Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Centrist Concern Trolls

Lately, I have noticed that many centrists are not only closer to conservatives ideologically, they are similar rhetorically. Arguing with some Democrats is like arguing with Republicans.

For example, in their efforts to conflate left and right, they endorse Horseshoe Theory,(1) which is akin to Glenn Beck’s ass-backwards Nazi analogies. Both confuse progressives with fascists. Centrists often unconsciously copy conservatives because similar thinking yields similar habits.

And then there are centrists' zero-sum games - except instead of pitting liberty against equality or the economy against the ecology as conservatives routinely do, they pit economic equality against all other forms of equality as if intersectionality is not a thing and minorities don’t mind being poor.

But one favorite conservative debate tactic sums up centrism perfectly: concern trolling.

Indeed, concern trolling is the essence of centrism because its aim is to move the listener to the right by raising the specter of alienating moderates and insisting this is an inherently conservative country(2) so all ambitious progressive proposals are nonstarters. They say, "Hey, I’m sympathetic and a potential ally. But I fear your radical stuff may drive away people like me.” Self-interested advice ensues. Effective methods are called ineffective. And anything the least bit disruptive or inconvenient is called counterproductive - even if it is nonviolent. Whether it is conscious or not, that is the inexorable rhetorical reflex.

It’s an old story. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham JailDr. Martin Luther King expressed his profound disappointment in white moderates who said "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action" and urged waiting for a "more convenient season," i.e. never. 

One recent article that exemplifies this is this piece in Vox by Zack Beauchamp. It argues that the economic populism of the left cannot possibly beat the racism on the right and that helping working people actually enables their racism. According to Beauchamp, achieving progressive goals backfire. Indeed, he argues that even proposing them does. Beauchamp is either adorably misinformed or concern trolling because his article is populated with obvious problems.

First and foremost, Trump voters are not monolithic; but Beauchamp writes like they are. 

Many voted out of economic desperation, which centrists tenaciously refuse to accept exists. Economic inequality has been metastasizing for decades. But centrists insist nobody really cares about any of that stuff: Nobody votes their pocketbook or worries that we are hemorrhaging jobs. The centrist narrative says bigotry was the only factor in Donald Trump’s election. 

Yes, other Trump voters are indeed flat-out bigots. No question. But most of those people have already been voting GOP for decades. As I wrote before, Trump is just the Southern Strategy without subtlety. He energized those who were tired of talking in code - those who felt using racist dog whistles was polite spin and tiptoeing, if not oppressive “political correctness.” To them, Lee Atwater was probably a cowardly cuck who shrunk from “telling it like it is” as Trump does now.

Donald Trump’s blunt bigotry energized the GOP base. But it didn’t lure many Democrats away - certainly few who voted for Barack Obama four years before. Or are we supposed to imagine such Democrats took eight years to realize that Obama was black? Bigotry did not lure those voters - talk of jobs and trade did. It was the policy centerpiece of Trump's campaign because it was what he spoke about most.

The point is not all Trump voters are bigots. Hillary Clinton herself emphasized that only half of them are a basket of deplorables - not all. "You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables." And then she spoke of the other half:
[B]ut that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
Many centrists have not been terribly empathetic. But more importantly, Clinton’s essential distinction escapes them and that could give Trump a second term.

Centrists love to claim that the poor routinely vote against their own economic interests. There’s an apt expression to describe that patronizing assessment: Half-truth is whole lie. An uncomfortable chunk of them certainly do vote against their material well-being and always have, but the rest do not. Donald Trump won almost half of union households. That's absolutely astounding. But a very slim majority - 51% - still did not defect and voted for Hillary Clinton. 

To put that figure in perspective, 51% was also the proportion of white, college-educated women who supported Clinton. Should we vilify and jettison them as well? Imagine if the Internet were awash with articles claiming white women are getting what they deserve and crying "Good riddance! We don't need you! Go away!" Not only would that be monstrously unconscionable, tactically it would be suicidally stupid. Well, it is no less so on economics. 

And while we are on the topic, 
I've noticed that a lot of the same folks mocking poor Trump voters are all sympathy when some racist blond woman is fired from Fox News or The Blaze. It has happened twice now and neither is a "superb journalist" as Hillary Clinton had ludicrously praised Megyn Kelly.

Should we make no attempt to woo back those who voted for Trump out of desperation and make the Republican majority in government permanent? To ask the question is to answer it: Unfortunately, many centrists cannot even face it, let alone grapple with it.

I say “patronizing” because wealthy people vote against their own economic interests too. And, no, I’m not talking about rich liberals supporting anti-poverty programs. The American Medical Association (AMA) opposed Medicare and Medicaid in 1961. Doctors should be grateful they lost that battle because those programs became gravy trains for them.  Yet many still bite the hand that feeds them. As I noted in my book, roughly half of Senator Rand Paul's (R-KY) medical practice income came from Medicaid payments, a program that he blasts as “intergenerational welfare.”(3)

Poor conservatives are foolish, but no more so than rich ones. And Paul’s problem is quite common: Business benefits from Keynesian economics, yet the wealthy continue to sabotage their own fortunes. It's a familiar longstanding paradox,(4) so check your paternalistic contempt and vicious schadenfreude.

But I digress. We were talking about Zack Beauchamp shoddy article.

Beauchamp’s whole article is a train wreck of ridiculous self-contradictions. Each derailed car is mashed into the next. For example, he argues that racism is worse in Europe because the welfare state has freed working class people up to focus on bigot issues. Seriously? But then he argues that things are worse in America - despite the miserliness of our threadbare safety net. He writes, "The US faces even sharper pressures, as much of the public sees social spending in highly racialized terms - a phenomenon without parallel in the rest of the Western world." Well, where is it worse? Here or there?(5) Make up your mind.

This is a consistent contradiction. Later, he writes, "Inglehart, an eminent political scientist at the University of Michigan, argues that the combination of rapid economic growth and a robust welfare state have provided voters [in Europe] with enough economic security that they could start prioritizing issues beyond the distribution of wealth - issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and, most crucially, immigration."(6) Assuming Beauchamp is not cherry-picking or torturing the source material, his take is still self-contradictory because we don’t have a robust welfare state here. We never did. It was pretty modest to begin with and has been decimated since, so his comparison with Europe is a poor one.

And this is part of a pattern: It's sort of a rhetorical shell game. He points to Jeremy Corbyn's current poor poll numbers to argue that democratic socialism is unpopular, but Bernie Sanders is currently the most popular politician in America. I'd say those polls are more relevant to American politics.

[EDIT: Corbyn's election upset showed the rumors of his unpopularity were greatly exaggerated. Labor gained seats in Parliament when they were predicted to lose.  Even when centrist pundits acknowledge this, they still struggle to understand it.]

This is not just a question of personal charisma: Sanders' signature issues are very popular with voters. From single payer health care, to free college, to breaking up big banks, to defending Social Security, Sanders is popular precisely because he passionately fights for things frustrated voters actually want.

I’m not saying transatlantic comparisons can't be made - just not Beauchamp's comparisons. Europe’s social programs have been under prolonged assault too. Beauchamp is describing a pre-Thatcher Europe that has not been experimenting with austerity for almost four decades. His take roughly translates as “The peasants have gotten too comfortable and must suffer some. It’s character-building. Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” The problem with this perspective, besides its Victorian overtones, is we have been disciplining labor for two generations on both sides of the Atlantic and racism has only gotten worse during that time. They grew in tandem, so more of the same does not sound promising – particularly not when it is being offered as a daring, innovative new idea. At this point, neoliberals are essentially ringing doorbells and asking people if they have heard about Jesus. Yes we have. Go away.

Beauchamp says social democracy has failed to stop the far right. But in this time, socialist parties have become much less socialist and increasingly business-friendly. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Labor Party stopped representing labor under Tony Blair, Britain’s Bill Clinton. In short, social democracy did not fail to stop racism: That was neoliberalism’s failure.

Nearly everything in Zack Beauchamp’s piece is shockingly wrong.(7) Jeremy Corbyn caused Brexit? Seriously? Beauchamp describes the European right as "pioneering" racist dog whistles in 1984. Um, I think that actually started here in the U.S. with the Southern Strategy two decades before in 1964. The whole article has this twisted Laffy Taffy sense of chronology and cause-and-effect.

Incidentally, it's interesting that he briefly mentions Sweden, if only by way of name dropping. He talks about Denmark’s “tough” immigration policy but ignores Sweden’s famous openness. Talk about cherry-picking. Sweden is about as democratic socialist as you can get and yet they have welcomed more Syrian refugees than any country in Europe - and that has helped Sweden flourish economically.(8)

Again, almost every paragraph in Zack Beauchamp’s piece has something heckle-worthy. When he says something correct it is either irrelevant to his point or actively undermines it.

For example, he goes on an on about how socialist programs won’t woo hardcore bigots. No shit. Nobody claimed they would. That’s a strawman argument along with the one that progressives don’t care about sexism, racism, or homophobia. No progressive I know claims that economic populism alone is a “silver bullet” that will win elections or entice racists. But we can definitely win back the neglected and devastated Rust Belt which we only narrowly lost last year.

In order to advance his argument, Beauchamp points out that most Trump voters are already fairly well off. Again, no shit. So is the average Tea Party member. As I wrote before, they are largely the same people - conservative Christian suburbanites who attend high-tech megachurches who
are responsible for the bulk of the bigotry. So why is Beaucahmp talking about a supposedly spoiled working class

Shit and grits! Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had admitted that their neoliberal policies have exacerbated economic inequality in developed countries. You think that might be contributing to xenophobia and discord? Interestingly, the IMF has proposed more social spending as a corrective.

Another example: Beauchamp points out that racist voters are more likely to oppose social programs. Again, no shit. That is why progressives are incentived to be actively anti-racist. Indeed, the dishonest and absurd centrist accusation that progressives are deaf to other justice movements is obviously projecting.  As one wit brilliantly tweeted during the Democratic primary, "Hillary saying 'intersectional' & 'systemic racism' is like when the Terminator tricks its victims by mimicking the voices of their family."

In fact, relatively speaking, leftists have always been better on race than liberals have been. Reds were supporting the civil rights movement in the 1930s when most liberals weren't. Yes, I am generalizing, but back then, if you supported a federal anti-lynching bill you were probably black, red, or both. Yes, communists prioritized class over race seeing racism as a mere side effect of capitalism; but now the left recognizes them as equally important - although intimately intertwined - in American history. But regardless of the emphasis, the left has always acknowledged the connection that many centrists deny now.

All politics is about coalitions - holding your own together and peeling votes away from your opponents'. Centrist thinking says “forget the Rust Belt” even though that is obviously what cost us the election. But as I wrote before, the coasts alone do not have enough electoral votes. We righteously lost the South over civil rights, but we cannot afford to lose the Midwest on top of that. It’s just math. We can only bleed so much.

Donald Trump was able to peel away some desperate, disgruntled blue collar voters and add them to his white collar GOP base. Hillary Clinton wrongly thought the affluent conservatives who make up that base were gettable and aggressively courted them, neglecting working class voters with whom she was already on thin ice thanks to her defending NAFTA. In short, he succeeded in peeling away some her voters while she failed to peel away many of his. I’m not talking about trying to sway all Trump voters and neither is any progressive that I know of. Many, if not most, Trump voters are unreachable - and, yes, deplorable - people that I would prefer to have nothing to do with. They are called Republicans. But others are not and they are enough to tip the scales. And, yes, economic populism is how you win them back, dumb ass.

This is basic shit that anyone who writes about politics should already be familiar with. This political history is literally old news. In a memo for the 1984 Reagan campaign, Lee Atwater made this strategy explicit: "Populists have always been liberal on economics. So long as the crucial issues were generally confined to economics - as during the New Deal - the liberal candidate would expect to get most of the populist vote. But populists are conservatives on most social issues." Atwater was explaining the rationale for the Culture Wars. It was how the GOP lured away "Reagan Democrats." But Atwater emphasized that the political terrain changes with voters' priorities. "When social and cultural issues died down, the populists were left with no compelling reason to vote Republican."

The self-evident flipside of Atwater’s assessment is that, without liberal economics, populists have no compelling reason to vote Democratic. By abandoning liberal economics, we have helped Republicans because now populists have zero reason to support us. There is no longer any conflicting feelings that might break our way if, say, the economy might sour as it is doing now. The same establishment Democrats who advocated dumping labor in favor of business also believed the stock market would climb forever. It was dubious soothsaying as well as callous strategy. Centrists want to make this fatal mistake permanent.

At this point, we should probably ask, “What happened to those ‘Reagan Democrats’ that Atwater had lured away?” Did they remain Republicans in subsequent elections or did they come home to the Democratic Party? It could be that Bill Clinton lured them back, at least temporarily. If so, how?

Was it his charisma? Oops, sorry, I forgot. That’s sexist to even mention.

Maybe it was Bill Clinton's racist dog whistles, like his “Sister Souljah moment” or his conspicuously executing a mentally retarded black man as Governor of Arkansas. Talk about a blood sacrifice! I imagine the Aztecs would be impressed. And you can file Welfare Reform and the Crime Bill under dog whistles as well. Let's be blunt: Bill Clinton made certain he could not possibly be Willie Horton-ed in any way.

Or was it because the economy had soured and Reaganomics left George Bush Sr. - who had once called it “Voodoo Economics” - holding the bag? If it was the economy, it definitely illustrates that priorities change with shifting circumstances. That's worth remembering.

But, whatever happened to those Reagan Democrats, Barack Obama first ran as a progressive (however he subsequently governed) and won decisively. Twice. The second time, in 2012, he was the president who saved Detroit while his opponent, Mitt Romney, said we should let the auto industry go bankrupt. I imagine that was a factor. By contrast, in 2016, Donald Trump co-opted a populist stance that previous Republicans both opposed and mocked while Hillary Clinton touted her husband's pro-business economic polices. She promised more of the same in a debate with Trump and that was probably the moment she lost the Rust Belt and thus the election. That and the fact that she barely campaigned there.

The upshot is obvious. Democratic socialism is a political winner and insisting the opposite is dishonest.

If this post sounds hyperbolic,  just read this sentence from Beauchamp’s article and ask yourself what the author is suggesting: "A more populist Democratic platform might rally more voters to Trump, as many whites will see it as a giveaway to undeserving minorities." That is totally concern trolling. 

What is the likely effect of accepting the author's argument that generosity backfires? There are two that I can think of right-off-the-bat: First, generosity in general goes the way of the dodo as a matter of policy, which will disproportionately harm minorities. Second, so does addressing any problem that concerns race, directly or indirectly. If reviving FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society is too politically radioactive because of race, then affirmative action will absolutely be abandoned as well. And the right can racialize anything. After all, Glenn Beck said Obamacare was really about reparations for slavery. 

And anyone who thinks social programs are freebies for minorities is probably already a Republican and may have been since 1964. Their vote is not gettable so Beauchamp's concern trolling is nonsensical.

Saying passing social programs benefits bigots is like saying that electing Barack Obama subsequently elected Donald Trump. Should we never run another black candidate then? That’s like saying we must appease racists to fight racism. It’s a “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” mindset. 

This is why I say centrism is essentially concern trolling. This is why we can’t have nice things.

And I am beginning to suspect this tragic dynamic is by design.

Next Day Edit:

Beauchamp caught the brunt of my ire, but he is hardly unique. A recent New York Times "analysis" piece wonders whether anti-Trump protests are actually helping him. Um, not according to Trump's still plummeting poll numbers or the surprising spine-stiffening we are seeing in Congress. Maybe they won't roll-over and rubber stamp any obviously dubious wars this time around. No promises.

And one popular blogger says liberals need to learn how to compromise - as if compromising has not been establishment Democrat motor memory for several decades. 

How many times had Obama reached across the aisle only to have his hand slapped back? It's a good thing too, because Obama's "grand bargain" on Social Security would have hurt seniors. During the healthcare fight, single payer was preemptively taken off the table as an olive branch to conservatives. Did that or the fact that the final plan was basically warmed-over Romneycare sway any Republicans? Of course not.

Indeed, Bill Clinton's telecommunications deregulation has helped conservatives immensely: No more "burdensome" anti-monopoly regs to keep Clear Channel from buying up every radio station in town.

Extra Edit:

To further stress just how utterly absurd discounting the impact economics is, let's go Godwin. Normally, I avoid Nazi analogies, but we are talking about Trump supporters, after all.

There is absolutely no questioning that Hitler and the Nazis were racist and stoked racism. But no serious historian ignores the importance of economics in explaining Hitler's rise to power. The reparations for WWI, hyper inflation, and the Great Depression after all that helped make the German electorate desperate. When it takes wheelbarrows of money to shop, demagogues are obviously going to prosper politically.  And if they succeed in turning things around - as Hitler's "economic miracle" did - the electorate becomes even more likely to overlook, excuse, or rationalize away bigotry.

Denying this dynamic is like denying gravity. Any analysis that does simply isn't serious.


1) Horseshoe Theory, or as I call it "Horseshit Theory" (Toilet Seat Theory works too), is not even a theory. It is a poorly thought-out visual metaphor that logically eats itself if you think about it at all. For openers, to get to the right by traveling left, you have to move toward the central axis. After all, that's what an inward curving arc does. Moreover, the ends of the horseshoe never meet. If they do, it's not a horseshoe anymore: It's an oval. In order for someone on the left to get to the right, they have to move toward the center and keep on going. Geometry: It's a thing.

2) Full Disclosure: I am the author of a book called Conservatism is Un-American & Other Self-Evident Truths, so I predictably take issue with the pernicious assumption that we are a conservative country. It frames every issue in conservatives' favor and is a form of self-sabotage.

I should also point out that I am certainly not the first to accuse centrists of concern trolling. For example, in a piece for The American Prospect,  Scott Lemieux called-out centrist concern trolling on the issue of abortion. Bloggers have noticed the phenomenon for even longer. I am tardy to this party.

3) Bruce Schreiner, “Rand Paul: Medicaid has turned into welfare,” Associated Press, Oct 4, 2010.

As I wrote in my book, “More important than Rand Paul’s personal hypocrisy is the fact that his ideology makes him militantly ignore the evidence of his own experience. After all, Dr. Paul is the Paul that Peter is being ‘robbed’ to pay. Upton Sinclair once said, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’ But Sen. Rand Paul has the opposite problem. His salary should make things a great deal easier to understand and yet he still does not get it. Either he is deeply indoctrinated or playing a longer con.”

I'm obviously awfully fond of that Upton Sinclair quote. I've used it in my blog twice now.

4) Franklin Delano Roosevelt once noted this stubborn ingratitude in an amusing medical analogy. Referring to businessmen as sick patients in a speech, he quipped, "But I know how sick they were. I have their fever charts. I know how the knees of all our rugged individualists were trembling four years ago and how their hearts fluttered. They came to Washington in great numbers. Washington did not look like a dangerous bureaucracy to them. Oh no! It looked like an emergency hospital. All of the distinguished patients wanted two things-a quick hypodermic to end the pain and a course of treatment to cure the disease. They wanted them in a hurry; we gave them both. And now most of the patients seem to be doing very nicely. Some of them are even well enough to throw their crutches at the doctor."

5) Is racism worse in the U.S. or Europe? It’s hard to gauge because we have a two-party system and they have multiparty systems which mean that individual parties are more defined with specific constituencies. Some are single-issue parties. A side effect of this is they have overtly racist political parties whereas stateside the GOP has to do a balancing act of appealing to racists without appearing too racist. Some have argued that this arrangement keeps the racists in line and under wraps. The election of Donald Trump shows that this is not the case. It is also worth noting that the election of Trump has emboldened racists in other countries. Observers have noticed a troubling “Trump Effect” in CanadaEurope, and even in India, so there seems to be a feedback loop. Let’s not equivocate. America has a terrible record of confronting racism and building a multicultural society. But with the legacy of slavery and our history of immigration (attention Ben Carson, they are not the same), we have been doing it for a lot longer and therefore have made more progress despite ourselves. On the other hand, other countries can benefit from our experience and avoid our mistakes. So, again, it is hard to gauge.

6) “But wait,” you may say. “In the first quote he is talking about the racialized cast of social spending in America rather than racist politics as a whole.” Yes, but they use the very same “Charity starts at home” rhetoric in Europe. Beauchamp argues that the European right’s attitude varies between that and antagonism toward all social spending, but the notion that outsiders should have nothing is consistent across the right. The rhetoric is identical.

For example, when Ronald Reagan attacked welfare, he spoke of “young bucks” (black men) buying steaks with food stamps. He was not explicitly calling for making welfare white-only but for cutting the program as a whole, but the issue was racialized either way. The dog whistles were certainly there - ditto with his talk of “welfare cheats” and restricting the program to the “truly needy.” Despite the fact that the majority of welfare recipients were white - as were the majority of the few people who abused the system, the media routinely reinforced the stereotype of recipients in general and cheats in particular as being black or Latino. To Reagan’s base, the deserving and undeserving were already color-coded.

7) Nearly. In the article, Beauchamp at least acknowledges that European fascists are not always economic populists. He mentions Jörg Haider’s economic conservatism, for example. Alas, other writers are not so honest. Take Roger Cohen incongruous efforts to turn Haider politics on its ear.  Thomas Frank's take-down in One Market Under God is brilliant. It is worth reading for the catchy phrase "Alpine Thatcherist," if nothing else.

8) Have there been some bad incidents in Sweden? Yes, but overall the response to immigration has been positive, Donald Trump's imaginary terror attack notwithstanding. The few violent incidents have been by native racists, not immigrants contrary to the favorite right-wing narrative that Europe is awash with violent Arabs. Europe in general - and Sweden in particular - are held up as cautionary examples by right-wing anti-immigration writers in the U.S. Needless to say, their horror stories are often false, such as the mass sexual assault in Frankfurt, Germany which didn’t happen.

And I am happy to report that the anti-immigrant party was soundly defeated in the Netherlands’ recent elections. It was as if it was timed to refute Beauchamp’s article.

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