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8/29/16

Young people hate democracy, prefer Clinton to Trump

Michael J. Totten, in World Affairs, makes a puzzling argument about kids these days that turns on two distinct claims:
1. "each generation currently alive is more authoritarian than older generations—with young Millenials the least democratic of all" 
2. "Trumpism (and Bernie Sanders-ism) are but the [parochial] American symptoms of a global phenomenon: the astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and far left."
Much of this, of course, conforms quite neatly to a liberal narrative that's gained prominence in the past year. On one hand, we have so-called horseshoe theory: the notion that the right and left are just two sides of the same authoritarian coin, while centrist liberalism is the only truly democratic ideology. On the other hand, we're told that it is the wizened pragmatic olds who have best grasped this essential truth, while young people are naively susceptible to the temptations of radical authoritarian idealism.

Still, it seems to me like there's at least one major problem with all of this:


For some reason, it is our young authoritarians who most prefer Hillary Clinton, and our old liberal democrats who most strongly support Donald Trump. How is this happening? As far as I can tell, there are two major possible explanations:
1. The Hitler Youth theory is essentially wrong - voter preference trends prove that it is the old, not the young, who tend to prefer the authoritarians. This is why they prefer Trump to Clinton, and it is also why they preferred Clinton to Sanders. 
2. Horseshoe theory is essentially wrong - it's just garbage rhetoric from centrists who try to lump in all of their opponents together with Jonah Goldberg "Liberal Fascism!" style left-punching. That's why the same people prefer Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump instead of preferring Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton.
In the spirit of moderate centrism, I'd like to suggest that there's truth to both of these perspectives.

8/20/16

CPUSA gives Democrat quadrennial meaningless endorsement

Every four years, the Communist Party USA rolls out its quadrennial endorsement of whoever the Democrats have nominated for president. This tells us approximately zero about the candidate, her opponents, or the circumstances of any particular election. All it tells us is that the eternal tactical schism on the left between lesser-evil and protest-voting is still with us, and that a single organization with about 3,000 members and two salaried staff remains on the same side of that divide that it always has.

Historically, whenever the CPUSA makes its endorsement, right-wing demagogues use this as their opportunity to rehash the same canned take on how the Democrat is so radical that even the communists support them. The standard liberal response, of course, is to insist that the CPUSA is irrelevant and that its politics say nothing about the Democratic nominee. Seriously, this happens every single time:






There are only two kinds of people who think that the Communist Party USA's endorsement is evidence that the Democratic Party has leftist credibility: 1) right-wing demagogues who want to smear the Democrats as communists and 2) right-wing demagogues who want to try to co-opt communism's prestige and appeal. All that's changed is that communism's increasing popularity has made (2) more useful to the right.

8/17/16

"A cheap theory with a fancy-sounding name"

In the nineties, so-called "third way" Democrats - led by Bill Clinton - famously adopted a full range of policies and positions previously monopolized by Republicans. Most notoriously, for example, Clinton fulfilled his promise to "end welfare as we have come to know it" with the 1996 passage of welfare reform. En route, Clinton even went so far as to praise Republican politicians who cooperated with him in the effort:
This week the Republican leaders in Congress announced they are ready to work with me to pass a straightforward welfare reform bill I can sign into law... I look forward to working with Majority Leader Lott, Speaker Gingrich, and the Democratic leaders of Congress to do the people's business in the coming weeks.
Faced with a skeptical left, Clinton's politics-knowers explained at the time that praising Republican cooperation was actually part of a clever strategy for winning elections called "triangulation." Clinton chief political adviser and renowned leftist Dick Morris:
The president needed to take a position that...blended the best of each party's views...I saw triangulation as a way to change, not abandon, the Democratic Party.
Critics, however, had a different perspective. Christopher Hitchens:
[Morris] was hired on by Clinton and in particular at the instigation of the First Lady...he came up with a cheap theory with a fancy-sounding name...It's called triangulation... stealing your opponent's clothes is one thing, and moving to the center - as it's sometimes called, "middle ground", is another...but this really made it not a tactic, but the whole strategy. 
In other words, "triangulation" didn't have any actual policy or ideological endgame; it was just a way of winning office, and the "pragmatic" justifications were just ways of rationalizing base capitulation. Thus, the left critique holds that coalition-building with Lott and Gingrich did more than just guarantee Clinton a second term: it normalized austerity and budget cuts against the poor as the consensus agenda of the "bipartisan majority," as Newt Gingrich put it. Even in basic electoral terms, Clinton was making a tradeoff: Steven M. Gillon writes,
Dole wanted to prompt a third veto [against welfare reform] so he could continue to depict Clinton as a big-spending liberal on the campaign trail. But both Gingrich and Lott were interested in protecting their majorities in Congress and believed they would be in a stronger position if Republicans could go home being able to tell their constituents they passed a popular reform measure. 
The outcome was predictable: Clinton's collaboration with Lott and Gingrich helped him to defeat Dole, but it also helped the House and Senate protect the massive gains they had made in 1994, and prepared the rhetorical ground for George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" 2000 campaign.

*   *   *

There is, in other words, a distinct history of Clintonian coalition-building with right-wing Republicans, undertaken at the risk of normalizing their politics and at the expense of other Democratic candidates, simply to win the presidency. Yet twenty years later, there's reason to believe that we still aren't weighing central strategic tradeoff with any rigor, and that we're still bewitched by the language of Morris-style tactical wonkery.

Consider, for example, today's article by Brian Beutler insisting that "Liberals Have the Wrong Fears About Hillary's #NeverTrump Outreach". Beutler rejects concerns that, by accepting Republican support, "Clinton is validating their failures and helping to furbish discredited conservative crusades" - but his argument is puzzling:
...the term of art for what Clinton is doing is building a "permission structure" for Republican officeholders and Republican voters to overcome their partisan inhibitions and vote for her...recruiting trusted voices to do persuasive work is central to politics and coalition building.
The social psychology Beutler draws attention to here is interesting - but if anything, it affirms the concerns of Clinton skeptics. There are competing theories on why so-called "permission structures" work - older research suggested that people were just being biased by irrational tribalism, but as Thomas Ferguson explains, later research has tended to
suggest that voters are only acting rationally when they cut information costs by using shortcuts like partisan identification...to evaluate complex vectors of political variables.
Either way, the cognitive mechanism at work here inclines voters to agree with political allies. Obviously, this can cut both ways. If Republicans think they are getting "permission" from other Republicans to support Clinton, they may be more inclined to do so - but if Democrats think they are getting "permission" from Clinton to support Republicans, they may be more inclined to do so, too.

That's exactly what writers like Michael Tracey are getting at when they warn about "Hillary's tacit approval". Beutler insists that this is "not the permission structure Clinton's building," but what matters with a permission structure is not the intent of the architect - the mechanism of persuasion at work here is simply the association of a trusted voice with perceived affinity.

So if for example Democrats take at face value Clinton's praise of Henry Kissinger's "expertise" and "insight" - instead of seeing this as a completely cynical "triangulation" scheme to build a "permission structure", or whatever - the psychological bias at work may tempt Clinton's fans to agree with her. Similarly, when DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda warned that Clinton's campaign wanted them "to basically praise [Paul] Ryan...or at a minimum hold him up as an example," he is clearly concerned that the "permission structure" Clinton is building will bias voters in Ryan's favor - even though "this approach would probably not work with Members of Congress," for obvious reasons.

Ultimately, all of this talk about "permission structures" gets us no closer to the question at hand than the fancy-souding "triangulation" did twenty years ago. And since it relies on an insight that most people already find fairly obvious and intuitive - people are partisan, and biased to agree with their political allies - it's not clear what this tangent does add to our analysis. Liberals and various wonks think that Clinton is doing something strategically savvy by praising Republicans. Leftists and other wonks think that Republicans are getting something out of this, and that it may not be worth the price. Weren't we at this impasse in 1996?

8/16/16

Grifting, co-option, and a dialectic of resistance

Marxist professor of anthropology and geography David Harvey, in a recent article for Jacobin:
Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself? During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties. The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.
This strikes me as uncontroversially true. While unions and parties do play a continued role in the organization of political resistance to capitalism, the modern vanguard of the left is today located among various Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Fight For $15 style activist movements, local community and college based organizations, proto-national organizations still in their embryonic stage like DSA, and so on.

A kind of natural selection is at work here: only smaller, decentralized leftist movements can survive, because capitalism inevitably co-opts and destroys the larger ones. Black Lives Matter, for example, has long been a movement at war with neoliberal attempts to hijack it, and both Occupy Wall Street and Fight For $15 have had their share of problems too. In what I suspect will set a template for future counter-revolution, however, Politico reported Sunday on the destruction of a quite different popular front:
The Tea Party movement is pretty much dead now, but it didn’t die a natural death. It was murdered...the spontaneous uprising...degenerated into a form of pyramid scheme that transferred tens of millions of dollars from rural, poorer Southerners and Midwesterners to bicoastal political operatives...[It] was drained of its vitality and resources by national political action committees that dunned the movement’s true believers endlessly for money to support its candidates and causes...
This overstates the extent to which the Tea Party was a genuine grassroots movement (it was largely astroturfed from the beginning), but it's the endgame that matters here. As it always does, capitalism turned the movement into a resource to be exploited by the bourgeoisie. All of the usual market forces were at work here: "lawyers and consultants...saw a chance to get rich", dozens of PACs began competing for activist donations, and by 2014 they were extracting $43m in a single election cycle. Today, the movement's enthusiasm has been almost completely tapped out: as Politico notes, "just 17 percent of Americans [now] support" it.

What I find fascinating is how neatly this trend fits into standard Marxist crisis theory - and the implications that directly follow. Once we view political activism itself as a set of resources (mainly labor and donor capital) that can be exploited, it follows directly that capitalism will, with increasingly ruthless efficiency, incorporate popular resistance into its profit model. As long as political resistance emerges in forms that can be commodified, capitalist exploitation will outpace the efficacy of revolution. Victories for the left will always be fleeting at best, and ever subject to co-option and rollback.

What will end this process, if we apply this Marxist analysis, is the engine of capitalism itself. It is tempting to suppose that attempts to co-opt and exploit political movements, as we saw with the Tea Party, will always ultimately be governed by what the bourgeoisie wants to happen politically. But as Marx notes, "since the aim of capital is not to minister to certain wants, but to produce profit", production will "tend to exceed" the "limited dimensions of consumption under capitalism". Here, this would mean that the grifters and entrepreneurs who try to profit off of political activism will ultimately overreach, and will try to exploit more labor and capital from political movements than there is to exploit.

It's difficult to guess how this contradiction will express itself historically, but I would like to propose a guess. Capitalism survives largely because people still feel like it allows them some degree of control - there is still, even among the left, a sense that we might be able to work through liberal-democratic channels to resist it and regulate it. But inevitably, it will become clear that even our liberal activism is just another racket that gets exploited for the profit and power of the bourgeoisie. It is when people begin to truly feel their powerlessness within liberalism, when they feel that their political agency has been absolutely commodified, that capitalism will run out of exploitable activism. What will take its place is the one kind of activism that capitalism can by definition not exploit: resistance to capitalism itself.

8/15/16

Trump's supporters aren't being fooled - they know that he's lying.

...the idea that Donald Trump is going to usher in a new era of broadly shared prosperity based on a revival of coal mining and labor-intensive methods of steel production is patently ridiculous. Under guise of being respectful of Trump voters’ concerns, pundits attributing his appeal to his economic “policies” are in effect attributing a remarkable degree of foolishness to his supporters ...though this theory is popular, I am not a fan of it for one pretty simple reason: I think pundits owe people the modicum of respect entailed by assuming that their behavior makes some kind of sense - Yglesias
Yglesias is right to be suspicious of narratives that explain voter behavior by calling voters irrational, but there's still a basic empirical problem here: support for Trump is associated with particular economic conditions. As laid out in the Gallup survey I wrote about Friday, support for Trump is demonstrably associated with poor health and a lack of intergenerational mobility, two factors that the author explicitly relates to "material circumstances". If "adding an economic anxiety factor to your account doesn't actually help explain anything" then we would simply have no way of explaining the relationship between Trump support and these distinctly economic factors.

Nor can an exclusive appeal to racism explain the fact that "Trump is giving his supporters a misleading account of their ills," as Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell puts it. Certainly no one actually thinks that Trump is going to reorganize our economy around coal extraction and steel production - but the fact remains that this is what Trump is effectively promising. Why would he say these things in particular if his appeal simply relies on white racial resentment? What is it about globalization and immigration that makes these his racist dog whistles of choice?

Again, when we preemptively rule out economic explanations, much about Trump's campaign simply cannot be explained. Fortunately, I think there's a pretty simple and respectful way to reconcile the known economic factors behind support for Trump with the fact that Trump's economic promises don't actually make sense.

Suppose that instead of thinking Trump supporters are stupid dupes who are being misled, we assume that they are actually just as smart as Yglesias. Instead of suspecting that they buy his promises about manufacturing, trade, and so on, suppose we assume that they, too understand these as mere pretexts for his actual agenda. Like most Republican candidates, what Trump actually promises is to modestly blunt the impacts of global capitalism for whites with tax cuts, austerity, and other policies rigged in their favor. Shrewdly, white ethnonationalist Trump supporters who are suffering from things like poor health and intergenerational immobility understand this. American voters are in fact so intelligent that "politicians lie to get elected" has long been an absolute truism among even the most "low-information" voters, so it makes perfect sense that they would assume that Trump is also lying when he promises to bring back manufacturing and so on.

Unlike the exclusive appeal to racism, this theory can explain why Trump support is evidently tied to certain fairly quantifiable economic conditions. It can also explain why Trump uses manufacturing and trade in particular as dog-whistles to remind his supporters that he will pursue an essentially racist economic agenda. Trump's lies about his platform aren't fooling anyone. His supporters know perfectly well what they mean.

8/12/16

Gallup's explanation of support for Trump is intersectional leftism 101

The Washington Post is reporting on a new study by Gallup's Jonathan T. Rothwell analyzing support for Donald Trump - and liberals, of course, are taking it as evidence that "Trump supporters aren't motivated by simply economics, but the larger white crisis," EG racism. "It's almost as if something other than economics is driving them," Anil Dash adds. "It's not about economic anxiety," the WP's Christopher Ingraham says. Vox's Dylan Matthews piles on: "Support for racist demagogue turns out to be primarily driven by racism."

As Jeff Spross points out (and as I've insisted ad nauseum), "the argument that economic distress underlies Trump's success was never that it's the only thing that underlies it." The suggestion that leftists reduce all political questions to class is a tired anticommunist smear that has a long history in right-wing red-baiting rhetoric, and that no one who has ever actually bothered to talk to a Marxist actually believes. And effectively, insisting that leftists are overstating the role of economics when leftists merely insist that economics plays a role is a way of making the equally untenable argument that the economy doesn't play any role at all.

Which, ironically, is precisely the theory that Rothwell's study directly rejects. If liberals read it with an open mind, what they would notice is that Rothwell is actually describing a completely orthodox leftist theory about how the intersection of racism and classism have catalyzed the toxic politics of Donald Trump.

Crucially, Rothwell notes that "two alternative measures of living standards - health and intergenerational mobility - provide support for the idea that Trump supporters are less prosperous than others." Rothwell is unsure about how to understand such phenomenon in economic terms - they "go beyond conventional economic measures" - but speculates, for example, that "material circumstances caused by economic shocks manifest themselves in depression, disappointment, and ill-health, and those are the true underlying causes." It is not particularly difficult to talk about a material / economic basis for health and mobility problems in the community, and those, he notes, are the strongest predictors of support for Trump.

Superficially, this finding is at odds with what the Post identifies as the "widely discussed explanation for the success of Donald Trump": the theory that he has won support with his promise "to curtail trade and other perceived threats to American workers, including immigrants." Neither trade nor immigration seem directly relevant to the health and mobility problems that Rothwell credits for the rise of Trumpism.

But if we simply understand these problems as expressed in a generalized economic anxiety, the study makes perfect sense. And that's where racism comes into play. "Trump is giving his supporters a misleading account of their ills," Rothwell tells the Post - an account that plays on racist / nationalist bigotry. By getting Americans to blame immigrants and foreigners for their general feeling of immiseration and precarity, Trump has successfully channeled their politics away from the actual economic causes.

Obviously even this is a simplification of the role racism plays in Trump support, but nothing here is incompatible with standard left intersectional analysis. On the contrary, this is orthodox leftism to the point of utter banality: capitalists often rely on racism to get people to misunderstand their economic problems. Ironically, the one explanation that Rothwell's analysis excludes is the one that rules out economic anxiety as a cause of Trumpism. Race and class are both at work here, and the sooner liberals figure that out, the sooner they'll stop being liberals.

8/11/16

LOL no you should not vote for Donald Trump

The moral and political assumptions that we take for granted are often a good measure of civilization and progress. We do not, for example, spend a lot of time arguing about the merits of cannibalism, because decent people generally agree that cannibalism is bad. We also generally suspect that people who do accept cannibalism have values and perspectives so radically different from our own that arriving at some sort of consensus would take a lot more than, say, a casual exchange of tweets over the internet.

For this reason, I don't spend a lot of time doing things like shaking my fist against Vladimir Putin, or arguing against a vote for Donald Trump. The case against both of them strikes me as pretty remedial, and I generally assume that people who disagree with me about this do so for enormous psychological / socioeconomic / cultural reasons that aren't going to be productively addressed through sporadic, impersonal online criticism. The left critique of liberalism strikes me as a far more useful (and personally interesting) point of engagement, which is why I spend a lot more of my time complaining about milquetoast centrists, Clinton loyalists and bourgeois capitalists.

That said: FFS, don't actually vote for Donald Trump. There is not a good left case for it, there is not a good anti-establishment case for it, there is zero moral or strategic logic for it whatsoever. If you want to heighten-the-contradictions, vote for Clinton, who will spend the next 4-8 years proving that even the most liberal and humane capitalism one can imagine is absolutely unacceptable. If you want to spite the political establishment, you aren't going to do it by endorsing a dull Republican troll who will spend the next 4-8 years farming governance out to the usual geriatric oligarchs and imperialists while he makes dumb jokes on Twitter.

I am not going to spend a lot of time making this point, because I think Trump is going to lose anyway, and because liberals are obviously going to try to co-opt any criticism of Republicans into an endorsement of Democrats. But come on, people