Wisconsin comes to Washington?

by John Quiggin on April 7, 2011

It was always highly likely that, given a Republican win in the US House of Representatives, the 1995 shutdown of the government would be repeated, and now it seems virtually certain[1]. Until recently, I’ve assumed that the outcome would be a capitulation by Obama and the Dems. Less likely, but still possible, was repeat 1995 where the Republicans caved, and took the political blame for the shutdown, but one in which there were still substantial budget cuts borne mostly by workers and the poor (actually, I think Clinton had done most of this pre-95).

The events in Wisconsin have shifted the odds, making it much harder for the Reps to shift or share the blame for a shutdown, and therefore more likely that an eventual compromise will be on terms than can be seen as a political win for the Democrats. More importantly, though, they’ve raised the prospect of something much bigger – a genuine popular movement against cuts that could turn the whole debate around.

I have no idea whether anything of the kind is being organized. I hope so, though it would be even better if something like this began as a spontaneous outgrowth of the movement in Wisconsin and elsewhere. That would, I expect, horrify Obama and the Dems even more than it would the Reps, but the example set by the fugitive legislators in Wisconsin suggests that there may yet be some Hope in the Democratic party.

BTW, sorry for posting so much lately. As you can probably tell, I have a lot of really urgent work to leave until the last possible minute.

Update The outcome was a last minute compromise that looks like a win for the Dems, relative to prior expectations. The cuts not much more than they had pre-emptively offered, and the various riders (Planned Parenthood etc) stripped away.

fn1. One problem with being in Australia is that I can’t always keep track of time. It’s already Thursday evening here, and I’ve been thinking of tomorrow as shutdown day, but actually it doesn’t start until midnight Friday DC time, which is still a day and a half away.

{ 88 comments }

1

Straightwood 04.07.11 at 12:25 pm

The mechanical analog that is central to understanding modern American politics is the ratchet. This mechanism allows motion in only one direction. Ever since Reagan, that direction has been toward greater inequality in America. The main difference between the two American parties is the number of clicks by which the plutocratic ratchet moves in each election cycle. Once this analog is understood, the false drama of Democratic/Republican squabbles is revealed. There is nothing more at stake than the rate at which the wealthy aggrandize themselves.

At some point, a massive political upheaval will break the American plutocratic ratchet mechanism, but until that day comes, following the politics of our broken democracy is a waste of time.

2

ac 04.07.11 at 2:51 pm

As Ezra Klein keeps pointing out, the Democrats have basically agreed to what the Republicans wanted in the first place – and they want more. But where’s the outrage that the dems completely caved?! It’s ridiculous and frustrating.

3

Don 04.07.11 at 4:30 pm

It’s just very hard to imagine a 2011 budget deal in which the Democrats give away less than the Republicans’ opening demand. It’s inconceivable that Obama would suddenly turn around and stop agreeing with Republicans on the main issues where he’s already conceded to them: more stimulus is off the table, the deficit is the big problem, the federal budget is comparable to a household budget.

The Democrats in 2012 will run on a platform of “we are not the Republicans.” They will be to the right of Reagan, but they will demand the votes of liberals anyway, and those who object will be firmly told that there is no one else to vote for, you dirty fucking hippies.

4

Bruce Wilder 04.07.11 at 4:50 pm

Ratchet is the right metaphor. And, the ratchet is working full-time in national politics. The mainstream of the Democratic Party is corrupt centrists and moderates, who still want to “appear” “reasonable” in the national Media, which requires supporting the plutocratic/kleptocratic agenda of wrecking everything.

The difference between 1995 and 2011 is that in 1995, the zeitgeist was a quickening national economy, driven forward by an unexpected wave of innovation. It was Indian Summer for the American Empire.

Today, in 2011, the national and global economy is near the edge of a cliff.

5

Straightwood 04.07.11 at 5:03 pm

I believe that the plutocratic elite are highly pleased by the efficacy of their propaganda tools in securing public acceptance of massive unemployment and declining living standards. They will exploit these tools right up to – and past – the breaking point. They will continue to maintain that general prosperity will result from concentrating wealth in their hands – until there is blood in the streets.

6

Bruce Baugh 04.07.11 at 5:22 pm

And more fully, their blood in the streets. Some of them don’t care about anyone else dying in the streets, some would prefer that nobody die in the streets but not at the cost of their own inconvenience, and some of them get off on it.

7

Don 04.07.11 at 5:30 pm

Apparently we’re not a very hopeful bunch today.

8

Straightwood 04.07.11 at 5:37 pm

As Maine legislators attempt to reintroduce child labor, it is difficult to see grounds for hope. The only question is how far the pendulum will swing toward ignorance and cruelty before the inevitable, and painful, correction.

9

Russell Arben Fox 04.07.11 at 5:37 pm

Apparently we’re not a very hopeful bunch today.

On the bright side, it does look like about 200 more Wisconsin voters (out of 1.5 million cast) were willing to make the symbolic example of rejecting a candidate associated with the loathsome Governor Walker, than were willing to stick by his operation. So there is a tiny bit of hope, maybe.

10

Omega Centauri 04.07.11 at 5:48 pm

Ratchet indeed. It used to be 2steps right under Republicans, and one left under democrats, but now they have let success go to thier heads, its more like 5right versus 2right. So the thinking becomes, why prolong the slow and painful descent, maybe we should give um the whole ball of wax, the wait for the Libyan style youth rebellion/civil war to begin will be shorter that way.

11

Omega Centauri 04.07.11 at 5:58 pm

Gerry Brown is telling us, that if the tax extensions are not passed (almost certain to not happen), UC costs will be $25K per student. So I guess this is mixed news. It will cost me more to get my kids through, but because of the large number of middle class kids who are sure to be priced out of college, the value of their degrees ought to go up, as a consequence of scarcity. I think this is part of the dynamic, if you are within the top 5-10% inequality of opportunity favors your progeny over the common people, so why not go along with the plutocracy project.

12

Don 04.07.11 at 6:02 pm

I do like what’s happening in Wisconsin. But to the extent that the Democratic Party is the beneficiary of the outrage, it will be transformed into business-as-usual very quickly. They won’t be mounting primary challenges to their conservative incumbents, let alone the President.

It would be different if left third parties were stealing the ball and running with it. Then the Dems would have a motive to win it back. Right now they have no motive to change their positions one bit to the left, and a big motive to move some more to the right.

13

mpowell 04.07.11 at 6:09 pm


It would be different if left third parties were stealing the ball and running with it.

It would be different if the left were willing to participate in Democratic party politics (county/state level appointments, etc). The lack of understanding on the left of how to effect political change short of a revolution is a big part of the problem.

14

Don 04.07.11 at 6:16 pm

The Democratic Party believes itself entitled to left votes. The Republicans earn the votes of right-wingers with action. It’s hard to see how this is a problem of the left’s lack of understanding.

15

Steve LaBonne 04.07.11 at 6:54 pm

Don, as mpowell is the latest to point out, there are more productive paths available than either reflexive support or sulking on the sidelines. You’re making his point for him.

16

Don 04.07.11 at 6:59 pm

To characterize what I did suggest (supporting a left third party) as “sulking on the sidelines,” rather makes my point for me, wouldn’t you say?

17

Steve LaBonne 04.07.11 at 7:00 pm

In our system, supporting a third party IS sulking on the sidelines. I don’t like that any better than you do, but it’s reality.

18

bianca steele 04.07.11 at 7:02 pm

If they are really to the right of Reagan, let them be Republicans. Just tell them no, get out of here. Who are they to require the allegiance of liberals?

19

Substance McGravitas 04.07.11 at 7:04 pm

In our system, supporting a third party IS sulking on the sidelines.

Presidentially. There are two independents in the senate, none in the house. A third party gets more viable the more locally you focus your politics.

20

Steve LaBonne 04.07.11 at 7:04 pm

If they are really to the right of Reagan, let them be Republicans.

And mpowell just finished explaining how you acquire the power to tell them that.

21

Bruce Wilder 04.07.11 at 7:06 pm

Even a slightly left-of-center political majority requires an alliance, and a fairly broad one. The basic formula in American politics is: Populism + Progressivism. Translation: combine the liberal elites, which are based in college-educated professions with appeals to the working classes. Appeals to the working classes requires appeals to people with fairly authoritarian attitudes about politics, based on feelings of political solidarity. On the good side, historically, that meant labor unions; on the bad, it meant ugly stuff, like nativism and white supremacy. But, it’s how stuff moves forward in the U.S.; it’s how the Civil War was won and how Progressive reforms were enacted, how the New Deal was done, and how the Great Society came into being.

The Democratic Party went off the rails, because of the decline of mass, popular organization in American life, and the increasing hostility of liberals to even the idea of political solidarity. Clinton and Gore carried the last thin wisp of southern white populism, and poor whites from Greater Appalachia — never mind whites in the Deep South — voting for Democrats. Obama completely alienated those people, while he delighted idealistic, upper-class liberals. Add in the decline of unionism into insignificance, and you get a Democratic Party, which is simply incapable of marshalling a majority, because, frankly, without a foundation in solidarity, Democratic politicians cannot be trusted. At this point, they can not reach the fading, fabled “independent” voter, who doesn’t comprehend a politics of “ideas”, issues and laundry lists, because solidarity is alien to the liberal, as well as neo-liberal, idealism.

The Tea Party rhetorically is exploiting that vacuum of political ideology and organizing. The actual Tea Party participants, and especially financiers and organizers, are the usual far-right of the Republican Party — they are FDR’s “economic royalists” and “Impeach Earl Warren” John Birch Society morons of the 1950s. But, today, their rhetorical frameworks are lightening rods, to deflect the political storm of mass dissatisfaction and frustration, which the Democrats are so pathetically unable and unwilling to exploit and organize.

Political solidarity sufficient to secure a left-of-center majority for economic reforms will require some pretty fierce, populist rhetoric. Liberals are too damn reasonable to do it; they need to lose enough of their idealism, to permit a degree of America First sentiment on issues like “free trade” and immigration and globalization and economic regulation and taxes. Get mad. Then, get even. But, do it with a loyal army behind you. A bunch of liberals dreaming of a better day, while wearing “kick me harder, Obama!” t-shirts ain’t cuttin’ it.

22

Steve LaBonne 04.07.11 at 7:07 pm

A third party gets more viable the more locally you focus your politics.

If the right had focused on that strategy the Republican Party would still be to the left of where the Democratic Party is now. But they weren’t satisfied with local nibbling- they wanted the whole ball of wax. And they went out and got it.

23

Substance McGravitas 04.07.11 at 7:20 pm

But they weren’t satisfied with local nibbling- they wanted the whole ball of wax. And they went out and got it.

I was only talking about third-party viability, which is real. It’d be awesome if the Democratic Party became the nightmare their activists would have you believe it is, so by all means reclaim it. But it isn’t sulking to, say, imagine another Bernie Sanders somewhere.

24

Substance McGravitas 04.07.11 at 7:20 pm

Meaning “the Republican activists” of course.

25

Straightwood 04.07.11 at 7:45 pm

maybe we should give um the whole ball of wax

When they start to shut down Social Security and Medicare, it won’t be the youth in the streets who rebel; it will be the old folks, and they are much more active and effective politically than our iphone-addled youth. It will be the oldsters that take down the Tea Party Republicans.

26

Straightwood 04.07.11 at 7:50 pm

if you are within the top 5-10% inequality of opportunity favors your progeny over the common people, so why not go along with the plutocracy project.

The plutocratic inequality ratchet doesn’t stop at the top 5%. It will keep working until a few hundred families/corporations have nearly all the wealth. The upper-middle class belief that they are in the same boat as the Koch brothers is delusional.

27

Bruce Baugh 04.07.11 at 7:54 pm

It’s worth noting that there are right now a goodly number of liberal and even left-wing people in Democratic party politics from the precinct level up. But it’s proven very hard to translate the usual party leverages into accomplishments higher up because the resistance is well funded and willing to use its own leverage to negate expressions of popular desire from within the party as well as without.

This isn’t to say that there’s no room for more. Of course there is. It’s worth doing. But we have enemies who are just as willing to cheat and steal from party operatives as from anyone else. Heck, the only reason we know just how much the Democratic establishment is capable of when aroused is seeing what they threaten and then do to primary challengers – if we only had the evidence of their response to challenges from the right, we’d be much more likely to conclude that they’re just wimps rather than that they’re willing collaborators.

28

Seth 04.07.11 at 8:15 pm

Bruce Wilder @21

Your analysis is spot on. But Omega Centauri @ 11 explains why it hasn’t yet happened:

” … if you are within the top 5-10% inequality of opportunity favors your progeny over the common people, so why not go along with the plutocracy project.”

Back in the 1970s, the basic dynamic of globalization was already apparent. The lower tier of labor would suffer displacement as the post-WWII economic supremacy of the U.S. gave way to a more evenly distributed prosperity. As the ship settled in the water, the upper tier of the Democratic party kept deciding to climb another rung on the ladder to stay dry. “Hmmm, no way to save the people in steerage. So I might as well climb up a deck. ”

And then Straightwood @ 26 gives it to us “straight”:

“The upper-middle class belief that they are in the same boat as the Koch brothers is delusional.”

No room for YOU in the life rafts, pal!

29

Omega Centauri 04.07.11 at 8:15 pm

Straightwood The plutocratic inequality ratchet doesn’t stop at the top 5%
This is true, but I think few in the 5% to .1% bracket realize this. So the divide and conquer strategy is working. Owning the bigmedia opinion transmission network is a huge plus for the plutocrats.

30

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.07.11 at 9:01 pm

Bruce Wilder’s 21 sounds convincing, but it still only describes symptoms. What were the reasons for the decline of mass popular organizations in American life? You didn’t say. What are the reasons for fragmentation of solidarity; could it be that the liberal obsession with identity politics have something to do with it? And anyway, why are so many liberal intellectuals obsessed with it; is it just stupidity or deliberate sabotage? A bit of both I suppose…

31

Robert Waldmann 04.07.11 at 9:40 pm

Please post more. IIRC Clin ton and the Republicans hammered the poor in 1996. In any case that was the year of welfare reform (Clinton vetoed a welfare reform bill around the time of the shut down).

In contrast, in 1994, Clinton and the Democrats introduced 3 strikes and your out (3 felonies means life without parole) and the death penalty for 50 more crimes. Neither provision matters much, because most trials are in state courts under state law. I think no one has been sentenced to death in a federal court for any of the crimes made punishable by death in 94 and I don’t know if anyone has been convicted of 3 felonies by federal courts.

Again IIRC the main thing related to the poor that Clinton had signed before the shut down was the massive expansion of the earned income tax credit which was part of the bill raising taxes on the rich (passed with 0 Republican votes).

32

Jeff R. 04.07.11 at 9:43 pm

Henri@30: I’m not sure; the move to identity politcs look more like a stop-gap replacement for that kind of solidarity than a cause of its decline.

And, alongside, I’m not sure that the cause for said decline isn’t the expansion of the franchise and the political universe around them. Did any of the past’s mass popular organizations really cross racial or gender lines? [Other than the civil rights movement itself, at least? The Vietnam-era anti-war movement wasn’t really a mass popular one for all that it was loud and ultimately successful.]

33

Barry 04.07.11 at 10:44 pm

Straightwood: “The plutocratic inequality ratchet doesn’t stop at the top 5%”
Omega Centauri: “This is true, but I think few in the 5% to .1% bracket realize this. So the divide and conquer strategy is working. Owning the bigmedia opinion transmission network is a huge plus for the plutocrats.”

And it’ll take a while to really hit the top 10% that they’re not just under some pressure, but slated for reduction to upper middle class (at best). Until then,
they’ll eagerly support the crushing of everybody below them because (a) they’ll profit and (b) they’re Real Americans, who generally don’t mind their lessers taking it in the privates.

34

mcd 04.07.11 at 11:26 pm

The post @21 is full of dogwhistles and code, but his idea is that Nixon stole away all the southern white racists from the Democrats with his Southern Strategy. We could bring them all back to our party by adopting lots of rightwing ideas (@21 lists them at the end).

He needn’t worry- the Democrats are slowly doing that. Hilary tried out a few of the dogwhistles in her campaign (paying attention to hardworking whites and all that).

35

Tony Lynch 04.07.11 at 11:41 pm

“There Is No Alternative” (TINA) You MUST work Within The Corrupt System To Fix It …”

Is this a synthetic a priori?

36

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb 04.07.11 at 11:56 pm

I have been waiting for the Democrats and Obama to draw a line in the sand. I believe the drawing has begun: first with tough negotiations for this year’s budget, then, in significant political battle over next year’s. Ryan has made this straightforward. A much tougher Democratic position will now become apparent. Wisconsin is the preview and I believe the balance of mobilized power is shifting from the Tea Party to a revival of the old democratic coalition, with the added dimension of principled diversity, championed by President Obama, empowered by new demographic realities.

37

P O'Neill 04.08.11 at 12:58 am

38

Mark Field 04.08.11 at 1:44 am

I think what I’m about to say is implicit in the comments above, but it’s worthwhile making it explicit:

The hard right activists were able to take over the Republican party because they were supported by those with money. In contrast, the Democratic base finds it more difficult to take over because those with money oppose such a takeover.

If this is true, then the only way for the liberals to succeed is to use populist themes. Not the race-baiting themes that the original populists used and that modern ones are all too happy to employ, but the economic ones. The crisis of 2008 was a perfect opportunity for liberals to attack Wall Street, use the opportunity to dominate the party, and solidify that gain for years by reducing the influence of their own plutocrats. Obama and Co. squandered that opportunity, but if we start now with those themes (building on events in WI, say) there will be another.

39

mpowell 04.08.11 at 2:53 am


The hard right activists were able to take over the Republican party because they were supported by those with money. In contrast, the Democratic base finds it more difficult to take over because those with money oppose such a takeover.

I want to emphasize my agreement with this point. Liberals should be trying to take over/maintain control of the Democratic party, but their efforts should not be denigrated if they are not as successful as the Republican right because the movement on the right is aligned with the money. So on the one hand, you have to work from within. On the other, it won’t work that well. The situation sucks. We should have done public campaign financing in the 60s and maybe we wouldn’t be in this spot now, but we are where we are. Personally, that’s a top priority for me, but I’m not sure people realize how crucial it is.

40

Don 04.08.11 at 3:04 am

A much tougher Democratic position will now become apparent.

I’m not sure what the Democratic party has done in the last two years to make you believe this. Unless they suddenly have a complete change of personality, they’re going to give the Republicans everything they demand and call their surrender “compromise.”

41

Omega Centauri 04.08.11 at 4:46 am

It seems to me we’ve got to be able to change the conversations and thinking of the country. Its not just that big money has corrupted the political system. Or even that they’ve corrupted the media meme conveyor belt. Its that their project has been vigorously and diligently pursued for decades, never wavering in its determination to remake the country in their choosen image. Rewriting rules and regulations one at a time. It used to be disastrous for a politician or journalist to be caught in a lie, now it hardly causes an eyebrow to raise. It is an expected and accepted part of the business (at least the business of ideological propagation, as practiced by the right). Undoing this is not going to come quickly. Not, if our population would rather be enetertained than educated. Fact checking, and logical thinking, those are for party pooper whimps! Until we can convince enough that such weaknesses come at a very high price, we aren’t going to make headway.

42

peter ramus 04.08.11 at 5:07 am

“I’m not sure what the Democratic party has done in the last two thirty years to make you believe this.”

…is the way I’d put it.

43

geo 04.08.11 at 5:31 am

There’s much to be said on both sides of the work-within/work-outside-the-Democratic Party debate. But anyone who wants to understand just how vicious and unscrupulous Democratic party leaders can be in resisting grassroots challenges should read Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny by Theresa Amato, Nader’s campaign manager. The extremes to which state Democratic officials went, in state after state, to keep Nader out of Democratic primaries and the national election will make your stomach turn.

44

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.08.11 at 7:36 am

@32: Did any of the past’s mass popular organizations really cross racial or gender lines? [Other than the civil rights movement itself, at least?

Well, I guess the civil rights movement is one of those notably rare exceptions. Here’s what I found:

“Negroes in the United States read the history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us […] They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations and union organization became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table […] Our needs are identical to labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures […] That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, “If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins”, December 11, 1961

Sounds like they were converging, but now it’s all gone; now it’s about the percentage of Latino women CEOs and stuff like that.

45

Myles 04.08.11 at 7:57 am

Sounds like they were converging, but now it’s all gone; now it’s about the percentage of Latino women CEOs and stuff like that.

Don’t think so. Boston bussing protests were probably the signal case of non-convergence. In any case, “convergence” is one of those desires for a grand narrative that doesn’t actually exist.

In contrast, in 1994, Clinton and the Democrats introduced 3 strikes and your out (3 felonies means life without parole) and the death penalty for 50 more crimes.

Anyone know if this is a fixed thing, or one of those things that are more flexible if you have a good lawyer? I know people who definitely at the risk of committing three felonies, if for no other reason than drugs. I think the law is stupid in any case, but if the people I know were to suffer under it that would be actually intolerable.

46

The Creator 04.08.11 at 8:05 am

Assuming that there is to be a government shutdown, the purpose, from the Republicans’ side, would presumably be to flex muscles and encourage the voters to believe that Republicans are taking the economy seriously; “we are so concerned that we are even prepared to do this terrible thing in order to compel the frivolous socialists to surrender to us”. It’s hard to say how that would play with non-Republican voters, but some might be influenced.

Obviously, were the Democrats united and confident, they could possibly respond by saying, in effect, “these people are doing this terrible thing not because they are taking the economy seriously but because they are flexing muscles and trying to encourage voters, and therefore voters should not see these people as serious, but as foolish trouble-makers who do not have the interests of the nation at heart”.

It is hard to see that as difficult to do, but would the Democrats have the courage and unity to say anything like that?

47

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.08.11 at 9:43 am

Boston bussing protests were probably the signal case of non-convergence.

But forced busing is exactly one of those liberal programs that I blame for non-convergence and fragmentation; programs with the focus on race, instead of exploitation.

48

Steve LaBonne 04.08.11 at 10:56 am

The extremes to which state Democratic officials went, in state after state, to keep Nader out of Democratic primaries and the national election will make your stomach turn.

That’s why the real strategy is to replace those officials. I completely agree with mpowell that it will be damned hard. But if the left busies itself with excuses for not taking on the real challenges, it will remain irrelevant.

49

LeeEsq 04.08.11 at 10:58 am

Don at 40 and Peter Ramus at 42:

I think its important to point out that Democratic politicians are spineless because most of the Democratic base likes them to be spineless, that is they like them to compromise.

See: http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/04/democratic_spinelessnes/

50

anitchang 04.08.11 at 11:16 am

@21

I think Ernesto Laclau’s book “On Populist Reason” is pretty insightful in this regard, especially the following part (p. 87-88) where he argues that populism works through a condensation of empty signifiers and is therefore not so much a matter of left-wing or right-wing “content” but of the mechanism of populism.

“That is why, between left-wing and right-wing populism, there is a nebulous no-man’s-land which can be crossed — and has been crossed — in many directions. Let me give one example. There had traditionally been, in France, a left-wing vote of protest, channelled mainly through the Communist Party, which fulfilled what Georges Lavau has called a ‘tribunicial function’, being the voice of those who were excluded from the system. So it clearly was an attempt to create a ‘people degauche’, grounded in the construction of a political frontier. With the collapse of Communism and the formation of a Centre establishment in which the Socialist Party and its associates were not very different from the Gaullists, the division between Left and Right became increasingly blurred. The need, however, for a radical vote of protest remained and, as the left-wing signifiers had abandoned the camp of social division, this camp was occupied by signifiers of the Right. The ontological need to express social division was
stronger than its ontic attachment to a left-wing discourse which, anyway, did not attempt to build it up any longer. This was translated into a considerable movement of former Communist voters to the National Front. As Meny and Surel have put it: ‘In the case of the French National Front [FN], many works have tried to show that the
transfers of votes in favour of the extreme right-wing party followed deeply atypical logics. Thus the notions of “left-lepenism” [gaucho-lepénisme] and “workers-lepenism” [ouvriero-lepénisme] proceed both from finding that a sizeable proportion of the FN votes come from voters who previously “belonged” to the electorate of the classical Left, especially the Communist Party.’ I think that today’s resurgence of a
right-wing populism in Western Europe can largely be explained along
similar lines.”

51

Straightwood 04.08.11 at 12:20 pm

The argument of a shift of disaffected low-information voters from left to right certainly explains Palin, the American Evita Peron. But a better explanation is the manipulation of ethnic and demographic divisiveness in uncertain economic times. In America, it is much easier to hate one’s economic inferiors than one’s superiors, and the “Conservatives” have excelled in focusing popular discontent on the dark-skinned poor and their wicked protectors in government. Until large numbers of white Americans are facing impoverishment, the American plutocracy will continue to flourish.

52

mclaren 04.08.11 at 3:49 pm

Since the pro-Walker judge appears to have won, yes, Wisconsin will be coming to Washington — pro-plutocracy forces will win, the representatives of the average person will get crushed.

53

Bruce Wilder 04.08.11 at 4:01 pm

HV @30: “What were the reasons for the decline of mass popular organizations in American life? You didn’t say. What are the reasons for fragmentation of solidarity; could it be that the liberal obsession with identity politics have something to do with it?”

A bunch of reasons. Success was one. The Women’s Suffrage Movement became the League of Women Voters, because they won; they didn’t become the feminist movement, for the same sort of panoply of reasons that the Pennsylvania Railroad did not become General Motors and Western Union did not become AOL. It was natural that the NAACP would gradually evolve from a political movement founded mostly by whites into a organization dominated by earnest ambitious black professionals, and post-civil-rights success, an organization focused on the concerns and interests of upper-middle-class blacks, promoting and celebrating the rise of a few blacks into the boardrooms of corporate America.

The success of the progressive/liberal New Deal economic program permitted the success of the liberal cultural program of breaking down white supremacy in the South, and Yankee supremacy in New England, and corrupt unions like the Teamsters, and the sexual oppression that restricted contraception and abortion, kept women in stereotyped occupations, gays in the closet, etc.

Television has played a role. First, by sponging up the excess leisure time that might have gone to the Elks or the Knights of Columbus, and, then, by dumbing down the mass capacity for critical thinking and reliance on critically assessed fact.

Without understanding all the reasons why, I do think it important to simply notice that the expression of affiliative needs is at a low ebb in the American culture. Society has become atomistic to an individual level; more adults than once would have been thought possible (by psychologists and sociologists) report to pollsters that they have few, or even no!, close friends. Television again: think about how popular “reality shows” have become; it is as if massive numbers of people are taking lessons in social dynamics, by watching the treachery and alliance-building on Survivor or Real World.

Another thing to simply notice is that the scale of human society is completely unprecedented. Most of human evolution probably occured against a background of small, nomadic bands of families, loosely organized into clans and tribes of a few hundred, or at most, thousands of individuals, engaged in constant, murderous warfare. The technology to live a sedentary life is less than 10,000 years old; the organization of large-scale military hierarchy, 3000 years old; large-scale corporate business organization, with its wage-employees, professional managers and financial securities was invented around 1600, and did not become ubiquitous until the 1880s and 1890s.

I’m not much on Internet Millenarianism, and only a little partial to American exceptionalism. Twitter and Facebook are not going to fuel the Revolution, or pave the road for the Antichrist, either. But, there’s something to the idea that America is facing a challenge to develop a new kind of social organization, that doesn’t depend for its security of membership on racial and sexual markers and orders, or even geographical proximity.

54

Straightwood 04.08.11 at 4:20 pm

Robert Putnam, a leading observer of the decline of US social capital, fingers commercial TV as the main likely toxin. The extraordinary ability of the US plutocracy to come through the crash of the financial markets with undiminished political power is proof of the remarkable efficacy of their television propaganda machine.

Orwell never imagined that the telescreen alone could enslave the population without a brutal secret police establishment to crush those resistant to propaganda. It is an astonishing triumph of electronic broadcast media that it has been able to create an Orwellian state in the US with a minimum of brutality. A docile public believes than an economic “recovery” is taking place while record numbers subsist on food stamps and foreclosures plague the land. Unsustainable government borrowing fills the pockets of the plutocrats who engineered the financial crash, and they are saluted as model citizens.

Television has become the most potent opiate of the masses, and while they dream their TV fantasies their rulers destroy their future.

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Bruce Wilder 04.08.11 at 6:59 pm

OC @41: “It seems to me we’ve got to be able to change the conversations and thinking of the country. . . . Until we can convince enough . . . ”

It is a natural part of the liberal worldview to want to believe that people can be educated, and that politics can be founded on a well-informed public opinion reaching a consensus, based on shared values and an “objective” assessment of reality. It doesn’t work that way. Most people are too busy with other things, living their lives in the world, not in their heads, to have the time or spare braincells to really think thru politics.

Authoritarian political attitudes do not mark out a type of person, or some kind of psychopathology; they are the natural condition of those cells of the body politic, which are subservient, dependent and scared, and not part of the leadership systems of the society. Politics, like all human organization, needs leadership and followership, and it is folly to think otherwise.

But, authoritarian political attitudes are not a natural monopoly of the Right; the Left can play the game, if it get over itself. It is not the nature of authoritarian followers, which makes them conservative; it is the ease with which they can be manipulated by the unscrupulous Right-wing demagogues, and the reticence of the Left to supply skilled demagogues of their own.

American politics has always been tribal, because people are, at base, tribal. What’s different is that the tribes are largely defined by slogans and worldviews and a puddle-deep ideology, and the Right has much more institutional capital invested in leading the tribes they can capture and confuse. The politics of Rove and Bush, of the Shock Doctrine, increases the proportion and intensity of authoritarian political attitudes in society. That’s why people are electing a raft of tough-guy authoritarian governors across states like New Jersey, Florida and Wisconsin (and, I suspect, why Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo are stylin’ the way they are.)

Liberalism has become reactionary and conservative in mode, if not doctrine; there’s no critique or agenda. Even if there were an educating moment, when most Americans were really paying attention, what would you say?

We’ve had a major financial crisis, and liberals, in Congress and the Obama Administration, fully supported by academia and the Media, united with the corrupt centrists to try to preserve the system. Liberals, who are trying to preserve a corrupt and decrepit system, are useless, politically. And, they did it, instinctively, because they did not have a critique of the political economy, at hand.

Kevin Phillips did a great job, analyzing the politics of theocracy and financialization. Tellingly, he’s an old Nixon hand, not a liberal.

I like Paul Krugman, Mark Thoma, Brad DeLong — leaders of the center-left econblogs. But, not one, in the moment of crisis, said, this is an opportunity to destroy a corrupt system, let’s take the risk. Because they were not prepared, mentally. They are neo-liberals, cheerleaders and even architects of this rotten system, if the truth be known.

In the 1920s, there were a number of critics of the American political economy. People were aware of deficiencies in the failing farm economy, the oppressive wage economy, the burgeoning corporate economy, and wrote books. And, conveniently, Hoover and the Republicans thoroughly destroyed the economy, before the Democrats came in, so preservation was never a realistic option. There was a ready progressive agenda of mutualism in finance, a ready ground for creating a universal system of old age pensions, ideas about how to manage agriculture, ideas about public electric utilities and regulation of private utilities. And, a taste for blood. FDR sued the iconic Republican Treasury Secretary of the previous Republican administrations, Andrew Mellon, for personal tax evasion. The head of the New York Stock Exchange went to prison. The chief of private electric utilities in Chicago was driven into poverty and a fatal heart attack by Democratic opponents, one of whom leveraged that feud into a cabinet position.

The Left will be effective, when they (we) are willing to fight, and willing to wreck the existing system. A conservative left is a useless, impotent thing, by nature. And, the Left will be potent, when it is willing to overcome its scruples to lead people with authoritarian attitudes.

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ScentOfViolets 04.08.11 at 7:51 pm

Authoritarian political attitudes do not mark out a type of person, or some kind of psychopathology; they are the natural condition of those cells of the body politic, which are subservient, dependent and scared, and not part of the leadership systems of the society. Politics, like all human organization, needs leadership and followership, and it is folly to think otherwise.

So you don’t go for any of that stuff by Sidanius or Pratto about about SDO (social dominance orientation), or Altemeye’s work on the authoriatarian personality? I find it pretty convincing, myself. FWIW.

57

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.08.11 at 8:26 pm

Bruce, I think you assume too much about human nature. People can be tribal or cosmopolitan; their attitudes authoritarian or libertarian. You are what you eat; your consciousness is a product of your social environment.

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chris 04.08.11 at 9:10 pm

@SoV: Isn’t that a bit of a nature/nurture question? ISTM Bruce is saying that nobody is born authoritarian, they learn authoritarian ways because of the situation that they’re in. I don’t think that’s inconsistent with the SDO or Altemeyer’s work.

One of the most consistent findings of psychology (IIRC) is that circumstances have powerful effects on people’s behavior. Another is that people are very resistant to believing this (about themselves or others), and ascribe deep, essential causes to behavior.

P.S. It now looks like there are about to be quite a lot of people in and around Washington who don’t have to show up to work for a while. Maybe some of them ought to plan to do something with their unwanted unpaid time off. Like saying “don’t hold my job hostage to your extremist social agenda”, for example. They wouldn’t even have to sick out, since they’re being locked out.

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James Kroeger 04.08.11 at 9:54 pm

The outstanding [political] ‘sin’ of the current Democratic leadership has always been their utter failure to recognize the essential role that emotion plays in politics. The Republicans understand it well.

They know that they represent the interests of only a small percentage of the total electorate and that, in a nominal democracy, they must find a way to win the support of many voters who are not able to comprehend the fine points of complicated policy discussions. They understand that they need to communicate with those people on a level they can understand.

The Democratic Party opposition will only become the majority party when Democratic politicians come to understand that they must define who the ‘good guys’ and and who the ‘bad guys’ are with some palpable emotion. The emotion I’m talking about is FEAR, not anger.

From an article I wrote back in 2004, following John Kerry’s defeat, THE REPUBLICAN NEMESIS:

Democrats need to understand the importance of showing Swing Voters that they fear Republican rule. The more apparent it is to Swing Voters that a lot of Americans are truly scared of George Bush & The Republicans, the more they’re going to wonder if maybe they should also be afraid of him. (Typically, we first learn to fear things that we didn’t fear previously after seeing fear in the faces of others.) Some Democrats might think it would be better for us to emphasize our anger, but we need to be aware of the ways that this can backfire. We do not want to be characterized as “Angry People” who are always angry [in a threatening sort of way]. Voters need to see that behind our anger is a real fear for the well-being of the American People and for America’s reputation around the world. We should never be reluctant to show our fear of Bush, but we need to make it clear in our tone that our fear is appropriate and that our anger is controlled & justified.

Think of the many times when Republicans have accused Democrats of “hating America” or of “hating George Bush.” They make this charge to invoke an image of people who are imagined to be inherently angry and who are therefore a threat to ‘us normal people.’ Now think of how that image changes if—when we are accused of hating—we point out that people only hate that which they fear. Whenever we are accused of hating the Republicans, we need to keep repeating to the media that no, it is fear that we feel. It’s our best defense. We want the Swing Voters to see us as people who fear the Republicans, but we also want them to see that we are also brave enough to take on the threat. Like the sergeant said to the private in the foxhole, “Everyone’s afraid, son. But we can’t let that fear stop us. We still have a mission to carry out.” We are afraid and angry. We just know that we must oppose evil when we see it. Verbalize fear. Show courage.

In the final weeks of the 2004 campaign, many Democrats complained that the Republicans were using fear tactics to win the election. It was kind of an odd criticism to be voicing, given that political campaigns have always been a contest between competing sets of fears throughout history. Even when we are motivated by hope, the key emotion that inspires us to act with a sense of urgency is our fear of losing an opportunity [to achieve a hoped-for goal]. Yes, fear & hope are never that far away from each other. The good thing about hope is that it represses the fear. Indeed, people are ideally motivated when their primary fear is the fear of lost opportunity. Fear is the one emotion that is strong enough to motivate people to go out and vote who have never voted before. (If your big thing is getting out the vote, keep this in mind.) The ultimate truth of political competition is that Swing Voters always choose a particular candidate or party because they fear the consequences of having the other candidate/party in office, the one they didn’t vote for.

The problem with fear is not that politicians use to inspire voters; the problem is that some politicians create fears that are irrational or unjustified or exaggerated. When such fears are used to intentionally mislead citizens into voting against their own best interests, then the use of fear is unethical. In contrast, if the fear that politicians inspire is legitimate—and their intention is to alert voters to a danger that they can protect themselves from—then the use of fear is virtuous. What Democrats need to understand clearly is that Swing Voters can be persuaded to fear either party. Right now, too many of them fear The Democrats more than they fear The Republicans. They will return to their identification with the Democratic Party only after they have been persuaded that it is The Republicans whom they ought to fear, not the Democrats. It is the Republicans who are not like them, who are simply looking for yet another opportunity to play them for fools.

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PHB 04.08.11 at 11:27 pm

I think that what is really going on here is that the Tea Party bubble is fading.

Every time a political party faces an electoral disaster due to the excesses of its ideology it concludes that the problem was that it compromised its ideology. The UK Tories decided in 97 that the problem was they had compromised too much and that they needed to put ‘clear blue water’ between themselves and Blair. The UK Labour Party decided that they had not been socialist enough in ’79. And so it was inevitable that the GOP would conclude that the Bush administration turned into a fiasco because it had not been ideological enough.

Ideologues never consider the possibility that they were in error. That is what makes them ideologues.

The Tea Party boomed in 2009 and pretty much peaked in 2010 with the election of Scott Brown to replace Ted Kennedy. The movement was already in decline by the time of the mid-term elections, but by that time they had already knocked off a few of the establishment Republicans in the primaries, costing the GOP several winnable seats.

At this point the Tea party is getting ‘dozens’ of people attending its rallys and has been almost completely captured by the Republican party. It is no longer an independent grass roots movement and it is ceasing to be a significant political force. In effect the Tea Party is simply a rebranding of the social conservative wing on the party which was itself simply a way to get a bunch of not very bright southern racists to knock on doors and man phone banks for the GOP.

The problem the GOP has now is that it takes their freshmen members a little time to realize that the ideology is pure humbug and that they are expected to buckle down to the serious work of looting the public purse for their own benefit and that of their cronies.

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Bruce Wilder 04.09.11 at 12:19 am

SoV @ 56: “So you don’t go for any of that stuff by Sidanius or Pratto about about SDO (social dominance orientation), or Altemeyer’s work on the authoriatarian personality?”

I go for all of it. Especially Altemeyer’s work on authoritarian followers.

HV @ 57: “People can be tribal or cosmopolitan; their attitudes authoritarian or libertarian. You are what you eat; your consciousness is a product of your social environment.”

I wasn’t aware of saying anything to the contrary.

Yes, some people will be cosmopolitan and some authoritarian and lots will be a bit of both, and vary over the course of their lives; that potential is in everyone, but the society will always contain both, or rather, a diverse array, a continuous spectrum. Mix a metaphor. At base, even before conflicting material interests, a diversity of political opinion starts as the social expression, in specialized roles, of human ambivalence.

Lots of people are in circumstances, which just naturally produce authoritarian political attitudes. A lot of liberals seem to think they are duty-bound to try to talk a large segment of the population out of their resentments and prejudices and ignorance and committment to convention or tradition, and into voting for a dubious calculation of economic self-interest, while ignoring other values.

Liberals/progressives are never going to be, by themselves, a voting political majority, and trying to create such a majority of like-minded critical thinkers by indoctrination is goofy. Billionaire libertarians seeking dominance and status are even more numerically limited, so there’s that. Liberals, if they want political power, will have to lead authoritarians, and rather a lot of them, and prevent ruthless demagogues from assuming that leadership role. That means crafting political appeals aimed at authoritarian followers, which, predictably appeal, not to liberals, but to authoritarian followers. The general term for such appeals, in American politics, is a style of politics known as “populism”. It means using rhetorical frames, which make use of the kind of religious, patriotic and conventional sentiments and images and in-group/out-group themes, which authoritarians tend to be inclined to understand and credit.

It means finding ways to promote and nurture mass membership organizations and even mass tribal identities. Authoritarian followers are loyal members of groups and organizations; this is a good thing, which can actually strengthen organizations, which need people, who are willing to simply do what they are told, and do it well, instead of debating and contemplating and coming up with “creative ideas” all the time.

Populism is always going to conflict with Progressive ideals on some key points, because, at base, “liberal” and “authoritarian” are antonyms, and represent opposing poles of human ambivalence and temperment. But, mostly, there are ways to reconcile conflict and move forward; that’s the nature of coalition politics and getting to 51%. For example, authoritarians are inclined to accept conventional norms uncritically, while liberals want humane rationalizations of principle; the trick is for liberals to make sure that the conventional norms are in harmony with liberal principle: patriotic fervor for ideological committments to constitutional principle, and all that. Authoritarians will never, by nature, care for the content of 1st amendment protections for the unpopular speech; but, they can be led to support such protections almost ritualistically, as a conventional norm.

Liberal economists could win the macroeconomic policy debate, if they could leave aside the counterintuitive Keynesianism, and come up with a morally prescriptive standard for policy, which made sense to authoritarian followers. Not understanding the appeal of the conventional moral imperatives associated with austerity, to people, who are scared and don’t have the time or education to figure out arcane abstract arguments about the functions of monetary policy, is no excuse for a failure to lead.

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Sev 04.09.11 at 1:57 am

#61 “Liberal economists could win the macroeconomic policy debate, if they could leave aside the counterintuitive Keynesianism”
You’re kidding, right? What would liberal austerianism sound like; Eat the Rich? I’d agree that they could sell it better- nothing counterintuitive about putting people back to work instead of welfare, rebuilding the country, etc. Generally what many of us thought we elected Obama to do- we forgot to listen to the part about how all the promises were just to win office, though there were warnings.

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ScentOfViolets 04.09.11 at 2:59 am

Robert Putnam, a leading observer of the decline of US social capital, fingers commercial TV as the main likely toxin. The extraordinary ability of the US plutocracy to come through the crash of the financial markets with undiminished political power is proof of the remarkable efficacy of their television propaganda machine.

What’s the connection? Because – all the complaining to the contrary – the mainstream media didn’t seem to have much of an effect on several mainstream issues. The polls, for example, showed that clear majorities favored the public option in the U.S., that clear majorities wanted taxes raised on people making over $250 K/year, and that clear majorities wanted the financial sector to “pay” for it’s malfeasance. And these polls aren’t hard to find at all :

Poll reveals cross-party desire for banks to pay back more and majority support for a Robin Hood Tax

March 21st, 2011 at 12.56 pm.

Supporters of all political parties insist banks should pay to repair the damage caused by the economic crisis and only one in nine of the British public believe they have paid back enough, a poll published today shows.

The poll of 2,226 adults by YouGov for Oxfam reveals that 87 per cent of Conservative voters, 91 per cent of Labour voters and 93 per cent of Liberal Democrats believe that “banks, hedge funds and financial institutions have a responsibility to help repair the damage their actions caused”. More than half of supporters of all the main political parties strongly agreed with the statement.

So if the media is so all-fired effective at molding public opinion, how come the public still holds views antithetical to those the ruling classes wish them to hold?

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Bruce Wilder 04.09.11 at 3:08 am

“You’re kidding, right?”

In my awkward and unclear way, I was trying to say that the liberal economists are too abstract and cerebral in their Keynesian arguments. Krugman prattling on about liquidity traps is not going to persuade a lot of people, who are frightened, but also do not have the time or resources to study up on the economics.

Politics is a drama, and what James Kroeger said above @59 about the language of emotion applies. Most voters are going to assess the moral meanings that they hear in the emotional and moral tone of what is said, not puzzle out the diagrams and equations. S. R. Waldmann wrote several excellent essays at Interfluidity about this problem, as it applies to macroeconomic policy.

The problems of neoliberal economics are much deeper and broader than frameworks of moral rhetoric, of course. That the crisis surprised these supposed experts meant that the preservationist instinct set in with many of them, and once the choice had been made to preserve a system that they neither understood, nor had the capacity to critically evaluate, all hope of a favorable outcome was forfeit: the foxes were confirmed in possession of the henhouse. The substance of macroeconomic policy followed from that decision to preserve the plutocracy and its scam-economy.

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ScentOfViolets 04.09.11 at 3:12 am

A lot of liberals seem to think they are duty-bound to try to talk a large segment of the population out of their resentments and prejudices and ignorance and committment to convention or tradition, and into voting for a dubious calculation of economic self-interest, while ignoring other values.

Could you be more specific? I find these sorts of generalities hard to talk about precisely because they are so vague that they are hard to refute or confirm as a proposition.

Furthermore, on certain specifics at least, I think you’re wrong about “liberals” being ineffectual at talking people ’round to their point of view. Does anyone truly think that a majority of the public sincerely believes that lower taxes and less regulation on business is the economic prescription for what ails the U.S., for example? I happen to think otherwise, and a lot of polling seems to lend weight to this particular view.

Of course that may just be me clinging desperately to another “liberal” shibboleth: that eventually the voters get it right :-)

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Bruce Wilder 04.09.11 at 3:41 am

“What’s the connection?”

Nothing is real, until it has been seen on teevee.

Years ago, I heard an account of the Iranian revolution from a street-level participant, who re-counted the moment when everyone in the street looked around, and seeing the masses, realized that everyone was in the street. Having an opinion is not the same as knowing in your heart that your opinion is widely shared, or that there is an immediate opportunity to act on your opinion, in concert with the vast majority of your countrymen.

Television takes away the possibility of social coordination based on shared perceptions of reality, by substituting a virtual representation of opinion via spokesmodel pundits, for actual shared, social interaction.

Think about the failed candidacy of Howard Dean. His chief consultant, (who was, as is traditional, his media planner, paid a percentage of tv ad buys) took his solid fundraising, and to his own profit, squandered it all on largely pointless television advertising, so there was nothing in the Dean treasury. Then, Diane Sawyer and company, tweaked the audio a bit, on his Iowa election night speech to his supporters, creating the Dean Scream, making him look like a fool. The 24-hour newscycle played the clip, until he quit.

In a variety of complementary ways, the medium of television — not the message — takes away the possibility of social action and organization. There’s the apparatus of political consultants (who are, mostly, experts in television advertising). There’s the gatekeepers of the major networks, allocating facetime. There’s the pundits, modeling opinion, often in very manipulative ways.

It is not the people don’t have their own individual opinions or information, though that may be seriously distorted or limited. It is that they are left with no way, from their couches to coordinate socially to make their opinion count, or have their sense of reality reinforced by hearing other people’s genuine perceptions and assessments, or come to any sense of power from being part of a majority able to act in concert.

The signal to act in concert on a widely shared opinion will simply never come through the boob tube. The genuine perceptions of others will not be heard; instead, you will hear Chris Matthews, your synthesized, virtual friend, or Bill O’Reilly or whoever.

Behind the television screen, there’s a vast institutionalized apparatus, that short-circuits the social chemistry of politics and public opinion. The army of intermediaries — celebrity pundits and media consultants and PR people, etc. — are like the control rods inserted in the core of a nuclear reactor to stop the reaction, only more effective.

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James Kroeger 04.09.11 at 10:45 am

Bruce Wilder, 61:

The general term for such appeals, in American politics, is a style of politics known as “populism”. It means using rhetorical frames, which make use of the kind of religious, patriotic and conventional sentiments and images and in-group/out-group themes, which authoritarians tend to be inclined to understand and credit.

I can second a great many of the points you have been trying to make, Bruce. The one I cited above focuses on the absolute political necessity of addressing two different audiences at once. Sure, it is important to develop a logically defensible collection of high-brow arguments that defeat all challenges, but it is equally important to speak to the not-so-educated on a level that they will readily understand.

Democratic politicians really do not understand The Swing Voters, the individuals who always determine the outcome of elections in America. “The Issues” might actually be important to many Swing Voters early on in a political campaign, but after both sides have had a chance to pick apart each other’s facts & interpretations, the typical Swing Voter quickly becomes confused. As the debate over The Issues drags on, Swing Voters realize that they don’t understand the details well enough to make an informed decision, so they end up relying on their impressions of the candidates. Republican strategists understand this all too well.

It is the reason why they continuously seek to create doubts in the minds of the Swing Voters re: the character of the Democratic candidate. They know that it doesn’t really matter if they can’t find any real flaws in their Democratic opponents. Accusations, insinuations, & innuendo will work just fine. They express doubts about the motivation and dependability of The Democrats. They try to create the perception that Democrats are “defective” in a disturbing way. By simply accusing, the Republicans suggest—to the Swing Voters—that they are not defective, like those danged Democrats.

All of this is in the service of the supreme goal of dividing America into two camps: ‘we virtuous Republicans’ and ‘those who are not in our group.’ They need an opposition party to castigate, in order to [indirectly] establish their implicit virtuousness in the eyes of the Swing Voters. It will never, ever be the goal of Republican political strategists to unite the country. Democratic politicians have so much to learn re: how the political game is played in America.

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Steve LaBonne 04.09.11 at 12:44 pm

Bruce, not that many people actually watch cable news, and the number has been dropping rapidly of late.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.09.11 at 12:52 pm

Lenin’s Tomb typefies the way in which the left – for reasons which are deeply unclear but shurely very very stupid – insists on insulting and demonising a huge constituency which is just begging to be brought into the fold (whatever of it remains) instead of being told to fuck off and go play with Dan Brown:

I think it’s worth distinguishing between a few different things when we talk about conspiracy theories, then: there is that which precedes political analysis, that starts from the proposition that the world works through the secretive actions of a nameable few, which is a kind of magical thinking (Robin Ramsay wonders why interest in conspiracies often goes along with an interest in the occult, and this may be why); there is that which is sensationalist, and which haphazardly picks up on topics where there is some salacious interest and where it is politically harmless; and there is that which is strictly historical and provisional, rooted in a deeper and broader political analysis, (for instance, that provided by Daniele Ganser).

Missing from this analysis is the category of ‘that which represents a recognition of actual instances of the workings of the ruling class, and betokens a deep disquiet and curiosity about it, even though naturally (and sensibly, empirically, reasonably) enough, the initial approach is via the ordinary world of things everyone can understand without having to be steeped in and sugned up to some dubious (and, it appears, irremediably inchoate, i.e. mirageous!) unified field theory of politics’.

Twio of the main methods of the apologists of current power relations are:

(1) to place the notion of corruption of any kind – but especially endemic radical corruption, of course – outside the pale of sane discourse, while of course continuing to peddle their own top-down xenophobic mythology (an entirely different breed of ‘conspiracy theory’ from the critical parapolitical hypotheses of the 9/11 sceptics etc.). Instead, all is cock-up, or like the business cycle the unavoidable thus unregrettable upshot of the workings of a Panglossian system.

(2) to deny the possibility of intentional progressive action (see the recent reactionary bingo post), and to ‘analyse’ social and political events as the workings of abstract (market) forces, with individuals mere price-taking cyphers. Nothing, as Bruce Gold put it, succeeds as planned. Instead, market forces are at the helm, and ‘individualism’ means never focussing on – real individuals and their actions!

The left’s reaction, along with – obviously – the centre, is t0 happily to kiss up and kick down, retaining the purity of whatever comprehensive institutional theory they fondly imagine themselves to have established. They agree that of course it is unutterably vulgar to pay any attention to actual plots, machinations and conscious intentional action. For if it can in the end be explained by general theories, it cannot matter at all, and must not be acknowledged, not for long or not publicly, for fear that the less level-headed may fetishise the proximate cause or be distracted by intarctable investigations. That way of thinking is dangerously seductive, and there madness lies.

But the basic premise of this strand of reflex anti-conspiracy theory attitudes is that it is the committed members of the left that we are talking about here – so tha dnager is that of being distracted from the ‘real’, comfortingly abstract and mathematically certain, issues.

In fact all those paid-up members (those not at risk of expulsion) share the anticonspiratorial prejudice, and all the talk of distraction is bunk. If the problem with critical, ‘populist’ conspiracy theories is that they are a distraction – rather than, what is mnore plausible, an important part of the raw data of critical political discourse – then there is no problem, for those identified as subscribing to them have nothing to be distracted from. And thanks to the left’s puritanical refusal to engage with them, there is nothing to distract them away from their misguided interest in uncovering and publicising the workings of the uncontroversially powerful and onto a more fruitful (?) understanding of the real problems which underly these negligible surface phenomena of backroom deals, assassination, smears, stich-ups and corrupt practice within already corrupt institutions.

Hofstadter and Popper stand united against the nascent political conscousness of the great unwashed. These people really should stop meddling in matters which don’t concern them. Once we dismiss all the double talk, the strawmen thrown into the mix, the guilt by association, the fastidious insistence on exclusively theoretical analysis, the feeble appeals to distraction of those never attracted in the first place, the genteel distaste for ‘shrill’ or ‘breathless’ commentary, we are left with the bald fact that so-called conspiracy theories are simply hypotheses about the obvservable workings of the ruling power.

And anyone who is interested in that, willing to spend long hours trying to research it, and willing to try to understand every aspect of it, including any more useful analysis that the soi-disant left might have maganed to assemble in between wanking sessions, is obviously not the kind of person we want to associate with. I mean, you might get sneered at by Oliver Kamm.

70

Bruce Wilder 04.09.11 at 2:57 pm

@Tim: Look at the sudden popularity of all things Koch

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Bruce Wilder 04.09.11 at 3:20 pm

Steve: “not that many people actually watch cable news”

Cable news is news-as-entertainment: boring “entertainment”.

Ditto for much of political print journalism: reporting and opinion.

And, local news and public affairs is simply non-existent. (Last night, local news on one of the major L.A. stations led with a weather story, featuring home video of hail falling on someone’s backyard ping pong table.)

Back in the Dark Ages, Speaker Tip suggested that all politics is local. Local news and public affairs programming is non-existent. A couple of days ago, I got a robo-call from my Congress critter. I vote in every friggin’ election there is, dude, and I did not recognize her name!

My general point was: the main political effect is not the specific content of the propaganda; it is not effectiveness as indoctrination that counts, it is effectiveness in confusing and boring us. The general effect of the medium is to prevent the social processes of mass politics, not to manipulate them in detail.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.09.11 at 3:40 pm

Bruce Wilder @70: Wasn’t aware of it – found this WSJ op ed by Chas. Koch from Mar 1 -basically a rudimentary critique of ‘crony capitalism’ from a standpoint terms of free-market fundamentalism, i.e. the problem is the cronyism (though also the ‘big state’ more generally) rather than the capitalism (with the cronyism being supposedly eliminable while retaining the capitalism).

Is that the kind of thing you mean? What conclusions do you draw from it?

Certainly on the right, the tea party seem to be doing the radical populist thing with no qualms about invoking such jejune concerns as what actual people are actually getting up to. And the tone of moral outrage is there too, of course. It seems the left don’t like that, because (to address only reasoned objections) they incorrectly believe that it implies (a) the ‘rogue operator’ approach – i.e. capitalism is fine if we can just get people to do it properly; and relatedly, (b) incompatibilism – if blame can be levelled, it must be on the basis of uncaused action, so there can be no further analysis of such action in terms of institutions, classes, etc.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.09.11 at 3:41 pm

for pity’s sake, can someone please turn off that hyphen transformation rule?

74

LFC 04.10.11 at 12:27 am

the various riders (Planned Parenthood etc) stripped away.

Not all of them.

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Bruce Wilder 04.10.11 at 12:47 am

Tim @72: I guess if you are not aware of it, then the example doesn’t make any sense. The Koch brothers have become emblematic of billionaires financing right-wing causes for many on the Left. It helps that the Koch’s actually do give away a lot of money, so you can bring up their name, in association with seemingly disparate political actors: climate-change denial, the Marginal Revolution blog, Cato, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. (Of course, you could throw in Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera, but that would be distracting.)

Human beings have had large, anonymous business and government bureaucracies for less only about 120 years; we don’t have a vocabulary or a narrative framework for the achievements or the aspirations of such organizations, and yet, everything about us, good and bad, is a product of their concerted efforts. From the iPhone to war to highways to finance, bureaucracy rules. In the old days, we made history out of the collective biographies of “great men”: “Columbus discovered America.” We could hardly say, “Neil Armstrong landed on the moon” (though that’s literally true) and count it as a narrative explanation of the NASA project.

I think conspiracies are popular, partly from a need to exercise that pattern-recognition wetware we call, “paranoia”, but also because it is a relief to personalize political action. With no terms or frameworks, we are struck dumb, much of the time; hardly able to think or speak with confidence about these strange giants in our midst, government agencies and corporations. It is a relief to be able to put a face on a phenomenon, and to gossip about it. So Movement Conservatism becomes the Koch Brothers. And, for some people, conspiracies provide the same sort of relief, with names to be added, at a time to be determined. If it is a conspiracy, it is explicable in human terms and can be discussed. If it is corporate policy, well, then what is it? Who is it?

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Straightwood 04.10.11 at 1:30 am

what is it? Who is it?

Rather than conspiracy, it is something I call convergency, multiple actors converging on results that serve their own distinct interests. The legal and PR firms that work for the Koch brothers don’t share the Olympian self-assurance and disdain for government of this wealthy duo, but they get steady and profitable work by handling their affairs. The SEC lawyers that know that they will get high-paying Wall Street jobs if they don’t rock the boat aren’t actively conspiring to undermine securities regulation; they are simply making shrewd personal career choices. The academics who decide to refrain from politically inconvenient lines of investigation are notionally committed to the search for truth, but they would prefer to win tenure first.

No formalized conspiracy is required when loosely coordinated action provides diverse local benefits for those pursuing common goals.

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Bruce Wilder 04.10.11 at 3:48 am

Indeed, the outlines of the common project disappear from sight — even the sight of many key participants — as their preferred narratives of their own, personal actions drown out the emergence of any narrative explication of the common project.

It is only retrospectively, as history, that we, apparently, can recognize the pattern of a “loosely coordinated” common project. I don’t think that’s just a matter of establishing distance. As individuals, we have voices, and a need to cast ourselves in the drama of our own lives, to explain ourselves to our selves and those in personal acquaintance with us. The project may have no singular voice of its own, and no self-consciousness need to acquire one.

I was struck last night, by President Obama’s, and Senator Reid’s, apparent need to cast themselves as something other than losers. They spoke of the “historic” reduction in spending as if it must be “objectively” (in the sense of perceptions of a shared reality) a good thing, an achievement.

There he was actively taking credit for a policy of spending reduction that he nominally opposes. He very mildly allowed that he would not have made the cuts at this time, on his own initiative, but went on to tout the accomplishment of the cuts.

Was Obama cooperating all along with the opposition, to create the dramatic opportunity to make these cuts, just as he cooperated with the opposition last Fall, in extending the Bush Tax Cuts?

It is very easy, and economical in an Occam’s Razor sense, to fall into the tropes of conspiracy, in building a narrative of Obama’s political behavior. An efficient narrative — efficient in the telling at least — puts a lot of weight on intention, and on linking intention to outcomes. In this case — in most important cases in a world of clashing institutions — the actors had opposed intentions. But, here, the most important actor is rationalizing the outcome as intended somehow objectively necessary to a sufficient extent as to justify self-congratulation.

Commentators like Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman noticed immediately that Obama has accepted the frame that what America needs, is spending cuts.

The difficulties, here, all have to do with the problems of constructing convincing narratives about how collective entities ought to behave. In the first instance, the political dispute is about whether the government should have to “tighten its belt” in the recession, or whether we should worry about the size of the Federal deficit in the short-run. Analogies are made to the situation of households or individual actors, to enable us to use the narrative templates we have. And, then, the chief actors themselves seem to lose themselves, rationalizing the outcome of their oppositional behavior. We get really confused.

I freely admit that I find the semi-conspiratorial thesis appealing: that Obama is working for the plutocracy, a ringer as it were, who set up the drama last night to get the plutocrats what they want, just as he delivered the extension of the Bush taxcuts and, earlier, TARP and other financial rescues. It seems the most economical explanation. But, it is an narrative on an intentional individual, and what is happening is actually the behavior of large institutions and loose groupings, rivalrous and oppositional. Maybe, such an economical explanation, in the circumstances, is necessarily wrong, precisely because it disposes of all that organizational/institutional detail. But, such a narrative would be novel, even alien, and hairy in its details and many strategic/group processes like your convergency.

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Omega Centauri 04.10.11 at 4:40 am

Bruce, Here we have Obama believing that to fight -or be seen to oppose the morality-play view of economics would be a losing game, so he is forced to pretend to acept it. This is where we go wrong, we know it is hard to convince people of the counterintuitive truth, so those who want to use the myth for their own agenda, can use that lack of will to oppose, to manipulate them. Of course the medium and longterm effect, of being unable/unwilling to oppose, is the inequality ratchet. Either we convince the people, that certain players have figured out how to manipulate the dynamics, towards an end that will be profounding limiting of theirown, and their childrens future, or the game is lost. I think it is very late in the game, but that seems to be the only rational way to play at this point. The only plan B, is to move to Europe, and hope the sickness won’t follow us there.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.10.11 at 8:18 am

Yeah, this is somewhat similar to the pagan concept of various anthropoid deities controlling the natural phenomena. Thunderstorms happen because Thor is angry. Taxed on the billionaires are cut because Obama wants this or that, or because he’s playing multidimensional chess. Personalization of natural phenomena is comforting.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.10.11 at 11:28 am

The rather hasty stream-of-consciousness #69 was a response to, in particular, Bruce @71. I usppose I was accepting that trying to create … a majority of like-minded critical thinkers by indoctrination is goofy in the short term, but preferring if possible to take a strategy that leaves that path open for future gradual progress. the suggestion was that engaging sypathetically with what are commonly dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’ can provide a kind of populism that doesn’t have to invoke the kind of religious, patriotic and conventional sentiments and images and in-group/out-group themes, which authoritarians tend to be inclined to understand and credit., except perhaps as a ‘shrill’ but harmless and indeed rather salutory moral aspect of class politics.

In relation to that, Bruce @75 invokes the old ‘biographies of great men’/social history dichotomy – but of course as the practice of (I should think pretty much all compatent) hisxtorians will attest, while those biographies are not the whole story, neither are they entirely eliminable – still less actually unreal (thus never true).

This is very much the kind of dichotomy I’m talking about, seen in its most crude form (among reputable thinkers) in the works of Popper and Hofstadter who constrast a ‘conspiracy theory of history’ with some other way of understanding things which more or less wrotes individuals out of events altogether. In fact what are called ‘conspiracy theories’ are almost never (and not in the numerous cases I’m talking about) part of a universal theory of human events. And an account in terms of intention is neither necessary nor sufficient for a ‘conspiracy theory’ – intentional action obviously need not be ‘conspiratorial’, and some ‘conspiracy theories’ actually posit only what I call quasi-conspiracy, a portmanteau term that would include what Straightwood @76 calls ‘convergency’, and roughly covers anything that functions like a conspiracy proper when seen from the outside – i.e. the receiving end.

One point is that the distinction is of little importance in itself – though of course remedies may differ according to the operative mechanism. Another is that actual quasi-conspiracies may in fact be a mixture of intentional and other functional mechanisms. Take the Iraq War build-up: here there were undoubtedly some (e.g. Cheney and senior neocons) who knew from the start what the aim was and worked towards it – but there were many others who lay along a spectrum (or spectra) of corruption: self-deception, self-seeking compliance, instinctive or unwitting co-option, groupthink, bandwagon, fear about speaking out, selection and deselection for various roles, being consumers rather than or as well as producers of ideology, simply finding that the ‘wrong’ answer always came straight back to the in tray for reconsideration (repeat indefinitely or until right asnwer is received), etc etc.

And of course even on th acse of those implicated in intentional conspiratorial behaviour, it is possible to analyse the constraints and external condidtions that got them there. That was my point about in/compatibilism. Bruce says: We could hardly say, “Neil Armstrong landed on the moon” (though that’s literally true) and count it as a narrative explanation of the NASA project. But my point is that we can quite reasonably point out that Neil Armstrong did land on the moon – and in doping so we are not necessarily saying that it’s a brute fact – intentional/conspiratorial accounts of events are not necessarily (and indeed are often not) attempts to provide deep explanations. They are more like observations.

Most 9/11 sceptics (or whatever we are to call them) start with something like, say, the appearance of demolition of the three towers (they are on the striongest ground with building 7 of course), and the various circumstantial matters like the swift clean up of the crime scene with all evidence rapidly destroyed, and then proceed from there to provide increasingly tentative explanations for what might possibly have happened. They are not, from what I can see, motivated by some top-down ideological theory about how the world works (obviously there are all sorts of nutters around, but I’m talking about the sizable sensible end of the spectrum).

HV @79 – this is a pure form of the reflex I’m talking about – Thunderstorms happen because Thor is angry is an instance of Personalization of natural phenomena, but Taxes…are cut because Obama wants this or that is not. Taxes being cut does involve humans making decisions – a smallish number of humans beings, had they decided to act differently, could have brought it about that those tax cuts did not occur. This is entirely consistent with them being pretty closely hemmed in given their interests, and by the fact that they had been selected for their willingness to go along with ethis kind of thing, etc etc etc. But still, why shoudl n;pt we be pissed off with themn for doing it anyway? Given that – i.e. that we are not invioking the ‘rogue operator’ thesis, why shouldn’t we regard them as having done something wrong, or as less than virtuous characters, as corrupt – corrupted by the system, yes, but still corrupt? There had better be a pretty good answer to that, if we are to forego the righteous indignation that we are entitled to – and which provides a rather better rallying cry than gappy theories about forces of production. Leftism with guts is all I’m talking about – and FWIW, BTW, and e.g., the widely received view of Marx (or for that matter Smith) as eschewing all condemnation and ignoring conscious plots among the ruling class is incorrect, based on highly selective readings and concentration on a few remarks suggestive of radical relativism that are not even clearly unironic.

This must be getting pretty lopng by now, but I’d just point out that while I wasn’t specifically referring to Obama’s performance in the legislative arena, the denials that he is complicit in the stitch-up would seem to rest on a pretty strong (and untenable, as well as irrelevant) idea of something liek double effect: intention being taken in a restricted sense of minimal operative reasons, rather than voluntary action with known consequences. Of course it is possible to argue that Obama is powerless to prevent certain things – but (a) that is different from talking about ‘buy-in’ etc., (b) who gives a shit what was in his mind, really – get angry first and then decide – and try to explain – exactly what the root cause of the problem is.

The point is clearer with Strightwood’s examples; The SEC lawyers that know that they will get high-paying Wall Street jobs if they don’t rock the boat aren’t actively conspiring to undermine securities regulation; they are simply making shrewd personal career choices. is straight double effect of the strongest kind – which raises the bar for ascribing complicity in corruption to positively Mephistophelian heights. The account given describes bent lawyers in derelictyion of duty in pursuit of personal profit – do we really need to impute to them some further free-floating malevolence before issuing personal criticism? No, I say. Get the juices flowing, shout and gather and light the torches, then you can say – look – there are the ones who employed them! Get ’em! And there are the ones who paid them! And look – it’s ones who allowed the bribery system to continue unchecked! And over there – the bastards who are profiting from it all – and look – cowering over there – the bent economists who say it has to be this way! And the columnists who lie every day to protect their rich bosses! They know what they are doing, and they don’t care. They are bent – all bent – because this is a bent system. they bend it it, and it bends them. And we can fix it – if we are strong and upright and stand together for the Real America (etc)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.10.11 at 1:30 pm

Yes, of course, if we get down to the details, we’ll find individuals there: the usual suspects (businessmen, lawyers, politicians, journos), taking predictable actions under predictable circumstances. But hey, hate the game, not the players.

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ScentOfViolets 04.10.11 at 6:01 pm

It is very easy, and economical in an Occam’s Razor sense, to fall into the tropes of conspiracy, in building a narrative of Obama’s political behavior. An efficient narrative—efficient in the telling at least—puts a lot of weight on intention, and on linking intention to outcomes. In this case—in most important cases in a world of clashing institutions—the actors had opposed intentions. But, here, the most important actor is rationalizing the outcome as intended somehow objectively necessary to a sufficient extent as to justify self-congratulation.

But surely – above all else – what a successful theory must do is make successful predictions, yes? And only then, all other things being equal, is the dictum against multiplying entities unnecessarily invoked. And as to “intent”, well, isn’t intent notoriously hard to prove, especially in high-stakes outcomes where deception is rewarded? That may be a semantic confusion over the word “intent”, but generally speaking, I only use intent when it’s invocation results in a notably leaner and cleaner, more successful set of hypotheses.

The difficulties, here, all have to do with the problems of constructing convincing narratives about how collective entities ought to behave.

I’ve gotta say, is there some way to make “narrative” a dirty word? While people might be hard-wired to intuitively understand those types of explanations (might, I say), they’ve enjoyed a marked lack of success in the modern world. Also, maybe I’m an exception, maybe a lot of the people I hang out with are exceptions, but narratives just don’t grab me or mine the way a lot of people seem to think they should. Maybe it’s just me. Or maybe it’s that the narrative structure has certain, shall we say, advantages, when it’s compressed into a five-minute news segment or a ten-second sound bite ;-)

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ScentOfViolets 04.10.11 at 6:11 pm

I freely admit that I find the semi-conspiratorial thesis appealing: that Obama is working for the plutocracy, a ringer as it were, who set up the drama last night to get the plutocrats what they want, just as he delivered the extension of the Bush taxcuts and, earlier, TARP and other financial rescues.

Heh. You want conspiracy theories? Here’s mine: Say what you will about Hillary Clinton being an insider DC type, that we’d probably be in Afghanistan, Libya etc or that the already vast powers of the Presidency wouldn’t be expanded even more[1], same as for Obama, but in one key respect, I think she would have been different – we would have gotten much more meaningful health care reform under President H. R. PuffnS, er Clinton than what we actually got with the current bounder in office. Which was why she lost the primary, and in such a puzzling fashion as well.

Yes, one could say that Obama is a policy wonk as well. But the difference is, she’s old school and he’s new. Also, I suspect there might be some old score-settling with Clinton that would have had the side effect of actually benefiting the little people. Ah, there’s those “intents” sneaking in again. If nothing else, they are a marvelous short-hand, are they not?

[1] He’s gone off the rails a bit recently, but Stirling Newberry earned my hard-to-win respect when he said that no matter what and no matter which party, the next President would be Bush-Lite. In 2007.

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ScentOfViolets 04.10.11 at 6:30 pm

Perhaps a bit of digression when it comes to basic proofs and proof structure, but: Is everyone aware of the basic modus ponens/modus tollens structure? Or perhaps familiar with the more modern notation: p->q, p, so q and it’s contrapositive, ~q->~p, ~q, so ~p (or the equivalent truth tables)?

I just assume that everyone here knows these sorts of things, (just as I assume most people here hold some sort of advanced degree or it’s equivalent). But maybe I’m wrong on this one. It’s just that for those sorts of propositions it’s fairly straight-forward when it comes to devising a setup to prove or disprove them. Narratives, on the other hand, are notoriously un-amenable to this sort of hard proof/disproof dichotomy. I’m told by people who know more about this sort of thing than I that the Skinner school of behaviourism was motivated in part by this, nevermind the official lineage involving positivism and the like.

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bianca steele 04.10.11 at 7:07 pm

Ah, Scent (“it’s contrapositive, . . .”) clearly is ridiculing those who are lazy and don’t check their work before they hit the “Send” button.

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ScentOfViolets 04.10.11 at 7:39 pm

Ah, Scent (“it’s contrapositive, . . .”) clearly is ridiculing those who are lazy and don’t check their work before they hit the “Send” button.

Nah. I’m ridiculing people who check their work and need a new prescription for their glasses or otherwise have to have their eyes checked.

Time passes differently when you’re older. I thought I just got new glasses last year . . . but then I remember that no, it’s been more like three years, whatever my internal chronometer suggests.

Measurement trumps gut intuition yet again!

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mclaren 04.10.11 at 8:33 pm

Straightwood remarks: The plutocratic inequality ratchet doesn’t stop at the top 5%. It will keep working until a few hundred families/corporations have nearly all the wealth.

No, the inequality ratched will keep working until there are 7 oligarchs with all the wealth in America. Just as in Russia.

As Neitzsche pointed out, “He would chases the dragon long enough eventually becomes the dragon.” For 50 years of Cold War America battled the Soviet Union: now America has turned into the Soviet Union.

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joe koss 04.12.11 at 7:12 pm

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