Thursday, February 8, 2018

Predictable Perfidy

David Brooks' grotesque concern trolling on abortion proves once again that centrists have no principles on social issues either. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. 

In 2016, centrists pretended to be feminists and woke on race, but their advice is always to throw another liberal issue or constituency under the bus. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Each time, they portray surrendering as neutralizing some supposedly losing position so Republicans cannot use it against us anymore. Drop this dead weight issue and we will soar! That and stealing Republican thunder are their two favorite strategies. 

Remember when it was Welfare Reform? That was actually a hybrid of the two strategies. It looks less like giving-in if you out-do the opposition. Just pump up the tough love rhetoric and say you will do it more competently or humanely.(1) Then there was that infamous 1997 Mother Jones magazine editorial which suggested that we should abandon affirmative action by arguing it had "eroded liberals' moral credibility as reformers."(2) Profiles in courage! Perhaps they should consider their own erosion.

Abortion rights have long been something that centrists suggest we abandon as a losing battle. Concern trolling on it is nothing newYes, they have spent the past two years presenting a false trade-off between economic and social issues; but centrists have frequently targeted social issues in the past. We are just witnessing a resumption. Consider the recent Senate race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones in Alabama: Centrists predictably dismissed Jones because he was pro-choice, but after he won they explained it was because he was a "generic Democrat." Yes, boring wins. Consider our string of victories with wooden presidential candidates like Al Gore and John Kerry. But I digress.

Last July, a poll showed that 52% of Americans don’t think the Democratic Party actually stands for anything other than just opposing Trump. That’s what decades of centrist leadership get us. This is not the byproduct of imaginary leftist cynicism: It is the direct result of repeated betrayals by centrist cynicism. And the ridiculous rehabilitation of George W. Bush's image is not helping us look steadfast.

David Brooks has the gall to ask "Do we want [legal abortion] so much that we see our agendas on poverty, immigration, income equality and racial justice thwarted and defeated?"

What’s with this “we” and “our” stuff? Does anyone actually think Brooks shares the slightest sympathy with any of those agendas? I dunno. Let’s Google the key words "David Brooks” with those issues.

On poverty, Brooks thinks the poor need stern lectures on morality. It's his perennial prescription. Here's a 2012 Charles Pierce piece in Esquire noting that Brooks has been pedaling such pabulum for years already. Every other year or so, David Brooks rehashes long-discredited conservative canards and gets called out on it - in 20142015, and  2017. So, we are not off to an awesome start.

On immigration, he's actually not entirely terrible - only partially. Or maybe he’s just bullshitting. He shows how immigration is economically beneficial, but he wants to limit admitting unskilled workers. In other words, yes to doctors and scientists – but no to farm workers and domestics. Opportunity should be reserved for those deserving immigrants who least need it. Brooks doesn't phrase it this way, but I suspect he feels any draconian policy would be okay so long as it carves out exceptions for those who are not desperate. And since few children are chemists or cardiologists, I suppose they must go.(3) To be clear, I am not against welcoming professionals, but they have options that other immigrants do not. I am arguing for welcoming the desperate as well. Brooks is not.

On income equality, it's obvious why Brooks has always been awful on the topic. If his politics on poverty is retrograde, why should his stance on this issue be any different? And the same pattern ensues: Brooks writes a column that is phenomenally moronic and callous and gets roundly mocked for it. Repeat. Here are some quick 21st century examples from 20112012,  2014, and 2015, but he has been saying such things for far longer. Yes, in 2016, he began making pretty noises that starkly contrast with everything he has written before. Shouldn't we cut him some slack? Not if he is putting the issue in opposition to abortion.

I'm sure I will get called a "purist" for questioning the sincerity of David Brooks' intentions. But this isn't about getting a perfect progressive score or passing some litmus test. He has a documented history of fraud and trying to guilt liberals. Concern trolling is the bulk of what he does. Last March, I wrote a blog post arguing that concern trolling is the essence of centrism. Brooks personifies this, so extra skepticism is warranted. Considering trustworthiness is just prudent and past habits are relevant to such assessments. Glenn Beck releasing his listeners to vote for Hillary Clinton has more credibility by comparison because at least Beck doesn't have a history of trying to convince liberals that he is actually sympathetic.

As for racial justice, well, David Brooks concedes that racism is bad; but What about the constables? How do they feel when the public erupts over police brutality, "officer involved shootings," suspicious deaths in custody, and the predictable acquittals that occur with infuriating frequency? On Freddie Gray's death in custody, Brooks wrote, "He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility." It's the genteel version of “He was no angel.” And do you want to know what the kicker is? The column was actually about "The Nature of Poverty" rather than police brutality. The whole column was a pompous shit-show of scolding. So yeah, fuck David Brooks.

And one last point: “thwarted and defeated” are pretty much the same thing and thus redundant. It is yet another example that Brooks’ editor is asleep at the switch. Seriously, does anyone look at any New York Times opinion piece before it sees print?(4)

You may say there’s no betrayal because David Brooks is not really one of us. I heartily agree on the later. The first sentence in the Wikipedia article on him says he is a conservative. Under the subheading "politics” it says "Ideologically, Brooks has been described as a moderate, a centrist, a conservative, and a moderate conservative." But establishment Democrats have adopted him with a passion. He is widely called "the liberals' favorite conservative" - and not in some "Even Reagan/Bush/whoever wasn't that bad" sort of fashion. For centrists, the enthusiasm is genuine and comes with scant, pro forma qualifications. 

To centrists, every liberal position is a liability to be jettisoned the instant it gets any negative attention no matter how overtly orchestrated or absurd the accusations are. Remember, the central centrist conceit is that this is a conservative country and we must cool our jets accordingly. That means everything is expendable. Everything is on the chopping block. If it can be called “liberal” it is a target for deletion and centrist concern trolls will pounce – just as David Brooks has done on the issue of abortion.

What would some future Martin Niemöller say about neoliberalism? "When they eliminated food stamps, I didn't say anything because I wasn't poor. When they busted unions, I didn't say anything because I wasn't union. When they restricted abortion, I didn't say anything because I wasn't a woman. When they de-funded public schools, I didn't say anything because I didn't have kids. When they eventually struck their long sought 'Grand Bargain' on Social Security, I didn't say anything because I was not yet elderly." Divide and conquer is is the inevitable effect of the centrist enterprise. It's high time we recognized it.

That centrists who admire the likes of David Brooks want to lead "The Resistance” is ridiculous considering they rolled over and played dead the last time a Republican candidate lost the electoral vote but became president anyway. Remember George W. Bush’s two illegal wars and who voted to approve them? Progressives protested while centrists acquiesced - and tisk-tisked progressive protesters, of course. Bush once boasted, "I'm a uniter not a divider." No, he was not. Not unless you consider his coercive "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" rhetoric unifying. 

I'm all for party unity, but we should rally around ideals more than candidates - the standard rather than the standard bearer. And those who have pulled at our banner's threads for decades should not have that job. Calling out dividers is not divisive - it's defending unity against conservative saboteurs.

Let's stop uniting around dividers. Because it's pretty shitty for the party's structural integrity.


EDIT 02/11/18: Shit and grits! THIS is BRILLIANT!

SECOND EDIT 02/15/18: It seems others share my suspicion about the Times' poor editorial oversight.

____________

1) Clinton apologists will point out that Bill Clinton vetoed the first two bills Newt Gingrich’s congress sent him. But in her memoir, Hillary Clinton bragged about talking Bill into signing the third version. It seems like an odd thing to brag about. Indeed, as recently as the 2012 Democratic convention, Bill touted it while waxing nostalgic about bipartisan cooperation with Ronald Reagan! "[A]s governor, I worked with President Reagan on welfare reform." (transcript) As I keep saying, Slick Willie finished the Gipper's to-do list. Slick Willie has a habit of boasting about things he was supposedly forced to do. Witness his 1996 radio spots boasting that he had stopped gay marriage. 

If the Clintons feel any genuine contrition, they should admit that they helped push the issue of Welfare Reform. They legitimized a conservative issue by campaigning on it. Maybe they shouldn’t have done that.

Oh the poor Clintons! They painted themselves into a corner by making unconscionable campaign promises. They played with fire and others got burned. But my sympathies lay with those who suffered the material effects. Let me be clear: I do not like the Clintons, but this is not about personal animus. My target is the type of thinking that typically gets such results and David Brooks’ column shows that such thinking persists in centrist circles. It defines centrism.

2) The magazine Mother Jones was named after a radical labor agitator. Listen to this track by Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco if you don’t know who Mother Jones was. Alas, Mother Jones writer David Corn doesn’t seem particularly jazzed about his magazine’s namesake. He made this clear by tweeting, "I guess it seemed like a good idea in 1970. Or something." Talk about eroded moral credibility as reformers!

3) I am reminded of when Hillary Clinton infamously declared, "We have to send a clear message, just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.” It all sounds so resolute and reasonable, doesn’t it? I should be chastised for my dearth of faith.

4) 
I caught a huge goof in my last post. Alas, it was after-the-fact so I had to add an erratum. Also, all this time, I have been typing “errata” instead of “erratum” which is also very embarrassing. That happened in part because I don’t have an editor or intern to save me from myself. It’s just me working here. The Gray Lady and I both need to hire some people. The difference is they can easily afford it. Just fire some unconscionable columnists. You have a vast surplus of them.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Considering Reticence

"Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of 
dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am 
contradicted."  Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Clinton cultist: [blocks Emerson]


I’m toying with a self-imposed moratorium on mentioning the 
Clintons anymore. Toying.

The reasons are multi-fold, but a big one is I am sick of thinking about them. The topic has also hijacked my blog for too long and postponed completing my second book.

Moreover, polls suggest the Clintonista population is dwindling outside of centrist think tanks. That or they never were a significant voice in the electorate to begin with: Maybe they just had an expensive megaphone. Despite a never-ending slander campaign against Bernie Sanders, he is even more popular than ever, while Hillary Clinton’s numbers have conversely never been lower. Stunningly, her poll numbers are now even worse than Donald Trump’s.(1) This is rapidly aging information, but it still staggers the imagination. That Sanders would have beaten Trump is obvious to every sane observer. Doubting it is like climate change denial. It’s the dishonest agnosticism of the Tobacco Institute’s old bogus claim that nobody really knows if smoking causes lung cancer. The data is in: We know.(2)

To clarify, when I say Clintonistas, I don't mean most supporters. I mean the vicious cultists. Not my friends who said "Yeah, Hillary Clinton's hawkishness bothers me too, but I worry about the Supreme Court" but those who bashed Bernie Sanders and insisted Hillary Clinton was a perfect candidate. I voted for her in the general and still retain those friends. We agree to disagree here, as reasonable people can. Alas, that does not apply to the loonies who call all Clinton critics Putin's stooges. 

There are roughly two kinds of hardcore Clintonistas left: fans and shills. The former’s loyalty is entirely personal - they are emotionally invested in the Clinton family and cannot countenance any criticism of them. No evidence will convince them the Clintons had ever done any wrong or that Sanders did anything right. Just posting a poll can get you blocked.(3) Then there are the shills who want to secure more corporate tax breaks, deregulation, and privatization. They promote the Clintons to foster a favorable business climate for themselves.

Both kinds will always exist to some extent. Like those who still defensively insist the Civil War was fought over "states rights" instead slavery, obnoxious Clinton fandom will persist despite the all evidence against their cherished narrative. As for the shills, they will always exist for the same reasons all lobbyists do - and they are therefore the most dangerous. The difference between centrists and progressives parallels the difference between Republicans and Democrats: They have the money, but we have the numbers. This parallel shouldn’t surprise. It’s actually the exact same struggle.

With these facts before me, the arguments for and against mentioning the Clintons are these:

On the one hand, most Clinton fans are not policy wonks, so they will ignore serious discussions about it. Analysis showed that Hillary Clinton’s TV ads were even less policy-driven than Donald Trump’s - indeed less that any in the last four presidential elections. Hillary may be studious, but apparently her fans are not. They are also proudly “post-ideological” so they will pass on that topic too. They only care if people are being mean to their sacred cows - the Clintons.(4) Leave the Clintons alone and most will probably tune out. And maybe the Clintons will go away if we stop talking about them. Maybe we can mummify this dynasty by keeping mum. Call it a boycott. I doubt it will work, but worth a shot.

On the other hand, it is difficult to discuss the venality of centrism without mentioning the Clintons. After all, centrist Democrats are also called “Clinton Democrats,” so the association is set in stone. And if we want to see what centrism applied looks like, the Clinton years epitomize it for both critics and celebrantsMoreover, centrists are incentivized to mention the Clintons because the family’s fading nostalgic luster is the only thing that can jazz-up their otherwise unattractive schemes. As I wrote twice before, Ronald Reagan’s geniality and charisma helped sell his heartless policies. In that regard, Slick Willie reprised the Gipper. Both exploited voters’ cognitive disconnect between an amicable president and his callous acts. And fans get very defensive of them when you mention unflattering facts.

Indeed, centrist Democrats are still talking about how we can learn to win elections from Bill Clinton. Take this imbecilic tidbit in the Washington Post with the headline "What Democrats can learn from the centrists who got Bill Clinton to the White House."(5) It’s imbecilic for two reasons: First, that conceit once again ignores the fact that Barack Obama twice won the presidency decisively. Have they forgotten him already? And second, I think Hillary Clinton already knows these folks and their terrible advice. (The discussion panel in the piece seems to have forgotten that she exists as well.) And what do these geniuses think voters want in a candidate? Someone who opposes “big government,” of course.
Centrists may eventually cash-in on Obama nostalgia in earnest, but for now they are largely still milking Clintonista resentment. But the future transition might prove a bit bumpy - not because Obama is a secret socialist as conservatives claim, but because he has decent political instincts and can see the writing on the wall. Bill Clinton was president when centrism was shiny, new, and poorly understood by most voters so he overtly embraced it. Obama may or may not be a centrist at heart, but he knows the brand is now tarnished and intelligent self-interest suggests holding it at arm’s length. While he was still president, Obama defended the populist label which centrists try to turn into an epithet. (Most of the false equivalencies drawn between Sanders and Trump hinged on distorting the word.) Was Obama expressing a genuine sentiment or practicing political opportunism? It doesn’t matter. What matters is what that says about the American electorate.

Being called a socialist didn’t slow Obama - nor did it slow Sanders for that matter. The only difference is Sanders proudly called himself one. Throughout the primary, centrist insisted Sanders' numbers would tank once voters discovered this. Never mind it’s the first thing people learn about him and his popularly only soared as more got to know him. Socialism was not Sander’s impediment - early lack of news coverage was. He was initially unknown and the media worked long and hard to keep him so.

Hillary Clinton is justly associated with her husband’s litany of policy betrayals because she had claimed co-credit for them. So it was absurd to claim she was a “progressive who likes to get things done” when the centrist mantra - i.e. the doctrine of "Clinton Democrats" - is that ambitious progressive policies are politically radioactive. It's tempting to conclude that Hillary Clinton was the victim of a shift in the national mood and that the Clinton name brand became a drag rather than an asset. But I don't really think that happened. Rather, I think it is now harder to tell the public what it wants - harder to keep people from realizing that other people want the exact same things.

For example, single payer healthcare has
consistently polled well for decades, ranging from fifty four to sixty six percent - but establishment pundits absurdly insist nobody wants it. Weird.

And as I noted above, Ronald Reagan was popular but his policies were not. When I illustrate this, I typically link to a 1986
newspaper article on the paradox. But I previously failed to emphasize two things: First, that the article specifically mentioned Republican discontent too. Second, that the paper was based in deep-red North Carolina so they weren't  quite "Left Coast" Schwarzenegger Republicans.

Back in 2006, the late, great Molly Ivins wrote a scathing anti-Clinton piece stressing that most Americans already strongly supported progressive causes. After ticking off a list of issues, she demanded, "That is the center, you fools. WHO ARE YOU AFRAID OF?" (Emphasis original)


A 2010 study found that 92% of Americans would prefer Sweden's level of wealth distribution and that party affiliation did not impact that preference one way or the other.

[EDIT: There is indeed a longstanding conservative critique of unregulated capitalism.]


Do y
ou know what also enjoys strong bipartisan support according to studies? Opposition to additional military interventionism. One survey discovered that 64.5% of Republicans and 68.8% of Independents shared this sentiment with 78% of Democrats and concluded that Hillary Clinton's hawkishness may have cost her the election. After all, it's a large part of why she lost the Democratic primary to Obama in 2008. Who knew life-and-death issues like war were still important to voters?

In short, the electorate is well to the left of where we are routinely told. I would SO much rather talk about that than the Clintons. But the predictable centrist response would be that taking progressive positions would alienate voters, so we should do what the brilliant Clintons did instead.

That's the problem with self-imposed moratoriums: Those to your right make them challenging to keep.


Errata/Update 01/17/18: 

As originally written, this blog post claimed that two thirds of Republicans liked Bernie Sanders. Of course, it was actually the reverse. Many websites incorrectly reported that the August Harvard-Harris poll showed Sanders' popularity had become bipartisan since their April poll and it had not. That combined with the fraction sticking in my head is my best guess explanation for Sunday's brain fart.

I discovered the goof when going to compare the Harvard-Harris polls with today's Quinnipiac poll. It roughly confirms the previous two polls - although it shows some slight slippage. However, it confirms that women and people of color like him better than white men. Minority support remains especially strong. As Corey Robin dryly quipped, "Either you have a very robust theory of false consciousness to explain this or maybe you should reconsider the idea that Bernie speaks only to and for white bros." I am waiting for centrists to suggest PoC are somehow more suggestible to Putin's propaganda apparatus.


________

1) But I suppose that is to be expected when guilt trips and fear are all you have to motivate voters. Many held their tongues before Election Day and their noses in the voting booth. For months, they were told to shut up and now they had no reason to remain silent. People resent being told to shut up - all the more so if it still gets them nothing. It’s a form of buyer’s remorse.

2) From early on, Sanders beat Trump in the overwhelming majority of match-up polls by comfortable margins - an average of +10.4 points. By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s chances were always dicey - so much so that her campaign bolstered Trump's bid for the GOP nomination because other Republicans were far more formidable. Marco Rubio would have beaten her. John Kasich consistently crushed her by +7.4 points. Who? I already forgot what he looks like. Exactly. Any candidate with double-digit net negative “strong favorability” rating is by definition a terrible candidate. That Trump then had even worse numbers than Clinton did does not make her a great candidate or seal the deal.

3) I have twice been de-friended on Facebook for posting these charts (from hereshowing that economic inequality continued to climb during the Clinton Administration. Who can look at this chart and still insist that wealth was distributed more equitably during Bill’s tenure? Well, I now know of two. Don’t they know that is in part why Robert Reich resigned as Clinton’s Secretary of Labor? Reich was pushing to address this issue while the rest of Clinton’s cabinet rolled their eyes. If the stock market was happy, then the economy must be. (And if you agree, they you must love Trump.) [EDIT 02/05/18: One year in, the market belatedly turned on Trump with the single biggest one day drop in history. Twitter has been brilliant. But the fact stands that the stock market is how conservatives measure the economy.] Reich felt like he was talking to a brick wall. (Inequality for All , 59:45.) 

Sharing such unattractive facts can get you blocked. Just imagine if I had mentioned when Bill Clinton was basically Pharmabro - or more accurately, the pharmaceutical industry's callous enforcer. I'm sorry, but if you hate Martin Shkreli you have to hate Bill Clinton too. At least a little.

4) Their sole policy yardstick is “Are you for or against the Clintons?” Hence they make reflexive false equivalencies between critiques from the left and ones from the right – even though they are mutually exclusive. The right thinks the Clintons are too liberal while the left thinks they are too conservative. These are the opposite arguments. Moreover, the right’s strange take is rife with bizarre conspiracy theories like Benghazi or the stupid lunacy that Hillary ordered Vince Foster murdered and made to look like a suicide. By stark contrast, the left says she is a corporate Democrat and the epitome of establishment Washington - which she definitely is. She vacations annually with war criminal Henry Kissinger for fuck’s sake. And, yes, I once got blocked for just mentioning Henry Kissinger.

5) Of course, the corporate media's complicity cannot escape comment. Newsweek seems especially keen to slander Sanders. Last August, they ran a sleazy piece with the click-baity headline "BERNIE SANDERS VOTERS HELPED TRUMP WIN AND HERE'S PROOF." It breathlessly emphasized that ten percent of Sanders' primary supporters crossed the aisle and voted for Trump in the general election. But it turns out that percentage of defections is par for the course in presidential elections. And buried at the bottom of the article is a disclaimer that destroys the whole article:
While much was made of the so-called Bernie-or-bust phenomenon, the number of Sanders supporters who crossed party lines to vote for Trump in 2016 may not be that unusual. A 2010 study in Public Opinion Quarterly found that in the 2008 election 25 percent of those who voted for Clinton in the Democratic primary ended up voting for Republican John McCain, rather than Barack Obama, in the general election.
In other words, Democratic defections were two and a half times greater in 2008 than 2016. Sanders primary voters supported Clinton more loyally in the general than Clinton primary voters supported Obama eight years before. That little fact should stop centrist stone throwing, but the article was written to encourage it. The NPR article's language was slightly better and WaPo's slightly better still. All three articles acknowledged the study, so all three should have concluded there was no relative effect. Baseline normal conditions should not cause catastrophic failure. That's like saying the ship sank because "a wave hit it." If that's what happened, it's a shitty ship and the wave is not at fault.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Omitting Obama

Most Clintonistas argue like Barack Obama never existed, let alone became president.

That’s because centrists' assumptions cemented in the late 80s and early 90s, so subsequent events have had no impact on their perceptions. According to their worldview, any Democrat who looks dovish is automatically George McGovern and any Democrat who is not tough on crime is Michael Dukakis.

Similar cynicism shaped their estimation of a black man whose middle name is Hussein becoming president in the wake of the War on Terror. To centrists, Barack Obama was McGovern and Dukakis rolled into one. His winning by landslides twice in 2008 and 2012 did not inspire them to revise their worldview. To them, it is still 1994. To them, it is always 1994.

In 2008, Clintonistas hypocritically mocked Obama's theme of hope as naïve - forgetting that it was Bill Clinton's shtick in 1992. In a TV spot entitled "Hope," William Jefferson Clinton touted his boyhood meeting John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Did Hillary Clinton’s team learn from this 2008 mistake and strike a more optimistic and ambitious tone in 2016? Not for the most part.

Yes, they avoided directly attacking her likeable opponent this time around. They at least understood that strategy had spectacularly backfired last time when they went negative against Obama. So instead, they largely farmed-out their expressions of patronizing contempt to their surrogates.(1)

Centrist pessimism is dispiriting as well as alienating. Clintonistas followed Obama’s Audacity of Hope with their significantly less inspiring resignation to low expectations. Saying that single payer will "never, ever come to pass" was a pretty shitty pep talk for Hillary Clinton to give. That's not how you energize the party's base. And, as I wrote before, “never” is not gradualism – it’s defeatism.

I have called centrists “centrist quislings,” “covert conservatives,” and “closeted conservatives” on many occasions, but I have not explained the dynamic which makes them so. I think there may be an attitudinal continuum from centrism to libertarianism to conservatism - and pessimism may be the engine that pushes things ever rightward. In my last post, I pointed out centrists’ libertarian tendencies. In my book, I wrote a lot about libertarianism’s “built-in authoritarian drift.” The political philosophy is not really supposed to cohere. Indeed, it is built with planned obsolescence. It’s a rickety bridge to conservatism that is supposed to collapse once you reach the other side. Conservative commentator Matt Lewis talks of the libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline, although he do not fully acknowledge conservatism’s particular pipe segment in it. In my book, I posit pessimism is what pumps the flow ever rightward:
[T]his atmosphere of fear breeds an anti-libertarian attitude – even among libertarians themselves. Why? Because the basis of libertarian thought is the Enlightenment belief that people are basically rational and good and therefore require very little government to peaceably get along. But, if you think most people are ignorant or predatory, your attitude becomes authoritarian. Conservative founder John Jay wrote, “The mass of men are neither wise nor good, and virtue, like the other resources of the country, can only be drawn to a point and exerted by strong circumstances ably managed, or a strong government ably administered.”(2) As George Orwell observed, “The mental connection between pessimism and a reactionary outlook is no doubt obvious enough.”(3) Humorist Andy Rooney once ironically observed that liberals think people are basically good but need some help from their government while conservatives think people are basically bad but will be okay if they are left alone.(4) Of course, that does not stop conservatives from trying to legislate morality.
This explains why Glenn Beck’s “libertarian” rhetoric turns authoritarian so quickly. It’s largely in part because his vision is so dark. With this dynamic in mind, the fact that Hillary Clinton has long belonged to creepy right-wing prayer group should be less surprising. In 1993, she declared that single payer was inevitable: By 2016, she declared it the opposite of inevitable. Even if we accept the charitable interpretation that her idealism was sapped out of her by difficult experience, a presidential candidate without ideals is hardly, well, ideal. Trauma is not always maturity. But trauma or no, she has a very well-feathered nest. When you can spend $3 million on your daughter’s wedding, your credible complaints are few. Such feather-bed pessimists tend toward conservatism sooner or later.

And this pessimism isn’t just about accepting conservative domination of the political process as a law of nature or an American peculiarity. Centrists share conservatives “skepticism” of government. That’s why they did not feel betrayed when Bill Clinton proclaimed “The era of big government is over” in his 1996 State of the Union Address - to enthusiastic applause from a Republican Congress.

This also explains why Bernie Sanders’ supporters favor feminist legislation more strongly that Hillary Clinton’s: It’s because child care, paid family leave, and other proposals that would materially benefit women would also inconvenience corporations - and centrists certainly can’t have that! Centrists are feminists as long as it does not cost their donors anything. 

Pro-woman programs that are taken for granted in other western democracies are taken off the table as nonstarters here. Centrists are dismissive of any ambitious government effort to make lives easier. As Hillary Clinton said in the first primary debate with Bernie Sanders, “We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.” What she is basically saying is: “We can’t have nice things because this is America.” That starkly contrasted with her empty message that “America is already great.” Well, by this metric, we are not as great as most Scandinavian nations - which incidentally have greater gender parity in their governments. Look at Sweden. Look at Iceland. They elected their first woman presidents and prime ministers long ago and their healthcare covers everyone.

The Onion recently ran a piece in which puzzled historians wonder how Americans possibly could have built Hoover Dam the same way people used to wonder how the Egyptians built the pyramids or the Celts built Stonehenge. Whether intended or not, it was a brilliant critique of centrist pessimism and skepticism of government. Sometimes I wonder if centrists think the moon landings were faked. After all, it would be the logical end product of their defeatist world view.

As I keep saying, Obama's election should have dispelled such pessimism. Let me repeat: We elected a black man president twice by comfortable margins and his middle name is Hussein. And, oh yes, conservatives constantly called him a socialist. What else do I need to tell you? 

I am not arguing that Obama was not a centrist. But he at least had the good sense to encourage rather than discourage the progressive base. The fact the he - like Bill Clinton - campaigned to the left of where he later governed is enormously disappointing, but it also shows that is where the votes are. And that torpedoes and sinks a central centrist conceit about the American electorate. Centrists love to argue that America is a conservative country. This pessimistic assessment excuses their every policy betrayal and dog whistle triangulation. And BONUS: their conservative cocktail party friends love to hear it.(5)

I’ve always said that pessimism is as intellectually lazy as optimism. Both attitudes assume human nature has an inherent unitary trajectory - and attitudes are poor substitutes for specific instance analysis. The “realism” and “pragmatism” centrists boast is simply blind, unthinking pessimism. It’s the superficial wisdom if imbeciles stuck in 1994 who do not read past the headlines, so they never notice when someone has buried the lede - which is often where the greatest harbinger of change is found. 

Optimism may be just as lazy as pessimism, but it is rarely as reactionary. And, unlike pessimism, optimism gets out the vote. The mass appeal of big ideas over modest tweaks is something that Hillary Clinton herself belatedly admitted in a passage in her book, What Happened:
Democrats should reevaluate a lot of our assumptions about which policies are politically viable. These trends make universal programs even more appealing than we previously thought. I mean programs like Social Security and Medicare, which benefit every American, as opposed to Medicaid, food stamps, and other initiatives targeted to the poor. Targeted programs may be more efficient and progressive, and that’s why during the primaries I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued. ... Democrats should redouble our efforts to develop bold, creative ideas that offer broad-based benefits for the whole country.
Of course, anyone familiar with conservative strategy should already know this. It is a truism that "Social Security is the third rail in American politics" while welfare was a soft target. Also, comparative political science is a thing: Universal programs are the norm in western Europe, as anyone who says "I love Denmark" should know. That's why they have better resisted neoliberal attempts to repeal or defund them. And it cannot escape comment that Hillary Clinton mentions her own demagoguery here, oddly calling targeted programs "more efficient and progressive" when they chronically miss their targets because millions who desperately need them are not considered poor enough to qualify. 

But more important here is the fact that Clinton's passage dramatically clashes with bedrock centrist attitudes. As Doug Henwood wrote in his review, it rejects "a generation of neoliberal orthodoxy." 

Hopefully, her die hard supporters will follow her lead and reject it as well.

____________

1) In turn, they basically slandered Sanders the same way they had Obama. Both were portrayed as Messiahs to myopic misogynists and simpletons who did not understand politics. The old script only needed some slight revisions like name changes, so "Obama Boys" became "Bernie Bros." The inconvenient fact that younger women preferred Hillary's opponent in both primaries was studiously ignored when not patronizingly dismissed. Age, not sex, was the party’s primary dividing line each time.

2) Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 261.

3) George Orwell, A Collection of Essays (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1948), 230. Interestingly, Orwell thought prosperity and despair have a counter-intuitive relationship. Here is more of that quote:  
The mental connection between pessimism and a reactionary outlook is no doubt obvious enough. What is perhaps less obvious is just why the leading writers of the ’twenties were predominantly pessimistic. Why always the sense of decadence, the skulls and cactuses, the yearning after lost faith and impossible civilizations? Was it not, after all, because these people were writing in an exceptionally comfortable epoch?
4) Andrew Rooney, And More by Andy Rooney (New York: Atheneum, 1982), 119.

5) They also love to hear centrists parrot their talking point that America turned away from “big government” in the 1980s. That is their explanation as to how Ronald Reagan got elected. Funny, you would think that Jimmy Carter’s Iranian Hostage Crisis might have figured into their analysis. In reality, Reagan benefited from his charisma and the economy. As I wrote before, he was personally popular, but his policies were not. His genial demeanor created a cognitive disconnect in voters’ minds: They could not associate pompadour grandpa with his heartless policies. It similarly insulated him from his administration’s constant scandals – hence the talk of his “Teflon” coating.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Fellow Travelers

Just like covert fascists prefer to refer to themselves as the "alt-right,” clandestine libertarians identify themselves “centrists.” This is because they are very well aware that libertarians are seen as callous assholes and annoying Ayn Randroids,(1) so obviously they do not want to claim or carry that unattractive baggage.  Alas, the luggage tags have their names clearly marked.

There’s really no denying it. When they say "I’m a fiscal conservative, but a social liberal,” they are basically admitting they are libertarians, because that shorthand is their shared notion of sensible, superior thinking. Thus, these self-anointed "grown ups” are often adherents of the most painfully adolescent economic philosophy ever conceived.

Both libertarians and centrists are toxic byproducts of the 1990s. Yes, they existed before then, but the 90s was when they really arrived. That’s when these fringe philosophies infected the zeitgeist in earnest and dominated political thought. My point is that such dumb, utterly debunked conventional wisdom is conspicuously 1990s. And it not just dated: It was never a good look to begin with.

Remember the 1990s? Few centrists do. Certainly Clintonistas are too beclouded by nostalgia to acknowledge that the Clintons had enthusiastically joined Newt Gingrich in dismantling the achievements the New Deal and the Great Society. They ignore or rationalize Bill Clinton’s record just as they do his sexual assaults. (Remember when we called them peccadilloes?) They spin a litany of his travesties: The racist dog whistles, Welfare Reform, DOMA, DADT, NAFTA, the Crime Bill, you name it. In every instance, they insist Clinton’s hand was forced to by Gingrich or "the times.” But how can you possibly be nostalgic about those times if they forced such a good man do so many terrible things? JFK’s Camelot was never so compromised.

Never mind Bill’s record as Governor of Arkansas where he coddled corporations and attacked teachers unions. Never mind he ran for president as a "New Democrat” and what that meant – an explicit repudiation of the party’s legacy. A 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign spot opened by crowing, "There's a new generation of Democrats - Bill Clinton and Al Gore. And they don't think the way the old Democratic Party did." (In other words, like liberals.) The ad next gave a list of of conservative positions they endorsed from welfare reform to the death penalty to slashing the budget. Washington did not break Bill Clinton: He went to Washington promising to do these things. What followed was a bipartisan orgy of privatization with Bill and Newt trying to outdo one other. In politics, it's called stealing your opponent's thunder.

Not how you recall it? Well, consider this tidbit in the centrist Washington Monthly back in 1995: "I've never seen anything like this," marvel[ed] Bob Poole, chairman of the libertarian Reason Foundation. "It's a contest to see who can privatize better and faster."(2) That was not a leftist criticizing Bill Clinton, but a prominent libertarian celebrating the situation.

That was the Nineties in a nutshell: That was centrist consensus. Apologists call it "the times,” as if it were just something in the water. But it was a well-financed ideology pushed by the worst people inside the Democratic Party since the 1970s. Some well-intentioned centrists may have absorbed this pro-corporate libertarianism by osmosis, but it is in their bloodstream now. Everyone mocking Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals as "ponies” has drunk the Kool Aid one way or another because such "ponies" were mainstream Democratic polices in the 1960s.

Sure, libertarians and centrists mock each another, but this is little more than petty sibling rivalry. It’s superficial rather than substantive. It has the taint of people who instantly dislike one another because they are too much alike and loathe to admit it. To each, the other is an unflattering photograph. The passport photos of these fellow travelers are strikingly similar.

Their charade is similar to the Conservative Citizens Council’s. The CCC is the genteel KKK. They are often called the “uptown Klan” who “wear suits instead of sheets.” But, in this instance, centrists are genteel libertarians trying to skirt the stigma: They are anti-government without the vulgar trappings and excesses of survivalist gun culture. Many of them may be pro-gun control, but their unthinking lust to slash taxes and privatize every government function knows no bounds. On the goal of “devolving” federal power to the states, they are of one mind. Hence, Welfare Reform which turned food stamps into block grants to the states to dispense as miserly as they liked.

See also the corporate press’ longstanding fawning over Ayn Rand fan Paul Ryan. They have repeatedly painted him as a serious, courageous expert on the budget. This portrayal was routine in allegedly liberal newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. That example encapsulates the establishment quite nicely. It’s a water sample of our polluted political river systems. And, like fish, we can’t seem to see what we are swimming in.

Today, most Democrats see Paul Ryan for the Scrooge that he is; but that’s no thanks to “serious” establishment opinion. Progressives had his number from the start. It’s one of many things we were ahead of the curve on. The War on Terror was another. Perhaps we should stop listening to the Very Serious People who are always wrong. But I digress. My point here is the centrist establishment shamelessly promoted a transparently callous libertarian fuckwit.

Centrists may see themselves as compassionate “bleeding heart liberals,” but their hearts bleed like stones if any social problem costs money to fix or any social program inconveniences business interests in any way. To them, raising taxes is always the greatest evil. But talk is cheap, so giving lectures always appeals to their penny wise but pound foolish sense of fiscal responsibility.

When centrists say we can’t have nice things because of conservatives, they are actually blaming conservatives for their reluctance to fight conservatives. They are basically saying, “We cannot fight our opponents because they will oppose us.” Of course, they oppose us even when we don’t fight them. Strange. It’s almost as if we run against each other in elections every few years. Who knew?

The upshot of this defeatist thinking is obvious. Progressive programs are dismissed as non-starters and manifest reactionary scams like privatization and charter schools are accepted as inevitable – if not hailed as exciting and innovative.

Other obscene upshots are also predictable. Since centrists are enthusiastic about lecturing others but reluctant to fight or even contradict conservatives; their joining conservatives in scolding the poor about personal responsibility should come as no surprise. As I mentioned before, Nicolas Kristof loves to do that. And the Clintons rolled out Welfare Reform with lots of tough love rhetoric.

Another thing I mentioned before was my suspicion that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to compassion as well as competence: The least kind and caring people tend to think they are the most kind and caring – hence obvious oxymorons like “compassionate conservative” that get bandied about by those who feel they have already done plenty.(3) By contrast, those who actually do the most often feel like slackers and are tortured by the thought that they could do more. Therefore, the former feel complacency and the later feel inadequacy. Could this smug, callous self-delusion also apply to conservative-coddling centrists? The answer may shock you.

When push comes to shove, there is not much daylight between the white suburban matron in the pants suit and the white suburban spoiled boy in the twilby. Both are sheltered and too easily seduced by the word “entrepreneur.” Both have turned the work ethic into a work fetish – or at least weaponized it for rhetorical purposes against the working class who know far more about hard work.

The pants suit and twilby inhabitants may mock each another with regularity but they both enjoy hippie-punching and they reliably rally under their shared monarchist-white banner emblazoned with the motto “ME & MINE!” in gilded stitches.

They are the best of frenemies.
  

_______________
           
1) The term “Randroids” has been shamelessly stolen from Robert Anton Wilson’s Natural Law: Or Don’t Put a Rubber on Your Willie (Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics Unlimited, 1987), 56.

2) I should point out that the Washington Monthly is pretty decent for a centrist publication. As I wrote before, they supported single payer back in the 1990s, so I give them props for that. 

But the privatization article I linked to was not anti-privatization per se. It simply was pointing out the risks. Likewise, during the same period, the Washington Monthly had a cover story called "Downsizing: Is it Aimed at the Right Targets? The Promise and Peril of the Hottest Trend in American Business and Government." The cover showed a man with a big archery target on his chest. The thrust of such articles is not to decry these practices as callous or immoral but to say that there is a smart way and a dumb way to execute them.

3) I devoted a whole chapter of my book, 
Conservatism is Un-American & Other Self-Evident Truths, to the argument that compassion is essentially patriotism and vital to healthy civic activity. In that chapter, “Liberty, Equality, and Empathy,” I kept returning to Arthur C. Brooks’ outrageously dishonest book, Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, which uses doctored data to argue that conservatives are more charitable than liberals.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Ineffective Interference

Let's alienate almost everybody on both sides of the Democratic Party divide.

So, this interesting meme reappeared on my radar and got me thinking. Tangents ensued, as they usually do. And after mulling over the past three years' electoral shenanigans, i
t occurred to me that the Russian government’s interference with the general election is a lot like the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) interference with the party's primary. In both cases, evidence of outside intrigue had mounted from possible to probable to proven. But in both cases, I also question these efforts’ effectiveness. It’s highly unlikely they swung the results in either the primaries or the general election. Other factors probably had more impact.


Yet, at the same time, such interference should be prosecuted lest it set a bad precedent. The incompetent burglar you find tangled in your garden hose below your kitchen window should still get arrested even though the other burglar got away with your stuff. Both should be arrested.

The Cliff Notes version is this:

While the DNC definitely had its thumb on the scale for Clinton, I think the corporate media's ignoring Sanders for the first half of the primary was far more decisive. Sanders' biggest problem was exposure and the only thing the DNC could do about that was limit the number of debates.

And while the Russians definitely spread disinformation, their influence was likely slight in comparison with Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, etc. Fake News is nothing new, and exaggerating the impact of Russian and other foreign trolls diminishes the impact of American trolls, not to mention that you can find more English-fluent shit-heads in Virginia than in Macedonia.

We have serious systemic
 problems in this country - especially in the media. We must face them.

So, that's the short version. The detailed, linked, and footnoted one follows under the cut.



Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Forever Forgiving Villains

Happy Halloween! 

George W. Bush's political rehabilitation is already in full swing, but I think it's a bit premature. I mean, shit and grits! You are not even waiting until he is dead. That's when we traditionally forgive turds.

Sure, Trump is terrible. I agree and understand that you are upset. But let's have some perspective here. Trump hasn't racked up W.'s body count just yet. Although, according to the corporate press, ordering air strikes are what make such obvious buffoons "presidential."

Seriously, even Trump has benefited from this jingoistic media tradition when he bombed Syria. The most macho adolescent power fantasy associated with the office of the presidency confers instant gravitas and maturity in pundit opinion.  You can be the most tantrum-y geriatric baby-man and the press will present the decision as a coming-of-age story of how you grew into the role to truly become president. The exact same thing happened with George W. Bush, remember? Have you already forgotten?

This centrist revisionism prizes bipartisanship over human lives. It's a prefect storm of treacle, desperation, and gnat-like attentions spans. Despite their fetish for pragmatism, centrists decide things emotionally with no eye on the horizon or concept of consequences, whether logical or ethical.(1)

Recently, "Dubyuh" - or as Molly Ivins often called him "Shrub" - delivered an obviously ghost-written speech and somehow managed not to garble it. Since it was filled with indirect, subtle criticisms of Trump, hosannas for Shrub's humanity and wisdom echoed across the commentariat. WaPo provided a largely laudatory and uncritical(2) annotated transcript of his speech - which was helpful to anyone who has woken from a coma recently. Still, I appreciate the transcript itself since it is infinitely heckle-worthy:

"Yet for years, challenges have been gathering to the principles we hold dear."
Like not using torture? 

"[Y]et seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence."
"Heckuva job, Brownie!" 

"We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism"
That's what nationalism is, idiot. 

"Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone"
Did "Turd Blossom" write that line for you?(3)

"The Prague Charter, signed by champions of liberty ..."
HE'S CITING HUMAN RIGHTS DOCS NOW, Y'ALL! 

I am certainly not the first to express outrage. And others have done a far better job than I ever could. Corey Robin predicted we would reach this point with Trump and recently claimed we already have

Corey Robin is correct in saying that tomorrow's Trump will become today's Bush. Tom Tomorrow has acknowledged this possibility as well. This is not denying things are getting worse but the total opposite. The point is they are getting worse precisely because our rose-colored nostalgia normalizes past monsters, giving future monsters more latitude, culturally as well as legally. Think how Obama's failure to prosecute Bush's torturers strengthens Trump's hand today.

This mercurial and unprincipled conservative-coddling has got to stop. Yes, we live in tumultuous times where previous certainties are routinely shattered. But this predilection is not a reflection of the times but of a longstanding centrist tradition(4) if not moronic motor memory.

Remember how quickly James Comney flipped from villain to hero by defying Donald Trump? Here's how Harvey Weinsten rehabilitates his image: 1) Become a Republican politician or pundit (perhaps like former Clinton pollster Dick Morris), 2) Thumb your nose at Trump on the way out the door, and 3) Bathe in instant forgiveness from the centrist chattering class.

Why not? It worked for everyone from Megyn Kelly to Jeff Flake. 

I can understand the premise of rewarding rare good behavior to reform an ogre, but this reflexive sympathy is hardly strategy. After all, the beneficiaries are either retiring or already-retired. From a cost-benefit analysis, this does not seem especially fruitful. For one thing, there’s the laughable fantasy that these reactionaries are actually reflecting and defecting. They are not. For another, there is the doomed hope that if the figure’s conservative credentials are sterling, this will encourage other conservatives to follow suit. It won’t. Either they will disbelieve the event or shun the traitor for breaking rank.(5) And how courageous is it to blast Trump while retiring? Indeed, Jeff Flake's departure quite likely helps the GOP hold onto his Senate seat. What the hell are we celebrating?

In short, free forgiveness doesn't accomplish anything beyond feeling sanctimonious and magnanimous. It's just a feel-good ritual that re-advertises that we are saps.(6) 


Worse, it's a systemic sickness that normalizes monsters, corrupts our judgment, and further diminishes our already dismal international standing. And, if you think that’s hyperbole, remember this: Just last year, Hillary Clinton praised Henry Kissinger in the Democratic Party primary debates(!) Note that I italicized two surprises. If Josef Mengele were a registered Republican, centrists would find something nice to say about him. Kissinger is a war criminal who cannot travel abroad for fear of being extradited to stand trial. Of course, George W. Bush had to cancel a trip to Switzerland for similar concerns

What does this ingrained tendency tell the world about our moral authority? Nothing they don't already know. Nothing that praising George W. Bush recently has not reconfirmed once again.

Richard Nixon's blood-soaked Secretary of State should be shunned by both parties, not hailed as a respected exemplar of statecraft. Similarly, Shrub doesn't deserve all the hugs and petting he is getting.

It's something to contemplate on this next Day of the Dead.



______________ 

1) For example, they yearn to impeach Trump without considering the dangers of  a President Pence. That tantalizing prospect eclipses all other considerations. And how wise was it for Hillary Clinton to petulantly flip off progressives by picking Tim Kaine as VP? As I blogged at the time, not only would tapping Sanders or Warren have improved party unity and generated much needed enthusiasm, it would have been pretty decent impeachment insurance. Because you know that if the GOP held Congress, they would impeach Clinton on day one, with or without cause - UNLESS a genuine progressive was waiting in the wings.

2) They could not help making one superficial barb, but politely ignored more important points. It opened noting, "George W. Bush delivered an unexpected and rather eloquent speech." Yes, eloquence is indeed unexpected from the president who spoke of putting "food on your family."

3) This is, after all, a man who as Governor of Texas mocked a woman he was about to execute. But, you know, maybe he grew by becoming president. The presidency isn't therapy, people. If it is, it's the most expensive therapy in existence and we cannot afford it. But I love how bipartisanship-fetishists are oblivious to their own logic. If power mellows awful people, it doesn't matter who we elect because they will get help and grow in the role. In the words of Voltaire's Candide, "It's all for the best."

4) According to popular lore, Robert Frost once quipped, "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel." Of course, such people stopped calling themselves liberals around 1988 after Michael Dukakis was tarred as an "ACLU card-carrying liberal." (Forget Dukakis' manifestly centrist economics.) Frost's alleged caricature was of someone too neutral to defend himself, but the current incarnation is quite different. This political specimen is not neutral at all. He is quick to defend conservatives and is always hot to assault his own side - so much so that it is not unreasonable to ask what side he is really on. Indeed, his unreasoning zeal seems downright ... partisan. Either the type Frost once described has devolved or a crop of conservative doppelgangers have emerged to exploit this unique weakness. It’s probably a combination of both, but the upshot is the promotion and proliferation of the professional anti-liberal “liberal” who sabotages Democrats and dominates opinion pages today.


5) Why? Because “principled conservatives” are tiny minority. This is in part because the phrase is an oxymoron, but also because it is very generous to call tribal authoritarianism an ideology. It’s not. It’s just a crude animus. All the rank-and-file conservative wants is a pecking order and an enemy and they are happy. Trump gives them what they want without any boring, abstract egg-headed complexity. If forced to choose, they will assume the conservative ideologue is untrustworthy because any intellectuality is suspect, whether it's artificial or actual. William Kristol (a.k.a. "Dan Quayle's Brain") praising Sarah Palin only goes so far. In the end, "Never Trump" Republicans proved politically impotent.

6) Of course, this is childish nonsense to self-proclaimed "realists" who also insist campaign donations do not impact policy making and fret that saying any different is civically poisonous "cynicism." I may be biased, but I think those labels are mis-pinned on the opposite parties.