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Unpacking "alt-"

I've been fascinated by the recent popularization of the prefix "alt-" as an ideological descriptor in American political discourse. Anyone who pays much attention to popular politics online knows that it's been around for quite some time (at least since 2008) in the formulation "alt-right", which generally just referred to white capitalist ethnonationalists. This was, as Shane Burley notes, a term of their own making, and one that they continue to embrace.

In just the past year, however, the etymology took a decisive turn. That's when the American right, faced with widespread opprobrium of the alt-right, made their standard move of constructing a political equivalence: there is also, they argued, an "alt-left". Look at the history of this term, and you'll only see it pop up sporadically over the past few years, for instance on an obscure and stagnant Reddit page. But just this year, you'll find an insurgency of articles like What About the 'Alt-Left'?:
The New York Sun wants no part of [the alt-right] and neither does the GOP. But the Democratic Party has its own fringe for which to answer before Mrs. Clinton has any standing to make a megillah of the “alt-right.” What about the alt-left?
The argument here, quite explicitly, makes two moves that define the entire genre. First, crucially, it de-centers the alt-right by placing it on the "fringe". This isn't necessarily implicit in the original formulation, and in fact the alt-right continues to see itself as "a silent majority or hidden mainstream" in America. While rejecting its claim to popularity, meanwhile, the liberal-left long made a similar argument: as Luis Miranda put it, "the GOP made Trump through years of divisive and ugly politics". There was, that is to say, a widespread consensus that the alt-right was merely just another variety of the American right, just like libertarianism, neoconservativism, paleoconservativism, and so on, and that all were implicated in the same reactionary politics. But this new definition of alt-right implicitly contests that, and its political function here is plainly to distance the "true" right from a damaging label. 

Thus, "alt-" went from meaning something like "white capitalist ethnonationalist" to something like "fringe" (a spatial metaphor synonymous with "not-center"). Having reframed the prefix to mean deviation from the center, the American right could then easily reorient it into their own attack. This is the second function of alt's redefinition: to create a slur that can be used to punch left. 

For the New York Sun, punching left simply means attacking Hillary Clinton, by creating the false equivalence that she, too, has her own extremists. There is, of course, no equivalence between the fascist base of Donald Trump's movement and any faction of Hillary Clinton's coalition; substantively, the charge doesn't make sense, because if there were white ethnonationalist capitalists supporting Clinton, we'd just call them alt-right Clinton supporters, not alt-left Clinton supporters. But by reconceptualizing "alt-" to mean "fringe", one can get around that substantive problem and apply it to whatever one considers the not-center-left. 

This etymology of alt- must be the starting point of any analysis of its role in modern political discourse. Historically, it is laden with the censure that all decent people extend to everything that is detestable about the American right, and historically it is inextricable from the broader evolution of right-wing politics. But rhetorically, it now functions to shield the "center-right" from that critique, and to place in its cross-hairs anything that deviates from the center. Uncoupled as it is from any substantive meaning, defined purely by the centrist metaphor of "fringe", we should not be surprise to see this attack drifting into the hands of centrist liberals - who themselves are always looking for new slurs to wield against the American left.


Shunning is mostly performative and the left has usually opposed it

Growing up in an Anabaptist community, I occasionally found myself in the middle of debates over the politics of shunning. For those who are unfamiliar, shunning is an old practice shaming and exclusion based on a few lines written by the Apostle Paul:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (I Corinthians 5:9-11)
In practice, this could have some pretty dramatic consequences. While the basic rules of shunning are fairly narrow - don't eat with the person, don't do business with them, don't accept anything from them, etcetera - and sporadically observed, the ostracization that it legitimizes could effectively shut the target out of social life and turn them into a pariah. Justifying all of this, of course, was an elaborate apparatus of theology that few outside of the Amish church would find compelling.

In addition to theological justifications, however, the community also developed various pragmatic rationales that the modern liberal-left will find familiar. "By shunning [the offender] in all social relations," Hostetler writes, "the community gives him a status that minimizes the threat to other members of the community." The Dordrecht Confession of Faith, a central text of the Radical Reformation, advocates shunning so that the offender "may be made ashamed, be affected in his ways." In other words, shunning was supposed to have two practical consequences: 1) to engineer wokeness in the community, and 2) to shame the offender into rehabilitating.


Both of these rationales emerge time and time again in modern liberal-left advocacy for shaming and ostracization as tools of social engineering and personal discipline. And yet strangely enough, anyone at all familiar with the standard left critiques of shunning should have rejected both long ago.

To take the second point first, there is little reason to believe that shunning actually has any kind of rehabilitative effect on its target, and considerable reason to believe that it can actually amplify the problem. Delaney notes that "the effects on the shunned person can be devastating...[and] akin to psychological torture." Tanaka notes research on shunning that
indicates a severe distortion of the self image, for example, 'I am a type of person that everyone hates'...This long-term effect suggests a huge impact on one's identity...[it] has a strong impingement on emotional development, which as Kahn points out is the essence of cumulative trauma. 
Tanaka goes on to add that as a defense mechanism, the target of shunning may "develop a victim's identity...[that] may fix and solidify further their negative identity." This should be an all-to-familiar experience for anyone who has tried to shame an offender, only to watch them double-down and embrace the attack. The point here is not to argue that shunning is simply mean - it's to point out that it's often directly counterproductive in terms of its supposed goal. Instead of rehabilitating the offender, it can just as easily harden the offender and give him a powerful psychological / emotional stake in continuing his behavior. As Massaro observes,
Psychological accounts of shame suggest that the behavioral consequences of this emotion are unpredictable, and may include anger and a desire to retaliate against the one inflicting the shame. The shaming advocates' relative indifference to these concerns suggests that they likely are not particularly concerned with rehabilitating the offender.
Massaro adds that this unpredictability also comes into play regarding rationale (1) - that we should shun people as an exercise in social engineering:
Both the psychological and the anthropological works indicate that the general deterrence and expressive effects of shame measures are likely to be highly contextual and unpredictable...shame penalties often will have multiple potential meanings, depending on the communities to which these expressions are directed, and thus will have an uncertain impact on the targeted audience's behavior. 
Again, this just confirms experiences that everyone is already familiar with. Efforts to shun someone may effectively remove them from discourse and community and attach a social taboo against their behavior - but it is just as likely to do the exact opposite. Frequent readers will probably recognize in this line of criticism frequent skepticism about discourse gaming. The implicit theory behind rationale (1) is that instead of reasoning with people, and persuading them to avoid certain types of behavior, we tactically use all kinds of psychological tactics, like shaming, to manipulate them into behaving appropriately. Say what you will about the ethics of this approach, but as a matter of basic pragmatism there's no compelling reason to believe that it actually works.


The psychology and sociology on shunning and its efficacy are all fairly straightforward - and yet, particularly among the liberal-left, the tactic is still fairly popular as a way to mediate social conflict. A few theories on why we're actually still trying this:

  • Often, we just adopt shunning as a default measure when other efforts don't seem to be working: "Historians and criminologists have noted the extent to which shaming and shunning sanctions emerge from the public's frustration with conventional punishment options," Miller writes.  
  • As Posner writes in Laws and Social Norms, shunning is often just an exercise in self-interested performance. People participate in exercises like shaming "to show each other that they are cooperative types" and because doing so "serves as an opportunity for everyone to signal his reliability...the chief motive for shaming is to enhance reputation, not to do justice."
  • Often, I get the sense that liberals in particular are operating on an essentially capitalistic, marketplace-of-ideas model of socialization where we can essentially boycott and blacklist problematic people out of business. Here, behavior is commodified as a product that we can either patronize or shut out of the market by manipulating demand, which means that sociopolitical relationships can be simplified into a kind of consumer activism.
  • Historically, as suggested above, shunning was often a decisively religious procedure, couched in all kinds of metaphysical beliefs about purity and holiness. Instead of shunning people in order to achieve politically or socially productive ends, one is simply honoring a deontological commandment; there is, that is to say, no theory of social or personal harm at stake if we don't shun people, just some rule that it's what you should do.
Needless to say, none of these motives are particularly compelling, particularly from a left-liberal perspective interested in substantive sociopolitical progress. Without laying out the case for it here, my personal position on the topic is that the best way to deal with people engaged in deviant or problematic behavior is often to present them with arguments on why they should change it. Often, it can also help to establish the kind of good-faith relationship with them where they see you as a constructive critic rather than an adversary - this is really just psychology 101. This sort of relationship isn't always possible, of course, but it's exceedingly rare that anything resembling constructive interpersonal influence appears without it.

UPDATE: Readers from Twitter will have recognized that this piece was written amid a controversy over a Lebanese man who tweeted a violent threat to an American woman. Specifically, however, I wrote it in response to a particular argument, floated by Daniel Sieradski, that one should not follow this user for the specific reason that doing so "confers legitimacy on him".

It seems obvious to me that one can criticize that narrow argument without dictating broader conclusions about the controversy at hand. One can for instance say that a Twitter follow does not confer legitimacy, but that we should nevertheless shun out of solidarity with victims, in order to make them feel welcomed and safe and so on. That's a justification, grounded in personal support for and empathy with the oppressed, that is entirely distinct from Sieradski's elaborate scheme of using shunning as a mechanism for social-engineering legitimacy and illegitimacy norms.

In an effort to focus my argument on that narrow point and disentangle it from broader conclusions, this piece avoids reference to the Twitter controversy entirely. I also rely on the example of the Amish community, not simply because it gives background into my own experience with the issue, but also because it largely avoids the considerations of solidarity that emerge when shunning involves a victim. My focus here is simply on the social engineering argument, for reasons that any frequent reader will immediately recognize: I have a longstanding interest with liberal-left ventures in discourse-gaming / social-engineering and am generally skeptical of their efficacy, a point I've written about at length on multiple occasions.

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of feedback I've received on this article has been positive, coming from readers (a majority of them women, incidentally) who recognize this narrow concern. Nevertheless, a few readers (almost all of them men, by the way) have read into this piece dispositive conclusions about the Twitter controversy and independent claims about solidarity. This reading has little to do with anything I've actually written here, for reasons given.


Poverty increases political polarization among race groups

A standard premise of identitarian demographic analysis is that privileged groups should vote like their oppressed counterparts. Instead, that is, of second-guessing their votes with our own analyses and rationalizations, privileged groups should defer to the judgment of the oppressed, whose positions are informed by the lived experience of oppression. An analytical corollary to all of this is that when privileged groups are not voting like their oppressed counterparts, we can understand this as an expression of privilege. When, for example, we see a difference in the way that white people are voting and the way that people are color are voting, we should suspect racism.

The racism index

If one accepts this approach, it's pretty straightforward to determine which of the two major candidates is supported by which race constituencies:

Overwhelmingly, voters of color prefer Clinton to Trump by a 47.4% margin. White voters, meanwhile, prefer Clinton to Trump by a -7.2% margin - which is to say, they actually prefer Trump. Graphed out, these margins just look something like this:

In theory, white voters, in solidarity with and deference to voters of color, should also support Clinton by a 47.4% margin. Instead, they oppose her by a 7.2% margin - a difference of 54.6%. For the sake of this analysis, I'm going to call that number the "racism index". Ideally, that index should fall to 0% as white people vote in unity with persons of color; at worst, it could hypothetically hit 200%, if both groups threw 100% of their support to opposing candidates.

The racism index, by income

Having established a racism index, it's pretty simple to conduct an intersectional analysis of race and income as manifest in the 2016 elections. All we have to do is apply the above methodology to particular income brackets. First, we chart out the preferences:

Then, we look at the margins:

And from here, we can easily assign each income bracket a racism index based on the difference between the margins. For instance, the racism index of the lowest income bracket is (47.2%+6.6%=53.8%), while that of the highest bracket is (36%+.8%=36.8%). Graphed out, our racism index will look something like this:

So what does this graph tell us? It's pretty straightforward: voting is less polarized between whites and people of color the higher everyone's income is. The only exception to this trend is among people making less than $25k a year, who tend to show more solidarity than people making more than $25-50k. Otherwise, the trend is direct.

Of course, income is not the same as wealth or precarity, and it's an even worse proxy for class; nevertheless, the numbers here seem to conform pretty closely to leftist intuitions about a relationship between racism and material conditions. Looking at a graph like this, I would be tempted to suspect that there's something about being poor that exacerbates racism, and something about prosperity and financial security that helps to foster political solidarity. If redistributing some of the wealth at the end of this graph could help bring down the racism in poorer income brackets, that strikes me as a win/win for anticapitalists and antiracists, even if it can't completely solve either problem.


Some intersectional analysis on the Trump and Clinton coalitions

The demographic divides that define the 2016 election have been fairly clear for months, though some pundits, of course, persist in getting them wrong. As I tweeted out earlier tonight, the general state of affairs looks something like this:

If you're white, and/or if you are a young boomer, you're more likely to vote for Trump than Clinton. Otherwise, you're more likely to vote for Clinton than Trump. Within those two coalitions, of course, the strength of support also varies, but any demographic analysis of this election has to begin with race and age.

This, of course, is a significant simplification. A more intersectional approach wouldn't just look at how identity, as defined by a single dimension, determines one's politics - it would look at how the intersection of multiple identities do so. And when we do this, the picture gets more complicated. 

The boomer race split

Consider, for example, how the numbers look at the intersection of age and race (here, black vs. white):

A few significant trends stand out. First, of course, race is by far the most important factor predicting one's vote - this is implicit in the first chart. This tendency is so strong, in fact, that it masks a second trend that only becomes visible here: a split between black and white middle-aged voters. Support for Trump isn't simply coming from young boomers. It's specifically coming from young white boomers, and also from ageing white gen-xers. Among black Americans, meanwhile, we see a complete reversal of this trend: support for Clinton is the strongest among black Americans between 50 and 59.

This fact of black American life gets completely erased by the usual simplified way that we talk about political demographics. It is numerically correct that Trump's support comes from boomers, but only because the overwhelming majority of boomers happen to be white. Such statistics tell us just as much about racial proportions among age groups as they tell us about political preferences. It's only when we dig into the data, and do an intersectional analysis of the trends, that we get a more accurate picture of what's going on.

In what sense is Trump the candidate of white men?

Or consider, meanwhile, the common characterization of Trump as the candidate of white men. This is obviously true in the narrow sense that Trump has the highest margin of support among white men - but let's put this fact in context:

Once again, we find that the most important divide at work is race. Race is what divides preference for Trump from preference from Clinton, and race proves far more important than gender even within the two coalitions. (This is why, for instance, support for Clinton is stronger among black men than Hispanic women.)

This point is worth attending to when, for example, we have multiple white women in media characterizing Trump as the candidate of white men. As we see above, this is mostly an exercise in last-place-avoidance - but it does little to distinguish white women otherwise. Their shared whiteness with white men is what ends up mattering; being a woman knocks off a few points off of their overall preference for Trump, but it does nothing to bring them into a coalition with people of color. Here, the intersectional high ground white women can claim over white men is about as legitimate as 40-49 year old whites scolding 60-69 year old whites for liking Trump just a little more than they do.


One takeaway from all of this is that the overwhelming majority of our demographic analysis is painfully simplistic. What I've done here is more sophisticated than what we usually see, and even this was an extremely limited effort. A more ambitious analysis would look at how multiple demographic dimensions - race, age, gender, income, and so on - all combine in unique points of intersection with unique political tendencies. Doing this with two genders, four races, five age groups, and six income brackets would leave me with 240 data points to analyze, and I don't do that kind of work for free. It is, nevertheless, the bare minimum of what anything resembling an adequate intersectional demography would have to involve.

A more important point, however, is that once you start digging into the way various forms of identity intersect, the usual simplifications that popular demographic analysis deals in end up obscuring as much as they reveal. It's fine to talk about the role that boomers and white men play in supporting Trump, but not if this erases the role of middle-aged black voters in opposing Trump, or if it masks the complicity of white women.

This kind of simplification isn't the only problem with what passes for identitarian demographic analysis, but it's one of the most pernicious and egregious - and if we're going to do this, we should at least get it right.


Did Clinton start the birther controversy? No. Did she abet it? Of course

We have no evidence that Hillary Clinton supported using birtherism to attack Obama in 2008. There is reason to believe that Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal did, and of course a volunteer county coordinator in Iowa is known to have spread rumors that Obama was a Muslim - but we have no way of tying this to any kind of formal or deliberate effort from the campaign. I say this as someone who thinks that both of the Clintons are racists and cynical opportunists would do essentially anything to win. It is not that I put any of this past them - it's just that the evidence isn't there, and when Donald Trump says that "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy," he's lying.

That much is obvious. What's also obvious, to me, is that the birther movement was completely marginal until early 2008, when it gained enough traction among the racist fringe of Clinton's supporters that Snopes finally had to publish an article debunking it.

And what's also obvious to me is that while Clinton did not specifically propagate birtherism, her 2008 campaign was notoriously, astonishingly racist. It was marred by a well-documented series of innuendo and dog-whistles, and as Ryan Cooper notes, "the attempt to play on racist attitudes through constant repetition and association was unmistakable". And there's significant reason to believe that this broader effort to wield racism against Obama was quite deliberate.

None of this is particularly controversial. But it seems to me that, once we acknowledge the racism of Clinton's 2008 campaign, we have to accept that it helped to normalize and popularize racism as a political weapon against our first black president. When Hillary stoked the Jeremiah Wright controversy and when Bill made his notorious comments about Jesse Jackson, they signaled to America that racist attacks on Obama were acceptable and even respectable. They lent such attacks a veneer of bipartisan credibility and gave Republicans who wanted to escalate even further plausible deniability. 

Consider, for example, the notorious case of Clinton campaign fundraiser Geraldine Ferraro, who insisted that "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position...He happens to be very lucky to be who he is." For her part, Hillary Clinton would only call it "regrettable that any of our supporters, on both sides...say things that kind of veer off into the personal." In response, the Wall Street Journal reported, David Axelrod insisted that
by not further repudiating Ferraro’s remarks the Clinton campaign was sending a “wink and a nod” to her supporters that similar comments will be condoned
And sure enough, that's exactly what happened: well after Obama secured the nomination, self-identified "Party Unity, My Ass" (PUMA) Clinton supporters who defected to McCain were echoing Ferraro almost verbatim and calling Obama an affirmative action president.

Should we be surprised that Axelrod was right? No, Clinton did not start birtherism. But she and her campaign gave a wink and a nod to racists, and predictably, this taught Americans that similar racist nonsense would be condoned.


The garbage pseudoscience that passes for capitalist apologetics

Leftists are having a good laugh today about an article published in The American Conservative - Why Socialism Is Still Popular - which suggests that "evolutionary psychology may explain it." Evidently that bastion of capitalist scholarship, The Cato Institute, held an entire conference on the topic, which is what the article covers.

I'm actually not as reflexively skeptical to evolutionary psychology as a lot of my comrades are - in part because I think it's made some valuable contributions in fields like linguistics, and in part because I think it's pretty implicit in the premises of historical materialism. That said, evo psych is also notoriously easy to bullshit, which is perhaps why Cato has guys like creative writing adjunct Will Wilkinson presenting "scientific papers". There's no way that I'm gonna clean out the Augean stables of this paper, so one exemplary passage will have to suffice:
Marx's idea was that a change in the "ensemble of social relations" can change "the human essence"...[but] Marx's theory of human a biological fantasy... 
For example, recent experimental work by Oliver Goodenough, a legal theorist, and Christine Prehn, a neuroscientist, suggests that the human mind evolved specialized modules for making judgments about moral transgressions, and transgressions against property in particular.
One immediate problem: since Cato's "policy reports" evidently don't have citation standards, it's impossible to know for sure what "recent experiment work" Wilkinson has in mind.

The closest thing I can find appears in a paper published by Goodenough and Prehn (G&P) just a few months before: A neuroscientific approach to normative judgment in law and justice. Here, the relevant claim is that humans have "an emotional involvement in perceptions about the theft of tangible property" which evolved as a solution to "rivalry over limited and consumable resources". These "involvements" are "represented as cognitive primitives", which are "specialized structures dedicated to a particular kind of recognition or conceptualization".

These would be the brain "modules for making judgments about...transgressions against property" that Wilkinson has in mind. But where is the "experiment work" that suggests this "in particular"? G&P merely suggest all of this as "plausible, if still only a hypothesis," and add that
Such a model is currently only speculation...From the standpoint of lesion data, we are not aware of any reports of differential property-observing deficits that would support the idea of a property primitive.
Let this sink in: one of the world's leading capitalist think tanks publishes a paper aspiring to ground capitalism in a scientific conception of human nature. The author claims that there is recent experimental evidence for a neurocognitive basis for property. But the authors he points us to both insist that this is "only a hypothesis...only speculation" and that they have no lesion data "that would support the idea of a property primitive."

Where is Wilkinson getting this from? Capitalism, perhaps - but certainly not evolutionary psychology.


Why Kevin Drum thinks that Millennials are dupes

Kevin Drum, a progressive blogger also of Mother Jones, recently wrote an article blaming Bernie Sanders for millennials’ distaste for Hillary Clinton. If Sanders hadn’t pointed out that Clinton was in the pocket of Wall Street, Drum argued, she would not have lost millennial support. By making this argument, Kevin Drum is supporting Donald Trump. Since millennials like Bernie Sanders...Drum is pushing millennials away from the Democratic Party.
This passage, from Nathan J. Robinson's latest, works as an effective rebuttal to the supposedly pragmatic logic of Clinton apologetics - but I think it actually cuts even deeper than that.

Writers like Drum think that instead of telling the truth (or what we think is the truth), we should try to anticipate how our audience will respond to various talking points, and then game out our response accordingly. If this means not telling the truth, so be it. This, as discourse gamers see it, is being "pragmatic" and "savvy", and it's usually set in contrast to the naivete and self-indulgent piety of people who think that we should just tell the truth.

The problem, as Robinson points out, is that discourse gaming often even fails by purely pragmatic standards. Here, Drum thinks that he is cleverly engineering a Clinton victory by attacking her critics - but by alienating potential allies, it seems just as likely that he's contributing to her defeat. Speaking generally, Drum thinks he has a handle on the discourse politics at work here, and thinks that he's savvy enough to game them; but for whatever reason, he's getting them wrong, and advancing the very outcome that he thinks he's working to avoid.

To this, I'll just add that the there's probably a good reason why discourse gamers overestimate their competence: hubris.

It is not, after all, as if Kevin Drum thinks that anyone who hears criticism of Clinton is going to vote Trump. That's obviously untrue, since Drum himself heard what Sanders had to say, and simply found it unpersuasive. What Drum actually thinks is that while he can handle frank and open criticism, other people can't. This is always a foundational assumption of discourse gaming: everyone else has to be shepherded and manipulated into conclusions that we were able to reach through basic judgment and reasoning.

When you have this kind of condescending view of everyone else's intelligence, you're obviously going to then proceed to make all kinds of stupid mistakes when you're trying to manipulate their reactions. Here, the same hubris that inclines Drum to think of Millennials as dupes also keeps him from realizing that they might object to this. It reminds me of nothing so much as a pickup artist who thinks of a woman as a "target" who can be "gamed" - and who also thinks that she won't notice. Both approaches routinely fail, and for many of the same reasons.


Some points on Marx and ageism

Recently, and occasionally in response to some of my recent writing on ageism, I've received some feedback generally suggesting a tension such critiques and standard class analysis. This general objection takes a couple of different forms. One reader, for instance, insists that "Bourgeois Boomers exercise power over working class Millennials. Attributing class power to age is dangerous for the left." Similarly, David Kaib suggests that "class as a historical actor makes sense in a way generations doesn't." Roger Bellin, meanwhile, dismisses "this generation-cohort stuff" as "completely fake social science".

In response to this, I'd argue that Marxism stipulates temporal dynamics which have direct and necessary implications for both historical cohort and age. A materialist conception of history, for example, will describe various stages of economic development that a given society passes through - and these stages will be generally sequential, mapping roughly onto a succession of historical cohorts. The particulars of these cohorts will of course be historically contingent, but as with classes, they are defined by specific relationships with the means of production.

Trivially, for instance, we could talk about a "feudal generation", defined as the cohort born in a society dominated by a feudal economy, and oppose that to a "capitalist generation", similarly defined. Such generations, so defined in relation to certain regimes of production, are just as real as any class - in fact, they are mostly just a different way of talking about groups of classes, with "capitalist generation" conveying the same information as "the proletariat and the bourgeoisie".

The advantage with this way of talking about Marxism is that historical cohorts allows us to contemplate age dynamics associated with the material progress of history. For instance, consider this famous passage from Marx's Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away...
Note that the relations of society that capitalism sweeps away here are not merely feudal - they are definitively ancient. They are necessarily associated with age cohorts preceding the capitalist generation. Thus the sequentiality of various stages of economic history necessarily implies conflicts that will be generationally inflected. This point will presumably be most relevant during stages of revolutionary transition; more significantly, it establishes the general (and I think obvious, though evidently controversial) point that class struggle, proceeding forwards through time, will have historical dimensions that end up mapping onto age.

Such temporal dynamics emerge not just over the broad course of history, but within the quotidian operation of capitalism as well. Indeed, Steve Keen argues that this temporal conception of capitalism was one of Marx's great insights: capitalists, he notes,
in general ignore processes which take time to occur, and instead assume that everything occurs in equilibrium...[but] the process Marx describes was based on an accurate view of the overall structure of the economy...
Once we attend to the fact that capital accumulation, for example, is a process that takes place over time, it's easy to see how the old have economic advantages over the young sewn into the very fabric of the material economy. Are these advantages decisive? Of course not. Are they irrelevant to a discussion of the various factors that contribute to power and oppression? Nope. As with any such analysis, ageism needs to be understood with all of the usual considerations of proportion and priority at hand, but the role of such dynamics in Marxist theory cannot simply be dismissed or ignored.


"Both sides do it" is a reactionary defense of ageism

Earlier today, Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery openly avowed her hatred of an entire generation:

Understandably, a lot of progressives, who have historically opposed bigotry against oppressed communities, took issue with this. In one pretty straightforward post, for example, Atrios related Jeffery's ageist rhetoric to its more familiar expressions ("Kids Today," " of [the] lawn") and noted that she'd evidently misread the very poll she was quoting. It doesn't take much more than that to point out the problems with what she said - the case is fairly open-and-shut.

Enter, however, Kevin Drum:
Atrios is upset because he doesn't like criticism of young people. Why? Beats me. As near as I can tell, millennials don't actually attract any more abuse than any other age cohort. I'm not sure why they should be any more immune to criticism than anyone else.
Drum changes his mind

Set aside the crass rhetorical deck-stacking here ("criticism" vs. "abuse") and Drum's defense is clear: ageism is okay because both sides do it. Clara Jeffery can't be criticized for hating young people because hatred of Boomers also exists. But what I find striking about this is that for Drum, just a few months back, both-sides-do-it was no defense of ageism:
Bruenig's tweets were nasty, apparently unfounded, and a bit two-faced (charging Walsh with "ageism" followed by insulting Tanden as "geriatric").
If Drum actually took his own both-sides-do-it rule seriously, we would expect him to waive off Bruenig's comment and ridicule those who refuse to do so as "upset". But instead, Drum decries the remark as "nasty" and an "insult", and adds:
This is the kind of thing that I'd normally call a non-firing offense, but only if the offender agrees there's a problem and promises to reign it in. The risk of having an employee like this go completely ballistic at some point and write something either libelous or just plain repellent is too great. 
This is infinitely stronger than the mild disapproval Atrios posted. And Bruenig, at least, was responding to the specific ageist comment Drum quotes earlier in his piece ("barely shaven") - this would make his reaction even more justified, if the both-sides-do-it rule held. Jeffery, meanwhile, is simply reacting to a poll in a news report, and one that she evidently misread.

"Reverse ageism" does not exist

It's tempting to say this is just a case of Drum defending his employer - but that just underlines the ageist power dynamic at work here. Boomers are far more likely than Millennials to be employers, which means that these conflicts-of-interest will usually play out in their favor. Even Boomers who aren't employers will tend to have more professional power for Millennials, which means that age-solidarity will also play in their advantage as well. Obviously, Jeffery can say almost whatever she likes about young people, she has few professional consequences to worry about, and she can rely allies to defend her who, like Drum, have aged into large platforms. Younger people, meanwhile, can count on the exact opposite: powerful professional retaliation, both from employers and from people like Drum. Age solidarity is of little help to Millennials, since their young colleagues are typically just as powerless.

And that's the deeper critique of Drum's both-sides-do-it rhetoric. Even if accept that moral equivalence, Drum clearly applies it selectively, using it to exonerate Boomers while ignoring it in his criticism of the young. But if we accept the standard progressive premise that oppression is prejudice plus power, then even a "both-sides-do-it" rule applied consistently would be grossly reactionary, a kind of "reverse-ageism" defense that draws a false moral equivalence between two very different political situations. Both sides don't have giant corporate media platforms, and both sides don't face draconian professional consequences in these intergenerational conflicts. Jeffery's hatred of the young is the bigotry of privilege, and any progressive worthy of the name should condemn it.


The purity politics of radical liberalism, part II

The continuing and almost entirely contrived interjection of Vladimir Putin into the 2016 elections has, in recent weeks, spawned an interesting sub-controversy between liberals and their critics. On one side, we have a perspective ably articulated on Wednesday by Donald Trump:
I've already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing' -- the man has very strong control over a country. Now, it's a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he's been a leader...
These comments, of course, were folded into all kinds of additional claims about Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Trump's reactionary vision of American politics - but setting those aside, the narrow point he's making here is reasonable to the point of utter banality. Putin is quite obviously the most important, powerful, and influential Russian of the post-Soviet era, and arguably one of the most consequential world leaders of the past two decades. Inasmuch as a leader is someone who has a vision of the world and compels others to implement it, Putin is easily one of the most effective and accomplished leaders of our time.

None of this is praise. Putin is a monster and his imperial aspirations and ethnonationalist sympathies are monstrous, as is his violent, reactionary and antidemocratic political practice. The instrumental conception of leadership that Trump is advancing here - a variety of competence and efficacy - does nothing to imply that Putin will use his gifts and talents towards progressive, socially useful, or moral ends; it simply says that he is good at what he does.

Again, this distinction strikes me as pretty simple, commonplace, and logically independent of the broader political argument in which it appears - someone could make the same point while praising Clinton and Obama.

But time and time again, liberals have taken aim at even this modest and fairly irrelevant point. Clinton's running-mate Tim Kaine objects, "What about invading other countries is leadership? What about running your economy into the ground is leadership? What about persecuting LGBT Russians is leadership?" Alex Shephard, in The New Republic, argues that "Donald Trump is wrong: Putin isn't a strong leader." Think Progress's Jedd Legum seems to think he's calling into question Putin's leadership with some point about Russia's recent GDP, and so on.

Why is this even a controversy? I can think of two possible reasons:
1. Liberals are so ideologically blinkered that they literally cannot comprehend an instrumental conception of leadership. Managerial and entrepreneurial culture have so thoroughly indoctrinated them into fetishizing leaders and leadership as absolute goods, always cultivating productive, progressive and profitable outcomes, that they simply cannot imagine the idea of a bad leader. That's why Tim Kaine insists that there's "a difference between dictatorship and leadership"; he is so completely radicalized that he cannot permit the merely rhetorical idea of a bad leader, even though his reference to dictatorship indicates that he clearly understands what Trump is getting at. 
2. Liberals have become so radicalized in their opposition to Trump that it isn't even enough to say "99% of Trump's interview was incorrect and crazy" - literally every aspect of everything he says has to be attacked in every way possible, and it is that imperative that dictates political truth. It seems clear to me that at least some of Clinton's partisans are thinking about politics in this way, which is why (for example) even gentle mockery of liberal Twitter etiquette is considered dangerous enough to put victory at risk. Trump has to be wrong on every front and in every way imaginable, so that even when he goes on an odd but mostly benign tangent about Putin's strength as a malevolent leader, even this has to be eviscerated as some kind of horrific gaffe.
These dynamics aren't mutually exclusive, and they're largely variations on the same theme: some combination of ideology and expedience has completely divorced liberals from any ability to engage with an obvious observation about Putin's power and influence. The semantics of a "bad leader" are so verboten in their ideology, and the prospect of agreeing with a Republican presidential candidate so anathema, that liberals have become uncoupled from reality; leadership must be treated as purely good, and Trump as purely evil. Thus, liberals are completely incapable of parsing a truism so dull that even the blandest media outlets were treating it as conventional wisdom a decade ago.

And that, as I put it earlier, is what radical liberalism looks like.


The Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown

Wednesday night, Jonathan Chait kicked off one of my favorite election year traditions: the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown. The most famous version of this was Andrew Sullivan's hilarious Did Obama Just Throw The Entire Election Away? freakout in 2012, when he proclaimed that "Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion" after a relatively lethargic performance in his first debate against Romney. This time around, our pundits didn't even wait for a proper debate. Chait has declared Matt Lauer's back-to-back interviews with Clinton and Trump the Scariest Thing I've Seen in This Campaign, and elaborated:
The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print-news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer.
This, note, is a direct echo of an anxiety Sullivan hinted at four years ago:
I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover.
In both cases, elite pundits are horrified by the prospect that a substantial number of Americans live outside the ideological bubble of elite media.

Sullivan's meltdown, of course, turned out to be premature, but at least it was grounded in something resembling reality: over 67 million Americans watched Obama-Romney I, accounting for more than 20% of eligible voters. What I find telling here is that while Chait is expressing identical concerns, his are almost entirely baseless. Only about 11 million Americans watched Lauer's forum - that's roughly what America's Got Talent pulled in on the same night, and only accounts for about 3% of eligible voters.

Here is my theory: every presidential election, elite media spends a good year building a grand partisan narrative in favor of one candidate and against the other. And every four years, these carefully constructed narratives crash head-first into reality the first time both candidates get live comparative exposure on national television. When that happens, candidates have their first major opportunity to circumvent the entire elite media apparatus and make a comparative case for themselves directly to the voters. For a moment, at least, our pundits are reminded that media control of the political narrative has significant limits - and this scares the hell out of them. Thus the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown.

This theory is actually pretty similar to Chait's premise that low-info voters aren't being adequately informed by our experts and politics-knowers; but there are two important differences.

First, as Chait proves in the very disproportion of his concern - he worries about "most Americans" and the "average undecided voter", when in fact only a tiny fraction of voters saw Lauer's show - our media elite isn't necessarily better informed than anyone else. They don't even have a very realistic conception of their own influence, and of where and how voters get their information. People like Chait think that we have an education problem here, which is why we're supposed to be "stunned and appalled" may not see things his way; but Chait is a guy who approves of invading Iraq and complains about Marx without actually reading him. There is, contra Chait, considerable reason to be grateful that most Americans live outside of the elite media bubble.

This brings us to our second point, which is that what our elite pundits are really worried about is control. This is, again, proven in the very disproportion of Chait's concern: the prospect that a mere 3% of voters could be beyond his ideological reach is enough to send him into an insane late-evening tailspin of anguish over The Fate Of Our Republic.

Like Sullivan, Chait views his absolute control of American political discourse to be a matter of existential, world-historical importance, when in fact their fairly inept contributions to the national debate are thankfully fairly irrelevant. That's why the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown is such a beautiful thing: it reminds us of how ridiculous and unimportant media discourse really is.


Bro essay postscript

This point didn't fit comfortably in the bro essay I posted yesterday, but it's nagging at me. From Jezebel's piece: a bro is
An adult male whose social life revolves around collegiate homosocial bonding...a young, usually unmarried, often immature guy who just does what everyone else his age seems to be doing.
Given what we know about the economy's impact on youth marriage rates, this is just extraordinarily vicious. It is true that young unmarried men are more prevalent than they used to be, but this isn't because of immaturity - it's because they can't afford it. Millennials don't have the luxury their parents and grandparents had of marrying early and building social lives around their families. To fill that void in community, young people have different socialization patterns than previous generations did; this is all an entirely predictable consequence of yawning economic inequality that falls disproportionately on the young.

Especially since the people throwing "bro" around tend to have families - or are well-off enough to afford them - I see no way of uncoupling this slur from one of the more odious symptoms of inequality in America today. It is a way for privileged people to ridicule the victims of their success, and to disclaim responsibility for the economic and cultural conditions they have created by blaming youth marriage rates on immaturity. The subtext of "bro", at least as constructed by Jezebel: bootstrap yourself out of capitalism, get a danged career, start a family like your mother and I did, and stop spending so much time with your friends.


Bros are actually good

Finally, Gilgamesh threw the wild man and with his right knee pinned him to the ground. His anger left him. He turned away. The contest was over. Enkidu said, "Gilgamesh, you are unique among humans. Your mother, the goddess Ninsun, made you stronger and braver than any mortal, and rightly has Enlil granted you the kingship, since you are destined to rule over men." They embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers.
Reflecting on this passage from Gilgamesh, two things stand out to me. First, by the time this - one of our oldest surviving texts - was written, "like brothers" was already a simile the audience would have understood. The notion of brotherhood, not just as a familial relationship, but as a special kind of interpersonal bond, emerges from the mists of prehistory in the third millennium BCE already fully formed; it strikes me as probable that the idea has been with us for nearly as long as we've had language. As Jaynes notes, "In early times, language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors" - and the biological fact of siblings has always provided a rich, immediate and obvious basis for such abstractions.

Whatever its ultimate origins, the presence of such similes in Gilgamesh reminds us that brotherhood has always been a ubiquitous and honored facet of human culture. Colonialist historian George McCall Theal complained of South Africans that "they claim every other person they meet as a brother or sister." In the Phra Malai Klon Suat, the buddha Maitreya explains that he will not appear until "the people of [the human realm] each other as if they were one family - like brothers and sisters". The Proverbs of Solomon praises the "friend who sticks closer than a brother." Plato, in his imagined utopia, insisted that "her citizens they are to regard as...their own brothers." Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners [would] be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood"; and Engels praised the belief that "Every one should be a brother to each other" as proof of "a budding revolutionary spirit".

A second feature of the Gilgamesh passage - which happens to emerge repeatedly in the other examples I've noted - is the distinctly progressive cultural character of brotherhood. The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu has long been understood as a metaphor for both the civilization of humanity (in Enkidu's departure from the steppe) and the humanization of civilization (in Gilgamesh's grappling with the facts of friendship and death). Even the signifiers of their friendship - the physical affection of embracing, kissing, and the holding hands, all in reconciliation after conflict - are in tension, as brotherhood has always been, with what today we would characterize as heteronormative toxic masculinity.

Similarly, the view of brotherhood recounted by Theal is immediately implicated in anti-colonialism in its rejection of Eurocentric norms ("Among the natives of South Africa relationship is viewed differently from what it is by Europeans," Theal complains). Maitreya understands brotherhood as a force of sympathy at odds with reactionary provincialism - it emerges when we are "concerned even about those far away". Solomon understands brotherhood as a form of solidarity and social stability, contrasting those who stand together with "unreliable friends [who] soon come to ruin"; Plato, similarly, points to the solidarity of brotherhood as a basis for citizenship (it is our sympathy with each other that should compel us to "advise [the state] for good, and to defend her against attacks"). MLK recognized brotherhood as a force for antiracism, and Engels, of course, as a motive for revolution.


It'd be obtuse to insist that the recent political pejoration of the word "bro" expresses some open liberal rejection of brotherhood as such - but the term still begs for an explanation. In the face of a deep and abiding cultural fondness for bros, rooted in both progressive values and one of the most intimate human relationships that exist, a handful of media activists have taken it upon themselves to wield it as a term of abuse. What stake do they have in fighting this uphill battle? Where are these negative connotations of "bro" coming from?

As it so often does, etymology provides us a clue. From Here Comes the Berniebro, widely credited with coining the term:
The Berniebro, now that you think about it, was the kind of person who’d show up to a college party in a toga. You remember it maybe being the Berniebro’s profile picture once.
Obviously, what the author has in mind here is the frat bro - but it's striking, particularly in this article, how utterly vacuous that designation actually is. Consider the standard criticism of fraternities:
  • Frat bros are unserious jocks and partiers. The Berniebro, however, is serious to the point of humorlessness ("His face does not seem to entertain the possibility that [jokes at Sanders' expense] could ever be humorous"); and he is directly politically engaged, as he "always writes with an urgent, anxious seriousness when discussing national politics". 
  • Fraternities are known for their implication in rape culture. There's nothing even approaching that accusation here; at worst, the Berniebro is a feminist, but an allegedly "performative" feminist.
  • Frat bros are elitist and "heritage"-obsessed reactionaries. Berniebros, however, want to "change the country" by "nominating an actual democratic socialist" and advocating "highly principled, pie-in-the-sky progressive policies".
There is, that is to say, little about the "bro" of liberal imagination that corresponds to the usual political criticism we have of people in fraternities. Nor does it even correspond to the general cultural stereotypes. The various activists, media figures, and trolls routinely implicated in "brocialism" are hardly distinguished by their love of beer pong, or the Dave Matthews Band, or any unusual athleticism; they are not guys who wear Eddie Bauer polos or backwards Tapout hats; off the top of my head, I don't know of a single Jacobin writer or reader who was ever involved in an actual fraternity. 


So even if we consider its narrower, frat-related sense, we're still no closer to figuring out why the "bro" has come to play such a pejorative role in liberal rhetoric. I suspect this is why, little more than a year after its popularization, the term has already become stale - the province of lazy hacks and out-of-touch pundits - and why others have already begun migrating over to the functionally identical prefix "alt-". The term simply has no connection to the lived experience of most of the population, and no rhetorical resonance outside of exceedingly narrow media circles.

Notably, Here Comes the Berniebros' author has tried to distance his own piece from frat associations - he ridicules the objection "that Berniebros per se aren't canonical PBR-chugging bros," and insists that "Bro long ago took on a way more fluid, more interesting definition", namely
An adult male whose social life revolves around collegiate homosocial bonding and who also presents himself in a way that assimilates to the prevailing aesthetic of men with similar socialization patterns...a bro is a young, usually unmarried, often immature guy who just does what everyone else his age seems to be doing. 
This strikes me as revisionism: the original Berniebro essay says nothing about being unmarried, for example, or conformist, but it does place him in a toga, and confers on him an interest in "jangly bearded bands." What seems more likely is that the author, for the same reason that he wrote his initial essay in the second person, is distancing himself from owning personal specific grievances with fraternities - while still playing on whatever personal grievances his readers might have with them.

Still, if we accept this new definition, I think it explains a lot; set aside the question-begging judgment that Berniebros / brocialists are immature, and what remains are two points of anxiety. First, a bro is "young", and "does what everyone else his age seems to be doing"; and second, he engages in "homosocial bonding" characterized by "similar socialization patterns" (often with "a group of 5 or 6 other" bros).

Put this way, it's perfectly obvious what the "bro" slur is about: utterly banal generational and in-group/out-group conflict. 

On one hand, olds - and conservative young people who've internalized the perspective of their elders - see kids these days as faddish and conformist; this is how the Boomers were seen by their parents, and how Gilgamesh's parents saw him just a few years earlier. That's why the "bro" slur is so "fluid" (read: general); it just devolves into the vague disapproval by reactionaries of modern culture, which can be articulated and taxonomized however you like.

On the other hand, the anxiety about "similar socialization patterns" and the "groups" that "bros" move in suggests that much of this devolves into sheer tribalism. Out-groups look at the bonding that emerges among in-groups, and at the shared culture that emerges among them, and predictably see all of this as artificial and motivated; what matters is not that these Berniebros and brocialists all wear togas or drink PBRs, but that they are all the same in some (shifting and often unspecified) sense. "Bro" is the empty signifier of that sameness - and it's the signifier because what animates their anxiety, whether liberals know it or not, is consciousness of emerging comradery and solidarity among their opponents.

That's why even women, we have learned, can be bros: what is at stake here is not some critique about gender norms, but rather concern about the brotherhood and sisterhood of the opposition. As noted, these have always been progressive forces in human history, mobilizing our empathy, our shared humanity, and our collective power against the forces of oppression; to call someone a "bro" is simply to see her as part of a larger collective, one with shared norms and politics that have brought them together. And that's all it has ever meant - "bro" is nothing more than the sarcastic "comrade" the last generation of capitalists sarcastically hurled at communists, a last-ditch attack on the power of a unified left.


Who trusts Clinton?

It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that Joan Walsh is at it again:

This is of course true in the utterly trivial sense that white voters distrust Clinton more than anyone else, but that's as far as it goes. Polling on this is pretty clear:

Clinton isn't considered honest by a majority of any racial group, and only even earns a plurality among black voters. Among all other demographics, more voters distrust her than trust her. Even among black voters, around 31% say that she's dishonest. Overall, by pretending that only white voters distrust Clinton, Walsh is erasing the more than 40% of non-white respondents who don't trust her, either.

More to the point, however, political assessments of trust are hardly disinterested: they are significantly correlated with partisan affiliation, which is why Democrats will always tend to trust Democrats and Republicans will always tend to trust Republicans. To control for that, the better comparison would be between different racial groupings among self-identified Democrats:

Here, the trend is quite different. Clinton still enjoys disproportionate trust among black Democrats (though even a quarter of those respondents still distrust her), but she also enjoys plurality support among white Democrats as well. Her distrust numbers are higher among white voters than among black voters, but only by 9.7% - compare that with the 37% distrust gap between white and black voters when we don't control for partisanship. Meanwhile, the only group of Democrats who do tend to distrust Clinton are not whites, but Hispanics, by a slim 3% margin. Among other races, Clinton's distrust numbers are directly comparable to whites (at ~36%), while her trust numbers are appreciably lower (37% vs. 43.1%).

So when we control for partisanship, what we see is that distrust for Clinton is hardly driven by whiteness. The two most remarkable trends are, first, her outsized trust among black Democrats, and second, her plurality distrust among Hispanic Democrats. More white Democrats trust her than distrust her; that latter number, meanwhile, is comparable or less than her distrust among Hispanic and "other" Democrats, and only varies from her substantial distrust among black Democrats by around 9%.