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5/17/16

Oppression and identitarian error

Radical left writers have spent a lot of time in the past year picking apart basic demographic errors in liberal identitarian arguments. When I do this, I usually try to stick to the specific questions of fact at hand. Here, however, I want to talk a little more generally about how in addition to being counterfactual, identitarian demographic arguments can become directly oppressive.

Fact checking the identitarians

To see how this works, consider two statements from just the past week, both from wealthy liberal elites. First, Elie Mystal:
Bernie Sanders is, of course, welcome to continue to fight on behalf of disaffected white people everywhere. But he can’t be the nominee...Sorry guys...I’m sure the LGBT community has a pamphlet or something that you can read.
The suggestion, of course, is that Sanders and his base are at odds with the LGBT community. This is demonstrably untrue: Sanders leads among the LGBT community by 22.6 points. This is the sort of basic point of fact that left critics of identitarianism often have to establish and defend at length, but here I'm just going to assume it, and you'll either accept the data or you won't.

The second statement to consider came in an exchange today with pundit Clay Shirky:


Shirky's point relies on the same identitarian premise that Mystal's does: just as we should accept the consensus of the LGBT community, we should also accept the consensus of the black community. And similarly, Clay's argument crashes on the shoals of demographic fact. As Leslie Lee III noted immediately, "Black voters aren't a monolith" - and once we account for non-voters as well (as we must), a full 30% of black Americans support Sanders. This, as Matt Bruenig writes, presents us with an obvious problem:
Individuals in a particular oppressed group are not a monolith, and therefore necessarily disagree with one another...You can require that ID only attach to the majority view, but there are problems with such an approach...it seems odd to think that the majority view will tell you what is correct.
This is not, it must be emphasized, some kind of remote or obscure logic problem: it's an immediate and inescapable consideration we run into as soon as we notice that a significant number of black Americans support Sanders. I could make this point again, just like I did two months ago, but it would be redundant: the numbers are what they are, and either you accept them or you don't.

What's going on here

So far, this is the form much of the liberal-left debate has taken over the past year: a liberal makes some identitarian argument, and a critic points out that the demographic premises are demonstrably incorrect.

But what I think is telling about the above statements in particular is that they are so obviously incorrect. Numbers on both LGBT and black community support for Sanders are easily accessible, and the trends pointed to above have been fairly consistent for several months. No one who makes any kind of minimal effort to look at what these groups are saying should walk away making the sweeping and incorrect generalizations about them that liberal identitarians throw around on a continual basis. As Chomsky notes, when we run into this kind of issue,
a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined.
Having dispensed with the first question time and time again over the past year - repeatedly, and decisively - let's consider the second.

The basic justification for liberal identitarian discourse is that it prioritizes and empowers the voices of the voiceless. In practice, however, what we see is that it routinely misrepresents the voices of the voiceless, floating claims about "the LGBT community", "the black voters", and so on that are demonstrably untrue. In the case of the Democratic primaries, for example, majorities in every oppressed identity group have had their voices thoroughly and relentlessly misrepresented by people making liberal identitarian arguments.

It's not difficult to see how this works to the advantage of the powerful. On one hand, the power of the elite can be threatened and undermined when oppressed people have a voice. On the other hand, elites can also foment resentment and opposition if they try to silence the oppressed. What is needed, then, is an ideology that appears to give the oppressed a voice while it in fact silences or misrepresents them. In this sort of political culture, we should absolutely expect to encounter a discourse that claims to value, privilege and empower the oppressed while it in fact does the exact opposite. Just like any other instrument of power, this discourse should be recognized as complicit in bourgeois white male straight supremacy, and the people who engage in it should be understood as participants in that project.

This is all to say that whether they are being cynical or just making innocent mistakes, and whether they are abusing liberal identitarianism or wielding it as intended, Mystal and Shirky are making statements that contribute to oppression. This goes for every pundit and journalist out there who misrepresents demographic support for various candidates, positions, and policies. We do not have to float some conspiracy theory or get stuck on question of intent to notice that there is a persistent way of talking about the oppressed; a massive media-academic apparatus, largely funded by massive capital investments, that produces this message; that this same message gets relentlessly disseminated through all kinds of marketing and promotion; and that all of this functions as a mechanism for silencing and misrepresenting the powerless.

This is precisely the sort of systematic / institutional / discursive oppression that we rightly condemn in other contexts. Here, resisting it begins with acknowledging that it exists. When Mystal misrepresents the opinions of the LGBT community, we can acknowledge that this is not just an error - it's an error that silences them. When Shirky erases the 30% of black voters who support Sanders, we can acknowledge that this is not just a benign omission - it perpetuates the same white supremacist politics that have always disenfranchised black voters.

Editors and colleagues in the media often seem content to dismiss these mistakes as subjective or simply "dumb". That's not how we treat other forms of oppressive discourse, and it's not how we should treat this one.

5/12/16

The oppression of Clinton supporters

A recurring genre of article this primary season has argued that Clinton supporters - particularly young ones - have been silenced and oppressed:

  • "I learned quickly this primary season that if I openly support Hillary Clinton, I will be confronted," Mary Juhl writes
  • "If you're engaged in activism and you're a part of the campus left, and then you choose to support Clinton's campaign...that's almost a traitorous act," Sam Koppelman said.
  • "There's a feeling of having to come out as a Hillary supporter," Jessica Grubesic said.
  • "I have discovered...that any positive statement about Clinton is typically followed by a barrage of negative pushback from Sanders supporters," Lorraine Devon Wilke writes.
  • "It is highly probable that one reason for the silence of Clinton supporters is sexism..." Cassidy Ellis writes.
  • "I'm not alone in being reluctant to advertise my support for Clinton," Michelle Goldberg writes.
Almost without exception, these articles have three things in common. First, they routinely appear in major publications, such as The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, and the Huffington Post, or get promoted by people with prominent platforms, like Howard Dean and CNN's Eugene Scott. Second, they are all written by or about relatively privileged Clinton supporters. Juhl is a legislative assistant in the Minnessota Senate; Grubesic is a Columbia student and intern with Hillary for America; Koppelman is a Harvard student and executive editor for the Crimson; Wilke is a fine arts dilletante and wife of an attorney and film producer; Ellis is a grad student and expat who worked for a Clinton pac; and Goldberg is a writer for multiple prestige publications and a NYT bestselling author. And third, of course, all of these articles are being written in advocacy of the most powerful woman in the world and the frontrunner for the nomination, Hillary Clinton.

Seems like these facts alone would call into question the general narrative that Clinton supporters are some kind of oppressed constituency. She is literally the most popular candidate in the primary. More than forty percent of the country views her favorably. Moreover, if anyone has tried to silence this support, they have abysmally failed. Whatever criticism and ridicule they have endured, Clintonites have been able to leverage their extraordinary privilege to gain the kind of national exposure that Sanders supporters can only dream of. This has been an indispensable component of Clinton's broader media strategy, which ultimately aims, of course, to create an approving and sympathetic climate of national opinion. By their own measure - winning at the polls - they've clearly succeeded.

Moreover, even when we take these writers at their word, it's often fairly unclear in what sense they are being oppressed. Only a few of the articles above specify incidents of Sanders supporters even being rude: Juhl reports that she has been called a "moron"; The Guardian vaguely alleges that "Columnists in favour of Clinton have drawn special ire – sometimes in an aggressive way, sometimes in a sexist way"; and Ellis complains "of being patronized by 'Bernie Bros' online and/or in person."

But far more frequently, when these articles document the "oppression" and "silencing" of Clinton supporters, they are complaining about things that are quite different:


OPPOSITION
  • "We're constantly having to defend our positions."
  • "When I speak positively about her online, I can expect to be swiftly reprimanded and even shamed by people who support other candidates."
  • "...while I have never gone on the thread of anyone touting Bernie's virtues...offering my criticisms of the man, how his votes on certain issues do not align with my own, etc., the reverse cannot be said."
  • "Often when speaking in support of Clinton, our progressivism is called into question."
  • "And this attitude on college campuses that 'if you're an advocate for social justice issues, you need to be a Bernie supporter' is really dismissive of those people across the country who are voting for Hillary."
  • "[They're] like: 'What do you mean why don't you want free tuition for everyone? It's not fair. What don't you want equal pay for everyone? Why don't you want to tax the rich?'"
  • "But during Clinton's speech, multiple anti-Clinton protesters were removed from the event..."
  • "They see the Hillary supporter as someone who doesn't really want as much equality as they do."
CONVICTION AND ENTHUSIASM
  • "I can't imagine being so rude as...to counter with my 'clearly superior opinion.' But it happens all the time. All the damn time."
  • "...the much documented and oft-discussed "fervor" (aka: fanatacism) of some Sanders supporters...the sheer fanatacisim and idealization of Sanders supporters has made it impossible to have an adult conversation..."
  • "Sanders fans seem to be more enthusiastic..."
UNFLATTTERING CRITICISM
  • "...if I say something positive about Clinton, someone will show up to question...my understanding of politics..."
  • "I'm not used to being labeled as one of the bad guys..."
  • "I've been called a '$hill' more times than I can count. I've been accused of being paid by Super PACs to support her publicly..."
CLINTON'S UNPOPULARITY
  • "To be 18 or 25 or in your early 30s and support Hillary Clinton...is a lonely and alienating relationship..."
  • "Oh, there's a Hillary group on campus? I thought I was the only one."
REFUSAL TO VOTE FOR CLINTON
  • "I do expect you to vote blue."
  • "If Sanders wins the nomination...I will vote for him in November...But [Sanders supporters have shown a] refusal to offer a similar committment."
Overwhelmingly, the grievance outlined by Clinton supporters in these articles is that people support Sanders, refuse to support Clinton, disagree with her politics, and insist that supporting her reflects poorly on people who do so. This is not a description of oppression or being silenced - this is a description of what happens when people have the audacity to think that you are wrong.

Coming from the people who tend to be featured in these articles, of course, the outrage makes sense. If you are privileged enough to attend top-tier universities and write for prestige liberal publications, you are used to getting what you want, used to being told that you are politically savvy and wise and noble, and used to deference from people who might disagree with you. In that case, I'm sure it's extraordinarily traumatic to discover people who reject your politics and who will fight to keep you out of power.

We should not, in any case, be surprised when this genre of article reaches its logical conclusion: in the latest, Mary Juhl admits that "this primary has even made me empathize with Republicans who are villainized for their choices at the polls." Of course it does.

5/10/16

Yes, Bros4Hillary is a part of Clinton's million dollar troll campaign

Since yesterday, I've been getting endless complaints because of this tweet:
You can see a typical example of the criticism I've been hearing here. In general, the group and its various supporters are mad because I identified them as a part of CTR's "goon squad"; like most of Clinton's media surrogates, the standard defense is to insist that they are not actually receiving checks from Clinton or her super PACs.

This sort of defense, as I've noted before, is grossly misleading. Clinton's messaging operation is deliberately designed to give participants plausible deniability while leveraging campaign funds and resources in defiance of both campaign finance law and basic progressive doctrine.

In this case, it's fairly straightforward how they do it:
1. CTR claims the right to coordinate online communications with the Clinton campaign. This, in a campaign messaging operation, can entail coordinating everything from what groups and individuals to promote and market to what messages they should disseminate. 
2. CTR then uses its massive warchest for "thanking [read: promoting] prominent supporters and committed superdelegates on social media." It also "serve[s] as a resource...for positive content and push-back to share with...online progressive communities" - that is, it disseminates communications and materials designed using CTR's massive resources, potentially in coordination with the official campaign. 
3. We know that Clinton's communications operations has already used its resources to promote Bros4Hillary: on Twitter, through CTR's "Barrier Breakers" initiative, and through David Brock's Blue Nation Review. There are of course all kinds of other ways to promote groups like this, with or without their coordination; for example, the group's main organizational hub is a Facebook page, which anyone can easily set up ads for. (Notably, The Wrap reports that "The group started as little more than a Facebook page, but for reasons even its organizers can’t quite explain, it took off.") 
4. Content coordination is obviously more difficult to verify. It can include anything from proprietary image assets (publicity shots, stock photos, etc) to video footage to their branded font (Unity) to messaging guidelines (specific themes and talking points, particular phrasing and hashtagging, deployment schedules, and so on) to completely prefabricated material produced in-house. Assets and materials can just sit in an online content bin, ready for the taking; coordination can just be a matter of CTR sending out "suggestions" or "here's what we're talking about today" communications to third parties, who may be passively "inspired" to disseminate their messaging. We know that CTR does this with journalists.
Bros4Hillary are not, of course, a significant or influential group by any stretch of the imagination, but they are exemplary of the appratchiks complicit in Clinton's operation. They deny coordinating content with CTR, of course, though as far as I can tell no one has ever admitted this. And Bros4Hillary denies a lot of things. But instead of disavowing CTR, they've openly embraced promotion by Brock and his illegal front groups. That's incriminating enough. Promotion is an in-kind donation, and you can't accept funding from a de facto campaign finance laundering racket and expect to walk away with your hands clean.

5/8/16

Identitarian demographic arguments have to account for non-voters

In what appears to be a continuing series documenting the pathetic grievances of American elites, The Guardian has published an article exploring the embarrassing self-pity of Harvard students who feel rightly ashamed of their support for Hillary Clinton. There's a lot to ridicule in this piece, but one point in particular caught my eye:
Koppelman...wanted to address what he sees as a double standard among some Sanders supporters – that to support Clinton is to fail to support the fight for equality. “Around the country, low income people, low income minorities are voting for Hillary in vast majorities,” Koppelman said.
See what he did here? Koppelman insists that Clinton is the candidate of the oppressed. He tries to prove this, however, by noting that she is the preference of oppressed people who vote. Those are not the same constituencies! And when we look at all poor people and all minorities, the picture looks quite different:


These trends have all been clear for months: Sanders is the candidate of the poor, and Clinton the candidate of the rich. Clinton has a significant lead among Black voters, while Sanders has a significant lead among Hispanic voters and other races.

There is a basic methodological nuance here that pundits routinely neglect. If you are making claims about voters, then you should obviously look at things like exit polls, eligible / registered / likely voters, and so on. But if you are making a claim about which candidate is drawing more support from a person of a certain identity - that is, if you are making an identitarian argument - then you have to look at everyone who belongs to that group. Otherwise you are guilty of erasure, which is a serious analytical and moral error.

This point is particularly urgent because non-voting is often a sign of significant oppression. When poor people don't vote, for example, it is often because their boss won't let them off of work, or because they don't have reliable transportation to and from the polls. When minorities don't vote, it's often because of deliberate voter suppression tactics. To ignore the plight of non-voters is to ignore a major vector of oppression in the United States - a curious move to make when claiming the high ground in the fight for equality.

5/5/16

Chomsky, on simplicity

"I'll tell you the honest truth: I'm kind of simple-minded when it comes to these things. Whenever I hear a four-syllable word I get skeptical, because I want to make sure you can't say it in monosyllables. Don't forget, part of the whole intellectual vocation is creating a niche for yourself, and if everyone can understand what you're talking about, you've sort of lost, because then what makes you special? What makes you special has got to be something that you had to work really hard to understand, and you mastered it, and all those guys out there don't understand it, and then that becomes the basis for your privilege and your power.

So take what's called 'literary theory' - I mean, I don't think there's any such thing as literary 'theory', and more than there's cultural 'theory' or historical 'theory.' If you're just reading books and talking about them and getting people to understand them, okay, you can be terrific at that, like Edmund Wilson was terrific at it - but he didn't have a literary theory...if someone came along with a theory of history, it would be the same: either it would be truisms, or maybe some smart ideas, like someone could say, 'Why not look at economic factors lying behind the Constitution?' or something like that - but there'd be nothing there that couldn't be said in monosyllables.

In fact, it's extremely rare, outside of the natural sciences, to find things that can't be said in monosyllables: there are just interesting, simple ideas, which are often extremely difficult to come up with and hard to work out. Like, if you want to try to understand how the modern industrial economy developed, let's say, that can take a lot of work. But the 'theory' will be extremely thin, if by 'theory' we mean something with principles which are not obvious when you first look at them, and from which you can deduce surprising consequences and try to confirm the principles - you're not going to find anything like that in the social world.

...I mean, it's not that some of these people whose stuff is considered 'deep theory' and so on don't have some interesting things to say. But it's nothing that you couldn't say at the level of a high school student, or that a high school student couldn't figure out if they had the time and support and a little bit of training.

I think people should be extremely skeptical when intellectual life constructs structures which aren't transparent - because the fact of the matter is that in most areas of life, we just don't understand anything very much. There are some areas, like say, quantum physics, where they're not faking. But most of the time it's just fakery, I think: anything that's at all understood can probably be described pretty simply." - Chomsky, Understanding Power (228-230)

5/4/16

Would Gore have gone to war in Iraq?


Might have hesitated to make this remark if I'd anticipated so much curiosity and skepticism about it, not because I think it's wrong, but simply because I'm not too invested in litigating counterfactuals about a war that began more than a decade ago. Still, perhaps it's worth remembering that from the very invasion of Iraq, the American left saw the war as a bipartisan effort that could never be pinned entirely on George W. Bush. Some key points:

1. The Iraq Liberation Act, which made it "the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," was passed in 1998 under Clinton/Gore. 

2. On that basis, Clinton/Gore actively provided political and even military support to anti-Hussein opposition groups in Iraq. Among other things, this included CIA support for bombing and sabotage campaigns by Wifaq, a militant group trying to mount a coup against Hussein. 

3. Also on that basis, Clinton/Gore actually launched a military intervention in Iraq, Operation Desert Fox. Despite significant domestic and international opposition, absent Congressional approval, and absent direct UN authorization.

4. 9/11 created two enormous political incentives that would have created pressure for any administration to go to war. First, the intelligence and defensive failures precipitating 9/11 were enormous political liabilities that demanded a dramatic and proactive response. This is particularly true given the public's dissatisfaction with progress in Afghanistan. Second, 9/11 was always going to provoke an unfocused drive for retaliation among reactionaries, and demand a show of strength among Americans with ideological / psychological / financial investments in American empire. Clinton/Gore never faced drives to war of this magnitude, and yet even absent such incentives they still engaged in multiple military actions.

5. 9/11 also removed enormous political deterrents that kept Clinton/Gore from expanding their ambitions in Iraq. First, it damaged the reputation and influence of foreign policy elites who argued for a constrained role for the American military. Second, it undercut international diplomatic and economic opposition to American interventions. Third, it undercut domestic resistance.

In short, Gore supported past interventions in Iraq, accepted two major arguments for further intervention (pre-emptive defense and humanitarian), would have been subject to tremendous pressure to go to war, and would have been freed from many of the major disincentives. Moreover, in his own direct statements on the matter at the time, Gore's major objection to war was a preference for more international support - a preference that he had a record of setting aside in the past.

There's a more detailed argument to be made here, but that's a start.

5/3/16

You have a choice

You can elect Bernie Sanders, or you can elect Donald Trump.

For nearly a year, our media and political class was in complete denial about Trump. Don't be fooled by the posture of weary inevitability they strike today - just a few months ago, most of them were still publishing all kinds of armchair essays and half-baked demographic analysis insisting that he was going to lose. Because their jobs depend on maintaining a facade of credibility and expertise, these people will give you at best a token mea culpa, and then they will give you absolute surety and certitude in their general election predictions as if nothing ever happened.

A lot of the people who didn't see Trump coming - and didn't see Sanders coming, for that matter - are now going to insist that Clinton is a safe bet and that Sanders would be likely to lose.

If you aren't actually that worried about Trump, go ahead and listen to them again. Listen to their wishful conjecture, their telling anecdotes, their poll unskewing, and their gut intuitions; we can talk ourselves into anything, if we try hard enough. Or just look at what the polls have been saying for months and months on end:


Maybe there's a reason for this.

The actual facts on the ground, gathered in the most rigorous and objective way that we have, are telling us that Bernie Sanders would win this election. And they're telling us that Hillary Clinton's chances of beating Trump are half that - and shrinking. On a bad day, she loses. And she will certainly have more bad days ahead.


5/3/16

Did Michelle Goldberg just admit to coordinating an attack on Sanders with the Clinton campaign?

Clinton has not hit Sanders with a single negative ad. Not one...The Sanderistas appear to believe they were treated unfairly, even viciously, in this primary. In fact, they’ve been handled incredibly gingerly. - Michelle Goldberg
The Clinton campaign openly coordinates its messaging with super PACs. The super PACs, in turn, coordinate their messaging with "former [sic] reporters, bloggers, public affairs specialists, designers, Ready for Hillary alumni, and Hillary super fans". They also have direct financial and staffing ties with third-party propaganda organs like Blue Nation Review. They also have a giant cohort of suspiciously on-message media surrogates and prominent "independent" allies who invariably get signal boosted by the usual suspects.

All of this may be a clever enough way to get around FEC regulations (aka "democratic governance"), but the artfully phrased claim that "Clinton has not hit Sanders with a single negative ad" is preposterous. No one with any minimal familiarity with Clinton's history of campaigning or with how campaign communications work actually believes this. The notion that the Clinton has no ties to the attacks going out is so ridiculous that Goldberg accidentally contradicts it just a few sentences later:
A source close to the Clinton campaign tells me that because Sanders has high favorability numbers with Democrats, Clinton would have damaged herself by attacking him, especially since she didn’t have to in order to win.
Did you catch that? Goldberg, who has a demonstrable record of advancing some of the most common negative attacks on Sanders [1][2][3][4][5][6], is working on an article that will literally rehearse the most damning attacks on Sanders she can think of. (Given a "the media isn't saying this" pretext, which is particularly amusing since Goldberg herself wrote the exact same article just a few months back.)

And she admits that while working on this, she consulted with an anonymous "source close to the Clinton campaign" specifically about negative attacks on Sanders.

5/2/16

Who is the greater enemy of the left?

Out of curiosity, I recently ran a grossly unscientific poll on my Twitter account:


Though the phrasing suggests one question, I actually framed the poll with another one in mind: does the left tend to recognize meaningful differences between various Democrats? This poll suggests they do, by about a 2:1 margin. Still, I was surprised by how strongly respondants singled out Hillary Clinton as an appreciably greater threat to the left. Over half of all respondants picked her - nearly ten times as many as those who picked Obama.

Two incidents

Presumably the immediacy of the fight against Clinton for the Democratic nomination has at least something to do with that result, but even so I'm inclined to agree that it's the right one. The question is purposefully vague and hard to evaluate with any significant rigor, but here I'll point to two recent episodes that I think point at a distinct difference between the two. Yesterday, on May Day, Obama issued this proclamation:
I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2016, as Loyalty Day.  This Loyalty Day, I call upon all the people of the United States to join in support of this national observance, whether by displaying the flag of the United States or pledging allegiance to the Republic for which it stands. 
The left, of course, largely recognized this for what it is: a deliberate, reactionary erasure of a central cultural institution of the international working class, one that ignores May Day and sets a creepy nationalistic substitute in its place. It's idiotic and gross that Obama would do this, and the left is right to view it as an attack on the dignity and solidarity of workers.

Still, it is historically important to understand that Loyalty Day is not Obama's initiative. Though a few leftists missed this point of (minor) trivia, Loyalty Day is actually the legacy of the mid-twentieth century red scares, and was ratcheted into law in 1955. It's not entirely clear if Obama even has the legal discretion to not issue a Loyalty Day proclamation; but here, suffice to say that Obama is best understood as a participant in the reactionary status quo.

Contrast that with a second public statement, posted Wednesday by economist Brad DeLong:
The day will come when it will be time to gleefully and comprehensively trash people to be named later for Guevarista fantasies about what their policies are likely to do. The day will come when it will be time to gleefully and comprehensively trash people to be named later for advocating Comintern-scale lying to voters about what our policies are like to do. And it will be important to do so then--because overpromising leads to bad policy decisions, and overpromising is bad long-run politics as well...But that day is not now. That day will be mid-November.
DeLong is an influential economist, a prominent Clinton surrogate, and a former staffer in Bill Clinton's administration. He is rehearsing a line of rhetoric that the Clintons themselves clearly believe: the Democratic left flank should be dismissed as radical commies, and Sanders is overpromising to his supporters. He is also reminding us of the well-known Clintonian predilection for retaliation against political opponents, even opponents to the left - a tendency so notorious that people who work in policy openly fear for their careers if they oppose her.

An enemy of the movement

This, I think, marks a (perhaps) minor but appreciable difference between Obama and Clintons.

Obama has certainly targeted the left as a movement on occasion - in his administration's infamous criticism of "the professional left", his efforts to destroy Occupy Wall Street, his war on whistleblowers, and so on. But undeniably, his greatest attack on the left has been an attack on left positions and priorities. He has participated in all kinds of odious historical trends of neoliberalization, militarization, and imperialism, and presided over a continuing erosion of civil liberties, enormous increases in economic inequality, the institutionalized racism of the carceral state, and so on - and all of this, not his occasional direct jabs at the left as a movement, will be his primary legacy. Indeed, it is the very contrast between these two tendencies that define the most sinister aspect of Obama's politics: his pose of relative detente towards the left, which deceptively veils his ongoing war on their substantive politics.

There is no such ambiguity with Clinton. Not only do the Clintons disagree with left politics - they clearly see the movement left as a political enemy that they need to actively destroy. We should take DeLong at his word: Clinton and her allies think it is "important" to "gleefully and comprehensively trash" their opponents to the left, and they are already making plans to do so. Practically speaking, this means that Clinton is likely to invest more time, energy, resources and political capital into attacking the left than Obama did. This isn't a particularly ambitious claim: the odd thing would be if Hillary invested the exact same effort into attacking the left as her predecessor, no more and no less.

None of this is an apology for Obama. Chomsky's famous observation is as true of him as it has been for everyone else: if we observed the Nuremberg laws consistently, we would have to find him guilty, too. But there's probably a reason why Obama has always maintained higher favorability ratings among self-identified liberals than Clinton, culminating in a 15-point lead today. Polling consistently shows a distinct preference on that end of the spectrum for Obama over Clinton, and however minor the basis for this may be, I suspect that it's justified.

4/30/16

The pseudoscience of liberal discourse gaming

The prospect of influencing and even manipulating public opinion has attracted some fairly rigorous and sophisticated intellectual inquiry for thousands upon thousands of years. You can find early traces in works as old as the Bhagavad-gita (in asides about how it is a "restless man's mind" that can be "strongly shaken") that extend in a fairly straight line towards modern scientific research (empirical experiments on how stress impacts amenability to persuasion, for example). En route, we've developed a fairly extensive body of knowledge about what works and what doesn't spread out over multiple fields: marketing, public relations, political science, psychology, and so on.

As in most fields of empirical knowledge, it turns out that many of our assumptions and historical ideas about public opinion are factually incorrect. To pick a trivial example, we now know that ancient rationalistic conceptions of humans as the "reasoning animal" are plainly false, and that people are afflicted with all kinds of powerful and irrational cognitive biases. These biases are often extraordinarily subtle, counterintuitive, and can't be recognized through sheer conjecture; usually, they can only be teased out through elaborate, carefully controlled experiments. If you study the literature, you'll understand how this works; if you don't, you won't understand it, and you're likely to conclude that people are rational in ways they are not.

So it's immensely frustrating to see armchair liberal discourse gaming, where we get sage advice grounded in theories of public opinion that just aren't true, and that no one in the field thinks is true. For instance, Jill Filopovic writes:
I think we've seen evidence that shutting Trump down fires up the GOP base & potentilly makes white voters sympathetic to him.
This is an empirical claim. What evidence? Think of how you would even substantiate this:
  • One thing you could do is just ask voters directly how "getting shut down" affects their attitudes towards Trump, and look for some unique reaction among white voters. But self-reporting on this kind of question is terribly unreliable methodology, and in any case no such polling has (as far as I know) actually been done.
  • More likely, Filopovic is relying on the related and enormously popular pundit methodology of relying on a personal sampling of anecdotal evidence culled from the self-reporting of various tweets and talking heads. This places all kinds of similar problems: while I'm sure TrumpTrainDad88 definitely said "This makes me want to support Trump even more!" there's no reason to conclude that his outrage is either reliable or representative.
  • Another thing you could do is look for any appreciable change in general favorability polling before and after such an incident. This has all kinds of serious problems too, however, since such changes are overdetermined and express all kinds of different factors - but hilariously, even if we set aside this problem, the polls actually falsify Filipovic's claim. For instance, prior to the Arizona protests, Trump's favorability was at 43% among white voters; that number dropped to 39% after the protest.
The fact is, if you look at the data on this kind of thing, what you find is people respond unreliably and inconsistently to disruptive protests. When Filipovic says "I think we've seen evidence" on this, I can't imagine that she's actually looked for evidence in any kind of rigorous or compelling way. (She's shown significant difficulty in understanding even basic polling in the past). What's more likely here is that she has an intuition about how the discourse works, largely informed by her conflict-aversion and her reflexive preference for polite rationalistic discourse, and that she will now backfill all kinds of anecdotal and statistically unsound "evidence" to substantiate this.

When liberals call for "an exchange of ideas on the left about the most effective ways to counter" opposition messaging, this is fine - but that exchange of ideas should be at least minimally informed by our understanding of public opinion and how it actually works. The notion that these ideas can be grounded in nothing more than ideology and personal preference makes such calls for dialogue little different than the Creationist calling for "an exchange of ideas" about the origin of species.