Tag Archives: politics

Are we overdoing the Founding Fathers?

When we turn Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton into divinely inspired prophets, our political disagreements become religious schisms.


We Americans love our Founding Fathers, especially on the Fourth of July. How did you honor them over the weekend? Did you go out and hear a speaker praise them? Watch 1776 on TV? Listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, or read the best-selling biography it was drawn from? Call up HBO’s John Adams mini-series on demand?

Or maybe this year you did it up right and took the kids to the Washington and Jefferson Monuments near the Capitol, or to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or even to the Founders’ holiest shrine, Colonial Williamsburg, where Washington, Jefferson, and the other great Virginians still give speeches and answer your questions every day.

Personally, I devoted a chunk of the weekend to a book that asks whether we’ve overdoing it, or maybe just doing it wrong: The Jefferson Rule: how the Founding Fathers became infallible and our politics inflexible by David Sehat. [1]

Looking around our current political landscape, it’s not hard to find examples of people going overboard in ways that embarrass the Founders’ memory. The WWFFD (“What would the Founding Fathers do?“) billboard above comes to us courtesy of fringe congressional candidate Rick Tyler, whose more famous billboard instructs us to “Make America White Again“. As they seized the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge and held it by force, the Bundy militamen waved tiny booklets of the Constitution — as annotated by right-wing crank W. Cleon Skousen. “What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government,” Cliven Bundy told the L.A. Times. Apparently America is so far gone from the Founder/Skousen vision that this teaching can only be done by heavily armed men threatening to shoot any officials who come to enforce the law.

Political fundamentalism. If you’ve ever paid attention to debates between fundamentalist sects — be they Christian, Islamic, or whatever — this is what they sound like: One particular interpretation of sacred scripture is projected onto the text, as if it were literal and inescapable. Anyone who reads it differently must be an infidel; to entertain their heretical ideas, even briefly or for the sake of argument, is flirting with damnation.

Voting cannot resolve such conflicts. At some point you either have to let an issue go or resort to violence.

That fundamentalist style in American politics is not just a fringe phenomenon. Even as he constructed justifications for torture and placing the decisions of the unitary executive beyond the reach of Congress, high-ranking Bush-administration legal adviser David Addington carried a well-worn pocket Constitution with him everywhere. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign, one candidate after another cast himself as the pro-Founder, pro-Constitution candidate — as if President Obama led an anti-Founder, anti-Constitution party. Ted Cruz, for example, made “Restore the Constitution” one of the key planks of his campaign, and Donald Trump said, “The Constitution of this country has been absolutely riddled with bullets from the Obama administration.”

To such opponents, President Obama is not a constitutional scholar with different — and discussable — interpretations, he’s an infidel. His actions are not based on a different understanding of the laws, they are “lawless“.

Ironically, such a heresy-avoiding and heresy-denouncing conversation is a far cry from the kind of debate the actual Founders had at the Constitutional Convention, where everything from a new monarchy to the abolition of the states was open for consideration.

Such hero-worship demands that the human and historical flaws of the Founders be papered over. They weren’t slave-owners who made sure the founding documents protected their human property, they “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States“. If they reserved the vote for white male property owners like themselves, they were right to do so. To the extent that subsequent generations have altered their system — say, by letting the voters rather than the state legislatures elect senators — we should change it back.

America the Exceptional. Those of us who have lived our entire lives in the United States have a hard time recognizing how strange our Founder-worship is. But other democracies don’t talk this way. From time to time French politicians may still invoke the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity ideals of their Revolution, but they don’t feel obligated to explain away the Reign of Terror. Rousseau and Voltaire still get quoted occasionally, but not as holy writ.

The English understand their evolution towards democracy as a long messy process that remains unfinished. King John stumbled his way into the Magna Carta, which was a great advance in its day, but not a timeless capital-T Truth. No one expects a proof-text from Edmund Burke or John Locke to end a debate once and for all. And Germans are more likely to quote their history as a cautionary tale than as Golden Age that needs restoration.

Maybe that’s healthy.

Locating the problem. Sehat’s criticism of the WWFFD approach to contemporary politics has two main parts:

  • It’s false history. The Founders were not a collective consciousness with a single point of view. The Constitution is full of compromises, and its authors began arguing about its meaning almost immediately. [2]
  • It’s destructive. Policy disagreements are hard enough to resolve without turning them into schisms of religious intensity. Republics depend on the ability of conflicting factions to work things out. That’s much harder if you view your opponents as infidels disloyal to the whole idea of America.

What would the Founders do? They’d argue. If the Founders really had formed a solid consensus around a well-worked-out worldview, the Washington administration would have been a time devoid of political tension. After all, the first Congress and the first cabinet didn’t have to ask what the Founders would do; they were the Founders.

In actual history, though, Washington presided over factions intriguing against each other, and many of their disagreements are still with us.

For example, today one of the marks of faithfulness to the Founders’ vision is supposed to be a “strict construction” of the Constitution, limiting the powers of the federal government to the ones very specifically granted in the text. For example, this is the essence of the conservative critique of ObamaCare: The Constitution nowhere mentions a power to force citizens to buy health insurance.

On the surface the strict-construction folks seem to be on firm ground. After all, the very phrase strict construction goes back to one of the holiest of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson coined that phrase in an argument with another ranking member of the Founder pantheon: Alexander Hamilton, who had already coined the phrase most often used to oppose strict construction: implied powers.

They were arguing about Hamilton’s proposal to establish the Bank of the United States. Secretary of State Jefferson’s reading of the Constitution did not see any bank-establishing power there. But Treasury Secretary Hamilton argued that the Constitutional Convention — where he had been a delegate and Jefferson hadn’t — had never intended to spell out every detail. In his view, whenever the Constitution gave the federal government responsibility for an area of governance, it also implicitly granted it the powers necessary to fulfill those responsibilities.

Hamilton’s job would have been impossible without such implied powers, and he had already exercised them on numerous occasions. The Constitution had, for example, given Congress the power to impose a tariff; it had done so, and Hamilton was collecting it. But the Constitution never specifically mentioned the power to construct custom houses, hire port inspectors, or deploy a coast guard against smugglers — which he had also done, and without which the taxing power was meaningless. To him, the Bank of the United States was a similarly implied means to assigned ends: managing tax receipts, paying down the national debt, and supervising the currency.

This disagreement got as vicious as anything we see today: Jefferson painted Hamilton as a monarchist seeking to return us to British rule, while Hamilton painted Jefferson as a France-loving Jacobin, ready to unleash the guillotines on unsuspecting Americans.

Jefferson lost on the Bank, but won the larger political struggle: Hamilton died in middle age and his Federalist Party collapsed, while Jefferson and his Virginian successors Madison and Monroe held the presidency from 1801 to 1825. In practice, though, Hamiltonianism survived under the surface: Jefferson and the other Virginians often made use of implied powers of their own, as when Jefferson stretched the treaty-making power to allow the Louisiana Purchase.

It was during this period, in Sehat’s telling of the story, that the history of the Founding Era was rewritten into an orthodoxy: Jeffersonianism represented the one true vision of the Revolution. To this day, politicians who invoke “the Founders” as a unified consciousness are probably invoking the Founders as re-envisioned by Jefferson. [3] The more ambitious government of Hamilton — and the pragmatism of Washington, who often saw Hamilton’s approach as the best way to solve practical problems [4] — has been swept under the rug.

The fundamentalist style in American politics. The bulk of Sehat’s book is a history of how the Founders have been invoked in American politics through the centuries. He portrays the influence of this style of argument as pernicious: It has hardened disagreements and mythologized politics. Rather than discuss the pluses and minuses of available policy options, Americans have instead cast themselves as the true successors of the Founders’ vision and demonized their opponents as treacherous infidels. As a result, it has been easier for each side to overlook the other’s love of country, and harder to reach the compromises necessary to move forward together.

The most extreme example of Founder-fundamentalism hardening a position beyond any compromise was that of the Southern nullifiers and secessionists from Calhoun to Jefferson Davis. On the other side, Lincoln tried it both ways. In 1862 he told Congress “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” But his Gettysburg Address reclaimed the Founders for “a new birth of freedom”.

In the decades after the Civil War, the Founders lost their central position in political debate, as leaders saw little resemblance between their problems and those of the 18th century. As President Grant wrote in his memoirs:

It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them.

And Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in his 1905 inaugural:

Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee.

But 20th-century conservatism revived Founder rhetoric. President Harding is credited with coining the term Founding Fathers, and opposition to FDR’s New Deal built its message around the myth of a single founding vision. FDR’s central opponent, the Liberty League — representing the 1% of its day — invented the technique of defending “the Constitution” as a vague unity rather than discussing any particular passages, which might bear divergent interpretations.

The progressive temptation. Another point Sehat makes is that Founder-worship inevitably looks backwards, and so privileges conservative arguments over progressive ones. Progressives are often tempted to enter into WWFFD arguments, because the conservative mythologizing of the Founders so often approaches the ridiculous, and is easily refuted by reference to historical facts. Also, it can be hard to resist harnessing the mythic and symbolic power of the Founders to more worthy causes than the preservation of slavery or the further aggrandizement of the propertied class.

In the short term, this often is very effective, as when Martin Luther King framed the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “All men are created equal” as a “promissory note” that the nation had never redeemed for its black population.

But as much as the idealism of certain individuals from the Founding Era can still inspire, in the long run the ahistorical fusion of “the Founding Fathers” is going to work mischief on contemporary politics. Once welded together, the Founders are a slave-owning propertied class that wants to preserve its privileges, and is suspicious of spreading power to too many people. Any fair reading of the Constitution has to recognize the sheer distance its system places between the People and their government. The People are not supposed to govern themselves; they are supposed to recognize their betters, and choose them to administer the government. [5]

Government of the Living. Americans can rightly be proud of our founding generation. Most revolutions fail, and when time-honored systems are swept aside, they are often replaced by something worse. The first democratic revolution in England produced Cromwell; in France, Napoleon; in Germany, Hitler. The newly created 20th-century nations of Africa again and again saw the pattern of “one man, one vote, once”, as the winner of the first election saw no reason to hold a second.

The United States avoided all that. We have had our turbulent moments, including one of the bloodiest civil wars you’ll find anywhere. We have done terrible things, from the Native American genocide and African slavery through the many vicious and greedy strongmen we inflicted on third-world nations during the Cold War. And from time to time we continue to do terrible things, as global superpowers have always done.

But we have also often been a force for progress in the world or for liberation from tyranny, and our example has inspired progressive change in many other countries. The documents left behind by the Founders, and the example of their conduct, has a lot to do with that.

So absolutely, we should honor them. They deserve to have monuments in our capital, to appear on our money, and to have fireworks and parades in their honor every summer.

But they were men and women, not prophets or gods. The argued with each other, compromised on important issues, and in general did what they could with the problems of their day, just as every generation does. The did not foresee nuclear weapons, or even automatic ones. They had absurd medical theories, primitive notions of macro-economics, and self-serving beliefs about race and culture.

To the extent that their opinions still make sense today, we should quote them. But the fact that they believed something does not obligate us (or our opponents) to agree. Those who disagree with them should be met with evidence and arguments and a willingness to consider that their disagreement might be justified.

A government of the People must always be a government of the Living. If our ancestors would have disagreed with us, so be it. They had their day, and now we have ours.


[1] Ironically, I found the book at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor’s Center.

[2] This mistake is typical of fundamentalisms. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, picture the early Christian community as a model of the pure doctrine they want to recover and preserve. But if you actually read the documents of the era, they are more theologically diverse than Christian churches are today.

Similarly, Muhammad didn’t have a worked-out theory of governance; he just governed. Sharia was constructed centuries later.

Unified doctrine is usually achieved by some later generation — often through political power or by force — rather than by those who actually heard the gods or prophets speak.

[3] Or possibly as re-re-envisioned by slavery advocate John Calhoun, as I explained in “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

[4] In the Hamilton musical, Jefferson and his allies sing, “It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

[5] The most egregious example of this is the Electoral College. The popular vote in presidential elections was not even tabulated until 1824.

Do We Still Have to Worry About the McGovern Problem?

In the 1990s, Clintonism was all about avoiding the fate of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. Two decades later, is that still an issue?


If you google “Sanders McGovern”, you’ll find a fairly large number of articles debating whether Bernie Sanders is or isn’t the second coming of George McGovern, the anti-establishment, left-leaning Democrat who suffered a historic landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972.

Some writers think he is, and Democrats will be setting themselves up for another historic loss if they nominate Bernie. Others think McGovern is such ancient history that bringing him up just shows how stuck in the past the Democratic establishment is. And a few claim that Sanders is McGovern in a good way: A Sanders victory could at long last vindicate McGovern, the way Reagan’s victory vindicated Goldwater.

Reading those articles, I keep recalling a quote from the 19th-century mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss: “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.” In every case, it looks to me like the author started with a desired conclusion, then looked for ways to justify it.

I think the question deserves something better than that, so I’m going to do the exact opposite: I’m going to write down everything I know about this issue and leave you with a cliffhanger at the end. I’ve thought about this and done some research. In the end, though, I have hopes and I have fears, but certainty escapes me. I can’t promise you that a gamble on Bernie Sanders would win or lose in November. All I can do is draw a clearer picture of what we’d be betting on.

Where I start. I’m a somewhat left-leaning Democrat who also really wants to win in November. If I could snap my fingers and install single-payer health care or a carbon tax, I absolutely would. But I also think ObamaCare is a huge improvement on the health care system we had in 2009, I’m glad we’re finally starting to do something (though not nearly enough) about climate change, and I’m afraid of losing all that under President Trump or Cruz.

I went to one of the early Bernie rallies (in Portsmouth in May) and I definitely felt the Bern when he talked not just about health care and the environment, but also about tough regulations for Wall Street, creating jobs with a big push to rebuild our infrastructure, investing in college for our young people, and reducing the influence that big-money donors have on our political system. The growing inequality of wealth looks to me like a problem that isn’t going to fix itself, and will destroy the American way of life if it goes much further.

But I’m also not willing to sign up for a Charge of the Light Brigade. If asking for the moon means that the voters will give us nothing, and that instead the gradual progress we’ve made under President Obama will be undone, then count me out. If that’s the choice, then more gradual progress under another President Clinton sounds fine to me. On the other hand, if that’s not the choice, if we really could have the kind of revolutionary change Sanders calls for, then I don’t want to leave those possibilities on the table. So I voted for Bernie in the New Hampshire primary, but with similar uncertainty to what TPM’s John Judis is feeling as the Maryland primary approaches.

For me it’s a real question: Is another McGovern-type loss really something to worry about, or is it a Boogie Man we’ve been afraid of for far too long already?

Ultimately, we can’t be certain about the answers unless we run the experiment: nominate Bernie and see what happens. But it ought to at least be possible to sharpen our understanding of the questions, and to know what we’re counting on if we decide to take the chance.

What the McGovern Problem isn’t. Often the McGovern Problem gets stated too simplistically, which makes it easy to shoot down: Democrats can’t run a candidate who’s too liberal. It’s as if the White House were a roller coaster, with a sign outside saying: “You must be at least this conservative to enter.”

If that’s the problem, then liberals are right to refuse it any consideration, because otherwise we give the game away before it starts. Important issues like single-payer or a less belligerent foreign policy are off the table by definition; we’re not even allowed to make our case to the country.

Republicans didn’t accept that lesson from their Goldwater loss in 1964. They continued making their case, and by 1980 the Goldwater wing of the GOP was electing President Reagan.

History shows that American political sensibilities change. Ideas that are “too radical” in one era — even liberal ideas like Social Security or child labor laws or the 40-hour week — can become common sense in the next. Who’s to say that free college or converting the economy to sustainable energy won’t join that list?

Plus, if Democrats can’t talk about what we believe in, the public will quite correctly perceive that we’re hiding something, and even a centrist Democratic ticket will face a suspicious electorate: What aren’t they telling us? What secret socialist agenda are Democrats planning to spring on the country after Inauguration Day?

What the McGovern Problem is. The problem I have in mind is much more specific than just being “too liberal”: Republicans have a tried-and-true game plan for running against liberal Democrats. A bunch of negative stereotypes sit in the public mind waiting to be activated, and they seem to work really well to cut our candidates off at the knees.

So the problem isn’t just that McGovern lost and then Mondale lost and then Dukakis lost. It’s that they lost in almost exactly the same way. There’s a buzzsaw attack waiting in the fall campaign, one that our candidates don’t face in the primaries, because it doesn’t work on a purely Democratic electorate. But we know it’s coming.

The issue that confronts every potential Democratic nominee, the one that gets labeled electability, isn’t “Are you too liberal?” but “Are you marching straight into the buzzsaw?” When the predictable attack comes — the attack you haven’t had to deal with at all in the primaries — will your candidacy survive it?

But even as we consider this question, we need to remember that the Dukakis wipeout was 28 years ago. If you’re one of the young voters whose energy is fueling the Sanders campaign, there hasn’t been a real test of the McGovern Problem — or a Republican presidential landslide — in your lifetime. Maybe the old dragon has lost its teeth by now, and all those gray-haired Hillary voters are quivering in front of shadows on the wall.

How can we know if that’s the case? I think we need to tell the story from the beginning. Then we’ll be in a better position to judge whether it’s ancient history or history that’s about to repeat itself.

It starts with LBJ. If we’re going to decide how relevant McGovern is in 2016, we need to go back a little further, to the last big push for progressive change in America: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

When LBJ assumed the presidency late in 1963, he was riding a wave of national grief over President Kennedy’s assassination. The Democrats already controlled Congress, and then in 1964 the Republicans played into Johnson’s hands by nominating their most polarizing candidate, Barry Goldwater. After a huge landslide with long coattails, LBJ began 1965 with a national mandate and 2-1 majorities in both houses.

He got a lot done. The accomplishments of 1964-1966 make a stunning list, especially from the gridlocked perspective of 2016. The Social Security Act of 1965 created both Medicare and Medicaid in one fell swoop. By itself that was a bigger change than anything that has happened under Obama, but Congress just passed it and moved on. The bill got bipartisan support, wasn’t filibustered, and Johnson didn’t have to spend the rest of his term fighting back attempts to repeal it or block it in the courts.

Jim Crow finally ended: Congress passed the 24th Amendment (that banned poll taxes), the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. Johnson began affirmative action for government jobs by executive order.

He declared War on Poverty: In addition to Medicaid, Johnson created food stamps, and funded urban renewal programs to clean out the slums. When Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, what we knew was LBJ’s version of welfare.

The backlash. The Vietnam War is usually remembered as Johnson’s undoing, but the backlash against the Great Society would have been a thing regardless. The race riots of the 1960s led to a narrative that blacks were “ungrateful” for Johnson’s anti-poverty programs and the advances in civil rights. The riots combined with rising crime and the Supreme Court’s focus on the rights of defendants to create the impression that criminals were being coddled and government lacked the will to defend public order. The phrase bleeding heart liberal referred to someone who had less sympathy for you than for the ghetto-raised black teen-ager who was mugging you.

School desegregation was finally hitting the North in a big way, leading professional-class whites to flee to the suburbs, and leaving the white working class behind to deal with urban racial conflict. Affirmative action led to the claim that restless blacks were being bought off by giving away the opportunities of working-class whites. (After all, a black kid who got into Harvard through affirmative action wasn’t acing out some legacy admission like a Kennedy.) The phrase limousine liberal referred to well-to-do Democrats who could afford to be idealistic about race and poverty, because they were insulated from the social impact of their programs.

Tax-and-spend liberal didn’t catch on until the Reagan years, but that stereotype also comes from the Great Society backlash: If there was a problem, LBJ was likely to throw money at it. The logic — that we were a rich country with way too many poor people, so we could fix things by moving money around — may seem a little simplistic now, given the complex social dynamics of poverty. (In hindsight, urban renewal  looks especially naive. Its high-rise housing projects quickly became worse than the slums they replaced.) But that’s the kind of thing you can’t know until you’ve tried it.

By 1968, the Democratic Party was badly divided. The only possible unifying figure, Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated. The Chicago convention turned violent. A third-party run by George Wallace split off what in FDR’s day had been “the solid South”. Even in the North, Wallace appealed to the kind of working-class whites who also had once been reliable Democrats (the kind who support Trump now). LBJ’s VP, Hubert Humphrey, split the rest of the vote almost down the middle with Richard Nixon, but Nixon got a slight plurality and an electoral college win.

McGovern/Nixon. George McGovern came to national attention at the 1968 convention as the leader of Bobby Kennedy’s orphaned delegates. By 1972, he was the first candidate to understand the new rules that made the primaries decisive. (Humphrey had gotten the 1968 nomination without ever entering the primaries. 1968 was the last hurrah of the smoke-filled-room era, when party leadership could do pretty much whatever it wanted.) He ran an insurgent campaign that portrayed the existing Democratic establishment as corrupt. That culminated at the 1972 convention, when the McGovern delegates disqualified Mayor Daley’s Illinois delegation in favor of a rebel slate led by Jesse Jackson. (Without the backing of the Daley machine, McGovern managed only 41% of the vote in Illinois in the fall. He won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.)

In terms of policy, McGovern wanted to push the Great Society social programs further, while rejecting the militaristic Kennedy/Johnson foreign policy that had led to Vietnam. With Wallace out of the picture (after being wounded in an assassination attempt), Nixon knew that a two-party race depended on capturing the Democrats who had defected to Wallace in 1968. So the key arguments in the campaign came from an organization called Democrats for Nixon.

DfN attacked McGovern on two fronts. First, his defense plan would leave the country dangerously weak.

And second, his social programs would tax working people (pictured as a white male construction worker) and give money to undeserving people (who aren’t pictured, but are easily imagined to be blacks or young white hippies).

Less explicitly, Nixon’s campaign associated McGovern with the counterculture: people who took drugs and despised soldiers and got involved in violent protests. Nixon himself claimed support from the “great silent majority“, people who did their jobs and raised their kids and lived by the old-fashioned American values that the counterculture rejected. The flag and patriotism belonged to conservatives; they were weapons to wield against liberals (literally, in this Pulitzer-winning photo), who should “love it or leave it“.

The anti-liberal formula. By 1976, the Republican Party had been stained by Watergate, and Jimmy Carter, a born-again Navy veteran from Georgia, won by projecting an image very different from McGovern. But Reagan unseated Carter in 1980, and in 1984, Walter Mondale challenged him. Mondale was the candidate of the Democratic establishment, which by this point was the Great Society playing defense. Reagan successfully attacked him as a liberal, and in 1988 Reagan’s VP, George H. W. Bush, ran a similar — and similarly successful — campaign against Mike Dukakis.

By now the anti-liberal attack was a formula based on a few well-defined stereotypes:

  • Liberals won’t protect us from foreign enemies. This is usually phrased in terms of naivety: Liberals want to cut defense spending and avoid military intervention because they foolishly trust treaties and organizations like the UN. They believe our enemies are like us and want to come to mutually beneficial agreements. They don’t understand that our enemies are truly evil and can only be controlled through strength.

For example, Reagan ran this commercial against Mondale. It starts “There’s a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame.”

  • Liberals won’t protect us from criminals at home. Again, they are naive about evil. They believe crime is a social problem they can solve with more welfare spending, rather than a moral problem that requires police and jails.

That led to the revolving-door ad Bush used against Dukakis.

  • Liberals don’t believe in America. They’re not patriotic, and they want to retell American history to make us the bad guys. They have no faith in the economic individualism that made this country rich, and keep telling us we should be more like France or Sweden.

Bush painted Dukakis as against the Pledge of Allegiance, and somehow a false rumor circulated that Dukakis’ wife had once burned an American flag.

  •  Liberals want to weaken moral values. The exact content of this attack varies from era to era, depending on what the moral problem of the day is. Abortion is a constant, but there’s also pornography, video games, rock music, drugs, homosexuality, promiscuity, and transgenderism. Usually, this is related somehow to religion, with the implication that whatever religion a liberal claims to practice is actually just a smoke screen that hides an underlying atheism, relativism, nihilism, or hedonism.
  • Liberals think they’re smarter than you are and want to make your decisions for you. Liberals are book-smart but don’t have common sense. They want to tell you who you can hire, which customers you have to serve, what you can drive, what you can eat or drink, how to discipline your children, what words you are allowed to say, and so on. Rhetoric about “the liberal elite” or “political correctness” invokes this stereotype.
  • Liberals want to raise taxes on working people to buy votes from lazy people. Nixon’s construction-worker ad became a paradigm. Mitt Romney’s “47%” hurt him only because it was too explicit. We still hear about “free stuff“, “dependence on government“, and “makers and takers“.

Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to communicate just how depressing the Dukakis debacle was. Entering the fall campaign, Democrats hadn’t thought of Dukakis as a McGovern-style left-winger. (Jesse Jackson had been the candidate of the party’s left wing, and Dukakis had resisted pressure to pick him as VP.) On the national scene, Dukakis was a fresh face who should have been able to slough off past stereotypes. He didn’t have a big spending program, wasn’t pushing a tax increase, and his Greek-immigrant-pride thing should have shielded him from the patriotism issue. One post-convention poll had Dukakis ahead of Bush 55%-38%.

But when the Republicans unleashed the formulaic anti-liberal attack, Dukakis proved just as vulnerable as McGovern and Mondale. His poll numbers quickly collapsed, and Bush (who had never seemed like a particularly strong candidate) didn’t just win, he romped his way to 426 electoral votes.

After 1988, Democrats had a sense of “What do we have to do?” The answer came from Bill Clinton. You can’t understand Clintonism without grasping that post-Dukakis despair.

Clinton recognized that the problem was as much image as substance: It wasn’t liberalism itself, it was getting tagged with the liberal stereotypes. You had to compromise somewhat, but you could still have broadly progressive values. You couldn’t stop Republicans from throwing the McGovern/Mondale/Dukakis attacks at you, but (like Jimmy Carter in 1976) you could still win if you maintained an image that the stereotypes wouldn’t stick to. Far-right conservatives might still believe them, but the swing voters wouldn’t.

Clinton wasn’t a “Massachusetts liberal” like Dukakis: He was a Southern Baptist with a drawl who easily projected a good-old-boy sensibility. He declared himself to be “a new kind of Democrat”, and he shifted Democratic rhetoric across the board. He “felt our pain”, but always justified his programs as fairness rather than appealing to compassion, and he rooted his case in respect for traditional American values like hard work.

We’ll think of the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children. Filled with that faith, generations of Americans have worked long hours on their jobs and passed along powerful dreams to their sons and daughters. Many of us can remember our own parents working long hours on their jobs and then coming home and helping us with our homework. The American dream has always been a better life for people who are willing to work for it.

He also regularly did something infuriating if you found yourself on the wrong end of it. Like the kid who escapes bullying by finding the mob some weaker kid to bully, Clinton escaped the liberal stereotype by projecting it onto other people. A Sister Souljah moment (also sometimes known as hippie punching) is when a center-left politician repudiates someone further to the left as a way of establishing his non-scariness. (The phrase comes from Clinton’s denunciation of a black hip-hop artist.)

Clinton made a career out of stealing Republican issues and putting his own spin on them: Balance the budget? Reform welfare? He’d do it, and if Republicans wanted to oppose him they’d have to move even further to the right. In retrospect, some of Clinton’s “accomplishments” — Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and his crime bill — can only be defended by observing that something even worse probably would have happened if he hadn’t gotten out in front of a popular movement that was gaining momentum.

He compromised, but he won, and it mattered that he won. That’s why Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are on the Supreme Court rather than two more Clarence Thomases. While Clinton sometimes rattled his saber and kept defense spending relatively high, America managed to go eight years without launching a major ground war. He left office with low unemployment, low inflation, a budget surplus — and a 66% approval rating.

Every Democratic presidential nominee since has in one way or another learned from Clinton’s example, and has maneuvered to project a centrist image. (I believe that’s why Obama drops his g’s.) In that time, the Democratic candidate has lost the popular vote only in 2004, and even that election was close.

One measure of the success of the Clinton strategy is that each recent Democratic nominee has been attacked in some way that was uniquely personal, rather than just being fed to the generic liberal-killing buzzsaw. Bill Clinton was “Slick Willy”, Al Gore was so wooden you wouldn’t want to have a beer with him, John Kerry didn’t deserve his medals, and Barack Obama was a shallow celebrity who palled around with terrorists. The too-liberal case was still there, but it didn’t stick for a majority of voters, so Republicans had to try other attacks.

The downside of Clintonism. As George Lakoff and others have often pointed out, there is no centrist worldview. So while stealing Republican issues and hippie-punching figures to your left may put you in a position to rein in something really bad — to turn, say, a constitutional amendment defining marriage into DOMA, which the Supreme Court (with Breyer and Ginsburg in the majority) could later find unconstitutional — along the way you reinforce the overall conservative frame, and marginalize anyone who promotes a liberal frame. That may win elections in the short term, but makes it hard to build a movement.

For example, Obama’s attempt in 2011 to strike a “grand bargain” with John Boehner to cut the long-term deficit was a Clintonian move that backfired: Not only did the bargain not happen, but treating the manufactured 2011 budget crisis as a negotiating opportunity set up the much scarier 2013 game of chicken over the debt ceiling. Obama’s grand-bargain offer legitimized the deficit as a more important concern than creating jobs, as well as the idea that long-term cuts in Social Security and Medicare might be the solution.

Even if you take a Clintonesque incremental view of change, the Democratic Party needs its idealists to produce the long-term vision that gives the party substance. Maybe we will only make progress in small steps, but somebody still needs to provide a clear vision of where we’re trying to go.

So what about Bernie? Remember: whether or not Sanders “is McGovern” isn’t about whether he can be tied to a label like liberal or even socialist. Of course he can. Everybody knows he’s challenging Clinton from the left and has called himself a socialist; that’s baked into his public image already. It hasn’t hurt him yet in those national polls that show him beating Trump and Cruz by margins far larger than Hillary’s. (One recent poll has Sanders beating Trump by 20%.)

The more important questions are first, when Republicans begin attacking him with the tried-and-true formula, will the anti-liberal stereotypes stick? And second, does that still matter the way it did in 1972, 1984, or 1988?

I think several of the stereotypes could stick to Bernie, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly.

  • Foreign enemies. So far, Sanders’ entire defense-and-foreign-policy focus has been on what he hasn’t done, wouldn’t do or wouldn’t have done: He wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. He wouldn’t give the NSA such a free hand to gather intelligence on Americans. He wouldn’t torture. He wouldn’t keep Guantanamo open. He doesn’t support defense spending at the current levels, and opposes certain specific weapons systems.

And none of that by itself is a problem. (In fact, I agree with him, and Hillary agrees with a lot of it.) But the majority of Americans are not ready to stop being a superpower. So in a general-election campaign, Sanders will at some point have to pivot back to what he would do: What level of defense spending does he support? What weapons does that buy? What Sanders Doctrine describes the situations where is he willing to use those weapons to defend our country, our allies, or our interests? (Example: Putin decides to conquer the rest of Ukraine. What do you do?)

When he does have to state a positive position on defense, is he then open to a Nixonian attack where a hand sweeps forces off the table? Is he convincing as a possible Commander in Chief, or does he look like Mike Dukakis in a tank?

  • Crime. The problem is similar: So far we’ve heard about the things Sanders wants to undo: He wants to put fewer people in jail. He wants to stop police brutality. And that’s all good: We went overboard both on the War on Drugs and on the scary-black-people image. We’ve been way too eager to interpret dark skin as a predictor of criminality, and to see prison as the solution to our fears, especially the irrational ones.

But crime is also real and has real victims. Americans want to hear that their president is serious about protecting them. Can Bernie provide that assurance? There are two Willie-Hortonish avenues of attack here: violence connected (at least in the public mind) with Black Lives Matter, like the Baltimore riots; and crimes committed by undocumented immigrants (which do exist, even though in general the undocumented are not a big crime risk).

Again, there are answers to such attacks, but (as the Reagan-era adage has it) “If you’re explaining you’re losing.” When somebody shows you a real woman who has been raped by an immigrant, quoting the statistics on immigrant crime is not a compelling response.

  • Tax and spend. Sanders admits that his Medicare-for-all plan would raise middle-class taxes. To be fair, middle-class families would still benefit from his plan, because their healthcare costs should go down by more than their taxes go up. But voters are quicker to believe in taxes than in the benefits they fund. (That’s why ObamaCare was so vulnerable in the 2010 midterm elections.) Plus, not even Sanders’ supporters are comfortable with their taxes going up. And again, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Look for an ad in which layabouts of various races endorse Bernie and look forward to the benefits they expect from him, while somebody else works thanklessly to clean up after them.
  • Moral values. The problem here is religion. Sanders admits that he is “not particularly religious” and, though a Jew by ethnicity and culture, does not belong to any congregation or synagogue and does not regularly attend services of any type.

That doesn’t kill you in a Democratic primary, and at various times Bernie has spoken about his beliefs in a heartfelt way that works fairly well for a liberal audience: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” But to a lot of the country, that Spinoza-like position is just a fancy kind of atheism, and polls consistently show that atheism (moreso than even Islam) is a deal-breaker for many voters.

I picture one of those man-in-the-street interview ads, where somebody says, “He claims to be Jewish, but he sounds like an atheist to me.” That’s a two-fer: Not only does it use the A-word, but it dog-whistles to anti-Semites by reminding them that at best Sanders is a Jew.

  • Thinks he’s smarter than you. Smart is good, if you handle it right. Bill Clinton is a Rhodes scholar. Barack Obama was president of the law review at Harvard. But both of them know how to use their considerable personal charm so as not to seem too smart or too stuck-up about it. Both have that good-teacher ability to answer a question confidently without making the questioner feel stupid.

I don’t see that in Bernie. When challenged, he has a tendency to raise his voice and wag his finger. If I were debating Sanders, I’d be trying to bring out the side of his personality that talked down to Vermont voters in this Q&A event. (“Have you heard of ISIS?” he demands.)

Smarter-than-you is a quality that unlocks other parts of the liberal stereotype. The root Republican message is that they want you to be free to make your own choices in the marketplace, while Democrats want government to choose for you. (Unfortunately, the unregulated marketplace Republicans champion often leaves you with no good choices. What good is a menu of dozens of healthcare plans, if none of the ones you can afford will keep you from going bankrupt if you get sick?) Democrats need to communicate that they appreciate the awesome presumption that regulation involves, and that they will use that power with humility. But when Bernie Sanders thinks he knows the right answer, humility seems far from his mind.

  • Believing in America. A big piece of the Clinton/New Democrat thing was being able to invoke patriotism without sounding fake or hokey. Can Sanders do that? Bernie often compares the U.S. unfavorably to more socialistic European countries like Denmark or France, and if  you dip into the archives, he’s also said good things about Cuba and Nicaragua (when the Sandinistas were in power and the U.S. was funding the opposition). Again, a man-in-the-street ad could be effective: “I wonder why he doesn’t run for president of France?”

Does it still matter? The most convincing point in the Sanders-is-not-McGovern articles is that times have changed. Thom Hartman writes:

Comparing Sanders to McGovern assumes that the country is in a similar state now as it was 44 years ago, and that’s just not true. … [In 1972] the middle class was much larger, and it was doing much better than it is today. And so the older generation voted for Nixon, they voted to keep things on track, because they simply didn’t feel as screwed over as we did in the younger generation.

And Dave Johnson says that the old manipulative tricks won’t work in the Twitter era:

Sanders’ mass appeal, big crowds and enthusiasm in spite of a virtual media blackout shows that America has grown up a lot since 1972. Thanks to the Internet, we are able to communicate past media manipulation and organize. Many people are now well aware of how Republicans use racial and other divisions to misdirect and manipulate people from seeing what is being done to us.

There’s also a demographic argument: The electorate that responded to George Bush’s racist dog whistles in 1988 was much whiter than America is in 2016. When Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was organizing against Mondale in 1984, the percentage of Christians was far higher and “Nones” far lower than it is today.

So their argument boils down to this: In a less white, more secular America, where the sufferings of the middle class and the planet are far more apparent, and citizens have better ways to figure out who to vote for than watching 30-second TV ads, the progressive message is more compelling than the old liberal stereotypes. Healthcare as a right, free college, the threat of global warming, and the rest of the Sanders message will overpower the false image of wimpy, naive, America-hating, too-smart-for-their-own-good liberals.

And here, I think we reach the point where the evidence in inconclusive: America is different now, but is it different enough? Quantitative questions — questions that center on “how much” rather than yes or no — are hard to answer without running the experiment. There’s a risk and there’s a reward. How to weigh them against each other is something we all have to decide for ourselves.

Say — you want a revolution?

Changing presidents or even changing minds isn’t enough. A real revolution has to change a lot of people’s political identities.


Some years ago, I was at a restaurant a couple blocks from my apartment when that cycle’s Democratic congressional candidate (Katrina Swett, which would make the year 2002) came in to campaign. It was late enough that most of the lunch traffic had left already, so shaking every hand in the room didn’t take her very long.

After the candidate left, our waitress — a pleasant young woman who had been doing a perfectly fine job as far as I and my friend were concerned — came over with an inquisitive look on her face. I thought she was going to ask us whether we knew anything about Swett, and whether she would be a good person to represent us in Washington. Instead, she asked whether we knew anything about Congress. “Is it, like, important or something?”

I’m not particularly good at answering a fundamental question when I was expecting a specific one, so let’s just say that I doubt my pearls of wisdom changed her life, or even that she remembers me at all. But I’ve remembered her ever since.

By telling this story, I don’t mean to denigrate the political sophistication of young adults or the working class or women or any other category that this waitress coincidentally belonged to. But to me, she represents a group that pundits and armchair political strategists often forget: people who just don’t care about politics. They aren’t stupid or any more self-centered than the rest of us, and they aren’t discouraged or embittered or angry. They just look at politics the way other people might look at football or fashion or Game of Thrones: They have never bothered to pay attention to it, and they don’t see that they’re missing out on anything.

It’s hard to say exactly how many such people there are. But certainly they could constitute a significant voting bloc, if they saw any point in it.

The truly silent majority. In a typical presidential election, voter turnout is somewhere between half and two-thirds of the voting-age population. Mid-term congressional elections usually draw less than half of the electorate, and less than a third bother to participate in some state and local elections. (A shade over 30% voted in Kentucky’s recent gubernatorial election, yielding a surprise Republican win.) As you can see from this graph of the turnout in every presidential election since 1824, this phenomenon is nothing new; to see significantly larger turnout, you have to go back to 1900.

So in virtually every contested election in the entire country for the last century, the margin of victory has been less than the number of people who didn’t vote. That massive lack of participation provides a blank wall onto which many people can project their conflicting fantasies.

Like Ted Cruz:

The last election, 2012, 54 million evangelicals stayed home. Fifty-four million. Is it any wonder the federal government is waging a war on life, on marriage, on religious liberty, when Christians are staying home and our leaders are being elected by nonbelievers?

“Imagine instead,” he told the students at Liberty University, “millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”

Real Clear Politics’ election analyst Sean Trende attributed Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to “the missing white voters“, and argued that the GOP wouldn’t have to work so hard at appealing to Hispanics if it could just raise white turnout.

Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, you can imagine that the apathetic masses only appear not to care about public affairs. Actually, they just haven’t heard the right motivating message: your message. As soon as they do, then everything will start to change.

Heck, some version of this thought pattern occurs even in the fringiest, most radical circles. The armed yahoos who took over that wildlife refuge in Oregon didn’t figure on overpowering the federal government by themselves. They imagined a nation full of anti-government patriots, ready to take up arms as soon as someone was brave enough to sound the clarion call.

When they sounded that call and only a few dozen wackos showed up, I imagine they were pretty surprised.

The discouraged liberal majority. In spite of the daydreams of militiamen and social conservatives, the statistics say that marginal voters trend Democratic. That’s why relatively high-turnout elections like Obama’s first presidential race in 2008 (57.1% of voting-age citizens participated; that would be a low turnout in a lot of other democracies) are good for Democrats, while low-turnout elections, like the midterms in 2010 (41%) and 2014 (36%), strongly favor Republicans. That’s also why Republicans like to make voters jump through hoops: They believe the ones who won’t bother will mostly be Democrats.

Those numbers justify the Great Democratic Turnout Fantasy: If everybody voted, Democrats would win every election, everywhere. The Democratic advantage would be so insurmountable that the Party wouldn’t have to compromise on wedge issues like abortion or gay rights or gun control. Democrats wouldn’t have to pander to powerful interests or rich individuals. They could put the unalloyed New Deal/Great Society message out there and wait for the votes to roll in.

In particular, what if all the young people voted? What if all the women voted? What if all the low-wage workers voted? But we’re zeroing in on my waitress, and that should make us all stop and think: Who are the people who don’t vote, and what level of participation can we reasonably expect out of them?

Levels of engagement. People relate to politics in all sorts of different ways, and devote different levels of energy to it. Here’s a rough categorization, varying according to the depth and quantity of the thought and effort involved.

  • Apostles. These are people who have a political worldview and can lay out their political philosophy — liberal, conservative, anarchist, communist, white supremacist, or whatever. They can state their principles and apply them to whatever issues come up, without any outside guidance.
  • Activists. Some cause — anything from the environment or abortion to something as local as establishing a new park or putting a stoplight on a dangerous corner — got them interested in politics. Their interest in that issue placed them on one side or the other of our deep political polarization, so they have come to identify with other activists on a wide range of issues.
  • Players. Like a sports team, a political party can be part of a personal identity; issues are just opportunities to argue that your team should win. For example: From the end of Reconstruction to the New Deal, the South was solidly Democratic. That wasn’t because the Democratic Party represented a philosophy universally accepted by Southerners. Rather, the Republicans were the party of Yankee invaders (and disenfranchised Negroes), so the Democrats were the home team.
  • Fans. Left to their own devices, many people wouldn’t care about elections. But personal identity connects them to people who do care. When election day gets close, they look to a family member, a minister, a union leader, or some admired public figure to tell them who the good guys are.
  • Impulse voters. These citizens have only a tangential connection to politics. They might not vote, or they might vote for some whimsical reason: They like or dislike a candidate’s face (or, more ominously, race or gender). Or they heard a story that made him/her look good or bad. Or a slogan appealed to them; maybe “Yes We Can” in one election and “Taxed Enough Already” in the next.
  • The alienated. Disinterest in politics can also be part of a personal identity. Politics is some stupid thing that people yell at each other about. Politicians are like televangelists or get-rich-quick swindlers: They’re in it for themselves, and if you pay any attention to them at all you’re just being a sucker.

Most public discussion of politics comes from apostles or activists, and tends to project that level of interest onto non-voters: People don’t vote because the major parties aren’t addressing their issues or speaking to their philosophy. If only we changed our platform or the emphasis of our rhetoric, they’d flock to us.

But I don’t think my waitress had a political agenda in mind, or was turned off when Candidate Swett didn’t speak to it. I believe she was in the low-engagement impulse/alienated region, and honestly had no idea why she should care who went to Congress.

Paradoxes. When you picture non-voters as disgruntled apostles and activists, the world seems full of mysteries: What’s the matter with Kansas? Why do so many working-class whites vote against their economic interests? Why do so many Catholic Hispanics vote for pro-choice Democrats? How can the country whipsaw from a Democratic landslide in 2008 to a Republican landslide in 2010, and then re-elect Obama in 2012?

But while some apostles and activists don’t vote (holding out for a candidate with the proper Chomskyan or Hayekian analysis, I suppose), I believe that the vast majority of non-voters are in the low-engagement categories. You can’t understand turnout without accounting for them.

What’s the matter with the working-class whites? Thomas Frank’s book tells you, if you read carefully: As union membership declined, players and fans who used to identify with their unions (and vote that way) started identifying with their fundamentalist churches (and voting the other way).

Why does the immigration issue worry the Republican establishment so much that they want to pull against their base? Because they see Hispanics developing a team identity and deciding that the Democrats are on their side. If that happens, a lot of impulse and alienated Hispanics (and Asians and Muslims, for similar reasons) will become reliable Democratic players and fans, regardless of other issues.

What happened between 2008 and 2010? Liberal apostles and activists will tell you that Obama betrayed their high ideals. He failed to be the transformational FDR-like leader they had hoped for, and so the excitement they generated in 2008 was gone by 2010. But that should lead to another question: Why didn’t 2010 see a progressive wave similar to the Trump/Cruz/Carson rebellion we’re seeing on the right this year? Why didn’t all the disappointed liberals of 2008 send a more liberal Congress to Washington in 2010, one that would force Obama to come through on the hopes he had raised in 2008?

My answer is that the 2008 wave wasn’t primarily ideological or issue-based. While he presented well-defined positions on major issues and had the support of many thoughtful people, Obama also brought a lot of impulse and alienated voters to the polls on the strength of his personal charm, the Bush administration’s failures, and a message that resonated at a level not much deeper than “Hope and Change”. In 2008, Obama represented not just national health care and ending the Iraq War, but something he could not possibly have delivered: a “new tone in Washington” where politicians would start working together rather than yelling at each other.

Do I wish Obama had pushed harder on progressive issues (the way he started doing after 2014, when he had no more elections to face)? Yes, I do. But do I think he could have turned the 2008 coalition into a permanent electoral force that would have transformed American politics the way FDR did? No. I think that reading of recent political history is unrealistic, because the transformation Obama was supposed to catalyze depended on alienated and impulse voters suddenly deciding to change their personal identities and see themselves progressive activists and apostles.

Why would they have done that?

The kind of political revolution we won’t have. My rough categorization has fluid boundaries. At any given moment, people are migrating in both directions across the border between the alienated and impulse voters. Fans are getting energized and becoming players, while players are getting burned by their experiences and retreating back into fandom. Disengaged people are running into some issue that hits them on a deep level and makes them dig into politics in a way they never thought they would.

But (absent some huge crisis I don’t want to wish for) big changes in the personal identities of large groups of people don’t happen overnight. In particular, they don’t happen in one election cycle. So the vision of “political revolution” that I’m hearing from a lot of Sanders supporters (though Bernie’s own use of the phrase seems a little more cautious, if a bit vague) is not going to happen: We’re not going to sweep Bernie into office and then hold that majority together as a pressure group that will either make Congress pass his agenda, or toss them out of office in 2018 if they don’t. If we get a 2008-like progressive vote in 2016, a lot of that total will be low-engagement voters who will already have lost interest by Inauguration Day.

Change in America has never happened in a single election, through the election of a radical leader. The abolition movement, for example, didn’t start by sweeping Abraham Lincoln into office. It was a long, hard grind that began decades before Lincoln’s campaign. [1]

How big changes happen. When you look at American politics on a larger timescale, though, it does include a few big changes and re-alignments: the 1776 Revolution, abolition, the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement, the New Deal, civil rights, and the conservative counter-revolution we’ve been living in since the Reagan administration.

But none of those turnarounds happened quickly. Take civil rights: The Democratic Convention of 1948 split over civil rights, and Truman won without the break-away Dixiecrats. But the Voting Rights Act didn’t pass until 1965.

Ronald Reagan made it to the White House in 1980 on his third attempt, after failing to get the Republican nomination in 1968 and 1976. Republicans didn’t get control of the House until the Gingrich wave of 1994.

Between 1968 and 1994, a lot happened outside of electoral politics: Starting in the 1970s, billionaires and big corporations pooled their resources to create the intellectual infrastructure to make conservatism respectable. [2] Economic conservatives made common cause with religious fundamentalists; combined with union-busting, that instituted a shift in the way Americans found their political teams. Spin doctors developed ways to appeal to white racism covertly, without setting off a backlash. [3] Conservatives developed talk radio, then Fox News and a whole media counter-culture, with its own celebrities and cult identity. [4]

The next turning point. By now, the Reagan counter-revolution has gotten long in the tooth, and its plutocratic nature gets harder and harder to deny. If you look at inequality graphs, things started going wrong for the middle class after the Democrats lost seats in the midterm elections of 1978, which pushed them towards deregulation and letting unions fend for themselves. [5] Reagan’s tax cuts accelerated that process, and by now the ascendancy of the rich — and the plight of the average American — should be obvious to everyone.

The outsized influence of money on our political process has also become obvious, to the point that majority opinion influences government action only when it happens to coincide with the opinion of the wealthy. To a large extent even before Citizens United, and much more boldly and obviously after, large corporations and wealthy individuals buy the laws they want.

It’s not hard to make the connection between these odious results and the conservative principles that have dominated our politics since Reagan: low taxes on the rich, loose regulations on corporations and banks, and a Supreme Court that believes money is speech and corporations are people.

So the Reagan paradigm should be vulnerable.

What is success? In The Democracy Project, David Graeber measures the success of a revolution not by whether it seizes and holds power, but by whether it changes “political common sense”. By that measure, he judges the French Revolution a success: It may have ended up giving power to Napoleon rather than the People, but afterwards the divine right of kings was dead as a political principle, while “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” lived on.

Conversely in America, changing the party in power does not always (or even usually) start a new era. The Republican presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon did not end the New Deal/Great Society era of liberalism, and the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did not end the conservative Reagan era. Here at the end of the Obama administration, political common sense has not changed much in decades: The basic assumptions of what government does, what problems it should and shouldn’t address, and the range of possible solutions that can be debated are more or less what they were in 1995 or 1982. To the extent those things have shifted, they’ve flowed ever further to the right.

So a real political revolution will not happen just because we elect a new president, not even one whose agenda is as transformational as Bernie Sanders’. It’s not hard to imagine conservatives repeating against President Sanders the game plan that worked against Obama: Obstruct everything he tries to do, then present him as a failure and a disappointment in the 2018 midterm elections. If Sanders’ 2016 victory has depended on impulse voters liking the sound of him (but not changing their political identities), that plan should work again. By 2018 they will have lost interest, and Republicans will sweep a low-turnout midterm.

What would a real political revolution look like? We can’t start a new progressive era in American politics by getting low-engagement voters to show up once. The revolution does have to have an electoral component, but it also needs to proceed on two other levels.

Most simply, our appeal to impulse and alienated voters needs to be more sustainable. [6] 2008’s “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” were inherently single-use slogans. In 2010, it was impossible to pivot from “Yes We Can” to “We Would Have If Those Bastards Hadn’t Stopped Us”. (Contrast those single-use slogans with Reagan-era memes that are still with us: small government, strong defense, family values.) Here, things are improving: Bernie Sanders’ focus on “the rigged economy” is something that progressives can keep coming back to until we get it fixed. We need more such phrases.

At an even more fundamental level, though, we need to change the ways that people identify with politics. We need more Democratic players and fans, who stay loyal from one cycle to the next, so that we aren’t depending on unreliable impulse voters to put us over the top.

This level of social engineering is beyond my competence, but it’s not impossible.

The old-school method, which I believe still works, is to build on our initial success by connecting the changes we’ve achieved to positive change in people’s lives. My own family is an example: I don’t know what political identity the Muders had in the 1920s, but a story I heard again and again growing up was how in the 1930s my grandfather managed to stall the bank from repossessing the family farm until the New Deal’s farm loan program started. That saved the farm and we’ve been Democrats for four generations now.

But that snowballing sense of progress is exactly what Republican obstruction has tried to deny us these last seven years, with considerable success. The only major advance we’ve seen recently is ObamaCare, which is why — even as we push for a single-payer system — we need to stop running it down. It’s saving lives. If the saved people realize that and tell their family and friends, we’ll have a lot more reliable votes. Maybe soon all the minimum-wage workers who get a raise will join them.

But while snowballing progress is the fastest way to change political identities, it’s not the only way. An alternative is to create and support and grow local institutions that create liberal community, as the Reagan conservatives did with fundamentalist churches. Unions would be ideal, but if that clock can’t be turned back, there are other possibilities: What if instead of relating to politics through her fundamentalist church, a housewife started getting her political identity from her co-op grocery or a local environmental group? Even something that isn’t overtly political — say, a folk music cafe — can liberalize the identities of the people who feel part of a community there.

The wild card in this process — which I hesitate to speculate on because I’m such a novice myself — is social media and the various forms on online community. What can we create that people can belong to, that will reinforce their identities as progressives?

When people decide to vote or not vote, or when they stand in the voting booth deciding which oval to darken or which lever to pull, they shouldn’t feel alone. They should feel part of a community that is interested in what they are doing and why. Which community that is will determine elections for decades to come.

When you change that, you’ve made a revolution.

What about that waitress? I never became a regular at that restaurant, and young waitresses switch jobs often anyway, so I didn’t keep track of her. For all I know, by now she might have changed and become deeply political. Who can say what might have caused it? Maybe she had children and started wondering who regulates the corporations who make the processed food she’d been feeding them. Maybe she got to know the Hispanic workers in the kitchen, and realized they can’t be what’s wrong with America. Maybe she found Jesus and became an anti-abortion crusader. When you’re talking about individuals, anything can happen.

But whether she has changed or not, America still has lots of impulse voters and citizens alienated from the political process completely. You can win a single election by convincing a bunch of them that you are sufficiently different that they should take a chunk out of a single day to come vote for you. But you can’t make a revolution that way.

To make a revolution, you need to get a large number of them to change their political identities and become players or fans of your team. You need to inspire fans of the other team to get their political identities from a different part of their lives, some part that will connect them to your team instead.

That’s a lot more complicated than just getting out the vote, and it takes a lot longer. But that’s what needs to happen, if you want a revolution.


[1] Lincoln’s success, in fact, depended on finding the right compromise position on slavery — one a bit less radical than that of Seward, the early Republican front-runner.

[2] That story is told in Jane Mayer’s recent book Dark Money.

[3] See Ian Haney Lopez’ book Dog Whistle Politics, which I summarized in “What Should Racism Mean?“.

[4] Part of the credit for the Ted Cruz victory in the Iowa Caucuses has to go to the endorsement of Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson, who appeared with Cruz in an ad.

[5] That interpretation was already apparent by 1984 when Thomas Edsall wrote The New Politics of Inequality.

[6] At an even more basic level, we need to recognize the existence of low-engagement voters, and stop being ashamed of appealing to them. Idealistic liberals look askance at Madison Avenue tactics. But phrases that speak to low-engagement voters — like Sanders’ “rigged economy” — need not be empty. If we’re communicating something real to voters — something we can back up with data and policy for anyone inspired to dive into the details — rather than just trying to trick them into voting for our candidates by taking advantage of their ignorance, we have nothing to be ashamed of.

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.

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