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Time to fight - 2/19/19
Bernie Sanders is running for president. I could make the case that we should support him here, but a lot of other people are already doing that, and doing it better. Instead, I want to use this space to make a slightly different point: the time to make your decision is now. Because the center is already fighting to win - and if you do want to win the presidency and you do not act now, you will find yourself out-organized, out-numbered, out-resourced, and out-argued before you can even throw your first punch.

Romanticized visions of American democracy imagine the party primary as a discrete moment in collective decision-making usually just lasting about six months. When the Iowa caucus arrives, the playing field is level, every candidate is equally well-positioned, everyone with a worthy platform is still around, and voters make disinterested on-the-merits judgments about policy and competence.

Obviously this is not how party primaries actually work. What actually happens is that the fight for the nomination begins years before Iowa as competing factions of the Democratic coalition struggle for hegemony. Early on this battle is fairly abstract and unsettled - there is an interregnum in the wake of the last election, a consolidation of factions around emergent rival priorities, and a war of position as different groups fight to frame our politics, build alliances, and gather resources. But today, the shadow primary has already been underway for nearly a year. Candidates are now well into the process of building staff; courting donors, institutional allies, and local kingmakers; fighting for favorable party nomination rules and processes; and promoting their candidacy in the media.

And the center is already on the attack. Wall Street is already running attack ads, influential elites are already picking sides, and candidates are already breaking fundraising records.

There is a certain narrative on the liberal-left that finds this urgency objectionable - that counsels deliberation, organization, and strategic restraint. Now, we are told, is the time to learn about the candidates; to build our influence and organizational capacity; and to make candidates compete for our support. In tone, this is the voice of patient wisdom, disinterested independence, and pragmatic savvy; in rhetoric, it is framed against the frenzied partisan, the cult of personality, and the strategically naive.

And this, I think, is actually very good advice - two years ago. If the left hopes to overcome the juggernaut of capital and the entrenched party bureaucracy at the polls, the time to start working is the day after the last election. That is when you start to build your organizational capacity and political influence; that is when you start to develop your agenda, to make demands, to stick-and-carrot politicians into compliance, and to learn who is on your side and who is not. And to their credit, much of the US left has spent the past three years doing just that, which is why I think we are better positioned to fight for the nomination today than we were in 2016.

But obviously, the time for preparation ends when the fighting begins. And ready or not, the fight has already begun. If the left decides to sit on the sidelines, our rivals aren't going to stand down and idly wait for us to step into the ring - they will build momentum, frame the primaries, recruit supporters, raise money, and crush their opposition. Don't let that happen. You've had two years to get ready for this. It's time to fight.
The Green New Deal's magic word - 2/7/19
From November's original draft text for establishing a select committee for a Green New Deal:
The Plan for a Green New Deal (and the draft legislation) shall be developed with the objective of...making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely greenhouse gas neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.
From the Green New Deal resolution released today:
the "Green New Deal mobilization"...will require...promoting the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal
This is the most important word in the entire text. The first draft text, as I noted when it first appeared, made no reference whatsoever to funding for international development, which has always been and remains the central challenge of climate change. The domestic policy proposals that have dominated our plans for climate change are important, but they are completely inadequate without attention to international development.

The new draft has that magic word - "funding" - but I don't really see the mere acknowledgment of a need for funding as a step forward so much as a return to the status quo. Before Trump, token contributions to the Green Climate Fund were the norm, even from Republican presidents. The challenge facing the left today is not to win mere recognition that climate change is a global problem - it's to get people to recognize that climate change is a massive global problem, requiring international funding on a scale that is both historically unprecedented and well outside the scale of what Washington is presently willing to even consider.

Until we are talking about hundreds-of-billions-to-trillions in funding, we're really just spinning our wheels. Getting the word "funding" into a resolution is a step back to the era of Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush, but we have to do much, much better than that.
What historical materialism can tell us about Trump's shutdown - 1/26/19
Capitalism endlessly intensifies the suffering of the poor, places a hard ceiling on the upward mobility of the middle class, and constantly threatens to drop them back into poverty. This is why Donald Trump got elected: his opponent inspired no hope that she could fix the problem, and he offered to the Republican base a ladder of white supremacy. Trump is politically viable as long as he can channel the anxieties of the middle class towards rage against immigrants; he fails as class consciousness, fostered by the lived experience of oppression under capitalism, exposes his ethnonationalist scapegoating as the ruse that it is.

This is the basic shape of the material forces at work in contemporary politics. They are, incidentally, the same dynamics at work in every administration that has failed to confront capitalism: liberals try to finesse it with increasingly futile welfare and regulatory measures, reactionaries double-down into increasingly rabid bigotry, but both are caught in fascism's pincer. The explanatory power of a materialist understanding of history is not that it can predict every incident and micro-trend that emerges within this framework: historical materialism allows us to understand the cumulative trajectory of all of these different moments, and to anticipate the choice between socialism and barbarism that they will, with increasing force, impose upon our politics.

So let's return, then, to the specific question of Trump. Historical materialism does tell us that, pending a real confrontation with capital, we are increasingly likely to see reactionaries take power - but that does not mean that Trump was destined to win the Republican primary, or that the Republican was destined to win the general election. Historical materialism does tell us that reactionaries will try to channel class anxieties towards various sociocultural scapegoats - towards constructed identities like race, gender, and nation - but this channeling need not occur in any particular way, so long as it happens. One way you can do this is to fixate the reactionary id on building a giant wall against immigrants; but as we have seen in the past, you can also do this by ginning up resentment against the racist image of an indolent welfare queen, or against the devious careerism of the affirmative action beneficiary, or against the anti-Semitic figure of the parasitical Jew.

And indeed, we have seen all of these currents at work in Trump's base - nothing about historical materialism predicts that he would need to focus his politics on any one of them in particular. Nor does it predict that he would need to rely, in particular, on the tactic of a government shutdown in pursuit of that agenda; you can play wall-politics without that, just as he has until now. Nor, moreover, does it predict that he would draw out that shutdown for 35 consecutive days - another tactical choice that might have easily gone another way.

From a materialist perspective, the most we can really say about this shutdown is that capitalism makes the election of reactionaries likely, and makes it likely that they will try to channel class anxiety into a reactionary agenda, and that opposition to these trends will increasingly take the form of class warfare (like labor strikes). But historical materialism is not a crystal ball that lets us predict or explain every little detail of our world within infinite precision and clarity; if you want to understand why the shutdown lasted as long as it did, then it probably makes more sense to look at things like psychology and Trump's ego-entanglement in an escalation of commitment. For the socialist, understanding the explanatory boundaries of historical materialism is just as important as understanding its potential.
Which voter groups give you the biggest payoff at the polls? - 1/24/19
One of the most puzzling things about Nate Silver's new method for evaluating Democratic presidential contenders - or as Libby Watson calls it, "the weird pentagon chart thing" - is his choice of "key" constituencies. Silver insists that his groups -
  • Party Loyalists
  • The Left
  • Millennials and Friends
  • Black Voters, and
  • Hispanic (with perhaps Asian) voters
- were "chosen because they represent the dividing lines in recent Democratic Party primaries"...but what does this mean? Wade into his rationale and it's just an endless parade of conjecture, holistic judgment calls, rehashed media narratives, personal intuitions, and isolated data points. Silver concedes that his approach "definitely reflects a mix of art and science," but there isn't any actual science to be found.

I've been thinking about how you could identify "key" constituencies with some minimal objectivity and rigor, and it seems to me that the main question is whether you care about potential margins or probable margins. On one hand, large groups obviously have the potential to give you larger margins than smaller groups can; that's why you can never take for granted groups that have a high absolute turnout. On the other hand, however, large groups often don't exercise this potential; instead, they split their vote, and smaller groups that overwhelmingly favor a given candidate contribute disproportionately large margins. This is the more probable outcome, which is why so many of these demographic analyses end up looking for decisive group preferences and disregard absolute turnout.

So it seems that there are two metrics one needs to look at to identify "key" constituencies: absolute turnout and absolute margins, which is what you get when you adjust the margin of preference by turnout. These numbers have changed over the years, but since Silver seems to be focusing exclusively on 2008 and 2016, I'll follow suit with an average of numbers from those years.

  1. Black voters. No surprise here: black voters are typically less than a quarter (23%) of the voting public, but since they often have decisive preferences for particular candidates they end up contributing huge margins. On average, in fact, they end up contributing a ridiculous 13.3 points to their preferred candidate's total.
  2. Women. Women gave Clinton a 14 point bump in 2016 - comparable to what she got from black voters - but only gave her a 5 point bump in 2008, putting their average at nearly 10.
  3. Boomers. Strong preferences and superior turnout mean that olds still contribute significantly bigger margins than young people. Voters over 65, for example, have contributed 7 point margins on average, compared to 5 from those younger than 30.
  4. Electability voters. As with women, this number varies dramatically from election to election. In 2008, Clinton won a paltry .2 points from voters who thought she had the best chance to win against John McCain; but in 2016, she won 12 from those who thought she was better positioned to beat Trump than Bernie Sanders.
  5. Economy voters. Voters who rank the economy as their "most important" issue typically contribute about 6 points to a candidate's margins.

  1. White voters. 2016 was a paradigm year for white voters: they made up nearly two-thirds of the voting electorate, but since they split their votes evenly between Clinton and Sanders, their marginal contribution was roughly zero. Nevertheless, their size means that even slight preferences can have big consequences. In 2008, for example, they gave Clinton nearly as many points as black voters gave Obama (10 vs. 13) even though their preference for her was much less strong than the black preference for Obama (55% vs 82%).
  2. Women. Women have an average turnout of about 57%.
  3. Liberal. This label is a bit misleading - as the leftmost option in polling that typically includes "moderates" and "conservatives", it probably encompasses respondents who would otherwise identify as leftists, progressives, and even socialists. In any case, whatever this group actually is, it typically gives you a turnout of around 54%.
  4. Suburban voters. 46% of primary voters, compared with 38% urban voters and 19% from rural areas.
  5. Economy voters. Also 46% on average, though in 2016 there were slightly more male voters (41% vs 42%).

Narrowing this down to five "key" groups would probably just be a question of strategy, though a few conclusions seem inevitable. There is certainly some overlap here with Silver's scheme (in particular, with black voters and the left); but these numbers also suggest groups that he omits (most significantly, women) and contradicts those that he includes (favoring olds rather than Millennials). Concerns about electability and the economy probably vary in importance from year to year, but their presence here suggests that Silver's omission of issue or priority defined groups is probably significant.

Thanks to Michael for helping me pull these numbers.