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Politics Involves Communicative Performance

[ 332 ] July 22, 2015 |

Bernie Sanders

I think Matt Breuning’s defense of Bernie Sanders at Netroots Nation is very misguided. A few points:

  • Class not race” is, in fact, a very real view, and it makes civil rights activists suspicious of a certain kind white progressive for good reason.  Jamelle Bouie is excellent on this.  Sanders’s dismissive response seems to reflect this view, which is a problem because it’s wrong.  Look, I’ve been beating the drum for the ACA for years.  People should point out that people of color have disproportionately benefited from it, especially when brogressives try to argue that any reform that doesn’t nationalize the health insurance industry is worthless.  But the idea that the ACA, or any other economic reform, is a solution for racial discrimination is just silly.  An African-American who benefits from the Medicaid expansion is still much more likely to be subject to police abuse than a white person of similar socioeconomic status. Jobs are important, but in the wake of Sandra Bland it should be obvious that they’re not a comprehensive civil rights program.
  • It won’t do to observe that Sanders has generally progressive positions on civil rights.  Priorities also matter.  I assume Ralph “I Don’t Do Gonadal Politics” Nader wouldn’t have voted with the majorities in Carhart II and Shelby County, but nonetheless his famous indifference to any politics that doesn’t involve the word “corporate” is a crucial reason that Sam Alito was there to cast the swing votes against civil rights.  I’m glad that Sanders isn’t a malignant narcissist like late-period Nader, but he should also understand why there’s a strain of progressive politics that makes supporters of civil rights suspicious.
  • Most importantly, in this context criticizing “communicative performance leftism” is deeply odd.  If we’re evaluating Sanders as a legislator, I agree that how he votes is more important than what he says.  But we’re talking about him is a candidate in the Democratic primaries.  And — BREAKING! — Bernie Sanders is not going to be the Democratic candidate for president.  His primary candidacy is, in fact, “communicative performance leftism.”  If he’s not trying to shift the discourse within the Democratic Party, I have no idea what he is doing.  Given his role in the party, to argue that his response to protests can’t be criticized is very strange.

Sanders screwed up.  That doesn’t make his a bad person, or mean that his primary campaign is worthless.  As Bouie says, he seems to be learning, and his strongest supporters should follow his lead.

“Moops, Er, I Meant to Say Snake Oil is Delicious!”

[ 14 ] July 22, 2015 |


I’ve already taken a few whacks at Michael Cannon’s unique theory that if a party wins a special Senate election that party’s platform must therefore be enacted by the Supreme Court of these voters have been disenfranchised. In a new piece, I observe that this argument also happens to be self-refuting:

The idea that the Supreme Court is required to follow the returns of special Senate elections in Massachusetts is…novel. The idea that the court is required to allow these results to trump the results of national elections is even dumber.

But it’s even worse than this. With this sentence, Cannon is spitting out his own snake oil. Remember that the premise of the King v. Burwell lawsuit was that the plaintiffs were allegedly just asking the court to enforce the law that Congress wrote. Cannon was the most aggressive proponent of the ludicrous, dystopian science fiction version of the ACA, claiming not just that the letter of the law required that subsidies not be available on federal exchanges, but that Congress also fully intended to establish federal backstops that it knew would fail.

In a refreshing, if inadvertent, moment of honesty, Cannon is conceding the obvious: the King lawsuit wasn’t designed to uphold the statute passed by Congress in 2010. It was intended to “enfranchise” the people who voted against the bill. And this is something that should always have been obvious from the fact that Cannon could not find any supporter of the ACA who could back his irrational reading of the law. In a constitutional case, this might not tell us much. But in a case involving statutory interpretation, the uniform rejection of the theory advanced by the bill’s opponents — both contemporaneously and in 2015 — should have been dispositive.

The fact that King was based on an almost comically transparent historical sham surely helps to explain why Roberts rejected the argument of the plaintiffs so forcefully. He declared that “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” and foreclosed a different interpretation of the law by a future Republican administration. It also helps to explain why Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the majority even though he voted in 2012 to strike down the law in its entirety. The contempt the court showed for the people who brought the suit certainly wasn’t the product of any love for the ACA.

Although it must be admitted that if someone is going to make up a massive historical lie, it should be in the service of a truly noble cause, like stripping millions of people of their health insurance.

This would all just be black comedy…except that this crap actually got three votes from Supreme Court justices.

Why #BlackLivesMatter Matters

[ 256 ] July 22, 2015 |

Sandra Bland.

Today In Rape Apologia, Ayn Rand Edition

[ 186 ] July 21, 2015 |


Via Jill Filipovic, Milo Yiannopoulos describes the inevitable rape scene in the posthumously published Ayn Rand pseudo-novel:

Another reason people get upset about Rand and sex is that her ideal intimate encounters always seem to be pseudo-rapes. Naturally, the sex-negative, authoritarian modern feminist movement gasps in shock at the suggestion that consensually ambiguous encounters might be thrilling for both parties.

It’s been a while, but I don’t recall anything “ambiguous” about the rape scenes in the previous novels. As for the new old one, Filipovic has the text right here:

“She lay dressed, on his bed, and her one hand hung over the edge, white in the darkness. She jerked her head up and he could guess her eyes on the pale blot of her face. She felt his teeth sinking into her hand. She struggled ferociously, her muscles tense, hard, sharp as an animal’s. ‘Keep still,’ he whispered hoarsely into her throat. ‘You can’t call for help!’
She did not call for help…

That word “ambiguity,” I do not think it etc. The fact the review starts off with logic on a par with “you call yourself a feminist, yet you disagree with Phyllis Schafly, make up your mind!” As Filipovic goes on to say:

Perhaps Rand’s largest talent lies not in her status as the mother of Objectivism, but her ability to play the Cool Girl, even posthumously, in the minds of men whose view of women is colored by both desire and revulsion. You’re not a misogynist if your hero is Ayn Rand, and Ayn Rand is the ultimate shield and sword for the kind of arguments regularly entered into by the kind of man who worships Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand wouldn’t care that you called her a slut on the internet. Ayn Rand doesn’t think it’s rape if you hold her down and shove your dick in her without permission. Ayn Rand probably drinks whiskey and plays beer pong and has always had way more guy friends because girls cause so much drama. She’s the Sociopathic Pixie Dream Girl.

Rand’s admiration for murderers also seems relevant here…

Labor Rights Need a Strong State

[ 45 ] July 21, 2015 |

A crucial point from Michael Hobbes’s longform about how ethical consumerism can’t stop labor exploitation:

Yet this is how we expect to bring about better labor conditions in poor countries. Instead of empowering domestic agencies with a mandate to prevent abuses, we rely on international corporations seeking to insulate themselves from bad publicity.

Nearly all of the horror stories that show up in consumer campaigns are illegal in the countries where they take place. These countries simply don’t have anyone to enforce the laws. Bangladesh has just 125 labor inspectors for 75 million workers. Cambodian inspectors, on average, earn less than half as much as the garment workers whose conditions they’re supposed to be safeguarding. Uganda, with 40 million people, has only 120 practitioners capable of carrying out environmental impact assessments. In Burma, regional governments have received more than 6,000 complaints related to land revocations, but have investigated fewer than 300 of them.

That’s why Brazil is so startling. It has 10,000 public prosecutors and 3,000 inspectors, all making monthly salaries of at least $5,000. The inspectors collaborate with other government agencies, workers, unions and NGOs, not just to find the most outrageous violations, but to actually fix them.

Today In “Dick Nixon, Liberal Hero”

[ 128 ] July 20, 2015 |


Please, please make it stop:

It isn’t that I feel some fervent nostalgia for the good old days of moderate Republicanism, although it’s true that the Nixon-era GOP was only microscopically to the right of today’s Democratic Party on most major policy questions – and decidedly to its left on healthcare and social spending. (Which United States president actually proposed a nationwide, single-payer healthcare system? Well, I’ve already given you the answer.)

The answer to O’Hehir’s question, of course, Harry Truman. I happen to have Richard Nixon’s health care proposal right here, and it’s distinctly to the right of the ACA. (Dig that fully privatized Medicaid!) And even this is far too generous, because it assumes that Nixon sincerely supported such a health care plan, and you’d have to be delusional to assume that. The Heritage Uncertainty Principle might be the most obvious con in history, and yet it’s amazing how many liberals line up to give it their live savings and house keys. Yes, the Republican Party was better then, but its offer on comprehensive health care was exactly the same as it is today: nothing.

I’ve observed this before, but the political universe people nostalgic for 1972 have invented is bizarre. Allegedly this was a golden age in which 1)The Democratic Party weren’t a bunch of corporate sellouts but actually supported single-payer, and 2)the last liberal president Richard Nixon totally supported single-payer and yet 3)not only did single-payer not pass nothing remotely like single-payer came close to passing and 3)when this awesome, way-left-of-Obama Democratic power controlled Congress and the White House for 4 years starting in 1977 not only did single-payer not pass but no major progressive legislation passed. At some point, it might be time to consider the possibility that premises 1 and 2 are wrong.

The Problem With the “Hypocrisy” Justification

[ 245 ] July 20, 2015 |

Attempting to defend the now-retracted Gawker story, Maria Bustillos tweets:

As applied to this specific case, the two massive holes in the argument are immediately evident. First, it uses a far too expansive definition of “public figure.” (As Greenwald says, any definition capacious enough to include an executive accountant for a privately held company would surely include Bustillos, who I’m guessing doesn’t believe every aspect of her private life to be fair game for high-traffic websites.) And second, if there’s any “hypocrisy” angle the story doesn’t even make any attempt to establish it.

Still, the Geithner non-story is an easy case. What interests me are are the broader, more widely shared premises underlying the argument, which as I said the last time there was a similar controversy remain problematic.

One thing we should notice is that “hypocrisy” arguments are as plastic as originalism — you can manipulate levels of abstraction to justify almost any story really motivated by a prurient interest under a “hypocrisy” pretext. Bustillos later tries to do this: don’t all c-suite executives implicitly pretend to a certain bourgeois respectability? But the problem is that pretty much everyone who isn’t a nihilist or sociopath is a hypocrite. People who are able to adhere with perfect consistency to the principles they aspire to are rare indeed. If a “hypocrisy” is defined in broad enough terms there’s no privacy.

Perhaps the bigger problem with the argument is that it assumes that “hypocrisy” per se is a major issue, when it fact it’s a relatively trivial one. I don’t disagree that an inconsistency between personal behavior and values that a powerful public figure is trying to impose on others, hypocrisy is potentially newsworthy. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that its the bad values, not the hypocrisy, that are the major problem. The legal disabilities Larry Craig sought to impose on gays and lesbians would be just as indefensible if he was a 0 on the Kinsey Scale. On the other hand, if the values one is acting inconsistently with are good values, the hypocrisy doesn’t invalidate the values.

On the story at hand, there is one important underlying issue: the fact that someone like Geithner is enormously unlikely to face any legal sanctions, while sex workers always labor under the fear of legal sanction. Criminalizing sex work is really, really terrible public policy. But stories like this with an explicit or implicit hypocrisy angle not only fail to make this point — they rely on the stigma against sex work for a substantial measure of their alleged newsworthiness. Focusing on hypocrisy is more likely to impede clear thinking than to promote it.

Too #Slatepitch For Slate

[ 317 ] July 18, 2015 |


The “we need someone who’s plainly not running to run” genre of primary season op-eds is inherently useless. This call for Al Gore to enter the race, however, is very special. There’s some garden variety specious arguments that Ron Fournier has probably made 20 times since the beginning if the year (“Hillary Clinton is IN BIG TROUBLE because her approval ratings have dropped now that she’s running for office!”) But this is amazing:

Gore is a superstar with impeccable qualifications. The GOP will have a hard time marginalizing someone of his caliber and experience. His background speaks for itself: a former Congressman, U.S. Senator, and two-time Vice President. He’s even succeed wildly in the private sector as a businessman — something Republicans can’t help but praise. In short, Gore passes the credibility test by any measure, and that matters in a national election.

This is…like the Platonic ideal of wrongness. Jonah Goldberg has dreamed his whole life of being this wrong. The idea that it would be impossible for Republicans to demonize any candidate because they have impressive formal credentials is in itself insane. But to say this about Al Gore — who was successfully branded the lyingest liar who ever lied and the phoniest phony who ever phonied who said he invented the internet and said he was a farmer and said he slept with Ali McGraw and wears disturbing three-button suits and lets uppity women tell him to wear earth tones — Jesus Christ. You couldn’t do more to disqualify yourself from offering campaign strategery if you were trying to.

I’m looking forward to future Illing columns such as “Sam Alito would never be a conservative ideologue” and “history tells us it is unpossible for the Yankees to win a pennant.”

Thigh-Rubbing Is Not Speaking Truth to Power

[ 104 ] July 17, 2015 |


I’m reluctant to write this post, not only because it involves siding with suits over writers and editors but because many in the latter category are writers I admire, and in some cases they have edited and published my work.  But the brutal truth is that Denton is right: the now-deleted story about the ex-Treasury Secretary’s brother was indefensible.  Arana, Greenwald, and Heer have good explanations of why.  To summarize:

  • Geithner is not a public figure in any meaningful sense.  What power the CFO of Conde Nast holds is relevant to nobody but the Newhouse family and the company’s employees.  Geithner is not a public figure; he has no record of public moralism about sexual issues.  This case involved blackmail, a subject of potential public interest, but Geithner was the target of the blackmail; Gawker was more abetting the scheme than revealing it.
  • The underlying behavior is of no non-purient public interest.  Worse than point 1 is the fact that the behavior being uncovered would be unworthy of publication if it involved Tim Geithner.  His consensual sexual activities simply don’t matter.  The media isn’t the marriage police, and as Greenwald observes we don’t even know that he was doing anything his wife disapproves of.  As long time readers know I have always held the view that the consensual sexual behavior of public officials is in most cases irrelevant, and I stand by that — if there’s any relationship between being an effective politician and a good spouse history keeps it very well-hidden.  But even by the more expansive media mores of today there’s no hint of public relevance here, no “hypocrisy” angle or any other reason to reveal the private behavior.

The problem with the justification that this represents an adversarial media speaking truth to power, then, is that the truths are irrelevant and the meaningful power is absent.  There are many critical things than can be said about Tim Geithner’s public actions; it should also be obvious that humiliating his brother does nothing to address them.  Less than nothing, actually, since it brings discredit to a media voice that is in fact often a very valuable adversarial voice.

…[Erik] See also Evan Hurst

Republican Governor Named Walker Accepts Medicaid Expansion

[ 23 ] July 17, 2015 |

No, not that one.  But we do now have 30 states who have taken the Medicaid expansion.

And here’s a reminder about the monstrousness of those who are resisting the neoliberal initiatives of the President who makes us long for the unvarnished liberalism of Richard Nixon, who was so liberal he wanted to privatize Medicaid.

Scott Walker Could be President

[ 146 ] July 17, 2015 |


Paul Waldman on the political implications of Scott Walker’s remarkably cruel and reactionary policy record:

Well those days are long past. In the 2016 GOP primaries, it’s compassionless conservatism that’s in fashion.

Or at least that’s what Scott Walker seems to think, because among other things, he is hell-bent on making sure that anyone who gets food stamps in Wisconsin has to endure the humiliation of submitting to a drug test. First the Wisconsin legislature sent him a bill providing that the state could test food stamp recipients if it had a reasonable suspicion they were on drugs; he used his line-item veto to strike the words “reasonable suspicion,” so the state could test any (or all) recipients it wanted. And now, because federal law doesn’t actually allow drug testing for food stamp recipients, Walker is suing the federal government on the grounds that food stamps are “welfare,” and welfare recipients can be tested.

This is why Scott Walker is never going to be president of the United States.

I wish this was true — but I don’t think it is.

I would agree with a more modest form of this argument. Presidential elections are largely, but not entirely, decided by economic fundamentals. Voter perceptions of a candidate’s ideology do matter at the margin. Walker is the most conservative viable candidate for the Republican nomination, and Paul is right that he isn’t able to mask this effectively. This would probably cost him a couple of points in the popular vote that the Republican nominee is unlikely to be able to spare.

But is it impossible for Walker to win, assuming he has enough political competence to secure the Republican nomination? I don’t think so. It hurts, but it’s not dispostive. The 2000 election shows the importance of ideological positioning — if Gore had been perceived by the electorate to be no further to the left than Bush was to the right, the election would have been beyond the ability of Republicans to steal. But despite this handicap Gore still won the popular vote, and still would have been elected president had there not been a third party vanity campaign or had Democrats been in charge of the executive branch of the Florida government. Marginal disadvantages can be overcome.

If I were a Republican, I would certainly support Rubio, as there’s probably not a dime’s worth of difference between what a Rubio and Walker presidency would look like policy-wise, and Rubio is better at appearing moderate. But is it impossible for Walker to win? Absolutely not. If the fundamentals turn against the Democrats enough, he can.

How to be a Hack, “Nixon Was a Liberal!” Edition

[ 397 ] July 16, 2015 |


Our friend Freddie deBoer is self-immolating today, and since better people than I are on it I’d rather talk about this gem unearthed by a commenter:

Obama is to the right of Richard Nixon irl

We’ve discussed this before, but I’m not sure there’s any better illustration that someone 1)considers themselves very sophisticated about politics and 2)has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about that this particular bit of truthiness. Fortunately, Elizabeth Drew has a good corrective to this nonsense in a recent Atlantic, but let’s respond to Freddie’s attempts to defend this silliness with the tl; dr version:

Check their records in domestic policy.

Ok. I see some environmental legislation that passed with massive veto-proof majorities despite Nixon’s contemptuous indifference to the subject. I see the Clean Water Act passing over his veto. I also see Nixon vetoing a bill aiding the unemployed and local services, a pay equity bill, a minimum wage bill, and a bill creating a national day care system. On the other hand, I see on the one hand Barack Obama signing the most progressive package of legislation since Johnson with razor-thin margins to work with in Congress, and I also see him vetoing zero progressive bills. When Richard Nixon got his first choice he nominated Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and Lewis Powell to the Supreme Court; Obama nominated Elana Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. So, in short, I see that anyone claiming that Nixon is to Obama’s left on domestic policy is revealing their own massive cluelessness.

Check their preferences on health care.

Nixon’s preference on health care was “to do nothing.” We can see this from the fact that he was working with a Congress well to his left and nothing came close to passing. The fact that Republicans can offer decoy fans and various country-fried rubes will take the plans as sincere expressions of Republican policy preferences while presenting themselves as tough-minded leftists will never cease to be hilarious.

I don’t claim to know what precise health care reform Barack Obama would favor in a parliamentary system, but I do know that he succeeded in getting comprehensive health care reform passed where presidents since Truman have failed. Also note the utter idiocy of the methodology of comparing empty position statements with actual statutes. If one takes this logic seriously, Obama would be more left-wing if he had held out for single payer and gotten nothing. This is just remarkably dumb. (And, of course, even the people making this argument don’t take it seriously — the response to such a result would not be “you have to respect Obama’s lefty purism!” but “the failure of the Senate to bring the bill to a vote proves that Obama really didn’t want it.”)

Check their relationship to the social safety net

Asked and answered above. Obama signed a comprehensive health care reform bill that, among other things, included a massive expansion of Medicaid. Nixon — did no such thing, but he did veto a proposed expansion of the safety net.

I dunno, maybe one reason Ta-Nehisi Coates is a much more widely respected writer is that his political writing tends not only to be highly insightful but also tends to avoid massive howlers.

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