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The Myth of ‘Political Capital’

April 25th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

One of my favorite political misnomers is the phrase ‘conventional wisdom’ as it’s usually the farthest thing from ‘wisdom’ you can find. I think ‘conventional bullshit’ would be a far more appropriate term. And my favorite piece of ‘conventional bullshit’ is this idea of ‘political capital’ which I would like to take a moment to rip to shreds.

When Bush was re-elected, he boasted about all the ‘political capital’ he had earned and how he intended to spend it. He was going to use this capital to privatize social security—and we all know how well that worked out for him.

When Obama first got into office riding that tidal wave of popular sentiment and hunger for change, all the talking heads—including a few of those I actually like—were talking about all the ‘political capital’ he had and how he should spend it. After passing the stimulus it was on to health care reform—and we all know how well that worked out for him.

Towards the end of the fight, when things looked the most grim, the pundits were speculating about how Obama had spent all his capital on the health care fight and would now have to spend the rest of his presidency only doing small things. Then when he got the bill passed, suddenly he had earned more political capital which he could use to take on financial reform. Presumably, he’ll earn more capital once this bill is passed.

Enough already. There is no such thing as ‘political capital’ and I think it’s high time some people in the media admitted it. The idea that there is some kind of ethereal, invisible currency that a politician earns and spends on policy initiatives is absurd. It’s like Toys R Us money—it’s only valid when you’re in the store. Political capital exists solely in the mind of Washington insiders and those who go on the talk shows to spout their ‘conventional wisdom’.

If a president wants to do something that has popular support, he can get it done no matter how much invisible Washington monopoly money he has in his pocket. It’s not as though average Americans are sitting at home and saying, “You know, I’m really in favor of this reform package but I’m not going to get involved unless the president has enough political capital to push it through.” It’s sheer nonsense.

Unfortunately, even bullshit ideas can take on a reality of their own if enough people believe them. Inside the Washington bubble, the idea of political capital is accepted as objective reality, so the president’s advisors might very well tell him to avoid certain fights because they’re not worth the cost in political capital. I’ve already read several articles on the upcoming Supreme Court nominee battle that warn Obama not to pick someone too liberal because he’ll need his political capital for more important fights that lie ahead.

Enough with this crap. There is not a limited supply of change you can bring. If you fight hard enough and get enough people on your side, you can win every battle. Not only that, but continuing to fight and win will actually build up a momentum of its own and make change easier. People will get behind a winner. They’re not so easily inspired by someone who will lose a few battles out of the nonsensical idea that it’ll somehow help him win fights in the future.

Analogy time:

I’m a racecar driver with a strategy based on the idea of ‘speed capital’. If I go really slow for a few laps, I’ll have more speed capital to spend on future laps when it may come in handy.

I’m a painter who knows how to spend my ‘artistic capital’. If I paint a few crappy pieces I can save up that artistic capital to paint some brilliant ones later on.

I’m a lion who hunts his prey on the basis of ‘predatory capital’. If I let a few antelopes get away today, I’ll have more predatory capital which I can use to more easily catch bigger antelope tomorrow.

I think you get the point. Let’s stop buying into this garbage and start calling bullshit whenever we hear it.

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