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.