A perfect example of the holes in current left theory

Stumbled on a great blog post today, from Fredrik deBoer, who writes that he finds his colleagues/allies to be condescending, certain, and incoherent:

This is a constant condition for me: interacting with liberals and leftists who affect a stance of bored impatience, who insist that the answers to moral and political questions are so obvious that every reasonable person already agrees, who then lack the ability to explain the thinking underlying their answers to those questions in a remotely compelling way. Everything is obvious; all the hard work is done; only an idiot couldn’t see what the right thing to do is. And then you poke a little bit at the foundation and it just collapses. I suppose the condescension and the fragility are related conditions, the bluster a product of the insecurity at the heart of it all. You act like everything is obvious precisely because you can’t articulate your position.

I’ve been asking my friends on the academic left what rights conservative students have, in an era of a university culture obsessed with trauma. Two things are broadly true: one, they think that it’s ridiculous to suggest that there’s any reason to worry about what conservative students can and can’t say – there’s no questions here, no conflicts, nothing even to discuss. Two, despite the mutuality of this dismissal, no two of them have the same idea about what answers are stunningly obvious, only that they are. I am told that of course students can support Trump and say so, but that “Make America Great Again” is hate speech, despite simply being the slogan of the campaign that they just said students have the right to support. They say that it’s not permissible for students to identify with the alt-right, which is a hate group, but it’s fine for them to be plain-vanilla conservatives, despite the fact that the latter group has indisputably done vastly more to harm marginalized people than the former.

What are the rules? I don’t know, and I’m ensconced firmly in these debates. I harp on civil liberties and free speech a lot because, yes, I think they’re worth defending and that the traditional association between leftist politics and support for them was substantively correct on political theory grounds. But also because they’re a perfect example of the holes in current left theory. When does someone’s trauma outweigh the right of another to speak? Who can say what, in which contexts, when? I have no idea what people think the answers are. I just know that they think the question is so obvious as to not be worth asking. It’s an inverse argument from incredulity, not “I can’t believe you could possibly think that” but “I can’t believe you don’t already.”

A half-dozen emailers rose to the challenge and answered the questions in my post on cultural appropriation. Most of them expressed precisely the attitude I’m talking about here: disdain for the idea that these questions have to be discussed at all, a sense that my asking them has to be just trolling, like I can’t possibly be actually confused. They then set about answering them in flatly contradictory ways. Their answers were comprehensively and fatally incompatible. How can both these things be true? How can different people who share the same basic outlook on a political question be so certain that the answers to questions about that outlook are obvious and then answer them themselves in such incompatible ways?

I would love to tell you that this is restricted to my usual antagonists – vanilla partisan Democrats, media progressives, the Twitterati, the whole social world of sneering smart-kid coastal liberalism. But sometimes I also find it in the groups I’m more likely to agree with, the radical left, the dirtbag left, the socialist left. It’s a widespread problem.

Few things are more deadly to a broad political tendency than a eye-rolling assumption that there is no work to be done. You combine that with the way challenging questions have come to be seen as themselves offensive, particularly in academia, and you have a left-of-center that cannot do the work of figuring out what it is and what it stands for at precisely the time its mission is most important. Our opposition’s taken control of everything, so how do we respond? Race OR class or race AND class? Neoliberalism or socialism? Identity or economics or both? Wonk autocrats or the grassroots? I know what I prefer. But I don’t know what broad movement will emerge when everyone is so busy being certain about the answers that they cannot articulate or justify. I don’t know how we settle these things. Liberalism is a social monoculture that is busily eliminating the internal division and intellectual insurgency that are a necessary part of any healthy politics. The left is smart but fractured, vibrant but weak, and has no institutional support. I am fresh out of ideas; it all seems bleak.

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Just ’cause your side does it, and it’s popular…

Carrier yesterday, Boeing today, who knows? tomorrow.

Rich Lowry writes:

The Carrier Deal was a political coup for Trump and you have to be glad for the 800 affected workers and their families. But over the last few days a president-elect of the United States has been openly threatening companies for making business decisions he doesn’t like–an extraordinary and disturbing thing. Much of the Republican Party will be quiet about it or accepting of it, which speaks to how Trump could transform the GOP. Even if Republicans wanted to stop him from doing it, they have no leverage to do so and Trump’s tack will probably be popular.


Yuval Levin adds:

Republicans in Congress should ask themselves what they would be saying now if Hillary Clinton had been elected and then began threatening and shaming companies when she didn’t like their perfectly legal business practices, making individual “deals” with individual companies who do a lot of business with the government to “persuade” them to change decisions about where to place factories in return for taxpayer-funded benefits (before even being vested with any formal authority), and claiming she would use trade policy and the tax code (including highly regressive tariffs that punish consumers) as weapons against corporations that locate some operations abroad.  Whatever they would have said then they should say now. I’m guessing it would have included “industrial policy,” “central planning,” “picking winners and losers,” and “cronyism” at the very least, and rightly so.

Charles C. Cooke makes the same point, more broadly, about what some fear will be a “slow descent” towards illiberalism begun by Trump.  Funny bit about irregular verbs:

A “slow descent” that began on November 9, 2016, mind you. A “slow descent” that came ex nihilo. A “slow descent” that followed a perfectly flat plane, and for which the president-elect’s predecessor bears no responsibility. Intrigued, I asked Nyhan whether he would consider recent trends toward judicial imperialism, executive overreach, and the abandonment of due process as undermining the “norms of our democracy” – and, in concert, whether as a college professor in 2016 he might have any insight into which “institutions” or “elites” have been most aggressively “accommodating illiberal behavior.” His response? The problems to which I was pointing were “not the same thing.” “This is not an NRO culture-war thing,” Nyhan griped.

It seems that “tyrannize” is one of those irregular verbs: I engage in the culture war; you undermine democratic norms; he’s ushering in Nazi Germany. It is uncontroversial to observe that Donald Trump was a poor choice for the head of a free republic, and I will gladly add my name to those who hope, as Burke put it, to “snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” But I cannot help noticing how silly and how capricious our newfangled doomsayers sound. How quickly did those who have cried “Obstructionism!” for eight years expect to be welcomed as bulwarks of Madison’s Constitution? How seriously did the purveyors of “privilege” imagine they would be taken when they abandoned overnight the claim that neutral principles are but a tool of the ruling class? In what manner did those who praised Obama’s “pen and phone” believe they would be received when the shoe was on the other foot? And, if excesses in pursuit of one’s goal are criticized only as part of a mere “culture-war thing,” why should anyone worry about Trump?

Where, one must ask, have the social scientists been during the overture to our “slow descent into illiberalism”? For almost all of Barack Obama’s presidency, the system of checks and balances that undergirds the unique American order has been treated by progressives as if it were an outdated relic…  And now, in the wake of Trump’s victory? La Résistance is en vogue once again, and the specter of tyranny is divined in each presidential design.

Barack Obama was no Adolf Hitler. He wasn’t even a Woodrow Wilson. But he played with abandon on the slopes that Trump now inherits, and, in so doing, he set precedents that are liable to be abused. When, as seems inevitable, President Trump complains publicly that the Supreme Court has declined to rubber-stamp his agenda, his defenders will point to Obama’s dressing down of Justice Alito during the 2011 State of the Union, and to the bully-pulpit speeches he staged on the Court’s steps, as prologue. When, as he has already in proposing Nigel Farage as the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S., Trump violates centuries of diplomatic protocol, his cavilers will be reminded that Obama was against Brexit. If Trump attempts to dominate Congress and to usurp its legislative functions, his acolytes will show videos of Obama’s “We can’t wait.” If Trump undermines due process, we will be reminded of the Democrats’ support for restricting the Second Amendment based on the government’s “terror watch” list, and of the kangaroo courts that have been set up on college campuses across the land.

If you would not see your enemies handed untrammeled power, seek it not for your friends.”  That so many are skeptical of an incoming president is, by my lights, a good thing. That they are unable to see illiberalism’s continuum and to place his predecessors on it is decidedly less so.

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Persuade rather than coerce

Ian Tuttle writes that “Radicalism at one end of the political spectrum means radicalism at the other.”

The culprit for [the Democrats’] shellacking at every level was not decades of labeling cultural conservatives “racists” and immigration restrictionists “xenophobes” and abortion opponents “misogynists”; it wasn’t the foolish decision to dismiss the white working class not as simply unwinnable but as not worth winning — moral reprobates with backward views; it wasn’t the choice to clear the way for a presidential candidate with longstanding issues of corruption and untrustworthiness; it was “white supremacy” and “sexism” and “fake news.” On Thursday, in a forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook blamed his candidate’s loss on FBI director James Comey.

Obviously, the Left’s diagnoses of the ascendancy of Donald Trump are not wholly wrong. Among a small fringe, Trump’s was an explicitly racialist appeal. Likewise, “fake news” was a real problem, from “rigged election” conspiracy theories on Infowars to the Drudge Report’s multiple stories about Bill Clinton’s “son,” Danny Williams, a story that Drudge itself debunked years ago.

But 60 million people are not “white nationalists,” or dupes, or whatever else. They are, on the whole, well-intentioned Americans whose priorities simply differ from those of Slate writers. The Left has failed to understand the extent to which its intolerant, often coercive, approach to issues that permit good-willed disagreement has turned off voters who might otherwise be sympathetic to their general program — and radicalized further those who aren’t. The Democratic-party chairman of Mahoning County, Ohio, recently told the Washington Post, “People in the heartland thought the Democratic Party cared more about where someone else went to the restroom than whether they had a good-paying job” — and that’s because it did.

The Left has been relentless in giving to every partisan dispute the moral urgency of warfare. It’s the Left that turned Supreme Court nominations into nasty affairs. It’s the Left that co-opted America’s health-care industry on a party-line vote. It’s the Left that scrapped the filibuster. It’s the Left that forced nuns to purchase contraception. If the Right was willing to countenance a great deal of heterodoxy in 2016, it’s in part because they perceive a Left that has become unconscionably radical.

That is not to say the Right does not have serious problems of its own creation. Trump’s success would not have been possible without a real, and alarming, moral and intellectual vacuity. Opportunism in right-wing media trades on the emotivism of talk-radio listeners eager to have their worst fears about the country confirmed, and ideological zealotry has made the necessary task of compromise more difficult.

But radicalism breeds radicalism, and the Left, in the aftermath of a massive defeat, should recognize that. A Left that ensconces itself in a sanctimonious refusal to consider the world from the perspectives of its detractors is a Left destined to become more politically impotent and nastier. That may work to Republicans’ short-term gain. But a nastier Left means a nastier Right.

America needs a sane Left. At its best, the Left balances right-wing excesses. Where the Right elevates the individual, the Left attends to the good of collectives. Where the Right values social solidarity, the Left values difference. The Right emphasizes the best parts of our common traditions; the Left is sensitive to how those traditions have left certain people vulnerable, marginalized, or disenfranchised.

This is worthy work. But it can’t be imposed, and shouldn’t be. A Left that can temper its sense of apocalypse by recognizing the legitimate moral prerogatives of its political opponents would aim to persuade rather than coerce — but, for that reason, would be able to expand its coalition and be better able to find common ground with the Right.

A sense of common cause would be vastly preferable to our current moment of extreme polarization and defensiveness. But it requires a bit of humility. The Left, not its myriad scapegoats, is most responsible for its failures this year. A Left that can acknowledge that, and respond accordingly, will lead to a less radical Right, and a healthier politics overall.


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The thinking person’s way to elect a president

h/t Ed Rogers in yesterday’s Washington Post:

The electoral college is the thinking person’s way to elect a president. It’s so important to our democratic process that it even gets two mentions in the Constitution — in Article II and again in the 12th Amendment. Thankfully, it would take a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college…

It is interesting to see the Democrats, who are usually so quick to call things they don’t like a “threat to democracy,” flirting with changing something as fundamental to our American democracy as the electoral process in a way that would essentially exclude the vast interior of the United States and predicate future election outcomes on the urban population centers the Democrats typically favor.



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More than one illiberal candidate on the ballot

David French makes a good point about the libertarian tendencies (explicit and implicit, imho) of the American people.  They like freedom and they like the consistent application of the law.

To hear people like Nyhan tell it, Trump is the one, true outlier. He represents something truly terrifying not just because he is a strongman, but because the American people seem to have rejected their own system to empower him.

Yet the reality is starkly different. Trump was not the only illiberal candidate on the ballot, and Trump was running to replace an illiberal administration. For the first time in living memory, Americans didn’t have a “normal” choice.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are in fact so abnormal and illiberal (in different ways) that tens of millions of Americans held their noses and voted for the least popular candidate in American political history just to stop them, reverse their policies, and weaken their ideological allies. For the first time since the advent of modern polling, a majority of Americans were dissatisfied with their candidate options. Only a quarter of Clinton voters were happy with the presidential choices on the ballot. As the Washington Post notes, that’s the lowest total in more than 30 years.

And there’s ample reason for this discontent. It was fundamentally illiberal for the Clintons to behave as if the rule of law did not and should not apply to their own conduct. The e-mail scandal was bad enough — it would have landed any common soldier in jail — and it was just one of many controversies that have dogged the Clintons for 30 years, during which time the Democratic party overlooked, rationalized, and justified their misconduct because they kept winning elections.

Obama thankfully doesn’t share the Clintons’ long record of personal corruption, but his administration has behaved in countless illiberal ways. The Left has long forgotten about and discounted the IRS’s targeting of tea-party groups, but conservatives remember all too well that assault on the First Amendment rights of patriotic Americans. The IRS unlawfully audited conservatives, leaked personal information to the press, sought information about donor lists and the political activities of family members, and even attempted to “piece together” criminal prosecutions in the absence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

And that’s just one agency. Applying the principal that the ends justify the means, the Obama administration abandoned normal lawmaking and rulemaking on a breathtaking scale. Obama’s team granted executive amnesty through memoranda. They used letters to rewrite federal statutes and implement radical “reforms” from elementary school through graduate school, sweeping aside due process, restricting free speech, and advancing the most revolutionary new concepts of gender and human sexuality. They ignored the Constitution and dared the courts to stop them.

The list can go on. And it doesn’t even cover the authoritarian wave that swept America’s bluest regions at the state and local levels during the Obama years. A Democratic prosecutor in Wisconsin launched a criminal witch-hunt that resulted in innocent Americans facing terrifying pre-dawn raids simply because they were conservative activists. Campuses melted down over “micro-aggressions,” and buildings burned over lies such as “hands up, don’t shoot.” Thugs have ambushed cops in the streets, egged on by rioting protestors, and the Democratic party is so in thrall to these radicals that its politicians can’t say “all lives matter” without immediately apologizing.

So, yes, I agree with Nyhan. Our elites are too accommodating of illiberal behavior. And it should stop. In fact, the American people are demanding that it stop. If you take the focus off Trump, the illiberal Democratic party is in its weakest position arguably since Reconstruction, and for all those who decry Trump, more conventional Republicans such as Marco Rubio and Rob Portman outperformed him in key swing states. That’s not so much a lurch toward authoritarianism as a rejection of intolerant progressivism. So, liberal cultural physician, heal thyself. You were sufficiently intolerant that Americans voted for Donald Trump, just to send you a message.

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Countries require bonds of trust among citizens

If ethnic and religious minorities are worried, it’s in part because Donald Trump and his intimates have spent the last several months winking at one of the ugliest political movements in America’s recent history.  – Ian Tuttle, National Review, November 14, 2016 (longer excerpt below)

On the same subject Mona Charen writes that “some of the fear, however overwrought it may seem, is clearly sincere.

One thing we know about America’s political culture is that the tendency to live within our own news echo chambers has intensified in recent years. Liberals are reading and hearing about swastikas scrawled on synagogue walls by suspected Trump supporters, while conservatives are seeing stories about protesters carrying signs reading “rape Melania” and about people wearing MAGA hats being beaten up. We scarcely speak to or hear one another at all.

As Bill Maher, Frank Bruni, and other Democrats have acknowledged, the Left has a wolf-crying problem. When you denounce every Republican or conservative as racist, you lose credibility. But the Right also has a problem this year, in that Trump truly has transgressed certain taboos. Whipping up a crowd against a Hispanic judge on the grounds of his ethnicity (or for any other reason, actually) is indecent and destructive. Falsely insisting that “thousands” of American Muslims celebrated after 9/11 and retweeting false statistics about black on white crime is irresponsible.

While many of those in the streets deserve no sympathy, others who are fearful about a Trump presidency could use reassurance. There is no greater megaphone than the presidency, and some signals of magnanimity and unity coming from Donald Trump could go a long way. They might even penetrate the news silos we’ve erected. After one of the ugliest campaigns in history, Trump has an opportunity to offer reconciliation. All but the most bitter partisans would welcome it.

I suppose we’ll learn soon enough, if his pick to replace Scalia is Sykes and his UN Ambassador is gay.  He has already dialed back the rhetoric on immigration.  But his selection of “chief strategist” does not inspire confidence.  As Ian Tuttle nicely summarizes:

The Left, with its endless accusations of “racism” and “xenophobia” and the like, has blurred the line between genuine racists and the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump because of a desire for greater social solidarity and cultural consensus. It is not “racist” to want to strengthen the bonds uniting citizens to their country.

But the alt-right is not a “fabrication” of the media. The alt-right is a hodgepodge of philosophies that, at their heart, reject the fundamental principle that “all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” The alt-right embraces an ethno-nationalism that has its counterparts in the worst of the European far-right: Golden Dawn in Greece, or Hungary’s Jobbik. (It’s no coincidence that Bannon spent time this summer praising “the women of the Le Pen family” on London radio, referring to the head of France’s National Front and her niece, a FN member of the French Parliament.) And while this by no means excuses smashing shop windows to protest a legitimate election result, as rioters spent the weekend doing in the Pacific Northwest, it’s also the case that not every Trump detractor is as devoid of cerebral matter as Lena Dunham. If ethnic and religious minorities are worried, it’s in part because Donald Trump and his intimates have spent the last several months winking at one of the ugliest political movements in America’s recent history.

Furthermore, as some on the left have been more attuned to than their conservative counterparts, the problem is not whether Bannon himself subscribes to a noxious strain of political nuttery; it’s that his de facto endorsement of it enables it to spread and to claim legitimacy, and that what is now a vicious fringe could, over time, become mainstream. The U.S. is not going to see pogroms or “internment camps” spring up in January. But countries require bonds of trust among citizens — including those citizens elected to be leaders. The Left gnawed at those bonds with its thoughtless commitment to cosmopolitan virtues. But the Right threatens to sever them entirely if it continues to court the proponents of ethno-nationalism, or trade in their rhetoric.

Principled conservatives, especially those in leadership positions, have a political and moral duty to condemn, and to work to eradicate, the animus that is the alt-right’s raison d’être, and to uphold the pillars of the American project. That project is more than metaphysical abstractions; but it is also not a simple matter of blut und boden. No, Steve Bannon is not Josef Goebbels. But he has provided a forum for people who spend their days photoshopping pictures of conservatives into ovens.

To conservative and liberal alike, that he has the ear of the next president of the United States (a man of no particular convictions, and loyal to no particular principles) should be a source of grave concern — and an occasion for common cause in the crucial task of the years to come: vigilance.




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Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy

Jonah Goldberg writes, “By overpromising and under-delivering, Obamacare’s pushers have fatally damaged their credibility.”

It’s difficult to exaggerate how arrogant supporters of Obamacare were back in 2009–10… It wasn’t just that they knew they were right, they acted as if critics were flat-earthers, birthers, know-nothings, cranks, weirdos, and maroons. This was necessary because the “reformers” were the protagonists in our MacGuffinized political discourse. They had to be heroes and their opponents villains…

It turned out that the lethal internal contradictions of Obamacare needed more time to play themselves out, like a man stabbed with a Strontium-90 tipped umbrella or a victim of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.

…But at least those obstreperous elderly nuns will have to pay for birth control!

No, Obamacare will not collapse imminently — or maybe not even ever. But that is not because it is “working” as a public policy. Countries around the world have carried the husk of their far more socialized health-care systems for generations. Rent control, the minimum wage, and countless other economically ridiculous policies endure because they satisfy the political needs of politicians, bureaucrats, and a whole phylum of remora-like rent-seekers. That’s why Milton Friedman said, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” He should know, given how it was basically his idea to implement tax-withholding from paychecks as a wartime measure.

You might say that these programs also help real people too. And that is true. But wealth distribution efforts always help someone. And those someones become vested interests who demand perpetuation of the status quo. If the federal government implemented a program to give every left-handed person in the country $20,000 a year free and clear (no doubt to compensate for the fact that such people are witches), you can be sure the Left Handed Association of America would work assiduously to protect their entitlement.

The VA health-care system is a moral outrage, but it resists actual reform because the interests of the VA bureaucracy and their associated allies are more important than the interests of vets in need of quality health care.

So it may be with Obamacare. For political and psychological reasons, liberals are invested in the idea that Obamacare is working. To the extent they are willing to concede it has problems, they are problems that can only be remedied by giving the government more power and control. Indeed, for many supporters, like Barney Frank, Obamacare was always supposed to be a stepping stone to single-payer health care. This is the essence of modern progressivism, the ratchet can only turn in one direction — towards more power and control for the people in charge.

Later in the same piece Goldberg makes a broader point about “the death of trust.”

It seems to me a big part of the problem with progressive elites these days is that they lack self-awareness. That elites arrange affairs for their own self-interest is an insight that was already ancient when Robert Michels penned his Iron Law of Oligarchy. But ever since the progressives concocted their theories of “disinterestedness,” they’ve convinced themselves that they are not in fact a self-serving elite. Give feudal aristocrats their due: They were a self-dealing crop of rent-seekers and exploiters, but at least they were open about the fact that they believed they had a divine right to sit atop the social pyramid. Today’s progressive aristocracy is largely blind to the fact that their cult of expertise isn’t really about expertise; it’s about organizing society in a way that reinforces their status and power.

Well, most of them are blind to it. Occasionally the mask slips. Jonathan Gruber, one of the chief architects and financial beneficiaries of the health-care “reform,” told audiences that Obamacare was designed “in a tortured way” to hide the fact that “healthy people pay in and sick people get money.” They had to do it this way to get around the inconvenient “stupidity of the American voter.” A feudal lord who talked this way about his serfs wouldn’t get any grief for it. But in America such honesty gets you rendered an un-person.

This is a much larger phenomenon than health-care policy. It manifests itself throughout the media and the New Class generally…

I’ve written about the media’s cry-wolf problem before. The relevance here is that I don’t think most of the reporters and editors who carried water for every Democratic presidential candidate for the last 50 years believe that’s what they were doing. They convinced themselves that they were being objective or “disinterested.” They served as praetorian guards for the progressive elite without understanding just how many buckets of water they schlepped up from the river bank. This is why I shed so few tears for the dying of the myth of the “objective media.” Partisan newspapers are as old as newspapers. What was new — and now dying — is this warmed over Lippmannesque B.S. that there’s some kind of science to journalism that immunizes it from partisanship. At least 19th-century newspapers were honest with their readers about where they were coming from. Newspapers like the New York Times suffer from the same delusions that blind the progressive elites generally. They think they’re just telling the hard truths, when in fact they are telling the truths (and occasional lies) that support their own self-serving narrative.

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