to get there is Green Lanternism or belief in the power of the Bully Pulpit ™.

The new context, then, is that advocating for a better system amounts to insisting on an ideal world – and to also believing there is an easy way to get there. Invoking new Green Lanternism is especially popular among progressive defenders of the president. Criticizing Barack Obama from the left is unsavvy; lobbying for better policy is the height of impractical, self-defeating naïveté.

The other place I encountered this attitude recently was on the right. Earlier this summer I visited my state representative and voiced my concerns over this incident in Ohio. Within the first ten minutes he’d said words to this effect three times: The oil and gas industry is very influential, so nothing is going to get done.

Attitudes like this have nothing to do with having a level headed, non-magic powers based outlook. They have instead to do with inculcating a sense of fatalism and resignation among activists. It can’t be done, is the message, not because it’s impossible but because it’s hard. It’s something like a politics of Newtonian physics. Look at this big thing, it will be difficult to move, it’s too heavy, don’t bother, and especially don’t ask me to help. It’s a waste of time. It can’t be done.

That’s a very convenient way for leaders to let themselves off the hook for doing nothing, but really it’s a coward’s excuse. No one is asking you to do everything, and no one expects that a single application of sweet reason will entirely reform an entrenched system. The process of change – the point of engaging others unsympathetic to a position – is persuasion, which works on a smaller scale. Maybe even the political equivalent of a subatomic level.

I told my representative: I don’t expect you to turn Columbus on its head over this incident, just use it as an opportunity to discuss it with your colleagues. It’s a good example of why reform is needed. The spill was small not because there because was technology in place to limit it, or because there was effective remediation in place once it happened. It was small because there wasn’t that much to spill. We got lucky, in other words. Bring that up to other representatives.

Persuasion almost never happens like a thunderbolt. It happens with accumulated moments over time that lead to a tipping point. It’s not an event but a process. A refusal to persuade on an issue is a sign of indifference or hostility to that cause – not a reflection of sober judgment.

Political reality is not a fixed and unchanging quantity. Inertia is overcome when the mass of support for an issue slowly gets chipped away. That big heavy thing might not move today, but if nobody bothers then it never will. And you know what? Sometimes there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Sometimes the thing will move when the impact of a tiny action gets unexpectedly amplified. Either way, there is no reason for those who genuinely support an issue to sit on their hands – or discourage others from acting.

Drawing from Boston Public Library licensed under Creative Commons

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