Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson – Let Them Eat Tweets

by Henry on August 4, 2020

Below, a review essay on Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s most recent book, “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality.” The essay tries to highlight and explain the political science arguments behind the book, and the kinds of political science research that would be needed to properly build out the agenda that the book implies.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s most recent book describes in succession a dilemma, a path and a trap. The dilemma is one that they argue faces conservative parties in general. The path is the response of the US Republican party to this dilemma. And the trap is the self-reinforcing nature of that path, impelling the party along a trajectory where the choices look increasingly grim, for the party, but much more so for the country as a whole.

Hacker and Pierson draw their description of the “Conservative Dilemma” from Daniel Ziblatt’s work on nineteenth century conservative parties, generalizing and extending his basic idea. The conservative dilemma is straightforward: conservatism is not likely to be a politically popular cause in a democracy. Conservatism is the political movement that represents the interests of those who have against those who have not. When a country democratizes, conservatism reflects the interests of the old propertied class – the landed gentry and its allies in the United Kingdom; the Junker aristocracy in Prussia. So why should a majority ever vote for a party that represents the interests of the propertied minority?

As Ziblatt argued, nineteenth and early twentieth century European conservative parties found out that the way to attract public support was to combine nationalism for the masses with wealth protection for the rich. This could go in one of two ways. In the nineteenth century United Kingdom, the forces of nationalism, religion and tradition were both “mobilized and contained.” In other words, they played an important role in politics – but were mostly channeled through democratic structures (Hacker and Pierson do refer in passing to the agitation around Irish Home Rule, when conservatives tacitly encouraged military dissension and armed revolt to keep Ireland in the Union). In Germany, it didn’t work out that way. Germany united in the nineteenth century around the Prussian model of conservative nationalism, and in the twentieth century, conservatives encouraged virulent demagoguery, leading to a death spiral that engulfed them and the country, paving the way for Nazi dictatorship.

Hacker and Pierson argue that modern US conservatives as represented by the Republican Party face their own version of this dilemma – how to attract mass support for an agenda of cutting taxes for rich people? Furthermore, the dilemma has gotten ever more vexing as US economic inequality has increased, so that the interests of the Republican party’s clients and ordinary voters clash ever more. This, then is the engine that they argue has driven US Republicans ever further to the extremes. If they want to get their agenda through, they need popular support, and the best way to generate that support is through fostering division and extremism, amplifying the beliefs of a sufficient number of voters that their way of life is under threat from un-American, irreligious people who want to destroy their traditions. Plutocratic populism – the key phenomenon that they set out to analyze – is precisely a welding of a plutocratic agenda with populist rhetoric.

The book however, is not just applied Ziblatt. It argues that US Republicans have responded in some quite particular ways, which reflect how party politics work in the US. Specifically, the Republican model has involved what might be described as outrage outsourcing. The Republican party itself is organizationally weak (from passing discussion, it is clear that Hacker and Pierson are sympathetic to Schlozman and Rosenfeld’s hollow party account). Hence, the importance of the National Rifle Association, religious conservatives and Fox News, as key organizers in the Republican coalition. The NRA’s strength comes from mobilizing its members around the fear that their guns will be taken away from them. Religious conservative organizations and churches similarly have turned abortion into a mobilizing cause, while Fox News actively helped organize the Tea Party movement (although Gabriel Sherman’s book suggests that even Ailes was nervous about this), and creates a general climate of outrage and fear.

This means that Republicans depend on organizations that are outside their control. While Hacker and Pierson don’t dwell on this, there is an implicit parallel between their diagnosis of the current situation of the Republican party, and that of conservatives in Weimar Germany: both are structurally weak groupings that came to rely on extremists that they could not themselves keep in check.

This has created the trap. Hacker and Pierson identify feedback loops through which the current Republican model has become a self-reinforcing set of pathologies. One is a feedback loop between wealth inequality and Republican electoral strategy. In their description:

Republicans’ electoral fortunes, their ability to recruit candidates, their activist cadre, their party organizations – all required escalating sums of money and the efforts of savvy institution-builders. As inequality grew rapidly, business groups and the donor class had these in abundance. In turn, Republicans had the power to deliver favorable policies – and to demand in return that those who benefited operate as team players rather than free agents.

Another feedback loop is the reliance on outside organizations to mobilize voters. Parties can often benefit from a certain degree of ambiguity – creative interpretation of core values allow them to build coalitions of voters whose actual preferences clash. It is hard for a party that has effectively outsourced core parts of its identity to extreme-hugging groups such as the NRA to maintain that kind of ambiguity. Thus, the Republican party finds itself having to double down on the extreme demands of its dominant groups in ways that are likely to repel groups that might otherwise have been attracted into its coalition.

Together such feedback loops are leading the Republican party to focus on catering for extremists and plutocrats rather than redefining itself to attract new constituencies. The Republican party could have attracted Latinos, if its commitments to the political extremes, and to its plutocratic funders had not made it effectively impossible to do so. The fundamental problem of the Republican party is that its electoral strategy, policy commitments and core support are both mutually supportive and politically pathological – they mean that its response to the Conservative Dilemma will become increasingly ineffective over time. The economic agenda of the Republican party is becoming ever more unattractive to voters, and ever more difficult to push through by using fear and outrage as a mobilizing strategy.

This suggests that the Republican party can move in one of two directions. Either it can redefine itself so as to respond to the demands of a democratic system, that requires it to assemble majorities to get elected. This would require it to escape the trap, and begin figuring out how to appeal to voters in non-pathological ways. Alternatively, it can look to redefine the democratic system so as to better match the internal demands of its own internal coalition of plutocrats and rabble-rousers, by making it harder for majorities to displace Republican politicians. Hacker and Pierson emphasize that this doesn’t necessarily require a lapse into dictatorship – the existing Republican enthusiasm for countermajoritarianism through gerrymandering, making voting harder, court restrictions on reform and the like – can deliver plenty.

Hacker and Pierson’s book is a popular book for a popular audience, but it is clearly based on political science arguments. In particular, its approach builds on the historical institutionalism that they and others such as Kathy Thelen are closely identified with. On the one hand, history is crucial. On the other, it is crucial in a particular kind of way. Path dependence means that choices build on other choices and in turn are built on again so as to constrain people’s strategies. Part of what Hacker and Pierson want to do is to enable a healthier Republican party that somehow manages to escape its current path. They stress that these self-reinforcing pathologies were present in the Republican party long before Trump, and that Trump is a symptom rather than a major cause. But they also want to figure out a way to unwind them.

One of the questions that haunts the book is whether this could have been avoided. Put more abstractly, a path dependence account requires that multiple possible trajectories were possible at some point before one of these trajectories was chosen and became self-reinforcing. In Hacker and Pierson’s account:

Plutocratic populism was not inevitable. Other roads were possible as the struggle within the party over how to respond to America’s growing Latino population reveals. The path Republicans ended up taking emerged from a long series of choices by plutocrats, politicians and the party’s surrogates. Over time, that path narrowed, and many within the party ceased to see real alternatives to radicalizing their white voting base or rigging the electoral process. But other paths could have diminished resort to these dangerous temptations.

Broadening appeal to Latinos was one possible alternative. Hacker and Pierson also stress how Republicans worked to prevent an alternative path of non-plutocratic populism, in which African-Americans and poor white voters might have figured out their common interests at an even earlier era.

But it’s still hard to really pin these alternative stories down and figure out under which conditions those paths might have been chosen. One reason for this is that, as the above quote suggests, the book nearly exclusively focuses on the choices of Republicans and conservatives, depicting them as the unwitting architects of their own destiny. But these were not the only agents in American politics. At a minimum, Democrats’ choices too played into this – efforts to build that kind of coalition met sharp opposition within the Democratic party. One of the costs of focusing on the Conservative Dilemma is that it becomes harder to see how it interacts with other parties’ dilemmas, and their own solutions to those dilemmas, conducting to outcomes in a broader strategic space where no one party consistently dominates.

This also has implications for their understanding of Trump. Hacker and Pierson provide a top-down approach that focuses on the interests of sophisticated policy demanders – specifically the rich. Adapting Schumpeter, their position could be simplified as a claim that tax policy is the soul of the party, stripped of all misleading ideologies. The reason why the Republican party is as it is, is because of a kind of two step, where Republicans had to figure out a way to build support for a pro-rich agenda while wrongfooting their opponents, and realized that they could do this by mobilizing poorer white voters around race. Bottom up approaches instead tend to focus on the perceptions of less elite actors, and to emphasize the extent to which the Republican party has become a vehicle for the racism of many of its supporters.

Under Hacker and Pierson’s account, structural racism plays a crucial role, but as a set of popular biases that are mobilized by self-interested elites. This is very different from the kinds of crude arguments made by some centrist liberals, who suggest with greater or lesser degrees of openness, that the way for Democrats to win is to ditch the talk of identity, and figure out ways to bring white working class voters into the fold. Some of the difference lies in Hacker and Pierson’s sense that the urgent problems lie in the Republican party rather than the Democrats. Some lies in their understanding of path dependence – it is far harder to change things once a feedback loop has kicked in, so that a party’s strategy and voters’ choices and identity reinforce each other. Hacker and Pierson emphasize the opportunity costs of not changing for the Republican party – parties want to win elections above all. Yet there are also internal feedback loops – the Republican representatives that are least in danger of losing their seats are plausibly those who have most heavily bought into the existing set of bargains. As the Republican coalition is winnowed by losses, it may become more extreme rather than less.

Furthermore, the process through which Trump became the 2016 presidential candidate suggest that the elites are not nearly as in control as they would like to be. Hacker and Pierson emphasize how Trump was contained and tamed by the plutocracy – but he was not initially the plutocracy’s preferred candidate. They rightly push back against the bias of US political science towards a broad bottom up default assumption that candidates’ and party’s positions reflect the preferences of voters, but there are other kinds of bottom up forces too that intersect with the top down. Described more abstractly, we can expect feedback loops within parties too, as some candidates generate groups of activists whom they nurture, and who in turn nurture them.

Put even more abstractly: what we need, and what we don’t, so far as I know, have, is a really developed literature on parties as institutions, similar to the policies as institutions literature that Hacker and Pierson have pioneered in political science. I emphasize the words “so far as I know,” since there may be work out there that I am unfamiliar with. But my sense is that while the problems are coming into view, we don’t have a systematic understanding of them yet. We need to get away from top down versus bottom up to a better understanding of when effects become causes and vice versa– when top-down initiatives reshape the bottom, and when bottom up movements capture the understanding of elites, and how they intersect with each other. We also need a better understanding of the relationship between parties and the institutional ecologies that they inhabit, which likely involve similar feedback loops. Finally, we need a better sense of how party structures and political economy affect each other, along the lines of Kimberly Morgan’s work on Western Europe.

All of this is going to be especially hard for political scientists to figure out given current intellectual fashions. These kinds of causal loops play badly with standard identification strategies. Nonetheless, this kind of academic work is necessary to really figure out what is going on. One of the benefits of work such as Hacker and Pierson’s – which looks to apply political science arguments to major public problems – is that it shows us the gaps in our social science that we need to fill if we are going to do a better job of engaging in public debate.

{ 46 comments }

1

Hidari 08.04.20 at 3:40 pm

‘This is very different from the kinds of crude arguments made by some centrist liberals, who suggest with greater or lesser degrees of openness, that the way for Democrats to win is to ditch the talk of identity, and figure out ways to bring white working class voters into the fold. ‘

I feel this sentence needs a lot of parsing. It can be interpreted in a number of ways, some of which are plausible and some of which are obviously false. It is true that centrist liberals wish to bring white working class voters ‘into the fold’ but only insofar as these centrist liberals conceptualise white working class voters in a very specific way, and their being ‘brought into the fold’ as being a process that is carried out, again, in a very specific way, for very specific purposes.

It’s also only true that some centrist liberals want to stop talking about ‘identity’. Others are more than happy to talk about this and, indeed, nothing else, till the cows come home.

2

James Harrison 08.04.20 at 3:55 pm

The idea that conservatives resort to racism and aggressive nationalism to further their economic interests and defend privilege in a democratic polity is mighty familiar, part of the commonsense of the left and a fair amount of the center. Aside from the unfortunate fact that understanding how the system works doesn’t automatically generate a strategy to combat it—knowledge isn’t always power—the analysis also underplays the appeal of paranoid, racist politics to its benefactors. They don’t just mobilize the prejudices of their mass base. They share ’em.

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LFC 08.04.20 at 4:19 pm

All of this is going to be especially hard for political scientists to figure out given current intellectual fashions. These kinds of causal loops play badly with standard identification strategies.

Could you elaborate a little on this point?

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Henry 08.04.20 at 6:05 pm

I am not anyone’s idea of a methodologist, but the loose intuition is the following (people should feel free to correct any ineptitude). When you are laying out an identification strategy, you want, as crisply and precisely as possible to figure out how factor x affects outcome y. Messy processes in which x affects y which then in turn affects x again are at best going to be awkward to deal with in this framework, and at worst going to look like noise.

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Brian Weatherson 08.04.20 at 6:15 pm

But these were not the only agents in American politics. At a minimum, Democrats’ choices too played into this

This seems entirely right. I wonder how important unions are in this question.

In Australia (and I think England) there seem to be a bunch of voters who are otherwise moderate, but who are not at all fond of unions. These folks can be reliable centre-right voters in Australia, and possibly provide the margin of victory in a lot of elections. In America, these folks will often, perhaps frequently, vote Democratic. And even if that’s just a few percent of the electorate, it is something that the centre-right party in the US has to make up for elsewhere.

It perhaps isn’t a coincidence that their counter-strategies from Reagan through Trump have often involved picking up votes in (traditional, male-heavy) unions.

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LFC 08.04.20 at 7:37 pm

@2
Ok thanks.
Btw people who are interested in Pierson’s particular take on path dependence might look at his Politics in Time. As you say in the OP, it can be hard to determine exactly when and under what conditions the alternative paths might have been taken, esp when the object of explanation is not a particular policy but something broader and a bit more amorphous, like a party’s strategy and orientation. IOW, this is not my field but I think the OP is correct here.

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Peter Dorman 08.04.20 at 9:55 pm

This sounds like a book I’ll want to read, so I appreciate not only the summary but also the explanatory notes.

If the description is right, what I’ll be looking for but missing is the political economy of the process, broadly understood. That is, contemporaneously with this evolution of the Republican Party there were dramatic changes in the organization of the national and global economies, loosely and rather poorly summed up in terms like financialization and globalization. The American working class was reconfigured as, for instance, the exurban industrialization of the late twentieth century was abandoned, leaving whole regions high and dry. Modularization of production, coordinated through digital technology rather than shared organization, promoted fragmentation and inequality. Of course, these weren’t entirely autonomous developments; they were influenced by politics, just as politics was influenced by them. That’s what I wanted to convey by “broad” political economy.

Unfortunately, it would take a crazy amount of expertise to compile this into an adequate, integrated account. Probably not a job for a person or even a small team but a large, multi-disciplinary project.

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Henry Porter 08.04.20 at 10:18 pm

It is infuriating to read yet another explication of political dynamics that pretends the academy and the media are not part of the ecosystem.

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Alex SL 08.04.20 at 10:36 pm

This is a great post about a complex problem – every time I went “well, but” I found that it discussed my objection two paragraphs on, e.g. the bottom-up angle.

My main response is that unfortunately I don’t really see the “problem” for the Republican party (with the caveat that I am not a US citizen, so I have only a distant perspective). As the post itself points out, having to mobilise >50% of voters while enacting policies that benefit <10% of voters is not a specifically Republican but a general conservative party problem, across all of history and across the globe. Nonetheless I can count the countries where conservatives didn’t win around two thirds of elections in the last few decades on one hand, and probably still could do so after some hand-related accident.

The reality is that most people do not sit down and calculate if the social democrats’ tax policies and spending on services or the conservative party’s tax policies and spending on services would be of greater benefit to them. But many of them think “oh no, immigrants” or “respect our flag and army” or “academics think they are better than me, let’s cut university funding to show them”. The labour movement and its parties shifting the needle towards a policy of redistribution for a few decades may well have been a historical accident, and I am not sure to what degree the welfare state was merely the result of a powerful communist bloc making conservatives worry that the plebs would desert them if they didn’t share the wealth around a bit. But that is now over.

Add to that the USA’s gerrymandered-by-design upper house, and the only oddity of the present situation is that the conservatives ended up with such an embarrassing president. As others have pointed out, if they get in again in four or eight years with a very competent leader they could easily ensure that they will subsequently win every election of the next generation or two, simply by purging voter rolls, gerrymandering, and stacking the courts, perhaps with a side order of oddly behaving electronic voting machines. And about half the population would cheer them every step along the way, because they are “hurting the right people”.

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Alan White 08.04.20 at 11:53 pm

Thank you for this Henry (if I may). I learn a lot from your and John Q’s posts especially.

Could you make a remark about the Republicans’ embrace of the concept of fake news and rejection of concern about truth, facts, and statistically-backed claims? Did Trump catalyze this or was this tendency there pre-Agent Orange? Do you have any idea how this embrace will play out in fututre?

11

J-D 08.05.20 at 12:23 am

… The conservative dilemma is straightforward: conservatism is not likely to be a politically popular cause in a democracy. Conservatism is the political movement that represents the interests of those who have against those who have not. … So why should a majority ever vote for a party that represents the interests of the propertied minority? … Hacker and Pierson argue that modern US conservatives as represented by the Republican Party face their own version of this dilemma – how to attract mass support for an agenda of cutting taxes for rich people? … Together such feedback loops are leading the Republican party to focus on catering for extremists and plutocrats rather than redefining itself to attract new constituencies. The Republican party could have attracted Latinos, if its commitments to the political extremes, and to its plutocratic funders had not made it effectively impossible to do so. …

It’s normal for a country in which electoral competition between political parties has developed to have a party [note 1] which aims [note 2] at protecting the position of those who have against those who have not. In the US, if the Republicans distanced itself sufficiently from the plutocracy to be able to draw on alternative bases of support, there would be another party tied to the plutocracy the way the Republicans are now, and that hypothetical other party would face some version of the problems in attracting additional bases of support which currently afflict the Republicans [note 3].

Note 1: Or at least one party; there may be more than one, but there’ll be at least one.
Note 2: Some people would argue that all parties, or at least all mainstream/established/non-revolutionary parties, protect the position of those who have against those who have not. Certainly in the US case some people argue this is true of both Republicans and Democrats. Obviously if plutocrats can promote their goals through both parties they will, but it’s also obvious that plutocrats prefer Republicans to Democrats, indicating that they regard the Republican Party, not necessarily as the only way of protecting their position, but the more reliable and effective way.
Note 3: This doesn’t mean that the general political situation would have to be the same. As noted, other countries, just like the US, have parties which aim to protect the position of those who have against those who have not, but the politics of those other countries isn’t identical with the politics of the US. Other parties which resemble the Republicans in this one particular respect also differ from it (and from each other) in various ways, and, among other things, they vary in their success in electoral competition.

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bruce wilder 08.05.20 at 5:49 am

Many years after the Civil War, some Lost Cause enthusiasts confronted George Pickett, famous for his eponymous charge at Gettysburg, with their theories of why Lee had lost that critical battle. Had the dilatory Longstreet betrayed his chief? Had J.E.B. Stuart left the great Lee “blind”? Was Pickett’s Charge a tragic mistake?

Pickett listened politely and finally opined, the Yankees might have had something to do with it.

The account related in the OP is remarkable for its one-sidedness. Surely, a two-Party system is a strategic dance. What the Democrats do is the most important constraint on what the Republicans can do and yet it is scarcely mentioned.

Being the conservative, pro-plutocratic Party is especially problematic when the other Party is successfully pursuing its own billionaires and interest groups. So-called “plutocratic populism” is not an available gambit if the other Party is at all responsive to working class interests and concerns, but of course the Democrats no longer are. The increasing radicalism of the Republicans might have something to do with the success Democrats have had pursuing Wall Street and suburban centrists.

The strategic dance of two Parties with an excluded and disenfranchised majority threatening revolt is nothing new. The Whigs were led by aristocratic magnates greater than any Tory when their factions transformed into party Liberals and Conservatives, with the Chartists campaigning out-of-doors. Disraeli famously flanked the Liberals on electoral reform and Bismarck arguably followed Lasalle’s advice to undermine the anti-working-class Liberals.

13

J-D 08.05.20 at 8:46 am

It perhaps isn’t a coincidence that their counter-strategies from Reagan through Trump have often involved picking up votes in (traditional, male-heavy) unions.

Obviously some people who are union members vote Republican, but union members are less likely to vote Republican and more likely to vote Democrat than people who are not union members.

14

J-D 08.05.20 at 9:09 am

Nonetheless I can count the countries where conservatives didn’t win around two thirds of elections in the last few decades on one hand, and probably still could do so after some hand-related accident.

That’s a dubious proposition. Is it possible for you to show your working? In which of these countries have conservatives won two-thirds of elections in the last few decades: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Jamaica, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom? I think just from that list, without going any further, it should be possible to find more exceptions to your assertion than you can count on one hand.

15

Peter T 08.05.20 at 11:55 am

“conservatism is not likely to be a politically popular cause in a democracy. Conservatism is the political movement that represents the interests of those who have against those who have not.”

This is theoretically sound. Empirically it is less obvious. The Conservative Party has been the most successful party in UK politics for 150 years. The right and centre-right have had similar success in Italy, France and Germany. The centre-right has a reliable third of the votes in Spain. In Australia conservatives have won office more often than the left. And so on. Nationalism and other distractions can only explain so much.

A great many people are not among the ‘haves’, but still identify with them – a sentiment first documented, I believe, by Adam Smith.

16

Phil 08.05.20 at 12:03 pm

“We need to get away from top down versus bottom up to a better understanding of when effects become causes and vice versa– when top-down initiatives reshape the bottom, and when bottom up movements capture the understanding of elites, and how they intersect with each other.”

Sounds very like social movement studies of the Tilly/Tarrow/McAdam school (possibly without the social movements).

17

Orange Watch 08.05.20 at 4:44 pm

AlexSL@12:
win every election of the next generation or two, simply by purging voter rolls, gerrymandering, and stacking the courts, perhaps with a side order of oddly behaving electronic voting machines

As a non-American, this might seem true, particularly given most American media’s aversion to considering state and local elections. However, for better and very much worse, American elections, voter rolls, and district composition is a responsibility of the several states, and in some aspects even the localities. A competatant national GOP leader would not have much impact on this, as changing this situation requires coordinated state leadership – and frankly all the states where the GOP have the electoral clout to do these things have been doing just fine advancing these agenda under mediocre national leadership. The courts likewise need no grand design; an incompetent president coupled with an unexceptional but shameless Senate Majority Leader has already stacked the courts for a generation.

18

Tm 08.05.20 at 6:21 pm

Alex 9: “I am not sure to what degree the welfare state was merely the result of a powerful communist bloc making conservatives worry that the plebs would desert them if they didn’t share the wealth around a bit.”

Of course. The first Social Insurance laws were after all pushed through by arch conservative Bismarck precisely out of fear of revolution. Probably none of the progressive reforms that we tend to associate with “social democracy” (although again in many cases they were not enacted by social democratic governments) would have been possible without the support of a substantial fraction of the capitalist class (which btw is not monolithic in its economic interests and should never be mistaken as such).

Conversely, the Republican Party’s radicalization mirrors the radicalization of a substantial fraction of the plutocracy. And that radicalization seems in need of explanation. One can understand that capitalists in the 1920s were genuinely frightened of Bolshevism and therefore felt (wrongly as it turned out) that fascism was a better bet for safeguarding their interests than republicanism. But what are 21st century capitalists frightened of – the Democratic Party??? Yet a capitalist fraction is hell-bent on tearing up the social contract – which has served capitalism well overall – and successfully using the GOP for that end. Why?

19

Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.05.20 at 6:24 pm

Here’s Matt Taibbi’s review of Thomas Frank’s new book. I read it two days ago, and it seems somewhat relevant.

Anyway, “Republicans represent the rich and Democrats the poor” is a good campaign slogan, but to write a whole book using campaign slogan as its fundamental assumption?

20

DavidtheK 08.05.20 at 9:54 pm

TM@18

One possible answer might be in what has become the “lawyerization” of many issues. An issue by itself might not mean much, but an important question to ask is – Where and to what will it lead?

I think the worst fears around this are around climate destabilization and environmentalism in general. What if regulations lead to large scale liabilities around economic externalities? What if wild place and wild species earn standing themselves as a legal unit deserving protections of the constitution? These are admittedly somewhat far fetched at the present; but it seems to me that the plutocracy is deathly afraid that any opening towards even reasonable regulation every ends in these scenarios.

21

James Wimberley 08.05.20 at 10:45 pm

The covid-19 pandemic is a very large exogenous shock in politics as in economics. The differential success or failure of governments has depended on the issues – peripheral to the kind of pol sci analysis discussed in the OP – of respect for science, political courage, and common sense. These cut across current left-right categories. Germany and Taiwan, with centre-right conservative governments, have done well, as have centre-left New Zealand and South Korea, and institutional-Leninist China and Vietnam. Populist know-nothing right-wing governments in the USA, the UK, and Brazil lead the board of failure, but these are joined by left-wing populist Mexico, and not by right-wing populist Hungary (Mongolia may also fit this). The middle ground of pandemic mediocrity is occupied by centre-left Spain, centre-right France and 69-varieties Italy. Failure is likely to be severely punished by electorates: leading to changes in the political landscape that pol sci criteria do not predict. A wave defeat of the GOP in the November election is now a distinct possibility, bringing forward the long-hoped-for restructuring of American conservatism.

22

ph 08.05.20 at 11:28 pm

Great post, Henry. Thanks. How about the professional politicians who lead most political parties represent the interests of the rich and the rest of us get nothing?

That’s how I approach the problem.

When politicians speak – believe nothing. All they’re doing is testing the audience to discover hot buttons, which can then be used for targeted messaging, better lying.

23

J-D 08.05.20 at 11:56 pm

The Conservative Party has been the most successful party in UK politics for 150 years. The right and centre-right have had similar success in Italy, France and Germany. The centre-right has a reliable third of the votes in Spain. In Australia conservatives have won office more often than the left. And so on.

No.

Not and so on.

Indeed, not only does your analysis fail to generalise beyond the cases you have listed, it is imprecise even for the cases you have listed.

In the United Kingdom there was a long period beginning in the 1830s with the first successes of the parliamentary Reformers in widening the franchise during which the Tories/Conservatives were clearly weaker than their opponents (although during that period they did have some electoral successes). This period ended when the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland in the mid-1880s. Since then, the Conservatives/Unionists have won more elections than they have lost (although during that time they have suffered defeats, including crushing ones such as 1906, 1945, and 1997). So it would be more precise to say that the Conservatives have been the most successful party in UK politics for the last 135 years.

Germany is a clear case similar to the UK: the Union parties (Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union, which in most but not all respects operate like a single party) have been more electorally successful than their opponents (principally the SPD) since the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In France, de Gaulle personally made a big deal about being neither of the left nor of the right but ‘above’; however, from the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958 the Gaullists (under a variety of party names) effectively played the role of the most important conservative (or rightist) force in the party system and (with varying allied or supportive roles played by other conservative groups) have been more successful than their (explicitly leftist) opponents (it’s too soon to be sure whether the rise of Macron and his party is a temporary interruption or inaugurates a new party system). That can fairly be counted as a third example of your pattern.

Australia makes four, with the Coalition parties having clearly won more elections than they’ve lost (regardless of whether you start the count from the fusion of the anti-Labor forces to form the original Liberal Party in 1909, the first formation of a coalition between the Nationalist and Country parties in 1923, the formation of the modern Liberal Party in 1944/1945, or any other plausibly appropriate historical turning point).

In Italy, the Christian Democrats were clearly the strongest party for as long as they existed; since that party disintegrated, there have been seven elections, which have alternated between elections in which the conservatives/rightists/centre-right have done better than their opponents and elections in which they have done worse. So that’s not now an example for you, unless you want to hark back to a period which is now clearly over and ignore more recent events.

The example of Spain clearly goes the other way. The PSOE has clearly been more electorally successful than the PP. You mention the size of the solid support base for the PP, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s less than the support for the PSOE, in exactly the same way that the existence of a sizeable solid support base for Labour in the UK doesn’t change the fact that it’s less than support for the Conservatives.

I could add more convincing additional examples to the four clear ones you’ve identified, but that still wouldn’t make it a universal pattern, because of the equally clear examples where the conservative parties have been (over time; this isn’t just a discussion about who won the most recent election or is ahead in the polls right now) less successful than their opponents: these include (in addition to Spain) Canada, Greece, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden.

24

MisterMr 08.06.20 at 12:04 am

@Tm 18

Because capitalism needs continuous growth, so they either eat each other or they need more and more sectors of life opened to “the market”.

25

Jerry Vinokurov 08.06.20 at 2:24 am

I like Frank, and I liked Taibbi too until he became a complete crank, but their joint thesis that the root of the problem is “condescension” and that the culture war is some kind of fake smokescreen is complete bullshit. Taibbi sneers at “people with a cervix” but apparently in his world there are no trans people in the midwest and even if there were they apparently would not be deserving of being treated with respect.

The culture war is real, and it matters. Trump is at the epicenter of it, enabled by every wing of the conservative movement, from its evangelical division to its billionaires. The culture war is not some sideshow for them, it’s what they really, actually believe. These contortions that the left is supposed to undertake to pretend that a vast swath of this country is not racist, homophobic, and generally standing in opposition to cultural modernity are only maintainable by refusing to examine the data and the history of conservatism.

I’m a socialist, but a “socialism” that cast overboard cultural projects like anti-racism and feminism and trans rights would be worthless, and anyway no more achievable, since virtually all of the same people fighting the culture war on the right are dead set against economic leftism as well. A left that made room on its side for bigotry would not be the left, and I wouldn’t want any part of it.

26

Fake Dave 08.06.20 at 2:31 am

A lot of the hard right plutocrats wrecking our politics are shambolic old men of the Trump, Murdoch, Koch, Greenspan, Gingrich, Falwell etc. Etc generation. They didn’t radicalize any time recently. They grew up with virulent anti-communism as doctrine, self-radicalized as young adults with Randist and supply side propaganda, and used their money to surround themselves with whole institutions full of people paid to believe the same things. It’s no wonder their adult children all seem to have grown up to be callow, smirking alt-right sociopaths. It’s what they were raised for. They’re like the poor lost “red diaper babies” of the Post-War years raised on anachronism and expected to serve as foot soldiers for a revolution that will never actually take place. I feel sorry for them.

27

Alex SL 08.06.20 at 10:22 am

J-D,

Some of these I know rather little about, but as I am originally from Germany myself I will start with that country:
* Conservative governments 1949-1966, 1982-1998, 2009-2013
* Grand coalition with conservatives as senior partner 1966-1969, 2005-2009, 2013-2020
* Social democratic governments 1969-1982, 1998-2005

In other words, of 71 years, conservatives were the major governing party for 51. They were the strongest party in all federal elections of the Bonn and Berlin republics except two and a half – yes, even in most elections during the social democrat and liberal coalition. (The ‘and a half’ is 2002, when both major parties ended up with the same percentage down to one digit after the dot.)

Moving over the Rhine, of the eleven French presidents since the beginning of the current republic (1958), eight were centre-right to right, one (the current one) is at best centrist, and only two were socialist. And the French are rather famous for being very rebellious – still they mostly vote conservative.

In New Zealand it appears that the Nationals have won 16 of 27 elections since the present two-party system formed in the late 1930s, which is admittedly just under 2/3, but then again I was not trying to make a mathematically exact claim. I should really have said “most”, but nonetheless I believe the key point I wanted to make stands:

Conservatives implement policies that economically benefit rather less than 10% of people. I remember many years back in Germany seeing a report by some economic institute or other that calculated how much you have to earn to benefit from which party’s social and tax program for an upcoming election. Only the very rich would have benefited from the implementation of the Free Democrats’ program (a libertarian party at c. 5-10% of the vote); you would have to be a bit less rich but still well-off to benefit from the Conservatives’; and the only larger party whose program would have benefited the vast majority of people were the Social Democrats.

Yet nonetheless Conservatives and Free Democrats have won most elections since the war, and the same for most other countries. Note that even the conservatives winning only half the time is not really an argument: if people were economically rational, conservatives would never win any election, in any country, ever. Each country would just have two social democratic / socialist parties competing with each other.

Surely then most voters do not make a rational decision based on their own economic interests. At least potentially then “the conservative economic program is going to be unpopular” is maybe not the ideal starting point. Maybe an alternative starting point is “the conservative program of maintaining established power hierarchies and religion and investing more into the army, the police and glorification of the nation is, sadly, fairly popular, because most people are not rational economic and political actors in the first place”.

Orange Watch,

I guess I think that things can still get much worse.

Tm,

Exactly – as above my German background and knowing about Bismarck’s reforms may be part of why I am thinking like this.

28

Tim H. 08.06.20 at 11:42 am

Concerning “Radicalization of a substantial fraction of the plutocracy”, I believe they’ve become self-referential and forgotten they’re part of a larger economy, and ultimately, only a little less vulnerable to economic downturns than the “Little people”. Bear in mind, this is only a piece of a larger puzzle.

29

divelly 08.06.20 at 1:27 pm

Peter T @ 15
HL Mencken,approx.
“Most Americans see themselves as temporarily distressed millionaires.”

30

roger gathmann 08.07.20 at 3:15 pm

Uh, what? “Under Hacker and Pierson’s account, structural racism plays a crucial role, but as a set of popular biases that are mobilized by self-interested elites.” How about: racism is built into the upper class and is articulated in their set of policies. This seems much, much more likely. The “self-interested elites” represent the interest of the whitest part of the income and wealth scale. This whiteness is not an accident.

I suspect, underneath it all, is the NYT editorial idea that racism is something blue collar white guys are all about, while at the country clubs they are all for diversity. One of the silliest ideas in American politics.

31

politicalfootball 08.07.20 at 3:53 pm

Gorgonzola@19: That piece by Taibbi is really something. It answers questions I never thought to even ask. Why did Bill Clinton lose so many elections? Why did GW Bush get more votes than Al Gore? It was the Clintonian “image of urban cool.”

Why did Trump get more votes than Hillary? Because voters opposed “upper-class messaging that reveled in imperious sneering and weird culture-war provocations.”

Trump’s election reflects Middle America’s disgust with the heedless, hedonistic values of coastal elites — particularly as presented on television and other media.

Taibbi once made a living mocking cluelessness among the commentator class. His evolution has been amazing to watch.

32

eg 08.07.20 at 11:29 pm

Piketty in “Capital and Ideology” charts the transition of the Democratic Party away from the needs and concerns of its former constituency in the working class towards those of its Wall Street and Silicon Valley donor class, particularly as evidenced by the shift in its electorate over time towards more highly educated voters.

If this is correct, doesn’t the US have two parties working to keep various congeries of plutocrats happy? And if so, what does this do to Hacker and Pierson’s thesis about the behaviour of the GOP?

33

SamChevre 08.08.20 at 2:13 am

it’s also obvious that plutocrats prefer Republicans to Democrats

This seems to me to be distinctly unlikely. Both billionaires who ran this election cycle were Democrats. The finance industry is very heavily Democratic, at least at the top (did any Wall Street major firm not celebrate Pride)? The stereotypical Republican businessman owns a plumbing business or some other firm too small for separation of ownership and control. I think more Fortune 500 CEOs have endorsed BLM than MAGA.

34

Saurs 08.08.20 at 10:08 am

It is infuriating to read yet another explication of political dynamics that pretends the academy and the media are not part of the ecosystem.

Pace what aspects of Hacker and Pierson Henry has selected for discussion here, the book itself certainly doesn’t ignore either. Indeed, a short, sharp glance at the table of contents reveals a chapter analyzing the relevance + methods and machinations of the latter.

35

Alex SL 08.09.20 at 2:12 am

Gorgonzola Petrovna,

I always find it difficult to understand what I am meant to take from essays like Taibbi’s, the kind that say that right-wing populism is caused by the ‘working class’* being left behind or by ‘liberal arrogance and elitism’. Maybe that is partly, quite simply, because I am not the intended audience of such pieces.

But what are people like Taibbi really saying here?

“The centre-left parties of the West have become neoliberal and taken the white ‘working class’ for granted”? Okay, you won’t get any disagreement from me. The question is what can be done now.

“It is therefore wrong to say that the white ‘working class’ is voting against its own interests”? Is it, though? Can anybody seriously argue that Trump’s policies overall or Johnson’s Brexit, for example, are making the white ‘working class’ better off than they would have been under Clinton or Corbyn, respectively? If so I don’t think we are watching the same movie.

“No, you don’t understand, their rational self-interest is not to be better off economically, their rational self-interest is to punish the elites who are looking down on them”? Sorry, but that is just restating the problem in different words. Because, yes, that means they are voting against their own interests. There is a third option: they could have replaced the neoliberal centrist Clintons and Blairs with something further to the left instead of veering hard right kleptocracy.

“Stop with the social justice stuff, that is driving the working class away”? Actually, Taibbi was unusually explicit in the linked review, repeatedly writing that rural voters don’t understand or are offended by shows of solidarity with minorities. So is the prescription here to repeat the mistake of centrist triangulation, but this time on social issues instead of the economy? Become like the reactionaries to win an election and then… not improve anything, because now you are also a reactionary. Why then win an election in the first place?

It seems to me as if these “it is the left’s fault for being so snobbish, so there” pieces have four key problems: (1) They neglect to grapple with the success of right wing propaganda ranging from the USA’s Fox News across British and Australian tabloids to Facebook. As sad as it is, being fed hate and lies every day really does have an impact on people. (2) They imply if not say outright that it is wrong to say that the voters in question have been tricked to vote against their own interests but then neglect to demonstrate that these voters will actually benefit from the way they vote beyond being able to laugh as “the right people are hurt”. (3) They imply if not say outright that 40-52% of voters cannot possibly be wrong, stupid, crazy, or racist. But I see no reason why they couldn’t. Each of us individually can be any of these things, so obviously millions of us could be too. I believe “there is sanity in numbers” was meant as a dark joke, not a statement of fact.

And, perhaps most importantly, (4) they treat voters as a bunch of sheeple who you have to poke the right way so that they vote for you, instead of humans with agency and moral responsibility. If one of them goes “I hate what is happening, so let’s vote for the candidate who will make immigrants and academics and greenies miserable instead of the candidate who has promised to provide better government services for my area”, then they have made a moral choice, and I for one cannot help but have an opinion on that, even if Taibbi would call that opinion elitist.

*) I am scare-quoting this term not because I don’t think that working class is a meaningful term but because I don’t believe that these kinds of pieces use a definition of that term that I would find reasonable. Reading between the lines they define working class not as ‘people who depend on a salary for their income’ but instead as ‘white people who live in rural areas and do not have a university degree’. In other words, a white business owner in Kansas qualifies, but a black teaching assistant struggling to get by on three precarious contracts in New York does not**.

**) The latter is somehow seen as ‘elite’ because she has a degree. Again, the term elite has meaningful definitions, of which I know two: either ‘the best of their kind’, as in an elite army unit, or ‘the small cadre of people who exercise the power in a state’, meaning the super-rich, top politicians, top bureaucrats, top aristocrats. The teaching assistant is not part of an elite; she is clearly working class. And she is very unlikely to vote right wing populist, and she is not who the writers of these pieces mean when they say working class.

36

J-D 08.11.20 at 11:31 am

it’s also obvious that plutocrats prefer Republicans to Democrats

This seems to me to be distinctly unlikely. Both billionaires who ran this election cycle were Democrats.

Wait, what? You don’t think Trump is a billionaire? I suppose you may be right, at that (have you seen his tax returns?), but billionaire or no he is certainly a plutocrat (the most plutocratic plutocrat who has ever run for President), which means that 100% of the candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination this cycle are plutocrats. (100%!)

That said, talking about a small number of candidates (this year only) is beside the point. When I wrote that plutocrats prefer Republicans to Democrats, I didn’t mean (did you think I meant?) that this is true 100% of the time. Of course it’s not true 100% of the time, I’ve known that all along.

Likelihood of voting Republican correlates with income. The higher up the income scale you go, the larger the fraction of the cohort which is Republican. The surveys always return this result.

The finance industry is very heavily Democratic, at least at the top (did any Wall Street major firm not celebrate Pride)?

Are you seriously basing a conclusion that the finance industry is heavily Democratic on the fact that major Wall Street firms celebrate Pride? (I don’t know the answer to your question of whether they all do, but I’m not even trying to check because even if it’s true it’s not relevant.) The best way to figure out whether the finance industry is heavily Democratic, or heavily Republican, or balanced, or whatever it may be, would be to find out how people in the finance industry vote, but I suspect that information is not available. Another reasonable option would be to check available information on political donations by the finance industry. I’ve found a few reports on that, and I’m going to admit, freely, that I was mistaken and that what I found was different from what I expected to find, so I’ve learned something there. From the reports I’ve found, it appears that there are elections in which the finance industry donates more to Democrats than to Republicans. However, the broader conclusion looking at multiple elections is that the finance industry generally donates more to Republicans than to Democrats.

I was not surprised to find that the finance industry donates to both parties: I expected that, because I expect them to try to buy access to both sides. I would hazard a guess that when they donate more to a Democrat than to a Republican it’s because they think the Democrat is likely to win; but over the years they have donated, on balance, more to Republicans than to Democrats, and I think it’s reasonable to interpret that as an indicator of their preference.

The stereotypical Republican businessman owns a plumbing business or some other firm too small for separation of ownership and control.

If you want to know the facts, you don’t discover them by relying on stereotypes.

I think more Fortune 500 CEOs have endorsed BLM than MAGA.

Again, why would you rely on that as the basis for your conclusions, rather than checking (what must be no harder to find out) whether more Fortune 500 CEOs have endorsed Democratic candidates or Republican candidates?

37

J-D 08.11.20 at 11:47 am

Some of these I know rather little about …

I’m no expert myself, but my point is precisely about assertions you shouldn’t make without the expert knowledge to back them up. If I don’t know much about most countries, I don’t make an assertion about what is true for most countries. It is true that there are some major countries where conservative parties have achieved much greater electoral success than their opponents (and I don’t for a moment dispute your analysis of the German case or the French case), but that doesn’t justify over-generalising.

In New Zealand it appears that the Nationals have won 16 of 27 elections since the present two-party system formed in the late 1930s, which is admittedly just under 2/3, but then again I was not trying to make a mathematically exact claim. I should really have said “most”, but nonetheless I believe the key point I wanted to make stands.

It is to be expected that there are countries (of which New Zealand and Australia are both examples) where conservative parties have been more electorally successful than their opponents but not to the extent of winning two-thirds of elections. If the ‘two-thirds’ qualification is dropped and we simply list countries where conservative parties have been significantly more successful than their opponents, we will get a longer list including more countries. However, we will still be left with a significant list of exceptions, including large countries as well as small ones, where conservative parties have been less electorally successful than their opponents.

Note that even the conservatives winning only half the time is not really an argument: if people were economically rational, conservatives would never win any election, in any country, ever. Each country would just have two social democratic / socialist parties competing with each other.

I absolutely agree that it is important to ask, about all the countries where it happens, ‘How does the bosses’ party win any elections, when people are mostly not employers or their dependents but rather employees and their dependents?’ (and also the related question of ‘Why do those parties which opposes bosses’ parties let down their supporters to the extent that they do?’). I don’t know the answer to that question (or either of them), would very much like to, and think it’s a critical enquiry. However, it doesn’t help, when pursuing that enquiry. to exaggerate the extent or the ubiquity of the predominance of bosses’ parties.

38

Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.11.20 at 5:59 pm

@33, hear, hear.

Here’s the top 20 recipients of the Hedge Fund ‘industry’.

Securities & Investment

Venture capital

…according to opensecrets.org.

39

J-D 08.12.20 at 1:38 am

Here’s the top 20 recipients of the Hedge Fund ‘industry’.

Securities & Investment

Venture capital

…according to opensecrets.org.

All that information is for the current (2019-20) election cycle only.

If you don’t look just at the present election cycle but at past elections also, I think you will find that the finance industry generally gives more money to Republicans than to Democrats.

It is interesting if the opposite is true currently, and it’s worth asking why, but I don’t think one cycle is a sufficient basis for drawing conclusions about long-term alignment (or realignment).

40

ph 08.12.20 at 5:12 am

Re: Taibbi is strongly opposed to Trump, as is Michael Tracy, another critic of the ‘left’ – a left that defends Obama and his drone strikes, that regards HRC as the ‘better candidate’ to an American populist who reduced minority unemployment to historic lows; a ‘left’ that manifests itself in academic blogs and is largely disconnected with the American working class – white, black, and hispanic; a left that esteems Trans rights and mocks the religious beliefs of people of faith (openly if the faithful are white and Christian, and silently if we’re talking of other faiths; and; a white affluent left which is considers accounts of black-on-black crime 7000 and generational minority illiteracy in public schools as ‘racist’ dog-whistles.

What Taibbi and Tracey are writing about right now are 1/ the historic failures of big media to acknowledge that the entire Russiagate farce has now been exposed, and practically nobody here has a clue what actually happened 2/ big media has decided not to report on the rioting and violence attendent ‘mostly peaceful’ BLM protests.

Taibbi makes a living writing about the cluelessness of the commentariat, and that includes the many here who believed life for minorities was better under Obama than it is under Trump.

Anybody who is uncomfortably insulated and senses change afoot could do worse than regularly read Taibbi and Tracey. An MSNBC media figure who just retired describes her network, and others like it (including Fox) as serving ‘comfort food.’

On the political front, that’s mostly what’s served up here. Now would be a good time to get out of our bubbles. Few will, I expect, largely because you don’t know where to look.

Real Clear Politics is a good start for those looking for alternate opinion, as is Instapundit.

41

Alex SL 08.12.20 at 7:40 am

J-D,

Okay then, my 2/3 was not backed up by formal statistical analysis but meant as a rough estimate, admitted. But I provided a number of countries that I based my assessment on. In turn, you refer to “a significant list of exceptions, including large countries as well as small ones, where conservative parties have been less electorally successful than their opponents”.

May I ask then what countries you are thinking of? Because to me the only ones that potentially come to mind are a very small handful of very small countries, i.e. Scandinavia. The end. Then there have been a few recent experiments with left-wing politicians e.g. in Latin America, but that wave has now long broken, and with the potential exception of the Chavistas these guys’ policies would also have been considered somewhere centre-right 1945-1975.

The world is in the state it is precisely because voters have in the past few decades been, as much as they grumble, largely happy to near-continually reward conservatives for dismantling government support and services and more rarely reward centre-left parties for being centrist and “realistic” enough not to seriously revert any of the former. There just does not seem to be any mass support anywhere for parties promising even something as non-radical as resetting top marginal tax rates to 70%, strengthening union power, and nationalising natural monopolies such as trains and electricity grids. Somehow the very policies that stabilised capitalism through economic stability and widespread prosperity and would, if re-enacted, benefit the vast majority of voters, are now widely perceived as unthinkable.

42

Tm 08.12.20 at 7:45 am

J-D, Gorgonzola: according to these figures, Biden has received less than a half million from hedge funds and less than five million from securities and investment (and Trump something like one third of that amount). These figures are less than peanuts in a US presidential election where literally billions are spent. They are meaningless. I’m no expert in US campaign finance but I know this much, that there are campaign moneys that can be traced, and there is dark money that cannot be traced. And a plutocrat looking to influence an election is hardly going to use the open channels. Which I suspect is why these amounts are so ridiculous.

We should also never forget that the capitalists are not monolithic. They don’t all have the same interests.

43

Tm 08.12.20 at 7:53 am

I admired Matt Taibbi’s book “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap”. I haven’t heard of him since until I read the link recommended by our special friend with the cheesy name (see the Hacker Pierson thread). Taibbi really has become a crank, and when you look at the comments, he has the followership to match. The thesis that white rural Trump voters people care about nothing so much than what the editors of “Rolling Stone” think about them is truly bizarre, not least because it is highly unlikely that most Trump voters have ever had a copy of “Rolling Stone” in their hands.

When liberals make these kinds of claims, absurdly exagerating the relevance of the “liberal media” (New York City) and “pop culture” (Hollywood) in contemporary American discourse (Taibbi writes this long rant heaping blame on the “media system” without mentioning Fox News!), it seems that some kind of delusion of grandeur must be at work. Frank and Taibbi know very well that the actual relevance of liberal intellectuals in America is next to none (Taibbi says so explicitly) but somehow, he still thinks “liberal elites” are influential enough to provoke a backlash, and that if only those elites changed their attitudes of alleged condescension versus rural whites (a claim btw that is never substantiated and is mostly based on fantasy), politics would be different. There is no point arguing with this belief, it is no less unhinged than any other right wing conspiracy theory.

44

Fake Dave 08.12.20 at 7:47 pm

I liked that Taibbi review, personally. I’ve been raging against “anti-populism” for a while now and have had trouble putting some of it into words. It feels like we’ve entered the backlash to the backlash on political correctness and word police are everywhere trying to change how we talk (and therefore think) in ways that are alienating and uncomfortable. Obscure neologisms like non-binary, neurotypical, and latinx are suddenly everywhere like all the academic lefty types read the same article and got inspired. My mom keeps asking what “cis-gendered” means. I don’t know how much of this stuff the older generations really understand. A lot of people just haven’t been paying attention. It’s the sheer volume of this pop-sociology that’s overwhelming people, I think. Political alignment is part of self image and threats to self image cause stress, so the confusion of evolving social norms can cause real pain. If our social consciences insist that these changes in language and attitudes must take place, and quickly, they must also lead us to take that pain seriously even though the people experiencing it are problematic, close-minded, and out-of-touch. Especially since those people love to vote their feelings.

45

J-D 08.13.20 at 12:25 am

Okay then, my 2/3 was not backed up by formal statistical analysis but meant as a rough estimate, admitted. But I provided a number of countries that I based my assessment on.

Yes, a small number of countries: much too small to justify drawing global conclusions.

In turn, you refer to “a significant list of exceptions, including large countries as well as small ones, where conservative parties have been less electorally successful than their opponents”.

May I ask then what countries you are thinking of?

I’m not clear on why you’re soliciting permission; I can’t deny you permission to ask, although of course I am not obligated to answer. Perhaps you missed the earlier comment in which I offered a list: Canada, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden. That’s not many countries, I know, but it’s more than you have on your list.

Because to me the only ones that potentially come to mind are a very small handful of very small countries, i.e. Scandinavia. The end.

Some of the countries I listed are Scandinavian countries, but not a majority of them.

Also, the Scandinavian countries are not ‘very small’. Of the two I listed, Sweden has a population over ten million, which makes it more populous than half the countries in the world; Norway has a population over five million, which makes it more populous than a third of the countries in the world. Denmark and Finland are a little more populous than Norway; only Iceland could fairly be called a very small country (they could all fairly be called small, perhaps, depending on where you want to draw the line between large and small or between medium and small; but not very small).

Then there have been a few recent experiments with left-wing politicians e.g. in Latin America, but that wave has now long broken

I would like to know the basis on which you justify that assertion. I am less well informed about political parties in Latin America than about political parties in Europe, but for the purposes of this discussion I have checked a few examples.

In Brazil there have been eight Presidential elections under the current system, with a fifty-fifty split: four wins for the Workers Party and four for its more conservative opponents. So that doesn’t fit your pattern.

In Argentina since the end of military rule, six presidential elections have been won by candidates of the Justicialist Party and three by its opponents. I frankly can’t tell whether the Justicialist Party is more or less conservative than its opponents; do you have a basis for judging this?

In Chile since the end of military rule, the more conservative alliance of parties has defeated its opponents in only two out of seven presidential elections. Again, that doesn’t fit your pattern.

So which examples are you thinking of?

and with the potential exception of the Chavistas these guys’ policies would also have been considered somewhere centre-right 1945-1975.

So far in this discussion what I have been considering is the comparative success of conservative parties and their opponents, which implies a relative standard, not an absolute one. Terms like right, left, and centre only make sense in relative terms: there is no absolute right or absolute left. Possibly there is some meaning in cross-national comparisons: it might make some kind of sense, for example. to say that the Liberals in Canada are further left than the Democrats in the US but not as far left as parties in a number of European countries such as the SPD in Germany, Labour in the UK, and the PSOE in Spain. However, within the Canadian context it’s clear that the Conservative Party is the conservative party in name as well as in fact and that the Liberal Party is the main opponent of the conservative party.

If that’s not the kind of standard by which you’re judging, then how are you measuring this? For example, the way I figure it …

… There just does not seem to be any mass support anywhere for parties promising even something as non-radical as resetting top marginal tax rates to 70% …

… it’s possible that it’s important to ask the question ‘Why is there no mass support for top marginal tax rates of 70%?’ (if in fact it’s true that there’s no mass support for it; for all I know, there might be fifty or even a hundred different countries where there is mass support for such a policy but the information hasn’t come to my attention), but if you think that it’s an important question then it’s also important to recognise that it’s not synonymous with ‘Why do conservative parties mostly beat their opponents?’ As far as I can tell, the facts are that there are some countries where conservative parties mostly beat their opponents and also some countries where this is not true, while there are a lot of countries whose party politics I am too poorly informed about to judge the point one way or the other.

46

Tm 08.13.20 at 1:02 pm

Fake Dave 44: “It’s the sheer volume of this pop-sociology that’s overwhelming people, I think.”

And I think this is sheer nonsense. If “pop-psychology” were the main problem facing the world today, and confusing and distressing and hurting people – intead of economic insecurity and inequality and the threats of climate change and pandemics – we should consider us blessed.

“Political alignment is part of self image and threats to self image cause stress, so the confusion of evolving social norms can cause real pain.”

Of course. But social norms have always been evolving. To demand that they stop ecolving is neither desirable nor realistic. And when you are honest about what Trump’s supporters like about him, it has nothing to do with debates about transgenederism. After all, Hillary Clinton is a very conventional cis-gender hetera woman and Obama is a very conventional cis-gender hetero man, a model family man even, upholding “traditional family values” better than most Republicans, let alone that serial adulterer and multi-divorcee Trump. And yet Trump’s supporters hate Clinton, hate her for being an uppity woman, and they hate Obama for being an uppity black. People who derive their identity from the “superiority” of white maleness will be stressed by uppity women and blacks. There is no denying it. What do you suggest doing about it, that’s the intreresting question. Blame the women, blame the blacks, blame the “evolving social norms”, or perhaps, blame racism and misogyny?

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