Monday, November 21, 2016

An Honest Postmortem

Can we be candid about the cadaver yet?

What happened last election day should be obvious to everyone. But, as Upton Sinclair noticed, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." So, of course, corporate pundits are in total damage control mode.

Their take on the election is either earnest blind denial or conscious obfuscation. Whether malevolent or incompetent, these are the same sweatshop apologists who helped sell us deregulation, privatization, and the Iraq invasion. And let's not sugarcoat this: They also sold us Donald Trump with two billion bucks in free publicity.(1) Yes, they said there was no way that Trump would prevail in the GOP primary. And then he did. They then said there was scant chance he could beat Clinton in the general election. And, of course, he did. These colossal fuck-ups are chronically wrong without ever facing any professional consequences and therefore they constantly fail-upwards. Ronald Reagan would envy their many layers of Teflon.

And so those who so spectacularly mis-predicted this election are now going to explain it to us. There will be the usual pro forma soul-searching, of course. They will admit "mistakes were made" in their signature passive voice that "officer involved" shootings have familiarized us with. But their remedies will be tweaks. Their fundamental assumptions will remain unshaken - and certainly not stirred. At the end of the day, they will be as arrogantly unrepentant as Wall Street was after the 2007 crash.(2) If Thomas Friedman still laments "irrational" hatred of investment bankers and Iraq war architects are still welcome anytime to opine away on Sunday morning talk shows, what suggests the press will be any stricter with itself?

To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it's good to be the Fourth Estate.

This election was obviously catastrophic for Democrats. The reason why is just as overt: The Rust Belt remembered whose spouse pushed NAFTA and the candidate in question did not do enough to jettison this obvious political albatross. LBJ lost the South for a just cause - the defense of African Americans' civil rights. By contrast, Bill Clinton lost the Rust Belt to court business interests. The compare and contrast writes itself: Losing the Sun Belt was righteous but losing the Rust Belt was unconscionable, and that demographic double-whammy ultimately proved to be doom at the polls. We cannot win without North or South: We need at least one of them because the coasts alone are not enough.

Both regional losses were gradual, taking time to reach full effect; but that’s what happened. Bill Clinton was the last Southern Democrat to inhabit the White House and that was a while ago. Before that, we had Jimmy Carter. But that will not ever happen again since Southern Democrats have now gone the way of the dodo. In the meantime, business-friendly centrist Democrats got busy losing a new region. They were like medieval physicians confidently bleeding a patient. And after they had neglected and disrespected labor for decades, the Republicans finally ran a candidate who spoke to working class pain - or at least pretended to. This was slow poison suicide, plain and simple. We should probably stop shopping at that apothecary.

This was, incidentally, by design. As Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) predicted earlier this year, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. But, again, this has been establishment Democratic strategy for decades. It has been handicapping us since the 1990s - and yet they keep bleeding the patient.

Who knew betraying your base was bad strategy? Michael Moore had predicted this, Nate Silver didn't. (For a longer analysis of what happened, see Thomas Frank’s last book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?) Incidentally, I also predicted this election would be difficult and rife with centrist self-sabotage. I'm not bragging: Everyone who actually cares about working people and/or the poor acknowledged the horrific possibility, even if they prayed they were wrong. Rust Belt Democrats pleaded with the Clinton campaign to take this threat seriously. The writing was on the wall. Even some of the culpable saw problems. Ironically, Bill Clinton repeatedly complained internally that Hillary's campaign was ignoring working class voters, but his criticisms were dismissed.

Comfortable pundits and click-bait site hacks alike are already making similarly flimsy arguments to minimize rising economic inequality and the collapsing middle class as factors in the election's horrific outcome. Seriously, only their urls separate them at this point.

I'm sorry, did I say minimize? I meant ignore entirely. Shoddy, sophomoric Nader analogies are already appearing in Time magazine and Paul Krugman’s tweets. And right now, the Internet is rife with either/or arguments implying that race and class are mutually-exclusive explanations. I'm in academia and we have been talking about the intersectionality of things like race, sex and class for decades now. So it is difficult not to think that the purveyors of these either/or arguments are playing dumb. But, hey, simplistic, binary conflict is more entertaining than complex multifaceted analysis. Actual accuracy doesn’t get clicks. Just cherry-pick the straw you think broke the camel's back and ignore the rest. Hell, ignore the anvils.

Of course, noting the importance of working votes invariably highlights the argument that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump. Sanders would not have lost the Rust Belt. I was not surprised to hear this on outlets like Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" But surprisingly, I have also heard this on establishment outlets as well. I was watching CNN on election night and the anchor mentioned that Sanders would have fared better. This assessment was also echoed in the Washington Post and in the British newspaper The Independent. Even establishment Democrat Harry Reid concedes the party needs "new thinking" and has endorsed Bernie Sander’s pick for the new head of the DNC.

This predictably triggers the tired claim that America would never elect a socialist. That argument hinges on the assumption that most people don't know that Bernie Sanders is self-identified democratic socialist - which is sort of absurd considering that is the first thing everyone learns about him. If you know his name, you know at least that. Sanders tells everyone who will listen. And if that is not enough, Anderson Cooper had repeatedly hammered this point home during the first Democratic debate. Indeed, it was mentioned ten times in nine debates. I think his secret is out. The claim that his socialism is a serious handicap might be valid if Sanders' popularity had dropped as more people got to know him, but it did the opposite and now he is the most popular politician in America - even more than Barack Obama. That does not sound like socialism is slowing Bernie Sanders down.(3)

Hearing this electoral skepticism coming from suposedly feminist Clinton supporters is odd because socialism and feminism are similar in many ways.

For openers, you can't really be one and not the other. As Thomas Frank wryly noted toward the end of Listen Liberal, Hillary Clinton's CEO-celebrating observances of International Women's Day pointedly ignore its socialist origins. Feminism and socialism are historically-linked, but the two -isms are logically linked too. Hillary Clinton's terrible feminism illustrates this: "Welfare Reform" disproportionately hurt women - especially women of color. Hillary Clinton lobbied for it and bragged about it long afterwards. Similarly, the Clinton Foundation promotes predatory micro-lending, touting it as a means to empower poor women in the Third World. It actually does the polar opposite, profiting banks in the process.

But more important here is that both socialism and feminism are things that most people actually want but they don't know it because their labels have been slandered to the point of radioactivity. (Or so some assume.) You may as well say that nobody self-identifying as a feminist could get elected because the exact same dynamic is in play. The attitude is basically cynicism towards every group's goals but your own's. As you can imagine, that sort of sabotages solidarity. But it dovetails neatly with "pragmatic" No-We-Can't defeatism where others' claims are concerned - an effort to show solidarity with the mythical middle.

Clintonista skepticism is as familiar as it is hypocritical. Recall their take on Barack Obama in 2008. They insisted that Obama could not possibly win because he did not appeal to the white working class!

Roll the irony of that assumption around in your head for a moment: Not only did Obama crush both his GOP opponents in 2008 and 2012, he carried many Rust Belt districts that Clinton had lost this year. Working folks felt that Obama understood their struggles. (Saving the auto industry when Mitt Romney said we should let it go bankrupt also helped.) But this year, things flipped. Clinton not only had the baggage of NAFTA but clutched it to herself in the first debate. She touted her husband's record and promised more of the same: "I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and how we can make it work again." Trump then spoke of the "devastation" it wrought across the Rust Belt. The states that Trump named-off all went to his column on election night.

"A black president?" Clinton campers laughed back in 2008. "Yeah, like that will happen."

EDIT - 12/14/16:

This Politico piece on how Clinton lost Michigan is absolutely astounding. The previous links on how her campaign arrogantly ignored repeated pleas from Rust Belt Dems were just the tip of the iceberg. They were pouring cold water on supporters. It was as if they were trying to widen the enthusiasm gap.


(1) So, I was in a local liquor store picking up beer for a chili cook-off I was going to and the TV was on. After a segment on the anti-Trump protests, the anchor sneered, "I wonder how many of them voted." Fuck you, coiffed talking head. As I said, the media gave Trump two billion in free publicity. (That's what happens when entertainment drives coverage. It’s a strong argument for requiring all news organizations to be non-profits.) The same study confirms that Clinton got over twice as much coverage as Sanders. Your industry's preferences forced this choice between two unpopular candidates. You helped suppress voter turnout. Your cynicism eclipses even the most jaded non-voter's, so you don't get to lecture anyone.

(2) Of course, why should they be repentant if they are never punished? Thomas Frank wrote some about this in Listen Liberal. Consider the case of Larry Summers, the enfant terrible Harvard economist whose deregulatory zeal helped set up the 2007 crash. Barack Obama appointed Summers to be Director of the National Economic Council shortly after winning the 2008 election. Apparently without irony, Henry Kissinger suggested that Larry Summers should "be given a White House post in which he was charged with shooting down or fixing bad ideas."

Summers had appeared on my radar earlier when, as World Bank head economist, he wrote an infamous memo suggesting that poor countries were under-polluted. He claimed it was actually written by an aide and meant sarcastically. (Checkout Michel Kinsley's reptilian defense of Summers. With liberals like these, who needs conservatives?) Then there was Summers' sexist suggestion that women’s simple brains could not handle complex mathematics - hence, he reasoned, their scarcity in these fields.

But these are all easily forgivable sins when you hold the right magic sheepskin. The quality of your ideas and the results you get are irrelevant. You are of the club. You might be an arrogant fuck up who illustrates the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but you are our arrogant fuck up.

Thomas Frank suggested this blind credentialism was something akin to the British aristocracy. It reminded me of reading about an interview that former spy turned novelist John le CarrĂ© did with Kim Philby’s Oxbridge-educated MI6 colleagues. Philby famously gave secrets to the Soviets for years making the spy agency a laughing stock. At one point, Philby fell under a cloud of suspicion and was sidelined to a less sensitive area. But then his old college chums lobbied to get him back in the game. Le CarrĂ© asked one aged agent why MI6 never tried to kill Philby. The unexpected question ruffled the interviewee:

“My dear chap,” he answered. “One of us.”

(3) You could, perhaps, argue that there are not yet enough Millennial voters to help a socialist candidate prevail. There are many people who can say “I like Bernie’s ideas too, but -” without it sounding like some “I’m not a racist, but -” bullshit. (See also Clinton's "I love Denmark" remark in the first Democratic debate.) However, those who wrote these ideas off as "not serious" or something that Milennials would eventually mature out of obviously do not qualify. After all, Sweden has not outgrown their system. And Canada has not rejected single payer anymore than the United Kingdom has abandoned actual socialized medicine. Moreover, voters' core economic assumptions are shaped by actual life circumstances. Do you really think things are going to get any better in the near future? If you think unregulated capitalism is going to pull us out of the hole it dug, you have abdicated any claim to call yourself any species of realist. You are just another dangerous cultist who fetishizes greed and chaos. Funny how the comfortable suburbs breeds so many. I suspect it is the result of their distance from the destruction.

1 comment:

  1. Clinton's version of feminism could be called Fallow Feminism.