Wednesday, March 30, 2016

If you're concerned about money in politics, stop gaming the FEC

Hillary Clinton's campaign is gaming the Federal Elections Commission. They have explicitly admitted this. They are openly coordinating their messaging with super PACs, which in turn have direct ties to media outlets like Peter Daou's Blue Nation Review. As the Campaign Legal Center's Larry Noble notes,
you start a quick slide down a slippery slope and begin to lose credibility as a champion of campaign finance reform when you follow the herd and claim independence from your super PAC while taking actions anyone in the real world would consider coordination, relying on a useless FEC and a 9-year-old’s “everyone is doing it” defense...And you slam into the bottom of that slippery slope when you create loopholes that undermine the law.
Here, I just want to elaborate on a related point I made here, which is that if you're a journalist who's helping the Clinton campaign get around FEC regulations, you, too, are abdicating any credibility you have to talk about campaign finance.

It is perfectly clear that dozens of journalists and columnists are coordinating their efforts to campaign for Hillary Clinton. At least some of them are doing this quite deliberately and formally, through things like mailing lists, conference calls, and so on. More often, it's "spontaneous" in the trivial sense that no one is explicitly telling them what to do. Writers see each other pick up on certain talking points and themes, and they start signal-boosting: they churn out a variation on the same article, they name-check each other on broadcasts, corporate-promoted social media feeds, and so on. They do this because they understand that a message is much more persuasive when it's everywhere and coming from multiple channels at once.

So what's the problem?

This is campaigning. If you are a writer who publishes in a major publication with a marketing budget, or who has access to a social media channel (even "yours"!) that gets promoted by that company, you aren't an independent voice. Sorry. And when you use your platform to campaign, you're making the sort of massive in-kind donation that's ordinarily subject to FEC regulation. Trying to get around that regulation by coordinating "spontaneously" doesn't justify what you're doing - it just makes you an enemy of democratic sovereignty in addition to being a shill.

Journalists don't like to think of themselves as 1) agents of capital or 2) subject to democratic regulation of their political advocacy. Unfortunately for them, when one is true, two is true. If you want to campaign for Clinton, don't use your platform as a journalist to do it. And if you actually care about campaign finance, stop gaming the rules.

EXPLAINER: Yes liberals, red-baiting is Bad

As the Cold War recedes into the increasingly distant past, we often suppose that the politics of the Cold War - including the bigotries of anti-communism - are disappearing as well. Sadly, this is not entirely true. Capitalism persists, and as long as it does, it will necessarily foment among its stakeholders all kinds of anti-communist attitudes and biases - and the left will have to keep fighting them.

Unfortunately, one thing that has faded from memory with the Cold War is the political language that the left has used to fight anti-communism. In particular, for decades, the left cultivated popular opposition to what was then known as "red-baiting" - but that term has long fallen out of our political vocabulary, and today the left stands relatively unarmed against the resurgence of anti-communism. It's long past time for the left to start defending itself, and that means bringing back its critique of red-baiting.

What is red-baiting?

Put simply, red-baiting is bigotry. Specifically, it is bias and prejudice against Marxism.

Note that this is different from mere skepticism and criticism of Marxism. Red-baiting is unreasoning opposition to Marxism, opposition grounded entirely in fear, intolerance, closed-mindedness, and hate. Instead of allowing people to draw moral and intellectual conclusions about Marxism based on rational evalution, red-baiting foments reflexive and unthinking hostility to its philosophy and its adherents.

How does red-baiting work?

Typically, red-baiting blames Marxism, without argument, for various atrocities committed in connection with communist governments.

The key phrase here is "without argument". Instead of establishing and defending this relationship between Marxist theory and its alleged consequences, red-baiting simply decrees that the relationship exists. Often, it relies on popular prejudice to get people to accept this decree: it's "just common sense" that Marxism is responsible, and good, decent people don't question that or think about it too hard. Other times, red-baiting relies on abusive shaming and intimidation: people who question Marxism's responsibility for a crime are accused of justifying the crime itself, or trivializing it, or pretending that it didn't even happen.

In this way, the defining feature of red-baiting is that it obstructs rational deliberation over Marxism. It relies on biases and bigotry to prevent us from thinking about it and talking about it, and indicts it while denying it an intellectual trial.

What's so illiberal about red-baiting?

In theory, at least, liberalism is supposed to be rational and tolerant. We should always be able to talk about ideas, to evaluate them intellectually, and to draw our own conclusions about them. They should be argued on the merits rather than imposed with rhetorical bullying that relies on popular biases and emotional manipulation.

Another major reason for liberals to oppose red-baiting is that historically, red-baiting is never just used against Marxists - it always becomes a weapon against liberals, too. As soon as it becomes socially acceptable to bully and oppress Marxists, reactionaries use that as an excuse to bully and oppress everyone to their left, from communists to socialists to progressives to moderates. Like all forms of bigotry, anti-communism is a cancer that inevitably metastasizes into broader forms of oppression.

Even if red-baiting is a problem in theory, what's the actual harm?

This is where historical amnesia becomes such a problem: as the decades pass, we gradually forget just how horrific red-baiting actually was.

For instance: right-wing revisionism aside, anti-communism was always one of the major components of twentieth century fascism. Communists were among the first victims in Nazi Germany's concentration camps, and the rhetoric of dictators like Hitler and Mussolini was riddled with anti-communism. The reason for this, again, is simple: once red-baiting becomes acceptable, it always becomes a potent weapon against all of the political left.

Similarly, in the United States, red-baiting became a major force during the great Red Scares of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Quite often, it fed into broader racist and nationalist bigotry against foreigners and immigrants suspected of harboring Marxist views - particularly against people who came from Eastern Europe and Asia. It also fed into bigotry against people associated in any way with the labor movement, including union members; into bigotry against people involved in just about any progressive movements you can name, such as the women's suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, and so on; and into broader bigotries against Democrats that persist to this very day.

Moreover, red-baiting and anti-communism didn't just express itself in the United States as political opposition. Marxists and suspected Marxists were routinely harassed, assaulted, imprisoned, deported, spied on, fired, blacklisted from employment, defamed by the media, and legislated against. Major episodes like McCarthy's HUAC hearings and the Palmer Raids subjected Americans from all walks of life to monstrous incidents of state-sponsored oppression.

What does red-baiting look like today?

The most blatant red-baiting today looks exactly like it did a hundred years ago: it's what we hear on talk radio when Mark Levin warns us that Obamacare's death panels are going to send everyone to the the Gulag. It's still a staple of Republican rhetoric against Democrats, particularly among older generations; as a rule, it creates a slippery slope between every Democratic policy and the crimes of Soviet Russia, between every Democratic official, Stalin, and Mao. Fortunately, this kind of hysteria is usually recognized for what it is, so it only remains influential in the fever-dreams of the radical right.

While the most blatant red-baiting may come from Republicans, the most pernicious and consequential anti-communism actually tends to come from liberal Democrats. This is due to a strange quirk of bipartisan consensus in the United States: albeit for very different reasons, both Republicans and Democrats think of liberals as friendly critics of the radical left. Republicans think this because they see liberals and Marxists as secret allies; Democrats, meanwhile, think this because they like to think of themselves as ideologically neutral and disinterested critics. These motives are at odds, but they both invest liberals with an air of credibility that Republicans lack.

For that reason, when a guy like Jonathan Chait goes on one of his periodic completely uninformed tirades about Marx (as he did again today), people who should know better are tempted to take him seriously. But make no mistake - when Chait writes (and New York Magazine publishes) garbage like this:
[Marxists believe] that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it...It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag.
He is rehearsing the exact same idiotic rhetoric that every red-baiter in history, from Joseph McCarthy to Rush Limbaugh, always wields against the left. Chait is not bringing up the Gulag because it is the inevitable conclusion of a carefully constructed argument about what happens when you insist that some political advocacy enhances freedom and other advocacy diminishes it; instead of actually putting in the work on the obvious task at hand, he is outsourcing his entire argument to the reader's "imagination" so that he can move on to his real goal, which is to scare the hell out of anyone at all sympathetic to Marxism. For Chait, the Gulag isn't a historical reality, a place where real people (including Marxists!) died for quite specific reasons that we should try to understand; it is a rhetoric bludgeon to be wielded against the left.

And ironically, it's Chait's rhetoric that has demonstrably and historically led to the sort of suffering oppression that he's scaremongering about. Marxists obviously won't be Gulaging anyone in the United States anytime soon, but Chait's personal habit of using scaremongering to attack the left has contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the last decade alone. With a bit less red-baiting and a lot more liberal-baiting, there's good reason to believe that our world would be a better place.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Five demographic arguments for Bernie Sanders

Clinton began the Democratic primaries with slight-to-significant leads across most demographic categories. Over the past year - even as the media has clung to that narrative - all of those leads have almost entirely evaporated. Here is a quick rundown of the state of the polls today; all of this data was taken from Reuters on March 25.


Hillary Clinton's base of support is now largely men, and Sanders is supported by a majority of women.


Clinton maintains a significant lead among black Americans, driven entirely by the preference of older black Americans; black Millennials, however, prefer Sanders 59-31. Meanwhile, Sanders has built leads among Hispanics and other people of color, while maintaining a slight lead among white Americans.


Clinton is the candidate of straight voters. Sanders, by significant percentages, is the clear preference of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and other orientations.


Clinton is the candidate of the rich, winning clear majorities with Americans who make $75,000 or more. Both candidates are effectively tied within the margin of error among Americans who make between $50-75k, and Sanders is the candidate of the poor, gaining slim majorities with voters who make $50k or less.


And finally, the most important demographic divide of this election: age. The story remains the same as it's always been. Sanders is the candidate of the young, winning an enormous majority of all voters under 30; Clinton is the candidate of the old, with support generally increasing as voters get older.

The story here is clear: one can only call Clinton an advocate of the powerless by ignoring women, Hispanics and other non-black voters of color, ~30% of black Americans, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and other non-straights, the young, and the poor. The narrative being aggressively advanced by writers like Tomasky and Goldberg - that Sanders is the candidate of privilege - can only be made by a stunning degree of demographic gerrymandering that ignores the dramatic sea changes in preference that have taken place since the beginning of the campaign.

Tomasky just wrote another hack article

In his latest column for the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky makes at least three substantive claims that range from extraordinarily weak to flat-out wrong:
1. Tomasky claims that Clinton "has the strong backing of those who are the most dispossed and threatened," by which he means "mostly African American and Latino voters." But the polls indicate that nearly half of these people refuse to support her, and nearly 35% of them are actively opposing her by backing Bernie Sanders. 
2. Tomasky claims that their support is justified by considerations about "electability". But in 2016, Sanders has consistently outperformed Clinton in polls head-to-head polls by an average of five points, and on the merits Clinton is an extraordinarily inferior matchup to Sanders
3. Tomasky claims that we hear "so little about" Clinton's support among voters of color - but this is the opposite of true. On the contrary, it has become such a major narrative in the election that not only has the media coined a rhetorical shorthand for it - voters of color are her "firewall" - but there has in fact been a significant public backlash to the narrative by voters of color who support Sanders.
Again: these are, at best, openly disputed claims with little basis in fact. They're certainly important issues, and deserve more attention than just a passing reference; at the very least, a careful writer would defend them instead of simply asserting them. So why are they here? Why is Tomasky so eager to cram his writing full of dubious argument and demonstrable error?

The temptation is to insist that he's just shilling for Hillary Clinton, but it's actually even more ridiculous than that: Tomasky is just writing about himself. In the middle of one of the most hotly contested Democratic primaries in decades, with all kinds of grand questions about socialism, liberalism, class, race, and gender at stake, Michael Tomasky has now used his massive platform twice in the past month to write two columns insisting that he is not actually a shill.

The first came just a few weeks ago in An Ode To My Berniebro Trolls, where Tomasky insisted that "people can disagree with [Sanders] and not be monsters or corporate shills":
...that’s my take. It has nothing to do with loving Hillary Clinton or getting DNC talking points (by the way, I think Debbie Wasserman Schultz, payday-lender enabler, should resign from the DNC) or pining for invites to those mythic Georgetown cocktail parties that I get invited to maybe three times a year and go to maybe once. It’s just my take.
Evidently, however, this just wasn't enough - what this election really needs is yet another article explaining how Michael Tomasky is not actually a hack. That's why he rushes through the actually significant and important arguments in his piece. Obviously Sanders' supporters would respond that he is actually the defensive vote against a neoliberal centrist who will continue to wage war and gut welfare; obviously Sanders supporters would argue that his significant support among the poor, minorities, women, and the young also matters; obviously, they would also add that Clinton's central base of old rich white folks have less "skin in the game" than anyone.

But instead of engaging with these actual, substantive questions, Tomasky rushes past them to get to his personal concern: "Why is it we hear so much about [Democrats representing moneyed interests] and so little about [voters of color]?"

Presumbly, it's the second part of that question that we should actually care about - but it takes Tomasky eight paragraphs before he even mentions voters of color in his article. That's because he spends the first 500 words talking about the first part, scare-quoting "hack supporters" in the headline, dismissing criticism of "sellouts" as "a priori", and insisting that his politics actually come from "my core convictions" about offensive vs. defensive voting, etcetera.

Tomasky could have used his column to talk about voters of color, who they actually support, how the issues of electability bear upon their concerns, and so on - these are all weighty, fundamental issues that deserve more than a passing sentence or two. But instead, he's too busy relitigating the argument he made just a few weeks back; he only brings up voters of color as a way of proving that he's not a hack, and he drops them just as quickly, leaving objections like the ones listed above unanswered.

Unfortunately, for Tomasky, the more time you spend talking about whether or not you're a hack, the more decisively you settle the question.

Monday, March 28, 2016

How to social engineer women, pickup artists, and everyone you know

I've been waiting for Amber A'Lee Frost's article on pickup artists ever since she teased it over beers a while back, and now that it's out one passage in particular set me to thinkin':
...when I did a return tour through the sodden pages of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I was transported back to my job bartending in college towns, immediately irritated by memories of serving drinks to hostile frat boys. I remembered being stiffed, screamed at, shoved, and threatened, and once heading off what would have almost certainly been a date rape. No, I decided: I am not totally immune to disgust.
What I find interesting, in retrospect, is that from here my immediate instinct was to wonder what can I personally make these men stop these disgusting things?

First, I started thinking about all of the #problematic ways that I was contributing to the problem - for instance, years ago, I bought Neil Strauss's book The Game so that I could hate-read it, and more recently I watched a few episodes of The Pickup Artist when it was on VH1. These consumer practices, I thought, obviously have to go.

Then I started thinking about how my rhetoric and general behavior also facilitates pickup artistry. Should I even be laughing at these people, I wondered, as if they're a trivial source of amusement rather than a serious problem afflicting women every day? Perhaps the right thing to do would be to stop joking about pickup artists, and to even shame and pressure other people into not joking about them, either - I could try to create a culture where being a pickup artist is a grave, serious offense. But then, I realized, this might just politicize the problem, and polarize everyone into pro-and-anti-pickup artist camps. Perhaps, instead, we should create a culture where everyone ridicules PUAs? Maybe I should not only laugh at them, but get other people to laugh at them too, so that pickup artists are just too ashamed and embarrassed to keep up their schtick. But in that case, I need to push back against the humorless/pious types who are only empowering PUAs by forcing us to take them really seriously. But how can I do that? How can I make everyone adopt just the right attitude towards pickup artists so that they'll go away?

This is the sort of thing that liberals think about constantly. Incidentally, there's another group of people who think about how to manipulate other people in the exact same way: pickup artists.

Liberals as pickup artists

One of the more bizarre features of modern liberal discourse is the degree to which it depends on interpersonal social engineering. The basic premise is that through all kinds of influence tactics (example-setting, call-outs, signal-boosting, legitimizing / delegitimizing, enabling, and so on) you can get the people around you to behave certain ways. If for example I "normalize" something, I can in some real, empirical way actually get other people to behave as I want them to. Liberals call this "normalizing", PUAs call this "patterning" or "programming", but it's operationally identical. It assumes that people basically just mimick each other, and has its conceptual roots not in a scientific understanding of human behavior, but in pre-scientific theories of sympathetic magic. This kind of pseudo-science characterizes most of these theories of social engineering; they rarely have much basis in hard science, if any at all.

Let's dig into this a little: consider, for example, the liberal notion of "shaming". Though we usually take it for granted, there is in fact an empirical theory of behavior being stipulated here: if I give someone negative feedback, they will be less likely to engage in associated behavior in the future. Perhaps this is because I have intellectually persuaded them in some way; perhaps this is because I have made the behavior psychologically unpleasant, and they are simply avoiding negative stimulus; perhaps there is some other mechanism at work here - it doesn't really matter. For shaming to work, it's both necessary and sufficient that my negative feedback, for whatever reason, puts an end to undesirable behavior.

This, hilariously, is the mirror image of the PUA theory of "negging" - which stipulates that you use negative feedback to provoke desirable behavior. And it turns out that both theories fail in the exact same way: they don't consistently work. Shaming a bro who's using racial slurs may deter him from doing so in the future - but it might also get him to double-down and use them even more. Negging a lady might very well grab her attention and prey on her insecurities - but it might just make her mad enough to throw a drink in your face. These tactics both try to elicit a predictable responses from people through negative feedback, and they both fail because people are unpredictable.

And that's the standard failure of both liberals and pickup artists, isn't it? Liberalism proposes that I can make sexism go away by using gender-neutral pronouns - and then some sexist laughs at me for using s/he or zhe. Pickup artists propose that I can turn women on by using tons of double entendres - but watch what happens when you try one of these. These are all failures that come from trying to find simplistic ways to control people who are extraordinarily, almost unthinkably complex. They have nothing to do with a rational, empirical understanding of human behavior; they just reflect the will to dominate others, and the condescending belief that other people can be easily manipulated with simple tricks.

The left alternative

Fortunately, social engineering is not actually a lost cause. There are in fact things we can do to build a world where people have more progressive attitudes and behavior. These things are a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult than the interpersonal gimmickry of liberalism, but they do have the advantage of actually working.

Consider, for example, Katie J.M. Baker's now-classic Cockblocked by Redistribution. Here, Baker reviews the experiences of a semi-famous pickup artist named Roosh, and arrives at a remarkable observation:
Marginalized women who need male spouses to flourish might, indeed, find pick-up artists alluring. But women in countries that have gender-equalizing policies supported by an anti-individualist culture may not.
The implications here are quite direct: if you are a pickup artist who wants to manipulate women into fucking you, you should agitate for a government that is as economically inequitable for women as possible. Specifically, you should oppose free health care and education, generous maternity pay and parental leave, paternity benefits, universal child care, and so on - all policies that Baker identities as cultivating an egalitarian culture inimical to pickup artistry. Neurolinguistic-programming and elaborate kino strategies probably won't do much to land you a woman, but if you vote the right way, you can create a patriarchal society where you can get all the women you like.

Or perhaps, instead, you want to make people behave quite differently - you want a world where women can exercise greater autonomy, and where men stop behaving like pickup artists. There's a proven way to do this, too: it's called Denmark. Just ask Roosh. The liberal tactics I briefly considered, like shaming and ridicule, seem to be unreliable at best; but if you create a generous and egalitarian welfare state like the Nordic social democracies, it appears that you predictably create a more egalitarian society where pickup artists quickly become an endangered species.

Either way, note the profound difference between left social engineering and the liberal / PUA approaches we described before. To put it simply, leftists believe that you can only engineer widespread changes in behaviors and attitudes by dramatically changing the circumstances that people live in. This usually involves direct interventions by the state. Liberals and pickup artists believe that it doesn't take anything nearly this big; getting people to behave certain ways is just a matter of personally manipulating them the right way, through persuasion or guilt-tripping or inspiration, etcetera.

Leftist approaches to social progress are often accused of oversimplification, of "reducing" human behavior to economic determination - but really, the opposite is true. Liberalism is the truly reductive and simplifying ideology. It asks us to regard each other with absolute condescension, as if all it takes to change someone is the right persuasive or manipulative gimmick. Liberals are the people who tell us that Trump voters can be seduced with just the right John Oliver zinger, like Mystery getting a woman's number by using just the right pickup line; liberals are the people who, like pickup artists, always think "no" just means "try a little bit harder to persuade me". Leftism, however, respects the complexity and autonomy of the individual so much that it suspects nothing short of a political and economic revolution can fundamentally change the way people relate to each other - and that ultimately, we can only make this happen by working together. When's the last time a pick-up artist said anything like that?

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Hillarymen harassment campaign

This is what harassment actually looks like.

In the past few days, Peter Daou and Tom Watson - the founding "Hillary Men", known for their extensive ties with both the Clinton campaign and its media surrogates - have both dramatically escalated their efforts to intimidate and silence Clinton's critics. And the two aren't just keeping it on Twitter - both are openly invoking the threat of offline retaliation.

Daou, on his blog Tuesday, announced that he "plan[s] to pursue defamation action" against critics of his participation in the Lebanese civil war. He does not, in the post, say who has defamed him or what they specifically said that was defamatory - but over the past two months, he has made eleven direct accusations of libel in response to various tweets. I asked an attorney to take a look at them, and she replied with a four word email.

"That's not libelous," she wrote. "LOL"

Most journalists and editors are familiar with this gambit, though Daou may be hoping that his trolls are not. Political publications get harassed by libel threats constantly. It's something bullies and reactionaries do to try to silence speech that they don't like. By loudly announcing that he's lawyering up and using his multi-million dollar platform to endlessly hype (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X) the impression that his targets are engaged in a harassment campaign, Daou is leveraging considerable resources to suppress relatively young and poor critics.

Watson, meanwhile, sent this message yesterday:

Evidently Watson is responding to this joke from a parody account, which Matt Bruenig retweeted shortly before. The implication of "noting" this and referencing the Bruenigs and the publications that they write for is clear: Watson is threatening some kind of employment-related retaliation. The threat is particularly bizarre since it brings in Elizabeth Bruenig as a third-party to the whole affair; but even setting that aside, it should be clear what's going on here. Like Daou, Watson has decided to leverage his own considerable resources - in this case, his professional contacts - in an effort to intimidate relatively young and poor critics with offline consequences. (The Bruenigs aren't their only targets - here's one Clintonite alluding to efforts to get me fired as well, which I've mostly kept to myself.)

A few points:

1. Daou and Watson are both engaged in campaigns that function as harassment because they are backed with the threat of serious offline consequences. This is categorically different from the usual flamewarring and rhetorical sparring that, however rude and unwelcome, doesn't actually involve lawyers and pink slips.

2. Daou and Watson's harassment campaign only works because they have privileges that their targets do not. Daou's nuisance lawsuit tactic only works as a credible threat insofar as he could sink more resources into lawyers than his targets; Watson's threat only works insofar as he (thinks) he has a professional network that's powerful enough to make good on it. 

3. Daou and Watson are not just independent Clinton supporters. Daou was her Digital Media Strategist in 2008, and currently heads one of her dark-money communications arms; Watson has significant personal and professional connections with most of Clinton's major media surrogates. Their proximity to the Clinton campaign, and their tactic of using power and influence to try to silence even mild criticism of her candidacy with actual offline threats, sets some fairly disturbing precedents.

UPDATE: A point that only occurred to me during a later exchange with @MwinterH is that Daou, in his blog post, explicitly places his suit in the context of criticism of Hillary Clinton:

Daou is obviously correct: people are criticizing his participation in the Lebanese Forces as a way of criticizing Clinton. They don't think it reflects well on her that she would associate so closely with a man who they see as complicit in all kinds of atrocities. This is clearly consistent with the broader critique of Clinton as an amoral warhawk with all kinds of shady connections that her opponents have advanced for several decades.

What Daou doesn't seem to get is that this political context only further undermines his defamation case. These are not just ordinary claims - they are claims launched in opposition to a candidate for public office. The highest public office in the United States. And Daou is admitting here that he's well aware of this, simply because he thinks it makes his critics look cynical. He knows that his suit (and threats) would, if successful, silence what his opponents see as a legitimate political attack on Clinton.

Daou's opinions about his own complicity are already intrinsically political, but tying them to a larger debate over candidacy for public office makes this controversy absolutely radioactive. Suffice to say that courts generally try to stay out of the business of censoring debates over things like war and presidential elections. Admitting that he gets what's at stake, moreover, makes this sound awfully like a blatant SLAPP campaign, particularly in light of Daou's employment and employment history. I would honestly be thrilled to help fund legal representation for anyone who gets hit with one of his libel suits, just to see what comes out in discovery.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Clintonites are kicking young people out of the Obama coalition

I understood that the Democratic Party owes its occupancy of the White House to the Obama coalition: African Americans, Latinos, Asians, LGBT folks, and single women... Somehow Sanders doesn’t seem to see that. - Joan Walsh
In case you missed it, there's a glaring omission here: young people. This is not an aberration:

  • Here's Jannell Ross in the Washington Post identifying "each element of the so-called 'Obama Coalition'" as "non-white voters and progressive whites" - as opposed to the "young, white, liberal voters" who support Sanders.
  • Here's Mark Sappenfield in The Christian Science Monitor arguing that "Clinton’s victory Saturday suggests that Obama’s coalition might not be a fleeting phenomenon connected only to him" - a coalition of "minorities and, to a lesser degree, women".
  • Here's Clay Shirky, in a much-cited Tweetstorm, arguing that "Clinton is not re-running her '08 campaign. She is re-running Obama's '08 campaign" by winning "the Obama coalition," by which he means a "black-white progressive coalition."
  • And here's Sady Doyle, insisting that "the lesson of the Obama coalition" is that you can win "without white guys."
Obviously voters of color were crucial to Obama's victories and will remain a central Democratic constituency for the foreseeable future. But the same goes for young people. Obama won an extraordinary two-thirds of young people in 2008 and sixty percent of them in 2012. Until recently, this has always been understood as one of his major achievements - especially since young voters, including young voters of color, represent the future of the party. Standard analyses from Obama's various victories:

  • "Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton have divided the Democratic Party by race, income and education, but there is no demographic indicator that sorts the Democratic vote as starkly as age. If you voted in one of the Democratic primaries or caucuses, your age probably determined your vote: The older you are, the more likely you were to vote for Clinton, and the younger you are, the more likely you were to vote for Obama." - NPR 4/30/2008
  • "They were the initial cheerleaders of Barack Obama’s candidacy who stuck with him on the long slog to Nov. 4. And on Election Day, young people voted overwhelmingly to send him to the White House while exceeding their 2004 turnout levels by at least 2.2 million, according to researchers who track the voting habits of youth." - New York Times, 11/5/08
  • "Obama’s campaign...aimed exclusively at the key constituencies that make up Obama’s coalition: African Americans, Hispanics, young voters and women (particularly those with college degrees.)" - Washington Post, 11/7/12
  • "Romney lost embarrassingly among young people, African-Americans and Hispanics, a brutal reminder for Republicans that their party is ideologically out of tune with fast-growing segments of the population." - CNN 11/7/12
Supporters of Clinton who routinely invoke Obama's coalition while omitting young people are blatantly rewriting history - and it's easy to see why. This is more of what Matt Bruenig called "get-off-my-lawnism": the tendancy of Clinton supporters (particularly the ageing ones) to attack young voters. Old people are mad that young people reject their politics, and they're embarrassed that youth culture rejects their pandering as lame. To save face, they've got to pretend that Hillary Clinton isn't abandoning a key bloc in Obama's legacy, and that means pretending that young people were never a part of the Obama coalition in the first place.

This isn't just ridiculous and inaccurate - it's reckless. Walsh, in her article, crows that Clinton beat Sanders "even among black millennials" 61-31 among nine Super Tuesday states. Nationally, however, that number effectively reverses:

Black Voters 18-29, Reuters

And while Walsh cites an article on as evidence of support among black youth for Clinton, the article actually makes the opposite case: "Black millennials aren’t as swayed by Clinton’s largely successful attempts to connect with Black voters across generations." Political scientist Michael Dawson explains,
I think that generally when you look at Sanders support, the country is not working well for young people, particularly for young Black people right now; they’re looking more toward a candidate who will shake things up significantly.
This weakness of the Clinton coalition underscores an obvious point: if you care about the future of the party, you have to care about young people. You can't even sustain a multiracial party if you abandon young voters of color. If you're an older American, you have the privilege to not care about this: you can afford to sacrifice the future for a short-term win. But by writing young voters out of the party's past, Clinton supporters like Walsh are also writing us out of its future.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A word for young leftists

The much-noted age divide among Democrats suggests a bright future for the American left - but it also suggests that tonight's losses for Bernie Sanders will come as the first real political defeat many young voters have ever experienced.

I don't think it should be understated how personally traumatic this can be. When you live in a democracy, you are constantly conditioned to believe that your political problems, whatever they are, can ultimately be redressed through elections. In that light, when you lose, this is society telling you "no" in the most final and absolute way imaginable. All of this is ideology instilled to make people believe that elections are their only form of political agency, and this is untrue; but the lie is extraordinarily powerful, and its implications, for the losers, are devastating. Psychologically, in fact, this crisis is identical in structure to the so-called Oedipus complex, and with similarly shattering consequences: as Freud put it, "we cannot fail to be struck by the similarity of the process of civilization to the libidinal development of the individual."

I believe that the ways that we work through our uniquely brutal first encounter with political frustration will lay down a foundation for how we meet such challenges for the rest of our lives. The temptation is to turn to cynicism, or nihlism, or to delusional piety; the challenge is to maintain our hopes for the world that could be, while fighting in the world that is. And I've always felt that Nietzsche, for all his failings, captured that challenge better than anyone - so I'll conclude with this passage, which has always given me courage.

*   *   *
"Indeed, I know your danger. But by my love and hope I beseech you: do not throw away your love and hope." 
"You still feel noble, and the others too feel your nobility, though they bear you a grudge and send you evil glances. Know that the noble man stands in everybody's way. The noble man stands in the way of the good too: and even if they call him one of the good, they thus want to do away with him. The noble man wants to create something new and a new virtue. The good want the old, and that the old be preserved. But this is not the danger of the noble man, that he might become one of the good, but a churl, a mocker, a destroyer." 
"Alas, I knew noble men who lost their highest hope. Then they slandered all high hopes. Then they lived impudently in brief pleasures and barely cast their goals beyond the day. Spirit too is lust, so they said. Then the wings of their spirit broke: and now their spirit crawls about and soils what it gnaws. Once they thought of becoming heroes: now they are voluptuaries. The hero is for them an offense and a fright." 
"But by my love and hope I beseech you: do not throw away the hero in your soul! Hold holy your highest hope!"

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The outrage over Sanders' "media coverage" comment is privileged and creepy

At a town-hall event on Monday, Bernie Sanders explained that he is running as a Democrat since "in terms of media coverage, you have to run within the Democratic Party". Incredibly, Clinton's media surrogates are insisting that this somehow reflects poorly on Sanders. Democratic National Committee vice chairwoman Donna Brazile, for instance, called the comment "extremely disgraceful", and Peter Daou, predictably, ran an entire reaction piece on the Clinton campaign's news site highlighting critical responses to the comment.

This is mostly just cynical spin from people who think of themselves as political media's genius puppetmaster pickup artists - who seem to believe that they can trick people into thinking literally anything. Still, it's worth reflecting on two points:

1. First, as Matt Bruenig observed a while back, Democrats are pulling a bait-and-switch here. When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000, 2004, and 2008, one of his central grievances was always the way that media access works to give major party candidates a major systematic advantage over their opponents. And whenever he pointed this out, the liberal answer was always the same: "Don't like it? Then run as a Democrat!" What we see now is that if you are a leftist, Democrats will attack you for proceeding precisely as instructed.

2. Second, as I argued previously, the same media apparatus that marginalizes and silences voices like Sanders also routinely marginalizes and silences the voices of people of color, women, the poor, and so on. The left has always understood corporate media and the privileged platform it grants to elites to be an instrument of power and oppression. To gloat that it has claimed another victim, and to ridicule the efforts marginalized voices have to make to overcome their oppression, is absolutely odious. It expresses a right-wing faith in the capitalistic meritocracy of "earned" media, and openly celebrates the domination of corporate power at the expense of democracy. It betrays the longstanding left fight for public election financing, and it fetishizes a weirdly cultish notion of party loyalty in which even party membership is not enough.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

#BernieMadeMeWhite: Clinton and the new three-fifths rule

For most of the Democratic primaries, Clinton's campaign has enjoyed the opportunity of dismissing Bernie Sanders supporters as largely white. This was always more of a symptom of name recognition problems than anything, but as Sanders supporters have acknowledged from the beginning, it was also a deficit that he needed to remedy.

As Sanders does so, however, he is beginning to confront Clintonites with an uncomfortable question: at what point do we start taking his significant and growing support among black voters seriously?

Democrats aren't used to thinking about this. Since Republicans can only ever get between 5-10% national support among black Americans it's easy enough to dismiss that as statistically trivial - though even this is a pretty problematic move from an identitarian perspective, which white liberals instantly discover as soon as they try to argue with the rare black Republican. But we don't have to dive into that philosophical argument to notice how it becomes more intuitively suspect to dismiss black voter support for a candidate the higher that support is. Sure, dismiss a candidate who only gets 5% of support among black Americans. But what about 15%? Or 20%? Or 30%?

Because that's about where we are right now:

What percentage of black voters have to support a candidate before liberals decide that s/he can make a legitimate claim to representing them? If we're going by current polls, looks like that number is somewhere around three-fifths. That's what Clinton is getting, and that's the substantive basis for these claims that "Clinton supporters actually ARE...people of color" - as opposed to black Sanders supporters, who haven't reached the crucial 3/5ths threshold where their vote actually counts.

The grim and racist history behind this kind of logic needs little elaboration. Philosophically, I would argue that it's a direct consequence of the problem of identity policing, which requires liberals to make highly subjective (and potentially problematic) judgments about who has claims to the identitarian high ground; but again, we don't have to get into the weeds to notice that there's a problem when white Clinton supporters imply that the ~30% of black voters who support Sanders are not "actually" black. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Why Clinton made that AIDS comment

"Because of both President and Mrs. Reagan...we started a national conversation [about AIDS], when before, nobody would talk about it, nobody would do anything about it...I really appreciate her very effective, low-key advocacy..." - Hillary Clinton
Clinton's grotesque whitewashing of the Reagan record on AIDS is rightly coming under fire, even by some of her allies - but there have also been some equally grotesque attempts to run cover for her. The most egregious example came from tech nerd John Gruber, who suggested that "the strategy behind" her comment was to get "news coverage today to focus on the Reagans' deplorable AIDS response." Another came from (surprise) Amanda Marcotte, who insists there is no way "that Clinton actually thinks something so stupid."

Of course, if we aren't constrained by any actual evidence and just want to write some Hillary Clinton fanfiction, one can dream up any number of possible explanations for what she said. For instance, a less flattering (though frankly more plausible) theory is that Clinton is pivoting to win Republican votes by flattering the Reagans at a highly publicized state funeral - and then narrowcasting a token apology to her base. Another less flattering (and again, more plausible) explanation is that Clinton is cleverly hyping the political relevance and efficacy of former First Ladies, for obvious reasons, and without much concern for what they were actually doing. A third (and again, more plausible) explanation is that contra Marcotte, Clinton actually did think something this stupid, because she is a privileged woman who never had to worry about AIDS or take it seriously, and whose conservative sensibilities make her instinctively unsympathetic to the issue.

But consider this: if we're playing "Dumb or Evil?" now, we're going to be playing it for the next eight years. This is the game these people always ask you to play. They do something objectively awful; they ask you to believe that it was an innocent mistake, or that it was Actually some kind of counterintuitive eleven-dimensional chess move; and while apologists and skeptics debate all of the ultimately unknowable questions about intentionality, yet another awful thing happens.

If you're okay with eight years of Clinton rehabilitating the Reagans and throwing their victims under the bus, but maybe doing this for reasons, or just accidentally, then you'll be fine with these insufferable debates about what's going on in Hillary's head. But if you have a problem with the Reagans, and if you care about their victims, then eventually it stops mattering why Clinton does what she does - and your only concern is to put an end to it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Conason and Pollitt discovers the Naderbros

One is tempted to at least credit the Clinton campaign with blazing new, innovative trails in cynicism with its endless "Bernie Bro" smear on Sanders and his supporters - but it turns out that Hillary can't even take credit for that.

Joe Conanson has written a ridiculous article about supporters of Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign. And in attempting to defend it, he pointed me to this familiar-sounding piece by 2016 Clintonite Katha Pollitt:
It's perfectly fair to attack Nader. It's even fair to attack him in nasty, personal ways, the way Naderites attack Gore--by, for example, spreading the right-wing disinformation that Gore said he invented the Internet and was the model for Love Story. 
Who are these sinister Naderbros spreading "nasty, personal" attacks about the Democratic frontrunner? Pollitt doesn't say.

This omission is particularly odd in light of history. Fifteen years later, Nader's 2000 campaign is remembered for (among other things) its strident critique of the media's fixation on those frivolous narratives - which it argued came at the expense of a more substantive debate. "Their weakness, they said, was the fault of corporate media," Micah Sifry writes in his history of third party politics, Spoiling for a Fight. In particular, Nader advocates such as Noam Chomsky condemned the "intense media/advertising concentration on style, personality, and other irrelevancies." This was even a major theme in election 2000's iconic music video, Testify, by Nader supporters Rage Against the Machine.

In Crashing the Party, Nader's book on the 2000 election, he devoted an entire chapter to the "Ongoing Non-Debate" in the media:
Since the media controls access to 99 percent-plus of your audience, it is not shocking that 99 percent of most candidates' strategies is born and bred for media play...When Al Gore stands near some national park in his L.L. Bean attire, his handlers know they succeed only if the image and a few choice words are played throughout the country.
Today, the popular stereotype of the Nader voter is of the disaffected, hyper-cynical late nineties radical who had just seen The Matrix and was telling sheeple to take the red pill and look past the spectacle of corporate media and petty partisan tribalism. Nader voters weren't arguing over whether Gore invented the internet - they were too busy insisting that the internet was a product of military-industrial corporate welfare. Nader voters weren't arguing over whether Gore stood to close to Bush at the debates - they were too busy complaining about being excluded from the debates. The last thing one would expect to find any kind of evidence of is Katha Pollitt's Naderites, because he is at complete odds with popular memory and with all of the records that we do have.

Of course, it should be easy enough for Conanson to prove me wrong about all of this. He insists of "Nader and his supporters" that
their defamatory descriptions of the Democratic nominee were echoed across the media by reporters, columnists, and commentators who knew better - from the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to the cable networks.
This is awfully specific, so one would think that he could, say, point to a particular NYT or WP article at the time and show they "echoed" attacks specifically attributable to Naderites about "Gore's earth tones suits and the preppy character he did or didn't inspire in a romance novel". If Conanson's only evidence for this is the Pollitt quote, is he really just using her vague claim about them spreading "spreading the right-wing disinformation" to incriminate Nader supporters for any appearance those narratives made in any major publication? Is there even one through-line of specific evidence for any of this, anywhere?

Because if not, the Naderbro starts to sound a lot like the Berniebro: a line of flimsy, unsubstantiated innuendo that elite media centrists use to smear left-flank challenges to establishment Democrats. It is indeed "no accident", as they say - and as Conason puts it - that this line of attack has appeared once again.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Michigan: a crack in the firewall

Bernie Sanders' historic victory in Michigan appears to have been far more complicated than most of the reporting on it would suggest - for instance, as only a few people have noted in passing, the Arab-American vote appears to have played a fairly significant role. But given the significant role black voters have played throughout the primaries, a point I made a few weeks ago is worth revisiting:
If these trends...continue, it appears likely that Clinton's numbers would continue to deteriorate to her pre-Biden surge levels in the mid fifties, while Sanders' numbers would continue to climb into the mid-thirties. Crucially, while this still marks a significant preference among black voters for Clinton, it would not be enough to provide the so-called "firewall" she's relying on to win the nomination.
And that's exactly what happened in Michigan, where Sanders broke the 30% barrier and won enough support from black voters to deny Clinton a victory. Here, the simple point I'll make is that if black voices matter, the media needs to acknowledge what they said in Michigan and revise their analysis of this election.


For months on end, pundits like Jeet Heer have insisted that black voters are rejecting Sanders' focus on economic inequality. This has always been sheer conjecture, with zero basis in polling about either the candidates (as pointed out in the above article, and here) or the issues (as Seth Ackerman pointedly explained long ago); it was largely rooted in the old red-baiting characterization of socialists as economic determinists, and had little basis in their actual platforms, which, as I noted back in July,
are virtually identical: both have called for body cameras, training initiatives, and end to police militarization, and so on. Long-term, both see it, in the words of Clinton, as "a symptom, not a cause, of what ails us today": inequality. Both propose different tactics to tackle the issue -- Sanders focusing on modest welfare expansions and taxing the rich, Clinton on economic growth -- but their basic conception of the problem is precisely the same.
In summary: black voters prefer Sanders' economic agenda, his non-economic agenda is virtually identical to Clinton's, his deficits in the polls can be easily explained through name recognition, and the "too socialist" critique of Sanders has its roots in an old anti-communist smear. This alternative account of the role of black voters in the Democratic primaries is intuitive, entirely plausible, has been substantiated and defended at length, and also has the advantage of corresponding with what black voters are actually saying as reflected in Michigan.


That said, whether or not one accepts this (obviously correct) alternative explanation, it is clear that the "black voters have rejected Sanders" hypothesis has failed. Unless writers like Heer and Jamil Smith want to argue that 31% of black voters in Michigan are white supremacist communists, they need to provide an alternative explanation for what just happened. To go on repeating their current line would be precisely the sort of erasure of black voices that corporate media has always been complicit in - a problem that progressives presumably have an interest in fighting, even if it just so happens to benefit Hillary Clinton.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

How journalists sell out

Multiple journalists over the past several months have publicly denied shilling for Hillary Clinton. And they aren't lying: one of the main design principles of a good sell-out is to arrange it in such a way that no one thinks they're doing anything wrong.

Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to put together the sort of "ethical" shilling operation that people are able to rationalize to themselves (and to their bosses and attorneys, as necessary). This is particularly true since even educated people often have fairly cartoonish and conspiratorial ideas about how media corruption works - which means that they're often extremely inept critics. When a random skeptic accuses Peter Daou of taking money under the table for giving sympathetic coverage to Hillary Clinton, he has no problem with denying it (since that specific transaction didn't actually happen).

But none of this is to say that anyone's hands are clean. Of course journalists are shilling for Clinton - and of course they're doing it in a way that gives them plausible denial. I know this is true of particular journalists, but I also know this because I've built political messaging operations myself. A few basic points:

1. There is almost never a formal quid-pro-quo. That is the sort of thing that gets journalists fired and campaigns fined. Messaging campaigns are less concerned about this than they used to be - the FEC can't enforce anything, and the public is so numb to corruption that it simply isn't as scandalous as it once was - but most are still built around the imperative of avoiding formal agreements. Instead, the transaction is generally implied, taught, or simply understood.

2. There is almost never an actual monetary bribe, for all the same reasons given above. Instead, journalists are usually given perks, access, and potential opportunities. Perks range from the relatively trivial (free drinks) to the extravagant (free travel and accomodations). Access includes dedicated and responsive points-of-contact, exclusive interviews and scoops, event invitations, and so on. Opportunities usually involve future job openings or unspecified favors that may or may not actually materialize.

3. Individual journalists are usually in the dark about most of the messaging operation. Strategic objectives are usually determined by campaign officials at a fairly high level; those are almost always kept internal. Media liasons usually only convey particular messages, but they don't brief journalists on the goals those messages are meant to accomplish - and journalists, who prefer to maintain a pretense of blissful ignorance, usually don't ask.

4. Messaging is rarely dictated. Often, campaigns will present their angles or talking points as "scoops", "tips" or "interesting topics" that journalists can voluntarily report on in their own way. When tighter control is needed, they'll often provide carefully phrased statements or quotes. Message discipline is cultivated by selecting sympathetic journalists and enforced, as needed, through flak - a notorious Clinton tactic.

5. Often, instead of disseminating their messaging directly, campaigns will launder their efforts through some nominally unaffiliated third-party - which allows both the media and the campaign to deny any coordination with each other. The Clinton campaign and Correct the Record, for example, have openly defended their right to coordinate messaging, and it's not difficult to imagine how those efforts might be reflected in, say, coverage in David Brock's Blue Nation Review.

This is just a sample of the approaches that modern political messaging operations use to get around public scrutiny, campaign finance laws, and guilty consciences - but the M.O. should be clear. By keeping transactions informal or implicit and communications indirect, campaigns can exercise an extraordinary amount of control over the press. Journalists, meanwhile, are constantly presented with new, innovative and pathetically unethical ways to sell out. And they do.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The "mental illness" smear of Sanders is nonsense

Less than a week after rolling out an extended (and ill-informed) piece on the pathological psychology of Republicans, Vox has decided to condemn pathologizing the psychology of Republicans. The difference, of course, is that it was Bernie Sanders who did it this time, which means that talking about mental illness in this way is now Outrageously Ableist and Wrong.

But bias isn't the whole story: part of the problem, as I've discussed at length in the past, is that liberalism still has no idea how to talk about mental illness. It remains torn between, on one hand, the rational-scientific tendency to accept medical orthodoxy, which generally recognizes certain conditions as pathological and requiring treatment - and on the other hand, the postmodern tendency to understand the role that social construction and oppression plays in determining that some mental conditions are aberrant and unacceptable.

Here, I'll just point out that this (dare I say) cognitive dissonance has even emerged in the attempts to criticize Sanders. Vox, for example, can't even condemn the supposedly "ugly, ableist language" he used without invoking their own - characterizing the differently-abled as "people with mental illness". If we're going to take up this critique of Sanders with any consistency and rigor, we have to reject any pathologizing of people who simply have different ways of thinking than we do. Otherwise, one can only wonder: if Lopez insists that (say) paranoia is a kind of sickness, in what sense does he actually believe that "stigma is bad"?

This is not, it has to be stressed, some kind of arcane or irrelevant ad absurdum point I am making about logical consistency: the debate over whether or not we should pathologize certain psychologies has been historically and politically central to the critique Vox is trying to wield. That they uncritically accept the healthy/ill dichotomy indicates that they are operating well outside of the intellectual tradition at hand, and with no understanding of the real concerns that real people with different mental conditions actually express. At best, they're committing precisely the sort of artless gaffe that Sanders (arguably) made; at worst, it's evidence of cynicism from critics who aren't coming from a place of genuine concern over how we talk about mental conditions.

Hillary Clinton's intersectionality

A few thoughts on Clinton's "intersectional" tweet:

1. The immediate response to this was ridicule, but it's worth noting how much more substantive this is than the "intersectionality" of popular liberalism. In that discourse, the concept generally plays one of two roles. Broadly, it's just an empty superlative that means something like "sophisticated" or "good": to say that one's "analysis of oppression is intersectional, groundbreaking, and cutting-edge" is just to pat her on the back. Often, the word is also used in a more specific sense to mean "thorough and correct in a way that Marxist discourse is not". So when one says that "Clinton's understanding of race is intersectional" one often just means that Clinton is right in some unspecified way that, while ostensibly accounting for a class analysis, just-so-happens to contradict it. In popular liberalism, this is what intersectionality has devolved to: vague praise, and/or vague dismissal of class-analysis. You will almost never see liberals articulate or defend it any further.

2. Clinton's tweet, meanwhile, is at least talking about something. She's just listing out a grab bag of problems and saying that they're all related, which is true enough, I guess. There are some basic conceptual problems here if you try to extend the analysis any further - for instance, every node on this network is a symptom of systematic racism, so it's odd to include "systematic racism" as its own node - but if you don't think too hard about it, the chart isn't meaningless or nonsensical so much as it's utterly banal.

3. That said, none of this corresponds with the intellectual tradition it's laying claim to: intersectionalism as a school of analysis developed and articulated by generations of iconic leftist scholars and activists. The entire point of that analysis is to think about various and diverse issues of power and oppression systematically. You are not making the economic determinist move of reducing all such issues to matters of class, but you are still trying to build a simplified framework for understanding the dizzying complexity of the world. So here, for example, instead of just dropping a laundry list of problems afflicting communities of color, an intersectional analysis could involve a chart that looks something like this:

The point here is that an intersectional analysis looks at the way underlying factors like class and race intersect to create problems. There is no real systematic way to talk about the way that problems in general interact, except, as Clinton's chart (helpfully?) points out, to note that they do.

4. In practice, of course, the point of Clinton's tweet was not to lay out some rigorous or defensible analysis of power and oppression; it was meant to win the approval of Twitter users who have a trivial understanding of intersectionality resembling what's laid out in point one. This is a hilarious indictment of her supporters - not only that they would be impressed by this, but that the Clinton campaign knows they would be impressed by this, and is willing to build its PR efforts around such vapid signaling.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Whose motives can we impugn?

What I cannot appreciate is the imputing of foul and malevolent motives to those of us who don't feel passionately about [Sanders]...I agree with him, not [Clinton], on Iraq, and think she cast a cowardly vote on Iraq, which I've written about many times. - Michael Tomasky
What would really clarify these political controversies, for me, is if the critics of Sanders would spell out their etiquette on when it is and is not acceptable to bring up an opponent's motives. If you read the rest of his article, Tomasky seems to be rejecting this absolutely, as a matter of principle: "This is just a disagreement," he concludes - "Raising it to anything greater than that is childish." And indeed, Clinton has tried to make the same case:
I know this game. I'm going to stop this game...I'm not impugning your motive because you voted to deregulate swaps and derivatives. People make mistakes and I'm certainly not saying you did it for any kind of financial advantage. What we've got to do as Democrats -- what we've got to do as Democrats is to be united to actually solve these problems.
Listening to some of this rhetoric, it would seem like talking about motives is simply off the table. I suspect most Sanders supporters would be absolutely thrilled with this, and would love to have substantive debates over policy and records that don't get instantly derailed by all the familiar accusations of unconscious bias.

But of course, that's not what actually happens. And here we see that not only do Clintonites reserve the right to impugn the motives of Sanders supporters - they will even impugn Clinton's own motives, if it can boost their credibility. Of course, if Michael Tomasky told Clinton that her vote was motivated by cowardice, she would be saying to him precisely what he's saying to Sanders supporters, rationalizing her decisions and piously decrying the "politics of personal destruction" etcetera. And in fact, if the Clintonites who have defended her Iraq vote as a mere mistake, or as forced upon her by the oppression of sexism - if they are consistent in their rhetoric, they'll start calling Tomasky a Bernie Bro too for his outrageous character assassination.

What is obviously going on here is that Clinton supporters are fine with talking about motives when they think this is justified, and only object to it as uncivil or bad faith when they think that it isn't justified. In other words, they're using discourse etiquette as an empty rhetorical bludgeon for policing truth claims, which is of course how discourse etiquette always works.

But contrary to what Tomasky suggests, there is every reason for the public to be suspicious of the motives of the press - it would be an abdication of the basic demands of skepticism if we weren't. This is certainly inconvenient if you're a journalist who wants all of your reporting to be taken at face value, but there's nothing unfair about it, or even uncivil.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Clinton's Democratic opposition twice as hard as Sanders'

General election polls have for quite some time suggested that Hillary Clinton would be an extraordinarily weak candidate in the general election, if nominated. A few observations:
  • She can only beat Trump by an average of 3.4%, and lost to him just two weeks ago.
  • She has not been able to beat any other Republican in over a month.
  • She underperforms compared to Sanders (who beats all Republicans) by an average 8%.
To the extent that we take this data seriously, a common reading of the numbers is that Sanders would win more Republican votes than Clinton can. This has some support in the polls, where Sanders wins on average about 3.5% more support among the GOP than Clinton. But the polls also suggest that it's not just about how many votes Sanders would win - it's also about how many votes Clinton would lose.

Interestingly enough, CNN didn't mention this finding in its summary of its latest poll - but buried in the crosstabs, I found some significant numbers:

Of the Democrats who say that they wouldn't support Clinton, 60% say that they definitely wouldn't, versus about 40% who only say that they probably wouldn't. The opposition to Sanders is much softer: only a quarter of those voters say that they definitely wouldn't vote for him. So while crossover appeal may account for some fraction of Sanders' advantage in the general election, it also appears that Clinton suffers from a significant amount of hardened opposition among Democrats who will never vote for her.

NOTE: This post has been updated to account for an initial error in calculting overall opposition. Thanks to @DavidAParker9 for pointing it out, and thanks to sleep deprivation for the mistake.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The abyss gazes into you

Salon's Scott Timber thinks that liberal comedians are "taking on the madness of Donald Trump." This is technically true, in much the same way that Oklahoma City's Russel Westbrook tried to take on Stephen Curry last week - but given Trump's wins on Super Tuesday and the fact that his general election numbers actually increased in the past month, there is no reason to conclude that this is actually doing a damn thing.

The actual polls, of course, are not what people who read Timber have in mind. As Mark Ames wrote in a prescient article covering the so-called "Rally to Restore Sanity" more than five years ago, liberalism,
once devoted to impossible causes like ending racism and inequality, empowering the powerless, fighting against militarism, and all that silly hippie shit - now it's been reduced to besting the other side at one-liners...and to the Liberals' credit, they're clearly on top.
The only thing that's changed since then is that it's not so clear that liberals are even winning the zinger race anymore. Donald Trump's effortless domination of both Twitter and the Republican debates with sheer belligerence has already become the stuff of political legend, whereas the best shot liberals have managed has been the embarrassingly flimsy Donald Drumpf schtick. Even other liberal comedians have noticed how weak liberal comedy is right now, which makes one wonder: why would Timber - or anyone - think that this could possibly work?

This, of course, is exactly the same question that we've been asking about right-wing comedy for years. And whether it's the Half Hour News Hour or Newsbusted, the answer has always seemed fairly clear: the right thinks this is effective satire because the right hates the left. There is rarely anything "funny" about right-wing comedy in the sense of being unexpected or absurd or clever, but seeing the left mocked and insulted mobilizes such schadenfreude in the right that they might as well be laughing.

Political philosophy has long had a name for this tendency, this organization of one's entire psychology around hatred of an enemy: Nietzsche called it ressentiment. And I do not think that one can look at modern American liberalism - with its smoldering hatred for half the country, its haughty contempt for the undereducated, its weirdly violent vocabulary of political antagonism (opponents are "eviscerated", "destroyed","annihilated" and so on) - I do not think that one can look at any of this and miss the shadow of ressentiment extending over our rhetoric, our activism, and our aspirations. It may speak the language of liberalism, and share many of liberalism's allies; but it is a sick, stupid and dangerous liberalism, echoing the proud spite of Zarathustra's ape, who is worth quoting at length:

Thus slowly wandering through many peoples and divers cities, did Zarathustra [come] the gate of the great city. Here, however, a foaming fool, with extended hands, sprang forward to him and stood in his way. It was the same fool whom the people called "the ape of Zarathustra:" for he had learned from him something of the expression and modulation of language, and perhaps liked also to borrow from the store of his wisdom. And the fool talked thus to Zarathustra... 
"By all that is luminous and strong and good in thee, O Zarathustra! Spit on this city of shopmen and return back! Here floweth all blood putridly and tepidly and frothily through all veins: spit on the great city, which is the great slum where all the scum frotheth together! Spit on the city of compressed souls and slender breasts, of pointed eyes and sticky fingers; on the city of the obtrusive, the brazen-faced, the pen-demagogues and tongue-demagogues, the overheated ambitious; where everything maimed, ill-famed, lustful, untrustful, over-mellow, sickly-yellow and seditious, festereth perniciously: spit on the great city and turn back!" 
Here, however, did Zarathustra interrupt the foaming fool, and shut his mouth. 
"Stop this at once!" called out Zarathustra, "long have thy speech and thy species disgusted me! Why didst thou live so long by the swamp, that thou thyself hadst to become a frog and a toad? Floweth there not a tainted, frothy, swamp-blood in thine own veins, when thou hast thus learned to croak and revile? Why wentest thou not into the forest? Or why didst thou not till the ground? Is the sea not full of green islands? I despise thy contempt; and when thou warnedst me—why didst thou not warn thyself?" 
"Out of love alone shall my contempt and my warning bird take wing; but not out of the swamp! They call thee mine ape, thou foaming fool: but I call thee my grunting-pig — by thy grunting, thou spoilest even my praise of folly. What was it that first made thee grunt? Because no one sufficiently flattered thee; therefore didst thou seat thyself beside this filth, that thou mightest have cause for much grunting, that thou mightest have cause for much vengeance! For vengeance, thou vain fool, is all thy foaming; I have divined thee well!" 
"But thy fools'-word injureth me, even when thou art right! And even if Zarathustra's word were a hundred times justified, thou wouldst ever—do wrong with my word!"  
Thus spake Zarathustra. Then did he look on the great city and sighed, and was long silent.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The science of the Frankfurt School

Amanda Taub has some harsh words for the Frankfurt School:
How do people come to adopt, in such large numbers and so rapidly, extreme political views that seem to coincide with fear of minorities and with the desire for a strongman leader? ...After an early period of junk science in the mid-20th century, a more serious group of scholars has addressed this question...
I'll be blunt: this article does not strike me as informed by a particularly rigorous understanding of the Frankfurt School, or of the historical scientific debates over the authoritarian personality. Her only specific criticism, where she takes on the F-Scale, is just a point-by-point reiteration of the first Wikipedia paragraph on the subject. And her comparison to later work seems to misunderstand the Frankfurt School's project entirely:
For a long time...the field of study languished. Then in the early 1990s, a political scientist named Stanley Feldman changed everything. Feldman...realized that if authoritarianism were a personality profile rather than just a political preference, he could get respondents to reveal these tendencies by asking questions about a topic that seemed much less controversial. He settled on something so banal it seems almost laughable: parenting goals.
But the Frankfurt School already understood authoritarianism as a personality rather than a political preference! That was the entire point of their effort: to understand what sort of personality dynamics create authoritarian outcomes. That is why they wrote books like "The Authoritarian Personality". Even Feldman's interest in parenting wasn't an innovation. Consider some of the statements respondants are asked to agree or disagree with on the much-maligned F-Scale:

  • Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn. 
  • What the youth needs most is strict discipline, rugged determination, and the will to work and fight for family and country. 
  • There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel a great love, gratitude, and respect for his parents.
Parenting was in fact a particularly central point of interest for the Frankfurt School, since their understanding of psychology was firmly grounded in Freud. I really have no idea how one sees anything that Feldman does as an innovation, given any minimal familiarity with the work of his predecessors. Similarly, all of the "insights" that Taub lays out are more or less entirely trivial elaborations on points that the Frankfrut School made long ago. For instance, compare Stenner's revelation that "authoritarians might be latent - that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarian had been 'activated'" with Adorno's observation of
destructive character traits which remained latent in broad sections of the population even during "quiet" periods. It is generally overlooked that present-day National Socialism contains potentialities which have been dormant not only in Germany but also in many other parts of the world... (The Stars Down to Earth, 186)
This was written in 1941 - 75 years ago.

What has changed since then? Less than Taub's article suggests. The conceptual framework, which understands authoritarianism through a psychodynamic lens with a significant emphasis on parenting relationships, is essentially identical; this is an impressive testament to the Frankfurt School, and an indictment of Taub's characterization of their work as "junk science". The developments her article refers to are largely adjustments in experimental methodology - precisely the sort of refinements to a scientific theory that you would expect, and that have characterized all of psychological investigation over the past century. There have also been some significant advances in the related field of neuroscience, many of which have confirmed the psychodynamic basis of the Frankfurt School's theories. But in general, as Chomsky notes, all political science remains scientifically suspect:
Look, as science progresses, there will be attempts to draw political conclusions from it...But in terms of actual scientific knowledge, we aren't even within super-telescope distance of touching any of these questions - the knowledge just isn't there right now, and may never be, either. (Understanding Power, 218)
Modern readers with aspirations for political science that exceed its actual scope may take this as a criticism of the Frankfurt School, but that misses the point. Writers like Adorno, Barthes, Fromm and so on set out to understand the authoritarian personality because they experienced its dangers firsthand - an their ideas about it were so insightful that they have guided our thoughts on the topic ever since. We would do well not to simply dismiss as "junk science" a body of literature that has given us so much analytical traction - particularly given the criticism mobilized against it, which remains empirically suspect, and which has an ideological agenda of its own.