Posts on Politics

John Emerson at Open Left

John Emerson at Trollblog

John Emerson at Seeing the Forest

Between 2002 and about 2010 I did a lot of political writing on the internet. Most of it was topical writing of little lasting interest, but I did develop some ideas which I think might have made a difference, though I never saw any signs that I had convinced anyone and think by now these ideas are probably now moot.

In my opinion the aversion to “populism” common to the Democratic Party and the “Left” crippled the Democrats in their struggle against the Republicans (assuming for the moment that it was actually a struggle). Likewise the elitism and scientism of many academic Democrats incapacitated them for this fight and made it difficult for them to perceive social reality, much less act on it. A left-populist campaign would have been a tough, labor-intensive job, and it would have required building an independent, ideological media, but it might have been possible if there had been enough people who wanted it to happen.

With the Democratic Party fully renormed on the Carter-Clinton-Obama standard and the left entirely defunct, I’ll just post these links as a memorial to eight lost years of my life.

A short history of Populism in America

Everyone is talking about populism, but no one can define it.” The opening sentence of Gellner’s introduction to the 1971 anthology Populism: Its National Characteristics remains more or less true today – in Laclau’s words, “A persistent feature of the literature on populism is its reluctance – or difficulty – in giving the concept any precise meaning”.1 As a result, anyone can be a populist. Rush Limbaugh drinks $300 bottles of wine and vacations in the south of France, and he’s a populist. The Koch brothers are two of the ten richest Americans, and they’re populists. Rand Paul is a goldbug, and he’s a populist. The requirements are easy to meet: you just have to be angry, anti-intellectual, bigoted, demagogic, and right wing. (You know who else was a populist? Hitler.) And as I’ve found, all good liberals, Democrats, radicals, and political scientists steer clear of populism…..

Or to put it in more contemporary terms, populists are the Other of the dominated fraction of the the dominant class: the intellectuals and the political-managerial-scientific-academic elite. Populists are the less-educated mass of the poor and middling (lower middle) classes – the people without taste, class, and style – or more simply, the majority. Even today a certain proportion of the intelligentsia have plebian backgrounds (though this is less true by the year). Anyone who has made the jump can remember the hazing period at the start of introductory classes, when the student finds out that everything that he knows (and everything anyone in his reference group knows) is wrong.To be admitted into the elite, you have to believe three impossible things before breakfast, and those who fail to do this are squeezed out, usually in an especially humiliating fashion. In PolSci 101 you learn that “By the people, for the people, and of the people” is pure disastrous nonsense. The “counterfactual assumptions” of Ecpon 101 are too many to count, but since there’s a lot of money in econ, Students eagerly play along. Examples can be multiplied from other disciplines.

What is populism and why are Democrats afraid of it?

Populism is politics which opposes wealth and power in the name of  the common folk. It takes both left wing and right wing forms and sometimes degenerates into bigotry and attacks on minorities. Populism can be faked, and that is being done right now – e.g., Limbaugh and Beck. Populist appeals can be made by spokesmen for special interests who have no intention of fulfilling their democratic promises, but who are just opportunistically faking populism as part of an attack on some enemy. (As I never get tired of saying: Republican populism is fake, but Democratic elitism is real).

What is Populism? (Part II)

I define populism as participational politics by ordinary citizens, working either inside or outside the major parties but almost always against the party leadership, which opposes big business and finance  in the interests of the majority and which proposes specific policies to that effect. Between 1870 and 1940 groups of this type (including farmers’ groups and unions) provided most of the progressive energy in American politics, but since about 1950 the Democrats have shunned populism in favor of nonconfrontational “win-win” politics: “a rising tide lifts all boats”. At the same time, many rank and file Democrats have populist sympathies, and these voters are contiunually baffled and angry when the Democrats end up supporting business rather than the common interest.

What is Populism? (Part III)

During the progressive era, the  progressive Democrats and Republicans were more or  less at war with the national party organizations. We should expect the same: insurgent Democratic Progressives would have to be self-organized and self-funded and should expect nothing but hostility from the Democratic machine.

A relatively small number of loud, determined progressive Senators and Congressmen can change the ball game for everyone by keeping issues in the public eye and by naming names and putting the weak and corrupt representatives on the spot.

Digby on Populism: my response

The worst of it is this: I’ve spent about the last six years trying to convince liberals and Democrats to get mad and roll up their sleeves, but it’s been almost impossible. Democrats are rule-followers and organization men (persons?), and for them moralism is just plain bad, anger is just plain bad, and you can never really be sure who’s right or wong. Every professional and every academic knows these things.

The Bourbon Democrats in the Middle West: 1865-1896

Merrill’s book tells the story of the Midwestern branch of the “Bourbon Democrats”, the dominant Democratic faction during the three decades following the Civil War. “Bourbon Democrats” may sound like fun, but they were nothing but a coterie of wealthy, corrupt wheeler-dealers whose only interests were feathering their own nests and keeping small farmers and labor out of power. The Bourbons did not need to win, and seldom did; they only needed to keep control of the party.

Grover Cleveland, the only Democratic President in the 47 years between Appomattox and the election of Woodrow Wilson (and one of the most anti-labor Presidents of all), was a model Bourbon on policy questions, though he differed from the rest in being less corrupt and was nominated for that reason.

Lessons from the Progressive Midwest

Between the Civil War and WWII Midwestern and Western dissidents played a significant role in the American political process and sent many Senators and Representatives to Congress. Their representatives were generally better informed, more eloquent, and more outspoken than their Congressional opponents were, and this gave them a influence out of proportion to their numbers. They reached Congress by a variety of methods. Some got the Democratic or the Republican nomination through the primary  system. Some took the third-party route with the Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota and the Progressive Party in Wisconsin.  A few ran as independents. Several used a mix of more tha one strategy: Young Bob LaFollette was a Republican Senator for nine years and a Progressive Senator for twelve years.

Sons of a Wild Jackass: the “Prairie Progressives”

Feinman talks about progressives “abandoning the new deal” (p. 203) , but that’s a half-truth at best. One of the things they objected to was FDR’s own abandonment of New Deal principles with his austerity budget, and WWII was not part of the New Deal. The ruling coalition during WWII was a new one: in Schlesinger’s words (Upheaval, p. 415) “Given the character of the progressives, the administration had no choice, Tugwell agreed, but to regard the southern Democrats as ‘the only dependable body of men who cn be counted on to stick by their bargains and pass legislation’.” Whether or not that was true, what it meant that the Democrats had returned to their non-progressive, non-popular, non-movement, machine roots. The new Democratic Party consisted of the old urban machines, the old Solid South,  the racial and ethnic groups, and the new unions — which somewhat superseded the urban machines. (To Feinman’s list, however, must be added an additional group, which came to power during and after the war: wonks, technocrats, university experts, scientists, engineers, and other members of the academic and military establishments).

Populism demographics

96% of the “Bystanders” didn’t vote in 2004. The anti-populist bias of the Democrats means that they refuse to appeal to these voters. Anti-populists point to the cynicism and resentment of this particular 19% of the electorate and ask, “So you want us to play to their cynicism and resentment?” No, we should be figuring out how to reach them with a hopeful message.If we had something to offer them, we might get their votes.

Populism Bibliography

Indispensable Enemies

(Review of Indispensable Enemies, Walter Karp, Franklin Square Press, 1993 / 1973)

Karp makes one point that I can’t develop here, but which is dear to my heart. He asks the reader to assume that political players are agents and know what they’re doing, so that if the players’ actions don’t make sense in terms of their professed goals, we should conclude that their actual goals are different. This goes against fifty years of lumpen-wonk truisms about how politics works. Wonk Democrats seem to be fanatically committed to the idea that blind forces decide everything and that no one ever really knows what they are doing or why, and they automatically accuse anyone who believes that politicians do things for reasons of being a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

The Ivy League Tweed Ring

When elitist liberals or socialists get upset upon finding that their representatives are lying and unresponsive, they’re populists whether they know it or not. Elitism is institutional, not intellectual. To a political player, a Nobelist is one vote, the way a HS dropout is one vote, and a famous Nobelist is an opinion-leader, on a par with Glenn Beck  (and far outranked by a really serious opinion-leader like Bill Kristol.)

The difference is that when they’re lied to, populists know what’s happening and get mad, whereas left intellectuals are baffled and mostly just whine. My mission in this world is to convince liberal intellectuals that they are People too, salt-of-the-earth folk scorned by the powers that be. But most intellectuals find this offensive —  they think of themselves as unappreciated elite units, like princes switched in the cradle and raised by peasants. They’re sure that some day they will be recognized and restored to their rightful status.

H. L. Mencken, Cultural Elitism, and the Democratic Party

Most people probably at least vaguely remember Inherit the Wind, the 1960  movie about the Scopes trial, with Spencer Tracy as the gruff liberal (Clarence Darrow in real life), Fredric March as the pompous Christian anti-evolutionist (William Jennings Bryan in real life) and Gene Kelly as the cynical newspaperman (H. L. Mencken is real life). In the movie, the Bryan figure represents the past, blind religious belief, and ignorance, whereas the other two men represent progress, science, and freedom.  The standard contemporary Democrat’s image of the populist is along the lines of the film’s Bryan figure (Matthew Jefferson Brady): an ignorant anti-intellectual full of hot air and self-righteousness.

The facts of the matter are quite different. Bryan was a Democrat, not a Populist, and while the Populists did support him in 1896, Bryan never even acknowledged his Populist support. The  defender of evolution, Clarence Darrow, was the real Populist in the room: Darrow had actually been a Populist stump speaker back in the day.

Why is the Democratic Party Elitist?

Secondly, from the point of view of the the technocrats running the government, popular politics came to be seen as an impediment: managing the twists and turns of great-power  foreign policy requires a lot of cynicism, and it’s just too much trouble having to deal with public opinion and public debate every step of the way. The anti-popular theory of democracy had always been strong (e.g., with Walter Lippmann), and it became increasingly dominant within the Democratic Party. So in 1964 Lyndon Johnson was unashamed to campaign as the peace candidate even though he had already made up his mind to go to war in Vietnam, and four years later the Democratic Party and Hubert Humphrey immolated themselves in support of that war. (Judging by the response to Bush’s Iraq War, “Support All Wars” seems to have become the Democratic conventional wisdom.)

Orwell’s 1984 is usually read as an anti-Communist tract, but it also portrays the demoralizing effect of a heavily propagandized, aggressive, cynical foreign policy.

How the “Stupid Republican” meme stunts the Democratic Party and harms progressivism

We do have facts. Democrats do best with the least educated 10% (no H.S. diploma) and with the most educated 10% (degrees beyond the bachelor’s). For the 80% in between, the more educated are in general slightly more likely to be Republicans than the less educated. Teabaggers are, if anything, better educated and more prosperous than average. According to Gelman, in every area of the country the most prosperous tend to be Republicans, and the least prosperous tend to be Democrats, and in general education correlates with income. Finally, the more educated and better informed are more likely to end up at one extreme of the ideological spectrum or the other than are the less-educated and less-informed. Where in this can we find “Republicans are stupid?”

I’m not even opposed to using the word as an insult, but a lot of liberals and Democrats actually believe that saying that “Republicans are stupid” is a meaningful analysis, and it is not. If you want to fling accurate slurs you can say Republicans (and I mean the hardcore crazified 28%) are self-satisfied, defiantly anti-intellectual, insultingly provocative, incurious, mean-minded, paranoid, small-minded, or fanatical, but you can’t really distinguish them by educational level or IQ test. (this is the more true because some of them play dumb for the camera, and some of them are smart people who pander to dumb people). Most people are below average in IQ, after all, and plenty of liberal Democrats are just plain dumb.

Open Left:: Stupid Voters, Part Two

The next two groups of supposedly-stupid voters, low-information voters and non-voters, are purely and simply the product of Democratic failure. Low-information voters decide how to vote based on ambient information (i.e., free media and local scuttlebutt), and the free media are predominantly right wing. Non-voters, the second group, either are entirely unaware of politics, unconvinced that the Democrats have anything to offer them, or else prevented from voting by concrete problems such as lack of transportation or lack of time. In any case, both these classes of voters or potential voters are people who the Democrats, one way or another, have failed to reach.

You may ask: Aren’t non-voters people who the Republicans have also failed to reach? The answer is a resounding NO! Year in and year out, voter-discouragement is an important part of the ongoing Republican campaign. In that seanse, non-voters are often people the Republicans have succeeded in reaching.  Except for the most highly-educated tenth, the more Democratic an educational demographic is, the less likely it is to vote. Obama’s worst demographic was college graduates with no advanced degree, who make up 19% of the population but 28% of the voters. By contrast, Obama’s best demographic was the 14% of the population with no HS degree, but this demographic is the one least likely to vote, making up only 4% of the actual voters.

New voters v. swing voters I

The working poor are one group which tends not to vote, and they’re a natural Dem constituency. Yeah, they’re hard to organize, but they said that about labor in the old days too (ethnically fragmented, semiliterate, poor, embattled, unstable, etc.) Young, poor, alternative-culture cynics are another such difficult group, and in fact the groups tend to merge in later years (e.g. restaurant workers). I don’t think that failure can be declared before the strategy is tried.

New voters v. swing voters II

So it seems to me that the Democrats should be looking here, there, and everywhere for the votes we need. The Republican core is pretty solid, so we have a choice between looking for votes among the 20% of the voting-age population who are swing voters, and among the 50% of the voting-age population who are non-voters. Shouldn’t we be looking in both places? Should the rejection of the very idea of trying to find new voters be as unanimous as it is? Isn’t that lazy, fatalistic, and defeatist?

New voter v. Swing voters III

New voters v. Swing voters IV

New voters and the Democrats

In the five pieces above I argue in some detail that whatever hope there is for the left lies in going out to discouraged voters and non-voters, and that as long as Democrats keep fighting the Republicans for the so-called centrist or moderate vote the party, even of it wins, will continue to slide to the right.

The Wonk Demographic and the Stupid Voters

Unless you regard everyone without at least a master’s degree as stupid, the facts do not justify the Democratic or progressive disparagement of stupid voters. In 2008 high school dropouts were Obama’s best educational demographic at 63%. Voters with advanced degrees were next best at 58%, with HS graduates and those with some college giving Obama respectively 52% and 51% of their votes. At 50%, college graduates without advanced degrees were Obama’s worst demographic. Thus, when people talk about “stupid voters” what they’re really talking about is an internal split within the most-educated 28.8% of the population — between those with BAs and BSs and those with MAs and PhDs.

“Intuitive” swing voters

So here’s my conclusion: if someone’s going to pick their vote out of the air, you want to have a lot of free media out there that reaches them without any effort on their part. You want Democratic talk radio, Democratic TV talk shows, a democratic TV network, and so on. These are not people who study the issues and read newsmagazines. This is a significant demographic, and the Republican operatives have been playing them masterfully.

Democrats and cultural capital

The most highly educated Americans (those with more than a bachelor’s degree) tend strongly toward the Democratic Party. Among college grads, liberal arts grads are more Democratic and more liberal than those who majored in practical and applied fields like nursing. Democrats have ended up being the party of cultural capital, which is something that most people don’t have.

Being a liberal has become an aspect of cultural capital, like eating good food and having nice shoes. Special diets have proliferated is reminiscent of the Hindu caste system, which divides people according to purity practices. We now have vegans vs. vegetarians vs. omnivores, slow food vs fast food, organic free range vs off the shelf, low carb vs low fat, and so on

How the Democrats got to be the way they are

A second tenet of the Cold War liberals was that the government should not try to represent “The People”, since The People isn’t unified and divides up into various groups, but should serve as a neutral arbiter to balance the interests of the different groups. The balancing of interest groups was done on a pattern learned from the urban machines, whereby the spoils are divided up division is made pragmatically and instrumentally, outside any overall philosophy of who deserves what, and normally go to whoever makes the most noise and who help the Democratic Party most at election time. This essentially amoral view contrasts to progressive or populist governance, which in theory at least aimed at justice.

Political entrepreneurs vs. political managers

Conservatives and liberals come from very different backgrounds. Conservatives tend to come more from the business world, whereas most liberals have a history in academia, public administration, non-profits, unions, and other large bureaucratic organizations. While there are strengths that come from this institutional background, there are weaknesses too, and at the moment I find the weaknesses the most striking.

Businessmen are entrepreneurs, gamblers, opportunists, and sometimes lowlifes, and they are always looking for an edge. Many are semi-educated, uncredentialed, and self-taught, and they’re always on the outlook for talent. They don’t usually care about someone’s credentials if they’re able to do the job. By contrast, academics and administrators are always worried that someone might be hired or promoted who is Not Fully Qualified.

Liberal elitism, etc.

So why is the charge so effective? I think that it’s because, by now, the Democratic Party does indeed represent large groups whose status depends on credentials and connections, and that many plebian voters basically don’t like these people. The college professor is a case in point. I would guess that most people who come out of college admiring their professors (especially liberal arts professors) end up as Democrats, whereas most of the students who come out of college hating those professors (especially students specializing in practical fields) end up as Republicans. (And non-college people are probably more likely to hate professors than to love them.)

Why is the Democrat Party so worthless?

The Democratic Party is not us. The Democratic Party is a billion-dollar hierarchal bureaucracy made up of careerists with axes to grind. For them we’re just a resource. It’s our job to learn to deal with them; they’ve already figured out how they’re going to deal with us…..The answer is this: Loyalty is always punished, and betraying the voters is what political parties are for. The Democratic Party is not us. The Democratic Party is a billion-dollar hierarchal bureaucracy made up of careerists with axes to grind. For them we’re just a resource. It’s our job to learn to deal with them; they’ve already figured out how they’re going to deal with us.

How the Democratic Party Works, and Doesn’t Work 

“Democratic leaders are timid and cowardly.”

There’s some truth in this one, and I’ll pick up on it again below: the Democratic Party does not seem to understand bargaining, bluffing, or fighting, and seems addicted to splitting the difference and finding ingenious win-win situations. But the problem is mostly just that the leadership’s goals are different than ours, and mostly short-term and small-time. Political pros don’t really care much whether they accomplish anything or not by our standards. Taking risks might upset their own little applecarts, so they rarely take any. They’ll fight if their own interests are threatened, but they’re not going to fight just for us.

Reality based community

Democrats are too tied to public administration and to the normalizing social sciences, where you try to keep things under control and running smoothly, or try to figure out the most likely thing to happen based on observed regularities. Republicans are more likely to come from wildcat entrepreneurial backgrounds, often of a semi-criminal type, where the goal is to seize a momentary advantage, find an exception or a weak spot, or find a new angle. As a result Republicans are better at spotting and exploiting the unrevealed potentials of an unstable or evolving situation.

Academics and Democrats

I think that the collegiality of academia, combined with excessive doses of Orwell and Gandhi, tend to incapacitate academics for the kind of gutter fighting you need when you’re facing Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and Grover Norquist. I think that the habits and ways characteristic of academic institutions are the problem, and I think that many of these habits and ways are also characteristic of the various other kinds of large institutions where Democrats tend to make their careers. The Republicans hire semi-criminal entrepreneurs, and it works for them.

Fight for the best compromise, not just any old compromise

This leads us to a second question: who are we bargaining with? Well, we’re not bargaining with the Republicans or the conservative Democrats — our representatives are in Congress to do that. We don’t have to figure out how to handle Joe Lieberman or Olympia Snowe or Ben Nelson or any of the other boodlers and wingers stinking up Congress. We’re bargaining with our own representatives in Congress, not with the other side’s representatives.  And in practice this means that we’re bargaining with our Congressmen, the Democratic leadership, and Barack Obama (as represented by Rahm Emmanuel), and they all want us to shut up and quit. However, we obviously  shouldn’t be taking bargaining tips from the people we’re bargaining with. Progressive bargaining with the Democratic Party has been stuck at the “Shut up!” level for a good long time, and Obama and Emmanuel have not changed that in the slightest.

Compromises II

Reasonable conspiracy theories

Conspiracism starts with the conviction that the system is stacked against you and that you can never win, and liberals don’t want to believe that. As the conservative triumph starts to bite, maybe some of them will wise up.

If you’re not a conspiracy theorist some of the time, you’re a sucker

In political science the distinction between the politics of governance and the politics of consent is universally accepted. In practice two different groups of people do these two jobs for any given team, and the campaign people often have little idea what the candidates and their appointees really plan to do once in office. It’s also taken for given that many of the goals proclaimed during the campaign will be forgotten once the election is won.  If this bothers you, you’re an untrustworthy idiot who just doesn’t get it.

Most of the liberal heavies agree that direct democracy is a bad thing and that public opinion should have essentially no influence on actual policy;  ideally, the electorate should just choose betwen two competing slates of experts.  E. g., Walter Lippmann and Richard Hofstadter; Karl Popper, Daniel Bell, Edward Shils and the other technocrats; Strauss and the neocons; Hayek and the bipartisan neoliberals (per Mirowski: The Road from Mont Pelerin) — who did I leave out? Anti-democracy is liberal dogma*. The whole argument for the Federal Reserve System is that it will shield financial policy from democratic politics. The range of expert opinion on foreign and military policy is confined to different flavors of liberal interventionism.


The media owners get the journalists they want.

I’m really becoming a nag on this question, but “journalistic incompetence, laziness, and the knowing distribution of unadulterated bullshit” are management problems. The journalists whose names and faces we see are doing exactly the jobs they were hired to do. When Jonah Goldberg or William Kristol gets hired by a major newspaper, it’s not because the person who hired him has made a mistake.

Sulzberger and Graham are the problem

The people responsible for hiring and promotion are management. The Rev. Moon, Richard Scaife, Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch, Donald Graham, Arthur Sulzberger, together with a number of nearly-anonymous figures of that type, control the information the American people get, and actively enable the likes of George W. Bush. It’s stupid to blame individual reporters and editorialists.

Why Oh Why Oh Why I

Obviously it’s is a management problem. The Washington Post and the New York Times, for example, have been especially disappointing to mainstream liberals. Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., is the chairman both of the New York Times Board of Directors and the New York Times Executive Board. Donald E. Graham is the chairman of both the Washington Post Board of Directors and the Washington Post Executive Board.
There’s no mystery. The reason why these two newspapers are incompetent, dishonest, and slanted to the the right is because these two men want them to be that way. The reason the well-paid tools who write for these newspapers write and think so badly is that even the smart ones know that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and Donald E. Graham want them to write badly and dishonestly. The rhetorical questions can now stop.

Why Oh Why Oh Why II

It comes from the top

Every time that I make the claim that responsibility should be assigned to management rather than to individual reporters, the reflex “conspiracy theorist” accusation shoots back at me so quickly that I have to ask whether my statement even reached the cerebral cortex at all. All I claim is that management manages and that reporters can be hired, fired, promoted, and demoted, but people respond with abstruse theories proving that management does not, and can not, manage. And claim that I’m the crazy one, not them.
As for management’s motives, I have no way of knowing them. My present guess is that the owners and managers of the big media are pro-war, are responsive to the favors that the federal government hands out, and want low taxes (and an end to the estate tax, which is a major factor for the few family-owned publications: see here).

The Post and the Times want to be bad

It all sounds like a version of “If we could only speak to the Czar, he’d make things right again.” It’s always a low-level employee who’s blamed, though with Harris we’ve started to move up the ladder to some of the faceless people who actually make the big decisions.

How we could have a better press corps

This country will never be healthy until new media institutions have been brought into being. National TV, national cable, national radio, and a national newspaper — all new. Air America was a very small start, and it was very poorly supported. We need much more than that.

This is doable — there’s a lot of liberal money out there. But for whatever reason (I suggest stupidity and inattention, but that’s just me), the liberal money people are reluctant to put money in media. The new media wouldn’t necessarily be profitable, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a money sink either. The main thing is, we need it.

We need a new media #10

I’m now convinced that elections are won and lost mostly among the people who depend on scuttlebutt and free media for their political information, and that the Republicans have a huge advantage there. So we need to scrape up half a billion and build the whole thing from scratch.

Many Democrats still don’t get the point. Even today, proposals of this type get kneejerk sneers from a high proportion of liberals. I stopped asking myself why; I ended up concluding that the Democrats are worthless and deserve to lose — it’s a pity that we will have to lose too.


Published on January 17, 2014 at 1:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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  1. Excellent. Your posts about American Populism have been extremely helpful to me.

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