Primary Colors: On Democratic Presidential Politics, Neoliberalism, and the White Working Class


What happened on Election Night was, in a sense, unremarkable. The white working class, long a constituency at the very heart of American politics, simply found its way into the spotlight once again. Exit polls indicate, with about as much confidence as the entire enterprise of political polling can be held to indicate anything these days, that Donald Trump is President today because Hillary Clinton lost working class whites by an astounding margin. She was beaten by Trump among whites without college degrees by nearly 40 points. And, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn has pointed out, she lost a significant amount of support from whites in this category who not only supported Obama, but likely comprised over a third of the coalition that brought him back to the White House in 2012.

Clinton’s atrocious performance among working class whites was, of course, reflective of a…

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The Liberal Agenda

The Juicero Era

Last week, Freddie deBoer took a morbidly hilarious, despairing look at the current state of the Silicon Valley economy as told by the Juicero saga and the ever-nuttier ads evidently plaguing the NYC subways:

Juicero deserved all of the attention it got and more — it was so pure, so impossibly telling about the pre-apocalyptic American wasteland. It was also just one of a whole constellation of companies that now operate under an ingenious model: take some banal product that has been sold forever at low margins, attach the disposable part to a proprietary system that pretends to improve it but really just locks pepole into a particular vendor, add a touch screen manufactured by Chinese tweens, call it “Smart,” and sell it to schlubby dads too indebted to buy a midlife crisis car and too unattractive to have an affair.

Exhibit A: A toothbrush subscription service called Quip:

Are you the kind of person who is so worn down by the numbing drudgery of late capitalism that you can’t summon the energy to drag a 2 ounce toothbrush across your gums for 90 seconds a day? Well, the electric toothbrush has been a thing for a long time. And that means that it’s not good enough. After years of deadening your limbic system through psychotropic medication, video games, and increasingly-extreme internet pornography, you need something new. Enter Quip, the company disrupting the toothbrush. Quip wants you to know that its product is inexpensive, despite the fact that it will charge you $40/year for for its “refill plan” and I just bought 5 perfectly functional regular toothbrushes for $1 in the most expensive city in the country.

DeBoer uses the phrase “late capitalism” again at the end of the piece:

These companies are for people who think temp agencies are too coddling and well remunerative. The only service they sell is making it easier to kill minimally stable, well-compensated jobs. That’s it. They have no other function. They valorize Doers while killing workers. They siphon money from the desperate throngs back to the employers who will use them up and throw them aside like a discarded Juicero bag and, of course, to themselves and their shareholders. That’s it. That’s all they are. That’s all they do. They are the final logic of late capitalism, the engine of human creativity applied to the essential work of making life worse for regular people.

Our society is a hellish wasteland and I am dying inside.

“Late capitalism” is gaining popularity as a just barely ironic descriptor of, well, our existentially hellish and deadening society. I think I’ve only used it once myself–to describe Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show a few years back. It fit. Annie Lowery has a piece today in The Atlantic about its origins:

A job advertisement celebrating sleep deprivation? That’s late capitalism. Free-wheeling Coachella outfits that somehow all look the same and cost thousands of dollars? Also late capitalism. Same goes for this wifi-connected $400 juicer that does no better than human hands, Pepsi’s advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner, United Airlines’ forcible removal of a seated passenger who just wanted to go home, and the glorious debacle that was the Fyre Festival. The phrase—ominous, academic, despairing, sarcastic—has suddenly started showing up everywhere.

This publication has used “late capitalism” roughly two dozen times in recent years, describing everything from freakishly oversized turkeys to double-decker armrests for steerage-class plane seats. The New Yorker is likewise enamored of it, invoking it in discussions of Bernie Sanders and fancy lettuces, among other things. There is a wildly popular, year-old Reddit community devoted to it, as well as a Facebook page, a Tumblr, and a lively Twitter hashtag. Google search interest in its has more than doubled in the past year.

[…]  A German economist named Werner Sombart seems to have been the first to use it around the turn of the 20th century, with a Marxist theorist and activist named Ernest Mandel popularizing it a half-century later. For Mandel, “late capitalism” denoted the economic period that started with the end of World War II and ended in the early 1970s, a time that saw the rise of multinational corporations, mass communication, and international finance. Roberts said that the term’s current usage departs somewhat from its original meaning. “It’s not this sense that things are getting so bad that the revolution is going to come,” he told me, “but rather that we see the ligaments of the international system that socialists will be able to seize and use.”

Post-Mandel, the phrase was taken up by critical theorists; Duke’s Fredric Jameson is credited with popularizing it as a phrase that connotes a connection between neoliberalism and the banality and insidiousness of mass culture.

Big Government is Gaining Bigly in Public Opinion

Slate‘s Henry Grabar on good news in new numbers from Pew:

Americans’ view of government seems to have rapidly shifted since last September, according to Pew. As many Americans would rather have a bigger government providing more services as at any point in the past couple decades. Support for big government has risen to 48 percent, up from 41 percent in September, while the percent of Americans favoring a smaller government providing fewer services has fallen from 50 to 45 in that time. It’s the first time since the beginning of the Obama administration, Pew says, that Americans have been so divided on the subject.

The numbers actually show that the core principles of conservatism—smaller government, fewer services—have gradually declined in support since the mid-1990s. Americans preferred smaller government 59% to 35% in 1998. The gap hasn’t just narrowed — it’s completely gone. Things have changed dramatically in a positive direction even since 2013– on every conceivable issue, the public is more open to government action now than they were then: Americans are 7 points more supportive of increasing federal spending on education, 20 points more supportive of increasing infrastructure spending, 12 points more supportive of boosting health care spending, 13 points more supportive of boosting environmental spending, and 18 percent more supportive of increasing spending on the poor.

Polls have long shown that Americans are generally more liberal than the media, politicians, or Americans themselves assume; the large number of people who self-describe as conservative meshes poorly with years of polling on support for specific policies.  Of course, for myriad reasons, the composition of Congress and the strategies, priorities, and messaging of the Democratic Party have failed to reflect this. There’s a new paper by political scientists David Broockman and Christopher Skovron on just this topic. The abstract:

The conservative asymmetry of elite polarization and the right-skewed “democratic deficit”—wherein policy is more conservative than majorities prefer on average—represent significant puzzles. We argue that such breakdowns in aggregate representation can arise because politicians systematically misperceive constituency opinion. We demonstrate this argument in US states, where conservative citizens are more active in the public spheres politicians monitor, which we hypothesized might distort politicians’ perceptions of public opinion. With original surveys of 3,765 politicians’ perceptions of constituency opinion on nine issues, we find politicians of both parties dramatically overestimate their constituents’ support for conservative policies. This pattern is robust across methods, years, issues, districts, and states. We also show Republicans overestimate constituency conservatism especially and that this partisan difference may arise from differences in politicians’ information environments. Our findings suggest a novel way democratic representation may fail: politicians can systematically misperceive what their constituents want.




Obamacare’s More Popular Than Ever

I missed an Ezra Klein piece on how the GOP has utterly played itself on Obamacare last week. Post-AHCA, the law is unsurprisingly more popular than ever, and significantly more popular (55% approval) than the GOP (40%), Trump (39%), Congress (34%), Paul Ryan (29%) and, of course, the AHCA on its deathbed (17%). Klein:

I genuinely don’t understand what Republicans believe their endgame is here. When Democrats passed Obamacare, the law was mildly unpopular (though nothing close to the AHCA’s catastrophic numbers), but they believed, firmly, that it would grow more popular as it began delivering insurance to millions of people.

So far, the main thing the new Republican majority has achieved on health care is to prove the Democrats right — they have made Obamacare more popular than it’s been at any other point in its existence. And they’ve achieved that by persuading people disappointed in Obamacare that it’s better than what Republicans want to put in its place.

Chicago’s Changing Colors

Whet Moser on Chicago’s changing streetlights:

On Wednesday, City Council signed off on its $160 million plan to change the color of Chicago, replacing its 270,000 high-pressure sodium lights, which give the city its, um, distinctive orange glow, to LED. Right now Chicago is one of the most orange cities in the world; when the project is done, it’ll look completely different, on the street and from space.

Chicago’s been orange for about 40 years. It started with an experiment on the Dan Ryan in 1969, about the time high-pressure sodium-vapor lights were perfected enough to go into widespread use, and a handful of the blueish mercury-vapor lights were replaced. Three years later the Lawndale People’s Planning and Action Conference proposed their light installation on Roosevelt Avenue as a crime-fighting tactic. But it was unclear if the investment would pay off. In 1973, UCLA astronomer Kurt Riegel, concerned about light pollution, correlated rising crime to increased outdoor luminosity in a piece for Science, concluding that “the selling has also been very succesful—most people now believe that outdoor lighting buys them security.” (He found that the evidence was mixed.)

The history behind Chicago’s streetlights is unexpectedly interesting, as is the blowback from some quarters on shifting to more modern, starkly bright, and, in my opinion, better looking white lights:

Chicago followed the [American Medical Association]’s guidelines and is getting 3000K LEDs. It’s close to the 2700K lights the city of Davis, California, got after its citizens revolted against the “prison lighting” of their new 4000K LEDs, or Phoenix, which switched to warmer lights under public pressure, not the only city to field complaints about cool-temperature lights.

[…]Incandescent lights are beloved because they’re warm and their color-rendering is excellent, so they feel natural and have a good warmth for nighttime lighting—but, they’re extremely inefficient. High-pressure sodium lights are warm, but their color rendering is terrible (“the ugliest light known to the cinematographer”). LED streetlights have much better color rendering, but it’s unnatural to have the night lit like the day—in ways we can perceive, and perhaps in ways we can’t. Chicago’s 3000K LEDs are an attempt to have it both ways: familiar enough in rendering colors to not look like “frightening futurism,” warm enough to be appropriate for the night.


The Kids Are Still Right

Check out this op-ed from NYU professor Ulrich Baer in the NYT today:

The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.

In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public. In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.

The overall position is, obviously, in line with my essay on all this in Slate, but the practical point Baer raises here — that the university is never really debuting new ideas when it invites speakers — is a good one that I could’ve spent more time on. It’s a point, incidentally, that figures heavily in Stanley Fish’s very good response to Middlebury, in which he argues moreover that the whole practice of inviting extracurricular speakers—controversial and not—isn’t actually central to the project of the university in the first place. If one wanted to be truly provocative, you could argue that the kinds of ideological and partisan speeches we’ve been warring over actually reflect the kind of activity bloat the kinds of writers who critique P.C. culture often argue distracts from core education. I wouldn’t, but you could!

Half of my effort in continuing to participate in this debate is aimed at making clear that this is, in fact, a debate. There are a great many points on the other side that I think are strong and worth making. There are people on my side who make points I think are weak. I don’t think P.C.’s critics view contrary arguments on speech with anywhere near the same amount of generosity and I don’t think they put in very much effort to rein in the hyperbole and hypocrisy of certain arguments advanced on their side.

One of the attitudes Baer examines in his piece that I think P.C. critics have interrogated with some salience is the notion of authoritative experience. Do certain identities grant certain participants in certain debates a kind of authority that can substantively transcend the mere exchange of facts? Baer looks to Lyotard for insight and makes an argument about asymmetries of power that largely reflects what P.C. students often say in defense of their position on this question:

Instead of defining freedom of expression as guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges, Lyotard focused on the asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments. His extreme example was Holocaust denial, where invidious but often well-publicized cranks confronted survivors with the absurd challenge to produce incontrovertible eyewitness evidence of their experience of the killing machines set up by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Not only was such evidence unavailable, but it also challenged the Jewish survivors to produce evidence of their own legitimacy in a discourse that had systematically denied their humanity.

Lyotard shifted attention away from the content of free speech to the way certain topics restrict speech as a public good. Some things are unmentionable and undebatable, but not because they offend the sensibilities of the sheltered young. Some topics, such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms.

Baer also digs up some of Yale’s distant history — I’m well aware that this debate has been had many times over due to incidents at American universities that stretch back decades, but I seem to have missed some of the most interesting conflicts at Yale in my research. Have a look at some of the controversy over a William Shockley appearance recounted in a 1974 Yale report on free expression on campus that Baer cites:

For the first time in memory a speaker tried to speak at a scheduled appearance at Yale and was prevented from doing so by organized disruption. This time the opposition to the invitation and the determination to disrupt the speech came largely from within the University and was open, determined, and menacing from the start. It was also clear from the start that the opposition focused on Shockley, regardless of whom he debated, on his views of genetic inferiority and his proposal of voluntary sterilization as a solution.

[…]Well before the decision for the debate was reached, threats to prevent it were announced […] Shortly after the decision, officers of the Black Law Students and the Black Students Alliance at Yale joined with a graduate student and a medical student in a statement carried in the News of January 28: “We hereby serve notice that we vehemently oppose the Shockley Innis debate and will exert all necessary efforts to prevent its occurrence.” They urged members of the Political Union to override their Board’s decision and withdraw the invitation.

The University administration received delegations of objecting students and conferred with officials of the Union, but at this stage adopted a hands-off policy. Several student organizations however, did bring pressure on the Union. The Chairman of the Progressive Labor Party, according to the News, dismissed freedom of speech as “a nice abstract idea to enable people like Shockley to spread racism.’” An open letter from an organization of Puerto Rican students to the Union called the debate “an insult to the Third World Community.” Other News stories reported that concerned members of the Asian American Student Association declared that it “must not be tolerated,” and a spokesman of the Chicano students did not think Shockley would “be given the opportunity to speak.” Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish Chaplains of the Yale Religious Ministry urged cancellation. Voices were also raised in support of the invitation. Some contended that opposition to the invitation was not the same as opposition to the principle of free speech.

[…]In March another invitation was extended to Shockley by the newly reconstituted Yale chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), who also invited William Rusher, publisher of the National Review, to debate him. The subject of the debate later accepted by YAF, and one cause of offense to others, was, “Resolved: That society has a moral obligation to diagnose and treat tragic racial IQ inferiority.” A politically conservative group, YAF stated that it regarded Shockley as a liberal and said its members sought refutation of his doctrines of state genetic control through Rusher’s arguments.

For the debate, which was to take place on April 15, the administration assigned room 114 in Strathcona Hall. On April 12 the Yale Daily News ran a front page story telling in detail how “student protest now threatens to disrupt the event itself.” Several protest organizations, not all of them endorsing disruptive tactics, were cited and quoted. The tactic that later proved to be the most effectively used to disrupt the debate was that attributed to the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop Shockley, namely to drown out all speakers with noise. Other groups planned to picket the debate outside the hall. The administration took some steps to discourage disruption. On the evening of April 13, at a meeting called by students and attended by about 100 people invited from the sponsoring and objecting groups, University Secretary Henry Chauncey, Jr., repeated the warning President Brewster had spelled out in the face of threatened disruption of a speech by Secretary of State Rogers in May 1972. On the day of the debate the News repeated these warnings of “severe discipline” against students using “violent or coercive action.”

At the hour appointed, the speakers and their hosts arrived at 114 Strathcona Hall to debate. When YAF officers could not make themselves heard. Secretary Chauncey took the platform to repeat his warning and was shouted down. The speakers were not permitted to say an audible word They were drowned out by derisive applause, insults chanted at Shockley, and shouted obscenities. No more than a third of the audience seemed to participate in the disruption. Chauncey sought to quiet the disrupters and warn them of disciplinary penalties, but without effect. “Racist Chauncey, go home!” became part of the chanting. After an hour and fifteen minutes Chauncey closed the meeting. The disruption of the speakers had been a complete success and the University’s defense of principle had ended in total failure.

Kids these those days.


There Were “Nazis” Before the Nazis and They Were American.

While we’re on the topic of the alt-right: I’ve been fairly critical of calls to simply call them Nazis or neo-Nazis. As writers in the anti-fascist movement and I have argued, the fact that most of them don’t actually espouse Nazi ideology should be of relevance to our efforts to understand and put out accurate information about the movement for a number of reasons. One underacknowleged reason is that the kneejerk “Nazi” charge blinds us to the ways in which the ideas animating the alt-right are firmly rooted in American history. Virulent racism and eugenics, as should be painfully, stupidly obvious to us, are not foreign imports from Nazi Germany. In fact, Adolf Hitler is known to have been influenced by American eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Madison Grant, author of an incredibly influential work of scientific racism called The Passing of the Great Race. “Hitler quoted liberally from Grant in his speeches,” the Times‘ Timothy Ryback wrote in 2011, “and is said to have sent him a letter describing The Passing of the Great Race as “my bible.”

Last week at Marginal Revolution,  Alex Tabarrok shed light on another important American eugenicist—Richard T. Ely, co-founder of the American Economic Association

Ely … wanted more government ownership of the commanding heights, more regulation of economic life and more militarism and service to the state. Ely didn’t just reject laissez-faire in economics he rejected laissez-faire in all areas of social life.

For example, after explaining why the benevolence of modern society might lead to a decline in the fitness of the race, he argued, don’t worry, we have a solution:

“….the regulation of marriage, which is proposed, and which is being pushed forward by physicians and thoughtful people, — by people who are the farthest removed from any possible designation as cranks, — looks beyond the prevention of the marriage of paupers and feeble-minded.”

“[T]here are classes in every modern community composed of those who are virtually children,” Ely wrote in 1898, “and who require paternal and fostering care, the aim of which should be the highest development of which they are capable. We may instance the negroes, who are for the most part grownup children, and should be treated as such.” Tabarrok goes on to point out that this racism was central to the AEA’s early work:

One early and influential publication of the AEA, for example, was Frederick Hoffman’s Race Traits of the American Negro which after presenting reams of statistics (Hoffman was later a president of the American Statistical Society) concluded with these recommendations:

“…Intercourse with the white race must absolutely cease and race purity must be insisted upon in marriage as well as outside of it. Together with a higher morality will come a greater degree of economic efficiency, and the predominating trait of the white race, the virtue of thrift, will follow as a natural consequence of the mastery by the colored race of its own conditions of life…

“…All the facts prove that education, philanthropy and religion have failed to develop a higher appreciation of the stern and uncompromising virtues of the Aryan race. The conclusion is warranted that it is merely a question of time when the actual downward course, that is, a decrease in the population, will take place. In the meantime, however, the presence of the colored population is a serious hindrance to the economic progress of the white race.”

The whole post is worth a read. As too few are aware, the country wasn’t merely drunk on eugenicist thought at the time. Sterilization was enthusiastically supported public policy across most of the country through WWII. The alt-right isn’t some kind of dark, new Nazi revolution. It’s an all-American revival.

The Average American Hasn’t A Clue What the Alt-Right Is.

From Pew today:

A majority (54%) of U.S. adults say they have heard “nothing at all” about the “alt-right” movement and another 28% have heard only “a little” about it, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Just 17% say they have heard “a lot” about the movement.

Liberal Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are far more likely than other Democrats to have heard about the movement. Two-thirds of liberal Democrats (66%) have heard a lot or a little about it, compared with fewer than half of conservative or moderate Democrats (39%) and just four-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners overall (40%).

Pew’s survey goes on to say that a little over a third of Americans who’ve actually heard of the alt-right associate the label with white supremacy or white nationalism, with an additional 17 percent of Americans associating the alt-right with racism more generally. So much for euphemization. “Democrats (47%) are nearly three times as likely as Republicans (17%) to say the movement stands for “white supremacy” or “white nationalism,” Pew’s John Gramlich writes. “Democrats are also more likely than Republicans to associate the movement with “racism” or “prejudice” (18% of Democrats, 10% of Republicans).”

The Democrats Should Obviously Ram Through Merrick Garland. So They Probably Won’t.

Over at Crooks and Liars, Karoli Kunis has a post about the last shot Democrats will have to land Merrick Garland on the Court:

David Waldman (KagroX on Twitter) has outlined how they can confirm Judge Merrick Garland on January 3rd for the few minutes that they will be the majority in the Senate. Waldman is a long-standing expert on Senate procedure and political plays. He was one of the first to call for passage of the ACA via reconciliation in the Senate after Scott Brown was elected.

Here it is, in a nutshell.

On January 3, 2017, Democrats will hold the majority in the Senate for a few minutes, until the newly-elected Senators are sworn in. Biden could convene the Senate in those few minutes and call for a vote. The majority could then suspend the rules and vote in Merrick Garland.

The key here is that VP Biden would have to be willing to convene the Senate and recognize Senator Dick Durbin instead of Mitch McConnell. Durbin moves to re-nominate Garland, and Senate Democrats then vote to confirm him. They will have a quorum for those few minutes.

It’s bold. Garland would be confirmed by 34 Democrats and no Republicans. It will certainly enrage Republicans, but they’re already enraged and full of hubris about how they’re going to screw Democrats anyway, so what do they really have to lose?

It would be a both highly dramatic and highly necessary move. Leaving without appointing Garland would guarantee Trump and the Republican Party at least one (and maybe two, possibly three) nominations if the Republican Party eliminates the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. Which they likely will—they’re entirely willing to pull moves like this to achieve their objectives; their willingness to subvert norms is the very reason why Garland has been hung out to dry for months while the Court has been deadlocked. Pushing Garland through is the right move. It’s the responsible move. And it probably will not be done.