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Today In Our Wall Street Betters

[ 119 ] August 14, 2017 |

I never get tired of reading stories about the douche who took over Sears:

Under the direction of the hedge-fund moneyman Edward S. Lampert, Sears has borrowed to the hilt. Many of its most valuable assets have been sold off. Its stores have been starved for cash and attention. An early shift in the organizational structure designed to create competition among store departments — a strategy used by some hedge funds to allocate company resources — instead led to infighting.

It was all done in search of a profit that, for Mr. Lampert and his investors, has not materialized.


Besides the share buybacks, one of the earliest moves by Mr. Lampert was to decentralize the managements of Sears and Kmart, effectively creating more than three dozen silos of business lines such as men’s wear, shoes and home furnishings, each with its own management team and board of directors.

It is similar to a strategy sometimes used at hedge funds, where different teams compete with one another for scarce company resources. At Sears, though, the design led to infighting between divisions for everything from space in the weekly advertising circulars to floor shelving.

One former executive described how the clashes played out in Sears showrooms, whether in the jewelry or the tools departments. Managers would tell their sales staff not to help customers in adjacent sections, even if someone asked for help. Mr. Lampert would praise policies like these, said the executive, who asked not to be named because he still works in retail.

It’s shocking that this DISRUPTIVE strategy didn’t work.

Meanwhile, the news cycle has moved on, but this Yglesias piece on the Mooch is really good (although obviously the best part is the subhead.) Like Trump, he’s shown that there are a remarkable number of rich suckers out there:

Mooch is referred to loosely as a Wall Street guy, a hedge fund guy, or even a financier. But his company, SkyBridge Capital, is not an investment firm in a conventional sense. Instead, it markets what are known as “funds of funds” — pools of money that are then invested in various different hedge funds. No actual management of an investment fund is involved.

This business model, however, has a fundamental problem. Once you account for the management fees, most hedge funds offer much lower returns than simple index fund investing. That’s not to necessarily say that nobody out there is smart enough (or lucky enough) to beat the market. But it’s clearly the case that on average, hedge fund managers are not beating the market, especially when you take into account the fees they charge.

A fund of funds, almost by definition, is not getting you into the best hedge fund in the world. It’s getting you into something resembling an average of hedge funds — i.e., a bad investment — and then it’s charging fees on top of that. A rotten deal.

The vast majority of hedge funds are a terrible investment that charge huge feeds for performance that is likely to be worse than a low-churn index fund. But a fund of funds is far worse, because any black swan hedge fund that actually does outperform the market will get swamped by the other funds that underperform the S&P 500. Well, if you’re going to con anybody I guess it’s good that it’s dumb rich people.


Are American Political Parties Rapidly Converging Toward the Center? (SPOILER: Are You Insane?)

[ 473 ] August 14, 2017 |

I’ve mentioned this before, but a lot of lefty intellectuals write about electoral and/or legislative politics without taking them nearly as seriously as they take their fields of core expertise. Consider, for example, Hamilton Nolan. I strongly recommend you read his account of the failed union drive at the Nissan plant in Mississippi.  It’s a first-rate piece of reporting — well-researched, insightful, careful to put critiques of tactical decisions in the context of the brutally difficult structural conditions union organizers face in right-to-work states.

Then read this, which reads like the work of a different person entirely:

So pissed off people elected Donald Fucking Trump. [Well, an anachronistic 18th century institution designed to limit democracy and overrepresent southern white supremacists did, frustrating the will of the public, but anyway. –ed.]  And here we are.

Within politics, there have been two distinct reactions to this anti-establishment upheaval. The establishment—particularly of the Democratic Party—has concluded that the solution is to run to the center, “moderating” (meaning changing) positions as necessary until a sufficient number of people are attracted to a muddled, something-tepid-for-everyone platform. And the left and right wings—where the anti-establishment sentiment originated in the first place—see this as an opportunity to double down and attract disaffected people to their sides. The mistake that the established political parties make is to think that if they run to the center, everyone is obligated to follow them. Why? There is a much more straightforward solution: Put a third party in the middle.

This is the biggest howler I’ve read in a long time, and I’ve read people arguing that America’s elites are unified in their opposition to Donald Trump. The ideas that the parties are moving to the center is just utterly wrong by any possible metric. Even before 2016, rapidly accelerating elite polarization was a well-established fact. Has 2016 compelled the Democrats to retreat back to the center? Obviously not. I’ve discussed this in the context of Kirsten Gillibrand’s political positioning, but the other senators with potential presidential ambitions like Booker and Harris are embracing the core elements of Bernie’s platform, which is to the left of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 platform, which it turn was well to the left of Obama’s platforms in 2008/12 and light years to the left of the platforms her husband ran on. Or consider this op-ed from noted left-wing bombthrower Chuck Schumer, which inter alia advocates for a trillion-dollar stimulus,  a $15 minimum wage, paid family and sick leave, heightened antitrust enforcement, and re-writing trade agreements. (If your guess is that the Jacobin take on this op-ed would be to handwave all of these issues — none of which were considered trivial as recently as the 2016 primaries — and focus on a single graf where he argues for a minor job training tax credit, concluding that therefore the Democratic Party is a racket focused solely on advancing the interests of corporations that must be destroyed, you win a free lifetime subscription to LGM.)

To be clear, there are still many questions of judgment left open here. You can argue that mainstream Democrats still haven’t gone far enough. You can argue that you don’t trust them. You can argue that there are better messengers for the platform they’re converging on.  All reasonable questions! But Nolan isn’t making any of these arguments. He’s arguing that the Democratic leadership has made a choice to move to the center in response to Trump. This is just flatly false, and he offers no evidence in support of it. (“Rich people tend to socialize with other rich people” is not evidence for his claim, FWIW.) And I think the implicit claim that Republicans are moving to the center is too self-refuting to require rebuttal.

And all of this is premised on a view of the American political spectrum that is just baffling:

The majority of powerful people in both current parties that like to refer to themselves as “mainstream” may haggle over minor issues, but the generally agree that the government must boost and protect private capital, that America must be a military powerhouse, and that the current state of affairs must only be tweaked very slowly, if at all.

Put all of these people in the same party. Let the people who actually have ideals have their own parties on each side.

True left wingers want a radical reordering of wealth and power. True right wingers want decentralization and a radical deconstruction of government as we know it. It is absurd to pretend that either of these groups should be satisfied with a political spectrum that ranges from Hillary Clinton to Mitch McConnell. Nowhere in that spectrum will you find full socialism, or full “deconstruction of the administrative state.” That is because the existing establishment is, quite naturally, focused most of all on the maintenance of existing power structures. Its ideological arguments are minor.

The idea that the differences between Clinton and McConnell are “minor” is…just staggeringly wrong. Increasing taxes on the wealthy and massively cutting them is a minor difference? Massively expanding Medicaid and cutting it 35% — ¯\_(ツ)_/¯? (Boy, were a lot of people deluded to put their bodies on the line as if this was important!) Using the EPA to restrict carbon emissions and using it to dismantle such regulations — same diff? Women being coerced by the state to carry pregnancies to term or being offered Medicaid funds for reproductive services — who cares, really? Should African-Americans have effective access to the ballot or not — hardly a question worth agitating over. Sam Alito and Sonia Sotomayor, not a dime’s worth of difference, amirite? And I could go on like this for a long time.

It is true that America’s large brokerage parties are only offering the considerable and accelerating differences between Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan and not a contest between “full socialism” and full “deconstruction of the administrative state” because neither of the latter two ideas has a substantial mass constituency in the United States. Most Democratic voters don’t favor a nationalization of the means of production. Most Republican voters like the federal welfare state just fine. And there’s an easy way to test this. Run in the Democratic primaries on a platform that Bernie’s left-liberalism is a hopeless capitulation to capital. If it turns out that this is what most Democratic voters want but haven’t gotten it because it isn’t being offered, I owe you a Coke.

The Magic Day We Overcame Racism

[ 235 ] August 14, 2017 |



I’m trying to imagine a more morally bankrupt, shoddily-reasoned take on the events in Charlottesville and I just can’t. The WSJ editorial board is staffed with moral monsters.

Yet the focus on Mr. Trump is also a cop-out because it lets everyone duck the deeper and growing problem of identity politics on the right and left. The politics of white supremacy was a poison on the right for many decades, but the civil-rights movement rose to overcome it, and it finally did so in the mid-1960s with Martin Luther King Jr. ’s language of equal opportunity and color-blind justice.

“Mommy, tell me about the day the Freedom Dragon wrestled Racism to the ground and and farted its fiery fart in right in Racism’s face, defeating it forever? I love that story!”

That principle has since been abandoned, however, in favor of a new identity politics that again seeks to divide Americans by race, ethnicity, gender and even religion. “Diversity” is now the all-purpose justification for these divisions, and the irony is that America is more diverse and tolerant than ever.

The problem is that the identity obsessives want to boil down everything in American life to these categories. In practice this means allocating political power, contracts, jobs and now even salaries in the private economy based on the politics of skin color or gender rather than merit or performance. Down this road lies crude political tribalism, and James Damore’s recent Google dissent is best understood as a cri de coeur that we should aspire to something better. Yet he lost his job merely for raising the issue.

In short, Damore is victim for JAQing off and questioning the competence of his female co-workers, creating a hostile work environment…and BOTHSIDESDOIT. Yup, in the face of screaming red-faced nazis, WSJ is going for the “bothsides” argument.

No, it’s worse than that: they’re actually blaming liberals for people becoming nazis. It’s weird. I remember when Republicans and conservatives were the “personal responsibility” folks.


A politics fixated on indelible differences will inevitably lead to resentments that extremists can exploit in ugly ways on the right and left. The extremists were on the right in Charlottesville, but there have been examples on the left in Berkeley, Oakland and numerous college campuses. When Democratic politicians can’t even say “all lives matter” without being denounced as bigots, American politics has a problem.

Yes, we do. In that nobody should be saying “All lives matter” because it’s a bullshit distraction from the unique systemic prejudice African Americans face.


Criticizing Trump Is Not Enough

[ 150 ] August 14, 2017 |

It’s nice that Trump saying the quiet parts through ten foghorns has motivated some prominent Republicans to object, but as long as they continue to pursue more genteel forms of white supremacy it won’t be that meaningful:

The mobilization of white supremacy is not incidental to Trump’s rise, but central to it. Remember, he became a major figure in the Republican Party by aggressively promoting the racist falsehood that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and continued to engage in egregious race-baiting throughout the 2016 campaign. There’s a reason former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke declared after the Charlottesville rally that “[t]hat’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” The “our” in that sentence is represented by the white nationalist and anti-Semitic groups that staged the hate rally this weekend. Trump’s lackluster response to such a rally was just another reminder of the very real particular dangers his naked appeals to white supremacy and xenophobia pose.

Trump’s pathetic speech was a bridge too far for some of the Republicans who made a devil’s bargain with Trump and have been ignoring his overt racism and corruption in the hope that he could serve as a vehicle to advance their unpopular policy agenda. Multiple prominent Republican senators, including Orrin Hatch (Utah), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Ted Cruz (Texas) did what Trump should have done but didn’t: They specifically called out the white supremacist hate groups and condemned their destructive ideology.

This is laudable as far as it goes, but it doesn’t let them, or the Republican Party, off the hook. The GOP has nurtured and harbored Trump’s explicitly racist appeals. And still quieter, less obvious forms of racism run through the party. After all, it was not Trump who wrote the 2013 opinion gutting the Voting Rights Act, therefore paving the way for various voter identification laws and dubious redistricting. That distinction goes to Chief Justice John Roberts, a man who has long been opposed to expanding voting rights.

And Roberts has a lot of company. As Eric Levitz of New Yorkputs it, “[t]here are plenty of Republican lawmakers who campaign with utmost civility, and then push legislation that objectively advances racial inequity.” Congressional Republicans have not acted to repair the Voting Rights Act or to guarantee access to the ballot. Instead, Republicans in state after state have enacted vote-suppression measures targeted at minority voters. As the Republican Party moves increasingly further to the right of the typical voter, the measures have only become more desperate. Trump’s fondness for voter suppression doesn’t make him an outlier — it makes him a typical Republican in 2017, and that is perhaps the scariest thing of all.

Calling out Trump’s white supremacy is necessary, and it’s good that some Republicans are finally doing it. But actions speak louder than words, and until Republicans start showing the American people, particularly those who aren’t white, that they care about their rights and well-being, too, the GOP’s condemnations of white supremacy will ring hollow.

By the same token, some Republicans implied during the campaign that Trump was unfit for office — and none of them support compelling Trump to release his tax returns.


A History Of Looking the Other Way

[ 144 ] August 14, 2017 |

Julia Azari adds some useful historical context to Trump’s failure to specifically denounce white supremacist terrorism:

Later in the 20th century, several presidents struggled to respond to lynchings, the violent, extra-judicial killing of African-Americans accused of crimes. (Recent estimates suggest that nearly 4,000 people died this way in the South between 1877 and 1950.) The NAACP had to lobby both Democrat Woodrow Wilson (who held and acted on racist views) and his Republican successor Warren G. Harding. Wilson did eventually speak out against lynching, but it took several years of lobbying by the NAACP to convince him to do so. As political scientist Megan Francis has written, “Only through an unyielding onslaught of protest was [the NAACP] able to obtain support from Wilson.” Harding, meanwhile, made some initial statements about lynching, Francis found, but did not continue to pressure Congress to adopt anti-lynching legislation. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he was limited by his party’s ambitions in the South.

Even in cases when presidents did end up taking more aggressive action on racial issues, they often did so reluctantly. In 1957, for example, Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops (and federalized the Arkansas National Guard) to quell unrest in Little Rock, Arkansas, and enforce a court decision mandating the racial integration of schools. But Eisenhower took that step only after the crisis had been going on for three weeks, and he avoided addressing the substance of the ruling or the question of civil rights, instead citing the need to enforce the law. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, was also slow to move forward civil rights, although he eventually found his voice on the issue as political pressure mounted. In June, 1963, Kennedy addressed the nation on the question of civil rights and urged Congress to pass legislation, which he had previouslybeen reluctant to pursue.

It’s also worth noting that Ike conspicuously left the Court twisting in 1954, refusing to endorse Brown. The isolated decision to send the Screaming Eagles into Little Rock didn’t actually constitute a commitment to back up the Court.

Obviously, Trump looking the other way in 2017 is even worse:

But history doesn’t absolve Trump. His tepid response to such overt and violent racism recalls a much earlier era, when people who espoused these violent ideologies held real political power. The political calculus for a contemporary president should be different. Congressional Republicans, for example, like Marco Rubio and Cory Gardner have asked the president to more strongly condemn what’s happened. Presidents have typically lagged behind the racial justice activists of their day — sometimes far behind. But Trump is unusual in also lagging behind today’s widely understood norms.

This weekend is not, of course, the first time that Trump has appeared reluctant to denounce white nationalists or other racist groups and individuals, many of whom supported his presidential campaign last year. He retweeted accounts and memes with ties to white supremacist groups, and he waited until deep into the campaign before firmly disavowing the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. That suggests that Trump’s cautious statements, like those of past presidents, may stem in part from his reluctance to alienate a key group of supporters; in Trump’s case, however, those key supporters include avowed racists.

The deeply mysterious semiotics of the Unite the Right rally

[ 202 ] August 13, 2017 |

Maybe Ann Althouse and Glen Reynolds could organize a conference on the complicated question of whether this poster indicates that there may have been some sort of anti-Semitic undertone to yesterday’s gathering of proudly White men.

Just a suggestion: Mr. and Mrs. Jared Kushner could no doubt add some much-needed perspective on the matter.

They didn’t get my good side!

[ 116 ] August 13, 2017 |

Sniveling supremacist claims his white supremacist rally photo doesn’t capture his true essence.

“I did not expect the photo to be shared as much as it was. I understand the photo has a very negative connotation. But I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.”

However Cvjetanovic, a self-proclaimed white nationalist, defends his beliefs.

“As a white nationalist, I care for all people. We all deserve a future for our children and for our culture. White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have.”

Yes, he’s a white supremacist.

Yes, he traveled across the country to attend a TIKKKI torchlight rally and shout angry supremacist garbage like “Jews will not replace us” with other white supremacists.

Yes, he claims that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee is Phase 1 in a plot replace white people.

But he’s one of the good ones.

At least that’s his story. Some of his classmates disagree.

The Nation Really Should Stop Publishing the Conspiracy Theories of Open Propagandists

[ 106 ] August 13, 2017 |

In the tread about Patrick Lawrence’s DNC hack trooferism, a commenter pointed us to this rather remarkable P-Law artifact from the period in which Salon was willing to publish any lunacy that came down the pike as long it was anti-Clinton:

Now wait a minute, all you upper-case “D” Democrats. A flood light suddenly shines on your party apparatus, revealing its grossly corrupt machinations to fix the primary process and sink the Sanders campaign, and within a day you are on about the evil Russians having hacked into your computers to sabotage our elections — on behalf of Donald Trump, no less?

Is this a joke? Are you kidding? Is nothing beneath your dignity? Is this how lowly you rate the intelligence of American voters? My answers to these, in order: yes, but the kind one cannot laugh at; no, we’re not kidding; no, we will do anything, and yes, we have no regard whatsoever for Americans so long as we can connive them out of their votes every four years.

Clowns. Subversives. Do you know who you remind me of? I will tell you: Nixon, in his famously red-baiting campaign — a disgusting episode — against the right-thinking Helen Gahagan Douglas during his first run for the Senate, in 1950. Your political tricks are as transparent and anti-democratic as his, it is perfectly fair to say.

Is nothing beneath your dignity indeed. Before we get to the punchline, how exactly did the DNC hacks show that the DNC fixed the primary process?

Last Friday WikiLeaks published nearly 20,000 DNC email messages providing abundant proof that Sanders and his staff were right all along. The worst of these, involving senior DNC officers, proposed Nixon-esque smears having to do with everything from ineptitude within the Sanders campaign to Sanders as a Jew in name only and an atheist by conviction.

So the DNC RIGGED the primary by…having some random nobodies float dumb ideas in emails that nobody with any power seems to have even given a moment’s consideration to executing. Well, I’m convinced! It also seems obvious that the only way an insurgency campaign can succeed is if it has the full ex ante support of the entire party establishment.

Anyway, once we return to Russian interference in the election the standards of evidence change markedly:

Is that what disturbs you, Robby? Interesting. Unsubstantiated hocus-pocus, not the implications of these events for the integrity of Democratic nominations and the American political process? The latter is the more pressing topic, Robby. You are far too long on anonymous experts for my taste, Robby. And what kind of expert, now that I think of it, is able to report to you as to the intentions of Russian hackers — assuming for a sec that this concocted narrative has substance?

Making lemonade out of a lemon, the Clinton campaign now goes for a twofer. Watch as it advances the Russians-did-it thesis on the basis of nothing, then shoots the messenger, then associates Trump with its own mess — and, finally, gets to ignore the nature of its transgression (which any paying-attention person must consider grave).

Preposterous, readers. Join me, please, in having absolutely none of it. There is no “Russian actor” at the bottom of this swamp, to put my position bluntly. You will never, ever be offered persuasive evidence otherwise.

Ye gods, it would take the wisdom of Solomon to determine what’s worse, the content or the prose. Indeed, there is a seamless marriage of form and content here — P-Law is a true artist in his own way.

The key takeaway here for longly experienced paying-attention people is that Lawrence is completely open about being nothing but a propagandist. He’s not engaged in good faith skepticism about the hack, and at this point he wasn’t even pretending to be. He literally declared as the scandal was breaking that the Russians simply could not have been involved in any ratfucking of the 2016 elections and nothing could ever convince him otherwise. The Nation can keep publishing Lawrence’s baseless conspiracy theories and Putin/Trump apologia, it can retain its credibility, but not both.

Submitted Without Comment

[ 359 ] August 13, 2017 |

Ann Althouse, everybody:

NPR writes “she knew he was attending a rally in Virginia” but didn’t “didn’t know it was a white supremacist rally.” Notice the assumption that it’s simply a fact that it was “a white supremacist rally.” I’m not sure that’s established. I don’t think you can assume that everyone who attended that rally has a “white supremacist” ideology, but I think there’s a big effort right now to lump the entire alt-right into that category.

Between this and Glenn Reynolds’s “if Obama had only prosecuted unarmed New Black Panthers for nonexistent legal violations, we wouldn’t have had all of these problems” the right legal blogosphere has really covered itself in glory this weekend.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 127

[ 21 ] August 13, 2017 |

This is a reburial site for the some of the unknown workers killed building the tunnel at Hawk’s Nest in West Virginia.

I’ve written about Hawk’s Nest in the Labor History series, so I won’t repeat every detail. The short version is that when building a diversion tunnel for a dam in 1930, white supervisors for Union Carbide basically threw largely black workers into a project so laden with silica dust while building the tunnel that they contracted silicosis within weeks or months. This is an occupational disease that usually takes years to contract, and only with consistent exposure. Somewhere between 750 and 1000 of the workers died within a few years. About 3/4 of them were black, largely from out of state. The dead white workers received regular burial, as they were locals. The black workers were just thrown into various mass graves around the region, without even identifying them or letting their families know. Despite investigations into Union Carbide’s actions, nothing was ever done to identify the dead black workers. There they lay for many years.

When Highway 19 was expanded to four lanes in 1972, construction workers uncovered one of the mass graves with 41 bodies. They were reburied off the highway. Finally, in 2012, there was a ceremony and marker placed to honor the dead. No one knows their names. And no one ever will. Such is a piece of the story of American racism. There are other Hawk’s Nest victims mass graves around the region, although I don’t believe any have this level of commemoration.

The Hawk’s Nest victims are located just off Highway 19, north of Fayetteville, West Virginia.

Yes, Trump is a Threat to Liberal Democracy. And You Should be Worried.

[ 181 ] August 13, 2017 |

On Friday, the The New York Times published an opinion piece by Samuel Moyn and David Priestland entitled “Trump isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.” The article has been generating a fair amount of chatter in my social-media circles. I find the piece kind of odd. Over on the Twitters, Yascha Mounk argues that it “dismantles a very strawy straw man,” and I think that’s a pretty good characterization. Given my own concerns about ongoing democratic backsliding in the United States—and the risk that Trump will worsen it both at home and abroad—I feel compelled to weigh in.

Moyn and Prieston argue, in essence, that the threat to US democratic institutions posed by Trump is relatively low and that an excessive focus on defending freedom and liberty will distract from solving the underlying economic problems that enabled Trump’s brand of right-wing populism to capture the White House.

Tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions, has always been a powerful force in the United States. As history has shown, however, its tendency to redirect our attention from underlying social and economic problems has often been the real source of danger. It is easier to believe that democracy is under siege than to acknowledge that democracy put Mr. Trump in power — and only more economic fairness and solidarity can keep populists like him out.

There’s a lot of slippage here, including between concepts like “liberal freedom and institutions” and “democracy.” This matters. A lot. It might be that a significant percentage of the American population thinks that Trump is going to suspend the Constitution, abolish Congress, and declare himself President for Life. But, at least in academic and policy circles, the biggest fear about Trump concerns moving the country toward illiberal democracy. As Valerie Bunce and Mark Beissinger noted back in November:

During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties

These worries do not even depend on Trump having some grand authoritarian design. They simply require a self-serving, thin-skinned, individual with autocratic dispositions to occupy the most powerful position in the most powerful democracy in the world: someone who, for example, will demonize opponents, vilify the free press while genuflecting toward the use of economic carrots and sticks to shape coverage to his liking, dispense with conflict of interest rules and norms, and fan the flames of extremism for personal gain. In other words, Trump’s ‘standard operating procedure’ is itself pretty dangerous. Mix in other steps, such as turning the Executive Branch into an ally of—rather than a check against—voter suppression, and I don’t think it requries much imagination to see the threat as very real.

So what do Moyn and Priestland have to say about this?

The initial fearful reaction to Mr. Trump’s election was understandable. He cut a new figure in recent politics. His indefensible slurs against his fellow citizens and offensive plans for the weak were a shock. His frequent breaches of political norms seemed to pose an imminent hazard for democracy. They may have been too chaotic to be truly sinister, but the danger seemed clear and present.

A little more than six months into the Trump presidency, though, it now seems clear that the most frightening threats to ordinary politics in the United States are empty or easily contained. Starting with the Trump administration’s original version of the travel ban, the president’s most outrageous policies have been successfully obstructed, leaving largely those that any Republican president would have implemented through executive order. The menace the commander in chief poses to the world, as his impulsive warning to North Korea suggested, may be another matter. But there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.

Working backwards, and at the risk of repetition, the idea that Trump would “seize power unconstitutionally” is simply not the preomdinate fear among analysts. My strong suspicion is that it is also not the major concern among liberal and progressive political activists. Regardless, it really is a “strawy straw man” when weighing Trump’s threat to liberal democracy.

Moreover, Moyn and Priestland have a strangely static view of the next 4-8 years. Yes, federal courts whittled down much of the travel ban. But three members of the Supreme Court were ready to approve the full ban, including Trump’s own appointment, Neil Gorsuch. It is entirely possible that, within a single term, Trump could select a replacement for Kennedy and at least one of the center-left justices. That would, in all likelihood, create a majority willing to sign off on policies like the travel ban.

Keep in mind that the Supreme Court already has a majority willing to roll back minority voting rights, empower plutocrats in the electoral process, and otherwise tilt the playing field toward the GOP. Now factor in the one area where the Trump administration has seen enormous success: lower-court judicial appointments. This is starting to look an awful lot like the recipe for hybrid regimes, no?

Finally, any account of the Trump administration’s consequences for liberal democracy must consider its efforts to remove the United States entirely from the democracy-promotion, human-rights, and overseas rule-of-law games. The international system is, for the first time since the end of World War II, facing an international system without a great power that even bothers to be a hypocrite on these issues. This could, as Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue, have serious implications for global liberal democracy.

Moyn and Priestland continue:

There is certainly evidence of Russian interference in the election, and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee is serious. But that hardly amounts to a long-term design on American democracy from some kind of fifth column, backed by Moscow’s “Authoritarian International” and propagated by fake news. Even if it were true that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is attempting an illiberal putsch, he is still far from achieving this goal. Paranoia alone explains why fear that the republic is in imminent danger has been the dominant response.

I know this is a short editorial in a national newspaper, but I’m not sure I would dismiss the real prospect of collusion—even in the nudge-nudge-wink-wink form we saw play out on television—between Russia and the Trump campaign quite so glibly. I certainly think the valence of this paragraph changes if we abandon the straw man of “tyrannophobia” that Moyn and Prieston offer. Beyond this, to the extent that Moscow’s information warfare played a causal role in Trump’s election, it’s already done more damage to the ‘liberal order’—including America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships—than Russia could ever hope to do via standard instruments of power politics. This doesn’t represent an existential threat to the survival of the United States, but it’s certainly bad for US national interests.

So why is paranoia a bigger threat than Trump? They write:

The sky is not falling and no lights are flashing red, but Americans have nonetheless embraced a highly charged, counterproductive way of thinking about politics as a “new Cold War” between democracy and totalitarianism. The works of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell have risen on the best-seller charts. Every news story produces fear and trembling.

History raises serious doubts about how helpful this tyrannophobic focus on catastrophe, fake news and totalitarianism really is in dealing with the rise of the populist right, of which this bumbling hothead of a president is a symptom. Excessive focus on liberal fundamentals, like basic freedoms or the rule of law, could prove self-defeating. By postponing serious efforts to give greater priority to social justice, tyrannophobia treats warning signs as a death sentence, while allowing the real disease to fester.

If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve. This approach to politics threatens to widen the already yawning gulf between liberal groups and their opponents, while distracting from the deeply rooted forces that have been fueling right-wing populist politics, notably economic inequalities and status resentments.

The anti-communist politics in the United States of the early 1950s were rooted in assumptions that had much in common with those of anti-Trumpism today. There was, it was claimed, a serious risk to liberal democracy from American subversion within, in alliance with the Russians without, peddling seductive untruths. Other goals — like the creation of a more just and equal society — had to take second place to the country’s military posture.

Ironically, many who rallied to the anti-tyranny banner were liberals of a “vital center” who did so out of sincere belief in the need to create an American welfare state. Yet focusing on exaggerated threats to freedom and stigmatizing the communist enemy undermined their progressive goals. National Security Council Report 68 of 1950, for example, argued that the Cold War justified the reduction of nonmilitary expenditure by the “deferment of certain desirable programs,” including welfare. And while the New Deal was not dismantled, efforts to extend it — which still seemed a real possibility in Harry Truman’s early years in office — were denounced as pink tyranny, boosting state power at the expense of democracy. Casualties included attempts to create a national health care program. The consequences for American politics have been momentous.

On Twitter, Moyn comments on Mounk’s criticisms (which I echo many of here) by describing this piece as a “an attack on the empirical homogenization of unlike cases-an ’empiricism’ driving unhelpful alarm about US democracy’s collapse.” This strikes me as a bit ironic, given that the entire comparative logic here derives from the 1950s.

First, the net effects of the Cold War on domestic progressive causes are far from clear. Yes, it gave us McCarthyism, but Truman integrated the armed forces in the year following the crystallization of the Cold War. The negative effects of Jim Crow on America’s international image likely helped, rather than hurt, the cause of Civil Rights. The 1960s brought Medicare and Medicaid. Without the Cold War would the United States have universal health care, more progressive taxation, and more progressive policies over all? Maybe. But it’s a hugely complicated counterfactual to rest this argument on. At the very least, I’d like to see a deeper analysis of the causal role of anti-communist sentiment in derailing Truman’s health-care plan than provided in the link that they supply.

For what it’s worth, my own view is that the dissolution of the Cold War consensus probably made domestic political polarization worse while taking pressure off of Republicans to care about the attractiveness of the American political-economic model.

Second, Russia is a regional power with nuclear weapons, not a global competitor. It is very difficult to imagine a US-Russia repeat of the particular stew of existential rivalry that marked the 1950s and early 1960s, in which the future of mankind seemed to be on the line, and which led to the diversion of massive resources away from domestic priorities.

Third, Russia is not a communist state. It is rather implausible to suggest that, even if America were to succumb to a McCarthyite hysteria, it would take the form of “the United States can’t expand the welfare state, because that would forward the goals of Soviet communism.” Contemporary Russia is an example of inequality and kleptocracy—that is, precisely the kinds of things that progressives should, if we really need to go there, welcome a backlash against.

In some respects, the threat of anti-democratic forces might force efforts to address economic inequality, not distract from it—a point made by an undergraduate on the Mounk-Moyn thread:

The problems with the Cold War analogy just compound as the essay continues:

The absolute priority given to liberal fundamentals also promoted serious misunderstandings of the rest of the world. Capitalism (though not democracy) had to be defended at all costs, while foreigners were commonly viewed as subject to brainwashing, manipulation and mass irrationality — just what we fear today in the United States itself. And while those assumptions led to terrible mistakes and cost millions of lives in American military interventions, the end of the Cold War only reinforced the tyrannophobic worldview in an even purer form — now including liberal democracy and even freer markets.

My only prior comment on the piece, over on Facebook, was “if we focus on protecting democratic institutions, we’ll get McCarthyism? Wut?” The problem here isn’t simply that the supposed “tyrannophobia” of the liberal and left (nor that of the “vital center”, were we to successfully reconstitute it) operates in a geopolitical and ideological context completely different from that of the 1950s. It’s that the closest analogy to McCarthyism—a xenophobic, paranoid movement that argues for defending democratic sovereignty by adopting illiberal means—has a serious foothold in the Trump administration.

Put simply, the politics of Trumpism—the same politics that threaten democratic backsliding—also threaten to create the conditions that scare Moyn and Priestland. It’s not Russiophobia, or overwrought forms of anti-communism, that we need to worry about it. It’s Islamophobia and white ethnonationalism. Their diagnoses is completely wrong. Liberal and left-wing “tyrannophobes” are, as far as the analogy has any purchase, mobilizing against a replay of the 1950s—but, this time, the intellectual descendants of the Birchers are inside the Executive Branch.

They continue:

The rude awakening has been a long time coming, and even now has not fully occurred. The 2008 financial crisis failed to dent the political establishment’s complacency, even though it had become very clear that market-friendly policies were helping to destroy the social mobility and economic opportunity that underpins a well-functioning democracy.

And while the shock of the 2016 election caused unprecedented soul-searching, tyrannophobia is blinding many to the real warnings of the election: A dysfunctional economy, not lurking tyranny, is what needs attention if recent electoral choices are to be explained — and voting patterns are to be changed in the future. Yet there is too little recognition of the need for new direction in either party. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York recently declared that the Democrats have merely failed to get their message across. Many Republicans are convinced that the party can correct its Trumpian aberration by reasserting the status quo ante of free markets and social conservatism. Neither side, it would seem, is ready to depart from its prior consensus.

The threat of tyranny can be real enough. But those who act as though democracy is constantly on the precipice are likely to miss the path that leads not simply to fuller justice but to true safety.

Of course, I’ve so far operated under the assumption that their underlying causal claims are correct: that implementing social democracy in the United States is the best way to prevent the asencedency of the populist right. The experience of actual social democracies, such as Denmark and Sweden, suggest some healthy skepticism. So does growing evidence about the dynamics of the 2016 election.

I would certainly like a progressive “new nationalism” that tackled inequality and increasing political oligarchy, and did so in an inclusive, civic manner. I’d like a “New New Deal” for the world that remakes international liberal order to promote equality and economic democracy. Sure, I think all of this would probably help combat Trumpism and some of its root causes. But there’s a serious risk of the pundit’s fallacy going on here. History does not unequivocally show that economic inequality is a necessary or sufficient condition for right-wing authoritarianism. It certainly does not show that our best bet, in the face of the threat of democratic backsliding, is to let institutions take care of themselves so that we can devote all of our attention to progressive economic policies.

At heart, Trump forces us to make a wager: are American liberal democracatic institutions self-regulating, or are they precarious, held together through norms and practices that can be chipped away? Given our experience with regional racial autocracy, machine politics, civil war, serious illiberal movements at the national level, and more recent developments in state and federal governance, I think complacency is extremely risky. Heck, imagine what American political institutions would look like if Nixon hadn’t recorded every conversation in the White House, or if the Republicans in congress had held the line for him a bit better.

I find it particularly difficult to accept this risk when it is justified by arguments that seem to me at least somewhat in tension with one another. To believe Moyn and Priestland, we have to simultaneously hold that (1) the underlying threat to democracy is so grave that we need to radically alter our economic model and that (2) institutions are strong enough to prevent significant democratic backsliding under the most radical right-wing government in the postwar period. That is, we have to believe that Trump is a prelude to a much larger explosion of authoritarianism in the United State, and that what happens to the United States under Trump will not significantly shape either the likelihood of that explosion or its ability to usher in illiberal democracy. It’s possible for both to be true, but it’s not likely.


Trump’s Capture of the Republican Party is Far From Mysterious

[ 73 ] August 13, 2017 |

As many of you remember, just last year Perfesser Glenn Reynolds defended the summary execution of demonstrators with vehicles, and then reiterated his defense of the summary execution of demonstrators with vehicles. (Today, he found Trump’s embarrassing Both Sides Do It speech very compelling.) But what’s the big deal, you might ask — Reynolds is just wingnut with an extensive history of eliminationist rhetoric.

The problem is the number of Republican legislators who are indistinguishable from crackpot bloggers:

A different strategy in some recent laws invites vigilantism. A bill introduced in Tennessee would immunize drivers who injure a person who is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic in a public right of way. Florida has a similar bill. Although both bills include language stressing that the motorist’s act must not be intentional, the clear message is that drivers inconvenienced by demonstrations should be able to take matters into their own hands. (One can hear echoes of the call, on Twitter, by the blogger, USA Today columnist, and University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, during protests in Charlotte, to “run them down.”)

Neiether Trump nor James Alex Fields came from nowhere.

Shorter Verbatim Glenn Reynolds: “The roots of this are in the Obama Justice Department’s refusal to prosecute armed Black Panthers who stood outside polling places. That small initial tear in the social fabric has continued to unravel.”

[via Manju]

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