Thursday, June 30, 2016

Charles Blow is confused about intersectionality because he wants to downplay class

Mr. Blow quotes my phrase “interracial liaisons and marriages” as though I use them to mask what in reality was rape. He is wrong...Newt Knight was not Rachel’s slavemaster; they were fighting together against the Confederacy. They lived together until her death in 1889.  Not every sexual relationship between a Southern white man and a woman of color was an act of rape, albeit many if not most were exploitative. - Victoria Bynum
What I find fascinating about this exchange is that Blow clearly thinks he is taking on the notorious (and elusive!) class-only leftism we've heard so much about, pushing back against the theory that "that race is merely a subordinate construction of class" and asking for a more intersectional analysis. And yet, it is Blow's lack of intersectionality that leads him into this basic biographical error: he assumes that Rachel was Newt's slave precisely because he neglects any real analysis of class relations.

Consider how this failure not only compromises his basic grasp of the facts, but his entire analysis of coercion. Because Bynum attends to class, she's able to talk about the role that economic relationships play in coercion in a consistent and sophisticated way: for instance, she can acknowledge that acts that are not rape can still be "exploitative".

Blow, on the other hand, seems to have trouble with this. Previously, for instance, he has scolded the "holier-than-thou moral rectitude" of those who had misgivings about an employer having sex with his intern:
They [the critics] could avoid this hypocrisy by focusing more on what happens in their own bedrooms and avoiding the trap of judging what goes on in everyone else's.
What Blow calls "moral rectitude" a lot of us just call intersectional feminism 101: poor women, and women in a subordinate work situation, are exposed to coercion in a way that other people are not. Since we acknowledge this, we can acknowledge that Rachel was in an exploitative situation even if she wasn't technically a "slave" - and we can also acknowledge that Bill Clinton put multiple women in exploitative situations as well without smugly dismissing this as some prudish "judging".

Because Blow does not incorporate class into his intersectionality, his understanding of rape and sexual coercion is utterly incoherent, and he finds himself attacking a poor Southern anti-Confederate while repeatedly defending a rich Southern rapist. And this omission from his analysis isn't just an accident; as I wrote previously, this is the defining feature of liberal identitarianism:
...leftists have maintained their commitment to understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done - whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.
It is this liberal neglect of class analysis that animates their inconsistent and opportunistic understanding of coercion - and too often, it is poor and subordinated women who pay the price.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Notes on ageism, Pt. II: On the objections

This is the second of a three part series. The first, "You can't have capitalism without ageism," is here.

In the first part of this series, I described a mechanism of capitalist wealth distribution that is fundamentally ageist. Because capitalism ties wealth to labor opportunities that only emerge over time, older people will have more opportunities to earn wealth than other people. This is not a particularly obscure or complicated insight; the only real questions is whether it has appreciable effects on economic outcomes, and whether we should do anything to mitigate those effects. It seems clear to me that the answer to both of these questions is "yes" - here are some standard objections, and why they're wrong.

1. Old people are poor - they are the ones who need state assistance.

This either/or framing obscures the actual state of affairs, which is that inequality of opportunity on the labor market hurts the old and the young. This problem is directly reflected in median household incomes when we break them down by age:

Obviously, since the very old and the very young cannot work, capitalism guarantees an economy where neither will be able to earn much money. If you want a capitalist economy that also compensates for inequalities of opportunity, then, you will need to additional mechanisms that distribute money towards the very old and the young.

When we look at net wealth (rather than income), we see that this is already (if inadequately) taking place for the very old. This is largely because we have things like "savings" and "interest" - financial mechanisms that disproportionately benefit older people - as well as dedicated programs like Medicare and Social Security, among other things. In the absence of these, the elderly would certainly be in the same position as the very young, with no opportunity to control a share of the wealth. Instead, what clearly happens is that the totality of these mechanisms somewhat offset the opportunity costs of old age, while doing relatively little to help the very young.

Any capitalist economy that aspires towards justice will compensate for the inequality of opportunity faced by the very old and the very young. This obviously means redistribution from those with the most opportunities for income, who will tend to be in the middle of the curve.

2. But there are other poor people too because of other reasons.

Again, this objection is not a counterpoint - it's just an additional consideration. For instance, on top of ageism, our economy is also overrun with rampant problems of racism, and there are all kinds of ways that this problem should also be addressed: through affirmative action programs, for example, or reparations, or other redistributive programs that disproportionately benefit people of color. Alternatively, you could make radical changes to our economy that would ameliorate many of these problems at the same time - such as abolishing private property and placing the means of production in the hands of the proletariat, for example.

None of this contradicts the narrow point that if you are going to have capitalism you have to somehow compensate for its systematic ageism. And this will generally take the form of redistributing wealth from high income earners to the very old and the very young.

3. Young people don't need income because their parents take care of them.

Ultimately, this objection depends upon all kinds of philosophical / ideological premises about human nature (when do we become entitled to democratic agency and our share of the commonwealth?) that seem difficult to defend on pluralistic grounds, but one doesn't need to take on such edge cases to see how far away we currently are from anything even remotely defensible.

For example, as a matter of settled law, we already agree in the United States that anyone who is at least 18 years old has a right to vote. Yet as noted in Part I, inequality of opportunity under capitalism means that 18-year-olds do not even have the chance to participate in our democracy as equals: they necessarily have less income, which means that they have less wealth, which means that they have less to invest in political activism. For the sake of equal democratic representation alone, it would seem reasonable for our economic system to compensate young people in full for the built-in disadvantages they face under capitalism.

If (like me) you begin with the premise that everyone has an equal right to the commonwealth, it seems to follow trivially that even babies are entitled to their fair share. Whether that share should be held in escrow, allocated to legal guardians, or distributed in some other way is a separate question; however, one doesn't need to tackle these questions to accept that by the age of 18 some kind of redistribution is probably in order.

4. It's okay to have an economy that systematically discriminates against the old and young since everyone gets to be privileged middle-agers at some point, too.

This isn't a line of reasoning that we would accept in any different context: ordinarily, we don't excuse temporary injustices just because they are temporary, or because they may be compensated for at some point. But more fundamentally this problem runs into the basic problem touches upon in Part I. On a level democratic playing field, would young and old people consent to this economic arrangement? We can never know, because the arrangement is already in place, creating an unlevel playing field.

This argument also faces the minor complication of being factually untrue. Some people die long before they get to experience the privilege of their high-income years, and even more people die before they reach the austerity of old age. The way that our economy is arranged effects everyone differently, based not just on how old they happen to be at any given moment, but on how long they live. The "that's just how the lifecycle goes" defense doesn't take this into account.

Notes on ageism, Pt. I: You can't have capitalism without ageism

Even the most radical capitalists typically* accept equality of opportunity as a prerequisite of social justice. It's the form of egalitarianism that reactionaries are generally okay with, because it's mostly hypothetical - to be distinguished from "equality of outcomes", EG substantive equality. Thus no less a seminal capitalist than Milton Friedman insists that
Equality of opportunity, like personal equality, is not inconsistent with liberty; on the contrary, it is an essential component of liberty... Not birth, nationality, color, religion, sex, nor any other irrelevant characteristic should determine the opportunities that are open to a person - only his abilities. (Free to Choose, 132)
Necessarily, it seems, capitalism distributes these opportunities over time. No one somehow gets all of the job offers and contract proposals that they will ever receive all at once - instead, our opportunities are spread out over the course of years and decades. Of course, this means that the benefits of these opportunities will also be spread out over the course of one's life, which is a major reason why young people are generally poorer than old people.

So while one can argue that this economic arrangement is optimal, or inevitable, or necessary, one cannot argue that it treats all age groups equally. It distributes opportunities in such a way that older people will have had more of them than younger people, which guarantees that the latter will always have less power and privilege. Tying income to the emergence of labor opportunities in a market economy obviously engineers a society where wealth will tend to accumulate with age. The trend here is well-documented and one that everyone intuitively understands:

This wealth distribution has all kinds of obvious and completely predictable consequences. For instance, here are the people who fund our politics:

And here are the people who get elected to office:

It's easy enough to blame the disproportionately meager representation of the young on participation issues (voting turnout and such), but there are a few obvious problems with this. First, we usually insist that everyone has the responsibility to ensure a representative Congress - this is not just the burden of groups seeking their own representation, but a shared burden placed by our basic commitment to a pluralistic democracy. Second, the liberal-left in particular has always acknowledged and resisted the effects of economic inequality on democratic representation. The older age groups who, because of their wealth, are also the most powerful political donors obviously have dramatic advantages in securing representation, but this is not something that we should celebrate or passively tolerate.

Certainly age-based income inequality has all kinds of additional and profound material consequences that prove catastrophic for younger Americans, but I draw special attention to the political consequences because they make particularly vivid problems with the most common justifications for ageism, which I'll run through in the next part of this series. For now, suffice to say that ageism is real, it is a direct consequence of the way that capitalism ties income to the labor market, and it has a dramatic and distorting effect on democratic representation in the US.

* Granted, this is beginning to change at the bleeding edge of bourgeois apologetics. As the relationship between soaring wealth inequality and vanishing opportunities becomes increasingly obvious, capitalists are blazing new rhetorical trails. Thus we have insane Objectivists like Yaron Brook openly insisting that inequality of opportunity would "violate everybody's rights", though the more common move is to take issue, like Don Watkins, with those "who go around advocating equality of opportunity" but who are actually "destroying opportunities". The ideal of equal opportunity will probably demand lip service from capitalists for the foreseeable future - even as they continue their efforts to destroy it.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Will Clinton's feminists speak out against two-party patriarchy?

Clinton supporters have spent much of the year insisting that sexism lies at the root of many of her electability problems - and that the feminist move is to refuse to let such considerations derail her candidacy. Matt Bruenig, in February, collected multiple examples of this argument from writers like Rebecca Traister and Catherine Campbell:
Sanders, unlike Clinton, doesn’t give a damn if he’s camera-ready...This is, of course, a form of authenticity that is off-limits to any female politician, not just one with Clinton’s baggage.
As Bruenig wrote, this is clearly an argument "that Clinton is structurally prevented from behaving in the kind of authentic and sincere manner that appeals to voters". And the upshot, of course, is that we should vote for her despite these structural handicaps, because they have their roots in systematic sexism, a problem that progressives should not enable by making concessions to it.

It will surprise no one, of course, that as Jill Stein's poll numbers improve, Clinton partisans are completely abandoning this argument:

Stein, of course, is a victim of the greatest obstacle to proportional representation for women in America today: the two-party system. Clinton is not the first woman to be nominated for president; she is preceded by Linda Jenness, Evelyn Reed, Margaret Wright, Deirdre Griswold, Maureen Smith, Ellen McCormack, Sonia Johnson, Lenora Fulani, Mash Feinland, Monica Moorehead, Cynthia McKinney, and of course Stein herself, among countless others. But while the major parties shut women out of their presidential tickets, the two-party system ensured that they wouldn't be able to win through third-party or independent campaigns, either.

Women have long recognized the role that the two-party system has played in their exclusion. The League of Women Voters, for example, described two-party control of presidential debates as a "fraud" and withdrew support for them in 1988, declaring that "The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public." Susan J. Carroll - Professor of Political Science and Women's and Gender Studies at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University - has written about the problem at length:
I think that there would be more opportunities [for women] if there were more parties of different ideological stripes. Certainly there have been more opportunities in recent years in the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, so one would presume that if you had a party that was further to the left, as in many other countries, there might be more opportunities. Those parties then put pressure on the other parties, so I think more competition is always good.
If electability problems rooted in sexism are impermissible objections to Clinton's candidacy, they obviously shouldn't be wielded against Stein, either. Clinton supporters should rail against the latent sexism of electability arguments against Stein with just as much outrage, and refuse to countenance mansplanations about the inevitability of two-party patriarchy from bros like Shroff. When so-called progressives make "I wish the two-party system were different, but" arguments against Stein, we should see the kind of eloquent righteous fury that we saw from Courtney Enlow:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Capitalists are fine with censorship

Peter Thiel's creepy crusade to take down Gawker has sparked a pretty funny feud between the fellas at Chapo Trap House and Robby Soave, an editor at Reason magazine. In a recent episode of their podcast, CTH voiced the obvious free speech concerns about Thiel's efforts - while also joking about how funny it would be if something like this happened to The Weekly Standard or The National Review. Soave sees this as an instance of outrageous hypocrisy, in contrast to the righteous consistency of radical capitalists:
Libertarians don't believe the legal system should be set up so that rich people can use it to censor speech they dislike—even if that speech is utterly reprehensible, as it is in the case of Gawker.
This is obviously untrue: of course libertarians support a legal regime that the rich can use to censor everyone else. For example, libertarians think that it's okay for the rich to coerce workers into contractually waiving all kinds of speech rights. If the worker refuses to enter into this arrangement, libertarians believe that the rich should be able to use the government to enforce all kinds of property laws against the worker until he starves to death. If the worker tries to break the contract, libertarians believe the rich should be able to use the government to prevent him from doing so, or to violently discipline him.

Note that this isn't some kind of unlikely, edge-case scenario - it's just a technical description of a situation that most of us are already in. Most employers have all kinds of expectations and even formal policies about what employees should and should not say. And most of us work for such employers, not because we want to waive our speech rights, but because we need to eat and pay the rent.

The libertarian obviously rejects this description. For instance, he insists that true capitalism would not be an economically coercive contractual regime; no one would actually face take-the-job-or-starve-dilemmas, because we can always just become entrepreneurs or live off the land. Perhaps this is true - but suffice to say that the censorship argument is now just a proxy argument for the real underlying disagreement, which is about economics. The leftist believes that capitalism inevitably creates a power imbalance between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which gives the rich the opportunity to censor the poor; the libertarian believes that capitalism can facilitate a "free" labor market where economic coercion cannot exist, which means that no one can be coerced into waiving their speech rights.

This puts Soave in the exact same boat as Menaker on CTH. Both insist that the government should enforce a particular legal-economic regime that would maximize the freedom of speech. Both insist that, short of that ideal, we should selectively approve of interventions by the government for the sake of justice. Menaker prefers interventions through our judicial system against the American right; Soave prefers interventions through our property and contracts laws against exploited workers. If this assessment of their disagreement is wrong, it's wrong because of fundamental premises about economics - but it's obviously not wrong because of differing commitments to free speech.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sotomayor's dissent probably doesn't matter

Yesterday, liberal media publications spent much of the evening celebrating Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's "epic", "searing", "ringing", "atomic bomb of a dissent" in the case of Utah v. Stieff. The triumphalism struck me as a little misplaced, since writing a dissent tends to mean that you have actually lost; and in these hyperbolic headlines, I can't help but hear the echo of liberals cheering on John Oliver when he lands empty zingers on a Republican majority that, by the way, is still the majority. Your #UniteBlue uncle may get a kick out of seeing Sotomayor name-check liberal media icons like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander, but that will be little consolation to the Americans - disproportionately poor and people of color - who are going to be targeted from now on by cops using illegal stops as fishing expeditions.

Still, when I made a grim joke about this last evening, a lot of people responded: won't Sotomayor's dissent at least lay some legal groundwork for future progress on this issue? The orthodox jurisprudential answer here is "possibly", but the heterodox take I'm going to run with here is "probably not".

Ordinary jurisprudential thought sees court opinions as a body of reasoning that builds on itself over time. Even opinions that don't happen to prevail in a particular case may create a basis for later arguments that do prevail, if their reasoning is sound or their rhetoric persuasive. For this reason, liberals are tempted to see in dissents the seeds of future victories, and fetishize eloquent flourishes and clever turns of logic as acts of genius that will be vindicated by history.

I call this a decisively liberal perspective because it's ultimately grounded in a faith in rationalism and proceduralism that leftists don't share. Particularly within the field of critical legal studies, there persists a school of thought that sees the logic of precedent as largely irrelevant to the production of legal doctrine. From this perspective, "precedent" is just what we call it when a judge opportunistically insists that he is basing his opinion on a previous case - whether he actually is or not. There are no rules of argumentation or representation that can force him to do this "accurately" or "fairly", or rules that can prevent him from being incompetent or cynical about this; all it takes is a basic degree of lawyerly sophistry and ideological ambition.

I'm often suprised that this position is still as controversial and heterodox as it is. Particularly after the Scalia era, when we saw just how mendacious a judge can be, just how tortured his reasoning and ridiculous his semantics, and all in the guise of a supposedly disinterested committment to "textualism" that should have enforced chains of precedent with utterly deterministic rigor. It seems obvious to me that if twenty years from now a liberal court wants to overturn Utah v. Stieff, they'll do it with or without Sotomayor's dissent, simply because they can. Generally, that opportunistic model of jurisprudence does more to predict how courts will actually rule than elaborate theories that turn on the importance of precedents and dissents.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The liberal discourse-gaming argument against riots is pretty silly

Rick Perlstein warns that Trump could win office by blaming the liberal-left for riots at his rallies: is the party to whom chaos appears to attach itself that the public tends to reject—especially if the leaders of the opposing party do an effective job of framing themselves as the quiet, calm, and centering alternative... What is the lesson for us? It’s most decidedly not to encourage chaos at Donald Trump rallies. This very act of encouragement, after all, clouds the story: it would make it credible to frame the Democrats as authors of chaos.
This might be wise advice if there were no way to identify who the "authors of chaos" actually are - but Perlstein is quite explicit on this point. "Trump is a fascist," he writes. "Trumpism leads to riots." Presumably, other people could arrive at this (obvious) conclusion the same way that he has - so why are we building our political strategy around the assumption that they might not?

The premise here - just below the surface, but always implicit in liberal discourse gaming - is that we get it but everyone else doesn't. We've been able to figure out that Trump is a fascist, and that fascism provokes violence, despite various attempts to "cloud the picture" and "frame the Democrats" - but the American people shouldn't be trusted to engage in the basic moral and political reasoning that has led us to these conclusions. For them, political "chaos appears to attach itself" to perpetrators in ways that evidently have nothing to do with who is actually responsible. Scott Lemieux says as much with startling candor:
We needn’t address abstract questions of when political violence might be justified to deal with whether to encourage violence against persons or property at Trump rallies...
To me, the "abstract question" of justification seems pretty decisive when one considers how responsibility for riots "attaches itself" to the parties. How do Perlstein and Lemieux suppose the proles are thinking about this? Is the theory that voters will just look at who has "encouraged" the riots when they're deciding who to blame, disregarding questions of justification entirely? Is there some kind of primitive points system involved where Democrats lose five every time Matt Bruenig argues that actually riots are good? Suppose that even if voters dislike it when anyone encourages riots, they also like it when fascist demagogues posture as a movement of unopposed militant strength - a political dynamic well attested in the literature. How have our liberals weighed these two problems against each other? What is the calculus by which they've concluded that the former is always a greater liability than the latter?

One way to approach the task of political persuasion is to assume that other people are able to think about things in much the same way that you do, and to proceed accordingly. If you think that riots are justified, or that Trump needs to be defeated even if riots aren't justified, this is an argument that you should be able to make and that other people should be able to understand. The alternative, ridiculous approach would be to pretend that riots aren't justified, even if they are, and even if we believe that they are, because something something framing something something optics. That kind of duplicity is usually baseless on tactical grounds, and usually a pretty good sign that your substantive position can't stand on its own two feet.

Friday, June 17, 2016

If you obsess over online discourse policing, you're probably a capitalist

Twitter is an online platform that has been engineered to amplify our capacity for socialization almost infinitely. It takes advantage of telecommunications to allow people to communicate with each other instantly over vast distances. It allows us to do this with an essentially infinite number of people by creating massive and infinitely scalable "follower" networks. It centralizes and organizes this communication through carefully designed news feeds, and cleverly places a 140 character limit on message packets to enhance communication efficiency. It provides multiple tools for signal-boosting particular messages, such as RTing, embedding, linking, and so on, as a way to create "viral" dissemination patterns that expand exponentially. All of this is 100% deliberate, embedded into Twitter's business model and central to its value for its users.

The necessary and utterly predictable outcomes of this system: to create runaway viral dissemination patterns for tweets, and to facilitate and encourage interaction among massive groups of people connected only by follower networks. More often than not, these are exactly the outcomes we want. People use Twitter to expand the reach of their content and to interact with a much larger audience than would ever be possible otherwise.

Occasionally - and again, utterly predictably - this system creates outcomes that we frown upon. A message disseminates virally that we think probably shouldn't have got so much attention. The audience we interact with is one we don't want to interact with. Someone gets criticized, shamed, or dogpiled well out of proportion to what we think was appropriate.

Individualizing a systematic problem

When this happens, the sensible approach would be to recognize that the magnitude and proportion problems that emerge from Twitter are intinsic to the system itself. Twitter storms a-brew not because any particular user wanted it to happen or made it happen, but because the entire logic of the platform's architecture and operation was designed to guarantee this outcome. It is a mathematically complex system whose behavior is much greater than the sum of its parts. 

What often happens, however, is just the opposite. Instead of recognizing that there is something about Twitter itself that foments these outcomes, and developing a systematic understanding of how discourse works, we try to personalize it. We begin with the assumption that surely there is something that we as individual users could have done to have prevented the latest dogpile or shaming spectacle - and from there, we backfill ad hoc theories of influence or conspiracy meant to provide a chain of causality. In this way, we find a way to indict individual actors not only for their own (usually quite trivial) contributions to the Twitter storm, but for the storm itself, for its severity and magnitude.

Much of this second tendency, of course, is motivated by interpersonal / tribal rivalries and attempts - naively, or cynically - to lay blame at the feet of one's internet enemies. In these cases, there's rarely any serious or even token attempt to grapple with basic questions of causality or the minimal limits that we would, as a matter of common sense, place on burdens of responsibility; the goal, implict or explicit, is just to tie as much blame to one's opponent(s) as possible. The motives here are usually fairly transparent, and the tenuous see-the-patterns and connect-the-dots analyses not particularly difficult to poke holes in.

Only socialism can own the trolls

What I find more interesting is the way that this second tendency, in its attempt to individualize a problem that is largely systematic, replicates the ethic of consumer activism so central to liberal capitalist thought.

As Marx has taught us, many of the most notorious and destructive problems we experience under capitalism - the consolidation of power into fewer and fewer hands, the exploitation and immiseration of workers, the alienation of people from each other and from their labor, the commoditization of things we think should not be commoditized, the lies and distortions of bourgeois ideology, the proliferation of corruption and conflicts of interest, etcetera etcetera etcetera - these are all intrinsic to capitalism itself.

They should not, that is to say, be understood as mere incidental problems introduced into the system by individual actors, problems that we could eliminate or moderate if people would just behave themselves. Corruption in the financial sector, for example, is not something that simply comes from a few bad apples who haven't been arrested or educated out of their bad behavior; it some from things like the profit motive and our basically unlimited ability to create sinister financial instruments that work around any extant regulation. Homophobia at Chic-fil-A doesn't come from the personal failure of conscientious liberals to boycott the company out of existence; it comes (in part) from an economic system that foments bigotry as a way of dividing the working class.

Bourgeois ideology fundamentally rejects these systematic ways of thinking about power and oppression - whether on Twitter, or in our economy. Instead, capitalism fetishizes the John Galtian power of the individual to "stop the engine of the world" through sheer force of will and piety. If we can all just learn to be responsible consumers, and responsible managers, and responsible oligarchs, and - yes - responsible tweeters, we can make the system work.

The leftist solution to these kinds of problems is to acknowledge the minimal limitations of human agency and culpability, and to refuse to let individuals become scapegoats for problems intrinsic to the system itself. In my view, a great way to get rid of the meanness and bigotry we often see on social media is to change the toxic culture that it comes from - and that means, first and foremost, challenging capitalism. I also don't think that people should lose jobs or have their basic livelihoods threatened by things they say on social media, which is why I propose a universal welfare state that places into the hands of workers control of the means of production. These are admittedly extraordinarily ambitious goals, but I think they're also infinitely more plausible than this hilarious liberal fantasy that one day the trolls and haters will start behaving themselves.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Chin up

Leftists lose. This is what it means to be a leftist. If you're winning more than you're losing, it means that you aren't really challenging power. As I.F. Stone put it, "The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you're going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins."

Personally, I've never backed a winning presidential candidate. I've campaigned for Ralph Nader, Mike Gravel, and now Bernie Sanders, the left-flank challengers in each of their respective elections. The closest I've come to winning was when I voted against three right-wing candidates - Clinton, McCain, and Romney - but wanting them to lose is of course a quite different thing from wanting Obama to win. I don't know the satisfaction of seeing my ambitions and aspirations realized in a national election, and it's entirely possible that I never will.

As I've written before, defeat in an election can be pretty traumatic - elections are one of the few formal opportunities we have left in late capitalism to exercise any kind of political agency, so we invest a disproportionate amount of our hopes and anxieties in them.

But in my experience, it doesn't have to be that way. And in fact, it's generally a good idea for leftists to disinvest themselves from elections, and to recognize the extraordinarily limited role they should play in our activism. Even poor old Noam Chomsky, who gets IRL mad at the liberal media and is famously not actually laughing about any of this, has taught himself to disengage:
I think [voters] should spend five or ten minutes on it, seeing if there's a point in taking part in the carefully orchestrated electoral extravaganzas...It's just a matter of deciding, "Should I spend this little amount of time doing something which is not insignificant, but which is not of great importance either." The main point is to keep try to keep working to change the society...The electoral season in the United States, the quadrennial extravaganza, typically tends to draw energy away from activism because people are caught up in the hoopla and the excitement and so on. 
The more you appreciate the limitations of elections, and of the presidency in particular, as a vehicle for progress; the more you invest yourself in the substantially broader, ongoing project of left activism; and the more you come to appreciate the way the spectacle and seduction of the former undermines the latter - the more all of this comes into play, the less significant it feels when your left-flank candidate loses once again.

Liberals generally don't get this, for two related reasons. First, because they are used to winning. Despite their occasional self-aggrandizing posture as fighters, liberals generally tend to get what they want out of politics. Democrats quite often win, and even when they lose the loss is often just the setup for an emotionally satisfying dramatic arc of taking power back over two to eight years. Second, because the system is working for them, liberals become extraordinarily invested in it. They consume politics as a form of entertainment and develop creepy parasocial relationships with political celebrities. The vicissitudes of partisan fortune become, for the liberal, so caught up in psychodynamics of personal agency and codependency that electoral defeat can trigger a serious emotional and spiritual crisis.

For this reason, liberals often have a hard time understanding the impersonal and even cynical view leftists take towards politics. They personally identify with their preferred candidate, and suspect that opposition amounts to some kind of personal hatred; they assume that leftists relate to politics in the same way, and that an electoral defeat, for them, would bring with it the same quality of disappointment. Sometimes, they're right about this - but as the leftist emancipates herself from this ideological cathexis, and takes the long view of elections from the broader perspective of class struggle, these things matter a lot less.

In the next few days, Bernie Sanders is likely to end his campaign and endorse Hillary Clinton for President. This was always the most likely outcome of this election, and it is by any measure an extraordinary and unprecedented historical achievement that Sanders did as well as he did. Ralph Nader won 2.75% of the vote in 2000. Mike Gravel finished with less than one percent in 2008. Sanders, having run well to the left of both, is likely to finish his campaign with around 43% of the popular vote. I have never been so optimistic.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Marxism and identitarian politics

I've touched on most of this before and anyone with any minimal familiarity with Marxist / post-Marxist thought will already get all of this - still, the topic has been subjected to such persistent and mendacious misrepresentation by liberal capitalists that it's worth reiterating, once again, what a left position on identitarian politics actually looks like. There is of course a spectrum of opinion here, but instead of attempting to be comprehensive, I'll try to be specific by speaking for myself.

Identitarianism primarily investigates relationships between identity, privilege, and oppression. It makes the utterly uncontroversial observation that some identities are subject to the domination of others, considers the intersectional relationships between different identities, and develops a politics of emancipation with these considerations in mind. Historically, identitarianism has primarily focused on issues of race, sex, class, and sexual orientation, though this scope is continually expanding to contemplate other dimensions of identity as well.

Liberal identitarianism

Personally, I'm in general agreement with liberals on a broad range of identitarian concerns. I recognize all of the usual categories of oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, nationalism, ageism, etcetera). These forces emerge from all kinds of fairly well understood factors ranging from historical bias to cognitive biases, and they structure our society into the familiar hierarchies that place (for example) straight white men at the top while subordinating everyone else. They play out in almost every aspect of our society: in the way that we understand each other, talk to each other, portray each other in the media, build relationships with each other, employ each other, vote for each other, in the way that we structure our institutions and policies, and so on.

Accordingly, an identitarian politics has to take all of this into account, grapple with, and ameliorate all of the different ways that oppression emerges in our society. To take a simple example, identitarianism has to acknowledge that histories of genocide, slavery and racism in our society have entrenched all kinds of systematic and cultural injustices against people of color that demand a dedicated political response. Though there's considerable controversy (even among liberals) about the appropriate approach, my sense is that reparations have to be a major part of this effort, along with all kinds of direct interventions into policing, employment, housing, education, and so on.

This, again, is all completely orthodox and mainstream liberal identitarianism. The positions and proposals I have in mind here map directly onto the standard platforms of any Democratic politicians and liberal activists you can name.

Liberal vs. left identitarianism

The major difference between liberal and left identitarianism, in my view, is that leftists have remained faithful to the identitarian tradition as expressed historically and in the overwhelming body of literature. Principally, this means that leftists have maintained their committment understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done - whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.

The liberal, of course, will insist that they don't actually neglect class - which is true if by "class" we just mean "wealth". But here, I'm using class in the Marxist sense that means something like "one's identity as an owner or non-owner of the means of production".

This, revisionism aside, was always a major category of analysis in identitarian thought. Crucially, there is no identitarian reason to exclude it. Identitarianism doesn't impose some rule about what categories of oppression "count" and which ones we should ignore - one of its major strengths has always been its insistance on an expansive and inclusive conception of power that takes into consideration as many aspects of oppression as possible. If the proletariat have no place in identitarianism, it is not because of something about identitarianism, but because the proletariat does not in fact exist - because, that is, Marx's theory of class identity is wrong.

This point is crucial, because it marks what is (at least for me) the major distinction between liberal and left identitarians. Liberals definitionally reject the Marxist claim that ownership of the means of production plays a significant role in power and oppression. At the very most, they are willing to acknowledge a role for wealth in their identitarian analysis, distinguishing between (say) a rich disabled WOC and a poor one. But because they are capitalists, they cannot seriously consider the role that proletarian vs. bourgeois identity plays in power and oppression. Contrary to liberal portrayals of left thought as relatively narrow and exclusive, it is the liberal's theory of identitarianism that excludes a form of identity - class - that left identitarianism always includes.

Left analysis

Once one accepts a role for the proletariat in identitarian thought, the analysis and practice of identitarianism proceeds as usual. One conducts an intersectional investigation of how various forms of identity relate to each other, how their effects shape, overlap and amplify each other, and so on. From there, one develops a strategy for ending all of these various forms of oppression as thoroughly and expediently as possible, bearing in mind all the obvious considerations of severity, urgency, policy constraints, political obstacles, justice, etcetera.

Distinctively, one of the forms of identity the left incorporates into this intersectional analysis is class. The leftist investigates the way that class shapes identity and multiplies power and oppression, just as it would investigate the way that gender does this, or race, or anything else. That is how intersectionality works. And on that basis, it then develops a praxis for emancipation.

We know that race intersects with other forms of identity in all kinds of unique ways, and understanding them can give us unique and important insights into how oppression works. For instance, while men are generally privileged compared to women, race complicates that picture, and it becomes clear that a white woman may have privileges that a black man does not. The same kinds of insights also emerge when we investigate the role of class. Generally, being a member of the bourgeoisie (which controls the means of production and and can use that to exploit workers) is a position of privilege over being a member of the proletariat (which can only sell its labor as is always at the mercy of the bougeoisie). Again, an intersectional analysis of identity can complicate this picture. A member of the bourgeoisie may not have to work for a living, but he is more likely to get assaulted by cops he is black than if he's white, and more likely to be raped if she's a woman than if he's a man. A working class white woman is obviously in little danger of falling victim to racism, but she faces all kinds of serious disadvantages that Carlos Slim Helu does not.

All of these different dimensions of identity relate to each other in extraordinarily complicated ways. None of them completely account for or can be reduced to the effects of the others: economic forces do not entirely explain the problems of sexism, for example, and neither can sexism explain all of the problems of class. An intersectional analysis has to explore all of the historical, cultural, material, technological, biological, and psychological factors that go into the construction of these identities in order to develop a big picture about how they relate to each other and how we are to proceed in our politics.

Thus far, all of this has really just been an overcomplicated way of saying "we have to understand all of the complications of our world in order to proceed in a just and moral way". You can see this basic principle evolve all the way from its ancient philosophical origins into the identitarian / intersectional language that we now use to talk about politics. In common, both liberalism and leftism emerged during this evolution from phases of gross reduction and oversimplification. Even liberalism passed through a phase of an overly mechanistic and myopic focus on deterministic economism that persists in part to this very day: thus, we see the Freakonomics-style analyses of capitalism that continue to reduce problems of gender income inequality (for example) to the simple mechanics of supply and demand.

Leftism, for its part, also briefly passed through such a phase more than a century ago, arguing that class struggle within the material economy could account for all expressions of power and oppression. This perspective, as I've written before, has been dead for ages. Marxists like Gramsci incorporated matters of culture, race and ethnicity into his intersectional analysis of power; writers from the Frankfurt School added all kinds of considerations of sexuality and gender, among other things; and in the mid-to-late twentieth century, writers like Foucault elaborated and complicated left identitarianism so thoroughly that modern leftists debate the role of class in so-called post-Marxist thought almost constantly.

The left identitarian agenda

This debate is so extensive and complicated, encompassing a whole genre of modern left literature, that it would be pointless to try to capture or fairly represent it here: so again, I'll try to stick to my perspective. Today, I see the identitarian left agenda as encompassing three major planks:

1. The implementation of measures against oppression that happen to be compatible with liberalism (but do not belong to it), such as criminal justice reform, education campaigns, gun control, bathroom access laws, and so on. All of this is fairly uncontroversial, at least generally, though liberals tend to maintain (counterfactually) that the left opposes such measures.

2. Opposition to liberal and reactionary measures that would ultimately increase oppression. A basic example of this would be left identitarian efforts to defend and restore the Voting Rights Act. A more complicated example would be left identitarian opposition to NAFTA, which dramatically increased the class domination of workers throughout North America, which exasperated problems of racism against Hispanics, and which which had all kinds of other foreseeable consequences for the oppressed. Because liberals omit Marxist class identity from their analysis, they generally supported NAFTA on capitalist grounds, and did not anticipate all of its intersectional effects.

3. The implementation of emancipatory measures that are at odds with liberalism. This includes all kinds of things that would fight the problems of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and just about any other ism you can name - but that liberal identitarianism routinely rejects, since these measures would also fight classism. For example, the implementation of universal health care would disproportionately benefit women, people of color, the disabled, and all kinds of other oppressed identity groups, and significantly at the expense of able-bodied white men - but since universal health care is at odds with the privilege of the bourgeoisie, liberalism tends to resist it. More ambitious policies include things ranging from dramatically expanded affirmative action requirements to the abolition of private property - all measures that would erode all kinds of privilege that liberals nominally oppose, but that liberals reject since it would also erode the prrivilege of the bourgeoisie.

That's it. That's the left identitarian agenda, widely supported by women, people of color, the poor, the LGBT community, the stateless, the disabled, and so on, all over the world. This agenda is mostly opposed by a relatively small faction of people who, whatever their other identities, reject identitarian politics through their omission of Marxist class as a form of identity. Casually, we can describe these (from a global perspective, wealthy) folks as liberal identitarians, though they've fundamantally rejected identitarian thought; accordingly, we could just call them liberals, though this doesn't quite capture their politics either. They're fundamental alignment with the interests and privilege of the bourgeoisie is what distinguishes them from true identitarians, and for that reason the most precise word for them is "capitalists".

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A word on religious violence

The horrific Orlando shootings have prompted the usual wave of armchair criminology from pundits hoping to mobilize popular sympathy and outrage towards sundry political causes. In this particular instance, my personal take is that we still know very little and the rush to ascribe cause and motive is extremely sinister. Donald Trump may insist that we have to get "smart real fast", but it seems to me like we would be much better off suspending judgment until we have much more information about the shooter and why he did this. For instance, it may turn out (as it so often does) that Mateen was just mentally ill and that all of the ideological associations with the killing were just pretexts and rationalizations. In that case, the relevant solution here would not be a war on radicalism, or homophobia, or toxic masculinity, or whatever - it would be to treat this situation as a public health problem and a gun control problem. It is not the politicization of the shooting that I object to, but attempts to politicize it blindly and simplistically - attempts motivated by political agendas ranging from Islamophobia to liberalism.

It's that latter motive I'd like to touch on here.


The right's effort to characterize Islam as a "religion of violence" has compelled necessary and admirable pushback from the liberal-left, particularly since this rhetoric is so often a fig leaf for empire and anti-pluralism. But occasionally, liberals use this controversy as a jumping off point to make all kinds of additional claims that have nothing to do with pluralism, tolerance, or anti-imperialism, and everything to do with ideological / theological beliefs about what religion is and distinctly capitalist beliefs of what peace should be.

One extreme version of this, for example, suggests that no sect or school of religion really advocates violence. As far as I can tell, this is coming from a vaguely 19th century transcendentalist tradition that argues for the fundamental commonality of all religions and invests them with an ethic of pacifism. Usually the position gets even more specific, because it turns on a pacifism that corresponds quite neatly with liberal ideas about civility and order - thus (for example) it accomodates imprisonment, or the eating of meat, while many theories of pacifism prohibit both.

Suffice to say that this is a pretty heterodox doctrine from the perspective of most major religions as expressed in their historical practice, their institutional literature, and the lived experiences of the faithful.

Consider my own experience. I was born into a family with three Anabaptist pastors, attended church and Bible study groups every week, and spent my formative years among a tightly-knit Mennonite community. I read from books like the Martyrs MirrorGandhi as a Political Strategist, and The Politics of Jesus on a regular basis, and they were long central to my personal politics. In college, for example, I founded and ran an extraordinarily successful pacifist student organization, and used it to launch all kinds of actions and protests against various forms of violence.

It was during my turn to Marxism that I grasped the sheer depth of disagreement among Christians over violence. As any Mennonite will tell you, Christians contemplate all kinds of serious and direct disagreements over when and under what circumstances violence is acceptable (if ever); even among themselves, Mennonites often wrestle with questions about self-defense, stopping Hitler, etcetera. But Marxism suggested to me an even more profound disagreement among Christians over what violence actually is. Consider, for example, the argument of Mennonite icon John Howard Yoder:
Jesus...ordered his disciples to practice the jubilary redistribution of their capital...Still, it is not our belief that Jesus prescribed Christian communism...when Jesus formulated the celebrated commandment, "Sell what you possess and give it as alms"....this was not...a constitutional law to found a utopian state... (Politics, 69-70)
Note how Yoder takes for granted the capital as their capital, leaping from the fact of possession to a claim of ownership. This is certainly at odds with all kinds of historically and theologically mainstream Christian orthodoxy. For instance, Catholic writer Elizabeth Bruenig argues that 
the status quo in relation to property - that is, the way property now exists in our collective political imagination, as the claim of an intrinsically valuable right - conflicts essentially with a Christian construal...
Meanwhile, Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy, revered by much of the Christian left (including the Mennonite left), insists that
The time will come  - it is already coming - when the Christian principles of equality and fraternity, community of property, non-resistance of evil by force, will appear just as natural and simple as the principles of family or social life seem to us now. (The Kingdom of God is Within You, 100)
These passages represent three radically different perspectives on violence. Yoder and Tolstoy share a notional committment to non-violence, but Tolstoy understands property as a violent institution of the state, and therefore his Christianity recognizes a whole category of violence that liberalism does not. Bruenig (and Marx) also recognize private property as a violent state institution, but unlike Tolstoy and Yoder, they accept as justified a degree of state violence in order to guarantee its abolition.

These are not trivial, hair-splitting theological differences; they are substantive, consequential disagreements about what violence is and when it is justified. They align with the deeply held beliefs of millions of Christians throughout history, beliefs that (for better and for worse) they have dedicated their lives to, fought for, and even died for. And they do more than a little to explain why I stopped identifying as a Mennonite long ago.

It's easy to understand why liberalism would want to deny that these differences exist: they threaten the status quo. If all schools of thought about religion are peaceful - where "peace" specifically means accepting the violence of private property - then any sect that opposes capitalism can be dismissed as a perversion or misrepresentation of the true faith. Thus for example a U.S. Embassy, in a 2007 cable, discussed "the challenge to the traditional Church played by liberation theology" and applauded "major efforts to stamp out this Marxist analysis of class struggle".

None of this, of course, calls into question the basic committments to peace shared by Muslims, Christians, and other religious folk all over the world; nor does it apologize for the brutal acts of terror and violence committed against the innocent, such as just took place in Orlando. Or as took place during the US war against adherents of liberation theology in Latin America. But it should remind us that when liberal capitalists talk about "peace", they often mean something quite particular and different from what much of the rest of the world has in mind.

Clintonites agree: my analysis of black votes is obviously correct!

Jacobin has reprinted my third article on black voters and the Democratic primaries, The Democratic Mandate That Wasn't. So far, its reception among Clintonites has been fairly consistent:

Bouie is dismissing Clinton's lack of support among black Americans as some kind of obvious truism - which might be understandable if he had not spent the last year writing things like this:
Why are black Americans loyal to Hillary Clinton? What has she, or her husband, done to earn support from black voters? ...For more than 20 years, Bill and Hillary Clinton have engaged with black voters, black leaders, and black communities....Hillary Clinton has worked to mend her rifts with black leaders and black voters...With expansive policies for economic equality, Sanders might have real appeal for black Americans. But it takes more than good policies to forge a political connection. It takes hard, dedicated work.
Factually, black Americans are not loyal to Hillary Clinton. About 88% of black Americans either voted against her or sat out of the primaries. This puts Bouie's conjecture about the support she did win in a very different light. The Clintons may have spent the last two decades making publicity stunt church visits - but evidently, out of every eight people sitting in every pew, she only convinced one of them to vote for her. It's not difficult to understand why this is. Bouie (who correctly understands this dynamic as a relationship with both Clintons) continues:
To a large degree, Clinton’s black outreach—premised on his background and his cultural familiarity—was symbolic...On the other hand, however, he never promised to directly address black interests and he—after winning the nomination—tried to distance himself from black activists (e.g. the “Sistah Souljah moment”). But symbolic politics is potent, and black voters stuck with Clinton through the general election.
This analysis is pretty defensible until the very end. If anything, the general Clintonian failure to turn out more black voters is evidence that symbolic politics are not potent. Turns out that dabbing with Ellen and tweeting the word "intersectionality" ad nauseum doesn't mean much when you're also destroying the welfare state and promoting non-solutions to police violence.

Perhaps black Americans are just smarter and more pragmatic than Clintonites give them credit for, and aren't going to be overly impressed with pandering symbolism that does nothing to substantially improve their lives. This is a pretty obvious and common sense attitude to take, which is a major reason why most Americans don't get involved with the primaries. Bouie gets that this is true, but until he grapples with why it's true, he's not going to have a good explanation for the landslide majority of black voters who didn't support Clinton.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Heightism is next - capitalism is never

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the identitarian war on heightism is coming. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that liberalism relentlessly co-opts identitarian politics as a way to channel civil unrest away from class stuggle. The second is that this strategy, when focused on the oppression of any particular identity, yields diminishing returns for liberalism. As long as capitalism exists, you can only do so much to mitigate and regulate the oppression any given identity group faces; policy and educational approaches become less and less effective, and it gradually becomes more and more obvious that radical solutions antithetical to liberalism are necessary.

All of this means that, inevitably, liberalism will shift its attention towards new symptoms of oppression. Heightism is an obvious candidate! As John Kenneth Galbraith noted, "The bias towards tallness and against shortness is one of society's most blatant and forgiven prejudices." It is intersectionally implicated in just about every form of bigotry there is. Height is commonly implicated in racist stereotypes; stunted growth is a well-known symptom of poverty; and it has received significant attention in feminist scholarship, persisting as such a major factor in sexism that Miller writes,
...much of what we normally assume is sex discrimination is height discrimination. Of course, heightism affects men and women, but because women average 4 to 5 inches shorter than men, it affects them more... (WSJ, 10/28/95)
Heightism also imposes virtually all the disadvantages we see in other forms of oppression. Short people make far less money and also experience significant educational and job opportunity impacts; they experience constant psychological trauma to the point of facing a higher rate of suicide; they face overt bigotry throughout our society and culture; they have fewer sex parters and face such significant disadvantages in coupling that Friedman describes heightism as "the last acceptable dating prejudice"; and so on. (It should be noted that while many of these studies focus on the plight of short men in particular, women also suffer from the same discrimination - as well as additional biases when they are unusually tall, a problem generally not experienced by men.)

Accordingly, the first signs of anti-heightist media and activist organization have already begun to emerge. Academics have also begun to consider policy approaches to the issue - and tellingly, most of them focus on its economic dimensions. One paper by Rosenberg, for example, considers "a federal law that would flatly prohibit height-based employments decisions"; another, by Mankiw and Weinzierl, contempltaes "a credit for short taxpayers and a sucharge for tall ones".

The policy solution we are not likely to see, of course, is the radical redistribution of property to people of all heights, nor are liberal identitarians likely to seize the means of production from statistically tall CEOs and hand them over to the generally shorter proletariat. Presumably, liberals will spend a few decades trying to regulate, thinkpiece, and call-out heightism into oblivion - and when that's accomplished all it can accomplish within a capitalist framework, instead of challenging capitalism, they'll move on to the next problem.

The fight against heightism is a worthy cause, of course, as is the fight against all forms of oppression - but that's not what liberalism is interested in. Liberalism is animated by a defense of capitalism, and it is only to that end that it draws our focus towards other forms of oppression. An intersectional politics must resist this opportunistic, counterproductive core of liberal identitarianism, even as it maintains an expansive and inclusive posture towards emerging identitarian concerns.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The future of the Democratic Party: Unity and social democracy

Though it might offend his uber-progressive supporters to hear this, the Sanders insurgency is largely a white revolution. All the talk about Sanders representing the future of the Democratic Party because of his overwhelming popularity among young people leaves out an important caveat: He couldn’t persuade minority voters to sign on. 
Isaac Bailey gets this wrong every single step of the way. Not only did Sanders "persuade minority voters to sign on": he wins Asians by 7.9%, Hispanics by 26% and Native Americans by 29%. Overall he only loses minority voters by 6%, largely because of Clinton's advantage among black voters: but even in that case, he won 31.5%, a huge share that we can only ignore at our moral and political peril. That number, moreover, simply expresses preference rather than opposition: 82% of black Americans report that they'd vote for the Democrat whether it's Clinton or Sanders. Finally, it appears that most of these numbers are an artifact of polling: presented with the choice to actually vote for Clinton, about 88% of black voters didn't bother.

In short, Bailey's argument relies on portraying a 25% preference among black voters - which doesn't impact the way 80-90% of them actually vote - as some monolithic mandate among "minorities" that threatens a dystopian "racial split that could haunt the party well into the future".

That last point is what makes Bailey's analysis truly nonsensical. Even if we accept his (dubious) theory of a "racial rift" in the present, there is zero evidence that it will persist into the future. In fact, all of the available evidence suggests the exact opposite. Bailey claims that "talk about Sanders" and "his overwhelming popularity among young voters leaves out" consideration of minority voters, but that's easy enough to remedy:

What rift? All I see here is a future of Democrats of all races overwhelmingly united by their love of social democracy and their fond memories of Bernie Sanders.

Centrism is an ideology, not a strategy

Clinton appears to have secured the nomination, which means that we can expect a tidal wave of takes rationalizing her accellerated flight to the right. Ideology tends to veil its political imperatives in the language of objective necessity - and for Centrism, this usually means wonkish-sounding polling arguments about why we should abandon the left. Chris Cillizza, today, makes a typical case:
...there's no real reason to think Clinton needs to court the left in the race going forward...In the May Washington Post-ABC News poll...Her numbers among "liberal" Democrats were...79 percent favorable with 48 percent of that bloc strongly favorable... 
If Clinton doesn't have a problem on her left to solve, then adding Warren to the ticket only brings potential problems...a Clinton-Warren ticket might be the one thing that could convince lots of Republicans who are uncertain about Donald Trump to make a lesser-of-two-evils vote for the real estate mogul.
Cillizza is exaggerating Clinton's strength on her left: if you also count "liberals" who don't identify as Democrats, instead of excluding them, her favorability drops from 79 to 59. But let's run with his number and unpack his argument as given.

Obviously, making a play for the 21% of leftists who dislike Clinton would not "only" bring potential problems - it would also bring her 21% of leftists. The actual argument here, left unstated, is that you could only win 21% of leftists at the cost of alienating more people on the right. The reason Cillizza doesn't state this is that it's difficult-to-impossible to prove. What if the trade-off is just zero sum, and Clinton always earns a leftist for every rightist she alienates? What if she only alienates one rightist for every two leftists she earns, so that moving left would not only improve her platform but also expand numbers? The Centrist argument here turns directly on a cost-benefit analysis that Cillizza doesn't even attempt.

That's why it's not worth quibbling over whether Clinton's favorability among liberals is 79 or 59. It's not as if Cillizza's argument holds at 69 but mathematically breaks if Clinton drops to 68 or lower. There's no actual math at work here - just the ideological doctrine that you can always take the left for granted, and some meaningless numbers to lend the appearance of rigor.

Besides, if sensational numbers substitute for a rigorous argument, here's a simple one: 58%. That's how many "consistently liberal" respondents always vote, according to Pew. When we appreciate just how abysmal voter turnout in the US has always been, the notion of some shortage of leftists for Clinton to win over seems pretty absurd.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Black voters and the 2016 primaries, Part 3: Turnout for what

This is the third part of a three-part series on the role of black voters in the 2016 Democratic primaries; the first part is here, and the second is here.

CORRECTION (10/3/16) - Turnout numbers and percentages have been updated in light of a data entry error that has since been corrected. I have also updated the graph accordingly.

Hillary Clinton has won an overwhelming majority of black voters who have participated in the Democratic primaries: The Wall Street Journal places her share at 75.9%, and my math puts it at 77.9%. This is certainly a better showing than we saw from Sanders, who won support from about a quarter of black voters, and astronomically better than Hillary v.2008, who won an abysmal 14.9% against Obama.

But on this basis, Clinton's partisans have routinely concluded that their candidate has won some kind of democratic mandate from black Americans. And while this is true in the trivial sense that she has won votes from a majority of those who actually voted, this framing erases the overwhelming majority of voting-age black Americans who either voted against Clinton or declined to vote at all. In fact, based on an analysis of exit polls, turnout numbers and census data, an extraordinary 87.9 84.1 percent of voting-age black Americans have not voted for Clinton.

Voters, for obvious reasons, don't report their race at the ballot box, and entrance/exit polling has only been conducted in about half of the fifty states. But those percentages, cross-referenced with turnout results and census reporting on voting-age black Americans in each state, paint a fairly telling picture:

This is the most exhaustive and direct data we have on Hillary Clinton's support among black Americans. On average, about 12.1 15.9 percent of them - totalling around four million ballots - have voted for her and against Bernie Sanders. The other 29.4 21.9 million voting-age black Americans did neither.

The reasons for this are well understood: nobody votes in the primaries. For one, they are structured in a way that reduces turnout. Black Americans also report that they have little faith in the primary process - a majority (53%) think that "the outcome of the primary would have been very different if the DNC had been more even-handed" (28% report not sure), and only 29% think that "the current system of presidential primaries and caucases...has generally...produced the best candidates for president". A landslide majority of black Americns (82%) plan to vote for "the Democratic Party candidate" no matter who it is. They also report little faith in the government in general: a majority (58%) say that "the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves" (21% report not sure); a majority (52%) say that "most of the time" special interests are "able to get what they want by contributing money to political campaigns" (22% report not sure); and a majority (57%) report that politicians "lie to get elected" (6% report not sure). [Numbers from YouGov / Economist] Moreover, Pew reports that only 41% of black Americans believe "that voting gives people some say in how government runs things and that ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington".

Another potential explanation is that when black voters tell us that particular issues are important to them, they mean it, and that neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton have sufficently addressed them. If this is true, then it seems clear that both candidates should have proposed a more ambitious agenda on social security, health care, the economy, education, and gun control - the five issues that black Americans tend to rank as "most important".

Regardless, all of this should put Clinton's relationship with black Americans in a very different light than her partisans suggest.  If a majority or even a plurality voted for her in the primaries, it might make sense to argue that this indicates some kind of significant mandate. As it stands, only a tiny handful of black Americans are voting either way. This could say more about things like barriers to participation in the primaries than it says about what black Americans want, though other polling suggests that they, like most Americans, simply have little confidence or interest in national politics - or that they want even more from their candidates than either Sanders or Clinton were prepared to offer.

Note on identitarian methodology

I made a variation on this point a while back, but evidently need to clarify, since I've seen a lot of skepticism [1][2][3][4] over a number I posted yesterday:
The final totals for 2016 aren't in, but as it stands Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination with abysmal 37.8 percent support from women in the polls.
This is not an outlying or even surprising figure - multiple polls have been saying this for months. What appears to be throwing critics off is that the polls they are most familiar with exclusively survey Democrats. In those polls, Clinton is doing somewhat better (particularly in the last couple of weeks): for example, IBD / TIPP now has Clinton at 51% among women.

If that number were the one that mattered, it would (barely!) be enough to defeat the argument of my previous article, since Clinton could claim a mandate from a democratic majority of women. That is still nowhere near the landslide ~85% mandate Obama earned from black voters, but it is at least in the same majoritarian universe. The problem for Clinton is that, just as black Republicans count towards Obama's total, so Republican women have to count towards hers.

The bottom line

Identitarian arguments have to account for everyone of a given identity. Not just the Democrats or Republicans. Not just the ones who actually voted, or who are likely voters or registered voters. If we were being consistent, in fact, we would need to account for all kinds of people who are routinely excluded from polls, including the very young, the institutionalized and imprisoned, non-citizens, illegal immigrants, and even people from other countries. In practice, we have to rely on the best information we have, and when it comes to polls that means relying on the least restrictive numbers we can find.

The reason for this is grounded in the basic philosophical argument of identitarianism, which derives moral authority from belonging to a particular group. If you are a woman, for example, you have perspectives and experiences that are different from men - and this is true whether you are a white woman, an Asian woman, a voting woman, a Polish woman, a Libertarian woman, or whatever. All of these women matter; all of their lives contribute to what it is to be a woman.

We can, of course, refine our identitarian argument and talk about the particular intersectional experiences of various subgroups - of black women, of gay Latinos, etcetera - but only under two conditions. First, we must always be clear about who we are talking about, and cannot conflate one group with another; we cannot say "women" when we are exclusively referring to Democratic women or rich white women or whatever. Second, our analysis has to account for and justify this specification. If for example I want to make an argument grounded in the authority of women who are also registered Democratic eligible American voters, I have to be prepared to explain why their experience matters, while that of a woman who happens to live in Ecuador does not. Suppose that Hillary Clinton wins on a platform that will expand abortion access in the United States, but that, by cutting foreign aid, will effectively restrict it abroad. Is this not a feminist issue? What about my politics allows me to attend to one but not the other?

As noted in my previous article on the topic, such considerations are crucial, because much of the polling invoked in identitarian arguments is unduly restrictive.

Usually, the media uses polling crosstabs to figure out the specific question of who is going to vote for who. This is useful for making electoral predictions, particularly when you refine the group you are looking at to something like "eligible registered likely American voters aligned with a particular party". But this is profoundly different from the identitarian question who does this group of people think we should vote for? In that case, we should look at everyone who belongs to the group in question, whether they are going to determine the actual outcome of an election or not.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hillary Clinton's historic achievement*

In 2008, Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination with an astonishing 85 percent of the vote from black Americans. The final totals for 2016 aren't in, but as it stands Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination with abysmal 37.8 percent support from women in the polls. This gap points us to a central difference between the two candidacies, hanging a massive asterisk on her victory and reminding us that Hillary Clinton, for all her symbolic value, remains a candidate of patriarchy.

The difference is simple. Barack Obama won in 2008 thanks in part to an unprecedented tidal wave of support from black voters. His victory reflected the undeniable ascendance of black Americans as a popular constituency that Democratic candidates can neither oppose nor ignore. Its significance was bigger than his race alone, because it directly expressed the collective power of all black Americans.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, will win not because of some popular mandate from women, but despite the majority's persistent opposition and apathy. The women who tried to stop her - who were, at various points, a plurality - failed. Clinton was also able to succeed without doing anything to win the support of the substantial number of women who refused to back either candidate. In stark contrast to the lesson of 2008, what Clinton has taught us is that women in America still exercise only severely limited control over the nomination process.

Clinton's partisans, of course, will try to deny and unskew this basic factual difference: necessarily, they'll have to do this by insisting that a majority of women in America don't speak for themselves. That's how patriarchy works.

Imagine what a victory comparable to 2008 could have looked like. By simply winning the support of a majority of women, Clinton's campaign would have expressed their power as a constituency. It would have proven that you can secure the nomination and still run on a platform that advances the interests of women, instead of one that neglects or opposes them. In this way, the symbolism of Clinton's victory would have been imbued with the democratic mandate of women throughout the country.

The day is coming when feminism will have that victory: a woman will run for the nomination, and a majority of women will lift her to victory because she earned their support. When that happens, history will place an asterisk by Clinton's name, and we will remember her as patriarchy's last desperate gambit to deny women their central role in our democracy. Let us hope that happens sooner than later.