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Why Chait and Yglesias are arguing about the Sanders left

Friday morning, Jonathan Chait wrote that
Sanders attracts the intense support of a small left-wing intellectual vanguard who see American politics in fundamentally terms than most Democrats do. The primary struggle in American politics as they see it is not between liberalism and conservatism, but between socialism and capitalism.
Within hours, Matt Yglesias rolled out a response:
I think [Chait]...ends up wildly overstating the policy content of pro-Bernie's not fundamentally "about" policy - it's about specific human beings' control over the levers of's fundamentally about *who gets to be in charge* rather than about what the policy is going to be.
What's going on here? In the tradition of speculating about pundit motives instead of just asking them what they think, here's my theory:
  • Chait is simply rehearsing the core argument that centrist groups like Third Way will make against Sanders in the coming year: that democratic socialism is extremist and unpopular. He concedes that Sanders pundits have a distinct ideology - but he only does this because he wants to vilify it, and to insist that the broader mass of Sanders supporters don't actually buy into it.
  • Yglesias is positioning himself on the left wing of respectable punditry. Here, this means defending himself against Sanders pundits who threaten to outflank him by insisting that they're engaged in an empty power-play rather than in a substantive fight for policy.

This kind of disagreement will probably define Sanders-skeptical Democrats for the foreseeable future.

And for what it's worth, I think that Chait's camp has the clearer view of the fight at hand. Yglesias belongs to a camp of Democrats that forged its identity in reaction to third way centrism: skeptical of cooperation with Republicans, and even open, in theory, to politics once vilified as "leftist". Today, however, that position has become much less coherent as it encounters a left politics - democratic socialism - that it hesitates to take seriously. Yglesias is struggling to maintain a political identity that is somehow distinct from Chait's left-skeptical centrism, and that's why he keeps getting mired in speculation about the motives of his critics, or in definitional arguments about what "democratic socialism" really means. Chait, meanwhile, knows exactly what it means - and that's why he wants to see it fail.


Why Sanders supporters are attacking Beto

On November 26, Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke announced that he would not "rule anything out" regarding future political ambitions - which the media unanimously reported as a sign that he might run for president.

Immediately, O'Rourke received a surge of positive coverage from pundits like Chris Cillizza, Dan Pfeiffer, and Timothy Murphy. A new Political Action Committee launched dedicated to drafting Beto. The Hill reported a "lovefest for O’Rourke"; Vice Asked Beto's Biggest Fans Why They Love Him So Much, Newsweek headlines declared "Beto O'Rourke 2020 wave grows" and TMZ breathlessly informed us that Beto wanted to be in the Beatles.

All of this happened before the major milestones in the Vast Anti-Beto Conspiracy: a banal tweet from David Sirota on December 2nd, and a Washington Post column from Elizabeth Bruenig on December 5.

People are talking about Beto because the press gave him a massive wave of swooning coverage at the end of November. Critics are responding to this because people tend to talk about what is going on in the news. Clinton partisan Jill Filipovic criticized the press's "Beto-mania"; reactionary and rumored vampire Kevin Williamson declared that Democrats are "mad for Beto"; and yes, socialists like Branko Marcetic also noticed the "Beto-for-president mania sweeping liberal America".

Of course Sanders supporters are talking about this too. The only real mystery is why so many journalists are playing dumb about it, and pretending that there is some unique significance in the Sanders camp responding to the same news that everyone else has been responding to. 


How has the intensity of support for Sanders changed since 2016?

We don't know.

This point is worth stressing: since 2016, there has been no national polling on anything resembling the "intensity" of support for Bernie Sanders. There have been occasional favorability polls, but they measure whether people like Sanders - not how much people like Sanders. What we specifically need are polls that ask for ratings like "very" or "somewhat," and most polling firms stopped asking questions like that when the 2016 primaries ended. Until they start up again, there's really no reliable way to tease the information we need out of the available data.

That said: recently, Nate Silver suggested that you could get some indication of a "candidate's chances" - nationally? - by looking at their numbers in Iowa. And we do have intensity data for Sanders there. So bearing in mind that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison between national Democrats and Iowa Democrats, here's what the trend looks like:

Sanders' positive intensity score simply tracks what percentage of his favorable ratings are "very favorable" (as opposed to "somewhat favorable"). I pulled the 2015-2016 numbers from Yougov / Economist polls of Democrats, and the 2018 numbers from the December CNN poll that Nate Silver used.

My reading of this poll is that not much has changed. The intensity of Sanders' support has always drifted around within a 10 point range - 52% when people barely knew him, 62% when Democrats were in full-on convention mode. Right now, his support is a bit higher than usual, but nothing extraordinary is happening.

My guess it that these numbers will probably continue to fluctuate within this range in the coming months. To the extent that they pay any amount of attention to the numbers at all, opponents of Sanders in the media will probably blow the statistically inevitable drops way out of proportion, and maintain conspicuous silence about the inevitable rebounds. Regardless: if the Iowa numbers mean anything, they mean that Sanders is doing just fine.


Nate Silver, the Democratic primaries, and the trouble with Likert scores

Yesterday, Nate Silver tweeted out a table purporting to calculate Likert scores for a list of potential contenders in the Democratic primaries:

This ranking, he added, "isn't that far from how I'd rate the candidates chances." But is this actually a plausible way of assessing a candidate's chances? And did he even calculate the Likert score correctly? Spoiler: no, and no.

Calculating the Likert score

The first problem here is that Silver begins his calculation by casually omitting a huge fraction of the data: "voters who didn't know or had no opinion about the candidate". Even if we assume that none of these voters knew who the candidate was, this immediately introduces significant uncertainty. For example, by Silver's accounting, only 17% of the voters had an opinion about Andrew Yang. Can we really make an apples-to-apples comparison between him and Hillary Clinton, who received favorable/unfavorable answers from 94% of the voters?

Worse (and this is where Silver really gets into trouble) "didn't know or had no opinion about the candidate" is not an option on the survey. The actual data he is throwing away is the answer "not sure" - and this can include voters who have neutral or ambivalent feelings about the candidate. This is a response you can include in a Likert score! And if you include it, the rankings change:

Here, I've ranked them on a 5-point Likert scale; I've also made a proportional adjustment to Silver's 4-point Likert scale, just for the sake of comparison. Admit that some candidates may just inspire neutral or ambivalent responses, and suddenly O'Rourke, Harris, Booker and Klobuchar take massive hits to their Likert score.

Of course, the most realistic scenario is that some "not sure" answers were ambivalent or neutral, and some expressed genuine ignorance about the candidate. But granting that, the appropriate conclusion is that the data we're working with here just isn't granular enough to calculate legitimate Likert scores.

What does this tell us about electability?

Silver thinks that Likert scores give us some insight into the "chances" that a candidate could win. There is, of course, a pretty simple way to test this: just look at what they predicted in previous elections. Here's one I put together based on early favorability polling of the Democratic candidates in 2016:
This is obviously wrong on multiple levels. Sanders, though he had the highest Likert score, was never favored to win. Clinton was a significantly stronger candidate than Biden, and both were certainly much stronger than Jim Webb. Likert scores could not predict the massive institutional advantages that Clinton would bring to the race, they could not predict the combination of political pressure and personal tragedy that would force Biden to drop out, and they could not predict the way that Sanders' populist message would undercut Webb's campaign and leave O'Malley as the only third option. (Admittedly, it seems to have got Chafee right.)

I don't recall Silver posting a table like this in 2016, for obvious reasons.


Third parties and the shadow primary

Two talking points circulating among Democrats right now:
  1. Because they are likely to run and win significant popular support, we must promise to vote for whoever the Democrats end up nominating as the most viable opponent to Trump.
  2. Even though they are likely to run and win significant popular support, we must not criticize or judge potential Democratic candidates for the presidency until they formally announce their run.
Seems pretty clear what's going on here. As I write this, multiple candidates are rallying donors, party elites, and key personnel, and building public support with deliberate PR, setting in motion campaigns that will work to monopolize opposition to Trump over the next year. The first talking point insists that we acknowledge this - it's why we can already dismiss the possibility of a viable third-party challenge as a non-starter. But the second talking point asks us to play coy about this, and pretend that there is no power play at hand, as a way of shielding likely candidates from criticism.

Say what you will about these arguments - I find them pretty ridiculous - but it just isn't possible to make both of them at once. You can admit that Democrats are already consolidating their power in a shadow primary, which means that it's legitimate to criticize them, or you can pretend that they aren't, which means accepting the possibility that a third party candidate could lead the opposition. Try to do both, and it looks an awful lot like you are just demanding unquestioning submission to the Democratic Party, regardless of what the future has in store.


The Green New Deal is a good plan. It's not a socialist plan.

You can't beat climate change without a massive transfer of wealth to the developing world. Credible estimates range from $400 billion to $2 trillion every year. But there is no political will in the US to accept this responsibility, particularly among the ruling class.

Historically, capital has had a go-to solution to this sort of problem: imperialism. Instead of redistributing the wealth, you can actually extract more wealth from the global south through loans, and by selling it necessities at a profit. Placing the developing world in debt also gives you political leverage to make all sort of demands for things like austerity and deregulation.

This is the context in which the politics of climate change in the US have to be understood. Against all odds, left demands for the US to facilitate green development in the global south may actually succeed. But if that demand maintains a place for the private sector, the politics will default towards a predictable outcome: green imperialism.

Three green new deals

One can see how this dynamic is playing out in left policy planning by looking at three "Green New Deals" that have rolled out in recent years:
  • The first, released in 2015 by the Green Party, proposes creating 16 million public sector jobs, though with no indication that any of this will involve international development. It proposes investments into green technology research, but with no indication of whether this research will take place in the public or private sector. It also explicitly proposes to "invest in green business," and notably insists on keeping "wealth created by local labor circulating in the community."
  • The second, developed by Greg Carlock at Data for Progress, proposes creating 10 million new jobs through a Green Job Guarantee, workforce development and job training programs - and private sector growth. There is no reference to international development, though it does note, in passing, that this plan "will produce immense demand for new goods and services that the private sector can provide."
  • The third, proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aims to make "green technology, industry, expertise, products, and services a major export of the United States" through a whole arsenal of initiatives - from a green job guarantee to "massive investment" in R&D to " promote...labor market flexibility and entrepreneurism".
These proposals have typically been promoted on the left as job guarantee proposals, and they are. But they are also proposals to significantly expand the private sector. And insofar as they mention international development at all, they envision the creation of a global market centered around the profit models of US business.

A Green Marshall Plan

Even in the best case scenario - a United States that develops a massive capacity for green development, ready for export - none of these proposals mention how the global south will pay for any of this. Again: the standard solution to this problem, and the one that our ruling class will default to absent enormous popular resistance, has been to place poor countries in even greater debt, often with interest, and potentially with various neoliberal policy strings attached. The rapid expansion of the so-called "green bond" market in recent years suggests that this approach is already putting down roots.

As an alternative, some academics and politicians have called for something like a green Marshall Plan. Al Gore, for instance, argued in 2006 that in "a Global Marshall Plan...wealthy nations can no longer insist that Third World countries pay huge sums of interest". A more ambitious model might resemble something like Bernie Sanders' 2017 "Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico," which proposed $146b in grants, debt relief, and mandated all kinds of protections against typical liberalization efforts (EG, calling for "labor protections, public input, local and municipal governing power" and insisting that "efforts to privatize public institutions must be rejected").

This approach to international development does get around some of the more sinister traps of international aid, and some of the principles at work here - grants rather than loans, and protections against liberalization - have to be the foundation of any left campaign against climate change.

Nevertheless, none of these funding plans manage to finesse the exploitative dynamic created by a privatized Green New Deal. At best, they create a simple wealth transfer that begins with the federal government; circulates to the developing world as grants; and then returns back to US-based capital as payments for our green exports. This, Chomsky notes, was the basic dynamic of the original Marshall Plan:
It’s talked about as an act of “unimaginable benevolence.” But...of the $13 billion of Marshall Plan aid, about $2 billion went right to the U.S. oil companies. That was part of the effort to shift Europe from a coal-based to an oil-based economy, and parts of it would be more dependent on the United States...You look at the rest of it, very little of that money left the United States. It goes from one pocket to another.
How this would play out for the global south is unclear. Immediately, the Green New Deal / Marshall Plan approach places the these countries in a relationship of dependence - on the north for funding, and on the US for ongoing green development. Hypothetically, one can imagine them growing their way out of peonage, funding their own energy and development through supercharged green economies. But this, of course, is just the standard argument for capitalist globalization: it's an argument that opening up the world to profit-seeking US firms, subsidized perhaps with public funding, can lift the third world out of poverty and eradicate international inequality.

Still better than climate change

A "socialist" plan for tackling climate change would have to begin, necessarily, by placing the means of production in the hands of workers who control it through the arm of the state. From there, the global socialist state would simply redistribute resources and direct production as needed to curtail carbon emissions. Say what you will about plans that fall outside of this framework - but they can't be described as "socialist" in any meaningful sense. A plan that leaves control of the means of production in the hands of private owners necessarily maintains a fundamentally exploitative relationship between capitalists, workers, and the earth.

This does not, to be clear, mean that the left should abandon support for something resembling a Green New Deal / Green Marshall Plan. Given the choice between apocalyptic, runaway climate change and a stopgap investment program that leaves the private sector in place but brings down emissions, most of our planet would probably prefer the latter. Nevertheless, socialists should proceed in this fight with their eyes wide open: the problem of redistribution has not been solved, and US capital is still firmly in control.


Nobody is on Twitter, revisited

A few years ago, Matt Bruenig pointed out that Nobody Is On Twitter. Since then, research (Pew in particular) has given us much better data than we had at the time, giving us a much better picture of just how tiny Twitter's audience actually is. Since I was poking through some of it today, I thought I might as well post a few of the more interesting numbers I came across. First, on how often people use Twitter:

These numbers are based on Pew's latest survey on social media use, as well as reporting on dead accounts by PC Mag. The baseline number Matt mentioned in 2015 - 23% - is pretty close to the 24% we see here, but once we break it down it becomes clear that this number is significantly inflated.
  • Most US adults with Twitter accounts (24%) aren't online every day (13%), and in fact, 44% of that first number may never use their account at all. That leaves about 13% of US adults who are Active Posters.
  • People who are online every day - call them True Posters - account for only 11% of all US adults.
  • Extremely Online Posters - the people who, intuitively, prove most of our content - only account for 6% of the US adult population.
Even these numbers, however, overstate things: not everyone, it turns out, uses Twitter to talk about the news:
  • One recent survey shows that only about 11% of the population ever gets their news from Twitter.
  • Among respondents who ever use social media to get the news there is also significant variation in consumption: for instance, 30% of that group say that they "hardly ever" get their news from social media. If these trends holds for Twitter, then it is probably a significant source of news for something closer to 3-8% of US adults.
This, I think, is a much more realistic assessment of Twitter's news reach: bring together all of the blue check journalists and unverified posters, the sinister operatives and the doe-eyed normies, the Pepe teens and the Gritty teens, the #TCOT grandpas and rose emojis - put them all together, and you are reaching a single-digit percentage of US adults, somewhere between 3-8%.