Affirming the Negative

Americans live on a knife’s edge – everything is a crisis and someone is always out to take your stuff, or your freedoms, or your precious bodily fluids – and that 1964 Strangelove movie captured what Richard Hofstadter, in his famous 1964 essay, called the Paranoid Style in American Politics:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated – if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

It’s no coincidence that Barry Goldwater was running for president that year, muttering that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and thus moderation is obviously no virtue, and William F. Buckley was a little worried as he built what might be called modern American conservatism. Goldwater was a bit of a worry, and it was clear Goldwater was going to lose – but so be it. There were other things that could be fixed. Buckley told the John Birch Society they weren’t welcome in what would be the new conservative movement, because not everything is an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it communist conspiracy. A bit of fluoride in the public water supply, to reduce childhood tooth decay, was not a communist conspiracy. Actually, that whole fluoride thing was a bit boring. So save the apocalyptic crap for real communist conspiracies, which do come along now and then – you know, deep-cover spies and atomic secrets stolen, or international plots to undermine our standing with old allies and such things. Fluoride just doesn’t cut it. Focus, people, focus!

That worked for a time, and the Stanley Kubrick movie and Hofstadter essay helped too, and it helped that Goldwater got handed his hat in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide. That year, the nation seemed to agree that paranoia is tiresome, when it isn’t silly – and it’s dangerous. Those folks who claim to be manning the barricades of civilization need to get a life, before they do real damage.

That was fifty years ago. We forgot it all. We got Fox News, the home of one Brigadier General (Frank D.) Ripper after another, each one of them talking about this liberal conspiracy or that, but not quite settling on Obama’s plans to sap us of our precious bodily fluids. In the years Glenn Beck was with Fox News it seemed certain that he’d end up talking about our precious bodily fluids, but Beck only came close, with the secret plan for those FEMA reeducation concentration camps and telling us all that Obama really, secretly, hated all white people. Obama would, however, take our guns – except he didn’t – and Obamacare had those Death Panels – except it didn’t. And Benghazi turned out to be the tragic result of the CIA and the Department of State having a bit of a turf war, and the IRS scandal turned out to be the IRS doing its job, checking to see which political groups, on each side, actually qualified for tax-exempt status, according to the actual law. And of course Obamacare isn’t a government takeover of all healthcare – just an elaborate system to match those who need to buy health insurance with private sector providers who want to sell it to them, with subsidies for those who can’t fully manage the premiums the private sector providers charge. Yes, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 sets standards for what a basic health plan should provide, but there are lots of food-safety standards no one bitches about, and the Obamacare standards can be adjusted as necessary over time, and will be. And yes, there’s a mandate that everyone get insured, or pay a small fine to cover the costs if they get hit by a bus and end up in the emergency room – but that was a conservative idea from the American Enterprise Institute, originally proposed to make sure there were no damned freeloaders here in America. And anyway, most Americans will still continue to get their health insurance from their employer, as before, but it’ll be more comprehensive and useful than ever before, so none of this has much to do with most people. Yeah, there are new rules – some basic product standards – but people like the rules – you can’t be denied because of a preexisting condition and no lifetime caps and so on. They may hate Obamacare, but they like its features. Go figure.

Nothing here is the end of the world as we know it, and the end of all religious freedom in America, unless you don’t like the whole idea of rules and standards, because you believe in total freedom, and raw cheese. That would mean that you’re one of the Tea Party crowd – the government always does too much and taxes folks too much to do that stuff they shouldn’t do. No one should be food stamps or those unemployment benefits they and everyone else has to pay for out of each paycheck. Social Security and Medicare are fine, but Medicaid isn’t, and they fight to the death over all this, and all the rest. And as for the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, that are not even remotely attainable, with inevitable failure that constantly heightens their sense of frustration, there was the government shutdown last year to end Obamacare one way or another, which didn’t work and only made them angrier. But it’s always something. It’s always the end of the world as we know it.

There are victories however, and this was the day that the Supreme Court really stuck it to Obama and the black folks, striking down all of Affirmative Action, except they didn’t:

In a fractured decision that revealed deep divisions over what role the judiciary should play in protecting racial and ethnic minorities, the Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities.

The 6-to-2 ruling effectively endorsed similar measures in seven other states. It may also encourage more states to enact measures banning the use of race in admissions or to consider race-neutral alternatives to ensure diversity.

States that forbid affirmative action in higher education, like Florida and California, as well as Michigan, have seen a significant drop in the enrollment of black and Hispanic students in their most selective colleges and universities.

Maybe so, but this was not a ruling on Affirmative Action, one way or the other. It was a ruling on who gets to decide about it. Here, the decision was that the courts should not decide, one way or the other, and then it got hot:

In five separate opinions spanning more than 100 pages, the justices set out starkly conflicting views. The justices in the majority, with varying degrees of vehemence, said that policies affecting minorities that do not involve intentional discrimination should be decided at the ballot box rather than in the courtroom.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the longest, most passionate and most significant dissent of her career, said the Constitution required special vigilance in light of the history of slavery, Jim Crow and “recent examples of discriminatory changes to state voting laws.”

Her opinion, longer than the four other opinions combined, appeared to reflect her own experiences with affirmative action at Princeton and Yale Law School. “I had been admitted to the Ivy League through a special door,” she wrote in her best-selling memoir, “My Beloved World.” For years, she wrote, “I lived the day-to-day reality of affirmative action.”

In contrast to Justice Sotomayor’s outraged dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s controlling opinion for three justices took pains to say that the decision was a modest one.

“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” he wrote, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

That wouldn’t do:

Signaling deep displeasure, Justice Sotomayor summarized her dissent from the bench, an unusual move that happens perhaps three times a term. She said the initiative put minorities to a burden not faced by other college applicants. Athletes, children of alumni and students from underrepresented parts of the state, she said, remained free to try to persuade university officials to give their applications special weight. “The one and only policy a Michigan citizen may not seek through this long-established process,” she wrote, “is a race-sensitive admissions policy.” That difference, she said, violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

“The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat,” she wrote. “But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the dissent.

Then it got nasty:

Justice Sotomayor seemed to mock one of Chief Justice Roberts’s most memorable lines. In a 2007 decision that limited the use of race to achieve integration in public school systems, he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Justice Sotomayor recast the line. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” she wrote, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

In your face, Justice Roberts! Yes, this was an argument about who gets to resolve these issues, not about the issues themselves, but she didn’t see it that way, and the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore tries to step back a bit:

In the long and torturous line of judicial precedents governing affirmative action, it’s not clear whether today’s 6-2 SCOTUS decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action will be considered much more than a footnote. It held that a Michigan voter initiative placing a ban on racial preferences in college admissions did not itself violate the U.S. Constitution by creating a disproportionate burden for those favoring race-based admissions criteria. The 9th Circuit earlier reached the same conclusion with respect to a voter ban on affirmative action policies in California; the 6th Circuit narrowly ruled otherwise in a Michigan case.

The decision does not modify existing precedents on the constitutional permissibility of race-based college admissions policies, but simply makes it clear voters can ban them via state constitutional amendments even if the bans do not limit other preferential admissions policies (e.g., for “legacies”).

If an increasingly conservative Court ultimately places new constitutional restricts on affirmative action, perhaps this decision will appear to be a way station in that trend. Otherwise, it is simply a restriction on judicial remedies protecting race-based affirmative action from hostile action by legislatures and voters.

But the folks at the Heritage Foundation are crowing, because this effectively ends discrimination against the real victims here, white people shut out of everything:

The people of Michigan – along with five other states – have chosen to prohibit what they consider to be unjust discrimination. Indeed, in a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer commented that while he believes the Constitution permits race-based preferences, “it does not require them.” Today’s decision affirms the right of the people to debate this issue and determine whether they will permit publicly funded schools to consider race in admissions. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose such discrimination and the Supreme Court has opened the pathway for them to stop state and local government from treating citizens differently based on their race.

That’s the standard line now on the right – history or no history, those black folks should get no special consideration any longer. All that race stuff was over long ago. Everyone is equal now. And it’s about time the world stopped picking on white folks. The despised and oppressed whites are fighting back now.

Back in 1964, Kubrick would have made a movie about these folks, a real “black” comedy, and Hofstadter would have extended his essay on paranoia in politics to cover them, and Buckley would have rolled his eyes and asked them to leave the room. This was a fringe view, and now it isn’t. What changed in fifty years? Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been posted comments from readers on what they think changed, and he calls it the Fox Effect, as in this tale:

I was raised in a military family and despite the conservatism inherent in the military, socially (at least as far as race goes) it has always been reasonably progressive. By the time I was growing up in the 60′s it was fully integrated and my parents’ racial views more or less followed the military lead.

Other than comments about “good blacks and bad blacks” – when comparing MLK to the Black Panthers – race was neither noticed nor much discussed. However, as my parents aged and my father passed away, my mother started reverting back to her 1940s upbringing and racial views.

Once Fox News became a daily fixture then the flood gates were open. She would still be friendly and respectful to individuals of race but any reference to the group included the usual racial epithets. I don’t think the malignant impact of Fox News on the older population can be overstated.

And there’s this:

In my experience people who get submersed in the right wing media don’t just become more racially and ethnically intolerant – they start buying into the whole package.

My step-father was your classic Archie Bunker-type conservative who was also an open atheist who often made fun of people who didn’t believe in evolution. He had a degree in pharmacy and was so into anthropology as a hobby that for years he was a weekend tour guide at a famous natural history institute.

Fast forward 40 years, with 20+ years of right wing media. Now he doubts evolution, and I know several others who have made a similar transition. I’m sure it’s because his trusted news sources all disbelieve in evolution, so he either has to question his trusted sources or change what used to be a core belief of his.

And there’s this:

I have to say, I’ve seen a noticeable shift in my parents’ views over the years as they’ve fallen deeper and deeper into Fox’s grip. Although much more so for my mother than my father. (In fact, virtually every time we talk on the phone, I hear Fox droning on in the background. And when I am home visiting, I make it point to put Fox on mute.)

The vitriol that comes out of her mouth – the seething rage at “illegals,” “Section 8,” and all the other “low life” who, with the government’s blessing, are taking away everything that she spent her life working for – is stunning. I don’t remember her being that angry when I was growing up. It’s really been in the last ten years or so that it’s come on strong, and when Fox has become a virtual addiction.

What makes it worse, though, is the sheer amount of misinformation that she has bought into, along with her adoption of Fox’s reflexive disdain of facts that counter the desired narrative (E.g., death panels, Bill O’Reilly has never divorced). My mother is a smart woman; she taught high school English for 35 years. It pains me to see her this way; it’s simply not healthy to carry around that much simmering anger and paranoia.

And this is curious:

My mother has always been a huge Oprah fan, I think pretty much since she saw the movie “The Color Purple”. She read a lot of her book recommendations and would watch her show religiously. So I was shocked last week when I mentioned something about Oprah and she said flatly “I don’t like her”.

After a moment, I realized that this must have come about from the trashing of Oprah from Fox News because of her endorsement of Obama in the 2008 election. I tried to press her on the issue asking why but she wouldn’t go into detail other than “I don’t care for her anymore”.

It is like she thought Oprah had betrayed her. And that is when I came to the exact same conclusion as your previous commenter. Fox News is absolutely toxic. You take an older generation that grew up watching the new as the be all end all source of information and truth, and now inject the “entertainment” factor of slick talking hosts with a political agenda, and you wind up with people like my mother who can inexplicably turn against someone they have respected and adored for 30 years simply because of the hatred and bile presented on Fox News is taken at face value. It seems the only purpose of the Channel is to drive people to fear and hate that which they don’t know.

And try this one:

I was brought up in a very multi-ethnic working class community where nearly everyone was more or less on the same socio-economic level. I ran around with white, black, Hispanic and Indian kids. We were all always in and out of each other’s houses and all of our parents got along very well. This was the 1970s.

My parents were strongly progressive, pro-integration and not at all racist as far as I could tell. I recall one time my father laid into me because I described a kid I’d had a fight with at school as a “beaner”. Racial epithets were not allowed in our house. Jimmy Carter, Kennedy, LBJ and FDR were the political heroes in our house.

Leap forward to the early 1990s and my father starts listening to Rush for some reason. By the late 90s he was fully ensconced in the Fox world and has remained there since.

The old man, now 70, sits around talking about ‘niggers’ and ‘beaners’, ‘wetbacks’, ‘ragheads’, ‘kikes’ and so on in the most hateful and disgusting way. He blames all of our nation’s ills on minorities as well as diseases like meningitis and for the nation’s moral decay. He has a bunker mentality as if a mob of angry brown people are going to show up at his door any moment. He also hates women, unions, gays and everyone else. The hate and fear that seethe from that man is stunning.

It is a shocking – and to be honest – very painful thing to see your father go from a tolerant welcoming man to an angry, hateful racist. I have no doubt at all that Fox and Rush had a massive impact on him and his attitude towards other people. I watched it happen.

And Josh Marshall himself adds this:

You don’t just stand up a cable news network and suddenly everyone’s a cranky racist sending Obama witch-doctor emails. If only it were so easy. But I also don’t think it’s just as simple as saying that Fox is a mirror of the political journey/worldview of one generation or cohort of the American population. It’s clearly been a driver of political ideas and, for many, political identity, coupled with and growing out from conservative talk radio.

One key in my mind has been to affirm and normalize views that have been considered unacceptable to express or at least express out loud. And that’s no small thing.

The issue is that movements and political consciousness are inherently social:

Here we have relatively isolated people finding communities and media sources that in essence tell them, “No, you’re not the only who feels this way. A lot of other people do to. And you can connect up with them. And then you can do things together.”

And he quotes another reader with a generational take on this:

I think you may be missing an important, if more sinister, point here. The people your correspondents are discussing – usually their parents and older ones at that – grew up at a strange time in American history. The 1930-1960s were decades of shocking and profound changes in America and the world. And nowhere were those changes more evident than in race relations. And while the country has evolved, as one correspondent has it, I am not sure that evolution took with many people from that generation. And I think Fox News has liberated latent anger, dislike and prejudice that simply did not have an acceptable outlet in polite society in the pre-Obama days.

Let’s take my grandmother, for instance. She’s 93, grew up in Washington, DC, where she has lived all her life, and always had what one might term “antiquated” views on race. She wasn’t racist in the Archie Bunker way, but she clearly retained Washington’s Old South views on race relations, though until recently she covered it quite well. Fast forward to the Obama years – and her turning on Fox a bit too much – and the old, suppressed racism is on full display. She is also angry at “immigrants,” conveniently forgetting that she was born in Eastern Europe.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think Fox changed her in any serious way; I believe Fox has changed what counts for permissible rhetoric on race and social ills in this country. And I think that the old, suppressed views on race from the childhood of older Boomers and the remaining Depression-era generation are liberated by that permissiveness. It’s not Fox spewing hate that makes these people hate. They already hated, but for decades it just wasn’t okay to say it out loud, and you saw little of it in the mainstream media. Now, however, it’s okay to say it out loud because the guys on TV say it, and so others must also believe it.

Now what? With this Affirmative Action decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s a free country – if voters want to end the whole business of helping folks who have been shut out of college and all else, that’s their business, and not unconstitutional. And Fox News has normalized views that have been considered unacceptable to express or at least express out loud, the sort of thing Kubrick mocked and Hofstadter analyzed and that, from conservatives, appalled Buckley, so it will be a few weeks of HOORAY FOR WHITE FOLKS on Fox News, until the next outrage. Let’s hope the next outrage is about Obama’s plan to sap us of our precious bodily fluids. That’d be cool. And the last fifty years would have disappeared entirely.

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Fully in Charge

Republicans didn’t want John McCain to be their nominee in 2008 – he’d been squishy on immigration, saying those folks who had come here to find work were family folks, good people, worthy of a little respect. That didn’t go over well, and his name was also on campaign finance reform too – that Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, that McCain–Feingold Act that had kept the party’s billionaires from being able to express their political views, one ten million dollar check at a time, as often as they’d like. He even called himself a maverick, but the thought was that at least he could win, and he might be turned back to severe conservatism, or whatever they were calling it at the time. He decided to toss Sarah Palin into the mix, to assure the base he was comfortable with unthinking ideologues, as she certainly was one of those, but that only made things worse. She spooked the party’s billionaires, interested in their own prosperity and maybe the nation’s, and swing voters, who might have been uncomfortable with Obama’s youth and inexperience, were appalled at her proud ignorance, which she wore as a badge of honor, which might have been her only choice after all the disastrous interviews – and the whole thing was a disaster. The party’s base vowed that next time they’d force the issue – they’d force the party to run a real conservative, not a fake one. The party’s billionaires knew that what the country needed was someone who knew how the economy worked – McCain freely admitted he hadn’t a clue about that sort of thing. The country needed Mitt Romney.

That didn’t work out either. This was the Bain Capital man who had fired many people – inadvertently, as regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage from all the leveraged buyouts and reorganizations of this company or that – but this was a man who knew how things really worked, and that proved it. Capitalism is not a game for sissies, and some people are going to lose – as they should. The party’s billionaires had their man, and after Citizens United they were free to spend tens of millions of dollars every other day to make their guy look like the answer to all questions economic and social. That was cool, but the party’s base remembered that Romney championed the prototype of Obamacare in Massachusetts. They never could forgive him for that, and the rest of the country couldn’t forgive Romney for that forty-seven percent comment. Those holding three jobs and just getting by, and not making enough money to qualify to pay income tax, didn’t like being called worthless deadbeats – especially after all the payroll taxes and sales taxes they did pay. That also meant that the prospect of Obamacare wasn’t as scary as it might have otherwise been – and by then it was the law anyway. Give it a rest. Maybe it’ll work out.

Obamacare has worked out – and that means it’s now what might be called a zombie issue. People now trust Democrats on health issues and health insurers love Obamacare too – all those new paying customers will do that – so when Ted Cruz says he’ll lead the charge to repeal every single word of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, Cruz is about four years too late. And so, as with Fast and Furious and Benghazi and the IRS scandal, such as it was, Republicans have become the guys who just won’t give it a rest. They’d like to spin that into obvious patriotic heroism, but only the party’s base sees any heroes here – and it’s really not their party anyway.

Someone else is in charge, and they’ll pick the party’s candidate once again. Slate’s John Dickerson makes a convincing case that this time it will be Jeb Bush – the Republican establishment wants the guy, even if the base hates him. He’s saying absurdly nice things about immigrants – just like John McCain until McCain realized the base hated him. He’s also big on Common Core – the proposed national core curriculum for schools – which the base hates of course. Basic standards for what kids should know sounds a lot like the government saying God doesn’t matter, and such things should be determined at the local level. If folks want to spend their tax money teaching kids in their district that Jesus rode a dinosaur and all of science comes from the pit of hell, that’s their business, not Washington’s. The current line is this is just like those minimal standards for what should be included in any health plan – an attack on American values, and on religion itself, but Ed Kilgore notes it’s more than that:

A Google search indicates that the “ObamaCore” meme goes back at least until last fall, when education wonks associated with the American Enterprise Institute were making the comparison. But whereas Republican Common Core opponents typically blame the Obama administration for promoting the initiative via generous federal grant support, there’s little question their real targets are the “Establishment Republicans” and chamber of commerce types on their own side of the barricades who have “betrayed” local-control-of-education advocates. And it’s especially convenient that Jeb Bush (joined to a lesser degree by Chris Christie) is the single most prominent Common Core supporter in the ranks of nationally visible GOP pols.

There’s a problem here:

Romney got around his health policy record in Massachusetts by consistently promising to kill Obamacare at the federal level. Emulating that maneuver would at a minimum require Bush to pledge to kill federal support for Common Core. He’s shown no signs of willingness to go there. He’s more likely to accuse Common Core opponents in his own party of forming an unholy alliance with teachers unions (which typically have supported Common Core in theory but are increasingly inclined to fight its implementation) and high-stakes-testing opponents on the left – which will, of course, infuriate them.

Of course it will, but the American Enterprise Institute and the National Chamber of Commerce folks will get what they want, an initiative that addresses the problem of developing an educated workforce who knows, generally, how things work in the real world. A workforce that belligerently believes in magic, and no more than magic, is kind of useless. How can you make money if those are the only people you find out there to hire?

The Republican base has to realize what everyone else has come to realize, that someone else is in charge:

A new study from Princeton spells bad news for American democracy – namely, that it no longer exists.

Asking “who really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

That works within the party too, and has some odd twists on this. Evan Halper in the Los Angeles Times reports on a new conservative effort to fight America’s biggest energy scourge, which is solar power:

The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation’s largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states. …

At the nub of the dispute are two policies found in dozens of states. One requires utilities to get a certain share of power from renewable sources. The other, known as net metering, guarantees homeowners or businesses with solar panels on their roofs the right to sell any excess electricity back into the power grid at attractive rates.

The American Legislative Exchange Council – ALEC – a membership group for conservative state lawmakers, recently drafted model legislation that targeted net metering. The group also helped launch efforts by conservative lawmakers in more than half a dozen states to repeal green energy mandates.

“State governments are starting to wake up,” Christine Harbin Hanson, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, said in an email. The organization has led the effort to overturn the mandate in Kansas, which requires that 20% of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources.

Few in the base of the party have a problem with solar power, but they’re not billionaire industrialists like Charles and David Koch, and Kevin Drum suggests now they will be told that they have one:

There are, technically speaking, some colorable objections to the way net metering (or feed-in tariffs, a similar concept) operate. Sometimes the incentive schemes go awry, and sometimes the pricing goes awry. It’s reasonable to insist that these programs be evaluated regularly and rigorously, and modified where necessary. Mandates need to be designed properly too, though in practice they tend to have fewer problems since they allow a lot of flexibility in implementation.

But does anyone think this is what’s going on here? A calm, technocratic effort to make sure these programs work better? Of course not. We’ve now entered an era in which affinity politics has gotten so toxic that even motherhood and apple pie are fair targets if it turns out that liberals happen to like apple pie. There are dozens of good reasons that we should be building out solar as fast as we possibly can – plummeting prices, overdependence on foreign oil, poisonous petrostate politics, clean air – but yes, global warming is one of those reasons too. And since global warming has now entered the conservative pantheon of conspiratorial hoaxes designed to allow liberals to quietly enslave the economy, it means that conservatives are instinctively opposed to anything even vaguely related to stopping it. As a result, fracking has become practically the holy grail of conservative energy policy, while solar, which improves by leaps and bounds every year, is a sign of decay and creeping socialism.

Does it help that the Koch brothers happen to be oil barons who don’t want to see the oil industry lose any of the massive government support it’s gotten for decades? It sure doesn’t hurt, does it?

Yep, oligarchy can be a bitch:

If there’s anything that liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree on, it’s the benefit of renewable power. It’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get. But President Obama made green programs part of his stimulus package, and that was that. When tea-party hysteria took over the conservative movement, renewable energy became one of its pariahs. Griping about Solyndra is ancient history. Today’s conservatives oppose renewable energy for the same reason they’ve gone nuts over Benghazi and the IRS and Syrian rebels: to show solidarity to the cause. Welcome to modern American politics.

Yeah, but the base is being used here. Oklahoma jumped in first – now you have to pay what is essentially a fine there for installing solar panels or wind turbines. Charles and David Koch are NOT going to lose money, damn it. Kansas is resisting, but it will fall to, as will other states. Who do you think is in charge here?

Even the White House knows what’s going on:

On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House.

Their name tags read like a catalog of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans: Rockefeller, Pritzker, Marriott. They were there for a discreet, invitation-only summit hosted by the Obama administration to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.

“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.

The well-heeled group seemed receptive. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt.

His family owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, TGI Friday’s and a few other brands, and the White House knows how things get done, or can get done now – enlist the idle children of billionaires. They’re probably bored anyway. Get ‘em before the Republicans do:

Professionals in the field, citing an Accenture report from 2012, estimate that more than $30 trillion in wealth will pass from baby boomers to younger generations by around 2050. At the same time, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and the nonprofit consulting group 21/64 have concluded in a recent study on philanthropic giving that heirs are becoming involved in family foundations at an earlier age – specifically in their 20s and 30s – and imprinting them with the social values of their generation.

A case in point is Zac Russell, an eloquent 26-year-old whose grandfather made a fortune with the asset management firm Russell Investments and who officially joined the board of the Russell Family Foundation last year. While not an ardent supporter of the Obama administration, he decided to attend the conference to consult, he said, with White House experts on climate change and to discuss grass-roots efforts to improve water quality in Puget Sound, where the foundation is based.

The water quality in Puget Sound is an issue for the yachting crowd, but it’s a start, and Thomas Frank sees a trend here:

Liberals rejoice. The former mayor of New York City, megabillionaire Michael Bloomberg, recently announced to the New York Times that he will spend some $50 million dollars on an effort to confront the National Rifle Association and advance background-check legislation for gun buyers. I’m a strong supporter of gun control, so hooray, I guess.

It’s just that today’s reformist billionaires like Michael Bloomberg aren’t much different from what we saw in the late nineteenth century:

During the nineteenth century, a long string of saintly aristocrats fought to reform the state and also to adjust the habits and culture of working-class people. These two causes were the distinctive obsessions of the wealthy liberals of the day: government must be purified, and working people must learn to behave. They had to be coerced into giving up bad habits. They had to learn the ways of thrift and hard work. There had to be sin taxes. Temperance. Maybe even prohibition.

On the single greatest issue of the time, however, these sanctimonious reformers were of no use at all. They were in favor of clean government, to be sure, but when it came to organized money’s war on the world, which was then bringing impoverishment and industrial combat and dislocations of every description, they were indistinguishable from the most stalwart conservatives. Describing the patrician “Mugwump type,” the historian Richard Hofstadter writes,

“The most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses. As a rule, he was dogmatically committed to the prevailing theoretical economics of laissez faire… He imagined that most of the economic ills that were remediable at all could be remedied by free trade, just as he believed that the essence of government lay in honest dealing by honest and competent men.”

If that description hits uncomfortably close to home, well, good. We’ve returned to the Gilded Age, laissez-faire is common sense again, and Victorian levels of inequality are back. The single greatest issue of then is the single greatest issue of now, and once again people like Bloomberg – a modern-day Mugwump if ever there was one – have nothing useful to say about it, other than to remind us when it’s time to bow before the mighty. Oh, Bloomberg could be relentless in his mayoral days in his quest for sin taxes, for random police authority, for campaigns against sugary soda and trans-fats. But put a “living wage” proposal on his desk and he would denounce it as Soviet-style interference in private affairs.

The Washington Monthly’s Kathleen Geier adds this:

I like Frank’s parallel of the moralism between plutocrats then and now – his comparison of the temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the anti-Big Gulp crusades today is a particularly inspired touch. His point – that wealthy reformers both today and in the past conveniently ignore the most important issue of all – economic inequality – is also a crucial one.

Geier then cites this quote from the economist Branko Milanovic:

I was in a think tank in Washington. The president of the think tank told me: “Well, you can do whatever you want, but just don’t call it inequality. Put the word poverty there. Because we have many rich people on our board, and when they see the word poverty that makes them feel good, because it means they’re really nice people who care about the poor. When they see the word inequality it makes them upset, because it means you want to take money from them.”

Frank puts it this way:

To say that there is no solidarity in this form of liberalism is to state the obvious. This is not about standing with you, it is about disciplining you: moving you out of the desirable neighborhoods, stopping and frisking you, prodding you to study the right things. Or, at its very noblest, it is about enlisting you in some fake “grassroots” effort whose primary purpose is to demonstrate the supreme moral virtue of the neo-Mugwump who’s funding the thing – to foam the runway for him as he makes his final approach to Heaven International Airport. …

But I can’t help but suspect that the Bloombergs of the world have the whole thing upside down. That the way to improve a place – or to get folks to eat better food – actually starts with proper pay for the people who live there. And that this antiquated form of organizing, in which the disenfranchised come together to help one another, is the only truly promising way to avoid the disasters of the last Gilded Age.

Kathleen Geier:

What it comes down to, very simply, is whether you prefer democracy or aristocracy. I thought we settled that question long ago.

Actually, we chose the third option, oligarchy, although that might not have been a choice. In what has been called the most important economic book in a generation or two, the argument is that this is where capitalism must end up:

Until now, left-leaning students of rising income inequality tended to prefer crony capitalist explanations for what was going on. You might call this the Elizabeth Warren School of Plutocracy: The 0.01 percent was becoming filthy rich because, in cahoots with sympathetic right-wing politicians, they had tilted the rules of the economic game in their favor, and stacked the deck against those whom Senator Warren would call ordinary folks.

The right, by contrast, began with denial. It has taken years for conservatives to concede that income inequality was rising, or that if it was, that shift was worth thinking about –remember Mitt Romney’s quiet-rooms comment, when the Republican presidential nominee was asked about why he seemed to equate discussion of income inequality with class warfare. “It is fine,” he said in widely mocked comments, “to talk about those things in quiet rooms and tax policy and the like.”

But now that the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else has become a chasm, even Republicans have been reluctantly dragged into the discussion about income inequality. Conservatives have found that the most congenial explanations of this growing gap between the rich and the rest are those rooted in underlying, often global, economic forces. Income inequality, in this reading, isn’t about banksters. It is just the way capitalism works.

No one’s to blame, really:

The world the West built after World War II was founded on the conviction that market democracy was the political economy best able to create widely shared economic growth. The decades of prosperity that followed strengthened that belief. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and capitalism seemed to be not just the best system, but the only one. Capitalism worked, and capitalists were our heroes. It was the “end of history.”

But over the past couple decades we have started to realize that capitalism is no longer delivering for the vast majority of people in most Western democracies. The middle class is being hollowed out, even as fortunes continue to grow at the very top.

The data support this. Someone else is in charge. Everyone needs to learn that lesson.

Posted in American Oligarchy, American Plutocracy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


There is no Sunday evening column – Easter with the family, far from Hollywood –

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Judging Relative Awesomeness

Another professional sport is moving into its playoffs – professional basketball. This involves a seemingly endless number of seven-game series and sometime, in a month or so, someone will come out on top. Not that it matters out here in Los Angeles, where the Lakers had their worst season in the team’s long history. They’ll be staying home for the first time in several decades, and the Clippers, getting better each year, might make it to the second round, but really aren’t yet awesome. When they were the Buffalo Braves they were awful, and when they were the San Diego Clippers they weren’t much better, and they were awful when the franchise first moved up here – but they’re not half-bad now. They’re just not good enough, so the Seattle Supersonics will probably win it all, except they’re the Oklahoma City Thunder now. It’s hard to keep it all straight, and it’s also hard to care very much. One group of large inarticulate multimillionaires with odd skills – that have nothing to do with real life – will finally beat another group of large inarticulate multimillionaires who have pretty much the same skills, which has nothing to do with anything. And of course there will be the inevitable post-game interviews, where magnanimous winners say nice things about the plucky losers, who really put up a good fight and should hold their heads high, because they’re winners too – and no one will believe a word of it. Losers are losers. They know it, and the winners certainly know it. It would be refreshing, but bad sportsmanship, if one of the winners, with that ESPN microphone shoved up in his face, just shrugged and said he and his team were just better than the other guys, in every way, and it was their own damned fault they lost. That’s what happens to losers. Screw ‘em.

That’s not going to happen. ESPN causes brain damage. The world, however, sorts itself out into inevitable winners and losers, and everyone knows who they are, or which is which, before the game even begins, if there is a game. It’s more than sports. It seems that that “beautiful” people really do look down on the rest of us, who look rather ordinary no matter what we so. Danielle Kurtzleben reports on a new study about that, one that assessed the attitudes of people after asking them to rate their own attractiveness:

Participants who perceive themselves as attractive also tend to not only believe they are of higher social status but also to believe in group dominance – that some groups are just inferior. They also were more likely to believe in ideas that legitimized their status, like the idea that all Americans have equal shots at making it to the top. …

People who thought they were more attractive also tended to think that America’s steadily growing inequality came about because of individual characteristics, like talent and hard work. People who thought they were uglier, meanwhile, thought outside factors – discrimination, political power – had more to do with inequality.

That explains a bit about American life, and Kevin Drum adds this:

People have a well-known cognitive bias in which they attribute positive outcomes to internal factors (hard work, smarts) and negative outcomes to external factors (bad luck, enemies who have it in for you). This is a similar kind of thing. People who are attractive tend to do better in life, but they resist the idea that this is partly due to the simple good luck of being tall or having regular features. And yet, there’s abundant evidence that physical attractiveness makes a difference. Just ask political candidates.

So it pays to be handsome, like Mitt Romney, who wouldn’t have made it past the first primary if he looked like Don Knotts, and it’s the same with being white, male, healthy, middle class and all the rest:

A lot of people might dislike the invocations of “privilege” that seem so endless these days, but it’s a real thing. And it’s everywhere.

Ed Kilgore sees the racial component to that:

The real core of conservative antipathy towards those people might well be a more general disdain – rooted in self-righteousness about their own accomplishments – towards “losers” as being responsible for their own bad fortune.

There’s partial confirmation for this theory in some new research from HuffPost/YouGov exploring the subject. While the margins are not overwhelming, it does seem self-identified Republicans are a lot more likely than other Americans to think wealth and poverty are the produce of individual moral qualities and choices rather than disparate opportunities or luck.

The research is here and Kilgore summarizes it:

Asked if people are more likely to be poor because of “individual failings” or “fewer opportunities,” GOPers prefer the former explanation by a 48/23 margin (Democrats tilt towards the “fewer opportunities” explanation by a decisive 61/14 margin; and Indies do so less decisively, by 41/33). Similarly, Republicans prefer a “poor work ethic” to “good jobs aren’t available” as a poverty explanation by 49/21. And they are even less sympathetic to the unemployed, with 58% saying “most could find jobs if they wanted to” as opposed to 30% believing “most are trying hard to find jobs but can’t.” Republican attitudes towards the long-term unemployed are almost identical.

Turning the equation around, 50% of Republicans (as opposed to 22% of Democrats and 28% of Indies) say the wealthy are wealthy because they “worked harder,” with 30% attributing wealth to “more opportunities than other people.”

Then it gets tricky:

When respondents are broken down by ideology, self-identified conservatives are very slightly less inclined than self-identified Republicans to blame the poor and unemployed for their plight and celebrate the virtues of the wealthy. It’s a shame the poll didn’t offer a crosstabs by party and ideology; I suspect self-identified “conservative Republicans” (and a fortiori “very conservative Republicans”) the heart of the GOP activist “base,” might tilt towards moralistic explanations of wealth and poverty by comfortable majorities. And if you added in racial/ethnic modifiers, or substitutes like “welfare recipients,” it could get pretty ugly, though I hasten to add I have no immediate proof for that educated hunch.

In any event, these numbers help explain a lot about Republican positioning and rhetoric on wealth and poverty, and probably why a GOP primary candidate in a conservative state like Georgia has no compunctions about running ads suggesting people are turning down plentiful jobs because they are lazy or dependent on “welfare.”

Kilgore then suggests this:

Because these attitudes are not widely shared outside the Republican electorate, Democratic candidate would be very wise to emphasize not only their commitment to help people who are poor and unemployed, but to express solidarity with them as presumptively virtuous people who are falsely suspected by friends of the wealthy of being “losers.” There’s no more powerful “populism” than one based on spurning the contempt of this economy’s true lucky duckies, the self-righteous “winners.”

That would be a campaign strategy based on saying look, these people say they’re inherently better than you, and that you’re just a whining loser – you always have been and always will be. Are you going to take that lying down? Are you going to let them sneer at you, when you’re doing the best you can in a rigged game? Where’s your pride? What if a movie star kept sneering I’m pretty and you’re not, to everyone, all the time? You’d never go to one of HER movies ever again. Out here in Hollywood that might be called the Anne Hathaway Effect – she seems to be the most hated women in Hollywood, even if she seems a nice enough kid and never says those deadly words – “Don’t hate me because I’m pretty.” She’s not stupid. You never say that.

Republicans are that stupid. They go there. Don’t hate me because I’m rich! I’m a job creator, or if not, really, I’m a “maker” and not a “taker” – and thus obviously better than you. Deal with it. And stop picking on straight male old white people, for the same reason – we’re better than you. Deal with it. And stop picking on Christians. What are you, jealous? Don’t you know that Jesus really, really hates you? It’s not that vain Hollywood starlet thing – don’t hate me because I’m young and pretty and famous and fabulously talented and you’re not – but it’s the political equivalent of that. It could prove deadly.

Mitt Romney’s forty-seven percent comment was a mild version of that – but spoken privately behind closed doors. He’s not stupid. He never meant for the rest of America to hear that. They did, and that was one of the things that sunk him, and some argue that was the main thing that sunk him – it confirmed everything else people were thinking. He really was an arrogant bastard who thought everyone else was scum, and Kilgore now sees data points that show the whole Republican Party has fully embraced the notion that the rest of America is scum, but they aren’t. So, obviously, the morally inadequate people will stay home and not vote, out of shame – or they should – and all will be well. Those whining fools among them who do try to vote, well, they’re going to find that difficult. In the almost twenty states controlled by Republicans, the new strict rules on who can vote when, and where, and with what identification papers, mean that they’ll wait in line for ten hours and then find they don’t have the right ID card. That takes care of that. The Supreme Court did strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, so even the states in the Deep South can do whatever they want, to prevent voter fraud, of course.

That’s not racist of course, but it is like old times, the Barry Goldwater days, and in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson isn’t happy about that:

The 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act is also the 50th anniversary of the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Barry Goldwater, voting against the Civil Rights Act.

Goldwater, his defenders effectively argue, was not a racist, only an ideologue. True enough. He had been a founding member of the Arizona NAACP. He helped integrate the Phoenix public schools. His problems with the Civil Rights Act were theoretical and libertarian – an objection to the extension of federal power over private enterprise.

But some political choices are symbolic and more than symbolic. Following Goldwater’s vote, a young Colin Powell went out to his car and affixed a Lyndon Johnson bumper sticker. “While not himself a racist” concluded Martin Luther King Jr., “Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racists.” Jackie Robinson, after attending the GOP convention in 1964, helped launch Republicans for Johnson.

In the 1960 election, Richard Nixon had won 32 percent of the African American vote. Goldwater got 6 percent in 1964. No Republican presidential candidate since has broken 15 percent.

Gerson was George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 until June 2006, as a senior policy advisor too, and a member of the White House Iraq Group – so he’s no bleeding-heart liberal. He’s a worried Republican:

Announcing his candidacy, Goldwater had pledged: “I will not change my beliefs to win votes. I will offer a choice, not an echo.” The choice was generally libertarian and Jeffersonian (in its resistance to federal power). The echo consisted of Republicans who had accommodated federal power on the welfare state, civil rights and much else. The energy of Goldwater’s movement was directed against compromised members of the GOP – the RINOs of their time. According to Goldwater, President Dwight Eisenhower had embraced “the siren song of socialism.” Goldwaterites accused the Republican establishment of “me-tooism” and advocating a “dime store New Deal.”

That sounds familiar, as it should:

The political events of half a century ago have current echoes. The spirit of Goldwaterism is abroad among tea party activists. Their ideological ideal is often libertarian and Jeffersonian. A few – Rand Paul (R-Ky.) briefly during his Senate campaign; Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) at a recent town hall – balk at accepting the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act. More generally, they believe that the GOP’s political recovery must begin with the defeat of compromised GOP elites. Never mind that those elites, by any historical standard, are conservative.

Gerson sees madness here:

The problem comes in viewing Goldwater as an example rather than as a warning. Conservatives sometimes describe his defeat as a necessary, preliminary step – a clarifying and purifying struggle – in the Reagan revolution. In fact, it was an electoral catastrophe that awarded Lyndon Johnson a powerful legislative majority, increased the liberal ambitions of the Great Society and caused massive distrust of the GOP among poor and ethnic voters. The party has never quite recovered. Ronald Reagan was, in part, elected president by undoing Goldwater’s impression of radicalism. And all of Reagan’s domestic achievements involved cleaning up just a small portion of the excesses that Goldwater’s epic loss enabled.

Reagan, of course, was a product of Hollywood. He knew what happened to young starlets who said don’t hate me because I’m pretty. People laughed at them and walked away. Hunky leading men who said don’t hate me because I’m more awesomely manly that you’ll ever be. People said no, you’re not – you’re a damned actor, for Christ’s sake! Reagan probably sensed it’s best not to say don’t hate me because I’m the purist of pure libertarians who hates government in all its forms more than any of you amateurs ever could, even if I came off as racist a lot of the time. Just don’t go there, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

The “spirit of Goldwaterism” is indeed alive in the activist “base” of the GOP. And 50 years after the original, it’s no more likely that “constitutional conservatism” is the basis for any real popular majority, and its advocates’ disdain for “popular majorities” supplies the final proof.

That link sends you to Kilgore’s discussion of George Will’s intricate argument that the Constitution wisely limits the “natural” rights of democratic majorities, which doesn’t impress him:

When they aren’t describing America as a “center-right nation” or predicting perpetual Republican electoral landslides, or indulging in a “populist” appeals whereby “real Americans” are told they are being illegitimately outgunned by voter fraud or voter bribery, conservatives are prone to retreat into this impregnable fortress of constitutionalist theory which prohibits as a matter of fundamental law most progressive legislation. This redoubt makes it psychologically very easy to rationalize restrictions on voting, or mendacious campaign ads, or unlimited campaign spending by wealthy individuals, or abuse of the filibuster or other anti-democratic mechanisms. After all, conservatives are simply defending themselves against laws and policies that really ought to be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional…

It’s at bottom just another heads-we-win-tails-you-lose proposition whereby American conservatives tend to support the constitutional arguments that in any given circumstance happen to support their policy goals.

And really, they needn’t bother:

A new study from Princeton spells bad news for American democracy – namely, that it no longer exists.

Asking “who really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

The “beautiful” people won the game long ago:

As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government – whether Republican or Democratic – more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.

The researches note that this is not a new development caused by, say, recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more money in politics, such as Citizens United or this month’s ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC. As the data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse.

“Ordinary citizens,” they write, “might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”

Don’t hate them because they’re rich. Or go ahead, hate them. Your opinion hardly matters. It’s their country, you hardly matter, and Heather Parton (Digby) adds this:

And by the way, the Supreme Court’s recent rulings are just making it official. This study is based on data going back to 1980.

You remember 1980, don’t you? When Ronald Reagan won by telling everyone that the government wasn’t the solution, the government was the problem? Yeah, that worked out for us.

As for the study itself, there’s this odd passage:

Average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support… But we tend to doubt it.

One does tend to doubt claims of “obvious” overwhelming moral superiority, and intelligence, and an unsurpassed real instinct for the common good, when what flows from those claims is public policy that makes those folks even more absurdly wealthy and screws everyone else. Telling “everyone else” that they deserve their miserable lot in life, and would realize that if they just thought about it for even half a minute, is also a bit problematic. Folks might not agree – but of course that might not matter now. Losers are losers, and then there are the pretty people, or the basketball player who, after winning that final big game, simply grabs the ESPN microphone, smiles at the camera, roars BE IN AWE OF ME – and then just walks away.

That would be refreshing, right? We’re getting there, politically, or beyond that point. Your awe is no longer of much interest to anyone, nor is your vote. What, you thought you mattered? Those days are long gone.

Posted in America an Oligarchy, Conservative Self-Righteousness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Matter of Debate

Before there was Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram, and blogs (the now increasingly rare personal ones) and fairly easy access to criminal records, college admission folks used to look at high school kids’ “activities” – sports and clubs and, sometimes, travel to odd places. Who should they admit, who would prove to be a credit to the school, and maybe later get rich and famous and send in lots of money? The captain of the high school football team was a good bet – he would be a future leader of men, or a used-up sloppy bubba running a used car lot for the rest of his life. That was a gamble, but the president of the Chess Club wasn’t. The hyper-intelligent with a need to win, by carefully thinking ten or twenty moves ahead of any opponent, always do well, even if they have the social skills of a slug. Volunteer work was good too – someone out to change the world for the better will probably continue to do that sort of thing. They might even change the world, and hey, they went to your humble and unassuming little college, so it must be a fine place.

Computer Club is good too. The kid could invent the next big thing no one ever imagined and become a billionaire ten times over a few months after he graduates. A giant new science building would be nice, and of course he could have it named after him, or her. It might be a young woman, maybe. Literary societies are good too – there might be a future famous novelist or poet in that lot – and amazing high school musicians get points too, as do young entrepreneurs who start their own successful businesses at fourteen. Head cheerleaders, however, get no points. Cute and perky don’t count for much in the real world. That chirpy cheerleader had better have parents who can pay full tuition and fees for four years, and the minimal academic skills to squeak by for four long years, if she wants in – and it would help if her parents are alumni, and donors. That might make her okay. The college admissions process is not terribly forgiving, and now you learn more by scanning social media anyway. Maybe the kid revealed on her Facebook page that she figured out cold fusion. It’s possible.

That’s unlikely. Look at what they did in school, when they weren’t nodding off in class. They made a choice. They jumped into something enthusiastically, for the fun of it or because they were good at it, or both. Their grades matter, and their SAT scores matter, but what they choose is who they are, and that makes the stars of the high school’s Debate Club hard to assess. They’re an odd lot, but debating societies have been around since the early eighteen century – a British invention. In fact, the most famous of these is still around, the Cambridge Union Society – and past officers of that society are legend. They include John Maynard Keynes and Arianna Huffington – the young Greek girl who became a Cambridge scholar and then married a conservative politician out here in California and became a prominent conservative apologist – in the Greek sense – and then, after their divorce, became one of America’s leading liberal voices.

What? That seems odd, but debate competitions are good training for that sort of thing. Each person is given the topic ahead of time, so they can think about it and prepare various arguments, but a coin toss decides who gets to argue which side of the issue. Then the two debaters have at it. You don’t get to argue what you believe, you only have to argue well, with superb logic and solid facts and telling examples, even if you’re stuck with arguing the earth is flat. You lose points for faulty logic and the usual fallacies – appeal to probability, affirming the consequent, denying the antecedent, argumentum ad hominem, circular reasoning, moral high ground declarations and all the rest. No points are awarded for changing anyone’s mind, however, because that’s not the point. The point is to show that you can argue anything brilliantly. The point is to show that you are, theoretically, absolutely convincing – no one should ever mess with you in a war of wits. No one, however, knows what you actually believe. They never will.

So, a college admissions officer considers the application of the star of the high school debate team. Do you want that kid spooking around campus for four years, making the other kids feel foolish and inadequate, unable to argue back? That’s asking for trouble, but you might have a brilliant politician on your hands – a future senator or president. Those are the people who argue brilliantly and change no minds – they rev up those who already know what they believe and want to hear it argued well, with devastating logic, and then go out and vote just the right way, in overwhelming numbers. Debate competition is the perfect training for that. Send the kid the acceptance letter.

It should be clear that no one in America ever changes their mind, as least because of some clever argument. Everyone knows about confirmation bias – people will recognize information that confirms their beliefs as the only relevant information. The information that doesn’t confirm their beliefs must be wrong, if it even exists. Forget various opinions about the facts. No one will even agree on the basic facts – they have different ones on Fox News and MSNBC. Obamacare is an epic failure. Obamacare is a stunning success. Which argument “feels” right?

That doesn’t mean nothing changes. People changed their minds about our Iraq War – the second one by the second Bush – but that wasn’t done through argument. The dismal facts on the ground, eight long years of them, starting with no weapons of mass destruction anywhere to be found, are what changed people’s minds. It was the same with gay marriage. The courts decided what they decided, but public opinion had already changed, because of the facts on the ground. Gay folks, coming out and standing up, just weren’t that scary. They weren’t scary at all – they have the same percentage of jerks as the general population, or maybe even a smaller percentage.

No one had to argue anything in either case – and of course no televised presidential debate ever changed anyone’s mind. Your guy did well and really stuck it to the other guy, which you loved, or he blew it, which had you really worried – but no one then voted for the other guy. Kennedy might have been suave and cool and handsome in that televised debate long ago – and Nixon looked pretty sleazy and shifty, sweating bullets in the close-ups – but the Nixon crowd voted for Nixon and the Kennedy crowd voted for Kennedy. The only thing that mattered was voter turn-out. No one remembers who argued what – and it’s been the same ever since. Arguments aren’t made to convince, only to confirm something or other, flawlessly, in grand style – just like in formal debate competition.

That just happened once again and MSNBC put it this way:

What a difference three months make. The Barack Obama who wore “ACA” like scarlet letters for the last quarter of 2013 sounded like a changed man during Thursday’s press conference on the Affordable Care Act. Rather than re-apologizing for the troubled launch of, he reveled in numbers well-chosen to undermine the GOP’s 2014 campaign plans.

The first one was 8 million. That’s the number of people who have found private coverage through the new insurance exchanges since October. Only 4.2 million people had signed up by the end of February, and supporters worried that the exchanges would fall short of the 6 million needed to preserve a modicum of credibility. By March 31, enrollment had surged to 7.5 million, and the new figure turns the homerun into a grand slam.

And contrary to the Right’s predictions, the young adults needed to stabilize the risk pool and keep costs down didn’t boycott the call to protect themselves. Fully 35% of the new enrollees are under 35, according to the new figures.

Adding injury to insult for his critics, the president trotted out a series of recent analyses showing that private insurance rates are rising at half the pre-Obamacare pace, that Medicare spending is essentially steady, that the Medicare trust fund is gaining life expectancy, and that the expansion of health care will cost significantly less than expected over the coming decade.

“The bottom line is that the share of Americans with health insurance is up,” he said. “Cost growth is down. People with coverage have more protection. And people are no longer being discriminated against for having pre-existing conditions or being women. This thing is working.”

Give him points for marshaling the facts and presenting them effectively, and then, like any good debater, doing that QED thing:

He admitted that the health care law, like any act of such scale, still needed a lot of fine tuning – and he urged Republicans to stop pouting and pitch in. “I’ve always said that in any big piece of legislation there will be need to improve it over time,” he said. “But you have certain Republicans who think that making the law better is a concession to me. I recognize that their party is going through the stages of grief—anger, denial, all that stuff. We’re not at acceptance yet.”

By focusing so tightly on paralyzing the president, congressional Republicans have left themselves without many accomplishments to run on. But as affordable health care seeps deeper into American life, the crusade to kill it is becoming an ever-riskier venture.

“Millions of people are finally in a position to enjoy the financial security that health insurance brings,” the president sad. “That’s not an abstraction. It can mean that an illness won’t cost you your home, your business and your parents’ home.”

Quod Erat Demonstrandum – it is proven – but as in formal debate, that’s not the point at all:

Democrats, still traumatized by last fall’s embarrassments, have been slow to shout the good news, but Obama’s remarks offered them a script for the campaign season. “I want to talk about our plans for putting people back to work, building an economy that innovates, training people for the jobs that are out there now,” he said. “These endless, fruitless repeal efforts come at a cost. Those 50 repeal votes could have been devoted to infrastructure, innovation, minimum wage, unemployment insurance. The American people don’t want us to spend the next two years refighting the battles of the last five.”

The GOP reaction was true to form. “The White House continues to obscure the full impact of Obamacare,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner shot back at the president. “Beyond refusing to disclose the number of people who’ve actually enrolled by paying premiums, the president ignores the havoc that this law has wreaked on private plans that people already had and liked.”

Each side had different facts, and argues from those facts, and only from those facts. A master debater could argue from either set of facts – that’s what a master debater has trained to do exceedingly well – but master debaters don’t seek political power. This is a different matter and that’s where things get tricky, where you may have to play dirty.

CBS’s Major Garrett covers that in the in National Journal – the White House has a new version of what they call their “stray voltage” theory of communication. It’s simple, actually. The president purposefully overstates his case knowing that it will create controversy. Garrett describes the logic – “Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation, and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in the public consciousness.”

In short, it’s sneaky, or as Slate’s John Dickerson writes, it’s a kind of refined cynicism:

The issue last week was the pay gap between men and women. The president issued executive orders to address the disparity, and Democrats pushed legislation in Congress. In making the case, the president and White House advisers used a figure they knew to be imprecise and controversial – a Census Bureau statistic that the median wages of working women in America are 77 percent of median wages earned by men.

Under this approach, a president wants the fact-checkers to call him out (again and again) because that hubbub keeps the issue in the news, which is good for promoting the issue to the public. It is the political equivalent of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” or the quote attributed to Mae West (and others): “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” The tactic represents one more step in the embrace of cynicism that has characterized President Obama’s journey in office.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with cynicism! It’s almost always appropriate:

Losing the news cycles between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. doesn’t necessarily matter; if by the end of the saga you’ve got a coherent story to pitch, the frenzy has simply given you a larger audience who will listen to it. “Stray voltage,” the term Obama strategist David Plouffe used to describe this approach, is also a great buzzword that makes it look like you’ve got a theory for what might otherwise look like chaos. But this twist is a new, higher order of deception: creating the controversy for the purposes of milking it.

Dickerson shows that winning the argument on the facts, then, is beside the point:

As long as people are talking about an issue where my party has an advantage with voters, it’s good. So, the theory goes, if I’m a Republican candidate, I benefit from conversations about budget deficits and spending restraint because voters trust Republicans more on the issue of the budget and spending restraint – and it excites Republican voters who care about those issues. Democrats have several reasons to keep stories about equal-pay equity in the news. It excites their voters, attracts female voters, and crowds out whatever the Republicans wanted to talk about (these days, Obamacare). It also sets a trap. The more Republicans have to talk about politically unfavorable issues, the greater chance they’ll slip up and say something dumb like candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did that can be exploited more broadly.

Even if I’ve overstated the issue, more voters will hear that Democrats are fighting to pay women equally than will hear that the problem is overstated. Even if Ruth Marcus labels the effort “revolting demagoguery,” it doesn’t matter. In fact, equal-pay stories that create more controversy cycles about stories rooted in equal pay are just more opportunities for people to hear the words equal pay. See that? Equal pay!

Obama has learned what debate is really about, debate, not changing minds:

After President Obama took office, his campaign book The Audacity of Hope receded into his past fast. Its sweet, naive, bipartisan “let’s reason together” passages fell away, too. As experience and a determined opposition forced the president to act, his former passages started to read like something a freshman senator would write, then a college graduate, and then a college freshman. With the notion of “stray voltage” in mind, the passages read like they’re from a precocious high-schooler chiding the press for treating facts so loosely that the cumulative effect is to “erode any agreed-upon standards for judging the truth.” It is a pity, writes the author, that politicians prey on press conflict by feeding misleading storylines. “It rewards not those who are right, but those – like the White House press office – who can make their arguments most loudly, most frequently, most obstinately, and with the best backdrop.”

And now he’s doing the same thing, and Salon’s Joan Walsh is fine with that:

Lazy Beltway pundits have discovered a new Obama scandal: The president is telling his base the truth about how Republicans are making their lives worse, and he must be stopped.

Last week, Obama was accused of ginning up his base’s anger over voting rights: The New York Times reduced his Friday speech on the issue to an effort “to rally his political base,” while the Washington Post depicted the Democrats’ focus on voting rights as mere partisan strategy, calling it the party’s “most important project in 2014.”

Then came the National Journal’s James Oliphant, declaring that “Democrats are giving Republicans a run for their money in practicing the politics of grievance.” Oliphant accused Democrats of cynically exploiting anger over voter ID laws and the failure of bills to hike the minimum wage, reform the immigration system and help women achieve pay equity, for political gain.

Yes, but why not do that, because, politics aside, it’s also the right thing to do? That’s Walsh’s point:

The essence of Dickerson’s argument is of a piece with the lazy “grievance” meme spreading among his peers: Obama is doing something wrong by telling a component of his coalition, in this case women, that Republican policies are hurting them. In other words, telling the truth while also, yes, practicing politics.

We can certainly debate which number we should use when debating pay equity, but the notion that Obama is deliberately lying to create “stray voltage” by choosing the wrong number seems cynical, or worse.

This is worse:

Supposedly, the controversy around the White House continuing to use the Census Bureau figure – that women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar – even though other studies find a smaller gap, cements the impression that Republicans oppose measures to close the gap, and may create “stray voltage” to galvanize women voters in 2014 and 2016. Oliphant likewise relies on the pay-gap flap, and the Democrats’ embrace of the doomed Paycheck Fairness Act, as an example of unfair “grievance politics.”

But Republicans do oppose virtually all measures that might close the gap. It’s not just the Paycheck Fairness Act; take the minimum wage. Republicans (and others) say that 77 percent figure exaggerates the pay gap between equally qualified men and women, because women are clustered in low-wage fields. Raising the minimum wage would be a great way to get at that particular pay-gap widener, since two thirds of minimum wage workers are women. But of course, Republicans oppose not only the Paycheck Fairness Act, but an increase in the minimum wage as well.

Oh, but Democrats continuing to agitate for a minimum wage hike? That’s also unfair “grievance politics,” according to Oliphant, because “it may animate minority voters.”

Walsh is fed up with this nonsense:

So let me make sure I understand. Telling your voters, accurately, that Republicans are trying to make it harder for them to vote, and are blocking action on pay equity, the minimum wage and immigration reform is unfair “grievance politics”? Likewise, any effort to deal with the scandal of $1 trillion in student loan debt? Oliphant compares it to the grievance politics practiced by Republicans under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But that form of grievance politics mainly relied on inflaming white voters’ fears of cultural and racial change with false or highly exaggerated claims about Democrats.

I would also argue that when one party’s leaders declare upfront that they’re going to block everything the other party’s president tries to do, and when that party even retreats from solutions to problems that it once favored – in the GOP’s case, that includes the individual mandate, immigration reform, cap and trade, the Voting Rights Act, and periodic increases to the minimum wage – the cultivation of anger in order to turn out voters is an excellent and entirely defensible strategy. In fact, Republican obstructionism seems designed at least partly to demoralize the Obama coalition – many of them occasional voters already discouraged by the political process. If you can convince young people, Latinos and women that voting changes nothing, you can make up for your reliance on aging white voters.

That seems to be the plan, and Obama them took his turn and argued the other way – resistance is not futile, voting changes everything. He’s allowed to argue the other way, and he’s not the one who’s cheating:

This new “grievance politics” story line is just one more way mainstream journalism’s weakness for false equivalence, which is intellectually lazy, politically rewards Republicans.

Perhaps so, but mainstream journalism’s weakness may be that it never understood what all debate is actually about. Argument doesn’t change minds. Only the facts on the ground, as they evolve, change minds. Brilliant argument, or sly argument, confirms beliefs, irrefutably, if done well, and makes the other side a bit defensive about their beliefs, and begins to demoralize them. In debating societies, you win prizes when you can do that, repeatedly. In politics, you win elections. In college admissions, you send the kid the acceptance letter. He’ll go far, or she will. Elizabeth Warren is in the wings.

Posted in Political Discourse, Political Rhetoric | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Perils of Declaring Victory

Politicians used to be more inventive, or more honest, or more… something. There was George Aiken – one of those old-school “progressive” Republicans of the Teddy Roosevelt sort. Aiken arrived in the Senate in early 1941 and stayed there, with the help of Vermont voters, for thirty-four long years. By today’s standards he wasn’t much of a Republican – toward the end of his Senate career he was all for food stamps and taking care of the poor, and he was big on the environment long before Nixon suggested the Environmental Protection Agency – he had been president of the Vermont Horticultural Society after all – and he was big on infrastructure spending before Eisenhower came up with the Interstate Highway System. There’s nothing wrong with spending money to make things better. There’s even nothing wrong with adding a bit to the deficit to make things better. There’d be no place for him in the Republican Party now, so no one remembers him now, but they do remember what he said about the Vietnam War in 1966 – maybe we should just declare victory and go home.

He was a man ahead of him time, but this was more than a quip. He explained that was what “the United States could well declare unilaterally” – because when you think about it “we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”

What more do you want? This wasn’t copping-out. This was sensible and pragmatic, because that declaration “would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam.” That would change everything. People would shout at each other, not shoot each other. Isn’t that more sensible? There’s no need for any more to die. He added there was another feature to consider – “It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”

The antiwar left crowd loved it. This was just the sort of bitter surreal joke the Youth International Party – the Yippies - would love, because it exposed the Vietnam War as a bitter surreal joke. But Aiken wasn’t joking, even if his own party and the news media of the day decided he must have been kidding around. You don’t say yep, we’ve won, and walk away. That’s cheating, or dishonorable, or somehow just plain wrong. It doesn’t work that way in sports – the Yankees don’t get to just walk off the field in a tie-game in the seventh inning, declaring they’ve actually won, if you think about it. It can’t work that way in war.

Yes, it can – that’s exactly what we did in Iraq, and what we’re now doing in Afghanistan. The trick is to avoid doing what we did in Vietnam, which was defining what victory would look like – in that case, that would be the commie guys from the north gone for good. The Bush administration avoided that trap in Iraq, by keeping the definition of victory vague, shifting it from one thing to another – from getting rid of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to eliminating Iraq’s “capability” to develop those, from getting rid of Saddam Hussein to establishing a secular democracy there – where being Shiite or Sunni and Sufi or whatever didn’t matter and Iraq recognized Israel and Iraq just pumped oil, fat and happy – to giving them the “space” to work out the religious stuff on their own, while we watched from a safe distance, half a world away. We said we did our job, and we left. We just never really defined what that job was. George Aiken might have pointed out, after our first three weeks there, that we could declare victory and come home – Saddam had fled and wasn’t coming back, and there were no weapons of mass destruction after all – mission accomplished. George Aiken was, however, dead by then, and declaring victory is easier said than done. When you don’t define what winning is, no one believes you when you suddenly say you’ve won.

No one believes you anyway. Declaring victory became one of those stupid things no one should ever do, at least after George Bush landed on that aircraft carrier off San Diego and stood under that big Mission Accomplished banner and said it was all over but the shouting, which would be nothing but cheers for our side. That was alpha-male manly, and Chris Matthews and others said they couldn’t see how the girly-men of the Democratic Party would ever win another election again, and the effete French could just stuff it. Then the manly John McCain lost to the polite and careful Obama, and then Mitt Romney lost to Obama as well, and then manliness itself was discounted as the nation collectively decided that our gay brothers and sisters, and friends and neighbors, were just folks who should be treated as decently as anyone else who’s a citizen here.

Bush screwed the pooch. Manly manliness became tiresome, when it wasn’t a joke, and the only Real Man among us declaring victory was the biggest joke of all – and don’t get Californians started on Arnold Schwarzenegger. We had to bring back Governor Moonbeam, Jerry Brown, to repair the damage and get the state back in the black and humming again. Arnold is now back here in Hollywood, flexing what’s left of his massive muscles in new forgettable action movies, where he can declare victory all he wants, where it’s ironic, as it should be.

The problem now is Obamacare. It’s finally working pretty much as advertised, and Obama and the Democrats could declare victory and run on that in the midterms. They’re the good guys. They finally started us down the road to universal healthcare, where no one will ever again be financially ruined or die, or both, because of unforeseen medical problems. We’re finally on our way to joining the rest of the world, where mechanisms are in place to assure everyone gets basic medical care, as a matter of national interest. Obama and the Democrats did that. It’s just that raising a Mission Accomplished banner is dangerous. People might sneer. Was this a victory, really?

That depends on who you ask. “It’s all over but the shouting: ObamaCare is working!” That’s what Eugene Robinson says in the Washington Post:

All the naysaying in the world can’t drown out mounting evidence that the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, is a real success. Republican candidates running this fall on an anti-Obamacare platform will have to divert voters’ attention from the facts, which tell an increasingly positive story.

A new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that, despite all the problems with the Web site launch, 12 million people who previously lacked insurance will obtain coverage this year. By 2017, the year Obama leaves office, the CBO predicts that an additional 14 million uninsured will have managed to get coverage.

The losers have to acknowledge that it’s all over now:

Many Republican critics of Obamacare know, but refuse to acknowledge, that the reforms are here to stay. Does the GOP propose to let insurance companies deny coverage because of preexisting conditions, as they could before the ACA? Does the party want to re-impose lifetime caps on the amount an insurer will pay? Tell young adults they can no longer be covered under their parents’ policies?

I didn’t think so.

More likely, Republicans will continue to mumble vaguely about “private-sector incentives” and “consumer choice” – without acknowledging that the ACA reforms offer plenty of both. And the GOP will continue to bray about “big government health care,” which is an out-and-out lie.

Obamacare, to the contrary, will leave the present system basically intact. The CBO predicts that a decade from now, the great majority of non-elderly Americans will still obtain health insurance through their employers – an estimated 159 million, as opposed to 166 million if Obamacare never existed. Only about 25 million people are expected to get coverage through the federal and state health insurance exchanges. Even this coverage, mind you, will be provided by private health insurance companies, not the government.

So, to recap: The Affordable Care Act is a cautiously designed set of reforms whose impact on most people is approximately zero. It is well on the way toward its goal of providing coverage to the uninsured.

Ah, but Robinson knows what happens next, which is a matter of framing whatever victory this might be:

There is no sign that GOP strategists intend to let facts get in the way of their story. After spending so much time and effort trying to make “Obamacare” a synonym for “bogeyman,” Republicans have no graceful way to acknowledge that the program is actually a success.

All the apocalyptic end-of-freedom rhetoric that we continue to hear from the far right sounds increasingly ridiculous to moderate voters who have no strong party allegiance. But the GOP’s activist base continues to respond with campaign donations and raring-to-go enthusiasm – factors that can make the difference in a midterm election when moderate voters often stay home.

To do well in the fall, Democrats have to infuse their most loyal voters with similar enthusiasm. The success of Obamacare will help. Already, polls are showing upticks in support for embattled Democratic incumbent senators in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska. Democrats control their own destiny in November: If they can get their voters to the polls, they’ll win.

On the other side there’s John Podhoretz in the New York Post with this:

Ever since ObamaCare supposedly hit the arbitrary target of 7 million sign-ups by March 31, its supporters have been taking the most premature victory lap since conservative proponents of the Iraq War (like me) crowed about the results of the three elections inside Iraq in 2005 and how they demonstrated the country was on the verge of a historic peace.

Well, that didn’t work out, so Democrats should be careful:

It takes a very special pair of rose-colored glasses to ignore the simple reality that officials almost never resign when the policy they’ve been working to implement has triumphed. But rose-colored glasses are the only ones ObamaCare fans are allowed to buy from Warby Parker these days.

Yes, it’s true that six months after that catastrophe, people can actually sign up for ObamaCare. It’s also likely true that the program’s worst possible fate – in which it literally collapses on its own because its overall insurance pool holds far more sick people than healthy people – has been avoided.

But the idea that, by meeting their obligations under the law, those 7 million signers-up have thereby indicated their support for ObamaCare, or their approval of it, or have ensured its success, is simply delusional.

In the first place, we don’t yet know how many people who didn’t have insurance before now do – which was the entire point of this exercise. But it’s not a lot.

This then is the Democrats’ Iraq:

The pundits on their side of the aisle are telling them they should defend it now because “it’s a real success.”

Such advice must frighten them even more, since it means they’ll be damned by their opponents if they do defend it and damned by their friends if they don’t.

The American electorate’s response to the chaos in Iraq in 2006 was “baked in the cake” months before voters went to vote. The result was a Democratic wave that heralded the coming of Barack Obama.

Take it from me, ObamaCare partisans: We Iraq War partisans didn’t want to take off our rose-colored glasses, either.

In short, don’t declare victory. Take it from an expert on such things, or consider the latest Reuters/Ipsos survey:

Nearly one-third of respondents in the online survey released on Tuesday said they prefer Democrats’ plan, policy or approach to healthcare, compared to just 18 percent for Republicans. This marks both an uptick in support for Democrats and a slide for Republicans since a similar poll in February. …

“In the last couple of weeks, as the exchanges hit their goals, news coverage has been more positive and the support of the Democratic Party on this issue has rebounded,” said Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson.

“It’s not that independents are moving their way, it’s that Democrats who had previously been a little bit ambivalent in their support are coming back to the party,” he said.

Something is up, and Politico reports this:

Health insurers got their first taste of Obamacare this year. And they want seconds.

Insurers saw disaster in the fall when Obamacare’s rollout flopped and was a mess. But a strong March enrollment surge, along with indications that younger and healthier people had begun signing up, has changed their attitude. Around the country, insurers are considering expanding their stake in the Obamacare exchanges next year, bringing their business to more states and counties. Some health plans that skipped the new marketplaces altogether this year are ready to dive in next year.

At least two major national insurers intend to expand their offerings, although a handful of big players like Aetna, Humana and Cigna, are keeping their cards close for now. None of the big-name insurers have signaled plans to shrink their presence or bail altogether after the first rocky year. And a slew of smaller health plans are already making moves to join more states or get into the Obamacare business for the first time.

“We see 2014 as just the beginning for exchanges,” said Tyler Mason, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, one of the nations’ largest insurers. “As the economics, sustainability and dynamics of exchanges continue to become clearer, we believe exchanges have the potential to be a growth market with much to offer United HealthCare and other insurers and consumers.”

Nurturing this growth and health plan participation will be one of the first tasks of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, assuming she is confirmed to succeed Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services.

This is bad news for Republicans. When big business goes over to the Dark Side all is lost, and Andrew Sullivan goes further:

There’s simply no denying that the law has been rescued by an impressive post-fiasco operation that did to ACA-opponents what the Obama campaign did to the Clintons in 2008 and to Romney in 2012. Obama out-muscled the nay-sayers on the ground. I have a feeling that this has yet to fully sink in with the public, and when it does, the politics of this might change. (Since the law was pummeled at the get-go as something beyond the skills of the federal government to implement, its subsequent successful implementation would seem to me to do a lot to reverse the damage.) There are some signs that this is happening. …

That’s mainly because of renewed confidence and support from previously demoralized Democrats. But it’s also a reflection, it seems to me, of the political vulnerability of Republicans who have failed to present a viable alternative to the law, and indeed seem set, in the eyes of most voters, merely to repeal ACA provisions that are individually popular. And this bad position is very likely to endure because of the intensity of the loathing for Obama/Obamacare among the Medicare recipients in the GOP base. It seems to me that right now, the GOP cannot offer an alternative that keeps the more popular parts of Obamacare without the air fast leaking out of their mid-term election balloon. And so by the fall, the political dynamics of this may shift some more in Obama’s direction. By 2016, that could be even more dramatic. One party – the GOP – will be offering unnerving change back to the status quo ante [Latin: "the way things were before"] and the other will be proposing incremental reform of the ACA.

Either way, that’s a losing proposition, and kind of solves the Mission Accomplished problem. There’s no need to be alpha-male and declare victory, in a manly way. All you need to do is reminded everyone the other team never even showed up for the game, and smile slyly. If these guys want to make Obamacare better, welcome them – everything can be made better – everyone’s welcome. Then the other guys have to swallow their pride and join in your game, not theirs.

Sullivan sees a pattern here:

It’s that long game thing again, isn’t it? Like the civil rights revolution of the Obama years, it seemed a close-to-impossible effort to start with, and then was gradually, skillfully ground out. It also seems true to me that the non-event of the ACA for many, many people will likely undermine some of the hysteria on the right. The ACA-opponents may be in danger of seeming to cry wolf over something that isn’t that big a deal. Yes, they may have premium hikes to tout as evidence of the alleged disaster. And every single piece of bad news on the healthcare front will be attributed to the ACA, fairly or not. But the public will still want to know how premiums can go down without people with pre-existing conditions being kicked out of the system, or without kids being kicked off their parents’ plan, and so on. I think, in other words, that the GOP’s position made a lot of short-term political sense in 2010 and even 2012. But it’s a much tougher sell in 2014, let alone 2016. Once again, they have substituted tactics for strategy. Every time they have done that with Obama, they have failed.

There’s more. Gallup had been reporting a drop in the “uninsured” rate among Americans following the rollout of Obamacare, and they just broke down these numbers state by state – states that embraced Obamacare, setting up their own exchanges and expanding Medicaid, versus states that would have nothing to do with either, and Kevin Drum assesses the damage:

The results are no surprise. States that embraced Obamacare – which presumably were more committed to public health in the first place – had lower uninsurance rates to start with and saw bigger declines. The states that resisted were the ones with the biggest uninsurance problems to start with and saw only token declines. In fact, the decline in states that embraced Obamacare was more than triple that in the other states, 2.8 percent vs. 0.8 percent.

These numbers will change a bit over the next couple of months as things settle down and signups are complete, but the relative differences will almost certainly remain huge. Republican governors have been almost unanimously dedicated to sabotaging Obamacare and withholding health care from their own residents, and they’ve been successful. I hope they’re proud of themselves.

Governors withholding health care from their own residents – declaring that a victory over Obamacare, and over the thoroughly evil Obama himself – can raise their own Mission Accomplished banners. They defeated Obamacare, at least locally, and some will cheer. Some will face financial ruin or die, but not the voters who matter, those who believe it’s better to die than participate in a government program that matches up those who want to buy insurance with those who want to sell it to them, and mandates that everyone must get health insurance one way or the other, or pay a small fine. It’s the principle of the thing.

It seems both sides can claim a victory here, but declaring victory has always been problematic. No one took George Aiken seriously way back when. It’s best just to win, and shut up, and smile. People will figure out who really won soon enough.

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Correlations with Patriotism

Post hoc ergo propter hoc – correlation does not imply causation. A correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other – two things just happened at the same time. That your team wins every time you wear that funky old flannel shirt doesn’t mean that funky old shirt causes your team to win – but you wear it anyway. It couldn’t hurt and it feels good to embrace the logical fallacy. Everyone embraces such nonsense because it’s comfortable, or comforting – and it’s cool to see patterns, or at least trends, no one had noticed before. That means you’re supremely aware of the world around you and amazingly insightful, and it probably means you’re a sucker for conspiracy theories. The Rothschild family is not working to take over the world in some vast Jewish conspiracy, no matter what Henry Ford might have thought, even if he ignored the Rothschild clan, and Obama doesn’t seem to be a Muslim-Atheist-Communist-Fascist Kenyan fellow, still mad about British colonial rule back there long ago, who also hates all religion, who wants to make us all worship Allah and abandon capitalism, to fight global warming, because he hates America. That didn’t cause him to push for universal healthcare. Glenn Beck thinks so, as do Donald Trump and a few others, but they’re connecting dots that aren’t there. Glenn Beck even used a whiteboard to do that on national television, before the folks at Fox News got exasperated and they both agreed that he do that sort of thing with his imaginary dots elsewhere. Correlation does not imply causation, and Timothy McVeigh, that fellow who blew up that federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing all those people, probably imagined that all of America’s woes were caused by ZOG – the Zionist Occupation Government that really runs this place – although no one knew what the hell he was talking about most of the time. He just wanted America to wake up. Something really bad is going on – connect the dots, people! There were no dots. He was executed. Glenn Beck lost his gig at Fox News.

All this might be seen as pattern-recognition, a key human skill necessary to survive, in an evolutionary sense, gone wild. We all have to make sense of the world around us, or we’ll get killed, metaphorically or literally, but imagining what’s just not there can get us killed too. After all, a lot of Americans died in Iraq due to faulty overenthusiastic pattern-recognition. Our stern and deadly prudence turned out to be no more than an odd and misplaced paranoia. There never had been any correlation between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, implying causation, and the dots we were connecting – those aluminum tubes and mobile chemical weapons labs and so on – weren’t dots after all.

Oops – but no one lied to us. Key people just forgot anything they ever knew about the easiest logical fallacy to fall into, one where you end up calling anyone who points out your sloppy thinking a coward or a fool, or a sniveling Neville Chamberlain appeaser, or a traitor. It’s easy enough to laugh that off when Glenn Beck is calling you names. When it’s Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld, and most of the media, everyone tends to shut up. It’s the patriotic thing to so. Leave discussion of logical fallacies to the French, who have been blithering about such things since Descartes was a pup. We’re patriots. We laugh at your pathetic logic. And we don’t eat snails either.

This can cause no end of trouble each year on the day that Americans must do their patriotic duty – April 15 – Tax Day. That’s the day everyone has to pay their share, more or less, depending on your tax bracket and accountant, to keep the country running, and defended against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Everyone has to chip in by that date, although for most that’s working out what you’ve been chipping in all along for the past year and seeing if you get a refund. Everyone hates that day of course – a lot of the money you earned will be gone forever – but patriots shouldn’t. Few people ever run for office, to set public policy and assure we have a going concern here, but this is the day when everyone else chips in to keep the country running. That’s patriotism, and by a curious coincidence, last year Tax Day was also Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts – but they didn’t plan it that way. It was a random correlation, this year only, implying no causation. People seldom correlate taxes with patriotism.

The two don’t mix. Taxes really are a pain in the ass, and Dick Gregory, in the midst of the civil rights struggles of the late fifties and early sixties, once put it this way – “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes, if I knew they were going to a friendly country.”

The black experience in America changes things – but he did pay his taxes. He loved his country, warts and all, as they say, but it seems different on the right these days. Tea Party Republicans, who say they are the super-patriots, the only ones who really love America, really don’t want to pay their taxes, or pay taxes at the rate that’s been the norm for years. They love America and its system of government so much they think there should be far less of it than ever before, so everyone is free at last. Their avatar has always been Grover Norquist, who famously said he wanted to shrink the size of government so small that it can then be drowned in the bathtub. Who needs government anyway?

Fine, Grover Norquist loves America so much he wants to get rid of what defines it, its government. What would be left is three hundred million armed individuals somehow, by chance, located in a specific geography – but he’s not an outlier. Ted Cruz, who will tell you he’s the most patriotic American who has ever lived or will ever live, says that he wants to abolish the IRS – and the national debt, and he is also sure, if everyone does what they should, he can repeal Obamacare, every last word of it, while making sure everyone is heavily armed. He said all that on just before Patriots’ Day weekend, next door in New Hampshire at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Citizens United inaugural Freedom Summit. Everyone cheered.

To be clear, Cruz is not an anarchist – he just sounds like one. He’d replace the IRS with something more sensible, because someone’s got to pay his salary, but the general idea is clear. True patriots hate almost everything their government does, because government, in and of itself, restricts our basic freedoms. The odd thing is that is quite true. Governments, even those of the people and by the people and for the people, create laws. You can’t own slaves anymore. You can’t shoot anyone who vaguely irritates you, except in Florida. You have to wear a seat belt. Governments exist to set boundaries on acceptable behavior, here by mutual agreement when we can work that out, and then they make you pay a big chunk of your income to fund the mechanisms used to enforce those behaviors. Everyone has to chip in, and if you love freedom, that’s a problem. If you love freedom you want to edge your government, which you also love, closer and closer to anarchy, but not quite there, just near Grover’s bathtub, not in it, but that’s when the correlation between freedom and patriotism breaks down. The one does not cause the other.

Jonathan Chait sees it this way:

Nobody likes writing checks to the government. At best, it’s something people tolerate. At worst? It’s a source of resentment and anger. Either way, it’s a political fact of life – one that imposes narrow boundaries on what policymakers in this country can do.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Sure, there are plenty of principled, intellectually honest reasons to think taxes should be lower. But one reason for the rage against them – and the perception that they are larcenously high – is that the act of paying them is so divorced from the act of receiving the benefits that they finance. You might not like paying a lot for groceries, clothing, a car, or a house. But it feels a lot better because, once you’re done with the transaction you know what you’re getting for it. You’ve taken care of a basic need – there’s food on your plate, a roof over your head, and, if you’re lucky and can afford it, a Camaro in your driveway.

Taxes do the same thing. That payroll tax taken out of everybody’s check? It’s buying you Medicare and Social Security, which means a more secure retirement free of crippling medical bills. Your federal income tax? Its effects are a lot more diffuse. But chances are pretty good that you’ve already used some infrastructure today – whether it was a road or railway you took to work, or maybe the information technology connections you’re using to read this article. Federal, state, and local taxes helped pay for that. Is your water and air clean? Are you safe from threats, domestic and foreign? Then you’re getting something valuable from the Environment Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. Your tax dollars paid for those, too.

Sometimes, of course, your tax dollars pay for supports and services you won’t use. And you might resent that. But even taxes that pay for someone else’s benefits can benefit you. Why does the U.S. not have the massive underclass that characterizes many third-world countries – or the incipient danger of violent upheaval that accompanies it? The safety net your taxes purchased, tattered as it is, buys a degree of social harmony, too.

One must consider the downside too:

Simply reducing what government spends on these programs, in order to allow for lower taxes, would mean cutting a lot of people off from supports on which they literally survive. That’s what the Paul Ryan budget would do – end government-provided health insurance, housing vouchers, and food assistance for millions. Maybe you don’t care and maybe think that has nothing to do with you. If the latter is true, you should consider the possibility that, someday, you could be one of “those” people. You could lose your job or suffer a debilitating injury or encounter some other, random act of chance that would throw your life into instant turmoil and make you, too, dependent on the welfare state to get by.

Maybe you have no objection to paying for the welfare state in principle. Maybe you just don’t like the way government does it – by squandering money on poorly designed programs, or giving help to people who don’t need it. That’s fair. Lots of government programs are inefficient. Some are even prone to corruption. But, just so you know, there’s probably less waste than you think. The food stamp program, for example, is a model of efficiency – with low overhead and fraud rates.

Chait goes on from there, in predicable ways which would appall Ted Cruz, who laughs at such logic, and Chait ends with this:

Naturally, there are arguments to be had over how high taxes should go, exactly who should pay more, and what form those levies should take. Personally, I’d opt for some combination of taxes on wealth and taxes on carbon, figuring it’d be good to fight inequality and stop global warming. And while taxes should go up for most people, they should be a little lower for some of the working poor.

But having that discussion feels a little silly, given that higher taxes are nowhere near the political agenda right now. That’s why the first step towards a more sensible conversation about economic policy and our priorities in general is to admit that taxes can be a good thing, as long as they pay for worthwhile things. I still think they do.

But if nothing’s worthwhile because everyone should take personal responsibility, and grab a gun, then what?

Ed Kilgore tries to work that out:

Almost all of us can identify some government activity we would change or terminate if we were given that power. But relatively few of us claim that power, and those who do so without warrant of law are clearly risking a stint in the hoosegow, along with the poor opinion of our fellow-citizens, above whom we are arrogating ourselves. Call it “individualism” or “libertarianism” or whatever you want, but those who declare themselves a Republic of One and raise their own flags are in a very literal sense being unpatriotic.

That’s why I’m alarmed by the support in many conservative precincts for the Nevada scofflaws who have been exploiting public lands for private purposes and refuse to pay for the privilege because they choose not to “recognize” the authority of the United States. Totally aside from the double standards involved in expecting kid-glove treatment of one set of lawbreakers as opposed to poorer and perhaps darker criminal suspects, fans of the Bundys are encouraging those who claim a right to wage armed revolutionary war towards their obligations as Americans. It makes me really crazy when such people are described as “superpatriots.” Nothing could be more contrary to the truth.

To recap, Matt Ford reported on the incident that outraged the folks on the right:

Twenty-one years ago, rancher Cliven Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees.

Bundy does not recognize federal authority over land where his ancestors first settled in the 1880s, which he claims belongs to the state of Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management disagreed and took him to federal court, which first ruled in favor of the BLM in 1998. After years of attempts at a negotiated settlement over the $1.2 million Bundy owes in fees failed, federal land agents began seizing hundreds of his cattle illegally grazing on public land last week.

But after footage of a BLM agent using a stun gun on Bundy’s adult son went viral in far-right circles, hundreds of armed militia supporters from neighboring states flocked to Bundy’s ranch to defend him from the BLM agents enforcing the court order. The states’-rights groups, in echoes of Ruby Ridge and Waco, came armed and prepared for violence. “I’m ready to pull the trigger if fired upon,” one of the anti-government activists told Reuters. Not eager to spill blood over cattle, the BLM backed down Sunday and started returning the livestock it had confiscated. The agency says it won’t drop the matter and will “continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially.”

His cattle had been illegally grazing on public land for years and years, and he refused to pay the required fees for using public land for that, but he had his reasons – “I abide by all of Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

That’s what he said, and folks on Fox News are cheering him on, and Kilgore add this:

Painful as Tax Day might be, and however unhappy we may be with this or that policy or practice of the federal government, this is indeed our government, and there’s no “country” beyond its jurisdiction to which we may pledge allegiance. So today’s a day for flag-waving, not just tax-paying, and one for rededicating ourselves to engagement in the civic and political processes, not seceding to some imaginary Republic of our own devising.

Kevin Drum takes it from there:

The details of the Bundy case have gotten a lot of attention at conservative sites, but the details really don’t matter. Bundy has a baroque claim that the United States has no legal right to grazing land in Nevada; for over a decade, every court has summarily disagreed. It’s federal land whether Bundy likes it or not, and Bundy has refused for years to pay standard grazing fees – so a couple of weeks ago the feds finally decided to enforce the latest court order allowing them to confiscate Bundy’s cattle if he didn’t leave. The rest is just fluff, a bunch of paranoid conspiracy theorizing that led to last week’s armed standoff between federal agents and the vigilante army created by movement conservatives.

The fact that so many on the right are valorizing Bundy – or, at minimum, tiptoeing around his obvious nutbaggery – is a testament to the enduring power of Waco and Ruby Ridge among conservatives. The rest of us may barely remember them, but they’re totemic events on the right, fueling Glenn-Beckian fantasies of black helicopters and jackbooted federal thugs for more than two decades now.

Mainstream conservatives have pandered to this stuff for years because it was convenient, and that’s brought them to where they are today: too scared to stand up to the vigilantes they created and speak the simple truth. They complain endlessly about President Obama’s “lawlessness,” but this is lawlessness. It’s appalling that so many of them aren’t merely afraid to plainly say so, but actively seem to be egging it on.

MSNBC’s Krystal Ball tries to connect the dots here:

Mr. Bundy denies the legitimacy of our republic. And though he’s been found guilty twice by courts in Nevada, he seems to want to pick and choose the laws that he feels like obeying. But to many on the right he’s a hero, a patriot. In fact, the word patriot has become almost synonymous with right-wing anti-government views. On the fringe, “patriot” groups are grounded in extreme anti-government doctrine, conspiracy theories and fear of impending government violence. They have names like 22nd Field Force Alabama Militia, American Patriot Party and the John Birch Society.

Many of the protesters drawn to Cliven Bundy’s ranch with firearms ready to do whatever it takes to keep Cliven Bundy from complying with federal law were militia members, part of that patriot movement. In more mainstream political thought, the word patriot has become so closely associated with the political right that it was on the now infamous IRS BOLO list, the implication being where you find the word patriot you will likely find a politically active conservative group.

In fact, though, a lot of what is done under this banner of patriotism is really anything but. Cliven Bundy is no patriot for threatening armed insurrection over his refusal to pay money for his use of our land. The Wisconsin Republican party is not patriotic for supporting a resolution, enabling the state to secede from our union.

And the contempt that some on the right feel for their fellow citizens – Mitt Romney’s famous 47%, the takers, the welfare queens, the young bucks buying T-bone steaks, Paul Ryan’s generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work – that contempt for your fellow country men and women is anything but patriotic.

We on the left should not allow conservatives to get away with appropriating patriotism, bastardizing it and claiming it as their exclusive domain. We should not accept their loaded rendering of the term because real patriotism should be grounded in the recognition that from the highest heights of power down to the homeless veterans sleeping on the street, we are all Americans bonded together through our citizenship in a country that at its best day stands at its tallest as the land of opportunity.

Real patriotism is grounded in striving to make more perfect that ideal, that ideal of a fair shot for all so your station at birth does not determine your station at death. And real patriotism means making the country ever more democratic so that the franchise is expanded and power is distributed to all the people, not just the ones who can afford to buy into the system. These are all liberal ideals that are frequently undermined by those claiming the mantle of patriotism.

And so on and so forth – but she’s fighting a losing battle here. Bundy is a hero on the right now, where correlation and causation long ago got all confused, regarding freedom and patriotism. But the two never could coexist easily. Remember the Patriot Act the folks on the right loved so much, that systematically stripped away lots of freedoms? Logic is hard, and fallacies are easy.

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