5/16/19

Mike Gravel is running a more credible campaign than most Democrats

For one simple reason: if you want to win, you have to be willing to attack Joe Biden.

Right now, this is how the polls look:


I guess one can imagine a bizarre universe where more than 70% of the candidates who don't already support Biden rally around a single opponent, but this defies both common sense and about five seconds of looking at the polls. If you want to win, Biden's numbers have to come down. This means attacking him. If you aren't attacking him, you are not actually trying to win.

Senator Mike Gravel, of course, is not actually trying to win the Democratic nomination. He's said so himself. But there really is no reason why we should take a candidate who is being open and honest about his agenda less seriously than candidates like Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and, Beto O'Rourke - candidates who also have no intention to win.

How do we know this? Because they aren't attacking Biden. They don't have a distinct version of America that they are willing to fight for, even if that means standing up to the frontrunner. Say what you will about Gravel, but it is beyond dispute that he has a clear platform and politics. That's precisely why his campaign has launched repeated, ferocious attacks on Biden's vote for Iraq, his opposition to busing, his defense of the big banks, his criminal justice record, and so on.

At this point, there's no real question as to why Gravel is running - the only real question is why his opponents are. Certainly it is convenient, for a certain variety of embarrassed centrist, to have a selection of vaguely progressive stand-ins to "support" until it's time to fall in line behind Biden, but it's hard to imagine that being a deliberate objective for their campaigns. More likely, they're just getting in on the standard also-ran grift that's become a staple of every major party primary, where candidates try to leverage novelty campaigns into book sales, pundit gigs, a boosted national profile, and perhaps even a VP nomination. Here, again, Gravel has distinguished himself from his opponents. He hasn't shown any interest in any of that so far; his fundraising, for example, has explicitly called for the smallest donation possible, simply in an effort to get him into the presidential debates.

Say what you will about Mike Gravel, but you cannot dismiss him as a fringe novelty candidate: he is a former United States Senator who played, among other things, a historic role in ending the Vietnam War. You cannot dismiss him as a third party candidate, as so many dismissed Ralph Nader; you cannot dismiss him as not-a-Democrat, as so many have dismissed Bernie Sanders. You cannot dismiss him as marginal in the polls: he continues to outperform multiple candidates who everyone agrees are legitimate candidates. And you cannot dismiss him as irrelevant: Gravel is fighting the frontrunner, which makes him infinitely more relevant than the dozen or so also-rans who won't.

Podcast chat on Fox News boycott skepticism

I laid out a socialist case for skepticism of the Fox News boycott - and what a socialist solution to Fox News looks like - in an interview with Joe Virgillito on The Daily Beat.

5/13/19

Joe Biden is a retreat from the age of Obama

Joe Biden is going to spend the next year selling his campaign as a return to the era of Barack Obama. And this means, of course, that every other candidate will spend a lot of time reminding us that Joe Biden is not Barack Obama - that everything about him, from his record to his philosophy to his vision for the future, is if anything a step back from Obama's legacy.

Usually, this is going to just involve the tedious work of wading through Biden's fifty year political career and dredging up all of the votes and quotes he'd rather we forget. Instead of delving through all of that, however, I want to look at something different: how people have talked about Biden. Specifically, about what they had to say about him before it became useful to hype his progressive bona fides and position him as an ally of the liberal-left.

Because that's not how anyone talked about him before. In fact, when Obama selected Biden as his VP in 2008, this was almost universally regarded - even among mainstream liberal pundits - as a move to pacify white, establishment, conservative critics who were squeamish about voting for a young black president running as an agent of change.


David Brooks, for example, praised the Biden pick as a move away from Obama's "romantic" message of change back towards the "realistic" politics of John McCain:
When Obama talks about postpartisanship, he talks about a grass-roots movement that will arise and sweep away the old ways of Washington. When John McCain talks about it, he describes a meeting of wise old heads who get together to craft compromises. Obama’s vision is more romantic, but McCain’s is more realistic...If Obama hopes to pass energy and health care legislation, he’s going to need someone with that kind of legislative knowledge who can bring the battered old senators together, as in days of yore...Biden’s the one. The only question is whether Obama was wise and self-aware enough to know that. (NYT, 8/11/2008)

Here's how Chuck Todd put it in How Barack Obama Won:
Despite all of the cable chatter by uninformed hype-analysts about putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket, the campaign believed Obama needed someone safe, and safe meant an older white guy... Obama, himself, wanted to be a bit more daring.... 
[But] much of Obama's goal for the final months of the general election campaign was making voters who didn't like Bush and wanted change feel comfortable with him. Biden did that. As the candidate himself would say, Obama is the change...[but] he needed to surround himself with folks who were reassuring...the folks he picked were the conventional, experienced choices, not risky change agents. (19-20)
Here, Todd seems to underestimate just how daring Obama wanted to be. Subsequent reporting shows that he took the possibility of a Clinton pick quite seriously, for example: in Game Change, Heilemann and Halperin report that Obama
kept raising a name that wasn't on any ledger: Clinton...Let's just run through the Hillary option again, he would say to his brain trust. She's tough, she's smart, she's prepared to be president, she has a constituency - she got eighteen million votes. You can't just dismiss that. (339)
The lure of a safe, right-leaning pick ultimately proved to be too seductive, but the authors add that "right up until the moment he rendered his decision as final, Obama kept chuckling, shaking his head, and thinking, I can’t believe I’m picking Biden." (341)

Even Obama's own advisors - the voices of caution and centrism in that selection process - were uneasy about Biden. In The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe recalls a meeting with him that "confirmed what we suspected: this dog could not be taught new tricks." During that meeting, Plouffe and David Axelrod confronted Biden about an issue that both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have taken him to task over in recent weeks: his stance on consumer bankruptcy protections.
...we asked him how he would answer questions about differences in views or voting record with Obama. We used a bankruptcy bill, where, put simply, Biden had taken the position of the banks, and Obama, of the consumers. Delaware was the state with the largest number of financial corporations, so this was not a small matter in terms of how Biden would approach it. (291)
Obama's team was right to worry. Biden's cozy relationship with the Delaware credit industry - and his work on that bill in particular - was rightly regarded as a betrayal of the working class and a serious liability for a populist campaign running on a message of change. Will Bunch, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, captured the standard reaction:
The sad truth is that Biden not only supported but aggressively pushed for a conservative, anti-working class bill that made life a lot harder for that family he talked about...So why would Obama go ahead and pick someone with this kind of baggage? ...It just means that Obama, who was on the people's side on this one, now won't be able to his this issue as hard as he could. (8/25/2008)
The anti-war movement - which had returned control of Congress to Democrats in 2006's wave election, and then propelled Obama to the nomination on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War - also regarded Biden's nomination as a step backwards. Even then, Biden had developed a reputation as one of the most hawkish Democrats in the Senate: he had been agitating for a unilateral attack on Iraq since at least 1998, and infamously called for the country to be partitioned in the wake of Bush's invasion. Stephen Zunes, writing for Foreign Policy in Focus, offered a typical reaction:
Incipient Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate constitutes a stunning betrayal of the anti-war constituency who made possible his hard-fought victory in the Democratic primaries and caucuses....Early in his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to not only end the war in Iraq, but to challenge the mindset that got the United States into Iraq in the first place. Choosing Biden as his running mate, however, raises doubts regarding Obama’s actual commitment to “change we can believe in.” (8/24/2008)
From Brooks to Cockburn, from Todd to Greenwald, this was the 2008 consensus: Obama chose Biden to shore up his right flank. There was of course significant controversy over whether this pick was a good thing - a savvy concession to get a black progressive in office, or a base capitulation to the reactionaries - but there was never any question about who Biden was. Nor should there be today. Joe Biden isn't a step back to Obama - he's a step back from Obama, a point that, until quite recently, we all took for granted.

5/10/19

Biden can be beat

Abi Wilkinson asks, "Give me your most persuasive, optimistic case for why it's not going to be Biden." Here's my take.

Biden's enjoying his post-announcement honeymoon right now, which is always a moment of strength for any presidential campaign. But even now, 50% of voters are backing another candidate, while 9% aren't backing any candidate [1]; meanwhile, if you ask voters to pick all of the candidates they would vote for, 54% of them won't even consider Joe Biden. [2] And only a minority of voters - 41% a the moment - want him to win. [3]

Biden is not, in other words, a frontrunner with majority support - he needs his opponents to split their vote. But even worse for Biden: most voters want him to lose. This gives us every reason to believe that as his opponents drop out, their supporters will disproportionately migrate to anyone-but-Biden. Which means that his lead will probably narrow as time goes on, a trend that will disproportionately favor candidates who have a high floor of support and who can afford to tough it out.

Bernie can be that candidate. Even at his worst (14.6%), his floor his still higher than the highest ceiling of any not-Biden candidate in the race (three months ago, Kamala Harris managed to reach 12.3%) [4]. He still has the most enthusiastic supporters in the race with a 21% "Very Favorable" rating and a 2.01 Likert score. [5] And Sander is still, of course, demolishing the rest of the field in fundraising, earning $15.3 million in donations under $200. [6]

It is difficult to predict with any rigor how dropouts will benefit Biden and Bernie; as Nathaniel Rakich points out, second choices are fluid and unpredictable [7], and when multiple candidates are dropping out, third, fourth, and fifth choices start mattering too. One simple poll probably illustrates this point: if you ask voters whether they prefer Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, a plurality (31%) says "Neither One", and the percent that says "About the same" (16%) is more than enough to wipe out Biden's current lead over Bernie (30% versus 23%, putting him 7% up).

If the race comes down to Biden and Sanders, as I think it will [8], then as many as 45% of primary voters who don't already favor one or the other will have a choice to make. This doesn't mean that Biden will lose, but it does mean that he is probably very beatable - and that Bernie is almost certainly in the best position to do it.

5/9/19

Three left critiques of Jay Inslee's "Climate Conservation Corps"

Data for Progress has published an article by Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee calling for the creation of a Climate Conservation Corps (CCC). Since Inslee has labored to brand himself as our climate candidate, I'd like to offer some friendly criticism from the left:

1. Fix your defunding problem.

Inslee promotes the CCC as "a bigger, more ambitious" version of the Clean Energy Service Corps, which Barack Obama created in 2009. But the immediate problem facing the CESC was not that it was too small or unambitious; the immediate problem, as Inslee himself admits, was that it "was never fully funded after Republicans took control of Congress in 2010."

This is, in fact, the immediate problem facing nearly every climate change proposal being advanced by the left: deniers do not want to fund action on climate change, and as soon as they take power they will defund it. But as we see with the CCC, most of the proposals being advanced by climate activists and policymakers seem to be proceeding on the reckless and implausible theory that once we take power, right-wing Democrats and Republicans will never take office again.

Inslee - and everyone else pushing climate policy - needs to explain how their proposals will deal with the defunding problem. There are ways to construct policy that make it significantly less vulnerable to right-wing defunding, but if our plan is just "never lose an election again", the left is taking an absolutely intolerable risk.


2. Fix your funding problem.

To his credit, Inslee is one of the only candidates to give significant attention to the central and most urgent challenge in the fight against climate change: green international development. Inslee calls for the creation of a "Global Climate Service Corps", which will provide boots on the ground "to help rebuild a more sustainable world" abroad.

This program, presumably, would demand a lot of funding in order to pay for these positions (more on this below). But like nearly every other mainstream liberal-left advocate for climate action, Inslee is ignoring the central political problem of international climate development: scale. Say it with me: Climate action means sending at least two trillion from the global north to the global south every year. Climate action means sending at least two trillion from the global north to the global south every year. Climate action means sending at least two trillion from the global north to the global south every year.

Neither Washington DC nor the US public at large is even dreaming of funding on this scale. It would be the most ambitious and transformative redistribution program, by several orders of magnitude, in the history of the world. We are not going to secure this kind of funding without an enormous political fight. We need to fix the international funding problem, and that begins by admitting that it exists.


3. Fix your imperialism problem.

Again: Inslee deserves credit for at least acknowledging an international dimension to the fight against climate change, something that we can't take for granted even among the "ecosocialist" left. But even as he calls for a Global Climate Service Corps, Inslee seems to be insisting on a curious restriction: this program "will give Americans the opportunity" [emphasis added] to assist with international development.

Obviously, the investments we need to make in international funding are going to seem a lot more palatable to the US public if they are promoted in the name of US interests - giving Americans jobs, advancing America's "standing" in the international community, and so on. And as I've argued here, if that's what it takes to win political support for a sufficiently ambitious international development program, then climate activists need to accept this - even if it chaffes our anti-imperialist ecosocialist sensibilities.

But in this case, once we bear in mind the $2 trillion rule, it beggars belief that a green Peace Corps could actually provide in personnel and expertise even a fraction of the international aid the US needs to contribute. To put this in perspective, the Peace Corps's annual budget is about $400 million, which is about .06% of what we should be investing in the fight against climate change. And of course, creating an agency that relocates US residents all over the world so that they can do the work is astronomically less cost-effective than funding people who already live there.

Unfortunately, the polling Data for Progress has published for Inslee's Climate Conservation Corps erases its international component entirely - it only asks about "repairing and upgrading our infrastructure" [emphasis added]. So unless they're sitting on numbers that they haven't released, we really have no idea what Americans think about the most important part of his proposal.

But if winning the support of Americans for green international development means dodging the fight over funding and floating a program that would almost certainly be inadequate to the task, then we need to understand this as a case where green imperialism is standing directly in the way of progress. If Inslee wants the support of a left that's calling for an ambitious and internationalist fight against climate change, he's going to have to do better than this.

5/1/19

It's Bernie - or Biden.

I think we can all agree that our country would be much better off if Bernie Sanders were competing for the Democratic nomination against Gloria La Riva, Cornell West, or (why not?) Liza Featherstone. If that were the choice facing socialists in our fight to defeat Donald Trump, then it would make perfect sense for us to stand on the sidelines and watch these primaries play out. We could have a sensible debate over whether to break up the banks or simply nationalize them, for example, with full confidence that either outcome would pose a serious and enduring threat to capital.

And yet here we are, nearly a year away from the primary, and it already seems quite clear that Sanders will not be running against La Riva, Featherstone, or West. It also seems unlikely that he'll be running against Warren, Buttigieg, or Beto - three opponents who remain mired in the single-digits even as they run as self-proclaimed capitalists.

Instead - if preference polling, favorability polling, first-day fundraising totals, and endorsements are any indication - Sanders' primary opponent for the Democratic nomination will almost certainly be Joe Biden. He is winning by all of these measures, and has been for several months now, and usually by a significant margin. Sanders has managed to pass him in preference polling a few times, has annihilated him in various straw polls of uncertain legitimacy, and has built a sizeable lead in overall fundraising - but none of this is enough to make him the frontrunner. And the rest of the field, meanwhile, is trailing far behind.


A persisting theory in circulation right now - call it the Biden Bubble - maintains that his lead is only temporary, and that his infamous propensity for gaffes, along with his record of bad votes and general creepiness, will eventually catch up with him.

Here's my counter-scenario: none of this will matter. Biden will maintain a high floor of support propped up by Obama nostalgia, by disengaged voters who recognize his name but who will otherwise ignore the primaries until the final week, and by centrists who genuinely love his politics. As the primaries wear on and his opponents drop out, he'll pick up a disproportionate number of anyone-but-Sanders voters who see him as their best bet, and of establishment players who need to bet on the winning horse for the sake of their careers. There will be a snowball effect, and sooner or later socialists will find themselves staring down the barrel of a Trump-or-Biden election.

The situation we find ourselves in is directly comparable to what faced Republicans in 2016: an unacceptable and eminently beatable frontrunner who is nevertheless guaranteed to win if the divided opposition can't unite around another candidate. The GOP saw the writing on the wall quite early on; even Scott Walker had the sense to drop out and beg his opponents to rally against Trump. It was a classic collective action problem - for the greater good, most of the GOP candidates (as well as their base) would have to sacrifice their personal preferences. And yet even as Trump's poll numbers soared and their own numbers tanked, also-rans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio insisted on staying in the race.

Socialism is the politics of collective action. If we can't even do better than the GOP on this, we will lose. Every indicator we have says that Joe Biden is the candidate to beat, and every indicator we have points to one candidate as the best chance to beat him. It's still Bernie.

4/24/19

A simple strategy for restoring felon voting rights

Once in office, immediately frame your victory as a national referendum on felon voting rights. Give Congress one month to pass legislation, warning them that if they fail you will be forced to start using the blunt instrument of mass pardons in order to enact this clear democratic mandate. 

If they miss the deadline, begin by issuing pardons that will draw as little opposition as possible: clear cases of wrongful conviction, some innocuous subset of non-violent offenders, and so on. Repeat the initial demand, warning that you will issue even more pardons if Congress fails to pass legislation. Repeat, repeat, and repeat until Congress passes legislation or it becomes politically impossible for you to continue.

*   *   *

This proposal may seem extraordinarily radical, risky, and combative, and I have no doubt that even sympathetic socialists can come up with legitimate strategic and legal quibbles over the particulars. To its credit, however, I think that this kind of strategy recognizes several important political realities that socialists need to come to terms with moving forward:

1. The modern presidency, despite its serious shortcomings, still has more democratic legitimacy than the Senate, the Supreme Court, state and local governments, and arguably the House. Socialists who are committed to meaningful parliamentary or direct democracy need to recognize that what we have ain't it, that what we have was not even designed to be it, and that there is no point in pretending otherwise. Right now the presidency is both our most democratic institution and our best hope for creating a better democracy, and socialists should not hesitate to use it.

2. The president's most viable route to enacting the democratic will will often be through executive action. This is really just an elaboration on point (1), but we should be clear-eyed about it: in the immediate future, Congress will pose an often insurmountable obstacle to democracy. The most effective way the president has to deal with this is through his executive authority: either by simply using it, or by leveraging it to force legislative concessions. Presidents need to bow to this reality and proceed accordingly by pursuing an agenda that is open to working outside of antiquated legislative norms.

3. Our next president should maximize her political leverage by moving as quickly as possible after she is elected. When a president is elected, there is always significant uncertainty about how much of a power-shift has just taken place - and yet there is also extraordinary ideological and institutional pressure on our elite to affirm, out of respect for democracy, that whatever has just happened is legitimate. That's why, despite the usual allegations of foul play at the polls, elections also usually end with the opposition making a big show of respecting the results, congratulating the winner, and declaring hopes for their success.

This moment can never last, but as long as it does, our next president needs to take the opportunity to affirm that a change has taken place - to ratchet in new norms and a radical shift in our politics, all with the memory of a recently mobilized and commanding political majority close at hand. There is never a better time to pursue socialist ambitions as aggressively as possible.

4. One of our immediate priorities should be to expand and entrench our power. This is just remedial Machiavelli so I don't want to dwell on it - either you accept it, or you don't - but since US socialists are so allergic to wielding and maintaining power, the point has to be made. When we take control of the state, one of the very first things we need to do is ensure that all of the antidemocratic obstacles placed in the way of our continued control of the state are completely destroyed. If you do not do this then it is probably only a matter of time until the enemies of democracy take power once again and tear down everything you have accomplished. This was one of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration, and it allowed the radical right to exploit the Achilles' heel of his incrementalist politics.

The left must not let that happen again. As I argued four years ago, one of the best ways to prevent that would be for our next president to move quickly to enact democratic reforms through executive action - and that calculus hasn't changed.

4/19/19

The case for a Fox News boycott is extremely weak

Bernie Sanders held a town hall on Fox News this week. By most accounts, it was a smashing success. It also, however, reignited a familiar debate on the liberal-left: should anyone ever go on Fox News?

My take on this is that the case for a Fox News boycott is remarkably weak. This is particularly true when one considers the sheer weight that it has to carry - all of the demands it makes of skeptical comrades.
  • First, it asks us to abandon any political benefits that an appearance on Fox News might seem to offer. One can argue that it would win votes, expose viewers to a different perspective, raise left morale, and so on - but that answer will always be that the cost of breaking the boycott is too high. Partisans of the boycott have to hold the line on this, because if they make exceptions, then suddenly every appearance is negotiable.
  • Second, it asks for moral authority. Since the boycott demands universal buy-in, its advocates have to insist that their strategy is not a legitimate approach but the legitimate approach. Necessarily, the partisan of the boycott claims the right to call skeptical comrades enablers of the right - perhaps unwittingly, or perhaps, of course, due to their sinister right-wing sympathies. This is why so many debates over what should be merely a question of tactics devolve into serious allegations of moral failure.
  • Finally, the boycott demands all of this for the indefinite future. This is not some surgical short-term action; it's a long war against a machine that has been at this for years and shows no signs of slowing down. And there is, evidently, no reality-check that we can conduct which would allow us to conclude at some point, "Okay - this isn't working."
This is a lot to ask from comrades who oppose the right, and who hope for an end to Fox News - but who don't find the arguments for a boycott terribly convincing.


Note that I say "arguments" in the plural. Because unfortunately, the debate over a Fox News boycott seems to have a real whack-a-mole quality: address one case for it, and you'll soon be informed that the argument for a boycott is something else entirely. This makes it difficult to have a productive conversation on the topic, and it also makes it hard to write about the boycott in a systematic way; the best I can do is take on the different arguments one-by-one.


WHACK-A-MOLE ONE: "No one who watches Fox News is open to persuasion"

The view that all Fox News viewers are brainwashed partisans may be popular among activists who are looking for a simplified culture war, but it is just that - a simplification. In fact, about one in every five Fox News viewers identify as liberal, according to a study of ideological segregation by the National Bureau of Economic Research. [1] Consider meanwhile that Bernie Sanders, for example, has a roughly 13% approval rating among self-identified conservatives [2]: that puts the "gettable" Fox News viewers at as much as 30%, depending on what one is hoping to accomplish.

Additionally, one also has to take into account the way that any given Fox News appearance can disseminate beyond the channel's immediate audience, generate secondary media coverage, produce viral content online, and so on. These propagation effects can be hard to measure rigorously, but nevertheless, it seems clear that in today's media ecosystem an appearance in Fox News can become an appearance everywhere.


WHACK-A-MOLE TWO: "Fox News will make you look bad"

Because the channel is notorious for bullying guests, manipulating them, and misrepresenting them with unscrupulous editing, advocates for a boycott occasionally argue that one simply can't do a successful appearance on Fox News. This objection isn't really worth contesting much beyond pointing out that it's demonstrably untrue. In just the past year, leftists from Katie Halper to Elizabeth Bruenig to Rutger Bregman made extraordinary appearances on the channel, and as Nathan Robinson argues, all it really takes is some talent and preparation.


WHACK-A-MOLE THREE: "If you go on Fox News, viewers will regard it as a legitimate outlet"

Here, I think advocates for a boycott run into a serious practical problem that opens up with a simple question: for it to work, does everyone have to participate? Or does it become more or less successful as more or less people buy in?

Consider the first possibility: that for the boycott to work, the liberal-left needs to hold the line and deny Fox News even a single fig leaf of legitimacy. It's entirely possible that this is how it would have to work; by analogy, we can look at the GOP's strategy of denying Obama-era legislation bipartisan legitimacy by refusing to give it even a single vote. As soon as a single Blue Dog Congressperson or a rogue pundit appears on Fox News, one can easily imagine a tidal wave of commercials featuring their image and selling every show as "fair and balanced."

If this is how the boycott needs to work, then the analogy to the Obama-era GOP gives us another insight: strategic discipline is extraordinarily difficult to maintain among large and diverse groups of people with different interests over the long term. The goal of maintaining this kind of absolute, unbroken boycott - and not just among politicians, but among pundits, activists, and anyone else who could possibly give the network ideological cover - strikes me as so ambitious that I think it's entirely fair to question its plausibility. As evidence, I point to the past fifteen years of attempted boycotts, which have never been able to achieve universal buy-in for all kinds of obvious reasons.

On the other hand, one can always argue that the Fox News boycott doesn't need to be absolute to achieve its intended effect; for it to work, the liberal-left only need to reach some critical mass of people unwilling to appear on the channel to delegitimize it. This strikes me as a more plausible strategy, but it also means that we have to start talking about the boycott strategy in a different way: as soon as we concede that it doesn't need absolute buy-in, then one can legitimately make the case for circumstantial exceptions.


WHACK-A-MOLE FOUR: "If you go on Fox News, you'll legitimize it for advertisers"

This is the boycott argument proper: we should stay off Fox News as a way of imposing financial pressure against its owners, forcing them to change their business model in order to retain its corporate sponsors. I don't think it takes much imagination, however, to see that this argument faces the same buy-in problems as the last one. If we can put pressure on advertisers without demanding absolute buy-in on the boycott from the liberal-left, then any particular appearance is negotiable. If on the other hand the boycott demands absolute buy-in from any and all potential guests on the liberal-left for the foreseeable future, then it's probably not going to work.

On that note, I think it's worth reflecting on how this strategic analysis fits into broader debates about boycotts on the liberal-left. There is no denying that they've proven themselves a powerful tool in the hands of activists working to achieve specific, limited goals; even when it comes to Fox News, the liberal-left has successfully used boycotts to bring down hosts and cancel shows. But part of being a socialist is recognizing that some problems are simply too big, and too entrenched in the fundamental operations of capitalism, to solve with private-sector activism and conscientious consumption. The proletariat does not have infinite leverage, through our collective resources and sheer force of will, to bend and shape markets however we please; that's precisely why we have to overthrow capitalism altogether.

In this case, after fifteen years, the liberal-left has not even come within radio-telescope distance of bringing down Fox News. It's a multi-billion dollar brand, and despite occasional fluctuations in business expenses, its ad revenue continues to grow. Our occasional successes with targeted boycotts have brought down particular shows, but they've merely been a manageable business expense to the network at large.

Fortunately, if you're a socialist, there's an alternative to consumer activism: you can seize control of the machinery of ideological production through the arm of the state. Until then, there are probably going to be occasions when it makes sense to go on Fox News. There will also be occasions when it doesn't. Either way, socialists can discuss them without leaning on the simplistic solution of a boycott and the vacuous moralizing that usually follows.

4/12/19

The flimsy case for Russia's role in Sanders to Trump crossover vote

The Washington Post has just published an article about "the Russian effort to target Sanders supporters - and help elect Trump". Once you wade through about 1500 words of background, however, the substance is quite thin: the Post asked two researchers to "[examine] English-language tweets identified as coming from Russia". 

What did they find? 9000 tweets that used the word "Bernie," and "thousands of other tweets" that were allegedly "designed to appeal to his backers".

That's it. The article doesn't even indicate whether this was an exhaustive survey or whether they were just looking at a sample group, which means that we have no way of knowing the scale of the campaign. Taken at face value, however, these numbers are absolutely trivial. To say that they won Trump a single state, you would have to argue, for example, that three out of every five "Bernie" tweets flipped a Clinton voter. To say that they won him Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, you would have to argue that each "Bernie" tweet flipped Trump more than four votes. 

Here, we are back to arguing that Russia's ad campaign was, as Brian Feldman put it, "supernaturally effective and persuasive" - that it had an impact out of the reach of ordinary social media marketing campaigns by several orders of magnitude. It is entirely possible, of course, that the tweets discovered in the Post article were part of a much larger campaign - but it does nothing at all to establish this, leaving us with a handful of utterly meaningless numbers.

A final note: in passing, the Post cites an Ohio State University paper which argues that "about 4 percent of President Barack Obama's 2012 supporters were dissuaded from voting for Clinton in 2016 by belief in fake news stories." But to swing the election, Trump only needed to win about 2 percent of Sanders supporters.

In other words, all of this data is entirely consistent with a scenario in which Sanders supporters were twice as resistant to Russian propaganda as Obama supporters, but still swung the election. The article, then, tells us nothing about the scale of Russia's efforts to target Sanders supports, nothing about their effectiveness, and nothing about about how receptive Sanders supporters were. Why did they publish this, again?

4/10/19

Nate Silver's new candidate ranking method favors some candidates, penalizes others

Nate Silver has posted his "current thinking on the tiers in the Democratic primary, in terms of likelihood of winning the nomination." As usual, it has come under a lot of criticism from people with different intuitions about how the candidates should be ranked.

Fortunately, however, we don't have to rely on subjective intuitions - because Silver has done this before. Back in December, Silver posted another tiered ranking of the candidates; but then, he explained that his ranking was based on Likert scores. This makes the comparison straightforward: all we have to do is calculate updated Likert scores based on recent polling, and we can figure out how the candidates would rank using his previous methodology. Here's how it shakes out:



Here I have also assigned each candidate a "corrected tier" that - like Silver's post in December - is based on their Likert ranking. This gives us a clear view of how his new ranking differs. Red cells indicate that Silver has underranked the candidate; green cells indicate that he has overranked them.

When Silver posted his December rankings, I noted a serious problem in his method for calculating Likert scores that significantly changed candidate ratings when it was corrected. This time, instead of correcting that error, I have simply adopted his previous method to demonstrate that Silver is not even applying his flawed methodology consistently. Note that there are, between his last ranking and this one, two major points of continuity:
  • In both rankings, he significantly errs in favor of Kamala Harris. The last time, failure to account for "not sure" ratings boosted her score by .3 points; this time, he has ranked her in tier 1a, when she should at best be in tier 1b.
  • In both rankings, he significantly errs at the expense of Bernie Sanders. The last time, failure to account for "not sure" ratings dropped his score by .03 points, placing him in tier 1b rather than 1a; this time, he again places Sanders in tier 1b when he should be in 1a.
I don't think that much further elaboration is necessary. There is no math or method to Nate Silver's madness; he's simply making it up as he goes along, and changing his approach in ways that appear to consistently favor some candidates and penalize others.

3/30/19

Sexism and the 2020 primaries: some early polling

Democratic primary analysis in 2016 was often dominated by the notion that sexism was inclining men to vote for Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton. This, I noted at the time, significantly misunderstood the challenges that face women who want to run: while all kinds of institutional and systematic sexism stands in their way, Democratic voters, on the contrary, tend to prefer women.

This narrative, Kevin Drum notes, is emerging once again. But this time around, we have an advantage: there are so many men and women running that we can look for patterns, rather than trying to tease out some underlying trend from just Sanders and Clinton. With that in mind, I decided to look through the polling to see if I could detect any differences in who men and women are supporting. All of this is drawn from YouGov / Economist's latest favorability ratings:


Note that I calculated two measures based on the favorability scores. The first, Net Preference, combines "Very favorable" and "Somewhat favorable" poll responses into a general score, and then subtracts from that "Very unfavorable" and "Somewhat unfavorable" responses. The second, measure, the Likert Score, multiplies "Very favorable" responses by 4, "Somewhat favorable" by 3, "Somewhat unfavorable" by 2, and "Very unfavorable" by 1 - and then adds these numbers together. This method, as I've noted elsewhere, has its problems, but it is often used by social scientists to measure not just general approval but enthusiasm.

So what do these numbers tell us? Two different stories! If you look at Net Preference, it appears that women candidates are being penalized by men - their score, on average, is about 5 percentage points lower. But if you look at Likert Scores, the trend reverses: men are more enthusiastic about women running for office than women are, or than anyone is about the men.

My read of these numbers is that they are giving us the sort of mixed message that you only really see when the trends are ambivalent to nonexistent. This is in part simply because most of the candidates still have very low name recognition and are returning polling numbers that aren't very reliable. But this also reflects the fairly intuitive fact that Democratic primary voters generally support putting more women in office. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the early enthusiasm we've seen from men for the women in the race translates into greater net support as everyone's name recognition improves.

3/25/19

Russiagate "denialists" haven't denied anything

A recurring feature of the Russiagate discourse has been an attempt to villify skeptics as reflexive, absolute "denialists" who irrationally dismiss allegations against Trump. They do this, the line usually goes, either out of lazy contrarianism or because they are secretly sympathetic with the right.

This line of attack has usually been launched by overt Democratic loyalists, but it has also come from leftists who labor to position themselves - on this issue, at least - as reasonable moderates.

And yet, if you look at what the most prominent Russiagate skeptics have actually said and written over the past few years, you'll find that the "denialist" attack has very little basis in reality. There is, of course, a statistically inevitable subset of weirdos that the charge might stick to, but among the actual most influential and vilified skeptics of Russiagate, what you actually find is a stance of explicit agnosticism. In fact, many of the skeptics have openly stated their suspicions that Trump has committed crimes - but simply insist that their suspicion does not amount to proof. And that the entire controversy is, in any case, what the left has called it from the start: a selective, flimsy, and bizarre crusade riddled with conspiracy theory and xenophobic paranoia.

To spell this out, a brief selection of quotes from some of the more prominent and notorious Russiagate skeptics:


Glenn Greenwald:
"I’ve said that of course it’s possible that Russia and Putin might have hacked, because this is the kind of thing that Russia does to the U.S., and that the U.S. has done to Russia, and to everybody else in the world—and far worse—for decades." He’d never insisted "on the narrative that Russia didn’t do it." ...Greenwald bristled at the suggestion that he had ever considered the idea of Russian interference a hoax. "I never said anything like that," he said, explaining that his demand for serious evidence was connected to the deceptions propagated before the Iraq War.

Noam Chomsky:
"If there's going to be collusion I think we can guess what it is. Maybe he made some deal to have the Trump hotel put up in Moscow. Okay. That's corrupt. But it's the kind of corruption that's unfortunately all over the place."

Noam Chomsky, 2:
"So yeah, maybe Russians tried to interfere in the election. That's not a major issue. Maybe the people in the Trump campaign were talking to the Russians. Well, OK, not a major point, certainly less than is being done constantly."

Aaron Maté:
"Both Schiff and Nadler have now launched what two major outlets have described as “turbocharged” and “supercharged” congressional probes of Trump’s ties to Russia and alleged corruption. Perhaps they will uncover evidence that federal investigators have missed."

Matt Taibbi:
"To be clear, I don’t necessarily disbelieve the idea that there were 'illicit' contacts between Trump and Russians in early 2015 or before. But if there were such contacts, I can’t think of any legitimate reason why their nature should be withheld from the public."

Ben Norton:
"I don't know if anyone can figure out what the hell is going on, and I think we should stop until we can figure out what's going on. But that's just me."

Max Blumenthal:
"The focus has been on the allegation of...the meeting between that Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner...took with Natalya Veselnitskaya and her group...was this meeting treasonous? It was certainly idiotic, but the reality of the meeting is that Trump Jr. and Kushner were lured to the meeting with the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton...to the extent that these were Russian officials, that should be troubling..."

If you have any quotes that I've missed, feel free to let me know.

3/21/19

Climate change and left attempts to discourse-game public opinion

Geoengineering approaches to climate change have been met with significant skepticism on the left. Some of it is perfectly reasonable: a few of the more radical proposals on the table need much more research and development before they are at all viable, and there are good reasons to believe that some of them will never be safe and effective. It's entirely possible that we will never come up with a good way to do stuff like stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), which is a reason why anyone who is concerned about the future of our planet needs to pursue other approaches as well.

Among these more credible lines of skepticism, however, I've often encountered one that's far more dubious: the appeal to moral hazard. Advocates for geoengineering aren't just calling for an approach that is potentially flawed; in so doing, they are actively taking away support from climate change mitigation plans that are far more credible!

This may seem like a modest assessment on its face, but it's actually a fairly ambitious theory about how our political discourse works. Different proposals about how to deal with climate change exist in a kind of zero-sum economy with each other, competing for public support in a kind of intellectual rivalry - a "marketplace of ideas", if you will. Because some activists see the discourse this way, they are worried that support for geoengineering means that their preferred approaches will lose; it just goes without saying for them that people will reason through the possibilities a certain way, and decide that we can do either one thing or the other.

Anyway, this isn't just an extremely elaborate theory of how our discourse works - it's also, it turns out, empirically incorrect:
In a large-scale framed field experiment with more than 650 participants, we provide evidence that people do not back-pedal on mitigation when they are told that the climate change problem could be partly addressed via SAI. Instead, we observe that people who have been informed about SAI mitigate more than people who have not.
Set aside our armchair speculation about how people are thinking about climate change, and about how they react to certain ideas and proposals that emerge in the discourse - set these theories aside and look at what people actually do when you talk to them about geoengineering, and the evidence is quite clear. What happens is that people become more supportive of geoengineering and mitigation. Ironically, this means that even if geoengineering is not a good way to address climate change, simply talking about it seems to increase support in approaches that are productive.

In any case, the general lesson here goes well beyond climate change. Political discourse is often about persuasion, and in our efforts to persuade the left often becomes invested in extremely ambitious theories about how the discourse works. These theories are rarely put explicitly, much less defended, but they are the basis of all kinds of strategies and just-so proclamations about Overton window shifting, argument framing, tactical word choice, and so on.

As a matter of fact, however, we really know very little about how the discourse works, or about how certain arguments and narratives ultimately prevail. Often, the most you can really do is say things seem true; when it comes to ultra-savvy rhetorical manipulation and discourse-gaming schemes, leave that to the hypnotists and pickup artists.

3/13/19

A few notes about "localism"

I

The fundamental antagonism in capitalist society is between the bourgeoisie - which fights to retain private control of the means of production - and the proletariat, which fights to reclaim social control. This is why class conflict, at its heart, is a war for the abolition of private property. We fight to abolish it not only when it is expressed as an individual right, but also as a corporate right, a national right, or as any other kind of right that contests the sovereignty of the international proletariat. And that also includes assertions of a local right.


II

Capitalists correctly understand that their politics are built upon the ideological foundation of private property rights, which is why so much of their polemic is organized around defending them. They are, of course, defended in different ways. Conservatives say that private property rights are "god given"; libertarians appeal to a supposed "Non Aggression Principle". Lawyers often defend private property rights through corporations law, which places them in the hands of a legal fiction. Internationally, private property rights are defended through "borders", another fiction that defies popular sovereignty with the construct of national sovereignty.

That discourse of nationalism cannot, historically or politically, be untangled from the discourse of localism. Both defy popular sovereignty by constructing a group identity based on geography and placing them at odds. Both deny the stake that anyone outside of a certain (fundamentally arbitrary) boundary may have a stake in what happens inside of it. Both, in their segregation of humanity into distinct tribes with competing property claims, replicate the ideology of private property - and foster its extension into other domains.

That is why, in the United States, the language of reaction has so often been the language of localism. When our founding patriarchs built the Senate and the electoral college, they justified it as a defense of local prerogatives against the popular mob. When  Confederates fought for slavery, they justified it as a defense of states rights against the tyranny of the Union. When libertarians defend capitalism, they defend it as small local businesses that are optimally positioned to receive price signals that distant beltway bureaucrats would ignore. When nationalists oppose immigration, they invariably invoke local entitlement to jobs and wealth. It is not an accident that they are all speaking the same language.


III

Left appeals to localism often position it against alienation. This has the advantage of appealing to intuitions about how society has become too complex and too large, about how "distant" we feel from each other and from the levers of power, and so on; it also has a particularly Marxist resonance, with the subtext that there is a body of material analysis behind this kind of objection.

But when Marx writes about alienation, he is not making some in-general objection to social complexity, or to interdependence with distant people, or even with distant people having some say in our shared society. What he is specifically interested in are the kinds of "alienation" that directly result from our lack of control over the means of production. This is the fundamental problem that Marx comes back to as he discusses the different ways that alienation emerges under capitalism: "All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object." [1, emphasis added]

The question, then, is not whether worker control over production will be local - it's whether it will be control. When workers have no control over their labor, they feel no investment in how they are spending their time, in what they have created, in who they have created it for, and in who they have created it with. The task of the socialist is to give them as much control over all of this as we can, not only to give them power but to restore to them a sense of purpose and meaning.

Obviously, it will sometimes make sense to do this by decentralizing control over production as much as possible. To insist that socialism will dictate when workers go to the bathroom or whether they can listen to music is the province of right-wing caricature and red-baiting. Other times, maximizing worker control over production will mean the exact opposite, particularly when production has global consequences. Should your community co-op be allowed to pump greenhouse gasses into the air in the name of "localism"? Of course not, and the reason is simple: this is an aspect of production that effects all workers.

Socialism asserts the right and the authority of the proletariat to make these decisions. It asserts this against any and all competing claims to authority, including local claims. This is how socialism overcomes the alienation of capitalism. How the people will choose to exercise their authority - whether centrally, or by deferring to locals - is a circumstantial question with no in-general answer.

It should be clear, then, how caught up localism is in right-wing assertions of private power, rejections of popular sovereignty, and constructions of nationalist identity. It plays into right-wing efforts to contrast state power with personal power, and (contra Marx) to blame state power for capitalist alienation. Intellectually, these appeals to localism find their home not in the socialist tradition, but in the right flank of anarchism - at best. 

3/5/19

Russiagate isn't about foreign influence. The attacks on Ilhan Omar are proof.

If the ongoing political attack on Rep. Ilhan Omar proves one thing, it's that Islamophobia is alive and well in the United States - and at the highest levels of power. If it proves two things, it's that the Democratic Party is absolutely incapable of acting as a competent opposition party. And if it proves three things, it's that Democratic concerns over the influence of foreign governments are an absolute farce.

From the very start, most of the US left recognized Russiagate for what it is: an opportunistic crusade fueled by a legitimate desire to defeat Trump, a cynical drive to displace blame for Clinton's failure, and a dangerous subtext of Russophobic xenophobia. Over the past year, however, a new approach has emerged: leftists who argue that we can rehabilitate Russiagate into a principled, across-the-board critique of foreign influence. Ryan Cooper, for example, writes:
Russiagate...[is] a much better fit for conservatives and cruise missile liberals who want to punish Putin on nationalist grounds. But that is not a necessary conclusion...the main objective ought to be securing American institutions — purging them of the corruption that allows someone like Putin to waltz in and get what he wants. The American government should be responsible to the American people.
Ryan's argument echoes that of David Klion:
This is the context in which Russian interference should be understood: not as an unprecedented attack on US institutions, but as an especially dramatic example of how those institutions have been made vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments and financial interests.
Both authors acknowledge at least some of the failings of the Russiagate discourse to date - but both also insist that we can somehow take it back and use it as a vehicle for a broader campaign against foreign influence.

The attacks on Rep. Omar, plainly fomented by lobbying groups like AIPAC and shamelessly abetted by nearly the entire Democratic establishment, should put that plan to bed once and for all. The Democratic Party clearly sees no inconsistency in its relationship with Russia and its relationship with Israel, and the reason is obvious: no one in power actually cares about the influence of foreign governments. Democrats are openly villifying the very suggestion of "dual allegiance" to another nation. They do not make a political connection between Russian influence and Israeli influence; they don't even make a conceptual connection between the two. This is not a rational discourse. We are not going to logically corner the Israeli government's allies into abandoning their politics by pointing to Vladimir Putin, and it's absurd to even try.

Leftists absolutely should be concerned about government meddling in foreign democracies, but we clearly aren't advancing that fight by letting Russiagate co-opt it. If you want to take on the blob, take on Israel - a lobby so powerful that you can get censured by acknowledging its very existence. Take on Saudi Arabia. Better yet, take on the United States, which is engaged in plenty of meddling of its own.

2/19/19

Time to fight

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.

2/7/19

The Green New Deal's magic word

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.

1/26/19

What historical materialism can tell us about Trump's shutdown

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.

1/24/19

Which voter groups give you the biggest payoff at the polls?

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.

HIGHEST AVERAGE MARGINS:
  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.

HIGHEST ABSOLUTE TURNOUT
  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.