Not Quite Outside the Box

It’s good to be retired, and it’s particularly good to be retired from the corporate world. Now no one talks about thinking outside the box and paradigm shifts – the staple of every strategic planning offsite ever held. Oh well – stick around long enough and you end up in management, and then if worse comes to worst, you’re in senior management. That means that while others do the real work, you and your peers think Big Thoughts and try to Reimagine the Business – how to do things a new way, even if things are going reasonably well, or deciding the business isn’t the business the business is in, really. Back in the eighties, down at the satellite factory, the guys decided they really weren’t in the business of making nifty satellites and advanced payloads for them – they were really in the communications business. They decided to think outside the box. Suddenly the business was all about those little satellite dishes on the roofs of millions of homes in America and around the world, and all about that giant new control center to manage it all, just down the street. It was brilliant – except it didn’t work out. They had to sell that whole operation to someone who actually knew something about communications, and entertainment, and the original core business, which had languished, was snapped up by General Motors, who knew nothing about outer space in spite of their cars with the big fins back in the late fifties. That didn’t last. They sold the operation to Boeing, and now it’s gone. Others now make all that cool stuff up there in geosynchronous orbit. Thinking outside the box can be dangerous – and steer clear of the guys who don’t even know there is a box.

These meetings occurred at lower levels too. Even first-line supervisors would often find themselves in a conference room with their peers, being asked to rethink everything they were doing and come up with something new and exciting – a new way of doing everything. This would take us all a step beyond mere continuous improvement. This would make us world class. This would take us to the next level. We’d set the new industry standard – except no one knew what anyone was talking about. The sessions were usually led by someone from that odd subset of Human Resources, Organizational Development – by a facilitator, as they say, usually a former English teacher who got tired of the low pay. That was fine – the job was to get people thinking deep thoughts. The facilitator didn’t have to be any kind of an expert in strategic planning, just someone who would drop provocative word clusters out there. Never mind that no one had ever ranked anyone, so what was or was not world class was utter nonsense. There are no levels either. Life is never that clearly stratified – people just make that stuff up to badger each other. As for any paradigm shift, well, those two words were just mysterious. As for thinking outside the box, we all kept looking for that box. It wasn’t there. On breaks, smoking outside on the sidewalk, someone would sooner or later timidly ask the question that was on everyone’s mind. What the hell are we talking about in there? No one knew.

That’s not to say those sessions were worthless. When things actually are going badly, it may be time to try something new, and that calls for strategic planning. Even if there is no box, you might want to think outside the box. That’s where the Republicans fine themselves. They’ve lost two presidential elections in a row now, by wide margins. They’re in a hole. Something is terribly wrong, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told them that after the last election – guys, we need to rethink what we’re selling here and modify a few things, or we’ll never win another national election. Face it. We lost the black vote, the Hispanic vote, overwhelmingly, the urban vote, most of the women’s vote, and the youth vote, and the vote of those who like science and think empirical fact matters – and let’s not even talk about the gays. Our demographic is evangelicals, angry old white men, and corporate officers. There just aren’t enough of those, and their numbers are shrinking. Somehow we need to win over minorities, as their numbers are exploding, and women, and the hip – or whatever word they use for that sort of thing these days. Karl Rove backed Reince Priebus on this, and Bobby Jindal spent a few weeks telling Republicans that they had to stop being the stupid party – all of which was logical and sensible.

This was big news for quite a few weeks, and more than a few chastised Republicans muttered things about ways to win at least a few more black votes, and maybe some Hispanic votes too. That would be the place to start, if you wanted to start, but the Republicans kind of liked their box. Maybe they didn’t have to go to all the trouble of wooing these groups. Forget the odds. Maybe they could double down, as there might be another way to think about all of this, and then the Supreme Court gave them a gift. The Supreme Court declared a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional – and then, almost immediately, every Southern state that had had to get clearance for changes to their election laws gleefully went for voter-ID laws, calling for expensive photo-identification cards that would be hard to get, and restrictive voting hours, and moving polling places to where no one could reach them in time to vote. This was their chance to make sure the black and Latino vote was as thin as possible, and they didn’t even try to hide what they were doing.

The problem is that deciding that with so many people unwilling to vote for them they’d do their best to keep those people from voting, even if their numbers are growing by leaps and bounds, looks bad. If you hate us we’ll make sure you’ll find it next to impossible to vote? That’s not how a democracy is supposed to work. Everyone knows that. We’re supposed to the model of how a modern democracy operates, as an example to the world. We’re not some third-rate banana republic with rigged elections. And that might not work anyway. Those you try to keep from voting might now be willing to stand in line for eight or twelve hours, or drive three hundred miles, simply to cast a vote against you, to stick it to you for disrespecting them. That’s playing with fire.

The Republicans know this. They’re not dumb, at least not all of them – or at least not those at the national level and in the airy think tanks. All the efforts to keep the wrong sort of people from ever voting again are at the state level and a bit of an embarrassment, and a liability. One level up – and here there are levels – the idea seems to be that it really is time for a paradigm shift.

Yeah, those two words don’t really mean anything much, but they certainly sound impressive. That’s the lesson from all those corporate strategic planning meetings. Even if you’re not going to change anything, really, use impressive word clusters. It’s a way to survive those meetings. Toss out those impressive clang words, like some character in a Dilbert cartoon – synergistic logistical cloud-based interfaces or something. Others will step back in awe, even if they don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. They’ll think they should, and shut up. It works every time.

Now it’s Libertarian Populism – that’s what will save the Republican Party. That’s thinking outside the box, except, as one might expect, the economist Paul Krugman doesn’t think so:

It will surely be touted all over the airwaves and the opinion pages by the same kind of people who assured you, a few years ago, that Representative Paul Ryan was the very model of a Serious, Honest Conservative. So let me make a helpful public service announcement: It’s bunk.

It is bunk if you consider this:

The idea here is that there exists a pool of disaffected working-class white voters who failed to turn out last year but can be mobilized again with the right kind of conservative economic program – and that this remobilization can restore the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes.

You can see why many on the right find this idea appealing. It suggests that Republicans can regain their former glory without changing much of anything – no need to reach out to nonwhite voters, no need to reconsider their economic ideology. You might also think that this sounds too good to be true – and you’d be right.

Krugman argues that ignores some pretty basic stuff:

First, the notion that white mobilization is all it takes rests heavily on claims by the political analyst Sean Trende that Mitt Romney fell short last year largely because of “missing white voters” – millions of “downscale, rural, Northern whites” who failed to show up at the polls. Conservatives opposed to any major shifts in the GOP position – and, in particular, opponents of immigration reform – quickly seized on Mr. Trende’s analysis as proof that no fundamental change is needed, just better messaging.

But serious political scientists like Alan Abramowitz and Ruy Teixeira have now weighed in and concluded that the missing-white-voter story is a myth. Yes, turnout among white voters was lower in 2012 than in 2008; so was turnout among nonwhite voters. Mr. Trende’s analysis basically imagines a world in which white turnout rebounds to 2008 levels but nonwhite turnout doesn’t, and it’s hard to see why that makes sense.

Suppose, however, that we put this debunking on one side and grant that Republicans could do better if they could inspire more enthusiasm among “downscale” whites. What can the party offer that might inspire such enthusiasm?

Well, as far as anyone can tell, at this point libertarian populism – as illustrated, for example, by the policy pronouncements of Senator Rand Paul – consists of advocating the same old policies, while insisting that they’re really good for the working class. Actually, they aren’t. But, in any case, it’s hard to imagine that proclaiming, yet again, the virtues of sound money and low marginal tax rates will change anyone’s mind.

There’s also the fact that those downscale whites the party can win back may not buy what they’re selling:

Neither a flat tax nor a return to the gold standard is actually on the table; but cuts in unemployment benefits, food stamps and Medicaid are. (To the extent that there was any substance to the Ryan plan, it mainly involved savage cuts in aid to the poor.) And while many nonwhite Americans depend on these safety-net programs, so do many less-well-off whites – the very voters libertarian populism is supposed to reach.

Specifically, more than 60 percent of those benefiting from unemployment insurance are white. Slightly less than half of food stamp beneficiaries are white, but in swing states the proportion is much higher. For example, in Ohio, 65 percent of households receiving food stamps are white. Nationally, 42 percent of Medicaid recipients are non-Hispanic whites, but, in Ohio, the number is 61 percent.

So when Republicans engineer sharp cuts in unemployment benefits, block the expansion of Medicaid and seek deep cuts in food stamp funding – all of which they have, in fact, done – they may be disproportionately hurting Those People; but they are also inflicting a lot of harm on the struggling Northern white families they are supposedly going to mobilize.

This isn’t populist anything. Libertarian populism is just two words slapped together. The clueless facilitator may write them in big letters on the flip-chart, in red, and ask for discussion, and there may be a lot of discussion, but sooner or later someone is bound to ask what the hell those two words mean. What the hell are we talking about here?

We’re talking about a potentially promising political strategy for the right, a real game-changer, if you believe conservative writers like Tim Carney and Ben Domenech but not Ross Douthat of the New York Times, one of their two in-house conservative columnists, who is sympathetic but skeptical, as he summarizes libertarian populism this way:

This is a strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of “bigness” in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.

Yeah, but then he looks at that budget blueprint from Paul Ryan and sees a “reform of the welfare state that would dramatically reduce the tax burden for the wealthiest Americans while dramatically stripping down benefits and tax breaks for the poor and working class” – so if you want to mobilize disaffected working-class white voters, libertarian populism isn’t the new paradigm you want. On the other hand, Nick Gillespie, the libertarian editor-in-chief of, rips into Krugman – people love ending corporate welfare, breaking up the big banks, cutting the regressive payroll tax, and limiting the home mortgage deduction for the wealthy, even if Paul Ryan doesn’t. This could work!

Then there’s Ramesh Ponnuru of Bloomberg saying that libertarian populism isn’t a political winner – proposing to abolish America’s import-export bank is not exactly a rallying cry for the masses, and cutting payroll taxes is cutting Social Security, the program they are meant to finance and precisely what keeps a lot of angry old white voters afloat. Libertarian populism is no more than two words slapped together. It sounds impressive. It isn’t.

Will Wilkerson reviews all this at his blog at the Economist site and adds this:

I don’t think this gets to the core of the problem with libertarian populism. I see two problems. First, right-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics, which is why the only notable libertarian-leaning politicians to generate real excitement among conservative voters have risen to prominence through alliances with racist and nativist movements. Ron Paul’s racist newsletters were not incidental to his later success, and it comes as little surprise that a man styling himself a “Southern Avenger” numbers among Rand Paul’s top aides. This is what actually-existing right-wing libertarian populism looks like, and that’s what it needs to look like if it is to remain popular, or right-wing. Second, political parties are coalitions of interests, and the Republican Party is the party of the rich, as well as the ideological champion of big business. A principled anti-corporatist, pro-working-class agenda stands as much chance in the GOP as a principled anti-public-sector-union stance in the Democratic Party. It simply makes no sense.

The two words never should have been slapped together in the first place, but perhaps this was inevitable:

There’s a reason we see Republicans resort again and again to a fusion of racially-tinged American-nationalist Christian identity politics, empty libertarian rhetoric (an integral part of traditional white American identity), and the policy interests of high-tax-bracket voters. That’s what works! Well-meaning, libertarian-leaning, small-government conservatives must find this awfully frustrating. I find it frustrating. Yet it seems to me a plain fact that there is no significant electoral faction in American politics that demands the joint reduction of government and corporate power. A subset of libertarian ideas has functioned historically with some effectiveness as a stalking horse for white identity politics, which has brought a few authentic and salutary libertarian ideas to public attention, but the integrated principled substance of the libertarian philosophy has never been very popular. Moreover, if it is ever to become truly popular – and I very much doubt it will – it won’t be on the right.

That’s a frustrated would-be libertarian speaking, realizing he has more in common with the folks on the left than those into white identity politics, and Digby (Heather Parton) hits the nail on the head:

One would think that the ultimate defenders of individual liberty would have no problem distancing themselves from a culture and philosophy that literally owned other human beings. But for some reason this is complicated for many of them and they just can’t seem to make what would seem to be an obvious leap. I’ll leave you to speculate as to why that might be…

This is what happens when you slap two random words together and pretend they mean something amazing and new. This sort of thing is not confined to the corporate world.

Strip out matters of race and sidestep matters of going easy on big business and the wealthy, and you get even less:

House Speaker John Boehner says Congress “ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”

The Ohio Republican makes the comments on an interview aired Sunday on CBS “Face the Nation.” He was responding to a question about how little Congress is doing these days.

Boehner says Congress “should not be judged by how many new laws we create.”

He says the U.S. has “more laws than the administration could ever enforce.”

Boehner says that view may be unpopular because this country has a divided government. Boehner says he and his allies in Congress are fighting for what they believe in. And he adds, “Sometimes the American people don’t like this mess.”

Libertarian populism now comes down to doing nothing new about anything, ever, and doing less and less of what’s already on the books. Maybe that’s its pure form, which Boehner says is what the Americans really want, even if that is quite unpopular. He seems a bit confused, or he knows something about what Americans really want, something that they don’t even know themselves. That’s really thinking outside the box.

There’s also that question that came up as we were smoking in the sunshine on break from that endless strategic planning workshop. Guys, what the hell were we talking about in there? No one quite knew. And now the company is gone.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to Not Quite Outside the Box

  1. Rick says:

    A few thoughts:

    * Maybe the Republicans should sell the whole thing to Boeing.

    * You left out two of my favorite words — “synergy” and “pro-active”.

    * “Libertarian” and “Populism” are two words that already have negative connotations to me, even if most other people I know seem to think of them in a positively way.

    While Libertarians argue, and actually seem to believe, that they’re just stripping political theory down to first principles, those principles seem to overlook the fact that our real-life survival and success as a people and a species has historically depended on a collective morality that called for our sticking together and looking out for each other. Libertarians seem to ignore the fact that a Libertarian paradise would be a treeless land (and maybe also a roadless one) with everybody spending most their day trying to keep others from getting at their stuff.

    And Populism, to me, connotes stern-faced farmers with pitchforks who don’t like not only big cities and bankers and science, but also minorities and people of other religions and lands — bigotry which is supposed to be okay because at least it’s fostered by real people who, unlike the rest of us parasites, “actually till the land and grow our food!”

    Put those two words together — “Libertarian Populist” — and, to my way of thinking, you have one toxic stew.

    * “… a facilitator, as they say, usually a former English teacher who got tired of the low pay.” Hey, was that you leading those ridiculous discussions?


    • mike shupp says:

      Being fair to Trende, I read his post and didn’t see the unify-the-whites program that seems to have excited the Republicans for this little moment. His attitude was that on paper, it might appear that whites could form an electoral majority, but that in practice former Perot voters weren’t going to fit happily with libertarians and friends of big businessmen, so Republicans really should figure out how to market themselves to blacks and Hispanics. Which looks like what other folks have decided since, at greater length.

  2. Randy says:

    My favorite is when the facilitator asks to take the discussion off-line to limit the buzzkill when some fool tries to drag reality into the meeting.

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