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.


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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One Response to Judging Relative Awesomeness

  1. Rick says:

    “… 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?”

    No, that moment you imagine would not actually be refreshing. In fact, maybe the reason it doesn’t happen is it might wake fans up to the lack of sportsmanship they like to think is in sports, and they just might stop watching. And that would just never do.

    This new Princeton study sounds like a repeat of some other study you reported on in your column several years ago, in which it was pointed out that our elected officials tend not to be influenced by voter sentiment but instead listen to people with lots of money. Seems sort of counter-intuitive, but maybe it’s not, since their opponents are doing the same thing, so what do they have to lose? One of these days, we will find a way to fix that problem — or else we won’t, and then America will just die.

    I like this other HuffPost/YouGov survey more, of course. It’s ammo that could be used against all those who still insist we’re a “center-right” country, and demonstrates that Republican assumptions are really so out of step with the rest of us.

    In fact, I’m thinking someone can even show that Republican opinions are demonstrably incorrect — that is, that despite what you might think about “individual failings”, most good oppotunities actually go to kids who come from those neighborhoods where parents are richer than parents in poor neighborhoods. That would statistically indicate that your success has less to do with your hard work than with what someone else gave to you.

    In fact, you might even be able to rewrite those survey results in a way that shows those Republican opinions not only as facts, but facts that happen to be wrong:

    “Asked whether ‘two plus two equals five’ or ‘two plus two equals four’, GOPers prefer the former explanation by a 48/23 margin (Democrats tilt towards the latter by a decisive 61/14 margin; and Indies do so less decisively, by 41/33).”

    Yeah, that would be cool.


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