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Nate Silver, the Democratic primaries, and the trouble with Likert scores - 12/17/18
Yesterday, Nate Silver tweeted out a table purporting to calculate Likert scores for a list of potential contenders in the Democratic primaries:

This ranking, he added, "isn't that far from how I'd rate the candidates chances." But is this actually a plausible way of assessing a candidate's chances? And did he even calculate the Likert score correctly? Spoiler: no, and no.

Calculating the Likert score

The first problem here is that Silver begins his calculation by casually omitting a huge fraction of the data: "voters who didn't know or had no opinion about the candidate". Even if we assume that none of these voters knew who the candidate was, this immediately introduces significant uncertainty. For example, by Silver's accounting, only 17% of the voters had an opinion about Andrew Yang. Can we really make an apples-to-apples comparison between him and Hillary Clinton, who received favorable/unfavorable answers from 94% of the voters?

Worse (and this is where Silver really gets into trouble) "didn't know or had no opinion about the candidate" is not an option on the survey. The actual data he is throwing away is the answer "not sure" - and this can include voters who have neutral or ambivalent feelings about the candidate. This is a response you can include in a Likert score! And if you include it, the rankings change:

Here, I've ranked them on a 5-point Likert scale; I've also made a proportional adjustment to Silver's 4-point Likert scale, just for the sake of comparison. Admit that some candidates may just inspire neutral or ambivalent responses, and suddenly O'Rourke, Harris, Booker and Klobuchar take massive hits to their Likert score.

Of course, the most realistic scenario is that some "not sure" answers were ambivalent or neutral, and some expressed genuine ignorance about the candidate. But granting that, the appropriate conclusion is that the data we're working with here just isn't granular enough to calculate legitimate Likert scores.


What does this tell us about electability?

Silver thinks that Likert scores give us some insight into the "chances" that a candidate could win. There is, of course, a pretty simple way to test this: just look at what they predicted in previous elections. Here's one I put together based on early favorability polling of the Democratic candidates in 2016:
This is obviously wrong on multiple levels. Sanders, though he had the highest Likert score, was never favored to win. Clinton was a significantly stronger candidate than Biden, and both were certainly much stronger than Jim Webb. Likert scores could not predict the massive institutional advantages that Clinton would bring to the race, they could not predict the combination of political pressure and personal tragedy that would force Biden to drop out, and they could not predict the way that Sanders' populist message would undercut Webb's campaign and leave O'Malley as the only third option. (Admittedly, it seems to have got Chafee right.)

I don't recall Silver posting a table like this in 2016, for obvious reasons.
Third parties and the shadow primary - 12/8/18
Two talking points circulating among Democrats right now:
  1. Because they are likely to run and win significant popular support, we must promise to vote for whoever the Democrats end up nominating as the most viable opponent to Trump.
  2. Even though they are likely to run and win significant popular support, we must not criticize or judge potential Democratic candidates for the presidency until they formally announce their run.
Seems pretty clear what's going on here. As I write this, multiple candidates are rallying donors, party elites, and key personnel, and building public support with deliberate PR, setting in motion campaigns that will work to monopolize opposition to Trump over the next year. The first talking point insists that we acknowledge this - it's why we can already dismiss the possibility of a viable third-party challenge as a non-starter. But the second talking point asks us to play coy about this, and pretend that there is no power play at hand, as a way of shielding likely candidates from criticism.

Say what you will about these arguments - I find them pretty ridiculous - but it just isn't possible to make both of them at once. You can admit that Democrats are already consolidating their power in a shadow primary, which means that it's legitimate to criticize them, or you can pretend that they aren't, which means accepting the possibility that a third party candidate could lead the opposition. Try to do both, and it looks an awful lot like you are just demanding unquestioning submission to the Democratic Party, regardless of what the future has in store.

The Green New Deal is a good plan. It's not a socialist plan. - 12/6/18
You can't beat climate change without a massive transfer of wealth to the developing world. Credible estimates range from $400 billion to $2 trillion every year. But there is no political will in the US to accept this responsibility, particularly among the ruling class.

Historically, capital has had a go-to solution to this sort of problem: imperialism. Instead of redistributing the wealth, you can actually extract more wealth from the global south through loans, and by selling it necessities at a profit. Placing the developing world in debt also gives you political leverage to make all sort of demands for things like austerity and deregulation.

This is the context in which the politics of climate change in the US have to be understood. Against all odds, left demands for the US to facilitate green development in the global south may actually succeed. But if that demand maintains a place for the private sector, the politics will default towards a predictable outcome: green imperialism.


Three green new deals

One can see how this dynamic is playing out in left policy planning by looking at three "Green New Deals" that have rolled out in recent years:
  • The first, released in 2015 by the Green Party, proposes creating 16 million public sector jobs, though with no indication that any of this will involve international development. It proposes investments into green technology research, but with no indication of whether this research will take place in the public or private sector. It also explicitly proposes to "invest in green business," and notably insists on keeping "wealth created by local labor circulating in the community."
  • The second, developed by Greg Carlock at Data for Progress, proposes creating 10 million new jobs through a Green Job Guarantee, workforce development and job training programs - and private sector growth. There is no reference to international development, though it does note, in passing, that this plan "will produce immense demand for new goods and services that the private sector can provide."
  • The third, proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aims to make "green technology, industry, expertise, products, and services a major export of the United States" through a whole arsenal of initiatives - from a green job guarantee to "massive investment" in R&D to "measures...to promote...labor market flexibility and entrepreneurism".
These proposals have typically been promoted on the left as job guarantee proposals, and they are. But they are also proposals to significantly expand the private sector. And insofar as they mention international development at all, they envision the creation of a global market centered around the profit models of US business.


A Green Marshall Plan

Even in the best case scenario - a United States that develops a massive capacity for green development, ready for export - none of these proposals mention how the global south will pay for any of this. Again: the standard solution to this problem, and the one that our ruling class will default to absent enormous popular resistance, has been to place poor countries in even greater debt, often with interest, and potentially with various neoliberal policy strings attached. The rapid expansion of the so-called "green bond" market in recent years suggests that this approach is already putting down roots.

As an alternative, some academics and politicians have called for something like a green Marshall Plan. Al Gore, for instance, argued in 2006 that in "a Global Marshall Plan...wealthy nations can no longer insist that Third World countries pay huge sums of interest". A more ambitious model might resemble something like Bernie Sanders' 2017 "Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico," which proposed $146b in grants, debt relief, and mandated all kinds of protections against typical liberalization efforts (EG, calling for "labor protections, public input, local and municipal governing power" and insisting that "efforts to privatize public institutions must be rejected").

This approach to international development does get around some of the more sinister traps of international aid, and some of the principles at work here - grants rather than loans, and protections against liberalization - have to be the foundation of any left campaign against climate change.

Nevertheless, none of these funding plans manage to finesse the exploitative dynamic created by a privatized Green New Deal. At best, they create a simple wealth transfer that begins with the federal government; circulates to the developing world as grants; and then returns back to US-based capital as payments for our green exports. This, Chomsky notes, was the basic dynamic of the original Marshall Plan:
It’s talked about as an act of “unimaginable benevolence.” But...of the $13 billion of Marshall Plan aid, about $2 billion went right to the U.S. oil companies. That was part of the effort to shift Europe from a coal-based to an oil-based economy, and parts of it would be more dependent on the United States...You look at the rest of it, very little of that money left the United States. It goes from one pocket to another.
How this would play out for the global south is unclear. Immediately, the Green New Deal / Marshall Plan approach places the these countries in a relationship of dependence - on the north for funding, and on the US for ongoing green development. Hypothetically, one can imagine them growing their way out of peonage, funding their own energy and development through supercharged green economies. But this, of course, is just the standard argument for capitalist globalization: it's an argument that opening up the world to profit-seeking US firms, subsidized perhaps with public funding, can lift the third world out of poverty and eradicate international inequality.


Still better than climate change

A "socialist" plan for tackling climate change would have to begin, necessarily, by placing the means of production in the hands of workers who control it through the arm of the state. From there, the global socialist state would simply redistribute resources and direct production as needed to curtail carbon emissions. Say what you will about plans that fall outside of this framework - but they can't be described as "socialist" in any meaningful sense. A plan that leaves control of the means of production in the hands of private owners necessarily maintains a fundamentally exploitative relationship between capitalists, workers, and the earth.

This does not, to be clear, mean that the left should abandon support for something resembling a Green New Deal / Green Marshall Plan. Given the choice between apocalyptic, runaway climate change and a stopgap investment program that leaves the private sector in place but brings down emissions, most of our planet would probably prefer the latter. Nevertheless, socialists should proceed in this fight with their eyes wide open: the problem of redistribution has not been solved, and US capital is still firmly in control.
Nobody is on Twitter, revisited - 11/19/18
A few years ago, Matt Bruenig pointed out that Nobody Is On Twitter. Since then, research (Pew in particular) has given us much better data than we had at the time, giving us a much better picture of just how tiny Twitter's audience actually is. Since I was poking through some of it today, I thought I might as well post a few of the more interesting numbers I came across. First, on how often people use Twitter:



These numbers are based on Pew's latest survey on social media use, as well as reporting on dead accounts by PC Mag. The baseline number Matt mentioned in 2015 - 23% - is pretty close to the 24% we see here, but once we break it down it becomes clear that this number is significantly inflated.
  • Most US adults with Twitter accounts (24%) aren't online every day (13%), and in fact, 44% of that first number may never use their account at all. That leaves about 13% of US adults who are Active Posters.
  • People who are online every day - call them True Posters - account for only 11% of all US adults.
  • Extremely Online Posters - the people who, intuitively, prove most of our content - only account for 6% of the US adult population.
Even these numbers, however, overstate things: not everyone, it turns out, uses Twitter to talk about the news:
  • One recent survey shows that only about 11% of the population ever gets their news from Twitter.
  • Among respondents who ever use social media to get the news there is also significant variation in consumption: for instance, 30% of that group say that they "hardly ever" get their news from social media. If these trends holds for Twitter, then it is probably a significant source of news for something closer to 3-8% of US adults.
This, I think, is a much more realistic assessment of Twitter's news reach: bring together all of the blue check journalists and unverified posters, the sinister operatives and the doe-eyed normies, the Pepe teens and the Gritty teens, the #TCOT grandpas and rose emojis - put them all together, and you are reaching a single-digit percentage of US adults, somewhere between 3-8%.
Democrats improved their performance among Republican constituencies in 2018 - 11/11/18
I've published a new piece in Jacobin, Vox Is Wrong About the Midterm Elections, discussing how Democrats performed in 2018 among various demographic constituencies that have historically voted for Republicans.

This month's election has placed liberal pundits in an awkward situation. On one hand, they remain implicitly committed to the notion that Democrats cannot win over certain socioeconomic demographics - like "rural voters" - without betraying their core values. But on the other hand, by making inroads among those voters, Democrats just won major victories all over the country, and struck a powerful blow against Donald Trump.

The consistent thing would be to insist that these victories were ill-gotten, and that Democrats should have done worse with low-educated voters or white Southerners. The temptation, however, is to pretend that they did do worse - and that's what seems to be happening in liberal pundit world. In unison, writers like Zack Beauchamp have doubled down on their demographic arguments from 2016, insisting that low-educated voters and white Southern voters are unreachable even though the evidence is clear that 2018 Democrats just reached them.

That's the evidence I lay out in Jacobin: Democrats improved their performance in this election among just about every demographic you can name. I largely rely on exit poll measures of voter preference because that's what Beauchamp uses; you can come up with more sophisticated measures if you like (accounting for turnout and whatnot), but I don't see any evidence that they overturn the underlying trend. How so many pundits have arrived at an understanding of the election flatly contradicted by a basic review of the polls should raise some serious questions that I probably don't need to spell out.
Left entryists have fought to take over the Democratic Party. 2018 is their test. - 11/5/18
Three notes about Tuesday's election:

1. This is a test for entryism.

Wherever one comes down on Democratic entryism - the only way forward, necessary but insufficient, a suboptimal political investment, a waste of time, or counterproductive - it seems clear to me that tomorrow has to be regarded as a great empirical test. Nearly three years ago, Bernie Sanders laid out his theory of political revolution, arguing that
by building a movement among average Americans, he'll be able to win elections, defeat special interests, push liberal reforms into law, and build an economy that works for everyone.
Even in defeat, the Sanders campaign became the catalyst for a massive mobilization of left activism; and ever since then, a whole field of left organizations and activists have worked to build campaign infrastructure, recruit candidates, and compete in primaries and in the general. This is by several orders of magnitude the largest entryist movement in my lifetime, and probably of the past half century.


2. The bar has to be set high.

Previous elections guaranteed that Senate Democrats would face nearly insurmountable odds in this one, defending 26 seats to the GOP's nine. On the other hand, previous elections have also dramatically overextended Republican control of both the House and governorships around the country. And the contrarian rhythm of midterm elections - inclining Americans to vote against whoever happens to be occupying the White House - ensured on November 8, 2016 that today's Democrats would have the wind at their backs.

So it really is not enough to point to a "blue wave" of Democratic victories and take this as proof that entryism worked. In fact, even if Democrats exceed the most optimistic expectations - say by taking control of the Senate or winning some dramatic upsets - leftists still shouldn't take that as vindication of entryism. Good news, perhaps, but not evidence that the entryist strategy actually worked.

For entryism to work, a significant number of seats have to be won by left-flank challengers who defeated the Republican and the liberal Democrat. What qualifies as "a significant number of seats" and who qualifies as "left-flank challengers" will of course be up for debate, but these are the terms on which the debate over entryism needs to proceed.


3. The left will face significant pressure to lower expectations.

After Trump's victory and two years of Republican rule, the liberal-left badly wants a win. US liberals will also continue to equate "unity against Trump" with "submission to the Democratic agenda," a form of ideological passive-aggression to which the left remains regrettably vulnerable. For these reasons, leftists will probably not be content to celebrate Democratic successes as successes against Republicans; they will be tempted to celebrate any win with a D on it as a win for left-flank entryism. Attempts to hold entryists to even minimal standards of progress will likely be dismissed as contrarian, pedantic, and divisive.

But this is precisely what the left has to do if we want to hold the entryists accountable. I am not entirely sure how we go about doing this, because as mentioned, the threshold for success is up for debate. But I am sure about two things: at some point there needs to be a reckoning for entryism - and the forces of co-option will do everything they can to resist it.
The voter turnout problem they don't talk about - 11/2/18
Every election year guarantees a round of takes on how the kids are ruining our elections, and 2018 has proven no exception. In just the past few days we've seen multiple articles from the same NBC News / Genforward survey:


The piece that best captured this genre of take, however, was NYMag's 12 Young People on Why They Probably Won’t Vote - a brilliant one-two punch of inflammatory quotes and no data. If you need someone to blame for the US's catastrophically low turnout rates - a genuine and humiliating anomaly by international standards - look no further than some kid who says that "mailing stuff...gives me anxiety".

Anyway, here are the Census numbers on average voter turnout over the past decade, by age:

And here are the same numbers, broken down by income:

Income's effect on voter turnout is at least comparable to age - arguably, it's even more consequential. So why don't we get articles like "12 Poor People On Why They Probably Won't Vote"? Why doesn't NBC bother to survey people with a family income of less than $30,000 a year? I have two theories:
1. Corporate media outlets, their advertisers, and their target audiences generally do not care about the poor. They have little interest in what the poor think about our politics or our candidates, and certainly not enough to assign an article, commission a poll, conduct interviews, or read about it. 
2. Turnout problems among the poor don't lend themselves as easily to "blame the voter" narratives - they cry out for more systematic explanations, and leave open the possibility that our democracy just isn't giving the poor compelling candidates. Conversely, turnout problems among millennials work quite naturally with popular narratives about how young people are irresponsible, selfish, frivolous, and so on - that is, about how the voters only have themselves to blame.
Incidentally, turnout problems among youth and turnout problems among the poor are not unrelated - but the important thing is that we avoid, at all costs, talking about class. Remember that the next time the media tries to blame the problems of American democracy on some kid with anxiety issues.
A few points on geoengineering - 10/16/18
1. Consensus opposition to geoengineering appears to be eroding.

Just ten years ago, journalist Gwynne Dyer - having interviewed scientists, policymakers, and government officials from around the world - reported "a very broad consensus that we should not even discuss geo-engineering techniques".1 This position has also been popular among liberal-left institutions such as Greenpeace, for example, which argues that the mere "concept creates a 'moral hazard' that we will not take the safest and most sustainable options...if faced with the promise" of geoengineering.2

A lot has changed since then. By 2012, one study reported "a range of perspectives within [the scientific] community" about geoengineering, "from enthusiastic supporters of research to cautionary and oppositional voices."3 Today, a typical article observes that "Interest in governing experiments to alter Earth’s climate is growing as scientists increasingly look at geoengineering to slow global warming."4  And a typical illustration of this shift could be seen at the Climate Engineering Conference 2017 organized by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, which featured lively debate among scientists and stakeholders from all over the world.5


2. The discourse on geoengineering is not being driven by ignorance of the risks.

Some standard caveats from advocates for geo-engineering research:
  • "Geoengineering of the Earth’s climate is very likely to be technically possible. However...there are major uncertainties regarding its effectiveness, costs, and environmental impacts." - The Royal Society
  • "[Solar radiation management] exists in the modelling world...there's so much we don't know." - Dr. Ben Kravitz
  • Geoengineering may "cause environmental harm or worsen policy failures—for example, undermining emissions cuts or triggering international conflict. Research is needed to develop capabilities and assess effectiveness and risks (field research as well as model and laboratory studies), but geoengineering requires competent, prudent, and legitimate governance." - Edward A. Parson and David W. Keith 6
Online, meanwhile, discussions of geoengineering are driven not by a disregard of risk, but by the exact opposite: extreme paranoia. One study noted for example that
Conspiratorial views have accounted for ~ 60% of geoengineering discourse on social media over the past decade. Of that, Twitter has accounted for >90%... 7
Overwhelmingly, skepticism of geoengineering is driven by anti-government paranoia and scientific illiteracy. Leftists should bear this in mind, and avoid playing on right-wing tropes about government overreach and scientists who are "playing god" in their critique.


3. Geoengineering complements the fight for a sustainable economy.

No one argues that, say, investments in public transportation will distract from the fight for sustainable energy, or that we have to choose between reducing our consumption of meat or reforesting initiatives. In cases like these, everyone is perfectly capable of understanding that the fight against climate change will certainly involve a wide range of changes and investments, that none of them can solve the problem alone, and that we have to fight for all of them at once. So it remains, for me, unconvincing that when it comes to geoengineering, civilization can no longer walk and chew gum at the same time, and will inevitably opt for its proposals at the expense of the broader agenda. There's a lot that needs to be done, and we need to do all of it.





1. Dyer, Gwynne. Climate Wars. (loc 131)
2. Greenpeace. Responses to calls for evidence, Part VI. Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance and uncertainty.
3. Corner, Adam, Nick Pidgeon and Karen Parkhill. Perceptions of geoengineering: public attitudes, stakeholder perspectives, and the challenge of ‘upstream’ engagement.
4. Harvey, Chelsea. World Needs to Set Rules for Geoengineering Experiments, Experts Say. Scientific American.
5. Climate Engineering Conference 2017 Conference Report.
6. Edward A. Parson and David W. Keith. End the Deadlock on Governance of Geoengineering Research. Science. 
7. Tingley, Dustin and Gernot Wagner. Solar geoengineering and the chemtrails conspiracy on social media. 
"Honor" is not why liberals liked John McCain - 10/1/18
John McCain's reputation as "honorable" emerged in 2000 in contrast to the politic, smooth-talking candidacy of George W. Bush. He maintained the posture of a gadfly throughout Bush's presidency, and Democrats opportunistically praised him for it because they hated the president.

As Bush's time in office came to an end and McCain emerged as the Republican nominee, his numbers among Democrats began to drop dramatically. They challenged his status as a maverick, criticized his military service, and accused him of selling out to the right by selecting Sarah Palin. A typical assessment:
Obama and his supporters decried McCain’s tactics. Yet some of the strongest criticism came from people whom McCain revered or who had long revered him...It was about the very nature of John McCain. In their eyes, at least, their hero was losing not only an election but his reputation—or, as one prominent backer put it, “his soul.”
As readily as they declared McCain honorable, Democrats retracted the compliment. Because he was their opponent, McCain's numbers were miserable for most of Obama's presidency, hovering at 42% by 2013.

It was only in the Trump era, after his sensational vote against an Obamacare repeal bill, that McCain won back a majority of Democrats, with numbers surging to 71%. Once again, Democrats declared him a man of honor and principle; once again, it just so happened that McCain was perceived as a foil to a Republican president.


Samuel Farber, writing for Jacobin, argues that "It was that sense of honor that many liberals found admirable, making them willing to overlook McCain’s hard-right politics and praise him upon his death."

The truth, however, is probably much more mundane. When it was in their partisan interest to do so, liberals praised McCain as an honorable man - and when it was against their partisan interest to call him honorable, liberals attacked him as a dishonorable sellout. Republicans, of course, behaved identically. There is not very much evidence that "honor" acted as some kind of of deeply-rooted cultural force that either impeded or enhanced John McCain's power; as far as I can tell, it was just a vacuous rhetoric that people used to articulate the predictable preferences of partisan politics.
Olds radicalizing, millennials moderating since the 2016 election - 9/24/18
Just noticed, buried in Gallup's recent polling on public attitudes towards socialism, an age trend that seems to have passed under the radar of the discourse. To highlight it, I've committed a data visualization heresy by zooming in on the 20-60 percent range - this does not give a good sense of overall scale, but it does make the trajectories a little more visible:

As I argued recently, I really don't think that these fluctuations are terribly significant: since 2010, the only age group to have shifted their views on socialism outside the margin of error are Generation Xers (+5 in the past eight years).

But if you are going to try to tease out a change in the microtrends, it's hard to miss what's going on here: the 2016 election temporarily polarized views between millennials and everyone else, and since then, attitudes towards socialism have generally drifted back to the norm. The much-heralded dictatorship of the teen has gone soft; olds, meanwhile, are becoming more radical across the board.

The upshot of course is that public support for socialism has generally grown over the course of generations rather than years. Perhaps socialists who want to build institutions and win political power can underperform or overperform the expectations these numbers imply, but we should at the very least maintain a clear view of how our base of support has actually changed in the past decade or so.
Predictive writing probably will not change language use all that much -
It seems like every few weeks another pundit notices Smart Compose, a Gmail feature released earlier this year that offers to complete your sentences as you type. And every time this happens, we get a new set of speculation about how this is going to fundamentally change how we use language. The paradigm case of this appeared in a Twitter thread by some guy named Jude Gomila:


A few points:

1. Spelling standards relax and tighten all the time for all kinds of reasons - technological changes, institutional enforcement, changes in literacy rates among different socioeconomic groups, the introduction of new sounds and spelling from other languages, and so on. Generally, however, they remain bound by at least one constraint: both the writer and the reader has to be able to comprehend what has been written.

Predictive text does nothing to this constraint. The writer will still have to be able to recognize, in the auto-completed text, something resembling what she would have written; and the reader has to be able to understand it. For this reason, everyone will still have to understand a "correct" spelling in the sense that it reliably conveys one word and not others.

2. If anything, it seems to me like predictive text would play a standardizing role, since it will tend to spell certain words certain ways. You will almost always encounter the word "orthography" spelled with a ph rather than an f, whether you are the writer or the reader; you will constantly be reminded of this spelling, and will presumably internalize it accordingly.

3. Gomer writes that "[V] is going to change [W] forever." He predicts that it will have "profound implications for our [X]". He concludes, "Long live [Y]. Long live [Z]." These, of course, are all stock phrases and formulations that English speakers routinely use in the course of communication. As it turns out, "using similar phrases" is an utterly ordinary and unremarkable feature of language use; predictive text allows us to transcribe them more quickly, but it is not somehow creating a cognitive opportunity that was not already there.


Anyway, my guess is that predictive text will probably make it quicker to say things you would have said anyway, and will occasionally become a nuisance when you want to say something statistically unpredictable, a problem we already run into with auto-complete. Probably won't do much more than that.
Anti-socialism is real, and recognizing this can help socialists cope with it - 9/13/18
A while back, I wrote a piece noting that leftists often complain about "ideological sectarianism, social tribalism, and interpersonal feuding". In explanation for this, I argued that "the problem is anti-socialism", which can infiltrate socialist spaces through liberals who are not substantively committed to the socialist project.

Noah Baron has responded with a critique of this argument - you can read it for yourself here. I don't think it would be productive to respond to everything he says in this post, but he does make four major points that I want to respond to.


1. Has socialism's popularity changed?

Much of my original piece asks readers to reflect on "how marginalized and reviled socialists are in the United States." In response to this, Baron heralds "the appeal of socialism in the United States today," insisting that my data is "outdated" since "over the course of the past three years, things have changed significantly."

Have things changed? Here's the data Baron provides:
  • A Gallup poll which reports that Democratic views towards socialism are "little changed from 2010", that millennial views towards socialism are "the same as in 2010", and which concludes that "Despite the increasing prominence of socialism in the public discourse in recent years, little has changed in Americans' attitudes toward the concept at the national level."
I think Baron's perspective is understandable - first because there is, as Gallup alludes to, a lot of hype about ascendant socialism in the discourse today; and second, because Gallup's latest poll was widely misread as evidence for ascendant socialism, when it's really just evidence that support for capitalism is cratering. Look at the overall data on socialism's popularity, however, and what you'll see are fluctuations within the margin of error; a marginal bump in 2016 among a few demographics; and since then, returns to the norm across the board.


2. How does opposition to socialism compare with opposition against other identities?

Baron also takes on a Gallup poll I cited in which respondents said they were less likely to support a socialist for president than a president who identified with any other identity category - such as "Black," "gay or lesbian," "a woman," and so on.

His first objection - that "the results are dated to June 2015," before socialism's supposed ascendance - is not difficult to handle. As noted in point (1), attitudes towards socialism only improved marginally among certain demographics in 2016, and have since then deteriorated back to the norm. That DSA's membership has, since then, grown "by a factor of ten" - from .002% of the population to .02% of the population - does not call those numbers into question. Neither does the fact that some self-identified socialists have won some primaries since then; as it turns out, all of these other categories have won primaries, too.

Baron's second argument, meanwhile, is deeply confused. He observes that the poll would be different if you replaced identities that are more popular than socialist (Catholic, gay) with identities that are arguably less popular (such as Catholic Republican and gay Democrat). He also suggests that it would be different if you added the identities "liberal" and "conservative", which he implies are even more unpopular on the logic that self-identification for those numbers is lower than "would you vote for a socialist president" numbers.

It's not clear to me that socialism would actually come out ahead of these new groupings that Baron has introduced - but even if it did, this does not amount to a case that "the poll is misleading." Socialism as such is less popular than Catholicism as such; that you can make the Catholic less popular by associating her with Republicans doesn't change that. Neither does this argument that anti-socialist opposition is different than opposition against other groups (since it's "an expression of political and ideological belief, rather than animus against this or that identity group"). All this poll suggests is that socialism qua socialism is less popular than Catholicism qua Catholicism; they may face opposition for different reasons, and these reasons may be worth reflecting on, but this does not somehow make opposition to socialism any less real, or the poll any less credible.


3. Is left infighting a problem?

Here, Baron is responding to a post that exists almost entirely in his imagination. He writes that I "decry" and "bemoan" infighting on the left, which I supposedly see as a "crisis", and "as a 'problem' that must be 'solved'" - in fact, not just a problem, but "our fundamental problem, with no cure prescribed but presumably involving purging them or alienating" anti-socialists. 

The picture he's painted of me here is a popular caricature of those of us who insist that some leftists may in fact be opponents of socialism, and who hope that socialism prevails. It also, however, is a completely unfounded view of my position, with zero basis in either the text or my general politics.

I am a radical materialist. For this reason, I believe that support for socialism, opposition to socialism, the emergence of class consciousness, the phenomenon of liberal squishes, and so on - that all of these things express the material progress of history. I emphatically do not believe that it is the liberalism of various activists that empowers capitalism, or that socialists can overcome this supposed obstacle by winning the argument, or by purging and alienating them. This is why infighting is not, as I put it in my piece, a problem "at the level of world-historical politics".

Instead - and as I argue from the beginning - infighting is only "a problem" insofar as it "weighs on the mind of the modern activist left". Though it is not "our fundamental problem," it does create a "strain of anxiety" for many leftists that falls "somewhere on a spectrum between stressful and traumatic". My concern, then, is less political than therapeutic; I want to help activists to understand where a significant source of stress in their life is coming from, not because I think that this is an issue that will make or break socialism, but because I want socialists to be at peace. This is an essential concern of quietism - a philosophical tradition that I identify with closely, and that I have written about a number of times.


4. So what should socialists do about anti-socialists?

Try not to let them drive us crazy! For some people, articulating criticism seems to provide some personal relief; this often works for me, because it helps me pinpoint precisely what bothers me about a certain argument or a certain line of rhetoric. For some people, venting - by dunking on anti-socialists, or by commiserating with friends about them - seems to help. Some socialists seem to get a lot out of trying to mediate and diffuse conflict on the left, and if this helps them cope with class struggle, very well.

But regardless of how one wants to cope with the problem - a problem in the sense that it causes us anxiety - we would do well to recognize that political conflict is baked into our discourse. Anti-socialism has a long and ugly history in the US, and polling generally confirms that it is still with us. As I noted last time, "what would be surprising is if it didn't wreak a massive amount of havoc on the left" - but if socialists can understand their stress and anxiety as an affliction of this havoc, that insight might make their lives a little easier.


---

UPDATE (9/16): Cohen, responding to this post, notes in passing that "Beijer has provided little for me to criticize". Fortunately, as he demonstrated by fabricating a quote in his last reply, this is no obstacle - if I fail to say anything objectionable, he can always invent positions for me. Thus, he soldiers on:
  • Much of Cohen's reply sets out to prove that "the past several decades have produced significantly greater tolerance of leftists". This is supposedly in response to my "claim that there has not been...any change" - but of course, I never argued that there has not been any change since the Cold War. Things are obviously better than they were in the mid-twentieth century; this is obvious and uncontroversial.
The specific argument I make in (1) above is that attitudes have not significantly changed since 2015. I argue this in direct response to Cohen's claim that my 2015 polling numbers were "outdated".
  • Most of the rest of his reply attempts to debunk my "pessimistic claim that there...likely never will be (at least in the near future) any change in the acceptability, tolerance, or embrace of socialism". Among other things, he singles out as a "reason for optimism" the fact that "Millennials...would be willing to vote for 'a socialist.'"
This "pessimistic claim" of course appears nowhere in my post. And if Cohen were even remotely familiar with my politics and my writing, he would know that I have written extensively on Millennial support for socialism (See I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, etc.) as a reason for optimism. 
To his credit, Cohen admits that he is "not familiar with the rest of [my] work" - but unfortunately, this has not deterred him from repeatedly making wild and unfounded claims about my politics. My impression is that Cohen is interested in optimism vs. pessimism and multi-tendency vs, orthodoxy debates, and would like to use me as the foil for some polemic about hope and ideological diversity; that's why he's even willing to venture all kinds of elaborate armchair psychoanalysis (I have a "pessimism complex" (!) that is "undergirded" in "paranoia" (!!)) of a writer who he has barely even read.

This is not a formula for a productive conversation, which is too bad because there is probably one to be had about our points of actual disagreement. For example, I think it is Cohen who is being too pessimistic when he warns that talking about anti-socialism would have a "chilling effect" and "cast a pall over the movement"; I think that leftists are perfectly capable of discussing the role that bourgeois ideology plays in our discourse without that somehow crippling our fight against capitalism. Whether Cohen thinks otherwise because of some "pessimism complex" or some other ideological affliction, I won't venture to guess.
Six new Supreme Court justices - 9/11/18
I remain baffled by this argument that the left should pack this Supreme Court - with two new justices. Any court-packing strategy is going to carry a certain amount of risk, which means that if you are going to do it, you had better get something out of it. Two justices don't justify that risk - and the case that this is somehow a safe or reasonable ask, in a way that four or six justices are not, is extraordinarily weak. Here are four arguments for six instead of two.


1. Two justices don't even guarantee you a majority - but six do.

When Republicans refused to vote on the Garland nomination, they didn't just steal a seat - they stole majority control of the court, which Democratic appointees would have gained for the first time since 1970. The liberal-left is not simply entitled to a seat or two. It is entitled to a controlling majority.

Imminent vacancies on the court threaten that entitlement, however. For the two-justice strategy to work, the liberal-left has to hope that the next president also gets to replace two of our three oldest justices. The arithmetic is quite simple:

In half of these scenarios, not even two new justices are enough to overcome a poorly timed vacancy - and the radical right majority remains in place. To ensure liberal-left control of the Court, activists have to call for at least six new justices.


2. Two justices do not remedy the Court's dramatic rightward shift in recent decades - but six justices do.

This is because even if two justices gives the liberal-left bloc a majority, the most likely outcome would be a one-vote majority. As the above table indicates, this happens in two out of three scenarios where Democratic appointees win control, putting every decision at the mercy of the most conservative Democratic appointee. Remember when Justice Kagan voted to destroy Obamacare's Medicaid expansion? She's now the swing vote in every case.

Six justices don't necessarily solve this problem either, since in the worst case scenario (Trump replacing Ginsburg and Breyer) court-packing would still only win the liberal-left bloc a one-seat majority. Nevertheless, in five out of six scenarios, six justices would expand the liberal-left bloc's majority to at least three, giving it the breathing room it needs to advance a progressive agenda.


3. The risks of the two-and-six-justice court-packing schemes are probably comparable.

Simplistically, one could suppose that court packing schemes assume more political risk with every additional justice you nominate; this is the implicit logic behind calling for two justices, but not six. In practice, however, any court-packing scheme is going to face the same maelstrom of outrage from the right: attacks about broken norms, unconstitutionality, ascendant dictatorship, the politicization of the judiciary, the launch of a court-packing arms race, and so on. Whether we add one justices or a dozen, the same script will inevitably play out: Republicans will shift into full-throated DEFCOM 1 "our very Republic is in peril" mode; conflict averse, procedurally-obsessed centrists will wring their hands; and a handful of liberal flakes will grandstand and bravely defect.

Beyond that, what would matter is not the number of appointments so much as the stories one can tie to them. Ten appointments would give the right a "double digits" attack; nine would give them "doubling the size of the court"; and seven or eight would give them a "historically unprecedented" talking point. But six is the number effectively proposed by FDR; six has a story of political necessity behind it (see points one and two); and there just aren't many attacks that you can make against six that you can't make against less ambitious proposals.


4. Six justices is a strong opening bid for probable political negotiations.

So far I have given reasons why six new justices is the correct demand on the merits, the one that can guarantee the liberal-left control of the court and pull it out of the reactionary center - but there are also reasons why activists who are willing to settle for less (?) should be willing to increase their opening bid. Both have to do with the enormous pressure that even a two-justice proposal will face to scale back its demand.

First: if any of the adverse vacancy scenarios identified in point (1) materializes after the liberal-left has made two new justices our signature demand, we will be cornered: we will have to either abandon control of the court, or abandon our previous demand and ramp up to a new one. The shift in demands and rationalizations would play into the inevitable right-wing narrative that this is not a matter of justice, but a naked power-grab; it would be far less palatable than if we began with six justices as the reasonable baseline.

Second: even partisans of the two-justice strategy should recognize that political negotiations will pressure them to bargain down. The right will frame their ask as a hardball, uncompromising demand; centrists will call for some kind of deal (for example, the recurring proposal to impose term limits and regularize appointments); and the liberal-left, having settled on two justices, will have no room to maneuver. Make your demand six justices, and if this proves unpalatable, scale it back; this wins you the mantle of compromise and four to two appointments.


The six justice proposal provides a wide range of strategic and political advantages that the two justice proposal cannot. It has no additional liabilities. There is, as FDR said of his own six justice proposal, "nothing novel or radical about this idea." If you want substantive and lasting justice on the Supreme Court in your lifetime, six new justices is where it begins.
Climate imperialism, and green jobs (for the US) - 9/6/18
Two questions for advocates of a green jobs guarantee:
1. Almost all of the growth in carbon emissions is coming from outside of the US. Moving forward, emerging economies will account for 90% of it. This is why so many international efforts, like the UN's Green Climate Fund, exclusively "support the efforts of developing countries to respond to the challenge of climate change". If the aim of a green jobs guarantee is to fight climate change, why would we focus on redevelopment in the first world rather than development in the third world?
2. Suppose, then, that we decided to launch some kind of green jobs program that pays folks from the US to work on development projects in the third world. Why are we sending people from the US to build windmills in China instead of paying people in China to do this? 
This is not an argument that we can ignore adaptation efforts in the US, but it does call into question our priorities. Though the liberal-left continues to give lip service to climate change as a "global challenge", our specific policy proposals - and all of the popular momentum behind them - are narrowly focused on the domestic front. The green job guarantee is just another chapter in the same story.
How the liberal defense of capitalism prepares the ground for fascism - 8/31/18
A Tucker Carlson video clip making the rounds today features a monologue that some leftists have found startling:
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is worth about 150 billion dollars... It's certainly enough to pay his employees well. But he doesn't. A huge number of Amazon workers are so poorly paid [that] they qualify for federal welfare benefits... If you can think of a less fair system than this, send us an email, we'd love to hear about it. This system is indefensible, and yet almost nobody ever complains about it.
This isn't actually all that unusual coming from the American right. Listen to AM talk radio in particular; its shows routinely play upon class anxieties, hammering the decadent, privileged lifestyles of "elites" and fomenting resentment from "ordinary, hard-working Americans". Still, you would think that this sort of rhetoric is anathema to the self-proclaimed party of capitalism - so where is it coming from?

(It's liberalism.)

The essential role of liberal ideology in our economy is to absorb class anxiety and channel it away from opposition to capitalism. It is the right-wing triumphalists who insist that capitalism is working, that inequality isn't a problem, that the poor are doing fine, that their lot is improving, and that changes to our economy threaten all of this. Liberalism, in contrast, is the ideology that admits that people are suffering, that the oligarchs have too much power, that the earth is being looted, poisoned, and pillaged. It recognizes our lived experience of capitalism, and that changes are in order. 

But then, having won the credibility of a sympathetic critic, liberalism proposes that the fault is not in fact with capitalism. To do this, of course, it has to invent an entire discourse that is detached from material reality. It has to imagine a capitalism that can work if you just fine-tune it enough, with just the right amount of taxation, regulation, and welfare (not too much and not too little). Or it dreams up problems like "crony capitalism," "corrupt capitalism," and "corporate capitalism" - imagining a world where capitalists don't do favors for friends, where they don't cheat the system, and where they don't build powerful businesses.

The problem here, as Carlson vividly demonstrates, is that when liberalism uncouples our class anxiety from material reality, it can be become a vehicle for any political agenda one can dream up. Socialism directs us towards a specific, limited, material goal: give society democratic control of the means of production. Liberalism, meanwhile, remains agnostic and vacuous: do something to make capitalism work. That something, of course, can become quite sinister. It will look for culprits other than the bourgeoisie, and it will direct against them all of the bitterness and rage that capitalism has sown into our politics.

This is a major way that liberalism prepares the ground for fascism. It does not just take overtly authoritarian, or nationalist, or racist, or anti-modern mythologizing of the past to clear a space for fascism; it also takes a persistent defense of capitalism, and a refusal to hold it responsible. Let class anxiety drift away from a critique of capitalism, and it will inevitably fixate on something else.
Alienation and the proletarian state - 8/29/18
Though Marx himself had little to say about what a communist society would actually look like, his critique of capitalism implicitly calls for a world quite different from ours. Historically, Marxists have read in his call for communism a call for the abolition of class, of the state, of property, of bureaucracy, of markets - of all sorts of things. Again, Marx pointedly refused to detail any of this, and had nothing but contempt for those who expected him to write "recipes for the kitchens of the future."

There are, nevertheless, two points that Marx is quite clear about:
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
Between capitalism and communism, there will be a state. There is no way around this. Capitalism has reshaped our society into a massive, extraordinarily complex apparatus of oppression and exploitation; only the awesome power of the state, wielded by the proletariat, can dismantle this. It will be a multi-front war, demanding offensives against every pathology of capitalism you can name; absolutely nothing in the Marxist tradition suggests that we can somehow wipe them all out simultaneously, and without a role for the state.


I'm spelling this out to make a simple point: until the state withers away, it will continue to play a basic role in mediating economic relations. It will for example define basic roles in control of the means of production, specifying who gets to control it, what control means and does not mean, what is being controlled, and so on. The proletariat needs a state to do this so that the bourgeoisie doesn't seize control right back. The proletarian state will also mediate economic transactions for all of the same reasons: if the state doesn't play an active and intermediary role in all of this, capitalist forms can survive and metastasize. It is this weed-like tendency of capitalism to sprout up anywhere it can that demands what Marx called a dictatorship of the proletariat; to wipe out capitalism, the proletarian state's economic jurisdiction and ambit must be absolute (even if, in practice, the proletariat forbears from intervention).

This is Marxism 101, and yet it is directly at odds with a persisting form of criticism on the left which insists that any role the state plays in governing or facilitating economic relations is alienating, and thus "reformist" or "counterrevolutionary".

To be clear, the error here is not that the state plays an alienating role in its mediation of economic relations - of course it does. If my community lives in an area of the world that does not have arable land, and the socialist state intervenes to ensure that we have a reliable supply of produce, shipping in some minimum quota on a regular basis from some distant farming community - in this case, it is absolutely true that my community is alienated from the farmers who have grown our food. We have not developed personal, human relationships with each other; our exchange emerges not as an organic expression of our social life, but as the result of a bureaucratic process administered by third parties.

And yet historically, Marxism has not regarded this sort of arrangement as "reformist" or "counterrevolutionary," even though it is indeed alienating. There are many reasons for this, but ultimately they all come down to a simple point: the dictatorship of the proletariat is not communism. Even if you expect full communism to abolish entirely things like state-managed trade, it does not at all follow that the dictatorship of the proletariat will do this, and in fact it would be both theoretically inexplicable and practically shocking if it somehow did.

None of this, of course, is an argument that Marxists should dismiss the problem of alienation in their fight for socialism. There is, however, a genre of critique that, in the guise of criticizing "alienation", is ultimately criticizing any role whatsoever for a proletarian state. In response to any set of laws or policies that the socialist proposes to mobilize as a weapon against capitalism, the critic can always reply: this system you want to set up stands between the worker and worker, and between workers and the means of production; these rules, administrators and enforcers are your substitutes for voluntary, direct, and human relationships, and are therefore alienating. But clearly, this is not simply an argument against alienation - it is an argument against socialism, and should be regarded as such.
Solidarity with Alexander Cohen - 8/25/18
Some folks who read this blog will probably be familiar with Alexander Cohen - or rather, with DudeSlater, which was his handle on Twitter until about a month ago. Cohen maintained an utterly ordinary presence online: he had about a thousand followers and an even smaller circle of friends who he chatted with regularly. Like most people online, he joked in the currency of memes and references that are instantly recognizable within his little microculture (weird left Twitter), and that are utterly incomprehensible outside of it.

I'm writing this in the past tense because late last month, Cohen was arrested and his Twitter account was suspended. Most of us just found this out yesterday when an article about it surfaced online. Since Cohen is neither a journalist, a politician, nor a prominent public figure, I doubt that the media will bother to clarify what's happened to him; so here, I just want to lay out a few basic facts.


Cohen's suspension and arrest are the result of a by-the-numbers outrage campaign by the radical right. Within a matter of days, it made its way from Twitter and /r/The_Donald to signal boosts from Dana Loesch, Sarah Palin, Joe WalshTwitchy, and so on. Immediately, of course, their audience coordinated a massive retaliation campaign, which quickly escalated from mass Twitter reporting to tagging in cops and federal agencies to more aggressive measures. "Don't just tag. CALL!" one user tweeted. Another gloated on Reddit, "I called his work....he might be fired! Lmao". Others, of course, began to suggest more direct action:
If you have your concealed carry permit, and see this man walking towards you, you absolutely may use deadly force. Whether it's a bat, a knife, or any threat of physical harm, you are LEGALLY allowed and encouraged to "stand your ground" and fire.

So what was Cohen's crime? Two jokes:
1. First, Cohen tweeted out what appeared to be a selfie of a man holding a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. This, among Cohen's friends, was an instantly recognizable picture of another Twitter user, who submitted the picture for The Talking Dead's Ultimate Fan Search contest (the barbed wire bat plays a prominent role on the show.) Thus, while he captioned the photo by remarking that he was going "to greet the nice conservative teenagers," the joke was tweeted with the understanding that its audience would not interpret it as an actual threat. 
2. Second, Cohen tweeted out lyrics from Chief Keef's Faneto: "I'm ridin' through New York...Finna go and shoot New Jersey up...We gon' come and blow New Jersey up." Again, these lyrics would be instantly recognizable to Cohen's friends, as well as millions of fans (the track has 19 million views on YouTube alone). Thus, though Cohen swapped "New York" and "New Jersey" with "D.C." and "GWU", the joke was tweeted with the understanding that his audience would understand it as a reference to rap lyrics - not an actual threat.
In both tweets, the same dynamic is at work: guy tells a joke that depends entirely on the shared cultural references of his intended audience, and people outside of that audience misrepresent it by insisting that those references don't exist.


As Libby Watson noted in Splinter last month, there is a clear "proliferation of campaigns to get people fired because of ideological disagreements but ostensibly on the basis of tweets." Here, of course, we aren't talking about a New York Times columnist, and the outcome is far more draconian - but that's precisely why I think the case of Alexander Cohen deserves our attention. He's not a politician, or a celebrity, or an academic, or even a journalist; he doesn't have a big platform or any kind of formal political power. He's just some guy most of us knew as "DudeSlater", and now he's in jail.


UPDATE: I've learned that Cohen has been released on bail.
Can niche market capitalism protect minorities? - 8/12/18
Reading through Connor Friedersdorf's latest attack on socialism, I'm struck by how much of his argument depends on the magic of niche markets. Democracy, he argues, can't "render reliably just judgments about how an entire society should produce and consume" - especially when it comes to providing for the needs and rights of minorities. But capitalism can handle this, because capitalism has niche markets. 

The beauty of niche markets is that businesses, "per their preference," can always provide for minorities - "the preferences of a majority of people around them be damned". In this way, "capitalism...frees us from the preferences of the majority". Most of Friedersdorf's article is devoted to listing all of the products capitalism's niche markets can provide:
Muslim prayer rugs...Korans...head scarves...halal meat...new mosques...vegan meat or milk substitutes...hair products for African Americans...sex toys...binders for trans men...sexually explicit artwork...birth control... 
This goes on for five paragraphs. What I find curious, in any case, is that there's evidently one niche market that capitalism can't protect from the tyranny of the majority. Friedersdorf, again:
Today, if I went out into Greater Los Angeles and chatted up owners of mom-and-pop restaurants, I'd sooner or later find one who would decline to cater a gay wedding... Should we destroy their livelihoods? If I recorded audio proving their intent to discriminate against a hypothetical catering client and I gave the audio to you, would you post it on the Internet and encourage the general public to boycott, write nasty reviews, and drive them out of business, causing them to lay off their staff, lose their life savings, and hope for other work? 
...I believe that the subset of the gay-rights movement intent on destroying their business and livelihood has done more harm than good...
 There's a real contradiction here! Friedersdorf has given us two theories of capitalism:
1) When it's time to defend capitalism, niche markets are a reliable bulwark against the tyranny of the majority; business owners can serve whoever they like, "the preferences of a majority of people around them be damned". 
2) When it's time to defend homophobes, however, capitalism can't defend niche markets from the majority: all it takes are boycotts and some nasty reviews to drive them out of business.
This is really just the latest variation on a phenomena I wrote about a month ago: when the left fights for socialism we are told to go to the private sector, and when we fight in the private sector we are told that this won't do, either. Still, it's remarkable how completely Friedersdorf, in making this move, buries his own defense of capitalism. If the second theory holds, capitalism can do nothing to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority; its niche markets are always a boycott away from oblivion, and not even the homophobic pizza industry can escape the invisible hand.
Conor Friedersdorf can't make up his mind about democracy - 8/9/18
Reading through Conor Friedersdorf's latest attack on socialism, I've been able to tease out two distinct critiques:
1) First, "minorities would lose if democracy were radically less constrained" under socialism; the virtue of capitalism is that "it frees us from the preferences of the majority" through various "anti-democratic protections" and "anti-democratic methods". 
2) Elsewhere, however, the problem with socialism is that "the increased 'democracy'...revolution would supposedly harken in" never actually emerges; thus "socialist experiments end in atrocities precisely because extreme consolidations of power are necessary to attempt them".
So is the problem with socialism too much democracy, or not enough democracy? The answer, of course, is both. When socialism promises to put an end to the terrors of capitalism through the power of the state, it's time to start warning about the "unaccountable bureaucrats" and "regimes" that impose "socialism from above" (see Friedersdorf's previous article). When we clarify that we'll rely on a democratic state, however, the critique reverses: first the bureaucrats were unaccountable, but now "their decisions perfectly, if improbably, reflect the actual democratic will".

Some readers will see this move as the worst of all possible worlds for Friedersdorf: not only does his new argument contradict the old one, but it now accuses socialism of something people generally approve of. The author realizes this: "To most Americans," he sighs, "democracy always sounds appealing." But just consider this nightmare scenario:
If a majority elected a populist demagogue like Donald Trump—which very nearly happened in 2016 (when he lost the popular vote) and may well happen in 2020—he would preside over not only our government, but also over our social and economic realms.
The problem with democracy, it turns out, is best illustrated by the case of a man who became president even though he lost the popular vote; if you want to appreciate the virtue of "anti-democratic protections," and especially what they can do for minorities, look no further than the Electoral College that elected Donald Trump.
Did Russian intelligence inspire Trump to depress Clinton turnout in Michigan and Wisconsin? - 8/2/18
A reader has asked:
I agree with your latest blog post on the points it covers, but what of the allegation that Russia could have provided the Trump campaign with DNC analytics?
This theory was recently popularized by Rachel Maddow, who argues that it was this data which inspired the Trump campaign to hone in on Michigan and Wisconsin with "three major voter suppression operations" targeting Clinton voters. If this campaign were successful, one would expect to see a significant drop in her numbers. Instead, here's what they looked like in both states during the final two months:


In both states, Clinton's numbers were actually higher by the end of October than they were at the beginning. Insofar as there was any real movement, it came from Trump's last minute three-point surge in Michigan, which overwhelmed Clinton's trivial gains.

One can try to salvage Maddow's theory with a few tweaks, but none of them are very convincing. For example, one can imagine that, instead of telling Trump to suppress votes, the Kremlin advised him to win them - but this fares no better at explaining Wisconsin's flat lines. One can also imagine that the Russian strategy (whatever it was) had an effect on the polls, but that this effect was cancelled out or buried inside countervailing trends; perhaps Clinton was going to enjoy a last minute surge, for example, until Trump's voter suppression campaign - which not only nullified her surge, but also nullified any detectable change in the polling. One can also insist, correctly, that the polling we have for these states was clearly incorrect - and then imagine that in a world of accurate polling, we would have seen shifts in Clinton's numbers that directly coincide with Maddow's theory.

Regardless, it should be clear that the point in my previous post holds: the case that Russian intervention was decisive ultimately depends not on anything we can see in the data, but on completely unsubstantiated theories about what's going on inside of the data, buried beneath an massive avalanche of statistical noise, bad polling, underdetermination, and pure fantasy.
The left's take on Russian election meddling is basically correct - 7/30/18
Leftist writers and activists are still generally skeptical of allegations that the Russian government significantly influenced the outcome of the 2016 election. Their liberal counterparts, predictably, find this inconvenient. And now, of course, the dialectic of Russiagate has given us a synthesis: a handful of leftists who voice some skepticism of the liberal position, but who insist that their leftist comrades are getting it wrong, too.

I'm not going to wade through all of the nuance and hedging in this latest genre of take, but I do want to touch on one issue that's emerged time and time again. David Klion insists that "Russian interference was real and significant."

Sarah Jones:
It isn’t clear that Russia influenced the outcome of the 2016 election...But it seems increasingly likely that there will be more hacks, and the consequences could be more explosive than John Podesta’s risotto recipe. 
  Ryan Cooper:
...whoever wins the 2020 Democratic primary...is highly likely to face a serious campaign of dirty tricks from Russian intelligence...It probably won't move that many people, but Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with.
What do all of these takes have in common? All three writers call for policy responses to the threat of Kremlin meddling - and justify this by entertaining theories that the Kremlin had a significant influence on 2016's outcome. And for that reason, all three takes are factually not credible.


What We Know About Kremlin Vote Acquisition In 2016

Three simple points.

1) There is still no direct evidence that the Kremlin managed to change election 2016's outcome.

The task is simple: one has to prove that Russian influence operations won Trump at least 35 votes in the electoral college. This means crediting the Kremlin for his margin of victory in enough states to give him those votes. There are all kinds of ways that you could set about drawing a line from the Kremlin to those margins - and yet no one has actually done this.

Look at our major media outlets, and you might think otherwise. Through blatant implication and just-so proclamation, our pundits routinely declare that the matter has been proven; and even the judicious agnosticism of "it isn't clear" statements can create the impression that there is some real controversy at hand. But this is not a matter of contradictory studies creating uncertainty, or of researchers establishing a probability and skeptics demanding proof - the problem here is that no one has successfully made the specific demonstration that needs to be made. Look for yourself: the studies just aren't there.


2) There is not even direct evidence that the Kremlin even managed to win Trump 10,704 votes in Michigan.

This is the same point that I made above, but I want to press on it a bit to show how flimsy the Russiagate narrative is. Routinely, the left's critics point to just how small Trump's vote margins were as proof that Kremlin meddling probably made a difference. That's why Cooper writes that "Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with." Elsewhere, Kevin Drum puts it explicitly:
given how close the election was, there’s a pretty good chance that Putin’s campaign of cyber-chaos had enough oomph to swing things all by itself.
This logic is absurd. The likelihood of a Kremlin-swung election depends on the size of vote margins and the Kremlin's absolute capacity to win Trump votes. And that latter point - not the size of the vote margins - is obviously the point in dispute. Even if we focus on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where Trump won by the narrowest of margins, there's just no reason to take for granted that the Kremlin won the votes he needed. Not even in Michigan, where Trump just won by 10,704 votes.

Again: the bottom line here  is that we have no research, no polling analysis, no systematic investigation of probable ROIs that takes into consideration Russian spending, message propagation, and estimates of votes earned - nothing that demonstrates over 10,000 votes won by the Kremlin in Michigan. The left's critics can talk about denialism or call for agnosticism all they like, but this remains an extraordinary claim that lacks even ordinary evidence.


3. There is significant reason to believe that the Kremlin did not change 2016's outcome.

Let's stay with Michigan. Here's what we do know:
  • Throughout the month of October - when the Podesta Emails, allegedly a major prong in the Kremlin's influence operation, were released - Hillary Clinton's numbers in Michigan actually improved. [1] This is consistent with Mike Enten's observation for FiveThirtyEight about the national trend: 
Clinton’s drop in the polls doesn’t line up perfectly with the surge in WikiLeaks interest. When WikiLeaks had its highest search day in early October, Clinton’s poll numbers were rising. They continued to go up for another two weeks, even as WikiLeaks was releasing emails. 
  • In the same article, Enten relies on Google trends to argue that "Americans were clearly paying attention to the WikiLeaks releases". Thomas Ferguson, however, observes that
outside of Washington, D.C., it is not obvious that that these details engrossed many voters, particularly in the battleground states...This claim is testable...Google Trends allows one to compare the relative volume of searches on topics by state and time. 
The evidence seems to bear this out in Michigan: there, interest in the Podesta emails was less than half what it was in DC. And this, in turn, supports a common intuition on the left: a lot of the palace intrigue and media controversy that captivates our pundit class just isn't that interesting to the rest of the country.
  • As we learned during the Senate's 2017 hearing on "Social Media Influence In The 2016 U.S. Election," the "Russian-linked Facebook ads [that] were specifically aimed at Michigan" represented a total investment of...$827 dollars.

    To put this into perspective, a widely-circulated investigation by Business Insider concluded "that to sway about 10,700 voters you'd need a budget of $42,800." And even this number was (correctly) dismissed as "fantastical" and "utter bullshit" by reporters and digital marketers; as NYMag's Brian Feldman pointed out, the $42,800 figure "represents an absolute edge-case scenario, in which Facebook ads are supernaturally effective and persuasive", winning over Trump voters at $4 per voter. So even with that kind of magical RoI, we have, at best, evidence that the Kremlin might have won over 206 voters - less than 2% of what it needed.
That's what the case looks like in Michigan, where the lift for anyone who wants to argue for decisive Kremlin interference is the lightest. Elsewhere, of course, the burden gets even heavier: by the time you get to Pennsylvania, you have to argue that the Kremlin won more than four times as many votes for Trump as it needed in Michigan. Generally, the reasons to doubt that this happened are identical across the board: no analysis suggesting adequate investments or capacity on the part of Russia, and significant evidence that it was nowhere near up to the task.


What This Means For Critics of the Skeptical Left

So where does this leave the left and its critics? In general, I think it demonstrates that the left's take on Russian election meddling is basically correct, and has been for quite some time.

The question at hand is whether Kremlin influence operations in the United States warrant a significant policy response from the left. You could, I suppose, make absolutist arguments about protecting the integrity of our elections from even one sullied vote - but generally, even the left's critics tend to recognize that it's worth asking whether the Russian government actually swung our election. If they didn't even manage to do that, one begins to wonder why we should prioritize Kremlin meddling over voter impersonation or the malevolent propagandizing of Lyndon LaRouche.

As far as I can tell, that is the question still facing critics of the skeptical left. There may very well be legitimate grounds for arguing that the left should change its politics towards Russia, but if critics want to argue that the Kremlin elected Trump, their work is still ahead of them.