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But Information Wants to be Freeeeeeeeeeeee!

[ 71 ] April 29, 2016 |

Stating what really should be obvious:

After Prince’s untimely death last week, folks trying to share his songs on Twitter and Facebook via YouTube clips — the modern mode of mourning in our digital age — were stumped. Ditto those who turned to Spotify or Rhapsody or Apple’s streaming service for solo bingeing.

Needless to say, this caused much frustration with those who feel entitled to free, instant access to every scrap of #content ever created.

“There’s a good chance you want to hear and see more Prince today,” wrote Peter Kafka at re/code. “That’s harder than it should be. Or, at least, harder than you’re accustomed to when pop icons die.”


Now, this is a bit of sophistic silliness. There are actually plenty of ways one could binge on Prince’s music, that one could feel Prince deep within them. One could purchase a subscription to Tidal. For just $10, one would gain instant access to virtually everything Prince ever recorded for a whole month. That’s an amazingly good deal. If streaming’s not your thing, you could check out Amazon, which offers 21 Prince albums (and two Prince singles) for instant download at prices between 99 cents and $23.99. I myself downloaded Prince’s finest work, Batman.* If you’re an Apple guy or gal, iTunes has you covered with a similar selection.

What Kafka means is that there’s no way to “feel it right now” for free. There’s no way to access the life’s work of a great artist for free. As comic book artist Erik Larsen — who famously ditched Marvel to work for artist-owned Image — put it on Twitter: “Prince didn’t make it easy for you to steal his music. Here’s how to binge listen to it: 1. Buy a bunch of Prince’s music. 2. Listen to it.”



[ 92 ] April 28, 2016 |


I thought after the Trent Richardson debacle it would be a loooong time before a running back was selected in the top 5 again. I was wrong, but was pleased to see who made the blunder.

We’ve obviously been through this before, but given that 1)the marginal quality of a team’s running game is not terribly important to winning in the contemporary NFL, 2)adequate running backs are fairly easily obtained by a competent organization, and 3)the performance of RBs tends to vary widely from year-to-year, it’s crazy to invest top-first-round opportunity cost and money in anything but a once-in-a-generation talent at the position. And nobody knows how to identify top-flight NFL running backs ex ante. Elliott will probably be better than Richardson — who isn’t? — but it’s a really dumb pick.

Conversely — and it feels weird to say this — the new management in Cleveland seems to know what it’s doing. They’re at the beginning of a long road, but hiring a good coach and accumulating lots of draft picks is a good place to start.

Objection. Nonresponsive.

[ 93 ] April 28, 2016 |


This is my favorite of Jim VandeHei’s responses to Dylan Matthews, which Rob linked below:

DM: The Innovation Party sounds like a typical Beltway centrist project: pro-entitlement cuts, hawkish, socially liberal, etc. Is VandeHei familiar with research from political scientists David Broockman and Doug Ahler showing that most self-identified moderate voters aren’t actually that kind of centrist at all? People who want lots of government programs but also are skeptical of abortion and immigration are a more typical kind of moderate. Why would those people ever vote for the Innovation Party?

JV: I would be careful about reading too much into studies of voter habits right now. Did you anticipate Republican voters would elect an anti-trade, pro-status-quo-on-entitlements Democrat as their nominee? Did you predict a 74-year-old man would clobber Hillary Clinton among young women? There is extreme volatility in politics and I believe most eligible voters are willing to consider something unique or different.

This is…amazing. It’s almost aggressively self-refuting.

Matthews is making a familiar but important point. Elite journalists pining for a third party candidate almost always call for one who is, like them, fiscally conservative (especially with respect to popular entitlement programs) but socially liberal. So one obvious problem with VandeHei’s latest iteration is that it’s the antithesis of “innovative,” a label we can safely say can never be applied to something once Tom Friedman has written his first dozen identical columns advocating it. An even more important problem, as Matthews observes, is that these views 1)have very little popular constituency and 2)are already massively overrepresented among Beltway elites.

VandeHei’s asserts that we should ignore the fact that both Democratic and Republican voters support federal entitlement programs. To support this, his first move is…to point out that Donald Trump is winning the nomination while being the only Republican candidate who supports preserving entitlement programs! He then proceeds to observe that Bernie Sanders is popular among young women. How this shows that voters are clamoring for the INNOVATION of Pain Caucus brand neoliberalism and plenty of it, led not by a New York billionaire but a Silicon Valley billionaire, is…not obvious.

This is an inadvertently perfect illustration of how impervious to reason VandeHei’s deeply embedded fealty to centrist Beltway received wisdom is. Somebody points out that pretty much everybody hates his ideas. His response is to cite politicians who have effectively mobilized voters who hate his ideas as evidence that people want things to be DISRUPTED based on his own massively unpopular ideas. It’s really quite amazing. If his first column was beyond parody, his defense of it is doing to parody what Homer did to the Krusty Burglar:

Jim VandeHei, everbody!

Meet The New Boss…

[ 60 ] April 27, 2016 |


Perhaps the Eagles massively overpaid for what is most likely the draft rights to a QB with one and a half seasons of FBS football under his belt because they convinced themselves they could get some of those picks back?

In a radio interview yesterday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter said he believes the Eagles aren’t willing to move Bradford unless they get more than a second-round pick in return.

So…the Eagles think they can get 1st round pick for an injury-prone, below-average quarterback? Even though they’ve already taken out a third adjustable-rate subprime mortgage to acquire Carson Wentz, and hence have pretty much no leverage? Well, I can think of one organization who apparently don’t want their incumbent quarterback and are run by noted incompetents and have a coach who has recently been willing to overpay for Bradford so maybe…

According to’s Jeff Darlington, you can cross two teams off the list of the Eagles’ potential trade partners—one of them at Bradford’s insistence.

“The Jets are not interested in Bradford and he is not interested in playing with Chip Kelly”

Oh. So the Eagles’ plan is to find someone who isn’t the 49ers who are dumb enough to trade a first round pick for Sam Bradford. Good luck with that! Maybe if Bradford names his hypothetical running mate it will help.

Make this a draft open thread for anyone so inclined.

This is what happens when you ignore the Constitution and allow foreigners to run for president, Part Deux

[ 39 ] April 27, 2016 |


Man who will not be president to name woman who was almost as inept a candidate as she was as CEO — an impressive accomplishment — as his hypothetical running mate. If this somehow doesn’t work I will blame Fox & Friends for being too smug.

Is Liberal “Smugness” A Meaningful Causal Factor In American Politics? (SPOILER: Still No.)

[ 208 ] April 27, 2016 |


Emmett Rensin has a follow-up to his argument that the white working class, especially in the South, doesn’t vote for liberals because smug liberals hate them. I will give him credit for this much: he sticks to the strong version of his argument. Based on some of his tweets, I fully expected the move in the “the two-step of terrific triviality” in which he backed off his transparently erroneous causal claims and historical assumptions and reduced his argument down to some unexceptionable banality like “liberals should take people who disagree with them seriously.” And we do got both steps here. But ultimately, for better or worse, he means it. This…does not go well:

On the first point, Bouie is correct. Racial animus that had threatened to destroy the liberal coalition as far back as the early twentieth century was a major driver of the realignment that culminated between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t something I deny in my own piece. In fact, I’d go further and say that the racial tantrum which drove realignment wasn’t limited to the working class. Among the most critical errors in the history of the American labor movement, the racially motivated defection of union leadership to Nixon in 1968 surely ranks near the top. Subsequently exploited and encouraged by the GOP, racism has continued to animate reactionary populism, from Reagan’s “young buck”, through the reaction to the Barack Obama presidency, and now in the Trump movement.

Resnsin still has no idea of the magnitude of this concession. Remember, his argument is that southern white workers not voting for Democrats is a recent development driven by factors such as Gawker posts and Jon Stewart monologues. If this realignment was not only driven largely by resentment towards the Democratic embrace of civil rights but was mostly complete several decades ago, his argument is reduced to virtually nothing right at the outset. (And when you add in the fact that even before the realignment these voters might have been voting for Democrats but generally weren’t voting for liberals — that this realignment was more about more coherent parties emerging than a change in voter ideology — any possible bite to his argument becomes even more threadbare.)

At this point, any sensible person would realize his argument was a dog and abandon ship. Rensin, instead, makes it even worse. Step one:

That I didn’t explicitly address this my piece is a fair critique by Bouie, but I don’t believe it fundamentally undermines my point. The fact that the white working class embraced and continues to embrace racial resentment does not actually constitute a good reason to deny them economic justice.

This is, of course, true. The problem is that virtually no liberal disagrees with this. Rensin has successfully wrestled a strawman to the ground. Consider Hamilton Nolan, one of the very few of the “smug liberals” who Rensin names and specifically addresses, because he wrote a half-serious post that makes him The Very Smug Face of Liberalism Today (TM). Does Nolan believe that the working class does not deserve economic justice? No, he does not; quite the opposite. Indeed, his half-serious contempt for “dumb hicks” is precisely based on the fact that their votes obstruct efforts to create more egalitarian economic conditions. I don’t think Nolan’s reaction is productive, but given how much weight explanatory weight Rensin piles onto this one post, his incompetent reading of it is an excellent illustration of the problems with his argument.

We have seen a nearly perfect case study to test Rensin’s point: John Roberts’s inept and constitutionally unwarranted re-writing of the Medicaid expansion. John Roberts’s version of Medicaid effectively granted the most important expansion of the welfare state in nearly 50 years to Democratic states and denied it to most of the states in which the white working class helped install Republican statehouses. My challenge: name me one single coastal urban liberal who was pleased with John Roberts’s version of Medicaid. If, as Rensin asserts, the dominant ethos of such liberals is “if they won’t vote for us, deny them economic justice,” they shouldn’t be hard to find! It’s also worth noting that the the large state role in Medicaid, both in 1965 and 2010, was not the preference of urban liberals but was a concession to more conservative Midwestern and rural Democrats. We smug effete liberals generally prefer national programs that provide uniform benefits and despise the neoconfderate ideology Sebelius represents, the fact that decentralization effectively punishes Southern workers notwithstanding.

It is true, in the 90s, that many Democrats — some reasonably described as liberals and some not — pursued policies, most notably welfare reform, that denied economic justice to elements of the working class. But these misguided policies were more a way to appeal to white working class voters rather than a sign of contempt for them, passed during a period in which Democratic elites were suffused with anxiety about their dwindling support in the South. Rensin is right about the policy merits but completely wrong about the politics of their passage.

That said, I don’t think liberal smugness—“These rubes are just ignorant backward hicks who deserve their fate”—is taking a nuanced view of history either.

Indeed it is not! The problem is that Rensin has only some anecdotal evidence for the “ignorant hicks” part of the argument and bupkis on the more crucial “deserve their fate” part. Strawmen you just made up and attribute to others do indeed tend to be lacking in nuance.

And, now, step two:

The second of Bouie’s arguments—that elite liberals in media, on twitter, etc. don’t really matter as much as I think—is a lot less defensible.


But not, evidently, in the case of the working class. You could argue that reactionary working class whites deserve to be shut out and scorned in a way that others do not. But that is not the same thing as saying that being shut out and disrespected doesn’t have much effect.

So Rensin isn’t backing off his causal claims here. And the problem is, as we discussed at the outset, that he has an implausible causal explanation that doesn’t even have causation going for it. Both smug liberals and reactionary whites voting for conservatives are evergreen elements of American politics that long predate The Daily Show and these effete liberals today with their Twitter and Facebook. And two of the less than dozen or so years of the last century in which liberals have been…well, not even dominant in Congress but influential enough to pass something resembling an ambitious if compromised progressive agenda, occurred during the height of liberal smugness. The argument just doesn’t make any sense.

Rensin also addresses the obvious meta-problem of the smugness that consistently characterizes his sweeping, contemptuous, lightly supported generalizations about “smug liberals”:

My essay defines “the smug style” very precisely. It does not mean “having an opinion” or “arguing forcefully” or even “believing your politics are right”. The smug style is about how a large segment of elite liberal culture has come to believe that political differences and political arguments are errors, in the strict sense. That they are ultimately reducible to differences in knowledge (and therefore differences in intelligence). It has accordingly developed an entire culture of tribal signals and jokes predicated on reinforcing this dogma.

The consequence is that elite liberal concerns have been blinded to a whole host of economic issues. It has made liberals worse at combatting reactionary forces. If you believe the main problem is that your opponents are dumb hicks, you do not understand them well enough to fight them, much less persuade them. For example: The smug style made it impossible for liberals to take Trump until very late in the game. It has made a large part of their response to him counter-productive. Even if Trump is defeated, this pattern will continue.

The problem here is that while there are certainly liberals who believe that any disagreement with them must be motivated by ignorance or false consciousness, Rensin provides no evidence that this self-flattery is any more common among liberals than left-of-liberals, moderates, or conservatives. And the weaknesses of his argument are perfectly illustrated by the last three sentences. I assume the third-last one meant to say “take Trump seriously,” but the problem here is that the failure to take Trump seriously was at least as common among conservatives as liberals. (And it’s not just about smugness, either: nobody like Trump had ever won a major party nomination before.) The move in the last two sentence, though, is even better. Liberal smugness has made responses to Trump counter-productive. Liberal smugness is a very bad and very important thing, then! Only liberal smugness notwithstanding, barring economic catastrophe Trump is overwhelmingly likely to be trounced about as badly as a contemporary major party candidate can be in November by a candidate whose campaigning skills are distinctly underwhelming. Does this suggest that perhaps liberal smugness just isn’t remotely the causal factor in determining electoral outcomes that Rensin keeps asserting? No, no, it’s central to his point!

Look, liberal smugness is a real thing. I’ll even give a tip for the next person writing something like this: The Newsroom. It’s a whole show premised on the idea that everyone would agree with liberals if only they heard liberal arguments presented in the right way by the right pompous white guy, and it’s the smuggest and most irritating thing you’ve ever seen. But as much as I’d like to think otherwise, Aaron Sorkin isn’t the reason Republicans control the House. Just because something is really annoying doesn’t make it important. Rensin’s argument is half strawman and half a real thing whose importance he’s massively exaggerated.

It Is Getting Hard to See Any Evitability

[ 169 ] April 26, 2016 |


I have generally thought that it would be enormously difficult for Donald Trump to win on a second or later ballot in Cleveland, given his organizational weaknesses. Who knows, this might even be right! However, after tonight’s massive blowout it seems pretty clear that it’s a moot point:

Donald J. Trump is essentially two key states from the nomination.

By sweeping five states on Tuesday, he pulled only a few hundred Republican delegates short of the 1,237 he needs to win without a contested convention.

He has long been favored in the polls in two of the remaining primary states, New Jersey and West Virginia. That leaves Indiana and California as the crucial prizes that would put Mr. Trump over the top — and while he was once thought to be vulnerable in both states, polls have shown him with a modest lead.

And not only that:

One thing that has to greatly worry the anti-Trump forces is that Trump is now exceeding his poll averages. Since New York, Trump has performed at least 6.5 percentage points better in every state than the average of polls taken within 21 days of the election. Before that, Trump tended to hit his polling average and win no undecideds. Now, he’s winning his fair share of undecideds and then some. That’s very bad news for his opponents, given that Trump is already ahead in Indiana, a must-win state for Cruz.

He has a very good shot at 1,237 pledged delegates, and if not he’ll probably get close enough to lock it up on the first ballot. Living in a satirical novel is weird, but I guess eventually you get used to it.

The Sound of One Hand Fapping, No Labels Edition

[ 113 ] April 26, 2016 |


Daydream believing about third parties from the left is misguided and potentially disastrous, but the underlying impulse is at least understandable. From the elite center, on the other hand, it’s just pathetic. I give you Mr. Jim VandeHei and his belief that America’s overpaid and underperforming elites need a DISRUPTIVE vanity candidate to call their own pretend represents any constituency beyond themselves:

Here are my two big takeaways: Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption. And the best, perhaps only way to disrupt the establishment is by stealing a lot of Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s tricks and electing a third-party candidate.

Who knows, maybe this will be the first time a good idea is announced by tying it to “disruption?” I don’t like the odds but…

Take it a step further and force the wealthy to forfeit their entitlement benefits. And everyone loves socking it to Congress. Mandate that lawmakers go home after serving instead of profiting off their service. Also force them to get outside of the D.C. bubble by holding months-long sessions in different sections of Normal America.

Faux-populism that 1)does nothing for the poor or middle class in the short term and 2)probably leaves them worse off in the long term as the elite have even less incentive to preserve entitlement programs.

The candidate has to be authentic and capable of having a rolling, candid, transparent conversation with voters on social and conventional media.

What ordinary Americans crave above all is good jobs financial security dignity and security affordable health care Authenticity! What an amazing coincidence that elite Beltway centrists are obsessed with which candidates can best fake it.

The ideal candidate would write a very specific agenda in normal, conversational language, not whatever nonsensical language today’s political class was taught to speak. He or she would engage voters daily on social media, with fun and flare. (Think Trump with impulse control and better spelling.) The candidate would inundate voters with transparency and specificity, even when it hurts. And exploit cable TV’s addiction to whatever is hot and new. Mr. Trump has shown how technology has made money less important in modern politics.

There are many words here that don’t mean anything. Are we going to get to the “very specific agenda” at some point?

Exploit the fear factor. The candidate should be from the military or immediately announce someone with modern-warfare expertise or experience as running mate.

Apparently not.

Learn from the mistakes of Messrs. Trump and Sanders. Anger has its limits. The fringe can win primaries but it can’t win national elections

Be like Trump and Sanders — who are very similar! — but not too much. Very useful.

Use the Internet revolution for the greater good.

It will be a totally proactive new paradigm! Like this:

Right now, millions of young people are turned on by a 74-old-year socialist scolding Wall Street; millions of others by a reality-TV star with a 1950s view of women. Why not recruit Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg to head a third-party movement? Maybe we can convince Michael Bloomberg to help fund the movement with the billions he planned to spend on his own campaign—and then recruit him to run Treasury and advise the president.

What Americans furious at American elites want is a party led by immensely wealthy people running on no particular agenda! What an amazing coincidence that this is also what I’ve always wanted!

And now, the punchline:

I will even throw out a possible name for the movement: The Innovation Party.

How many times can satire be killed in one op-ed?

Today’s Overdetermined Donald Trump Endorsement

[ 64 ] April 26, 2016 |


He has the perpetually angry white guy asshole vote LOCKED UP, I tell you:

It looks like Donald Trump got what he wanted — former Indiana Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight will be hitting the road with him on Wednesday.


Meanwhile, Knight, who is known for once throwing a chair during a game, has been talking up Trump for months, including when he was on speakerphone with Trump while a New York Times reporter was in the room. ‘‘No one has accomplished more than Mr. Trump has,’’ Knight said in the article that was published last October.

During an event for IU rival Purdue University earlier this year, Knight also said, “I damn sure don’t want to be listening to Hillary for the next four years.”

If only Zombie Woody Hayes could have been more active in Ohio…

NFL Permitted To Impose Grossly Disproportionate Punishment For Offense That Wasn’t Committed

[ 201 ] April 25, 2016 |


Four federal judges have heard Tom Brady’s appeal of the ludicrous suspension imposed and upheld by Roger Goodell, and they have split 2-2 on its legality. Unfortunately for Brady, as virtually every observer of the oral argument expected 2 of the 3 who voted with the league were on the circuit court panel, so he will almost certainly be out for four games. This is regrettable, although getting an arbitration award overturned is always enormously difficult and the conclusion that he was within his formal legal authority is reasonable.

Chief Judge Katzmann raised two fundamental points in his dissent, one more persuasive than the other. The stronger argument pertains to the bait-and-switch Goodell pulled at the arbitration stage, citing additional “evidence” not contained in the Wells report. The NFL CBA requires that clear advance notice be provided to players before punishments are imposed. The dissent argues that Goodell, by citing findings not in the Wells report failed to provide notice and hence exceeded his authority. It’s worth noting that the majority concedes that Goodell did not have the authority as arbitrator to impose a punishment based on materially different findings from the original decision; the dispute between the opinions is based on facts, not on the controlling legal standard. It’s a close question, but I found the analysis in the dissent more persuasive.

The second argument made by the dissent was that Goodell did not adequately defend the decision to impose an unprecedented sentence that went far beyond the penalty for similar offenses mandated by the CBA:

Yet, the Commissioner failed to even mention, let alone explain, a highly analogous penalty, an omission that underscores the peculiar nature of Brady’s punishment. The League prohibits the use of stickum, a substance that enhances a player’s grip. Under a collectively bargained-for Schedule of Fines, a violation of this prohibition warrants an $8,268 fine in the absence of aggravating circumstances. Given that both the use of stickum and the deflation of footballs involve attempts at improving one’s grip and evading the referees’ enforcement of the rules, this would seem a natural starting point for assessing Brady’s penalty. Indeed, the League’s justification for prohibiting stickum—that it “affects the integrity of the competition and can give a team an unfair advantage,” is nearly identical to the Commissioner’s explanation for what he found problematic about the deflation—that it “reflects an improper effort to secure a competitive advantage in, and threatens the integrity of, the game.”

Notwithstanding these parallels, the Commissioner ignored the stickum penalty entirely. This oversight leaves a noticeable void in the Commissioner’s decision,6 and in my opinion, the void is indicative of the award’s overall failure to draw its essence from the CBA. Even taking into account the special circumstances here—that the alleged misconduct occurred during the AFC Championship Game, that team employees assisted in the deflation, that a deflated football arguably affects every play, and that Brady failed to cooperate in the subsequent investigation—I am unable to understand why the Commissioner thought the appropriate penalty was a four-game suspension and the attendant four-game loss of pay, which, in Brady’s case, is far more than $8,268. The lack 1 of any meaningful explanation in the Commissioner’s final written decision convinces me that the Commissioner was doling out his own brand of industrial justice.

As an argument about the merits of Goodell’s decision, this argument is unanswerable — the punishment was irrational and grossly disproportionate. But it’s not the appellate court’s job to determine the defensibility of the suspension on the merits, and on this point I agree with the majority that the CBA did not require Goodell to consider analogous punishments or forbid an arbitrary and unprecedented punishment, even one as extreme as this. If Goodell exceeded his authority, it was by denying Brady’s right to advance notice.

Given the extreme unlikelihood that 2CA will grant an en banc appeal or the Supreme Court would grant cert, this is now a football story. And as a football story, Goodell’s actions remain as outrageous as ever. The suspension of Brady for 4 games has a significant impact on the NFL season, and even if Brady and the Patriots were guilty as charged, the offense merited no more than a five-figure fine. And, of course, they weren’t:

Brady liked his footballs at the lowest p.s.i. in the range — 12.5. The consultants concluded that the drop in the p.s.i. of the Patriots’ footballs — the average was 11.3 p.s.i. — could not be fully explained by the Ideal Gas Law; it was too steep. But the smaller drop in the p.s.i. of the Colts’ footballs could indeed be explained by the laws of physics.

Numbers in hand, Leonard went to work. He bought the same gauges the N.F.L. used to measure p.s.i. levels. He bought N.F.L.-quality footballs. He replicated the temperatures of the locker room, and the colder field. And so on. When he was done, he concluded that Exponent had made a series of basic errors. Leonard’s work showed the exact opposite of Exponent’s conclusions: The drop in the Patriots’ footballs’ p.s.i was consistent with the Ideal Gas Law; the smaller drop in pressure in the Colts’ balls was not. (Leonard surmises that because the Colts’ balls were tested after the Patriots’ balls, they had warmed up again.)

By early November, he had a PowerPoint presentation with more than 140 slides. By the end of the month, he had given two lectures about Deflategate, the second of which he had videotaped and posted on YouTube. A viewer who watched the lengthy lecture edited it down to a crisp 15 minutes; Leonard agreed to let him post the edited version.

The edited lecture went up on YouTube on Dec. 1 and has been viewed more than 17,000 times. It is utterly convincing. Leonard told me that if an M.I.T. undergraduate made the kinds of mistakes that Exponent made, “I would force them to repeat the experiment and correct the analysis.” Based on his study of the data, Leonard now says: “I am convinced that no deflation occurred and that the Patriots are innocent. It never happened.”

He is hardly the only scientist to take that position. As Dan Wetzel pointed out in a recent Yahoo Sports column, scientists at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, Boston College, Rockefeller University, the University of Illinois and Bowdoin College — and others — have all come to the same conclusion.

The season has been substantially affected by a suspension based on completely worthless junk science put forward by a for-hire chop shop, and also involves a severe punishment for an offense that would be trivial even if it had actually happened. Goodell may have been within his formal legal authority, but his actions were a disgraceful abuse of his powers, powers that need to be constrained in the next CBA.

Is “Smugness” A Significant Causal Factor in American Politics? (SPOILER: No.)

[ 280 ] April 25, 2016 |


Jamelle Bouie says most of what needs to be said about Emmett Rensin’s extremely long essay about liberal “smugness” and the allegedly large role it has played in liberal political reversals:

It’s a comprehensive case. It’s a full-throated case. And it’s informed by a tradition of intra-left criticism of liberal elites, much of it fair and often needed. But it’s wrong. Or at least, it has three fatal flaws that make it far from persuasive.

The first is just history. That liberal smugness might deter the white working class from the Democratic Party seems reasonable, if unfalsifiable. But to suggest that it is a prime mover in their alienation from the party is to ignore the actual dynamics at work. The driving reason working-class whites abandoned the Democratic Party is race. The New Deal coalition Rensin describes was devoured by its own contradictions, chiefly, the racism needed to secure white allegiance even as the party tried to appeal to blacks.

Pressed by those blacks, Democrats tried to make good on their commitments, and when they did, whites bolted. The Democratic Party’s alliance with nonwhites is what drove those whites away, not the sniffing of comedians on cable television. And, looking at the politics of the last seven years, it’s still keeping them away. (It’s worth noting that, up until left-leaning whites and minorities elected Barack Obama president, Democrats suffered little loss with working-class whites outside of the South.)

That said, there’s no question that smug liberals exist. It’s incontestable. (I’ve complained about them myself.) But Rensin doesn’t argue for the mere existence of liberals who are smug about their beliefs and ideology. He argues that smugness is key to contemporary liberalism. That it’s all but a plank of today’s Democratic Party.

But his evidence is lacking. “The smug style in American liberalism” is defined entirely through media and social media. It is The Daily Show, it is liberal Twitter, it is Gawker. (Rensin devotes a portion of the essay to excoriating an essay by writer Hamilton Nolan.) But these are small portions—fractions—of the Democratic Party. And they’re far from representative of American liberals.

Precisely. There are of course smug liberals (as there are smug people of any political persuasion.) Are liberals more likely to be smug? I have no idea, but let’s say that it’s true. The obvious problem is that there have always been smug liberals. There were smug liberals when the Democrats got routed in 1984, and there were smug liberals when Democrats won big in 2008. The causal logic Rensin uses is transparently wrong. Consider this, for example:

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, the working class, once the core of the coalition, began abandoning the Democratic Party. In 1948, in the immediate wake of Franklin Roosevelt, 66 percent of manual laborers voted for Democrats, along with 60 percent of farmers. In 1964, it was 55 percent of working-class voters. By 1980, it was 35 percent.

To state the obvious, if a large percentage of the white working class defected between 1948 and 1964, as Bouie says it’s pretty hard to argue that Jon Stewart and people saying mean things about Kim Davis on Twitter played a major causal role.

And that’s not the only problem. While substantial majorities of manual laborers and farmers might have voted for the Democrats in 1948, that doesn’t mean they were a voting bloc for the left. The 1948 election didn’t just come in the wake of FDR; it came in the wake of Congress passing the Taft-Hartley Act with veto-proof majorities, a rather important fact that inevitably gets left out of stories about the Golden Age of the Democratic alliance with the white working class.

The most fundamental problem with Rensin’s argument is that it treats conservative control of Congress and many statehouses as a recent development, an anomaly to be explained, when in fact it’s the rule. Democrats may have controlled Congress with the support of southern and rural white voters for most of the 20th century, but the periods in which Congress had an effective liberal agenda have always been fleeting. And even in the pre-1937 New Deal and the heyday Great Society, southern conservatives retained enough influence to force painful compromises and constrain ambitions. Smugness on social media is neither her nor there in explaining these longstanding institutional and cultural conditions.

While we’re here, there’s also this:

If there is a single person who exemplifies the dumbass hick in the smug imagination, it is former President George W. Bush. He’s got the accent. He can’t talk right. He seems stupefied by simple concepts, and his politics are all gee-whiz Texas ignorance. He is the ur-hick. He is the enemy.

He got all the way to White House, and he’s still being taken for a ride by the scheming rightwing oligarchs around him — just like those poor rubes in Kansas. If only George knew Dick Cheney wasn’t acting in his own best interests!

It is worth considering that Bush is the son of a president, a patrician born in Connecticut and educated at Andover and Harvard and Yale.

It is worth considering that he does not come from a family known for producing poor minds.


He did, however, deliberately cultivate the confusion. He understood the smug style. He wagered that many liberals, eager to see their opponents as intellectually deficient, would buy into the act and thereby miss the more pernicious fact of his moral deficits.

He wagered correctly. Smug liberals said George was too stupid to get elected, too stupid to get reelected, too stupid to pass laws or appoint judges or weather a political fight. Liberals misunderestimated George W. Bush all eight years of his presidency.

George W. Bush is not a dumbass hick. In eight years, all the sick Daily Show burns in the world did not appreciably undermine his agenda.

Yes, someone in an essay excoriating smug, elitist liberals assumes that if someone attended fancy east coast prep schools and universities as a third-generation legacy, they must be highly accomplished intellects.

Moving right along, did many liberals underestimate Bush’s political skills and his conservatism in 2000? Sure. But was it the reason Bush won? That’s rather more dubious. Al Gore, whatever mistakes his campaign made, took Bush and the threat he posed very seriously. (It was Ralph Nader — who I don’t think is the kind of smug liberal Rensin has in mind — who said “Don’t you worry. George Bush is so dumb, Gore will beat him by twenty points” and portrayed Bush as a harmless moderate, not Gore.) But the idea that most liberals didn’t think Bush was a major political challenge in 2004 — who are these liberals, exactly?

I agree that “sick Daily Show burns” did not undermine Bush’s agenda. (I’m not sure who does believe this, but one can say the same about most of the positions attributed to unnamed “liberals” throughout the essay.) But you know who did do a pretty job job of undermining Bush’s second-term agenda? Congressional Democrats, who stopped Bush’s centerpiece legislative initiative as a minority and then further undermined his agenda by capturing Congress in 2006. Somehow, this all happened with Jon Stewart in charge of American liberalism from his perch at Comedy Central.

It’s also unclear to me even in Bush’s more legislatively successful first term how less “smugness” could have undermined his agenda. The key actions — wars, tax cuts, a Medicare expansion, all funded by debt — aren’t exactly the heaviest of political lifts. Misunderestimated or not, he had the votes where any Republican president could have been expected to have the votes and didn’t when they wouldn’t. I’d say that in terms of degree of difficulty, what Obama/Pelosi/Reid did in half the time is considerably more impressive. Perhaps Rensin will write a 50,000 word essay about how this all happened because conservatives were lulled into complacency by the smugness of the 1/2 Hour News Hour and the O’Reilly Factor.

“Also, ‘Little Red Corvette’ urged GM to bust the UAW and Wendy Mevloin’s solo on ‘Purple Rain’ was preemptive capitulation to the patriarchy”

[ 87 ] April 24, 2016 |


In comments, Hob has obtained excerpts from an exclusive advance copy of Jonah Walters’s Prince memorial:

“Raspberry Beret” is obviously an anthem of bourgeois reaction.

The first verse briefly flirts with populist resentment of the boss, Mr. McGee, but that’s just to distract you from the monstrous anti-labor sentiments of the rest of the song– as Prince goes on to praise the object of his desire for wearing a second-hand beret. In other words, why support Americans working in the beret industry when you can just pick up the cast-off berets of well-off bohemians for a few bucks? Worse, her hedonistic lifestyle is basically an excuse to disparage garment workers in general, since other than the beret she wears as little clothing as possible.

There’s another false hint of more promising political content when the young protagonists head for Mr. Johnson’s farm. Is it to organize his laborers? If only. Perhaps they plan to do some farm work themselves? Not even. Their goal is to erase all understanding of a “barn” as a locus of collective economic activity and cultural tradition, and redefine it as simply a private source of entertainment for tourists who want to “feel like a movie star” and vapidly marvel that “the rain sounds so cool.” No wonder “the horses wonder who U are” (and by the way, did U ever stop to wonder who they are?)– this entitled consumerist outlook makes it clear that Prince’s real class identification is with Mr. McGee.

Erik’s analysis of why Walters’s Haggard essay was so terrible is evidently comprehensive. But what’s remarkable to me is how ill-informed and tendentious it is even taking Walters’s approach of treading song lyrics as if they’re op-eds (saying that “Okie From Muskogee” is “hypocritical” because Haggard smoked pot as if the song was autobiographical is such embarrassing philistinism that as Erik notes Richard Nixon literally made the same mistake.) To conclude that he was a “run-of-the-mill conservative” involves reducing arguably the deepest songbook in one of the country’s most vital musical forms to fewer than ten songs, most of them (unlike “Okie” and “Fighting Side”) minor ones very marginal to his canon. In addition to “Irma Jackson,” which Haggard wanted to be the follow-up single to “Okie,” you have to ignore the prison songs, even though his most famous one is also as prefect a single as, er, “Raspberry Beret.” You have to ignore the compassion of working-class portrayals like “If We Make it Through December.” You have to ignore the goofy environmentalist utopinaism of “Rainbow Stew.” And so on. The contradictions and confusions in his political stances can probably tell us something interesting about American politics, but it would have to be in the form of an essay written by someone with some idea what the hell she’s talking about.

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