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Why does 'realistic politics' pay so little attention to political reality?

There's an interesting discussion about childcare policy on this week's Weeds podcast which got me thinking about, obviously, the way we debate immigration policy. You can listen to the whole thing if you're interested in childcare, but what leapt out to me was Matt Yglesias's description of Elizabeth Warren's childcare policy:
"When you get bills like this - it's very ambitious, probably too ambitious to be enacted, and also not a fully-fleshed out view of how the world should work, exactly, and I'm increasingly uncertain exactly what to make of it"
I was thinking about this recently in the context of James Hathaway's proposal about how international refugee policy should work. Hathaway has been thinking about this for a long time and the details are complicated, but the basic picture is a binding burden-sharing system along these lines:

  • Administration would move from national governments to the UN
  • Countries would have mandatory quotas, for both money provided and refugees hosted
  • Most of the money would come from rich countries
  • Quotas and funding commitments would be determined in advance, not in response to a crisis
  • Arriving in a country to claim asylum would not give refugees any right to stay there while their claim is processed or any guarantee that, if given refugee status, that's where they would settle
  • Even once recognised as refugees, people wouldn't have permanent status - they could be returned to their home country if conditions improve - until about five years have passed

The first four points are, to different degrees, massive advances on the current setup, in which rich countries do everything they can to avoid any responsibility to refugees. The last two are major backwards steps which would deprive displaced people of agency and make their lives much more uncertain.

So why are they there? The answer seems to be that rich states won't agree to this system unless it addresses their problems with in-country asylum processing, which is hugely expensive and often controversial.

But rich states are not going to agree to this system anyway. If that wasn't obvious from just thinking about the first four points, you can look at the Global Compact on Migration - a document which was watered down in negotiation, and goes out of its way to stress that it doesn't legally bind states in any way, and still saw a flurry of withdrawals from anti-immigration governments.

Last year Robert Manne, one of Australia's most prominent refugee advocates, wrote in the Guardian about the need for the left to compromise on asylum seeker policy. In the piece he took a series of potshots at an unnamed "opposition" (he is clearly thinking about four academics he'd previously had the same argument with) for not offering realistic, compromise solutions that would get people out of offshore detention. Also in the article, though, he admits that there is absolutely no possibility of his suggested compromise working:
"Even if leading members of the federal parliamentary Labor party found such a solution attractive, if they breathed even a word of support for something like this the Coalition would pounce. Nor would it tempt the leaders of the current threadbare Coalition"
So what would be the point? Why should advocates support a compromise that remains draconian and probably illegal in the name of 'the art of the possible' if, in the real world, it's not politically feasible anyway?

The point is not, obviously, that you shouldn't compromise in order to achieve positive change. But compromising in order to not achieve anything is a completely different proposition, and not a good one. It undercuts your ability to actually explain your worldview, when your proposal is a semi-random mix of idealistic things that won't happen and unjustifiable things that you don't want to happen. It takes energy out of your coalition and campaigning.

And ultimately it leads to worse results, because the way that political compromise actually works is by starting from a plan you support and weakening it to get it through. Nobody gives you credit for compromising before the compromising starts. (Barack Obama's experience negotiating with Republicans testifies to this.)

If governments are going to fall short of ideal policy, the people in charge should have to realise that they're falling short. Negotiating something that ends up only approximating justice is okay, but it's politicians' job. Watering down what we tell them is justice, on the basis of some half-thought-through notion of feasibility, doesn't help anyone.

I think this comes up particularly often in refugee policy because politicians have such uniformly appalling stances that even compromises that advocates regard as heart-wrenching have no chance of succeeding. But the underlying issue applies everywhere. It's one of several ways that a desire to 'be realistic' in politics often has more to do with an aesthetic of seriousness than with any careful assessment of political reality.