Tag Archives: politics

The Political F-word

When and how should we talk about fascism?


Satirical Trump campaign logo.

When Donald Trump started talking about closing American mosques and perhaps even having Muslims register with the government, when he called for a “deportation force” to search out and expel the 11 million Hispanic immigrants estimated to be in the country illegally, and then when he justified his supporters in “roughing up” a protester at his rally, a number of his fellow Republicans began to use the word fascist.

Once you start viewing Trump through that lens, a number of his previous statements — many of which were seen at the time as so outrageous they would doom his campaign — take on a different significance, particularly his xenophobic comments about immigrants and the way his speeches rely more on assertions of his own greatness than on any identifiable policies or political philosophy. (It also wasn’t the first time he had justified the violence of his followers.)

Pundits have reacted to labeling Trump a fascist in three different ways:

None of those reactions is entirely wrong, as we’ll see. But that conclusion just raises a larger question: Would we have a basis for calling any contemporary figure a fascist? Or has the word just become an insult with no identifiable content? What is fascism, anyway?

If you try to answer that question by looking at expert opinion, you’ll find a muddle. Just about any good article on fascism starts by explaining why it’s so hard to define. Here’s how David Neiwert puts it:

In contrast [to communism], hardly anyone can explain what it is that makes fascism, mainly because all we really know about it is the regimes that arose under its banner. There are no extant texts, only a litany of dictatorships and atrocities. When we think of fascism, we think of Hitler and perhaps Mussolini, without even understanding what forces they rode to power.

Communism has a very concise description: public ownership of the means of production under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Liberal democracy is a government elected by the majority but constitutionally restrained from violating minority rights. For fascism, well, we’ve got the example of Hitler. But what was it about Hitler that made him Hitler? [1] Given that we don’t want another Hitler regime, or anything remotely like it, what should we be looking for and trying to avoid?

In his influential essay “Ur-Fascism“, Umberto Eco warns:

It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple.

You can’t identify fascism by blindly correlating policies. Hitler built the autobahn and Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, but Eisenhower was not a Hitler. Reagan and Hitler both increased military spending, but Reagan was not a Hitler. Fascism also is not a political philosophy. (Eco: “Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.”) It’s not an economic theory, and it’s not tied to a particular religion.

In his book In God’s Country (about the American Patriot movement of the 1990s), Neiwert adopts this definition (which he attributes to “historians and sociologists”):

a political movement based in populist ultranationalism and focused on an a core mythic ideal of phoenix-like societal rebirth, attained through a return to “traditional values.”

But Eco, who grew up under Mussolini, avoided all definitions, writing that “fascism had no quintessence”. Instead he tried to find deeper, pre-rational roots: “Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.” and “behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.”

He reduced these “unfathomable drives” to 14 traits of what he called Ur-Fascism, upon which any specific form of fascism would be based. These 14, he said, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism.” The traits include a cult of tradition, anti-intellectualism [2], equating disagreement with treason, fear of difference, permanent warfare, and contempt for the weak. But the one that I want to focus on is #6:

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. [italics in the original]

This points to what I see as the real difficulty of defining fascism as a political movement: It’s not fundamentally about politics at all. Fascism is primarily a phenomenon of social psychology. I would summarize it as a dysfunctional attempt of people who feel humiliated and powerless to restore their pride by:

  • styling themselves as the only true and faithful heirs of their nation’s glorious (and possibly mythical) past,
  • identifying with a charismatic leader whose success will become their success,
  • helping that leader achieve power by whatever means necessary, including violence,
  • under his leadership, purifying the nation by restoring its traditional and characteristic virtues (again, through violence if necessary),
  • reawakening and reclaiming the nation’s past glory (by war, if necessary),
  • all of which leads to the main point: humiliating the internal and external enemies they blame for their own humiliation. [3]

Now, I think, we’re in a position to talk about Donald Trump and his relationship to the conservative movement. Trump may or may not harbor fascist ambitions himself, but his campaign targets a segment of the population that is psychologically ready for fascism: working-class white Christian males, who have seen their privileged place in American society erode as blacks, women, gays, non-English-speakers, and non-Christians get closer to equality. What’s more, the good-paying no-college-necessary jobs that allowed their fathers to achieve the American dream have vanished, leaving them incapable of carrying forward their patriarchal legacy.

In his scapegoating of immigrants at home and foreign enemies abroad, and his vague promises to “make America great again” by applying his own greatness to a government that for decades has been run by “losers”, Trump is playing the role of a charismatic fascist leader.

But the audience he is appealing to didn’t pop out of nowhere. Its sense of grievance has been carefully nurtured and cultivated by decades of conservative propaganda, which has diligently pointed its resentment  downward at scapegoat groups like blacks, Muslims, and Hispanic immigrants, rather than upward at the wealthy bosses who profited by shipping jobs overseas.

In their defense, the propagandists probably didn’t intend to create a fascist movement. Instead, from one election to the next, it was easy to split the natural constituency of the Left by appealing to a sense of victimization among the white working class, using xenophobia, racism, and hot-button religious issues to turn them against the non-white working class, against women and gays, and against the liberal politicians who looked out for the interests of the emerging minorities. [4] As Neiwert concluded in 2004 after an analysis of Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric:

What this exercise reveals is not so much that Limbaugh is a fascist, but rather, that he is making a career out of transmitting the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds to a mainstream conservative audience.

The result is the confusion that Trump has sown inside the Republican establishment. Fascistic themes of wounded pride and affronted identity were supposed to keep working-class white Christian men voting against their economic interests. [5] But nobody was supposed to take things this seriously.

Now that Trump is doing so, establishment Republicans are starting to yell “fascist!” But that won’t work at this late date, because by now “the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds” have been woven too deeply into standard conservative rhetoric. The audience that Trump has found and speaks to are the same people whose support Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio hoped to gain with winks and nods.

You can, if you want, regard that last sentence as a conclusion marking the end of the article. Or you can keep reading as we make a deeper pass through the psychology of fascism and its relationship to mainstream American conservatism.


To grasp fascism and its shape-shifting nature, you need to understand a series of concepts that can manifest differently in different times and places. What follows are some “themes and memes” of fascism, and where you can hear them in conservative rhetoric today.

Volkheit. A fascist believes that his nation has an essence, which does not evolve with the times, but is a fixed and eternal ideal. In German, an ethnic group is ein Volk, and their Volkheit (i.e. folkhood) is whatever makes them what they are.

The United States is a nation of immigrants that hasn’t seen itself as English for a long time, so its volkheit wouldn’t be strictly ethnic. For a time it was defined by the constructed ethnicity “White”, but even that characterization has become obsolete. Consequently, the “essence” that makes an American an American is hard to define.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a volkheit. The yearning towards a volkheit can be seen in way that various Americans feel threatened by non-English-speaking citizens, by the equality of non-whites, by multiculturalism, by non-Christian religions, and by any transnational authority like the United Nations or the WTO. Race plays a role in defining the American volk, but other factors weigh in the scale as well.

Whenever someone uses the phrase real Americans to mean something more than the people who live in or are citizens of the United States, they’re talking about our volkheit, particularly if they cite “real Americans” as the upholders of our “traditional values”.

One place you can see this playing out is in the otherwise inexplicable attempts to make President Obama an “other”: the baseless controversy over his birth certificate, the attempt to portray him as a Muslim, the unique sense of outrage when he does things many previous presidents did without anyone noticing or caring. It’s easy to read this as simple racism, but the real point being argued is that Obama doesn’t belong to the American volk. [6]

Herrenvolk. Fascism depends on a belief in the special status of our particular volk. There is a natural hierarchy of peoples, and we are meant to be at the top of it.

Herrenvolk is usually translated as “master race”, but that’s not exactly right. Herr has an aspect of master or lord — the German word for dominance is Herrschaft — but also of a respected head-of-household. (Herr Schmidt is just Mr. Schmidt.) So the herrenvolk doesn’t necessarily hold everyone else on a leash, but in a well-ordered world all the other volk recognize its natural superiority.

The contemporary American form of herrenvolk is American Exceptionalism. When de Toqueville described Americans as “exceptional” in the 1800s, he meant only that a uniquely favorable set of circumstances — like the lack of a competing power on our continent, and the absence of an established class structure and its corresponding centuries-long grudges — had given us a unique opportunity to leave behind Europe’s baggage and make a new start on civilization. That’s why our revolution could succeed, but the revolution in de Toqueville’s France got sidetracked into the Reign of Terror.

But since then, American Exceptionalism has developed into something more than just circumstantial: We are morally exceptional, so things that would be wrong for anybody else are OK for us. Consequently, we can torture people; we can start unprovoked wars; Iran shouldn’t feel threatened by our nuclear arsenal, but we’d be justified in attacking to prevent them acquiring nukes; and so on, because we’re the herrenvolk.

Grievance. Fantasies of belonging to the herrenvolk are like fantasies of secret royalty: If a child is happy with her life and home, she doesn’t need to dream about her real parents coming to claim her. This is why fascism is a product of hard times. When a nation is doing well — its ruling class feels secure, its middle class is confident in its upward mobility, and its lower classes are more docile than desperate — fascism has no place to take root.

But once you start claiming herrenvolk status, you’re left with a conundrum: Why is my life so hard? We’re better than everyone else, so why aren’t we more successful? This is the issue Trump is raising when he complains that “America doesn’t win any more.”

Fascism’s answer is that we have been robbed of our rightful place in the world. Again, fascism’s local variability comes into play. Every fascism has to claim that its volk has been robbed. But who robbed us and how can change in every country.

Neiwert:

Indeed, one of the lessons I’ve gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.

There is no better example of this than Bill O’Reilly’s characterization of the Left as running a “grievance industry“. O’Reilly’s show is little more than a stream of grievances, of wrongs committed against whites, against Christians, against conservatives, against men, and against Real Americans of all types.

Purity. The strength of a volk is in its purity. Conversely, fascism ties a nation’s problems to its failure to guard its purity.

In Nazism, Jews were the impurity corrupting the German volk. In contemporary America, this impurity worry focuses on non-white, non-Christian, or non-English-speaking immigrants, as well as on American blacks who seem not to be assimilating into the white-dominated society.

Purity is a primal, pre-rational concern, which is why the irritation is not soothed by analyses of the economic benefits from immigration, or the overall good behavior of undocumented Hispanics and refugees, or even the rise in deportations during the Obama administration. Meanwhile, every individual crime by an immigrant sets it off again. The belief that foreigners are corrupting the purity of America is foundational; since this impurity is the cause of all our problems, the simple fact that we still have problems is evidence of its corrosive effect.

Another aspect of impurity is moral. The idealized Real America of the white suburbs and small towns of the 1950s had no place for homosexuals or the transgendered. So their presence — and even acceptance! — in contemporary America is evidence of our impurity. Again, evidence is beside the point. Forget that the gay couple living next door trims the lawn perfectly, or that their daughter is valedictorian. If we have problems — and who can say that we don’t? — the impurities we tolerate all around us must be the cause.

Our glorious past. Fascism looks back to a time before impurity set in, when the volk lived securely in its volkheit. For Mussolini, this was the Roman Empire and il Duce was the new Augustus. American conservatives similarly idealize four golden eras: Philosophically, the Golden Age was the founding era, and the Founders are portrayed as divinely inspired prophets. Economically, the Golden Age was the Gilded Age, when capitalists worked their magic unhindered by regulations. Militarily, it was World War II, when our entire society was mobilized behind the war effort. Culturally, the Golden Age happened in the Ozzie-and-Harriet suburbs and small towns of the 1950s.

The importance of this mythology is why any accurate assessment of American history is so threatening to conservatives that they find it necessary to promote their own pseudo-historians. In his announcement speech, for example, Ben Carson attributed the rise of America to the “can-do attitude” of the “early settlers”. His point comes completely undone if you understand the role of land stolen from the Native Americans and developed by slave labor. Similarly, conservatives can only see World War II as a battle of Freedom against Barbarism; the suggestion that dropping nuclear bombs on civilians is barbaric cannot be entertained.

Any reading of history in which America is a nation like other nations, exemplifying both good and evil, is beyond the pale.

Betrayal. Any myth of a glorious past is vulnerable to the criticism Jack Burden makes in All the King’s Men:

If it was such a God-damned fine, beautiful time, why did it turn into this time which is not so damned fine and beautiful if there wasn’t something in that time which wasn’t fine and beautiful? Answer me that one.

Impurity of the volk is only a partial answer, and the machinations of our enemies can’t be a complete answer either, because they shouldn’t be able to stand against the herrenvolk. No, we are suffering now because we have been betrayed by our leaders and by the culturally influential classes.

For Hitler, this was the famous Dolschstosslegende, the myth that German armies did not lose World War I in the field, but were “stabbed in the back” by traitors in high places at home.

You can hear the current dolschstosslegende in Ted Cruz saying that President Obama “does not wish to defend this country”. Or Michele Bachmann’s description of Obama’s immigration policy:

We have this invasion because a political decision was made by our president to intentionally flaunt the laws of the land and put at risk the American people, our culture, our way of life, our economic standing, and also he’s willing to allow a pandemic of disease to come into our country.

The conservative version of recent American history is full of betrayals: FDR betrayed the cause of freedom at Yalta, JFK surrendered American sovereignty to the UN, the Democratic Congress gave away the victory Nixon had won in Vietnam, and Obama not only gave away Bush’s victory in Iraq, but negotiated a “surrender” to Iran.

What the Republican establishment never expected was that they too would be included among the betrayers. But when John Boehner announced his retirement, no one cheered louder than the Republican base. And who imagined that Eric Cantor would be tarred as a traitor to conservatism? Ben Carson says, “I’ll tell you a secret. The political class comes from both parties and it comes from all over the place.” And Ted Cruz writes:

In 2010, we were told that Republicans would stand and fight if only we had a Republican House. In 2014, we were told that Republicans would stand and fight just as soon as we won a majority in the Senate and retired Harry Reid. In both instances, the American people obliged. Now we’re told that we must wait until 2017 when we have a Republican president.

Trump is just echoing them when he says, “I am more disappointed in the Republicans than the Democrats.”

Cruelty. Psychologically, the key to fascism is the (usually unstated) belief that you can work out your own humiliation by humiliating others. Did you fight bravely in the Great War, only to see your country shamed at Versailles, and your family lose everything in the subsequent inflation and depression? Go beat up a union organizer, or throw rocks through the windows of a Jewish shopkeeper; you’ll feel better.

And maybe you do, for a while, but in the morning you return to the same life you had yesterday. So like any addiction, the temptation is to try more next time. Maybe if you’d killed the organizer or set fire to the shop, the feeling would have lasted.

A similar pattern explains the way Republican presidential candidates seem to glory in their cruelty and heartlessness. Trump mimicked and ridiculed a reporter’s disability (echoing Rush Limbaugh’s mocking of Michael J. Fox), Chris Christie didn’t just call for leaving Syrian refugees to their fate, he specifically said he would refuse entry to “orphans under the age of five”. Several candidates have called for the return of torture, even though it accomplishes little beyond making suspected terrorists suffer. The persistent weakness in the protect-traditional-marriage argument was that its proponents could not identify anybody who would benefit; the point was entirely to make gay and lesbian lives harder. Republican deportation policies will break up families, and no one benefits from sending DREAMers back to a country they don’t remember. But none of that seems to matter.

What does matter is that when a candidate says something that is harsh or offensive, his poll numbers go up. [7] The Republican base is angry and is looking for a candidate who will inflict pain on its enemies. That pain is not a regrettable side-effect of a policy that accomplishes something else; inflicting pain is the accomplishment.

What’s the matter with Kansas today? For decades, the Republican establishment has used fascist themes as a tactic: While their policies destroyed unions, empowered employers, shifted the tax burden from the rich to the middle class, allowed higher education to become unattainably expensive for families not already wealthy, and made it easier to ship blue-collar jobs overseas, they could appeal to working-class whites on a symbolic level, offering them pride rather than paychecks or opportunities.

Now those chickens are coming home to roost: Republicans have set the stage for America to have an actual fascist movement, one that will see them as part of the corruption that needs to be purged. Like the businessmen who funded Hitler as a way to distract workers from communism, they thought they could control this, but they can’t.

Donald Trump is taking advantage of this situation, but he is not the problem. Ted Cruz will happily fill his role if something goes wrong, and if the fascist movement can’t win the Republican nomination or the presidency in 2016, there’s always 2020 or 2024. Who knows who might step forward to claim its leadership?

In the long run, I can only see one way out of this trend: Democrats need to offer a program that will genuinely do something for the working class, in the same way that the New Deal headed off American fascism in the 1930s. Americans who feel frustrated and humiliated by the culture and economy of the 21st century need to know that they can get help fixing their lives; there’s no need to seek relief by making others suffer too.


[1] Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is almost comical in its willingness to latch onto Hitler’s superficial traits (like his vegetarianism and support for universal health care) while never zeroing in on his movement’s toxic essence. The Onion could not write a line more ridiculous than this:

The quintessential Liberal Fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.

[2] The anti-intellectual nature of fascism is one reason it remains undefined. A real fascist is in the streets, not sitting in a library making up theories.

[3] The dysfunctionality of this program is why fascist regimes tend toward short-but-spectacular lives, particularly if the Leader is a true believer, and is not just using the movement to gain power. Humiliating others doesn’t really soothe your own humiliation, so the regime must constantly up the ante to maintain its supporters’ enthusiasm. Ultimately, no conquest and no level of enemy humiliation is enough. The world must fall, and the enemies must be exterminated.

[4] This is the theme of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? from 2004.

[5] For example, the struggling whites in Kentucky who just voted to eliminate their own health insurance.

[6] As you might expect, Trump voters believe these stories about Obama at a higher rate than supporters of other candidates.

[7] Josh Marshall has an interesting take on this: He believes that it isn’t Trump’s cruelty that appeals to the Republican base so much as his refusal to apologize for it.

How Propaganda Works

Jason Stanley has written an insightful book in the language of philosophers. Let me try to translate.


The popular view of propaganda is that it’s nothing more complicated than repeating the same lie over and over: Just keep telling people that voter fraud is a serious problem, Mexican immigrants are disease-carrying criminals, and more guns will solve the gun-violence problem; eventually they’ll start believing such things and repeating them to their friends. You pound a lie into people’s ears until it starts coming out their mouths.

But why do some falsehoods and misdirections catch on while others don’t? Why are some notions impervious to contrary evidence? How do they win out over truths whose perception ought to be in people’s best interest? Why, for example, will a person be unmoved by a hundred accounts of climate change from qualified experts, then listen to one crank claiming it’s a conspiracy to establish world socialism and think, “I knew it!”

In the marketplace of ideas, not all products are created equal. Some are born with inherent advantages that don’t depend on logic or evidence. How does that work?

In order to explain in an intellectually rigorous way, Yale Philosophy Professor Jason Stanley has to define or redefine a bunch of terms, and then argue that these concepts will survive the slings and arrows that other philosophers are likely to launch at them. For a layman like me, that makes for a slow and repetitive book (though not a tremendously long one: a little less than 300 pages). But while some of the basic ideas are familiar — motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, echo chambers, dog whistles, and so on — it’s rare to see them assembled in such a complete package.

Defining propaganda. Stanley proposes a broader definition of propaganda than just lies; it’s “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate”. In less technical terms, it’s the use of deception, emotion, misdirection, intimidation, or stereotype to eliminate certain facts or points of view from the discussion.

A specific use of a slur, for example, may not contain any false information, but instead pushes out of mind the humanity of the slurred person or group. Having police pay special attention to “thugs” doesn’t sound as bad as racially profiling young black men. Undermining “that bitch at the office” is easier to justify than driving women out of the workplace. The point of view of “thugs” or “bitches” doesn’t seem worthy of consideration.

Democratic propaganda. The canonical examples of propaganda come from totalitarian states like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, which had ministries of propaganda and officially sanctioned media like Pravda. But Stanley is more interested in the special problem of propaganda in countries that style themselves as liberal democracies, where ideas are supposed to be debated freely in an independent press in front of a autonomous electorate. In America, the echo chambers have unguarded exits. Why do so many citizens choose to remain inside?

Stanley points up a key difference: In a totalitarian state, you can easily recognize propaganda, but don’t know whether to take it seriously. (When Hitler cast the Jews as vermin he wanted to exterminate, a man in the street might have shrugged and said, “That’s just propaganda.”) In a liberal democracy, we take the news media more seriously, but have a harder time recognizing when it contains propaganda. (Example: Judith Miller’s NYT articles about Saddam’s WMD program.)

Another difference is that while propaganda fits perfectly into totalitarianism, it strikes at the heart of democracy: If citizens are not rational actors who use the democratic system to defend their interests and values, but instead are manipulated into some other kind of public discussion, then what’s the justification for giving them a say at all?

Two kinds of propaganda. Stanley breaks propaganda down into two types: supporting and undermining. Supporting propaganda is in some sense straightforward: It promotes what it appears to be promoting. For example, a government might raise support for its war effort by publicizing real or imagined atrocities committed by the enemy.

What’s more dangerous for a democracy, though, is undermining propaganda: appeals to public values to promote goals that in fact undermine those very values. For example, by popularizing the false belief that America has a significant voter-fraud problem, voter-suppression tactics can be put forward as necessary to defend the integrity of our elections. A laudable democratic value — integrity of elections — is used to undermine the integrity of elections.

Similarly, the false belief that Christians are discriminated against in America justified Kim Davis in denying marriage licenses to gay couples. The democratic values of equality and fairness were invoked to undermine equality and fairness.

Flawed ideology. Those examples raise another key concept in Stanley’s system: flawed ideology. A flawed ideology is a set of false or misleading ideas that are impervious to evidence. If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

For example, suppose you are addressing people who believe (or at least take seriously the possibility) that President Obama’s anti-ISIS policy is intentionally inept, because he’s a secret Muslim. Instead of making that claim explicitly, all you have to do is activate the flawed ideology by calling the President “Barack Hussein Obama”. Your audience will add the secret-Muslim point to whatever other criticisms you make of Obama’s moves in the Middle East.

What’s more, content that is evoked like this (and not explicitly stated) is harder for the listener to filter out. Stanley gives the non-political example: “My wife is from Chicago.” If the speaker says, “I am married”, the listener might consciously consider whether or not that is true. But “My wife is from Chicago” calls attention to the claim about Chicago, sneaking in the idea that the speaker is married.

In mid-conversation, it may be hard for the listener to specify exactly what content has been evoked by “Barack Hussein Obama”, much less consider whether it is true. Similarly, when Newt Gingrich referred to Obama as “the Food Stamp President”, he evoked all the content that had been previously associated with food stamps: that undeserving people get them because they’re too lazy to work, that most of those lazy people are black, that (because he is black himself) Obama is on their side rather than the side of hard-working white people, and so on. Challenging the explicit claim — that food stamp usage increased during the Obama administration — misses the point, because that part is true. In fact, challenging it and letting supporters defend its accuracy only reinforces their impression that the unspoken content must be true as well.

Flawed ideology is social. Once a flawed ideology exists, it gets reinforced by each use. So American Christians who believe they are persecuted closely followed the Kim Davis story, and came away more convinced than ever that they are persecuted.

But where does flawed ideology come from in the first place? Stanley roots flawed ideology in self-interest, particularly our unconscious attraction to comfortable ideas that tell us we are good and justified in what we hope to do. But the ideas most impervious to evidence aren’t just the ones that further our personal interest, but the ones that support our social identity.

Stanley gives the example of the near-universal belief among pre-Civil-War Southern slave-owners that slavery was justified, and that blacks were too lazy, stupid, and childlike to benefit from freedom. To turn away from that complex of beliefs, you would not only have to realize that your own standard of living is based on a great wrong, but you would also have to indict your parents, your church, your teachers, your friends, and your entire community for conspiring to commit that injustice. Literally everyone you had believed to be good might have to be reclassified as evil. So the stakes are far higher than just increasing the labor expense of your plantation or learning to make your own bed. Changing your ideas about blacks and slavery could change everything for you.

No wonder so few people did. Ideas like slavery could not be examined dispassionately, carefully weighing evidence for and against. Hearing persuasive criticisms of slavery would naturally evoke fear of losing your whole sense of self, so you might seize pro-slavery rationalizations like an overboard sailor grabbing a life preserver.

Today, the reason so few Americans leave their unguarded echo chambers is that those echo chambers are communities that define their social identity. As our politics becomes more polarized and entire states see themselves as blue or red, changing your ideas about abortion or race or Islam or guns or capitalism could mean becoming a whole new person with new friends and memberships, maybe living in a new town or neighborhood. Even your family relationships could be shaken.

Some ideologies threaten democracy more than others. As far back as Plato and Aristotle, philosophers have recognized that different forms of government are based on different values. A dictatorship values decisiveness and loyalty, an aristocracy refinement and breeding, a plutocracy wealth. A corporate state reveres efficiency and orderly procedures. Democracies are based on competing values of freedom, fairness, and equality; and a properly functioning democracy fosters a constant debate about how to balance those values and compromise each with the others.

So the propaganda that most threatens democracy isn’t the kind that argues directly for the values of another system — if people really want more efficiency, we should talk about that — but the undermining propaganda that invokes freedom, fairness, and equality to justify actions that diminish freedom, fairness, and equality.

Consequently, the flawed ideology that most threatens democracy is the self-justifying ideology of privileged groups, like the Confederate slave-owners. If our group has some unfair advantage that is based on foreclosing the options of other people, we will naturally want to believe that our advantage doesn’t really exist (there is no inequality), or that it’s actually fair because of the comparative virtues of our people and those who lack our privileges, or that the un-privileged folks are freely choosing not to do the things that (in reality) the system discourages them from doing.

Complexes of ideas that tell us such things — that freedom, fairness, and equality demand that my people keep their privileges — are so welcome that they seem obvious and natural. “Of course,” you say, “I should have seen that myself.” That nagging sense that our way of life is unjust and unsustainable vanishes. We are the good guys, and those who want to take away our advantages are the bad guys.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis frames climate-change denial just that way in this clip from the movie Merchants of Doubt.

It’s not just a head thing. This is very much a heart issue. It’s not the science that’s affecting us. I mean, the science is pretty clear. It’s something else that’s causing this rejection. Many conservatives, I think, see that action on climate change is really an attack on a way of life.

The reason that we need the science to be wrong is otherwise we realize that we need to change. That’s really a hard pill to swallow, that the whole way I’ve created my life is wrong, you’re saying? That I shouldn’t have this house in the suburb? I shouldn’t be driving this car? That I take my kids to soccer? And you’re not going to tell me to live the way that you want me to live.

And along come some people sowing some doubt, and it’s pretty effective, because I’m looking for that answer. I want it to be that the science is not real.

So: personal interest leads to social identification with the people who share those interests; maintaining social identity prevents the examination of notions that would threaten our way of life, leading to flawed ideology; the false information contained in that ideology can be activated and reinforced by propaganda that may contain no false information of its own; with the result that freedom, fairness, and equality seem to demand the maintenance of our unfair and unequal advantages — “You’re not going to tell me to live the way you want me to live.” — even if it ultimately means that others will have their freedom diminished. The resulting beliefs are then almost impossible to refute with evidence, because such an argument is tied to a threat to the believer’s community and social identity.

[Propaganda is a topic the Sift returns to every now and then. My favorite previous articles in this series are “Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation” and “How Lies Work“.]

Hey, Nerds! Politics is a System. Figure it out.

What 20th-century high school taught me about 21st-century politics.


I’m even older than David Roberts (who recently posted the very important article “Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics.“), so I also grew up in the days before nerds became cool.

Let’s just be friends, R2.

In the popular action dramas of my youth, nerds were never the heroes. We had no equivalent of, say, Neo from The Matrix or Hiro Hamada from Big Hero 6. At best, the heroes we were offered were jocks open-minded enough to tolerate the occasional nerdy associate or sidekick, like 007’s Q or Captain Kirk’s Spock. (Nerds particularly loved Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch, because he knocked people out by knowing stuff about physiology rather than decking them with a right cross.) Even in the defining nerd-fanboy film of my college years, the jockiest character (Han Solo) was a hunky action hero while the nerdiest (R2D2) was a beeping blinking machine. No matter how many times he saved the day, was there ever a chance R2 would get the girl?

20th-century high-school nerds. One thing I remember clearly about the uncool nerd subculture of my youth: We were bitter about our unpopularity. We returned the disdain of high-school society with interest, and saw its social system as a scummy, irrational thing. Figuring out its rules and mastering its processes was beneath us, no matter how much we wished we could enjoy its fruits (or at least stop being its victims).

So we told ourselves and each other that it wasn’t a system at all. There was nothing to know about how to dress or make conversation, no reason to map the social structure or look for possible points of entry, nothing to gain from identifying and cultivating potential allies.

We weren’t just un-strategic about the society around us, we were anti-strategic. If you had taken 16-year-old me aside and tried to explain how things worked and how they could work to my advantage (if I mastered the appropriate skills), I would have argued with you: High school society represented pure irrationality. That fact was the only thing worth knowing about it. Imagining otherwise wasn’t a necessary pre-condition to figuring stuff out, it was surrender. I’d be opening my pristine mind to corrupting nonsense.

21st-century nerds and politics. I have it on good authority that high school isn’t that way any more, at least in the professional-class suburbs. I’ve watched a math geek and a dungeon master go through public high school. Each has had a diverse group of friends — i.e., not just the chess club — and girl friends whose attractiveness to non-nerds went well beyond any aspiration of mine at that age. (There must have been jocks who wanted to go out with these young women, but couldn’t raise their interest.)

Despite that progress, though, Roberts’ article points to an arena where the familiar patterns of my youth still apply: politics.

The text for Roberts’ sermon is the nerdy Wait But Why blog of Harvard-educated Tim Urban, particularly a 26K-word post about the history of cars and energy and climate change that Urban wrote at the request of arch-nerd Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. Climate change is Roberts’ bailiwick (I’ve often quoted from climate-change articles he wrote for Grist before moving to Vox), so he read Urban’s long post with great interest, and mostly approved.

Except for one thing: politics. Urban expresses a disdain for politics that is common, not just among the current generation of nerds, but among young people in general:

I’m not political because nothing could ever possibly be more annoying than American politics. I think both parties have good points, both also have a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things, and I want nothing to do with it. So I approached this post—like I try to with every post—from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.

Roberts comments:

Indeed, politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory (I’m looking at you, Larry Lessig). And it’s a shame, because if tech nerds want to change the world — as they say with numbing frequency that they do — they need to figure out politics, the same way they’re figuring out solar power or artificial intelligence, in a ground-up, no-preconceptions kind of way. They need to develop that tree trunk knowledge that enables them to contextualize new political information. Currently, they lack a good tree trunk, as Urban’s post demonstrates.

Unexamined frames. Instead, presumably because he wants “nothing to do” with politics, Urban doesn’t look too hard at his basic political frames, like this one:

Here, Republicans and Democrats are symmetrically distributed around a rational center, with mirror-image crazy zones at the extreme left and right. If you picture the political spectrum this way, then it’s obvious what you hope for: Rational moderates on each side should get together, reject their crazy compatriots, and construct a reasonable compromise around known realities and theories supported by evidence. The fact that this almost never happens just emphasizes how irrational politicians are, and why nerds like Urban want nothing to do with them.

Roberts points out the embedded assumption:

That vision of the political spectrum implies that one is partisan precisely in proportion to one’s distance from rational thinking. It defines partisanship as irrationality, as blind, lemming-like behavior, the opposite of approaching things “from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.”

He offers a counter-narrative: In current American politics, the center isn’t defined by shared rationality, but by money and power. As a result, when we do have the kind of bipartisanship Urban would like to see, it’s not rational, it’s corporate. He illustrates with climate change:

The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It’s a hoax, so we shouldn’t do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It’s happening, so we should do something about it. The “centrist” position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it’s happening but we shouldn’t do anything about it. That’s not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist.

The ones talking about ambitious policy to address climate change are mostly out in what Urban has labeled crazy zones.

Two asymmetric parties. Political-science research — there really is such a thing — has shown that the two parties are not mirror images, but “different beasts entirely”. Republicans are united by ideology (or abstract principles, if you prefer a less pejorative formulation), while the Democratic Party is a coalition of groups each of which centers on a particular issue and its corresponding policies — immigration reform with a path to citizenship, Blacks Lives Matter, feminism, the environment. Democrats represent growing urban-centered demographics that can be discouraged from voting and gerrymandered out of full representation in the House, while Republicans are mostly older, better-off whites who are no longer numerous enough to control the presidency (if Democratic constituencies vote).

So that’s where American politics stands today: on one side, a radicalized, highly ideological demographic threatened with losing its place of privilege in society, politically activated and locked into the House; on the other side, a demographically and ideologically heterogeneous coalition of interest groups big enough to reliably win the presidency and occasionally the Senate. For now, it’s gridlock.

Roberts illustrates with a policy that Urban thinks is so sensible that it should appeal across the political spectrum: a revenue-neutral carbon tax that fights global warming without shifting money from the private sector to the public sector. Roberts characterizes Urban’s expectation as “political naiveté” resulting from envisioning politics “as a kind of ideological grid, with certain sweet spots where all of both sides’ criteria are met.”

It ignores the fact that the GOP is not a policy checklist but a highly activated, ideological demographic that views Democrats as engaged in a project to fundamentally reshape America along European socialist lines. A coalition that will trust Democratic promises of revenue neutrality about as far as it can throw them. A coalition of which virtually every member has signed a pledge never to support any new tax, ever.

Who’s crazy now? If Urban wants to further the goals he espouses, he needs a better understanding of where he is:

Urban supports what Musk is trying to do, which is accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels. As it happens, out of America’s two major political parties, about a half of one of them supports that undertaking. That half a party is concentrated on the Democratic Party’s left flank, over in Urban’s crazy zone. Turns out he’s in that crazy zone too, but he doesn’t realize it.

Use your powers for good. Roberts closes with a plea for nerds to direct their nerdly powers of intellectual hyper-focus towards politics:

There is no subject more ripe for the dissection of an obsessive nerd than American politics. It is ridden with myths and outdated conventional wisdom. And the kind of people who read Wait But Why are among those most in need of tree trunk knowledge of politics.

Nerds want to make the world better, but they cannot do so without allies in the public sector. They should roll up their sleeves, hold their noses, and try to get a better sense of the complicated web of historical, economic, and demographic trends that have shaped American public life. Only when they understand politics, and figure out how to make it work better, will all their dreams find their way into the real world.

I’ll amplify that with my own perspective: The biggest weakness of the nerd mindset is a tendency to fall in love with a vision of how the world ought to work, and (from that Olympian height) to pass negative judgment on the world as it is. Once you do that, you’ve cut yourself off from constructive action and made yourself powerless. Having decided that the World-That-Is is not worth understanding, you will never learn its rules or master its mechanisms.

When my generation of nerds did that with the social system of high school, it didn’t work out well for us. If the current generation of nerds cops a similar attitude towards politics, it won’t work out well for them either — or for a world that desperately needs well-intentioned people who can understand and organize complex systems.

Countdown to Augustus

Losing the Republic one day at a time


About once a year, I recommend that Sift readers take a look at Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series of novels. It covers the final century of the Roman Republic, from the rise of Gaius Marius to the establishment of the Empire under Caesar Augustus. I recommend the series not just because it’s a good yarn (which it is), but because it’s a cautionary tale about how republics are lost.

Your high school world history class probably gave you a highlight-reel version of the fall of the Roman Republic — crossing the Rubicon and all that — but didn’t really cover the century-long erosion of public trust that made the big rockslides inevitable.

The highlight reel may have left you with the impression that at a few key moments, individuals failed or made bad, self-serving decisions: If Cicero and Cato had carried the day, if Julius Caesar didn’t march on Rome, if Octavian had restored the power of the Senate after Actium rather than becoming Emperor… everything would have worked out. And so people who apply the Roman model to the American Republic usually end up matching personalities: Who is our Caesar, our Cicero, our Brutus? Is there a parallel between FDR’s four terms and Marius’ seven consulships? Between the assassinations of the Kennedies and of the Gracchi brothers? And so on.

That’s a fun party conversation for history geeks, but the closer (and scarier) match is in the steady erosion of political norms.

As Chris Hayes has observed on several occasions (at around the 3:30 mark here, for example), republics don’t work just by rules, the dos and don’t explicitly spelled out in their constitutions. They also need norms, things that are technically within the rules — or at least within the powers that the rules establish — but “just aren’t done” and arouse public anger when anyone gets close to doing them. But for that public anger, you can often get an advantage by skirting the norms. And when it looks like you might get away with it, the other side has a powerful motivation to cut some other corner to keep you in check.

For the last few decades, we’ve been in a Romanesque downward spiral of norm-skirting. One side does something that just isn’t done, but calibrates it to avoid a rush of public anger. And the other side responds by doing something else that isn’t (or didn’t used to be) done.

One example has been growing use of the filibuster in the Senate. Once an arcane device that showed up more often in movies than in the Capitol, the filibuster is now in such constant use that journalists now write as if the Constitution required 60 Senate votes to pass a law. The brand new use of the filibuster not just to block the passage of laws but to nullify laws already passed (by blocking appointments to the agencies that enforce those laws) led the Obama administration to push the boundaries of recess appointments, which then led the courts to push the boundaries of their norms against getting involved in political conflicts between the executive and legislative branches.

Another example is impeachment. When Democrats began an impeachment process against President Nixon  in 1974, both parties proceeded somberly and with utmost caution, because the only precedent, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, wasn’t something to take pride in. By contrast, the impeachment and trial of President Clinton in 1998-1999 had a circus atmosphere; Republicans were giddy that one of their endless investigations had turned up something they could exaggerate into an impeachable offense. Today, Tea Party Republicans see the Constitution’s definition of an impeachable offense as a technicality. This August, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) told his constituents that impeaching President Obama would be a “dream come true” except for the annoying little detail that “you’ve got to have evidence” and he doesn’t have any.

That follows a pattern that a Masters of Rome reader easily recognizes: The rules give an explicit power to some office, along with the implicit duty to wield that power to achieve a particular public purpose. But as the erosion of norms proceeds, the power becomes something the officeholder owns, and can use however he likes. So Congress was given the impeachment power to save the Republic from a president who had been suborned by a foreign power or domestic special interest. But the Tea Party believes a Republican Congress just owns that power to use according to its whims; the hurdle to overcome isn’t assembling the evidence, it’s acquiring the votes.

Similarly, the president has the power to enforce the laws and the Supreme Court has the power to interpret the Constitution. More and more, those institutions are coming to own those powers rather than wield them for a public purpose. So the meaning Constitution’s commerce clause changes from one case to the next, according to the whims of the Court’s conservative majority.

An abuse by one branch legitimizes an abuse by another. Congress’ inability to even compose a new immigration law (much less debate it and bring it to a vote) allows President Obama to be the champion of the popular Dreamers by stretching his powers of prosecutorial discretion. The norms of Congress used to allow simple legislative fixes to complex programs during the implementation phase; even if you opposed a program to begin with, you supported improving it once it was already established in law. But the refusal of the Republican House to allow any changes in ObamaCare short of repeal or sabotage has legitimized Obama in pushing the limits of executive orders.

That also is something an MoR reader will recognize: About half of the erosion in Rome was done by the good guys, in order to seek justice for popular causes that the system had stymied.

And that brings us to the present showdown over funding the government and managing the debt ceiling. Until Newt Gingrich, government shutdowns were glitches: Congress thought it could get the laws passed in time, but something went wrong and the government had to shut down for a day or two until Congress could get it fixed. With Gingrich the government shutdown became a tactic, comparable to a labor strike closing a factory: Give us what we want, or we’ll shut the place down.

In 1995-96, the public recognized that the norms had been violated and reacted with appropriate anger. Gingrich had to back down, and his partner-in-crime Bob Dole was soundly thrashed by Bill Clinton in the next presidential election.

President Bush’s clashes with Democrats in Congress were bitter, but impeachment and shutdown were never serious threats. With the anti-Obama backlash and the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, government shutdown has again become just another tool in the congressional toolbox. And for the first time, threatening the debt ceiling has become a tactic. Both parties had repeatedly postured over the debt ceiling in the past, but in 2011 it was a brand new norm-violation to demand concessions in exchange for allowing the government to pay debts lawfully incurred. Obama blundered by not standing on principle then, and so we are where we are.

Later today I’ll have more to say about where that is, but right now I just want to point out where it fits in the larger pattern. The Republicans have President Obama in a Roman-style box: He can surrender to this new minority-rule tactic with the prospect of more surrenders in the future, or he can watch havoc unleashed on the financial markets, with unpredictable effects on the American economy, or he can break the norms himself by invoking the 14th Amendment or minting a trillion-dollar coin or choosing which of Congress’s contradictory laws (the appropriations bills or the debt ceiling) he will enforce.

In the short run, the third choice — find your own norms to violate — does the least damage to the country.  But it keeps the countdown-to-Augustus clock ticking. As Congress becomes increasingly dysfunctional, as it sets up more and more of these holding-the-country-hostage situations, presidents will feel more and more justified in cutting Congress out of the picture.

We know where that goes: Eventually the Great Man on Horseback appears and relieves us of the burden of Congress entirely. He may come from either the Left or the Right, but when he arrives the people will cheer — as the people cheered first Julius Caesar and then Caesar Augustus — because the trust they have placed in the Republic has been so badly abused.

What’s Really Wrong With Congress?

Everybody seems to agree that Congress doesn’t work.

If you’re liberal, you’re appalled that even something like universal background checks for gun purchases (90% public approval!) can’t pass. If you’re conservative, you’re horrified that nothing can be done about the mounting national debt or the projections for exponential growth in entitlement spending.

And even if you care not at all about parties or ideologies, it’s just embarrassing to watch our leaders create one artificial crisis after another. We’re the richest country on the planet, and yet we’re constantly threatening to shut down our government, default on our bonds, mint a trillion-dollar coin, or do some other weird thing that would shame the generalissimo of a banana republic.

Is this any way to run a super power?

Former Congressman Tom Allen has written the best book I’ve seen about the problem — Dangerous Convictions: What’s really wrong with the U.S. Congress.

Allen served as one of Maine’s two congressmen for six terms before he quit to run for the Senate in 2008. (Susan Collins beat him handily.) He seems to have been a more-or-less average Democrat. (GovTrack.com places him in the middle of the Democratic pack ideologically.) In his book, he discusses the few times he was able to work with Republicans, the many times he wasn’t, and what the difference might have been.

He is unimpressed with many of the standard explanations of Congress’ polarization and overall dysfunctionality, particularly the ones that attribute the problem to personalities. Yes, Democrats and Republicans no longer socialize together the way they did back in Jackie Kennedy’s day. But Allen sees that more as symptom than cause. Republican congressmen seemed like nice enough guys when he met them in the House gym, and he had no trouble working with them when they shared an interest, like when Maine and New Hampshire politicians all wanted to keep the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard open.

And while mainstream pundits may pine for “bipartisanship”, the lack of it is also an empty explanation. There is no bipartisan philosophy, so what would a bipartisan alliance do? (Whenever a pundit gets specific about a bipartisan agenda, some rude person points out that Obama has already proposed most of it and been rejected.)

Allen saw enough pre-Obama polarization to doubt the explanations that pin the blame on him. (i.e., Obama doesn’t schmooze enough, or twist enough arms.)

Even the influence of money doesn’t really explain the problem (though it certainly doesn’t help). The United States has suffered periods of even worse corruption in the past — among the many candidates, I would pick the Grant era — and yet the country managed to more-or-less function.

Worldviews. Allen sees the problem not as an unwillingness to find common ground, but as an inability to get to a point where compromise is possible. Take global warming. If Democrats were pushing one solution (cap-and-trade, say, or a carbon tax) and Republicans another, then it might not be that hard to pass a program with elements of each. That’s how business has gotten done in Washington since L’Enfant sketched the city on paper.

But instead, a proposed Democratic solution is met with a Republican denial that the problem exists. How do you compromise on that?

Four chapters of Allen’s book focus on specific issues and the worldview gaps that have made them unsolvable: the federal budget (where Democrats can’t accept the Republican claim that tax cuts pay for themselves), Iraq (where a plan for the country’s reconstruction was deemed unnecessary), health care (where Republicans never really admitted that the uninsured were a problem), and global warming.

Again and again, Allen and his Democratic colleagues ended up asking each other, “Do these guys really believe what they’re saying?” Unable to imagine that they did, the only other explanations were that the other side had been bought by monied interests or that they were pandering to crazy people. Hence the distrust and unwillingness to invite them to parties.

That view, obviously, favors Allen’s own side. But he then makes an admirable effort to see through Republican eyes. What if they do believe what they’re saying, but their worldview is so different that we seem to be the ones who must have nefarious motives? How could that come about?

The explanation he comes to still favors the Democrats, but is much more nuanced and fascinating.

First and second languages. Allen begins with a deep insight from Robert Bellah’s 1985 classic Habits of the Heart: Americans discuss values and morality in two ways. Our first language is individualistic: It’s my life. This is what I want to do with it. I want the freedom to be my own person and live by my own values. Our second language (which we speak less well) is communitarian: I want to belong. I want to do right by others. I want to live in a community that is just and fair.

We don’t really have a language for discussing the trade-offs between individuality and community. Instead, we tend to flip abruptly from one to the other: We’re individualists until suddenly we sense that we’ve gone too far, and then we’re communitarians for a while.

(This insight parallels George Lakoff’s models of the conservative strict-father morality and the liberal nurturant-parent morality, particularly as I adjusted them in Red Family, Blue Family in 2005. Lakoff observes that there is no “center” morality. Instead, centrists maintain both models and apply different ones to different issues.)

Conservative rhetoric speaks the first language, which is why it often sounds simpler and clearer. (Small government. Low taxes.) Liberal rhetoric speaks the second language, so it often sounds muddled and requires a longer explanation than a sound bite allows.

(Allen doesn’t discuss social issues, where liberals sometimes have the first language/second language advantage. Gay rights is at a tipping point now because liberals are winning that debate in both languages: Gays should be free to live their own lives, and my community should treat them fairly.)

This point in history. Two things about the current situation give Democrats the advantage:

  • The shift from a local/national economy to a global economy has created problems that are fundamentally not individual. When your job gets shipped to China or the value of your house crashes, it’s generally not because of anything you did.
  • Our governing philosophy has been individualistic since Reagan. (Even Clinton followed a kinder, gentler conservative agenda on things like welfare reform and bank deregulation.) So all the low-hanging fruit has been picked by now. If a problem can be solved by free markets and low taxes, we’ve solved it already.

Consequently, we’re at a point where the respective advantages of the two parties are wildly divergent: If a conversation can be kept on an abstract level, the Republican rhetorical advantage holds: They speak Americans’ first language and Democrats speak the second language. But if you get into details and start gathering evidence on a particular issue, the Democratic solution works better.

The budget debate is the perfect example: Republicans do well when they can keep the discussion on the level of “government spends too much” or can list some small examples of “government waste”. But when they have to quantify the amount of waste and list programs that they want to cut, they’re in trouble.

Selecting for ideologues. As a result, specific, evidence-based, expertise-respecting conservatism has all but died out. A Republican Congressman who publicly accepted, say, the consensus of climate scientists on global warming or the consensus of economists that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves — that candidate would be on the wrong side of conservative rhetoric in the next primary. One who went beyond rhetoric about government incompetence or “death panels” and presented a serious plan for what a Walmart worker should do when she gets breast cancer, well, he’d have a short career.

So we’re left with the conservative ideologues, with people who aren’t interested in discovering how the world is, because they know how it has to be: cutting taxes and spending has to be good, involving government in a problem has to be bad, government debt has to be bad, and so on. If some problem (like global warming or the 50 million people who lack health insurance) doesn’t have a free-market solution, then it can’t really be a problem.

To me, the paradigm is Rick Santorum’s indignation when someone confronted him with the fact that tens of thousands of the uninsured die unnecessarily every year. He simply couldn’t deal with it and substituted his fantasy world for the real one: People without health insurance don’t die unnecessarily, and if they do, it’s their own fault.

Talking past each other. So the typical liberal/conservative debate in Congress these days looks like this: The liberal will present an evidence-based expertise-based plan to, say, deal with the economy’s measurable lack of demand by spending money to fix our roads and bridges. The conservative will respond with unquantifiable, uncheckable assertions that debt will destroy business confidence, and that unemployment will go down if we stop coddling the unemployed with extended benefits and instead cut regulations to give the “job creators” more freedom.

Where can the conversation go from there? There is literally nothing to talk about. As Allen says:

Our political polarization and dysfunctional public debate is largely driven by convictions and worldviews immune to contrary evidence and expertise.

What Allen wants to see. Allen calls for a renewed commitment to four virtues: respect for evidence, tolerance of ambiguity, caring about consequences, and commitment to the common good.

Almost by accident, he winds up with the best program for Republican renewal I’ve seen: Republicans need a vision of a right-sized government, what it does, and where it gets the resources to do it.

They don’t have one now. What a conservative government should do is always “less”. As a result, Republicans can only unite on the negative: They can block what Democrats want to do, but on most of the serious problems that Americans face at the moment, they have no solutions to offer.

So in Republican primaries, the incumbent’s vision of “less government” can always be trumped by someone who wants even less than that. The only possible escape from this constant devolution is to envision a right-sized conservative government that is committed to solving certain problems and commands the resources to succeed.

I Read the Ryan Budget

Last week, when I talked about ideological bubbles and how to tell if you’re in one, I should have mentioned the best way to stay out of bubbles in the first place: Expose yourself to as many original sources as you can, especially the ones you know you’re going to hate.

With that in mind, I read Paul Ryan’s budget. (More accurately: I read the 91-page document he wrote to advertise his budget. An actual budget would have way more numbers in it.) In telling you about it, I’m going to try to keep my commentary as close to the text as possible, with quotes and page references as appropriate. (I wish I had the time to do an end-to-end annotation, but I’ve got some big deadlines looming.)

General impressions. Before I get into specifics, I want to say a few things about the overall impression the document makes.

As many people have already observed, Ryan’s proposal is not an attempt to reach a workable compromise with the White House or the Democratic majority in the Senate, both of which would have to agree before his plan could become law. Instead, it’s an aspirational document for conservatives: This is what they fantasize doing if and when they get complete control of the government.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Ryan Budget needs to be classed with aspirational budgets from the Left, like People’s Budget put out by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (which also balances the budget in ten years). Both are shots across the bow, not plausible projections of what its backers think they can pass.

So Ryan has written a rallying cry for the troops of the conservative movement, not an attempt convince or convert non-believers like me. The summary (page 7) says

This is a plan to balance the budget in ten years. It invites President Obama and Senate Democrats to commit to the same common-sense goal.

But there is no spirit-of-invitation in Ryan’s style. Any liberal who reads it will get pissed off, and I believe that’s intentional. Conservatives couldn’t fully enjoy their reading experience without visualizing pissed-off liberals.

Let me detail that: You’ve probably already heard that Ryan wants (once again) to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare). But after the first mention, he can’t just call it by name. It’s “the President’s onerous health care law” (page 33) or “the President’s misguided health care law” (page 40) and so on, as if the ACA had been imposed on the country by imperial decree and Congress had nothing to say about it — also as if the ACA hadn’t been an issue in the 2012 election that Romney/Ryan lost by nearly five million votes.

Other partisan stuff is just silly. On page 24, President Reagan is given credit both for the economic expansion of his era, and of President Clinton’s era as well. Clinton is mentioned exactly once (on page 33, when Ryan re-raises the universally debunked lie from campaign 2012 that Obama wants to rescind the work requirement of Clinton’s welfare reform). The reader would never know that Ryan’s stated goal — a balanced budget — was achieved by Clinton (who raised taxes) while Reagan (who cut taxes) ran up record deficits.

You will also hear echoes of 2009’s Lie of the Year: death panels. The ACA sets up an Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) to make annual recommendations (which Congress can rewrite before they take effect) on keeping Medicare spending within specified limits. The law specifically bans the IPAB from recommending care-rationing, but the heading of the Ryan’s section on it (page 40) is “Repeal the health-care rationing board”.

Background assumptions. In the real world, if a program is important enough, the government could conceivably raise taxes or borrow to pay for it. OK, Ryan’s balanced-budget goal won’t let him advocate borrowing. But a fundamental assumption that runs through his whole budget — usually without being stated explicitly — is that taxes cannot be raised for any purpose. Nothing is important enough to raise taxes to pay for.

Also, defense spending is untouchable. “There is no foreseeable ‘peace dividend’ on our horizon.” (page 61)

So if the domestic demands on government are growing — the population is getting older, the infrastructure more decrepit, healthcare more expensive, weather-related disasters more extreme and more frequent, future economic growth more dependent basic research and an educated workforce etc. — any money you want to spend to deal with one of those challenges has to be taken from the others.

The idea that over the long term our country could decide that it wants to do more of its consumption publicly — that it wants to take its economic growth in the form of Medicare and public education, say, rather than BMWs — is completely off the table.

Big Picture. The numbers don’t appear until the Appendix (page 80). Atlantic’s Derek Thompson put them into a bar graph:

Medicare and Social Security are usually considered “mandatory spending” (because benefits are defined by law rather than by appropriation), but I believe the additional $962 billion of 10-year savings is mostly Food Stamps, Pell grants, and so on.

So the cuts are almost entirely in healthcare, education, or anti-poverty spending. And while Ryan waves his hand at replacing Obamacare with “patient-centered health-care reforms” (page 33), apparently those reforms require no money from the government.

Meanwhile, rich people get a big bonanza: The top tax rate drops from the current 39.6% to 25%. If you make $10 million a year (some CEOs do), you could save nearly $15 million over the ten years Ryan’s budget covers.

So what isn’t in the budget document?

  • Any specifics about discretionary spending cuts. The cuts are just numbers on a spreadsheet. All the “tough choices” necessary to achieve those numbers are left to your imagination, so Ryan can deny his intention to cut anything in particular, as Mitt Romney did in his first debate with President Obama.
  • Any specifics about closing tax loopholes. Ryan claims his rich-guys-bonanza 25% tax rate wouldn’t cut federal revenue, because it would be balanced by eliminating tax loopholes. As in the 2012 campaign, Ryan says nothing about what those loopholes might be. Again, he can deny wanting to cut any specific item, like the mortgage interest deduction. But he’s got to raise that revenue somehow, and I seriously doubt it’s all going to come from the super-rich who benefit most from the lower rate.
  • Any plan for Social Security. Page 37 charges: “In Social Security, government’s refusal to deal with demographic realities has endangered the solvency of this critical program.” But rather than “deal with demographic realities” here and now, Ryan only “requires the President and Congress to work together to forge a solution.”

We have always been at war with Eastasia. The background rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul assumption allows Ryan to construct some truly Orwellian statements. This is particularly true in the “Opportunity Extended” section, which is all about shrinking opportunity for poor and working-class young people.

For example, on page 20 Ryan identifies “tuition inflation” as a problem that “plung[es] students and their families into unaffordable levels of debt”. And then he says:

Many economists, including Ohio University’s Richard Vedder*, argue that the structure of the federal government’s aid programs don’t simply chase higher tuition costs, but are in fact a key driver of those costs.

What could that possibly mean? Well, that federal aid is allowing too many people to go to college, creating a high-demand environment in which colleges can raise tuition. So the “solution” is to lower the maximum Pell grant (thereby “saving” the Pell grant program from spending at an “unsustainable” level, since we couldn’t possibly raise taxes to pay for it). Also to “target aid to the truly needy” by making families report more of their income on financial aid forms. Also “reforming” student loans and “re-examining the data made available to students to make certain they are armed with information that will assist them in making their postsecondary decisions”.

Presumably, when the facts of this harsher you’re-on-your-own world are “made available to students”, fewer of them will decide to go to college, thereby saving both their money and the government’s. So don’t worry about student debt — just don’t go to college at all if you’re not rich, and if you do go we’ll “help” you avoid massive debts by refusing to loan you money.

Oh, and we’ll also “encourage innovation” in education through “nontraditional models like online coursework”. Never mind that’s where the big scams are. Corporations profit from those scams, so that’s not “waste”.

Ditto for job training: Ryan promises to “extend opportunity” by spending less on it.

Ditto for the safety net. Since taxes can’t possibly be raised, every person who is helped by the safety net is taking those dollars away from somebody else who might be helped. So Ryan’s “A Safety Net Strengthened” section is all about spending less on the safety net. Mostly this is accomplished by block-granting programs like Medicaid to give “states more flexibility to tailor programs to their people’s needs.”

So if, say, low-income Texans need to toughen up and stop seeing a doctor at all, Texas can tailor its program that way. That’s what it’s doing already with the “flexibility” the Supreme Court gave it last summer.

Energy. Climate change just isn’t happening. Ryan doesn’t make that claim in so many words, but there’s a big empty spot where climate change would otherwise have to figure in.

He clumps energy together with a grab-bag of other issues in the “Fairness Restored” section. The “unfairness” in this case is the way that the Obama administration favors clean energy over dirty energy. Ryan will “end kickbacks to favored industries” like wind and solar in favor of “reliable, low-cost energy” like coal, oil, and gas. With climate change out of the picture, only corruption can explain Obama’s favoritism. In the Introduction, Ryan says his budget “restores fair play to the marketplace by ending cronyism.”

In current energy policy, fossil fuels and green energy are subsidized in different ways: Green energy gets grants and loans while established-and-profitable fossil energy gets tax breaks. Tax breaks are invisible to Ryan, so he can say on page 50:

on a dollar-per-unit-of-production basis, the level of subsidies received by the wind and solar industries were almost 100 times greater than those for conventional energy

Do it for the kids. So what’s the purpose of all this? A better world for our children. “By living beyond our means, we’re stealing from the next generation.” (page 5)

Of course my baby-boom generation knows how that works, because all that debt America ran up during World War II was “stolen” from us, right? I don’t know how I failed to notice.

In the real America, the big deficits of World War II kicked off 40 years of prosperity, during which the country achieved a level of equality that it hasn’t equalled before or since. So no, deficits are not “stolen” from the future. My generation did not build tanks and landing crafts and put them in time machines to send back to D-Day.

But in order to save our children from the horrible maybe-sorta-problem of the national debt, we need to under-educate them; not do basic research that might create the next computer industry or Internet; leave them crumbling roads, bridges, and electrical grids; not care for them when they get sick; move in with them when we get old; and leave them with a torched planet, where Iowa is a desert and Miami is underwater.

I’m sure they’ll thank us for our foresight.


* As best I can tell, although Ryan identifies only their university affiliations, every economist Ryan mentions by name is inside the conservative bubble. Richard Vedder is with the American Enterprise Institute and John Taylor with the Hoover Institute.

Who do representatives represent?

Earlier this month, a study by political science graduate students at Berkeley and the University of Michigan uncovered a fascinating fact: By a considerable margin, candidates for state legislatures think the voters of their districts are more conservative than they actually are.

Maybe it’s not surprising that conservative candidates would overestimate the conservatism of their districts; we all want to believe that our ideas are popular, and it’s human nature to hang around with people who agree with you. But strikingly, even liberal candidates overestimate the popularity of conservative views.

The results are summed up in these two graphs:

They’re a little hard to read, but gist is that if you ask politicians how much support universal health care or same-sex marriage has in their district, and then compare that result to polls of actual voters, conservative politicians underestimate the public’s support for these liberal proposals by about 20 points — approximately, the authors note, the difference between California and Alabama. And liberal politicians underestimate by a smaller, but still significant, margin.

Most politicians appear to believe they are representing constituents who are considerably different than their actual constituents.

This happens despite the fact that polling has become ubiquitous and relatively cheap compared to other campaign expenses.

in an era when correctly ascertaining district opinion would represent little burden for most politicians, American politicians appear to operate under massive misperceptions about their constituents’ demands that they make little effort to correct.

The authors also tested a fairly extreme conservative proposal: “Abolish all federal welfare programs.” Nationally, only about 13% agree with this statement. But conservative politicians, on average, think almost 40% of Americans agree, while liberal politicians imagine that 25% do.

Maybe this generalized myopia explains why universal background checks on gun buyers are hard to pass, even though polls consistently show 70-90% of the public supports them. A background-check proposal may not pass in Minnesota, despite a local poll showing 72% public support. (79% favor the idea in Washington state and 90% in Ohio.) A Republican Minnesota legislator simply knows that such a result can’t be true.

“There is a lot of opposition,” said Cornish. “I think the survey is bogus. If you have legislators who believe that 70 or 80 percent were in favor of this, you would think they would vote for it.”

You would, wouldn’t you?

Similarly, polls consistently show large majorities in favor of reducing the deficit by closing tax loopholes that favor the rich or cutting defense rather than Social Security or Medicare, but Congress seems to be leaning the other way.

The authors didn’t investigate the cause of this pro-conservative perception bias, attributing it mostly to political mythology like Richard Nixon’s “silent majority”. But Salon’s David Sirota wonders if politicians are in fact answering a different question: Maybe they’re not estimating public opinion in their districts as a whole, but support among the people they actually represent — the wealthy. Being wealthy themselves, most politicians enter politics “unfamiliar with their constituencies”. Then things get worse.

Ensconced in a bubble of conservative-minded corporate lobbyists and mega-donors, they come to wrongly assume that what passes for a mainstream position in that bubble somehow represents a consensus position in the larger world.

The electoral process, of course, is supposed to be the panacea – it is supposed to pop that bubble and force a connection between the representative and the represented. However, because getting elected to office is now less about town meetings than about buying expensive television ads, even the campaign process fails to familiarize politicians with rank-and-file voters.

This would match the results in a seminal paper by Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels

In almost every instance, senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes. Disparities in representation are especially pronounced for Republican senators, who were more than twice as responsive as Democratic senators to the ideological views of affluent constituents.

Maybe that’s why liberal politicians’ assessment of their constituents’ views are somewhat more accurate, if also skewed: Liberal politicians aren’t any more perceptive than conservative ones, they’re just slightly less responsive to the wealthy.

Obama or Romney: Who Wins Tomorrow?

Four years ago, the polls were clear, and the only question was whether a last gasp of racism would change voters’ minds in the booth. This year it’s all a lot less clear, but we can still see the general shape of how the election will play out.

Let’s start with the basics: The presidential election happens state-by-state. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes (equal to the number of its congressmen plus two for its senators). So in general, more populous states count for more, but the less populous states’ votes are still disproportionate to their population. Every state, no matter how small, gets at least 3 votes. The District of Columbia also gets 3 votes.

The total number of electoral votes is 538, which means a candidate needs 270 to get a majority (or two candidates could tie at 269-269). Almost every state awards its electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, to the candidate who gets the most votes in that state. (Maine and Nebraska are exceptions, but probably that won’t come up this year and both states will end up giving all their votes to one candidate.)

The analysis I’m giving below is largely based on the work of NYT blogger Nate Silver, a polling geek who has a method for combining all the polls into a probability-of-victory percentage for each state. You don’t need to understand how the model works to recognize that Nate is good at this. In 2008, his predictions were uncanny. (The percentages below come from the early Monday morning run of Nate’s model.)

The fuhgeddabowdit states. In most states, the election won’t be close, and we might as well chalk them up now. Nate’s model gives at least a 99.5% chance that the following states will go to a particular candidate. Probably most of them will be called as soon as the polls close.

Obama: California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (3 out of 4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12) — total 188

Romney: Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Georgia (16), Idaho (4), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), Nebraska (4 of 5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3) — total 176

Stranger-things-have-happened-but states. These are the 95% states. Occasionally somebody from the underdog’s camp will claim they’re going to pull an upset, and if you have too much money to spend you might even advertise (like Romney in Pennsylvania). But don’t hold your breath. The only way the underdog wins these states is with such a national landslide that the state won’t matter.

Obama: Michigan (16), New Mexico (5), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20) — subtotal 48; running total 236.

Romney: Arizona (11), Montana (3) — subtotal 14; running total 190.

Battleground Row. Now it starts to get interesting: Obama at 236 is approaching the magic 270. Romney at 190 has very little room for failure.

This is where Nate makes an astute observation: Each state may have its own independent election, but the state elections are not independent in a statistical sense. If, say, Obama takes North Carolina (where Nate gives him only a 22.8% chance), that probably means a national wave is building that will easily give him Wisconsin (94.5% chance). It would be a very strange world indeed if Obama took North Carolina and lost Wisconsin.

So it makes sense to line up all the states by their Obama-win-probability and see how far down the list he needs to go to get to 270.

Obama win probability state electoral votes Obama running total Romney running total
94.5% Wisconsin 10 246 292
90.7% Maine 1 of 4 247 291
90.0% Nevada 6 253 285
86.8% Ohio 18 271 269
81.2% Iowa 6 277 261
80.2% New Hampshire 4 281 257
72.6% Virginia 13 294 244
69.7% Colorado 9 303 235
44.5% Florida 29 332 206
22.8% North Carolina 15 347 191
12.3% Nebraska 1 of 5 348 190

So if you start at the top with Wisconsin (Obama’s most likely battleground state victory) and move towards the bottom, Obama crosses 270 at Ohio. Conversely, if we award Romney states from the bottom of the list up, he crosses 270 (reaching 285) if he wins Ohio. That makes Ohio the tipping point state, and explains why everybody is campaigning so hard there. So the minimal Obama-win map looks like this:

The minimal Obama-win map. (Not a prediction.)

And the minimal Romney-win map looks the same with Ohio red.

If Obama were to lose Ohio, he’d have to go three states further down his list (Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia) to get to 270. If Romney loses Ohio, he’ll need either Nevada or Wisconsin to win. (In almost every reasonable scenario, Maine and Nebraska’s final votes don’t really matter.)

This is why you’ll hear Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, and sometimes Iowa described as “Obama’s firewall”. If he takes those states, he’s going to win even if he loses battleground states like Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.

What to Watch For. So Romney’s path to victory is narrow and depends heavily on the east-coast states Florida and Virginia. Those are the ones to watch early. If Romney loses either one, he’s done. If either one is too close to call hours after the polls close, probably that means the national trend is not enough in Romney’s favor to crack Obama’s firewall. An easy Obama win in New Hampshire, on the other hand, is only 4 votes, but it might be an early indication of an Obama victory nationally.

But if Florida and Virginia fall easily to Romney and New Hampshire is too close to call, we’re going to be studying specific Ohio counties far into the wee hours of the morning.

I’ll analyze Election Night hour-by-hour in a later post.

In Search of a Unified F***-Up Theory

The biggest mystery of recent years is: Why are all our institutions failing at the same time? Think about it:

  • We just had a banking crisis that required trillions of dollars of bailouts and interest-free loans to the very people who caused it and profited from it. No one went to jail, in spite of massive evidence of criminality. More-or-less nothing has been done to prevent the same thing happening again.
  • Our election campaigns have become open bidding wars. As a result, Congress is largely unresponsive to the desires of anybody who’s not rich, and the number of people who rate the “honesty and ethical standards” of congressmen as high or very high is an anemic 7% — the same rating lobbyists get.
  • The public distrusts scientists. Among scientists who study climate, 97% believe in man-made global warming. But only about half of the public does, and that’s a recovery to 2009 levels after a considerable dip.
  • The Catholic Church has been rocked by its pedophilia scandal. And the worst of it is this: When bishops found out, they uniformly protected the guilty priests rather than the innocent children. That part of the scandal goes all the way to the Pope, and there’s been no house-cleaning of implicated bishops.
  • Public expectations of presidential candidates have plummeted. In 2000, Al Gore was tagged with being a “serial exaggerator” after saying a few mostly true things. This year, much of Mitt Romney’s stump speech consists of publicly debunked lies, and it’s not an issue. Voters shrug and say that all politicians lie.
  • The Supreme Court has become partisan. People have always complained that the Court’s legal philosophy was too liberal or too conservative. But only since John Roberts and Sam Alito replaced David Souter and Sandra Day O’Connor have major cases routinely been decided on 5-4 party-line votes. Today, if the president who appointed you was Republican or Democrat, that’s the side you take. The shock of Roberts’ ObamaCare decision wasn’t his legal reasoning, it’s that he crossed party lines.
  • In discussions about baseball’s Hall of Fame, the main topic isn’t how good players were, it’s whether they cheated or not. It’s very possible that the biggest stars of the 1990s — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa — won’t be in the Hall.
  • Both Presidents Bush and Obama embraced the doctrine that the president can rain death on countries we are not at war with. If Americans get killed in the process, too bad. American citizens might even be the target.
  • Trust in journalism has collapsed. Again and again, the press has been the watch-dog that didn’t bark: Iraq’s non-existent WMDs, the housing bubble, and so on. Plus, they’ve increasingly practiced he-said/she-said journalism that punts the question of what is true. Newspapers are closing, reporters are being laid off — and yet, at the top, the marquee journalists remain the same no matter how many stories they screw up. The marquee pundits keep their jobs no matter how often they are proven wrong.

It goes on and on. All eras experience some institutional failure, but usually when one institution fails, you can take refuge in another: When Al Capone had city government in his pocket, the feds took him down. When the political process denied justice to blacks, the courts provided it. When Nixon’s White House was corrupt, Congress, the judiciary, and the press performed well.

What’s bizarre and unsettling about our era is that there seems to be nowhere to turn. Why is that? What’s making all our institutions suspect at the same time?

Devil theories. If you’re a certain breed of conservative Christian, what’s going on is obvious: The Devil and his minions are stepping up their malignant activities in preparation for the End of the World. And various secular subcultures have their own devil theories: the Koch Brothers, the worldwide socialist conspiracy, and so on.

While I’m no fan of the Kochs, all these one-big-conspiracy theories seem nutty to me. (I’ll bet lots of eras had evil billionaires.) But I do have to give them this: A devil theory is an answer on the scale of the problem. 

Conspiracy theorists respond to our attempts to be rational with: “What? You think this is all a coincidence?”

They’ve got a point. This situation begs for a UFT (Unified Failure Theory, or, as I sometimes call it, Unified Fuck-Up Theory), something that pulls it all together. But could we get a non-crazy one?

The meritocracy did it. If you read classic mysteries, you’ve seen this situation before: The clues link up here and there, but don’t make sense when you put them all together. Usually that means that the murderer is somebody who is off your radar completely, either because you’re trained not to see them (the butler) or you trust them implicitly (the vicar or the victim’s loyal-but-mousy sister).

That’s the approach Chris Hayes takes in Twilight of the Elites. Whatever ties these failures together must be something we’re incapable of doubting. Otherwise we’d have seen the connection by now.

What is it that all our smartest people believe in implicitly? The meritocracy. The principle that the most talented, hardest working people should rise to the top.

And while belief in the meritocracy is self-serving for those who do make it to the top, it’s more than that: All the social progress of the last half-century — civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights — justified itself in meritocratic terms: If you are good at what you do, you should rise, even if you don’t look like the people currently on top.

But what if elite failure — bankers who can’t bank, representatives who can’t represent, immoral moral leaders, and so on — is the dark side of the meritocracy?

What is meritocracy? Hayes says meritocracy depends on two principles: inequality and mobility. There is a top to rise to, and nothing but your own limitations can stop you from rising.

The problem is that the combination is unstable: When inequality passes a certain point, the people on top become powerful enough to screw up mobility. Eventually, no matter where they came from originally, the meritocratic elite comes to look on itself as a class and pursue its own interests.

The first example Hayes gives is the best: his alma mater, Hunter College High School in Manhattan.

Entrance to Hunter rests on a single “objective” measure: one three-hour test. If you clear the bar, you’re in; if not, you’re out. There are no legacy admissions, and there are no strings to pull for the well connected.

Hunter’s racial/ethnic composition never matched New York City’s, but the gap has widened in recent years. The entering class was 18% black/Hispanic in 1995, but just 4% in 2009.

Why? The test-prep industry. If you’re almost Hunter quality but have money, you can train to pass the test. If you’re just barely Hunter quality and you don’t have money, you’ll get aced out.

New York’s wealthy elite has figured out how to game the system for its children. And Hunter’s selection process has not kept up because … why would it? People powerful enough to make the system ungameable are precisely the ones who want to game the system.

Entitlement. What happens when a meritocracy gets corrupted like this? The appearance of rigorous competition remains, leaving the elite with an undeserved sense of entitlement: We are the ones who passed the test, so we deserve the cookies.

Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption. It would reflexively protect its worst members, it would operate with a wide gulf between performance and reward, and would be shot through with corruption, rule-breaking, and self-dealing as those on top pursued the outsize rewards promised for superstars.

But such a ruling class would also not be as smart as it thinks it is. It might, for example, think it has come up with a totally new and foolproof way to handle financial risk — and screw it up.

It would also see success as its own justification, an attitude that Hayes connects to Enron and the mortgage bubble. The people making the most money must be the smartest, and anyone who tries to tear them down is just jealous.

Co-opting Obama. Newcomers to the ruling class really did have to jump some hurdles, and as a result they have undue faith in the class they have entered into. President Obama, for example, cannot shake his faith in the experts. Surely the bankers must be the right people to fix the banking system. The businessmen must be the right people to revitalize business. If they weren’t the smartest people in the room, they wouldn’t have made it to the top, right?

Fractal inequality. This is my favorite phrase from the book. No matter how high you rise — the 1%, the 0.1%, the 0.001% — there always seems to be a higher level where the real action is. Again, Hayes uses his own experience well: When he finally got an invitation to the Davos meetings, it seemed like evidence that he had really made it. But once there

you realize that in the context of Davos attendees, you are a member of the unwashed masses

And the people you look up at are the unwashed masses of an even higher level.

As a result of this fractal inequality, everybody is constantly struggling to rise higher, grasping for whatever advantage they can get, and no one reaches a position where they can relax and turn a beneficent eye to the people below.

Distance. Representative democracy was supposed to close the distance between the rulers and the ruled. Leaders were supposed to spring up from among the people, and then go off to represent them in Congress.

Again, that’s been circumvented. No one who isn’t already well connected can hope to raise the money necessary to run for Congress or just about any other major office. And so we have a huge social distance between the leaders and the led.

That distance leads to disasters like New Orleans. The evacuation worked very well, Hayes points out, for people with cars. The leadership just underestimated the number of people without cars or what they would be likely to do, even though that information was available if anyone had thought to look for it.

So that’s the picture in failure after failure: A entrenched and entitled elite, hyper-competitive within itself, but distant from the people their actions affect.

What to do? It’s a basic part of our political rhetoric that we want equal opportunity, but want the government not to try to equalize outcomes. Hayes thinks that position is naive. With sufficient inequality of outcome, equality of opportunity is impossible. Meritocracy needs some inequality (or there’s nothing to win). But too much inequality destroys the meritocracy itself. So Hayes’ solutions are all about seeking more equality of outcome.

A second approach is something I’ll explore next week: moving towards a more anarchic system, where less responsibility is delegated and less is expected or demanded of elites. The text for that discussion will be The Leaderless Revolution by Carne Ross.

The Sifted Bookshelf: Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig

In each of our last three elections — 2006, 2008, and 2010 — the electorate called for sweeping change. 2006 was a rejection of the Iraq War, which President Bush then escalated and President Obama only recently managed to end. 2008 was a more general rejection of Bush policies, many of which President Obama has continued. 2010 was a sweep in the other direction, in favor of Tea Party candidates who wanted to slash government spending. That also has not happened, except in fairly small, symbolic ways.

The lesson seems clear: Whether voters look right or left for change, they don’t get it. While it’s wrong to say that there’s no difference between the two major parties, either party’s ability to deliver the change it promises is limited.

Democracy doesn’t seem to work any more. But why?

The problem. Lessig’s book Republic, Lost frames the problem brilliantly. Its essence, he claims, is that our laws ban one kind of corruption, but we actually have a different kind. Obvious as that corruption might be to any reasonable observer, it is invisible to the law.

Our laws aim — and mostly succeed — at stopping quid pro quo corruption. Rod Blagojevich, for example. If you’re explicitly selling political favors for money, you’re clearly breaking the law and stand a good chance of getting caught.

If all quid-pro-quo corruption ended tomorrow, though, you’d barely notice the difference, because a completely different kind of corruption dominates our system: dependence corruption. Politicians can’t get re-elected without big contributions from the same special interests that are asking for favors. They do those favors not in exchange for an explicit pay-off, but to stay on the contributors’ good side. Rather than an explicit I’ll-do-this-if-you-do-that, politicians and lobbyists work on maintaining mutually beneficial relationships.

Lessig describes this by borrowing a term from the anthropologists: Washington isn’t an exchange economy, it’s a gift economy. He quotes 20th-century Senator Paul Douglas:

The enticer does not generally pay money directly to the public representative. He tries instead by a series of favors to put the public official under such a feeling of personal obligation that the latter gradually loses his sense of mission to the public and comes to feel that his first loyalties are to his private benefactors and patrons.

Nothing about that is illegal, and the politicians may not even feel corrupt, because over time their points of view align (like needles in a magnetic field) with the special interests that support them. Who can say whether Senator Inhofe blocks action against global warming out of conviction or because the fossil fuel industry supports his campaign? The Senator himself may not know.

But the effect is identical to quid-pro-quo corruption: Politicians come to represent the Funders rather than the People, and government revolves around their needs rather than ours.

Nicholas Kristof had a tremendous example a week ago: Furniture has toxic fire-retardant chemicals in it, not because they will do any good in case of fire, but because three companies get richer. For another example, see the discussions of food policy and of Tagg Romney’s business career elsewhere in today’s Sift.

Solutions. Lessig recognizes that you can’t solve this problem by enacting stricter rules and putting rule-breakers in jail. It’s systemic; the problem isn’t bad people. People with high ideals are either corrupted or flushed out of the system, and the path of their corruption starts with actions that aren’t that different from what politicians are supposed to do: help constituents and then ask for their help at election time.

But once you have the problem framed correctly — politicians have become dependent on the Funders rather than the People — the possible answers are clear: Either you get the big money out of politics completely, or you find some way for the People to become the Funders.

The first path, where you ban both large political contributions to candidates and large “independent” expenditures like Super-PACs or “issue-oriented” spending by organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or big unions, goes against Lessig’s libertarian/anarchist streak. (He considers himself a liberal now, but was a young Reagan delegate to the Republican Convention of 1980. That younger-self voice still resounds inside his head.)

The problem is that (bad as it sounds to the liberal ear) “Money is speech” is not entirely wrong. If you control money too tightly, you’re going to stop some kinds of speech from getting out. Worse, in a pure public-funding scheme, it’s easy to wind up with a system that institutionalizes the two major parties, gives incumbents a built-in advantage, and makes radical change more difficult rather than less.

Instead, Lessig favors changing the incentives rather than banning spending outright. His Grant and Franklin proposal (named after the figures on the $50 and $100 bills) calls for the government to give each voter a voucher (he suggests $50) that they can contribute to congressional campaigns.

Campaigns can only use the vouchers, though, if they are committed to a fairly low cap on additional individual contributions. (He suggests $100.) But there is no cap on overall expenditures — if you can collect a vast war-chest from small donors, good for you.

In this way, government funding would make small-contribution campaigns competitive while still allowing individual contributors to decide where the money goes. But candidates who want to take larger donations and individuals who want to give them are not criminalized.

At a recent League of Women Voters forum in Concord, MA, Lessig stated the goal like this:

We’re aiming for a world where it’s the broad range of Americans who are contributing.

In other words, the Funders become more representative of the People rather than the special interests.

In addition, he wants to limit (but not eliminate) spending by groups that work outside the candidates’ campaigns. Given the current Supreme Court rulings, that will require a constitutional amendment.

Walking While Chewing Gum. Interestingly, he does not focus on an amendment to undo the Citizens United ruling.

The day before Citizens United was decided, our democracy was already broken. Citizens United may have shocked the body, but the body was already cold.

Because it neither bans contributions nor involves the government in setting spending limits or choosing who gets the money, Lessig believes Grant and Franklin gets around recent Supreme Court decisions, and so it doesn’t put all the eggs into one constitutional-amendment basket.

I think this is wise, and that the examples of the Equal Rights Amendment and Human Life Amendment apply. Constitutional amendments are good devices for galvanizing popular movements, but often the real work gets done in legislation that spins out of the movement, even if the amendment itself doesn’t pass.

Bipartisanship. Often to the annoyance of his fellow liberals, Lessig frames the issue in a bipartisan way: Whatever kind of change your movement wants, liberal or conservative, you won’t get it in the current system.

As the desire for reform grows, the Powers That Be will undoubtedly try to keep it split between liberal reform and conservative reform. But Left and Right recognize a common problem: Concentration of power. The Left sees it as corporate power and the Right as government power. But both sides see the concentration and the corrupt practices that maintain it. The challenge is to come together to fix that corruption, without being divided by fights that would be decided better afterwards, on a playing field more like the republic the Founders envisioned.

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