Liberals and Campaign Finance Regulation

by Henry Farrell on February 5, 2009

“Josh Cohen”: has an interesting new piece up at the _Boston Review_ website where he sticks it to the libertarians, complaining that they’ve always been at the rearguard of struggles for rights because of their distaste for the state. There’s one argument that I want to pick up on.

we [liberals] think that chances for influence should not depend so much on resources, and that means regulating campaign finance. Now, we know (and share) the concerns about intrusive regulations, official distortions of speech, people spending on fancy cars instead of politics, and the troubles with drawing lines between regulable and non-regulable speech, especially in our political culture. But we see all of these concerns as conversation starters, not stoppers. The issue is whether we can figure out a system of electoral finance that would not simply dismiss the value of political equality. That is the question. But when we hear the idea of regulating the flow of money, we don’t assume that it will be perverse, or futile, or ruinous of all that is good

What’s interesting is that Mark Schmitt has a “piece”: in this month’s _American Prospect_ (which has just gone up on the website), arguing more or less the opposite case.

more than $1.6 billion was raised for the presidency alone … Only a few presidential candidates participated in the public-financing system for the primaries. One, Obama, was the first candidate since the system was created to opt out of using it in the general election … the other major-party candidate supplemented public financing with $19 million in coordinated funding through the Republican National Committee and at least $36 million through a legal loophole known as a General Election Legal and Accounting Compliance Fund. …

Had these staggering circumstances been predicted to campaign-finance reform advocates a few years ago, they would have unanimously described them as a dystopia, a terrifying fate for American democracy …Yet when that day came, many of the same reformers described it as one of the brighter days in the history of American democracy. Voters participated in record numbers, and enthusiasm was palpable, not just for Obama but for other presidential candidates as well as House and Senate candidates.

Mark argues that the case against money in politics is much weaker when we see substantial amounts of money being raised from small donors (48% of Obama’s money came from small donors, while 34% of McCain’s did). Candidates are much less beholden to big donors than they used to be. Money, cynicism and low participation don’t create the self-perpetuating trap that people used to assume that they did. As Mark describes it:

Small donors can be drawn to politics, and large sums of money in politics and engaged, participatory democracy are not incompatible; money can, in fact, be an essential form of expression that deepens participation. That is, money, positive engagement with politics and government, and participation can, in certain circumstances, form a virtuous circle.

He suggests that the unexpected surge of small donors in the last election should receive institutional support, not through regulation but positive incentives – such as matching systems and tax credits for small contributions.

So should liberals be for or against campaign finance regulation? Mark makes a strong case that it is an empirical question rather than one of underlying commitments. If it is possible to achieve the good things that Josh and others would like to see without intrusive regulations, distortions of speech and so on, then we ought to do it. And as Mark says, the recent Presidential election at the least suggests that some of the standard arguments for stronger campaign finance regulation don’t work.

Even so, I’m not entirely convinced by Mark’s argument. As he notes in passing, we know very little about small donors (that is those who give less than $200). This is because candidates aren’t legally obliged to report personal data on these donors. But I think that it’s a reasonably safe guess that these donors will by and large tend to be middle class (or at most lower middle class) rather than working class, let alone unemployed or in irregular employment.

A surge of small donor money will indeed be likely to make politicians less specifically beholden to wealthy individuals. However, (if I’m right about the distribution of giving), it will be less effective in addressing the fundamental political inequalities that Larry Bartels points out, in which US senators appear highly responsive to the interests of rich people, somewhat responsive to the interests of middle class people, and not responsive in any detectable way to the interests of the poorest third of the population. These inequalities certainly aren’t a simple product of political donation patterns, but it’s plausible that such donations are one of the important causal factors. If that is true, then I think liberals still have grounds to stick with Josh. Even if, as Mark argues, the case for regulation isn’t as strong as it used to be, it still has some teeth.



dsquared 02.05.09 at 2:59 pm

What’s a “small donor”? If 20,000 readers of Daily Kos give $100 each, is that 20k $100 donations, or one donation of $2m, from Kos. Giving a big regulatory boost to “small” donations just creates a role for “aggregators”


DC 02.05.09 at 3:34 pm

Maybe number of donors rather than size of donation is more relevant?


Steve LaBonne 02.05.09 at 3:53 pm

Isn’t campaign finance regulation a proven failure, with new loopholes always found in every attempt to close the old ones, and a Supreme Count always ready to strike down on (IMHO bogus) “free speech” grounds anything that might have a prayer of actually being effective?

Good intentions are nice, but reality trumps them every time. Perhaps it’s time to fight more promising battles.


beezer 02.05.09 at 4:32 pm

I know of a local pol who regularly holds “picnics” for supporters, where a long list of $10 and $25 dollar donators is supplied. Everyone knows only a few donors actually gave the pol money, the supporters who show up for the free food, and usually some beer too, are simply people who like the pol and benefit from his support.

The fact is no one really gives a hoot. Why? Because just as in Washington, D.C., the politicians support the locals–said locals most definitely including lobbyists for powerful interests in D.C. It’s all in your definition of what’s local.


Dan Miller 02.05.09 at 4:34 pm

If you haven’t read “Voting with Dollars” by Ayers and Ackerman, you should. They go into a lot of detail, but their key point is that with a decently sized public subsidy, you can drown out private interests and get all the benefit of campaign finance reform with fewer problematic speech restrictions. Worth a look.


Sebastian 02.05.09 at 4:51 pm

“Josh Cohen has an interesting new piece up at the Boston Review website where he sticks it to the libertarians, complaining that they’ve always been at the rearguard of struggles for rights because of their distaste for the state. ”

Argh I hate things like this because it shows that he just doesn’t get the point of libertarians. It isn’t that the state can’t do anything, or that it always gets things wrong. Those are the libertarians you like to argue against, but that isn’t the core of the philosophy. I’m not even a libertarian and I can see that it is more like:

Governments tend to play favorites in how they bestow rights, and that this is an almost impossible-to-remove part of how human communities operate. Rights are balanced against each other, and many different people have different orderings of basic rights. Governments tend to twist this against individuals and small groups, often in violent ways (see for example the drug war). As such it is better to limit the power of government over indivduals to the extent that it is practical

Now this approach certainly has flaws. The most important one being that from a practical perspective almost any government is difficult to fight if you aren’t excited by the idea of making a counter-government unless you are anarchic, which most libertarians aren’t.

Which brings us to freedom of speech and of the press. This is clearly an individual right, which is to say the kind of right that libertarians are most sympathetic to. They are skeptical of statements like “So should liberals be for or against campaign finance regulation? Mark makes a strong case that it is an empirical question rather than one of underlying commitments.” The reason they are skeptical is because it involves liberals deciding whether or not the freedom of speech and of the press is important enough to subordinate to their needs based on what liberals want of things (which is to say excluding what libertarians, conservatives, and others might want of things). To them, it looks like liberals want to rig the game so that everyone gets cherished rights only so long as liberals get everything they want out of the political system every time. This leads to things like trying to have strict speech/press controls for corporations while having laxer rules for unions. This leads to freaking out about free speech zones for anti-WTO protestors, but causing little to no complaint if pro-life protestors to be put blocks away. The libertarian critique is that governments can’t generally be trusted to fairly arbitrate such things, especially as we get closer and closer to very fundamental rights.

Now this critique isn’t perfect. It certainly has holes (though IMHO many of its holes are shared by liberal political philosophy too, and all of it comes down to an ordering of rights which really comes down to axioms). But you really aren’t even understanding them if you think that it makes sense to respond to their argument with the idea that they don’t know how to protect rights because they try to avoid having the government do it.

On the issue at hand, there really is a very large tension between campaign finance control and freedom of speech and of the press. The libertarian position is that the benefits of campaign finance controls are dubious (unlikely to work because money, class, and other social interests will just go around it) and the costs are enormous (restrictive political speech which is at the very core of the free speech right). And I’m pretty sure that they are correct on that despite the laudable desires of liberals for the program.

Now maybe that is similar to “Mark makes a strong case that it is an empirical question rather than one of underlying commitments.” But the ‘it’ in that sentence is really slippery. The problem is that what empirical question you are asking is probably rather different from the ones that libertarians are asking.


geo 02.05.09 at 5:34 pm

Governments tend to play favorites in how they bestow rights, and that this is an almost impossible-to-remove part of how human communities operate. Rights are balanced against each other, and many different people have different orderings of basic rights. Governments tend to twist this against individuals and small groups, often in violent ways

How is this opinion different from a “distaste for the state”?

the costs are enormous (restrictive political speech which is at the very core of the free speech right)

What are the “enormous costs” to free speech of preventing companies and rich individuals from wining, dining, transporting in high style, promising (not explicitly, of course) future employment to, and otherwise subsidizing politicians? Such restrictions would leave them with exactly the same speech rights as the non-rich majority.


Sebastian 02.05.09 at 6:11 pm

“How is this opinion different from a “distaste for the state”?”

You have to look at the whole clause: “complaining that they’ve always been at the rearguard of struggles for rights because of their distaste for the state“. They aren’t at the rearguard of struggles for their conceptions of rights. They are only at the rearguard of struggles for HIS conception of rights. They are ahead of him for their conception of rights, and that is fueled by their distrust of the state. (See libertarian drug policy, see Balko on police activity, see free speech).

“What are the “enormous costs” to free speech of preventing companies and rich individuals from wining, dining, transporting in high style, promising (not explicitly, of course) future employment to, and otherwise subsidizing politicians? Such restrictions would leave them with exactly the same speech rights as the non-rich majority.”

Not particularly. If I, as a relatively upper middle class person, want to broadcast most kinds of speech, it still costs a lot of money. How do I do that? I raise money from likeminded people. We pool it. We then attempt to broadcast it. It is exactly this type of activity that campaign finance reform attacks. And worse, it almost always tries to favor types of pooling activities that the person trying to pass the law likes (say unions) while disfavoring it for others (say small businesses).

Further, it restricts the type of money access that middle class and lower class at least have a small hope at, while other types of class/money access (not directly speech related) remain. We still aren’t going to have attended Harvard, we still aren’t going to be invited to high profile charity balls, we still aren’t typically going to be asked to testify in front of Congress (without an influential organization to raise the issue, which you would cut off at the knees), and we still aren’t going to meet the Congressmen on the golf course. So it is most likely to choke off the one area where the lower and middle classes can compete for attention AT ALL. Which leaves us only with our vote. And that is a lot, but we already have it, so the changes there aren’t much…


Seth Finkelstein 02.05.09 at 6:16 pm

Sebastian, what you’re missing is that Libertarians will always say “the benefits of [fill in blank] are dubious (unlikely to work because money, class, and other social interests will just go around it) and the costs are enormous”. For a perfect example of this, see Ron Paul’s 2004 denunciation of the Civil Rights Act:

“However, contrary to the claims of the supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the sponsors of H.Res. 676, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.”

And he just goes on and on like that.

The arguments carry no information, because they’re just endless variations of Libertarians stating their dogma that business is good and government is bad.


Sebastian 02.05.09 at 6:36 pm

Even if that were true, and it seems to me like it isn’t, sometimes the argument is wrong sometimes it isn’t. As for any of the campaign finance reforms I’ve seen, their argument looks pretty good. On drug policy their argument looks pretty good. And as a cautionary look on almost government action, their argument is almost always worth at least considering. I think they overweight the concern, but I also think that liberals tend to almost zero-value the concern (focusing on the justness of the aim rather than the practical matter of whether or not this particular law really helps the just aim and/or if it hurts other just aims) which strikes me as wrong.


Seth Finkelstein 02.05.09 at 7:02 pm

But the point is that it’s like a stopped clock – sometimes the time shown on the face of the stopped clock really is the correct time, sometimes it isn’t. But a stopped clock is pretty worthless as a time-keeping device, despite being right twice a day. In the same way, a parrot which screeches “Business Good! Government Bad!” will also be right sometimes. But you’d have to be pretty daft to take policy advice from a literal parrot. A Libertarian (with very rare exceptions) is basically that parrot, and hence about as useful for intelligent argument (in the non-parrot sense).

There are monkeys with stock-pickings records better than mutual fund managers (and in fact, you could do a lot worse than taking stock-picking advice from a literal monkey!)


Sebastian 02.05.09 at 7:37 pm

Ok, but on the actual mechanics of campaign finance, the argument (without reference to who is making it) looks pretty good.


LF 02.06.09 at 2:23 am

Sebastian, I haven’t much to add to your excellently worded points regarding libertarianism, except to point out that Ron Paul is both a center-right-Libertarian and a Constitutionalist. Notice you also had a center-left-Libertarian in the race: Mike Gravel, anyone? He supported such initiatives as single payer healthcare, direct democracy and FairTax.

Regarding the issue of campaign finance reform, I see it as being nothing more than a distraction used by politicians every now and then. Such reform could never succeed without severely restricting free speech, and would consist of nothing more than one side silencing another. What would be next, restricting innuendo?


Seth Finkelstein 02.06.09 at 3:39 am

I would certainly never deny there’s a strong argument. But it goes back to the point at the top of the post “But when we hear the idea of regulating the flow of money, we don’t assume that it will be perverse, or futile, or ruinous of all that is good.”. Libertarians do, and crucially, nothing will change their minds on it since it’s a core tenet. Per Civil Rights, they will take such tenets to reality-bending extremes. Explaining at length why they hold that belief in terms of their theology doesn’t change the fact that it is so. The point is that when what they say is correct, it’s correct only in the way a stopped clock is correct, in that the parrot-screech happens to match with reality. But you’d get the same results from them for anything. SO, you can’t really have a discussion.


LF 02.06.09 at 12:38 pm

“Regulating the flow of money” isn’t so much the problem. But how does one stop a “Hillary” from hitching a front seat ride on the War Industry Express (leave the driving to us?), or a “Pelosi” from flying on AIPAC Airlines? The money part becomes rather mute when this is considered, and in the more probable case regulation would hinder the possibility for lesser status-quo candidates to raise capital.


Henry 02.06.09 at 1:56 pm

dsquared – this is right. Mark’s view on this, if I have it right, is that there is a big difference between traditional bundlers (e.g. law partners who gather ‘voluntary’ contributions from scared associates), and people who aggregate money via the Internet, in that the latter, very often, are just channeling donations that they have no direct control over, and hence can’t credibly threaten to withhold donations in future if the candidate doesn’t do what they want. I think that this argument works most of the way – e.g. when a blogger gets “doglovers to give money to Tom Geoghegan”:, this doesn’t put her in a position to become a rainmaker, even if she managed to find thousands of other doglovers out there (while she had identified the constituency, she wouldn’t control it). I don’t think that this argument works for Kos though, or for other people who have built large communities with a lot of members- to the extent that they get their communities to donate money, they are more like traditional rainmakers. A colleague and I hope to do a paper trying to measure whether Kos mentions have a measurable impact on fundraising, whenever we get time to look at the data that the RA has gathered for us …


Ron E. 02.06.09 at 4:17 pm

Small donations only work now precisely because we have legal limits on the total amount individuals could give. If we did away with the legal limits, then all those $100 donors like me would instantly have their voices drowned out by corporations and multi-millionaires donating huge sums. The success of the Obama campaign’s fundraising operation is a result of campaign finance laws rather than an argument to repeal them.


Seth Finkelstein 02.06.09 at 7:27 pm

I shouldn’t do this, as it does no good, but …

” in that the latter, very often, are just channeling donations that they have no direct control over, and hence can’t credibly threaten to withhold donations in future if the candidate doesn’t do what they want …”

Umm, Henry, I’m sure you know what Kos wants to do … Oh, hell, it’s not worth it :-(


c.l. ball 02.06.09 at 7:28 pm

The small v. large donors is a bit of a red-herring, depending on what you are trying to achieve by campaign finance restrictions. If you are trying to limit the role of money in determining electoral outcomes, the source is irrelevant. If you are trying, instead, to limit the ability of wealthy individuals in determining electoral outcomes, then small donor rules are good. Obama’s rejection of public financing is not a problem for the latter aim, but is a problem for the former aim.

What is of most concern, however, is wealthy individuals pooling money in a coordinated way. 50 people spending a million dollars each to pay for their own, individually designed ads to back the same candidate are of less concern than 50 people pooling a million dollars each so a candidate can pay for many, identically designed ads. The messages that individuals would deliver might undermine a candidate’s appeal v. messages that a candidate’s campaign would produce.


Seth Finkelstein 02.06.09 at 7:39 pm

I should clarify the above that I did see that sentence wasn’t meant to be a Kos description, but rather I meant that the desire to be a political player – in money and influence terms – is so blatant that it’s very likely to dominate any pool of money (but I know if I get into it, I’ll be in for a long tedious abstract argument about how it’s possible it might not happen …)


Henry 02.06.09 at 7:43 pm

a long tedious abstract argument about how it’s possible it might not happen

All I’ll say is that you should have no worries whatsoever – since I’ve gotten tired of long tedious abstract arguments about how it _might_ happen, I have no intention of engaging you on this, or on similar topics. Public service announcement over.


Seth Finkelstein 02.06.09 at 10:24 pm

Noted. I have no intention of pushing my luck to the point of getting attacked from “on high”.


KipEsquire 02.07.09 at 1:31 pm

This is just a rehash of a tired old trick: Faulting libertarians for not being able to fix problems that they did not create and that would never have arisen under a libertarian government in the first place.

Campaign finance laws are an especially insolent and hypocritical example. The less government does, the less reason for anyone to try to buy politicians via campaign contributions (and the less incentive for the ultra-rich to try to buy office as a vanity).


Henry 02.07.09 at 1:51 pm

Noted. I have no intention of pushing my luck to the point of getting attacked from “on high”.

A new instance of(3)!


Seth Finkelstein 02.07.09 at 4:07 pm

And aren’t you proving me correct?

Note – I think that comment you made was a nasty snarky collection of strawman and distortions of my views. But I let it pass, again exactly for “more than my job’s worth”. Doing that – with an admitted bit of grouchiness – doesn’t make such an action untrue or even unreasonable.


Bill Mill 02.07.09 at 6:21 pm

Sebastian, thank you for comment #6; that was brilliant.


Joan Mandle 02.07.09 at 7:33 pm

So why isn’t anyone looking at the great success for more than 10 years of full public financing systems that have just elected 85% of the Maine state legislature, 81% of the Connecticut state legislature, over half of the legislature in Arizona, and judges in North Carolina and New Mexico. These “clean” or “voter-owned” systems are voluntary options for candidates that provide limited public financing for those who pass thresholds showing they have sufficient support in their communities. Once elected, these folks are in debt to no one but their own constituents, public financing allows ordinary citizens to run for office, and politicians don’t have to spend half their time dialing for dollars! This is the kind of public financing we need at the Congressional level and in other states as well. To have so-called small donors (actually probably largely middle class professionals) contribute a quarter of Obama’s money ( that leaves 3/4 for wealthy bundlers and big donors) in no way changes the basic argument that politicians are responsive to the wealthy. By the way, these “small” contributions were relatively less important for Congress in 2008 than in the last cycle — so much for an independent Congressional voice!


Henry 02.08.09 at 3:33 am

If you really think that They are getting you when I tell you that I don’t especially want to engage in argument with you any more, and point to a certain degree of rinse-recycle-repeat in your arguments, then all I can say is that you have a rather more expansive notion of ‘They’ and of ‘getting you’ than the facts warrant. And I’ll leave it at that.


Seth Finkelstein 02.08.09 at 9:50 am

I think that when someone is repeatedly strawmanning me and distorting what I say, edging into a tone of personal attack (note – edging), plus has the power of the pulpit, that sometimes it’s not worth writing long rebuttals, and worse that risks getting flamed in a way I can’t reply to defend myself. This strikes me as an eminently reasonable analysis of risk/reward.

Recursively, compare how you just characterized my views, with my own statement.


Henry 02.09.09 at 2:07 am

Seth – you asked whether I was proving you correct by saying that this was a new instance of (3). Since (3) was about Them getting you, and since you have _repeatedly_ written comments saying that you can’t say what you would like to say for fear of retaliation, I don’t think you have much of a case here. And this has all become a shtick long ago. You start off by either (a) saying that you could comment, but won’t, because it’s more than your job’s worth, or words to that effect, or (b) that you (grudgingly) are getting dragged back in, but (as you suggest later) that you would say much, much more if only you could. You then proceed to make grandiose claims which rest on weak-to-nonexistent arguments (viz. that something is like something else that you have good reason to believe is a con, or that if someone is winning, someone else must be losing – I simplify here, but only slightly), and a complete lack of any empirical evidence whatsoever. And then you complain that I (or whoever else you are disagreeing with) is in principle unwilling to be convinced by any evidence (since to a close approximation, you never provide any, this may or may not be true, but is at best unproven, and in any event is a bit rich, since you dismiss contrary evidence in advance by suggesting that people have reason to blame the Internets or whatever for what they want to do anyway, and that ergo any statements they have made are irrelevant). And finally, while you have sent me private communications, that I am absolutely not going to discuss in detail for all the obvious reasons, I think it is reasonable to say that they do not have evidence that has any specific bearing on the particular issues that you disagree with me about (which is all that I have to say about those communications, or will have to say in future, in case you interpret this as a perceived threat of some kind).

This isn’t a helpful or useful style of argument. It’s a shtick. I don’t get the impression that you _believe_ that you can convince people, but instead this is a way of perpetuating the one-man myth of embattled truth teller Seth Finkelstein. And perhaps I am playing into this myth by persecuting you, through having the impertinence to tell you in comments that I disagree with you and that your claims are full of it. Note that I haven’t used the Feared Pulpit Power of denouncing you in a CT post, nor have I threatened to, or even hinted at threatening to. I’ve merely told you that I don’t find very much use in trying to debate you substantively, and don’t intend to do so in future. There are people who hold somewhat similar views (viz. Nick Carr and Tom Slee) whom I simply find to be a lot more nuanced and apparently interested in genuine argument.

This is genuinely something that I feel sorry about – I do think that you are a very smart, intelligent and thoughtful person, but I don’t get a sense of debating the _person_ ever when you are on your particular hobby-horses; I get a strong sense of debating the _shtick._ And after a while it gets boring.

I’d suggest that if you _do_ want to convince other people that you are right, you need to start from scratch again in how you argue, and in particular start thinking about things from the perspective of the argument itself, rather than the self-presentation of the person doing the arguing. Perhaps I’m unique in how I respond to this style of argument, but I don’t think so. As things stand, you perhaps inadvertently present the image of someone who believes that there has only been one successful exercise of collective political power on the Internet ever, and that was the collective decision to suppress the views of Seth Finkelstein. That surely isn’t what you believe or want to argue, but that’s the way that your arguments come across, at least to me. And I honestly can’t see how it is helpful, either to good debate on these topics in general, or to your views in particular.


Seth Finkelstein 02.09.09 at 3:01 am

Recap again. I say “I have no intention of pushing my luck to the point of getting attacked from “on high”. Your reply is to bring up what I consider “a nasty snarky collection of strawman and distortions of my views.”. It’s a response _far_ more on the attacking side than otherwise (note phrasing). It’s not yet from “on high”, it’s not the worst thing by far, but it seems much more confirming that possibility than refuting it, hence “And aren’t you proving me correct?”

You can call it shtick, but that strikes as a delegitimization strategy.

Much of your reply I’d contend is a rant that hardly bears any resemblance to what I’ve said. I can see some distorted reflections, e.g. that I refuse to accept the reversed burden of proof rhetorical strategy, where it is up to a skeptic to definitely disprove a handwave sketch by a proponent. You’ve already ruled out elsewhere the mathematical arguments I make. Combined with trivialize/dismiss techniques, that will then set up a system to deny anything.

In some senses, my perspective is indeed a lot harsher than Nick Carr or Tom Slee, for various reasons. That by itself does not make me wrong.

Regarding your last point, Crooked Timber posts are full of analyses of the political and financial pressures which lie behind arguments rather than the argument itself – often quite derisive. Obviously the writers think these are aids to convincing people. Why I should be denied such a mode of analysis on subjects such as blogs and Internet politics, indeed, have it taken as a shtick, well, one might look self-referentially at such reasons.


Henry 02.10.09 at 4:06 pm

Seth – as noted already, I think it is a bit rich of you to go on about systems set up to deny anything. If the libertarians you were critiquing at the beginning of this thread will _always_ say that government regulation is bad, you will _always_ say that claims that the Internet will enhance participation of whatever sort are bad Internet evangelism, and systematically deny or discount any evidence that seems to go against your argument. This is indeed a shtick – it’s a set of rhetorical tropes that seem more about justifying your position as someone who can “congratulate himself”: for being right and ahead of one’s time etc than about seriously engaging with arguments or with evidence. The beginning comment – ‘sigh, I know I shouldn’t be getting into this yet again’ (which repeatedly appears in close variants as you launch yourself into various discussions) and the closely related dismissive-without-bothering-to-do-anything-except-express-your-world-weariness ‘sigh – I could tell you why this is all a bunch of crap, but I’m staying silent cos it’s more than my job’s worth’ aren’t _arguments_; they’re _rhetorical self-justifications_. And, as such, a shtick.

You describe my description of your rhetorical strategy as a ‘rant that hardly bears any resemblance to what I’ve said.’ Let’s take a look at your rhetorical modus operandi in a “recent thread”: You start with a reasonably plausible argument – that blogging panels select on successful academic bloggers rather than unsuccessful ones (I would disagree with the conclusions you draw from this, but it seems not implausible). You then get drawn into a back-and-forth with Lemuel Pitkin where you claim that you are fanatically ‘PRO-Internet,’ but _bitterly_ (your italicization and emphasis) opposed to ‘Internet evangelism.’ Next you come up with an analogy that blogging for academics is like ingesting narcotics, where 99% of the time you shouldn’t be doing it and may harm yourself in the long term even if it feels good in the short term. You get huffy in response to Lemuel Pitkin’s suggestion that you don’t distinguish between hucksterism and other stuff on the Internet, pointing to a couple of your columns as evidence that you do.

When Lemuel points out that these columns don’t offer much guidance, you say that you are constrained by word limits in them and can’t offer what you somewhat dismissively describe as the “extremely hedged and detailed sort of elaboration you seem to require.” You then say that you aren’t providing any lengthy rebuttal because you realized when you started to write it how lengthy the rebuttal would have to be and that your point is about mathematical skewing, which is independent of the triviality or profundity of your columns (which you only cited because they were high status or something).

Lemuel points out that rather than backing up your very strong claim that blogging was a DISASTER for academics (this may be an exaggeration – but you do seem to claim that it is harmful to academic careers in 99% of cases), you have only pointed to an extremely generic article about how ‘unspecified people are promoting unspecified “snake oil” about the political potential of the internet’ (you do also point to Jimmy Wales, but again the relevance of this to arguments about academic blogging is, to put it mildly, yet to be established). You tell Lemuel ‘Sigh’ that his comment encapsulates why you decided against a detailed rebuttal. And you claim that you are making a ‘mathematical point’ – that ‘if there are big winners, there almost certainly have to be big losers.’

I (reasonably politely; I have yet to lose my patience at this point) suggest that this is flawed reasoning – we have no necessary reason to believe that big winners imply big losers, and that my best understanding, from actually reading lots of academic blogs, maintaining the academic blogs wiki etc, is that most academics aren’t blogging for career related reasons. You describe this as ‘quack medicine’ – that drugs that have powerful effects also have powerful side effects (which I don’t attack, but which I will note in passing is quite untrue as a generality; some powerful drugs have serious side effects; some don’t, some weak drugs have powerful side effects and there is no _necessary_ causal relationship between the two). You further respond that you have decided that ‘ NO REALISTIC CONTRARY EVIDENCE WOULD EVER BE DEEMED SUFFICIENT. There’s people who in effect get paid to construct elaborate marketing for blogging. I don’t get paid to write book-length detailed academic dissections of their hype.’

You then revise your sweeping opening statement by saying that if ‘blog’ means ‘putting course material online’ then the results are unlikely to be dramatic (people like me might see ‘putting course material online is Teh Blog’ as a strawman argument, but since you are strawed against rather than strawing, that simply can’t be true). After a brief sidetrack on whether the conference is straying into blog evangelism, I tell you (again politely) that I would like to see some evidence to back up your claims. You say that this gets into naming of names and imply that you have given me such evidence in email – without getting into specifics, this evidence had diddly-squat to do with the specific questions at hand in this debate. You then refuse again to provide evidence, claiming in all caps yet again that NO EVIDENCE WOULD EVER BE DEEMED SUFFICIENT (completely ducking my question of ‘deemed sufficient by whom’) saying that for critics the bar will always be raised, and for evangelists a handwave is enough (again – you are completely silent as to whom this biased audience luvving the evangelists consists of).

You say that you will take this to email – again, without going into specifics, you don’t provide any evidence in email that bears on the specific topic under discussion. Lemuel asks you for evidence again, making it clear that he is _not_ a blog evangelist. You refuse, yet again, saying (in block caps again) that ‘NO REALISTIC CONTRARY EVIDENCE WOULD EVER BE DEEMED SUFFICIENT and that you ‘lose again’ and are going to go away. Lemuel politely replies, saying he is losing because he thinks you have some interesting arguments to make and he wants to see them. Lemuel then points to someone who argues that while people may have said that Dan Drezner lost his tenure case because he wasn’t good, there’s good reason to believe that blogging hurt him, and says (to you) that providing evidence isn’t so hard. You respond by misinterpreting him, and suggesting that the Drezner comment was about the suspicion that he wasn’t very good. Lemuel says again that you don’t want to provide evidence. You respond by saying that you knew about Drezner, and could have cited him, but didn’t – and then create an extended mock dialogue between yourself and an ‘Evangelist’ (is the evangelist supposed to be me? Lemuel? ) in which the evangelist refuses to accept evidence, and starts ranting about elitist old-media etc (this is completely from outer space – how loons ranting about old media is supposed to be connected to the topic of whether blogs hurt academic careers may be obvious to you, but not to me or to any reasonable reader). ‘Sigh’ again (and there were more rhetorical sighs earlier that I didn’t bother pointing to). I Begin To Lose Patience and say that it isn’t Lemuel who is constructing straw men here. You _after just conducting an extended mock-debate with a straw man who makes claims bearing no resemblance to anything that anyone has said in this comments section_ ‘rest’ your ‘case’ that ‘reasonable evidence will not be accepted.’ I (and a couple of other people) more or less say that you are full of shit. You riposte that Lemuel has been misrepresenting your arguments. The thread then breaks down into accusations and counter-accusations. And more rhetorical ‘sighs’ from you.

I’ve spent an hour of my life summarizing this rather pointless debate, which seems to me to distil exactly why it is that I don’t want to argue with you about this stuff any more (I prefer to argue with people rather than sets of evasive tactics). Let me make it more explicit why. You claim that I am unwilling to consider contrary evidence and that I construct straw man arguements. But in this thread, as in others, you _never provide any evidence._ Any time that someone asks you to, you demur, claiming that no evidence would ever be deemed sufficient. And when you are pushed on this again, you break out into an entirely imaginary arguments between yourself and a straw man ‘Internet evangelist’ (which you win on points, natch, but then when you are arguing against the voices in your head, you usually do). You have _no argument or evidence whatsoever_ to support your sweeping initial argument besides a sloppy and incorrect mathematical claim. And when people push you on this, you refuse, point blank to provide evidence or arguments, saying you’re not paid to (which is true, but you’re not paid to hang around blog comments sections refusing to do so at inordinate and verbose length either).

This is a shtick, and an unhealthy one for debate, as well, I suspect, as being an unhealthy one for you. _Every claim_ that you make about the self-insulating rhetoric of people like me who, you disagree with, or ‘Internet Evangelists’ (whom you seem to suggest I am numbered among, although I may be wrong here) is one which is true, and doubly so, of you. You have created a perfectly insular and self-perpetuating system in which you are the bitter Cassandra who is perpetually ignored. Except that Cassandra _made her case_ to the Trojans – you one-up her by _not making your case_ because you claim no-one would believe you if you did, and further claiming that when no-one _does_ believe you, it only confirms you were right in your cynicism. It is a perfect self-referential system, which is beautifully insulated from any contact with inconvenient realities. The reason why I have taken the time to point this out at length, believe it or not, is because _I actually care about what you have to say_ (I don’t write at this length when I don’t care). Or, to put it differently, I think that you not only can do much better than this, but that you owe it to yourself to do so. I’ve tried to be polite – but that hasn’t broken through (nor did it when Lemuel tried it, as he very clearly did in the above-mentioned thread). Therefore I’m being blunt and rude in the unlikely hope that it may be one small contribution to breaking you out of the trap that you have built for yourself. You’re clearly a very intelligent person who has many good and interesting things to say when you are off this set of topics (not that I agree with all of them, but that is obviously not the point). You seem to me to be someone who has gotten into a terrible rut, and is busy trying persuade themselves that the rut is not only the best place you can be, but the _only_ place you can be. You can take my disagreement with this claim or you can leave it – but I wouldn’t be as pissed off with your rhetorical behaviour as I am pissed off, if I thought you were a simple troll.

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