Philosophical Conservatism and Operational Liberalism

by John Holbo on October 15, 2012

Kevin Drum noticed the same bit of this Ezra Klein piece that I did:

At this point, Romney and Obama are running almost perfectly opposite campaigns. Romney can tell you exactly what he wants to do, but barely a word about how he’ll do it. Obama can’t describe what he wants to achieve, but he can tell you everything about how he’ll get it done. It’s a campaign without real policies against a campaign lacking a clear vision.

Klein asks: when did Obama lose ‘the vision thing’? He thinks Obama had it in 2008, but it’s worth considering the counter-hypothesis that it was lost long before. Free and Cantril documented loss of liberal mojo in their 1967 book, based on survey data from the 1964 election. ‘Americans are philosophical conservatives but operational liberals.’ If that’s how it goes in 2012, that just goes to show how it goes, for the past half century.

For the rest, I wrote this post already – in response to something Kevin Drum said last year, actually – so I’ll just link to that old post. I think holds up pretty well.

Romney/Ryan get a bottomless stack of Get Out Of Budget Nonsense Jail Free Cards because the 2 + 2 = 5 stuff resonates with – feeds into – a certain kind of utopian conservative fantasy. It’s aspirational, rugged individualism stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all just stood on our own two feet! Since saying this sort of stuff amounts to signaling to the base ‘I’m one of you!’, it is easily discounted as rhetoric – because that is, in fact, what it is. This produces a kind of feedback loop. The more you use this stuff just to signal you’ve got the right attitude, the more it becomes noise for any other signaling purpose. You are no longer able to talk about the budget, because talking about the budget is just a proxy way of expressing a personal virtue ethics. By contrast, if Obama were to advocate expansions as radical as the cuts Romney/Ryan are advocating, everyone would take it seriously – literally. And well they should. Democrats would never advocate sweeping expansions unless they wanted them, and meant to try to get them. Because it’s not as though there are significant portions of the electorate who fantasize, vaguely, about the government being vastly vaster – but who would balk at any any attempt actually to do it – who can be pandered to, philosophically.

Making government bigger, for embiggening’s sake, is no one’s hazy dream of personal virtue; cutting the government, for cutting’s sake, is.

The last time I wrote this post, commenters complained that I was letting conservatives off too easily, implying that they didn’t really mean what they say. Certainly that’s not what I meant to imply, then or now. The effect of being able to say anything, and not be called on it – because people reasonably assume that you don’t mean it – is a steady drift in the direction of what you say, whether you mean it or not. Also, you get to hide what you really want to do in plain sight. Whatever President Romney (knock on wood, let’s hope not!) goes for – tax cuts for the wealthy, would be my guess – can be billed as moderate and reasonable, prudential retrenching of the purer philosophical vision he put forth while running for office.



James 10.15.12 at 5:20 am

Can someone explain to me why, exactly, Romney will go for tax cuts on the wealthy?


Belgian Observer 10.15.12 at 5:27 am

Can’t argue with Mitt’s 5 sons or his debate performance-the man is pure American alpha.


Glen Tomkins 10.15.12 at 5:39 am

Intellectual entropy

Perhaps this is inherent to conservatism in general, but the particular conservatism that I have the misfortune of knowing intimately, it’s current US incarnation, tends to disconnection from reality because it’s role in the political ecology is to be the receptacle that collects all streams of thought after they have finished rolling downhill and thus have spent all their force.

They believe in supply side economics because that’s the entropic end-stage of economic thinking. As long as you have to account for demand effects, you can never construct the macro level from the micro by modelling based on selfish rational actors. And those actual individual actors can get supply side based on the experience of trying to make a family or personal budget work. You earn more or you spend less if you find yourself unable to pay all the bills — those are your only two choices. But the idea that a nation, the economy as a whole, absolutely needs to spend its way out of debt in a recession, is completely outside the experience of people who obviously can’t afford to prime the demand pump for the economy as a whole on their individual budgets. Getting the voters to think of public policy in the appropriate frame, from the viewpoint of the whole, of the commonwealth and its needs, is just too much work, would take the voter and the politician too much out of the familiar and easy.

Their religion is fundamentalist because literalism is the only way of reading sacred texts that avoids all the hard work of sorting through the mysteries and the metaphors they’re expressed in. The Bible, amazingly, becomes The User’s Manual for the Soul.

Their patriotism is chauvinistic — USA is #1 and we don’t have to think about #2 and any numbers further on the sequence — because only that view keeps foreign policy simple and thought-free. No need to balance or prioritize any interests, the solution to every problem is for the US to talk tough and act tougher.

Most ominously, the tactics they adopt to achieve ends that slide increasingly away from reality, become whatever works in the short term, however much those means might be destructive of those very ends in the long run. The very remoteness of their ends from any practical reality forces them to go for radical means that promise final victory. They can’t fight the quotidian battles of ordinary politics, their sights are set too high for that. They can only fight Armageddon.

That is where it’s all tending, Armageddon. God’s will has nothing to do with it. Conservatives simply can’t be troubled to understand politics in any other way than the Battle at the End of Time between Good and Evil.


Ciaran 10.15.12 at 5:48 am

In the final analysis , it’s always about tax cuts for the wealthy. Funny that.


Glen Tomkins 10.15.12 at 5:59 am


Er kann nicht anders.

Public policy has to become a matter of almost theological dogma with them, because it has to be simple, and it absolutely cannot be at all responsive to the real world. They can entertain only one-size-fits-all solutions — tax cuts for the rich are the right policy under all economic and fiscal conditions — because the alternative is openness to reality and its ever-changing exigencies.

I suppose that the point of your question is that tax cuts for the wealthy are not actually in even the narrow economic interests of the wealthy. That’s absolutely true, but irrelevant, because the owners, mostly, the ones who vote R anyway, aren’t in it for narrow economic interests. They can’t even do enlightened self-interest right, because the demand side considerations that would instruct them in the benefits to their pocketbooks of letting more money get into the hands of workers, are just too hard to assimilate. The demand side would complicate their world-view, make it harder to have one-size-fits-all policy beliefs, and they’re rich enough to be able to afford the luxury of simple beliefs, even if those beliefs cheat them out of prospective riches.

What’s really inexplicable if you imagine the owners to be motivated by greed, isn’t the tax cuts for the rich, it’s the austerity for everyone else. Their austerity is likely to send us into contraction, secular, circle the drain and never come up for air, contraction, and not just some cyclical recession that we will eventually come out of. Their wealth will suffer enormously, but they are willing to jump of the austerity cliff anyway because they are motivated by a higher faith, well a simpler, more entropic faith, than that of Mammon.


Neil 10.15.12 at 6:08 am

What Glen says reminds me of a temper in American life more generally, but especially on the right, to sacralise texts and not just the bible. The attitude to the constitution – clearly an excellent document, in its historical context, but not actually divinely inspired – strikes outsiders (well, me) as insane. I also wonder whether the right reads this kind of attitude into their opponents. I think that they think that biologists have his holy book called The origin of species and spend a lot of time worrying whether Obama’s book is the Koran or something by Marx. It does not occur to them that he may not have a book at all.


Greg 10.15.12 at 7:57 am

You can argue that Obama never truly had the “vision thing” in 2008, that any vision he did have was somewhat slippery, and that this basically set him up for a vision-free campaign in 2012. He can’t run on hope and change again, or on yes we can, and there doesn’t seem to be much else there except a vague notion of a politically and technocratically more rational and efficient country (I am much less engaged in this race than in 2008, so I could have missed something). Which is fine as far as it goes, which is to say not very .

Up against the anti-rational right, maybe this is the best we can do – maybe it’s even the correct response. But as someone who believes that there is a liberal vision there worth articulating, it sticks in the throat.

Also: I like the contradictions in terms in the title of the post.


bad Jim 10.15.12 at 8:13 am

Neil, they certainly do believe that everyone follows some revealed truth, which explains some of the odder arguments creationists make, like pointing out that Darwin had faults and made mistakes.

The American public always seems to think that vast sums are spent on things for which they have a low regard, like foreign aid, welfare and public television. They can also be disturbed by the idea that the Navy has fewer ships now that it did a hundred years ago, if not by the fact that the Army has fewer mules. The average person knows so little about what actually goes on that the most outlandish nonsense seems credible.

The 2007 Pew religious survey showed that 79% believed in miracles, 68% in angels & demons, and 49% thought that their prayers were at least occasionally answered. We’re credulous as hell. It’s convenient to blame the media for fostering the impression that our cities are violent hellholes, despite a substantial decrease in crime over the last few decades, but it isn’t fair. They’re in the entertainment business, and they know what their audience wants.

The problem isn’t just that We’re In This Together is not as entertaining or satisfying a narrative as You’re On Your Own, but it’s part of it. It’s easy to unite us against a common enemy but hard to unite us in favor of a common good, perhaps, because of our history of slavery and immigration, we’re inclined to regard up to half our fellow citizens as undeserving others.


aepxc 10.15.12 at 8:13 am

This makes for an interesting genesis of the Tea Party – they are the people who did not understand that the impractical aspirational fantasy was actually impractical aspirational fantasy and took the attitude signalling literally.


reason 10.15.12 at 8:18 am

“The attitude to the constitution – clearly an excellent document, in its historical context, but not actually divinely inspired – strikes outsiders (well, me) as insane.”

But this is not just the right.

I think with the constitution it is because it was born in a violent resolution, and if people become matyrs for a cause then it must have been something special.


reason 10.15.12 at 8:20 am

Some on the right seem in the process of doing the same with Atlas Shrugged. Which is even more insane.


Alex 10.15.12 at 9:15 am

Is there a good paper on what people think the government budget is spent on?


J. Otto Pohl 10.15.12 at 9:56 am


The sacralization of texts is certainly not unique to the right. The writings of Lenin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung were all considered holy writ at one time in the USSR, China, and North Korea respectively. Kim’s work still has this status in the PDRK. That of course is just the names big enough to write the holy books of state religions in big countries. All kinds of little sects led by people like Bob Avakian also flourished on the left at one time. I don’t think anything in the mainstream right of the Republican Party in the US has ever been anywhere as cult like as revolutionary communists have been historically.


Neil 10.15.12 at 10:07 am

J. Otto Pohl. That seems right. It’s also right that irrational opposition to science once was more characteristic of the left than the right. Nowadays, though both sacralization of texts and irrational opposition to science are mainstream only on the right. No doubt this state won’t be permanent.


Davis X. Machina 10.15.12 at 10:24 am

I think with the constitution it is because it was born in a violent resolution, and if people become martyrs for a cause then it must have been something special.

This is why the Civil War never actually ended, and transposed to politics — Clausewitz run in reverse — continues to this day. There’s more than one Cause…


Anderson 10.15.12 at 11:27 am

James, Romney’s donors are not writing the big checks out of altruism. They want lower taxes, and they’re prepared to pay to get them.


Barry 10.15.12 at 12:07 pm

“This makes for an interesting genesis of the Tea Party – they are the people who did not understand that the impractical aspirational fantasy was actually impractical aspirational fantasy and took the attitude signalling literally.”

Or they were a bunch of Republicans who wage a ‘big lie’ campaign, blaming others for what they did themselves. That’s been a tankard (USA) right- wing pattern for yeas ,and it worked pretty well


Phil 10.15.12 at 12:30 pm

JOP – not sure. You can get from “leftist party leader” to Bob Avakian – but then, you can get from “charismatic community organiser” to Jim Jones. Left-wing parties do tend to regard their leader as a bright bloke with a lot to say, but I don’t think treating the Thoughts Of as holy writ is a particularly characteristic left-wing pathology. The parties/sects that do exalt their leaders’ every word tend to stand out as weird (Posadas, Gonzalo).


Daryl McCullough 10.15.12 at 12:31 pm

Yeah, a huge percentage of Americans have absorbed the philosophical messages of conservatism even if they don’t support specific conservative policies and candidates. That’s reflected in the fact that more people call themselves Democrats than call themselves liberals, and more people call themselves conservatives than call themselves Republicans.

On the other hand, Americans have also been absorbing some of the philosophical messages of liberalism. This is sort of the flip side of the “philosophical conservatism/operational liberalism”. Operationally, many Americans act, through their support of policies and candidates, to perpetuate the power of race and class, but will claim to reject them.


Clay Shirky 10.15.12 at 1:09 pm

#12: “Is there a good paper on what people think the government budget is spent on?”


I can’t find a survey (and would love to see one if anyone else has a link), but Pew’s work on the subject suggests that the problem of citizens thinking through government expenditures has deeper roots than just additive beliefs about this or that program.

For starters, they believe that ~50% of the Federal Budget is waste:

Seemingly as a consequence, they believe that the deficit is caused by this wasteful spending, and so favor cutting expenses over raising revenues:

However, important caveat, large majorities oppose cuts in education, Social Security, or Medicare, with smaller majorities (descending from 57% to 52%) opposing cuts to the military, homeland security, anti-poverty programs, aid to farmers, and funding for the arts and sciences.

The one bit of good news, comity-among-the-electorate-on-budget-cuts-wise, is that 6 in 10 favor cuts to foreign aid (which, since it eats up about 37% of the budget while generating no value for the United States, should put America back on track, once we claw the it all back.)


Clay Shirky 10.15.12 at 1:10 pm


Anarcissie 10.15.12 at 1:52 pm

An important difference between the U.S. Constitution and the Bible, the Koran, the works of Marx, and so on, is that the Constitution acknowledges itself to be imperfect and specifies methods for its modification, whereas the other sacred texts, being of divine origin, are immutable. Of course, all are subject to interpretation; but the fact that the Constitution has not been modified in certain areas strongly suggests that the people, or at least the important people, consent to its current interpretation. For example, rather questionable extensions of the Federal powers given in the Constitution, such as those legitimated by Wickard v. Filburn or Gonzales v. Raich, which were almost certainly not contemplated by those who wrote the original Constitution, have to be now considered Constitutional because no successful effort has been made to amend the Constitution to overturn them.

Speaking of government power, it seems to me that most people are in favor of its expansion. The differences between the Right and the not-so-Right lie mainly in which parts or functions of the government they want expanded. Thus the rightist discourse about ‘shrinking the government’ is hypocritical, poetic, or psychotic, but in general the not-so-Right seem curiously unwilling to call them out on it.


bianca steele 10.15.12 at 2:02 pm

Thus the rightist discourse about ‘shrinking the government’ is hypocritical, poetic, or psychotic, but in general the not-so-Right seem curiously unwilling to call them out on it.

They (the more cynical among them) are counting on getting a self-proclaimed government-shrinking rightist into office so they can write lots of attacks about how their discourse about ‘shrinking the government’ is hypocritical, thus move the Overton window, get a third party in, something like that, I’ll bet. It could work.


Uncle Kvetch 10.15.12 at 2:03 pm

Speaking of government power, it seems to me that most people are in favor of its expansion. The differences between the Right and the not-so-Right lie mainly in which parts or functions of the government they want expanded. Thus the rightist discourse about ‘shrinking the government’ is hypocritical, poetic, or psychotic, but in general the not-so-Right seem curiously unwilling to call them out on it.

This. A thousand times this.


chris y 10.15.12 at 2:05 pm

Phil @18, I don’t think you can get around JOP’s point quite so easily. Maoism may appear weird to thee and me, but it was a mainstream current within the global left for a fairly long time; and before it, Stalinism, sensu stricto. Both of those tendencies sacralised the writings of their leaders to a staggering degree.

On the other hand it’s easy to identify right wing leadership styles which rely on a personality cult of the leader, but not significantly on his writings: run of the mill Latin American caudillismo, for a start, or Franco or Salazar.


MPAVictoria 10.15.12 at 2:24 pm

Clay those are some damn depressing links.


chris 10.15.12 at 2:50 pm

Obama can’t describe what he wants to achieve

I would say “doesn’t dare”. Consider that he is currently being bludgeoned with all the things he once said he wanted to achieve, that the opposition party (a) prevented him from achieving AND THEN (b) blamed him for not achieving in a way that might suggest that they were in favor of his goals and are ever so sad he just wasn’t qualified to achieve them, if you weren’t paying close attention to (a), which many voters are not.

The only rational response to something like that, if you can’t successfully debunk and expose it, is to stop promising what you’re going to achieve.

I mean, he’s literally being blamed BY REPUBLICANS for the decline of middle-class income, which is a goal the Republicans have been *working to achieve* for over a generation now. And some people must be believing it, or his opponent wouldn’t be polling at 46%.

Maoism may appear weird to thee and me, but it was a mainstream current within the global left for a fairly long time; and before it, Stalinism, sensu stricto.

I don’t want this to turn into a giant sidetrack, but I don’t see how any follower of a dictator can fairly be said to be on the left. Sure, some dictators pretend to be serving the people, but is anyone really required to take such a claim at face value? And if someone pretends to take a dictator’s propaganda at face value in order to use him to tar their political opponents by association, is that really any more worthy of non-derisive engagement than _Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next to Each Other_?

The fact that leftist revolutions can be coopted by dictators is a real and serious problem with leftist revolutions that needs to be addressed before launching one. But that doesn’t make the actual dictatorships leftist. Dictatorships favor the dictator and his cronies, which are a ruling class with low to zero accountability, and are therefore practically by definition not of the left. Even if the new boss is not literally the same person as the old boss, but only rules in a similar manner, that doesn’t mean you should get fooled again.


J. Otto Pohl 10.15.12 at 2:52 pm

18 and 25

Obviously not all Marxist parties form cults around leaders and their writings. However, I think the Leninist vanguard model encourages such tendencies. The USSR under Stalin certainly made the writings of Lenin and Stalin sacred and inertia continued the practice regarding Lenin’s works up until Gorbachev. Most of the Comintern parties tended to emulate this idolization of Lenin’s writings. This tendency became even more pronounced in Maoist parties. Mao and people inspired by Mao such as Hoxha in Albania or Avakian in the US also had a strong focus on the writings of the leader. I think this has to do with Communist political leaders thinking about themselves as intellectuals whereas I do not think too many right wing politicians care about being perceived as deep scholastic thinkers. In fact a number of them have been openly anti-intellectual.

I agree there are right wing dictators that have leadership cults, but there are not too many that focus around their written work. Hitler’s Mein Kampf did not have the same importance to his cult of personality as the Little Red Book did for Mao or the Short History of the Communist Party did for Stalin. For Franco and Salazar there is even less focus on the writings. Although this may also be cultural. There is not a big emphasis on the writings of Castro in Cuba compared to Lenin in the USSR or Mao in China during the Cultural Revolution even though there is an emphasis on Castro’s leadership. I am thinking that the Catholic influence in Latin culture might have something to do with this.


Bloix 10.15.12 at 3:33 pm

#22 – But the Constitution is so difficult to amend that it is virtually impossible to do so. If you look at the amendments after ratification (ie not including the Bill of Rights),there have been 17 amendments in 220 years. Three of these required a Civil War for their enactment, two consisted of enacting Prohibition and repealing it, one (income tax) reversed a ridiculous Supreme Court decision that altered the prior well-established precedent. and one (the 27th) is trivial. So there are only ten amendments enacted in ordinary times that changed the Constitution in any meaningful way.

The best example of the difficulty of the amendment process is the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first proposed in 1923, passed the Congress in 1973 (by the required 2/3’ds supermajority in each house), and then received 35 of the necessary 38 ratifications in state legislatures before the time to ratify expired.

So the representatives of the overwhelming majority of Americans voted for the ERA not once but twice, and it still failed.

Because the amendments process is virtually impossible for anything remotely controversial, what you get instead is a game that empowers the Supreme Court to amend the Constitution in the guise of interpreting it. People on both sides of an issue pretend that the Constitution “means” whatever they want the law to be, and importune the Supreme Court to make it so.

They have different strategies in playing this game: liberals argue that the Constitution is a living document, to be read in light of historical experience and present-day understanding (like the way that main line Protestants read the Bible), while conservatives say that divination of the Founder’s original intent is the sole legitimate method of interpretation (like fundamentalists read the Bible). But from guns to gay marriage, both sides are able to make the text say whatever they want it to say, and the Supreme Court picks the interpretation that makes a majority of the justices happy.

And everyone who wants to play this game – lawyers, professors, politicians, activists – must be publicly committed to the fiction that the Constitution is the repository of all wisdom and goodness in American life.


ponce 10.15.12 at 3:44 pm

“James, Romney’s donors are not writing the big checks out of altruism. They want lower taxes, and they’re prepared to pay to get them.”

Or they’re willing to invest millions buying politicians who will push for lower taxes because they’ll save billions if they’re successful.


Coulter 10.15.12 at 4:09 pm

Like Al Gore, our first carbon billionaire, who only had 87% of his companies receive federal stimulus money, I’m sure his altruism is genuine while those on the right are just being greedy …


chrismealy 10.15.12 at 4:09 pm

In 1995 Americans thought the foreign aid budget should be slashed from 15% of the budget to 5%. It’s really about 1%. So people want it to be five times bigger.

I don’t blame people for not knowing this stuff, but I wish they knew at least a tenth as much about government as they do about sports. Nobody gets sports stats off by a factor of 15.


chrismealy 10.15.12 at 4:14 pm

Here’s a newer foreign aid poll. Now people want 10% for foreign aid.


Scott P. 10.15.12 at 4:14 pm

“Or they’re willing to invest millions buying politicians who will push for lower taxes because they’ll save billions if they’re successful.”

I don’t doubt that perceived self-interest is a major motivation but I think there are plenty of wealthy conservatives who have bought into the entire ideology and convinced themselves that the fate of civilization depends on putting Republicans in power. When you have multi-millionaires cutting huge checks to Newt Gingrich, it’s clear that coldly rational self-interest is not the sole motivating factor.


jwinters 10.15.12 at 4:28 pm

chris wrote:

I don’t want this to turn into a giant sidetrack, but I don’t see how any follower of a dictator can fairly be said to be on the left. Sure, some dictators pretend to be serving the people, but is anyone really required to take such a claim at face value? And if someone pretends to take a dictator’s propaganda at face value in order to use him to tar their political opponents by association, is that really any more worthy of non-derisive engagement than _Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next to Each Other_?

To me the business about investing oneself into believing the literal truth of written documents isn’t a right-wing thing or a both-sides-do-it-so-shut-up thing. The salient factor is authoritarianism. If you’re an authoritarian on the left, you have no problem in accepting that your left-wing leader has a monopoly on the truth and thus there’s a lot to be gained by reading and reciting his written works. But I don’t know how much light that fact sheds on contemporary American politics, since there are very few authoritarian leftists here and those who are around tend to follow marginalized characters.

On the other hand, authoritarians on the right seem to be all over the place. Indeed, if you use “investing yourself in promoting the written works of your ideological leader” as one symptom of authoritarianism, there don’t seem to be very many on the right aren’t showing signs. Even the supposedly anti-authority Libertarians seem to love quoting non-Salma Hayek or Rand at length, as if those quotes themselves can make the blind see. Other species of the American right invest the Constitution or the Bible with sacred power so strong that no answer to a contemporary questions can be seen as correct unless it was anticipated by those documents centuries before.

It’s an argument from authority, and it may be the only sort of argument such people accept. That’s also why it’s so important to undermine the foundational authority of any figure seen as in opposition to the right, whether it’s Charles Darwin or various climatologists or by “uncovering” the “true” birthplace/father/intellectual mentor to Barack Obama. Since that sort of weapon would shale their own beliefs, they believe it would have a similar effect on others.


jwinters 10.15.12 at 4:32 pm

Coulter 10.15.12 at 4:09 pm

Like Al Gore, our first carbon billionaire, blah blah blah.

Thank you for proving my point about how the authoritarian right attacks the presumed authorities on the left, as if it’s some sort of super-weapon.


J. Otto Pohl 10.15.12 at 4:38 pm

I want most foreign aid eliminated not because it is a lot of money, but because most of it goes to do bad things. The largest recipient of foreign aid for decades has been Israel. The last state practicing both colonialism and apartheid. US foreign aid helps it continue with these practices. Until its overthrow the military dictatorship in Egypt was the second largest recipient of aid. Again another case of US aid supporting the systematic violation of human rights in the Arab world. Other big recipients of US foreign aid have been Pakistan, Jordan, and Yemen. None of which has a particularly good human rights record and US military and security aid seems to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. So it won’t save the US a lot of money, but there is a strong moral argument to stop supporting human rights abusers with any type of assistance.


J. Otto Pohl 10.15.12 at 4:48 pm


At the risk of more sidetrack there is such a thing as a left wing dictatorship and they are pretty easy to spot in practice. The defining features are that they are first developmental dictatorships. So are many right wing dictatorships, but almost all left ones are devoted to economic development whereas there are military juntas and the like that have had no interest in growing the economy. Second they tend to support programs of social advancement such as literacy, medical care, and education. Finally, they aim at a more equal distribution of wealth which makes them very different from most right wing dictatorships. None of these things require elections, freedom of speech, freedom assembly, freedom of the press, etc. The prototypical left wing dictatorship was the USSR, but besides the communists there are other examples such as number of the regimes claiming to follow Arab socialism or African socialism.


David Kaib 10.15.12 at 5:15 pm

I object to the old claim ‘Americans are philosophical conservatives but operational liberals.’ (Considerable updated evidence for the thesis can be found in Page and Jacobs, Class War?: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality.) When you dig into, the philosophical conservatism isn’t very philosophical, but involves a belief that tax money is wasted (something I think we tend to be too quick to denigrate).

On the liberalism side, the matrix of policies that enjoy wide support add up to a belief in opportunity and security for all – which is hardly a pragmatic exception to principled market fundamentalism. American support raising taxes – including on themselves, to pay for these things (although they are more in favor of doing so through progressive taxation).

Usually, the retort is that liberalism is less popular of a term than conservatism. Still, those who self identify as conservatives are not a majority, many of those support things like Social Security and public education. (Also, the latest numbers I’ve seen say progressive polls better than either conservative or liberal, and if I can find the link I’ll add it). That people espouse liberal positions but not the term tells us more about elite politics than it does mass ideological dispositions.


LFC 10.15.12 at 5:36 pm

Re J.O.P. @37

Rather than talking in an undifferentiated way about “foreign aid,” one has to distinguish btw. security/military aid and govt-to-govt development aid (what is sometimes labeled ‘official development assistance’). One would also have to look at U.S. initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Corp. and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). For an assessment of the latter, dating from 2010, see here.


J. Otto Pohl 10.15.12 at 5:40 pm


Most US foreign aid, over half since 1979, went to support the existing regimes in Israel and Egypt not to develop anything.


LFC 10.15.12 at 5:50 pm


Then you should advocate specific changes in the nature and allocation of U.S. ‘foreign aid’, rather than making the blanket statement that you want to cut ‘foreign aid’ period.

Also, as you’re well aware, the levels of U.S. aid to Israel and Egypt since ’79 were tied to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. $1.3 billion in aid per yr to Egypt was a de facto condition of its signing and maintaining the treaty, I believe. In accord w CT policy I do not intend to get into this subject further.


Skepterful 10.15.12 at 6:02 pm

To Neil:

I think this has to do with the fact that conservative reactionaries project what they think about themselves to other people and groups. They assume that if they are absolutely bound by literal interpretations of the Bible, and/or perhaps a deification of Ayn Rand or Atlas Shrugged or Ron Paul, they assume that any one who disagrees with them (“secularlists”, “liberals”, etc) hold Marx and Darwin up in the same way.

I’m not sure how to handle the reactionary conservative, to be honest. Their behavior is really frightening, especially the anti-intellectual nature of it.


Coulter 10.15.12 at 6:04 pm


I am not attacking the authority of Gore, his arugments aren’t an appeal to authority, it is “all” fact based. Just as libertarians point to a wide range of facts on the effectiveness of government, rent-seeking behaviors, and the limits of central planning. Just because you don’t agree with the facts or arguments of libertarians, doesn’t make it an appeal to authority. I have never seen an appeal to Rand or Rawls or Hayek trump facts. The government is just one giant rent seeking machine, captured by various parties who want to spend other people’s money on things they couldn’t convince the people volutarily to spend on their own. But, hey, James Buchanan said they same thing, so I guess you can see it is an appeal to authority…


Substance McGravitas 10.15.12 at 6:08 pm

The government is just one giant rent seeking machine

Then get off this government-built internet, hypocrite.


Matt 10.15.12 at 6:22 pm

J.O.P.- Do you happen to know if people in Turkmenistan ever took Turkmenbashi’s Ruhnama with any seriousness? (As opposed to acting like they did, for obvious reason.) My understanding is that it’s an amazing mixture of banality and bull-shit, but that hasn’t stopped lots of such books from being taken very seriously. It, at least, was never very likely to travel. (I’m a proud owner of a Turkmenbashi wrist-watch, and think that such things should become standard for both would-be great thinkers and leaders of all sorts.)


jwinters 10.15.12 at 6:23 pm

Coulter 10.15.12 at 6:04 pm

I am not attacking the authority of Gore … blah blah blah.

What, then, was the purpose of your Al Gore non sequitor to this discussion, if not to somehow wound people you thought might view him as a paragon of virtue?


Bruce Wilder 10.15.12 at 6:50 pm

Rather than focusing on the bookends of partisan rhetoric among politicians, it might be more enlightening to look at the ideology of the referees and critics and professional operatives. Glenn Greenwald did a piece on the ideological assumptions of Martha Raddatz, debate moderator, Oct 12.

The whole “smaller government” trope is as much a “neutral” or centrist observer’s choice of frame for analyzing the “philosophical” differences between the Parties, as it is an actual rhetorical rallying point for one of the Parties. It is the “neutral” observer’s insistence that this is a proper and symmetric frame, which leaves the Left/Democrats without a coherent position.

In the common two-party dynamic, in which conventional political wisdom says that, to get a majority, the right thing to do is to stake out the political center, the “neutral” frame, the symmetric frame, gains considerable power, as it becomes the badge of seriousness, reasonableness, etc., which the low-information “swing” voter takes as a signal.

The Democrats, under Obama, like the Democrats under third-way Clinton, have staked out the political center, and to do so, Democratic politicians have to adopt the ideology of the Center — including a self-castrating worship of the bi-partisan, and the consequences, philosophically and rhetorically, are both passion-less and corrupt. Kevin Baker, writing about Obama’s lackluster debate performance and repeated affirmation of Republican policy frames, identified “the essential disconnect between the leadership of the Democratic party and its base. The leadership is now filled almost exclusively with careerists, who have no real goals they want to accomplish beyond their own advancement, and who actively don’t want to pursue any of the liberal ideas they pretend to support. They don’t sound like they believe what they’re saying . . . because they don’t believe what they’re saying.”


Bruce Wilder 10.15.12 at 7:25 pm

Coulter: “The government is just one giant rent seeking machine . . . ”

I wish.


bdbd 10.15.12 at 7:28 pm

If Romney/Ryan are able to get away with 2+2=5 and a smile, Obama/Biden must choose between “no, 2+2=4” (but 5>4, so Romney/Ryan resonates for lots of voters) or “no, and here’s how a proof of 2+2 >< 5 goes:…."(zzzzzz). It's a tough bind.


Coulter 10.15.12 at 7:42 pm

You seem to see the appeal to authority as a feature of the right, not the left. I don’t see that, but could see how every argument you make could be repeated with a change of name from right to left and back again.

Bruce – you looking for a different line of work?


Substance McGravitas 10.15.12 at 7:58 pm

They don’t sound like they believe what they’re saying . . . because they don’t believe what they’re saying.

I think this overestimates the number of sociopaths in government, though there are some. People like to believe they’re doing good work and find ways to justify whatever it is they’re doing. It’s how libertarians exist at all, right?


J. Otto Pohl 10.15.12 at 8:07 pm


I have never been to Turkmenistan. I have no idea how to get a visa there. I had a number of Turkmen students at one time. However, I am not sure how representative of the population they were. My sense is that most people did not take actually take it seriously. After all unlike North Korea, the Turkmenbashi regime did not live in an historical vacuum. The Lenin cult was very familiar to all adults at the time of the Soviet collapse and my impression is that most Turkmen still considered themselves Muslims in the sense of being believers. I suspect the ingrained belief systems of Islam and a very Soviet form of Turkmen nationalism left little room for genuine Turkmenbashi worship.


jwinters 10.15.12 at 8:53 pm

Coulter said:

You seem to see the appeal to authority as a feature of the right, not the left. I don’t see that, but could see how every argument you make could be repeated with a change of name from right to left and back again.

I see it more of an authoritarian trait. I figure you are part of the large authoritarian right and thus feel tearing down a supposed authority of the supposed left (Al Gore) is somehow a great argument. There are probably some few authoritarian left people still kicking around in America, but most American liberals just aren’t authoritarians.

Hope that clears things up for you.


William Timberman 10.15.12 at 9:04 pm

Substance, if we could find out how libertarians exist — without resorting to phlogiston or crystal spheres for an explanation, at any rate — political theory would be much advanced, and with any luck, political practice would follow in its wake.

We’ve known a lot of things for more than 200 years that even the trendiest libertarian has yet to hear of. How they manage that is more of a mystery to me than the nature of dark matter, and in the short run at least, a damned sight more bothersome one.


Lee A. Arnold 10.15.12 at 9:13 pm

John Holbo, I think it is because conservatives have an economic theory (roughly, supply-side Reaganomics) which they believe is intellectually coherent and also supports individualism in contrast to other approaches. Supply-side Reaganomics is neither thing, really, it is gibberish; but that isn’t the point. The point is that liberals on the other hand do not have an economic theory. (If they have any at all, it sounds like supply-side Reagaonomics.) What they normally have is a cut-and-paste approach: if it takes more markets, that can work; if it takes more government (regulation or spending), then that will work, too.

In the future, the government is going to get a little bigger, due to the needs of the welfare state for the elderly and medicine. (We should say that the “transfer state” is going to get a little bigger. The tasks at hand do not require a bureaucracy.) But ask any liberal to defend, on economic principles, the welfare state. They barely know how to begin. They will say something like, “Oh, go read [some book] that was written in 1964.” You see this response here, in these threads, everytime the question is asked. It has been done already (they think), so they need not do it.

I suppose the real point is, liberals do not understand the central, primary importance of rhetoric in political change. They think rhetoric is beneath them; it is cheap and tawdry stuff. There are “real issues” at stake! Rhetoric cannot be the basic substance of a real politics. They took a college course about it, somewhere.


bjk 10.15.12 at 9:14 pm

” In 1995 Americans thought the foreign aid budget should be slashed from 15% of the budget to 5%. It’s really about 1%. So people want it to be five times bigger. ”

The defense budget is a vast foreign aid budget. If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself why there are US troops in Germany. So the public underestimates the aid budget.


Bruce Wilder 10.15.12 at 9:57 pm

Coulter @ 51: No, I’m not looking for another line of work, but the way in which James Buchanan et alia created a rhetorical apparatus founded on making a pejorative out of “rent-seeking” can be turned around — imho, should be turned around. The public choice analysis of how democratic governance deteriorates and institutions are corrupted looks suspiciously like a prescriptive blueprint for creating the very corruption and entropy, to which they claim to react with revulsion.

Governments should seek economic rents, and tax the hell out of them. It is a good way to finance public goods, and dampens the deleterious effect of rentier interest in politics. The top marginal income tax rate ought to be 70% and the corporate income tax rate ought to be 50% (and actually collectable) because those incomes consist, typically and largely, of economic rents. And, governments should seek to create or increase rents: that’s the purpose of public education and public highways, and, not incidentally, why they were historically financed largely from property taxes — because the incidence of benefit diffuses broadly, but flows thru ultimately to landlords. And, governments should, as a matter of policy, grant rents conditional on good behavior — that’s the basic principle behind any kind regulatory licensing scheme, from licensing barbers to Glass-Steagall and regulatory financial repression.

What’s feasible is a political economy of many and diverse economic actors, in possession of some, limited rents, which help to insure and stabilize their ability to invest and control their operations, but keep them in political conflict with one another in ways that help the government remain an independent force, able to play one group against another, as, for example, under the New Deal banking and financial regime, commercial banks were competing politically against savings and loans against insurance companies against stock brokers against investment banks, and the institutions of one state or locality competed with those of neighboring states or regions, each with small, differential advantages they could defend, politically and economically. And, taxes, usury laws and extensive regulatory monitoring, as well as dependent relationships with public institutions (the Fed, the Home Loan banks, FHA, Fannie Mae, etc.) made integrity pay better and more reliably than ruthless predation and endemic fraud (i.e., our present state of being).

What governments absolutely should not be doing is what the neoliberals and their libertarian conservative counterparts advocate, which is mindless laissez-faire, letting loose private leviathans in search of the economic rents, which are absolutely necessary for the stability of large, bureaucratic corporations, but, in the absense of government rules and grants, can accrue only to the largest and most ruthless business predators, regardless of efficiency or integrity. That way lies neo-feudalism of unbridled private power, overmatching a weak, corrupt, expertise-free and authoritarian state.

To bring this back to the OP, I’m suggesting that the rhetorical dynamics of the politicians rest on the foundation of a technocratic poverty, both popular and academic. In the U.S., by the 1970s, few seemed to understand how the vast, complex institutional apparatus of the New Deal worked to regulate and make fair the political economy. And, a political pattern was set in motion, in which the two Parties, and the underlying technocratic cadre, worked together to profit from the entropy of the New Deal, gradually taking it apart. From Nixon’s Ag Sec, Earl Butz, subtly tweaking agricultural programs in favor of corn and corporate agriculture, to the de-regulatory programs of the Carter Administration and the anti-union fervor of Reagan, and, of course, financial de-regulation, it has been one long program of disinvestment “rationalized” by rank ignorance, particularly among economists but also among journalists and the informed public.

In Europe, we see much the same pattern in the on-going crack-up of the European Union. Norway gave the peace prize to the EU, no doubt to remind us of the grand historic achievment, which the EU represents, even as the neoliberal technocrats destroy the already feeble social contract of the southern European countries, with their rank ignorance of how to design or manage the institutions of a currency or a banking system.


Alan 10.16.12 at 3:05 am

Bruce Wilder–would that most of my fellow Americans understand your points, we would not be here in the USA facing a very possible Romney Presidency. As I have said previously, my take is that the US is doomed in any case, mostly based on historical precedent. My argument for voting for Obama is that he represents the least worst death for our country in terms of helping us and our descendants suffer less than surrendering basic health/gender/human rights/economic opportunites/educational goals, etc. in the future. And maybe slowing down things would provide additional opportunities not yet seen. I’m such an unjustified optimist.


mclaren 10.16.12 at 4:50 am

No one has suggested one obvious possibility: Romney’s economic absurdities pass muster with the voters because economists have so ruined their reputations with bogus predictions during and after the recent global economic meltdown, that economists’ assertions that Romney’s numbers are garbage and his plans are nonsense meet with universal howls of ridicule.

Ask yourself: how many economists assured us in 2007-8 that the subprime mortgage market accounted for only 5% of the total mortgage market worldwide, and therefore that a meltdown in the subprime market posed absolutely no problem for the larger financial markets?

Virtually every economist. They all got it wrong. Totally, completely, aburdly, wildly wrong.

I’m not surprised that voters now dismiss economists’ assertions about Romney’s crackpot economic schemes. (Even though the economists’ assertions are most likely correct in this case.)


Walt 10.16.12 at 6:00 am

How many voters know what economists said in 2007-8? How many voters know what economists say now? 5%? 3%? 0.001%?


Robert 10.16.12 at 6:48 am

Martha Raddatz is obviously a fool, at best. The six or so companies that own something like 90% of the U.S. mass media are not interested in you being informed.

If you go to your university bookstore, you are likely to find economic textbooks written by paid liars, not merely fools. The author of a very prominent money and banking textbook is a star of the movie Inside Job. The author of the most prominent introductory intro textbook, as I understand it, is succeeding as chair a department whose former chair was reduced to reduced to stuttering silence in that movie because he was unwilling to say the words, “conflict of interest”.

And the standard economic textbooks are full of stuff that has been known to be balderdash for decades.

(As some of you are aware, there do exist economists who, I think, know what they are talking about and whose ideas are consistent with experience. They are mostly ignored in most college education and by the profession more generally.)

I think that many people are aware, at some level, that they are receiving propaganda. But it is still effective. But when you try to inform them of some basic facts, they’ll say something like, “It’s all very complicated. Who can tell who’s right?” Then they’ll continue with their tribal loyalties.


bad Jim 10.16.12 at 8:03 am

Tomorrow night I would be thrilled if Obama simply told the American people that he, unlike Romney, was someone you could actually share a beer with, and moreover that he brews his own, like the Founding Fathers.

That the man likes his beer is well known, and the persistence of the belief that he’s a Muslim can only be attributable to ignorance of Islam.

Romney’s foreign policy amounts to the assertion that foreigners will respect him more than Obama. It’s widely conceded that the argument is lame, but seldom noted that it’s bugfuck nuts. A patrician attitude of “no apologies” is automatically more convincing than death from the skies? Than Osama’s head on a platter? That the very serious people aren’t laughing this clown off the stage tells us everything we need to know about our state of discourse.


SusanC 10.16.12 at 8:26 am

I think this overestimates the number of sociopaths in government, though there are some. People like to believe they’re doing good work and find ways to justify whatever it is they’re doing.

I don’t think these two sentences are mutually exclusive. From the DSM-IV-TR’s criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder:

lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

Or from the ICD’s definition:

Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society.

It seems that the usual human tendency for self-justification is particular strong in people diagnosed with clinical levels of APD. Compare also the MMPI, where you get scored higher on the “psychopathic deviant” scale for answering questions in a way that shows youy have a positive view of yourself. (ie. the more you insiist how good a person you are, the more likely you are to get diagnosed as being a psychopath).

Having said that, I think that the rhetoric that politicians/senior buisness leaders are psychopaths underestimates just how bad the people are that get a clinical diagnosis.

(Also, impulsivity seems to be a differentiating factor. The typical Tory MP I would at least trust to be enough of a “prudent predatory” that fear of subsequent punishment will deter them from murdering me, for example).


ajay 10.16.12 at 10:29 am

Most US foreign aid, over half since 1979, went to support the existing regimes in Israel and Egypt not to develop anything.

Considering the immense human and financial cost of fighting a war, it’s arguable that money spent bribing unpleasant nations not to go to war with each other is much better than money spent on more conventional sorts of foreign aid like building dams or painting schools. By far the best way to help a country become richer and improve the welfare of its people is to ensure that it doesn’t go to war.


J. Otto Pohl 10.16.12 at 11:34 am


I don’t think that US foreign aid did a lot to help the Egyptian people. It did do a lot to prop up an unpopular and repressive regime while most of the population languished in poverty. But, given the realities on the ground it is very doubtful that the Mubarek regime would have attacked Israel absent massive US foreign aid. It is also doubtful it would have lasted three decades. It is almost certain that without unconditional US support that Israel would have been already forced to give real independence to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At any rate it should not be the role of the US government to bribe dictatorships and apartheid regimes not to go to war with each other. Should the US have given massive foreign aid to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa during the 1980s as well?


reason 10.16.12 at 1:14 pm

Bruce @58
That is one hell of a comment.

But shouldn’t we just ignore Coulter – he seems to be just trying to provoke, I can’t see any constructive dialog arising with him.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.16.12 at 1:17 pm

Yes, this is a problem with third-wayism: it stands for nothing. It’s a balancing act; it’s trying to find a compromise, to reconsile economic interests, to mitigate the class struggle, and without offering any basis for this unity (ultranationalism, religion). It’s hard to see how it can succeed.

Why should the rich pay higher taxes? Clinton, Obama, they can’t explain. They just say: ‘because they can, because they’ve been doing well’. That’s not enough. If they’ve been doing well because they are super productive, then they shouldn’t. If they’ve been doing well because they exploit others, then they shouldn’t be rich in the first place. It’s a weak, unconvincing ideology, IMO.


reason 10.16.12 at 1:25 pm

Mao @68
“If they’ve been doing well because they are super productive, then they shouldn’t”

Huh? Why is that relevant? What has productivity to do with taxes? If you said they shouldn’t because it will substantially reduce their output to the detrement of everybody else, it would be an argument. But just because they have been productive. Who says
a. Total productivity = marginal productivity
b. People have a RIGHT to capture all their productivity, regardless of what other uses their might be for that value.

Remember, the government is supposed to represent the general interest. People are productive, at least partly, because of the system in which they work. The general interest is served if the system works for everybody.


reason 10.16.12 at 1:26 pm

P.S. Notice with respect to b. that most people don’t capture all of their productivity. Otherwise their wouldn’t be profits.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.16.12 at 1:40 pm

@69, because it would seem unfair to most people. If you raise 5 cows, and I with the same resources only one, then taking a cow from you and giving it to me would be controversial.


reason 10.16.12 at 1:44 pm

Mao @71,
With the same resources?
O..K.. , assume we have a can opener.

But what if I’m sick, or handicapped, or was hit by an epidemic?

But lets ask a more general question with a real (i.e. monetary exchange economy). If I capture all the value I create then my net value to everybody else is zero. Have you ever thought about that?


reason 10.16.12 at 1:56 pm

You can see the same point even with his toy barter economy. Take away the guy with his piece of land and 5 cows and the other guy is not only not worse off, given externalities (the extra commons, less polution) he is almost certainly better off. Now imagine there are 50 one cow guys and 1 5 cow guy. Why should the 50 tolerate the one? He is no use to them, and even costs them.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.16.12 at 2:01 pm

I’m talking about ideological underpinnings. Something you can display as a dazibao. Monetary exchange economy is in a different category.


reason 10.16.12 at 2:05 pm

Moa @74
Huh? If it is in a different category, then why is your example relevant?

But as I said, you can see the same issue without it, people who capture all the value they produce are of no net benefit to everybody else. So why shouldn’t they be taxed? How is it useful to have super productive people in the economy, if everybody has seen no net gains for 30 years?


wilfred 10.16.12 at 2:20 pm

“At this point, Romney and Obama are running almost perfectly opposite campaigns. Romney can tell you exactly what he wants to do, but barely a word about how he’ll do it. Obama can’t describe what he wants to achieve, but he can tell you everything about how he’ll get it done. It’s a campaign without real policies against a campaign lacking a clear vision.”

What in hell does this even mean? That Romney has vision, that he’s a big px guy the new hopechanger? Or does it mean that we can’t figure out inductively what Obama wants even though we know everything about what he will do? I mean if I know exactly what someone wants to do I can’t manage an idea of what he wants to achieve? Ffs.

Glib bullshit.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.16.12 at 2:27 pm

It’s relevant because this is what the OP is all about.

Why should they be of net benefit to anybody? Your handicapped person in 72 is of no benefit to anybody either. Maybe she should be served in a fricassee or a ragout.


reason 10.16.12 at 2:38 pm

Mao @72
You’re not getting it are you?

You stumbled on EXACTLY the point, but didn’t notice. The logical equivalent of not taxing the productive person who captures all the value he produces is exactly cooking the handicapped? (Or eating the rich)? Is that the sort of society you want? Compromise IS better than dog eat dog? Or isn’t it?


Jeffrey Davis 10.16.12 at 2:41 pm


Romney is Patrick Bateman not pure American alpha male.

Unless that’s the point of Patrick Bateman.


Josh G. 10.16.12 at 2:43 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @ 77: “Why should they be of net benefit to anybody? Your handicapped person in 72 is of no benefit to anybody either. Maybe she should be served in a fricassee or a ragout.

Life is an inalienable human right. Hoarding to excess, particularly when it causes clear and demonstrated harms to society, is not.


Barry 10.16.12 at 2:46 pm

Adding on to Wilfred’s comment – the point with Obama is that he’s governing; he’s got to deal with reality.

Romney doesn’t have to, and to the extent he does, he’s juggling the fact that if people knew what he wanted to do, he’d lose in a landslide.


Daryl McCullough 10.16.12 at 2:48 pm

I disagree with those who describe conservatism as an appeal to authority. In the United States, at least, self-described liberals, self-described conservatives and self-described moderates all say that they reject appeals to authority. They all take pride in “thinking for themselves” about the issues. The traditional type of authoritarianism, where ordinary people are asked to defer to an elite group of leaders who are assumed to be wiser than the rest, is nowhere to be found. This doesn’t at all mean that Americans are more thoughtful or rational than people elsewhere, but they certainly would claim not to be just following authority.

So what, exactly, does go on in the minds of the people who come to quite irrational conclusions? I’m not exactly sure, but I do think that there is a contrast between what ordinary people think of as thinking rationally and the type of reasoning that is used in mathematics and science.

Ordinary people who think of themselves as rational (or logical) thinkers don’t really use reasoning to arrive at the truth. Instead, their thinking is devoted to “rationalizing” what they already believe; coming up with plausible-sounding arguments for their beliefs, coming up with interpretations that harmonize apparently conflicting beliefs. That’s the defensive mode. There’s also an offensive mode, where people try to collect together the most damaging arguments, interpretations, and questions against the beliefs they reject.

People do occasionally change their minds about issues, but I think that it’s rarely because logic or evidence forces them to re-evaluate their beliefs. Instead, when the effort of reconciling their current collection of beliefs becomes too tedious, they change to a new set of beliefs that are easier to defend.

That’s what I believe, anyway.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.16.12 at 3:09 pm

@78 ” Is that the sort of society you want?”

Of corse not. I was merely trying to explain why, in my opinion, American liberalism/third wayism is a weak and unconvincing ideology, compared to its radical counterparts.

I suppose it could work, as a reasonable compromise between radical right and radical left, but with radical left nonexistent it’s really really unlikely.


reason 10.16.12 at 3:15 pm

Mao @83
I don’t think ideologies have to be convincing, I just think systems have to work. Ideologies are always wrong (because they are necessarily over simplified schemas based on wishful thinking). The problem is in thinking we have to sell ideologies, instead of in selling step-wise improvement.

Take your example with the cows. The guy with 5 (A) gives the guy with 1 (B) 1. Then A has 4 and B has 2. And more importantly from the point of A, B now has an interest in A doing well.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.16.12 at 3:25 pm

Well, then you get exactly what’s described in the post: philosophical conservatism and operational, technocratic liberalism. Very difficult to win hearts and minds with that. You need to appeal to the basic sense of justice, rather than saying ‘trust me, this will work better.’


reason 10.16.12 at 3:30 pm

Mao @85
No what is far better still is to say “trust me, this HAS BEEN SHOWN to work better”.


Eli 10.16.12 at 4:01 pm

Daryl, everyone thinks they are above average too. Self-reporting can hardly be trusted. Would you say that authoritarianism even exists? And what then would it look like? I think you’re right about people mostly doing post hoc rationalizations. But there seems to be something about conservatism and liberalism in general that arise from deeply felt impulses.

Maybe authority ought to be thought of as different kinds of values. For the conservative, things like tradition, hierarchies, norms, etc. are the authority that matters. With liberals, these are authorities to be distrusted. Instead, the authority is something else. Yet what would it be? Liberal valuation of multiculturalism, deconstruction, rebellion seem to be distinctly anti-authoritarian. However, an impulse too towards group-think and political correctness is certainly authoritarian.


Sebastian H 10.16.12 at 4:24 pm

I know this is a philosophy oriented blog, but perhaps the practical way of putting it that (a troublingly sufficient number of) Americans want lower taxes AND more from the government.

The thing about that formulation is it points to the real problem. On the republican side it expresses itself as a ruinous focus on tax cutting with teeny tiny cuts for rhetorical effect while presiding over large expansions of military spending and even entitlement spending. On the Democratic side we have ridiculous and unworkable promises to never ever raise middle class taxes, while trying to implement even-bigger-than-Republican levels of increased spending.

The key problem is that for the most part no one is willing to advocate for more services through higher taxes on you. Or they don’t think the electorate will accept reality on that. They may very well be right. But that would be because we need a new electorate.


Vanya 10.16.12 at 4:33 pm

almost all left ones are devoted to economic development whereas there are military juntas and the like that have had no interest in growing the economy. Second they tend to support programs of social advancement such as literacy, medical care, and education. Finally, they aim at a more equal distribution of wealth which makes them very different from most right wing dictatorships.

J. Otto, based on your definition, Hitler and Mussolini were arguably “left-wing” dictators, at least pre-war. Certainly in comparison to a Franco, the Greek colonels or Trujillo, who were very much typical conservative anti-development sorts of dictators. I think any dictatorship, even if it strives for some social levelling, based on nationalist essentialism is still “right wing” and certainly not progressive. By my definition North Korea has had a “right-wing” dictatorship for at least the past 40 years, and I’d stand by that.


J. Otto Pohl 10.16.12 at 4:40 pm


To quote Bertold Brecht:

“Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung loste das Volk und wahlte ein anderes?”

1. Note I know the o in loste and the a in wahlte need umlauts, but I have no idea how to do them on this platform. So just imagine the umlauts or somebody can extra umlauts to their comments.


J. Otto Pohl 10.16.12 at 4:41 pm

OOps I misspelled his first name.

I mean of course Bertolt Brecht.


Sebastian H 10.16.12 at 4:46 pm

“With liberals, these are authorities to be distrusted. Instead, the authority is something else. Yet what would it be? Liberal valuation of multiculturalism, deconstruction, rebellion seem to be distinctly anti-authoritarian. However, an impulse too towards group-think and political correctness is certainly authoritarian.”

With liberals and even more with leftists, the authority has tended to be found in the technocratic/pseudo scientific vanguard (which allegedly knows better than the common people).

This concept that conservatives are more authoritarian in a general sense is just bunk. The current expression of conservatism in the US is more authoritarian than the current expression of liberalism in the US. If you want to argue that, you’re on pretty safe ground. If you want to say that most of US history goes along those lines, I would say youre wrong but I can see the argument.

Extending that to back patting about the whole world, or extrapolating to some general innate difference between conservatives and liberals in history, especially considering the very recent history of the USSR and China, is just delusional.


J. Otto Pohl 10.16.12 at 5:00 pm


Except that the USSR and China were illiberal not liberal. In the US liberal has a weird meaning of something like watered down leftist. In the rest of the world liberal usually refers to support for free market principles. But, certainly in the 20th century the left was extremely authoritarian in places like the USSR and China as well as among communist groups in the US and Europe.


Bruce Wilder 10.16.12 at 5:54 pm

Sebastian H: “. . . the practical way of putting it [is] that (a troublingly sufficient number of) Americans want lower taxes AND more from the government. The thing about that formulation is it points to the real problem. . . . the electorate will [not] accept reality . . . we need a new electorate.”

I think that formulation points away from the core difficulty.

The core problem of American politics is that it is being driven by a plutocracy: a core of corporate executives, hedge fund managers and the super-rich, who are interested primarily in re-distributing income upward (to their own lovely selves), and willing to pursue that goal relentlessly by means of disinvestment and a financialization of the economy.

As a consequence, half of the American population is living at or near poverty, wages are declining, more and more people are being nickeled and dimed by the financial system as it invades more and more areas of the economy, particularly areas of previously public provision. We spend absurd amounts on wars we cannot win and which serve no discernible national purpose. Prisons are increasingly run by private enterprise, and the incarceration rate in the U.S. is the highest in the world. Higher education is available to most young people only at the price of debt peonage. Health care costs twice as much in the U.S. as it does in most other developed countries, and our big reform will require even more people to buy crappy health insurance.

As one example of how this plays out, the two Presidential candidates are agreed on the “necessity” of reforming Social Security, by cutting benefits — benefits fully paid for by the people, whose benefits will be cut by the way — a “shared sacrifice” relentless advocated for by the billionaire financier, Pete Peterson. Social Security’s actually very minor financial problems are traceable directly to the cap on FICA taxes: as a result of the plutocracy’s upward redistribution of income, almost all of economic growth in the country now accrues to people, whose incomes are above the cap, so almost none of it is channelled into Social Security.

The electorate wants the political class to respond to its economic problems, and is frustrated in that regard.

It is true that the electorate has no particularly coherent view of what is going on, or what should be done about, but that’s not really their responsibility. They are followers, hoping to be led in their own interest, hoping to be offered a vision of the country’s problems and its future. And, they are frustrated, by design.

As other commenters have observed, the economics profession is thoroughly corrupt and incompetent. Instead of a sophisticated understanding of the need for reform of financial institutions or world trade, or directing investment to cope with peak oil and climate change, or to take advantage of the computing and communications revolutions, we are reduced to pious advocacy of “austerity” and neo-liberal laissez-faire, barely distinguishable from the doctrines of Turgot, minister to Louis XVI. And, the pundits, who work for the corporate news Media form a coterie of Villagers, with attitudes and views barely more enlightened than the courtiers flattering Marie Antoinette.


sherparick1 10.16.12 at 6:55 pm

I do think you really underestimate the way this myth of self-reliance and anti-government has been purposely propagandized in the U.S. for the last 70 years. And it has very much had to do with the repeal of the New Deal and establishimen of a neo-feudalism of private power within the United States. Further, in 1964, probably far more than today, majority of Americans, at least white Americans, having become homewners as the result of New Deal policies, and educated as the result of New Deal policies (particularly the WWII GI Bill), they were very much starting to see themselvs as part of the “haves,” and although at that time relatively willing to help the “deserving have nots” were of course very vulnerable politics of resentment about their recent gains going to the “undeserving,” particularly “lazy Negroes.” Also, it should not be forgotten that regarding sexual mores and racial hierarchies, the New Deal was itself conservative, and hence no threat to the cultural beliefs of Southern white evangelicals and northern Roman Catholics. This of course changed with the 1960s.

I somewhat agree with Bob Somerby that liberals, particularly since the late sixties, really stopped coummunicating and fighting economic injustice and have done a poor job at debunking Conservative memes while failing to tell inspiring stories of our own.


Ed 10.16.12 at 7:35 pm

The argument that North Korea is really not a “leftist dictatorship” strikes me as an instance of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

On the wider issue, I think history has conclusively shown that authoritarian types will use whatever political argument is at hand and useful to establish the sort of quasi-sadistic domination they want. They have been willing to use any sort of political camouflage. Its true that this is hard to do with a certain type of whiggish liberalism that emphasizes individual autonomy, but toryism, with its emphasis on power dispersed among a number of diverse centers, which operate within the limits prescribed by tradition, is considered to be a right wing ideology but is equally resistant.


J. Otto Pohl 10.16.12 at 7:59 pm

89 and 96

The argument that North Korea is a right wing rather than left wing dictatorship is absurd. The level of social and economic leveling in North Korea was pretty extraordinary when you look at actual policy and compare it to what existed during Japanese colonial rule. You have the collectivization of agriculture and nationalizing of industry to create a society whose primary external models were the USSR under Stalin and later China under Mao. North Korea has not privatized either industry or agriculture and it certainly had not done so by 1972. In no case could one say that North Korean economic and social policy were comparable to Hitler and Mussolini. Where is the private industry not to mention private agriculture in North Korea that dominates the German economy under Hitler? There is no North Korean equivalent of I.G. Farben. Nationalism is common to communist regimes. Milovan Djilas in the New Class noted that all communist states have become national communist states starting with the reemergence of Great Russian chauvinism in the USSR.


Bruce Wilder 10.16.12 at 9:08 pm

Ed: whiggish liberalism . . . toryism

In 19th century British politics, there was the Toryism of the Duke of Wellington, a thoroughly reactionary politics, stubbornly resistant to the erosion of privilege and prejudice, which was perfectly happy to resist even mild Parliamentary reform, to the point of pre-revolutionary riots in the street, or to see the Ascendancy export grain from Ireland under the tariff protection of the Corn Laws, as a million Irish peasants starved to death, and then, there was the Toryism of Peel and Disraeli, which was excited to embrace the power promised by the Industrial Revolution, and the support it provided for the renewal and extension of Empire. Domination was among the desiderata of both types of Tories, and only the former, tradition-bound reactionaries can be fairly said to have had any investment in the decentralization of power, and that decentralization of power was a means, not a barrier to domination. Peel and Disraeli, like Napoleon III or Bismarck, were interested in building the centralized power of the industrialized nation-state: the power of the nation-in-arms revealed by the French Revolution, which required mass support, and, therefore, concessions to mass welfare and political participation.

The idea that the interest of political reactionaries in tradition or charter-bound decentralization of power, offers some useful resistance to the tyranny of centralized power seems like a cruel joke, in light of the history, say, of American slavery. It is no accident that the ideology of the would-be Confederates bears so much resonance with 21st century libertarianism, just as the affinity of Friedmanites with the likes of Pinochet should surprise no one.

I don’t have any special insight into the sadistic domination of a Stalinist, or what puts a government like North Korea’s into place, or keeps it in place. What accounts for a CeauÈ™escu? I won’t argue that the authoritarianism required by the extremity of domination makes such regimes, “conservative” any more than I would argue that they represent a perversion of liberal rationalism. But, I also don’t think any comparison, even to these extremes of human cruelty and folly, will redeem actual conservatism from its record of cruelty by indifference, irresponsibility and neglect.


David Kaib 10.16.12 at 9:19 pm

I know this is a philosophy oriented blog, but perhaps the practical way of putting it that (a troublingly sufficient number of) Americans want lower taxes AND more from the government.

Sebastian @88 – this isn’t the case. Americans generally aren’t thrilled about paying more taxes in the abstract because 1) there’s no reason to think it will go towards the thing they support and 2) they think people at the top aren’t paying their fair share. But if you ask them if they will pay for specific things, they overwhelmingly support them, and those specific things include a whole host of things that would, for example, reduce poverty. Asking if people want to pay more without saying why is just a terrible poll question, if you really want to know what people think.


Sebastian H 10.16.12 at 9:36 pm

David, that seems tough to square with the Democrats insistence on no tax hikes for the middle class.


J. Otto Pohl 10.16.12 at 9:41 pm


But, the original argument was that authoritarianism was a rightest tendency and did not appear on the left. The claim then morphed into the argument that there was no such thing as a left wing dictatorship and that all dictatorships were by definition conservative. This was further amplified by a claim that North Korea by virtue of being a nationalist regime was a right wing dictatorship rather than a left wing one. Plenty of authoritarian regimes have existed on the left as have movements that have not come to power such as the Sendero Luminoso in Peru and RCP in the US. Your argument that is the existence of left wing authoritarian regimes does not do anything to justify conservative policy. This is a totally different claim and a much more difficult one to contest.


Bruce Wilder 10.16.12 at 9:49 pm

sherparick1: “I somewhat agree with Bob Somerby that liberals . . . stopped fighting economic injustice and have done a poor job at debunking conservative meme . . .”

I think Chris Hedges, in Death of the Liberal Class, gets at the underlying dynamics pretty well, and usefully goes beyond Somerby’s insights, by focusing on the progressive de-funding of the institutions, which support thinking and, yes, propaganda and effective political organization, from the Left side of the spectrum of opinion. Somerby, like many liberals circa 2000, seemed to think that hectoring journalists about their professional obligations might have some good effect.

Ezra Klein’s evolution, though not as dramatic in some ways as that of Matthew Ygelesias, has proven Somerby way too optimistic. The Washington Post pays Klein’s salary, and the White House staff furnishes his goldmine of “inside” sources, and the result is the kind of empty, insightless, substance-free rhetoric, which is the subject of the OP, above.

I am not saying that Somerby doesn’t see some effects of resource allocation and class, but he focuses on rhetoric and journalistic standards. He sees that domination of our public discourse by privileged elites of millionaire pundits, who don’t have to think hard or know much, is deeply corrosive to the political process. He can see why a hack like Nozick can have a career, and be used as a counterweight to Rawls, in high-minded punditry. And, he can see why a can be funded, and staffed with graduates of the “Whitewater” School of (pseudo-)Scandal. And, he can see how a journalism of weak to non-existent standards of truth, and a reading public/teevee audience of shallow prejudice, can be endlessly exploited by skilled public relations hacks to slander public education and make 60 Minutes heroes out of a series of champions of school reform and charter schools, etc., who know or care little about actual education of actual students.

I think early on in the history of the Daily Howler blog, Somerby might have hoped that protest and withering criticism might turn things around. He was horrified by the treatment Gore received in the 2000 campaign, even by nominally liberal pundits and the mainstream media, and the weakness demonstrated in the face of Bush’s radicalism.

The horrifying whole — the accelerating, expanding plutocratic project of upward re-distribution of wealth and power, by means of broad disinvestment — is just too destructive of hope, for most liberals to face. Most will not acknowledge that Obama works assiduously for the plutocracy, just as much as Romney *is* the plutocracy personified. I give Chris Hedges a lot of credit for looking at that squarely.


Bruce Wilder 10.16.12 at 9:54 pm

J. Otto Pohl @ 101

I thought you handled the heavy lifting on the main thrust better than I ever could. I was just turning a flanking movement with some light cavalry.


J. Otto Pohl 10.16.12 at 10:08 pm


I am very puzzled about this. statement Is this sarcasm? Nobody has every agreed with any comment I have made at CT or anywhere else for that matter. In fact I am officially banned as a troll by both Dr. Farrell and Dr. Quiggen. I wish I was more perceptive and could see the joke or insult, but it totally eludes me.


Bruce Wilder 10.16.12 at 10:23 pm

Sebastian H: “. . . that seems tough to square . . .”

I don’t see why. Politicians are always faced with the problem of establishing a credible committment with the voters to whom they are trying to appeal. That problem is compounded by a politics of soundbites. Republicans have gotten a lot of mileage out of a committment to lowering all taxes on everyone — a simple message, which, not incidentally, can deliver outsized benefits to the very rich, in practice. The Democrats have a tougher row, to hoe: a message, which is a compound sentence, of higher taxes on the rich, while holding down taxes on everyone else, and they have to get that more complex message across in a media environment, in which many sources of information will claim that Democrats have raised taxes on the middle classes (and always will, ’cause they are ‘tax-and-spenders’).

Your criticism of the electorate as feckless ignores the institutional constraints on the electorate organizing its information-processing more effectively, and at a higher level of intellectual functioning, as well as the institutional constraints on the electorate holding politicians accountable, by matching politician’s committment devices, with performance-checking mechanisms.

Journalism in America is 95+% bought and paid for by the plutocracy, and the political discourse is full of misinformation, slander and invective and tribal nonsense, because it serves the plutocracy, to have the electorate believe that nothing can be accomplished through popular government, to discourage voting, and to discourage faith in the integrity or good intentions of any politician. And, the kind of mass social organization or affiliation, which would allow the mass electorate to identify trustworthy candidates or messages, is weak or non-existent.

So, sure, the Democrats, with mostly good intentions, try extremely simple messages — messages as simple as they can manage. And, they reach people, who care, people, who would like to see a fairer economy, and are willing to sacrifice for the good of the commonwealth. Republicans and corrupt centrists are able to make appeals to subvert Social Security and impose a destructive austerity, precisely because of the residual willingness of much of the American People to act in solidarity for the good of the country. And, if they succeed in destroying the social contract, those Republicans and corrupt centrists are good with that, and if they succeed in making voters so cynical that they expect nothing good from the political process, they’re good with that, too.


Bruce Wilder 10.16.12 at 10:39 pm

J. Otto Pohl


I know I have praised your comments, at least once, but I think, in general, you should regard silence on CT as applause.

As for Dr. Farrell and Dr. Quiggin, all I can say, it is their place, not ours, and you have to respect that, absolutely. (I’m sure Quiggin would be tempted to ban me, if he understood a higher percentage of what I write. ;-) Also, it is always better to read here, than write; that can help you appreciate that someone else will say what needs to be said, even if you don’t. I write too much here — as I have on this thread — when I am over-caffeinated and confined. When I am feeling unheard and unappreciated, well, . . . I have other outlets.


David Kaib 10.16.12 at 10:44 pm

Sebastian – that insistence comes from the top. not the bottom. Besides, none of those Democratic officials would be willing to tie such tax increases to spending in any particular place. Rather, they would like to use what ever money they raise to “pay down the debt.”


rf 10.16.12 at 10:53 pm

“in general, you should regard silence on CT as applause.”

I’ve always assumed that everytime I walk in here I receive a standing ovation! But yeah, fwiw, I’d second enjoying your posts J Otto, even when they border on the chippy!


William Timberman 10.16.12 at 11:21 pm

Neither American or European forms of liberalism have ever offered us a persuasive analysis of, or solution to, the problem of power. To be fair, neither has anyone else, but at least political thinkers of other persuasions aren’t still trying to pretend that all anomalies will sort themselves out sooner or later without any need for anyone to try something radically different.

Whether it’s the invisible hand or the technocratic magisterium that liberals offer us as consolation, the idea that they’re living in the real world, and their critics aren’t is absurd. The belief that we’re simply wayward children-who-don’t-know-how-the-world-has-to-work will always be at risk from a more diligent historical editor. (That job may be open at the moment, but I have a feeling that it’ll be filled sooner than most liberals would wish.)


Bruce Wilder 10.16.12 at 11:38 pm

“The belief that we’re simply wayward children-who-don’t-know-how-the-world-has-to-work . . .”

Is that a general problem with liberalism as a political philosophy? Or, a specific problem with the psychological adaptations of certain (unnamed) allegedly liberal bloggers? Or, is there a connection between general philosophical problem and specific neurosis?


Matt 10.17.12 at 12:15 am

Nobody has every agreed with any comment I have made at CT or anywhere else for that matter.

Oh come on, JOP- either this is nonsense and you know it, or your being self-pitying. I disagree with you a lot, but do sometimes agree, and have said so. But the “I am a lone martyr!” bit does wear on people after a while.


Watson Ladd 10.17.12 at 12:34 am

Bruce, liberalism has a long and distinguished history of being exactly that sort of radical change. William Wilberforce, Napoleon I, the many heroes of the Good Old Cause all stood firmly in a liberal tradition, and one that has not entirely been forgotten today. The issue is a much deeper one, in which our current moment is the result of particular conflicts abandoned by the Left. No presidential candidate is offering to restore the dismal economic output of the past four years.


William Timberman 10.17.12 at 12:41 am

BW @ 111

Well, since Hobsbawm was the subject of some retrospective comment here on the occasion of his recent death — not all of it accurate, in my opinion, or charitable — maybe his analysis would be a good place to start.

I thought that his discussion of the shifting political alignments of the various traditional classes and the classes-to-be both prior to 1789, abd coninuing through 1848 and beyond, which he offered at the end of The Age of Revolution, and recapitulated at the beginning of The Age of Capital was about as comprehensive as any I’ve read, and far more persuasive than I could ever manage without parroting him.

To be specific, I think his insight that, as the bourgeois victors of the industrial revolution in Britain gradually — and inevitably — overtook in importance the loosely-allied victors in the republican revolution in France, they came to see the laboring classes as their most dangerous enemies. They understood socialism not just as a threat to their profits, and popular democracy as a threat to the scientific management principles which they took to be the key to reliable governance and orderly economic development, but they also understood quite rightly, I think, that the masses, who lacked property, literacy, and the vote, were becoming a threat to their supremacy as a class, and to their hard-won (as they saw it) right to determine the shape of the future. They were also dead certain that their vision of the future was the correct one, and that the equivalent socialist visions were chaotic, violent and unnatural.

As I’ve said, my CliffsNotes version of Hobsbawm’s analysis doesn’t do the original justice, but I’ve come to believe that the liberal bourgeoisie is largely of the same opinion as it was at the moment of its greatest victories, and that something like the old class enmities are re-emerging as the historical anomalies of post-WWII peak capitalist prosperity on the one hand, and Stalinism/Maoism/Kim Il Sungism on the other begin to wane. Fascism, libertarianism, the New Confederacy in the U.S., and the resurgent xenophobic populism in Europe I consider greater or lesser diversions in the historical sense — dead-end branches on the evolutionary tree.

So no, it isn’t — for me, anyway — a problem with specific liberal bloggers, but rather a result of what you might call the return of the repressed. I simply don’t think we’re justified in extrapolating our future from the liberal apotheosis reached in, say, 1960. I think a more accurate analysis has to go back to the unresolved conflicts of Hobsbawm’s dual revolution, and yes, I do think that the evidence of the past ten years or so suggests that they are indeed unresolved.


William Timberman 10.17.12 at 12:58 am

BW @ 11 redux

I should probably add that the above is why I think that Marx is in some very important respects a better guide to what to hope for (as well as what to expect) than Keynes. And, of course, it goes without saying that this isn’t an argument about individual fates. Throughout all of this, one could still be run over by a truck, be forced to spend a very short and brutal life in a Soviet Labor camp, be ripped apart by an IED explosion in Iraq, endure the racist nonsense up close and personal that so torments Ta-Nehisi Coates, be forced to fly one’s daughter to Canada or California for an abortion, or be fleeced by Bernie Madoff or Jamie Dimon. Which is why, I suppose, that I have more sympathy for the lesser-evilists of the Obama for America brigade than my actual political opinions would seem to countenance.


LFC 10.17.12 at 4:30 am

BW 102
the result is the kind of empty, insightless, substance-free rhetoric [by E. Klein], which is the subject of the OP, above.

A bit too harsh on Klein here. The Romney campaign has been averse to detailed policy statements (certainly in Romney’s debate appearances) and the Obama campaign arguably has been rather low on ‘vision’ — which is what Klein says in the quoted excerpt.

I don’t entirely buy Holbo’s riposte that b/c Americans are “philosophical conservatives and operational liberals,” we should expect only conservatives to articulate a ‘vision’. Part of the problem here is traceable to the ways in which Reagan changed presidential rhetoric (see the first chapter of Rodgers’ Age of Fracture) and part is traceable to the general climate of opinion bemoaned by BW, but it shouldn’t be proving quite so big a problem/challenge for a politician like Obama one of whose strengths is precisely ‘visionary’ rhetoric. Granted, everything is easier when you’re a Senator running for president than when you’re an incumbent who must run on a record. Not that his record is entirely bad by any means, but it inevitably doesn’t fully match what he said he’d do as a candidate in ’08. Of course, the same could be said of virtually any incumbent running for re-election.

(NB This comment written after having spent a couple of hours phone-banking [under less than ideal conditions] in a Obama campaign office and then listening to the second debate.)


LFC 10.17.12 at 4:34 am

correction: an Obama campaign office


ezra abrams 10.18.12 at 12:38 am

If you are a pundit, and are to lazy to get some real material, or are on deadline, what do you do ?
you write some sophomoronic thing that sort of sounds intelligent, like the quote in the original post.
You could go out, and look at, say Mitt’s record at Bain: 1oo odd investments, most of which lost money, and only 3 of which were big hits, and you could go a long way with that.
You could go out, and find that MR was chair of the Audit Committee at Marrriott, and approved tax returns with a tax shelter known as son of BOSS. andyou could dig out the relevant IRS and title18 codes, and show that tax returns with SOB were violations of federal law *when they were filed* and you could ask if personal crimminal liability attaches to the head of the audit committee.
You could go out, and dig into the state oversight of one of the largest construction projects in the US – the “big dig” in Boston – and find that the Celluci/Weld/Romney approach of shutting down the state agency that did oversight, and outsourcing oversight was a disaster.
You could go out, and start listing where the billion odd dollars in taxes sent to the Salt Lake City olympics (which some guy named McCain, from AZ, denounced as pork) and list some of the more flagrant violations
You could download the xls sheet that lists the dollar amounts for all the various loop holes that romney says are gonna raise several hunred billion a year in rev after he closes them, and you could have some fun there….

heck, and its late at night and I’m tired, and I don’t even follow this stuff that closely..


CaptFamous 10.18.12 at 2:54 am

I think a lot of the accountability issues with Romney, intra-party at least, stem from the fact that the GOP has evolved into a coalition of small groups with little in common. Centrist Libertarians, social conservatives, Tea Party, none of them are expecting Romney to say anything that rings true to them because they’re all so used to used to alliances with politicians that they hardly agree with in the first place.

As long as he keeps using the proper buzzwords to reassure each interest group that he’s still “on their side” in their particular core issue, nobody is listening closely enough to his whole platform to care whether it all makes sense.


Daryl McCullough 10.18.12 at 11:54 am

Mao explains how the “third way” is intellectually incoherent. I sort of agree, but note that it is also politically very successful, compared with purer forms of leftism—at least in the US and Great Britain. Maybe that’s because (in the US–I’m not sure about how things work in the UK) modern politicians require deep-pocketed backers, and you just don’t get those type of backers if you are too far to the left? Or maybe it’s a matter of the public hedging its bets: Some of the promises made by leftists are appealing, but many voters worry that going too far to the left might result in some catastrophic breakdown of the economy. So voters try to have the best of both worlds, with the safety net AND the free market.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.19.12 at 5:43 pm

@120, it could be, actually, more intellectually coherent with leftist ideologies present in the mainstream. That’s the whole point of calling it ‘Third Way’; it only makes sense with the other two ways being considered. That is not what we have currently, in the US at least.

I guess they could introduce imaginary leftists into the discourse (‘some would say we need to mass-execute the billionaires, but that’s clearly too much; let’s raise their effective tax rate to 20%’). Or something.

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