Why didn’t Mitt Romney know he was going to lose?

For a week now, articles, columns, blog posts, and wisecracks have been appearing in their thousands about the fact that former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney seems to have been surprised that he lost the presidential election.  The foremost of these publications so far is Conor Friedersdorf’s post on the Atlantic‘s website, “How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File.”  Also of note are blog posts by Josh Marshall and Claire Potter, a column by Maureen Dowd, and an article on Slate by John Dickerson.

The most quoted section of Mr Friedersdorf’s piece is probably this:

It is easy to close oneself off inside a conservative echo chamber. And right-leaning outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s show are far more intellectually closed than CNN or public radio. If you’re a rank-and-file conservative, you’re probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn’t accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thinking; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear.

But guess what?

You haven’t just been misinformed about the horse race. Since the very beginning of the election cycle, conservative media has been failing you. With a few exceptions, they haven’t tried to rigorously tell you the truth, or even to bring you intellectually honest opinion. What they’ve done instead helps to explain why the right failed to triumph in a very winnable election.

Why do you keep putting up with it?

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.

Conservatives were at an information disadvantage because so many right-leaning outlets wasted time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense. WorldNetDaily brought you birtherism. Forbes brought you Kenyan anti-colonialism. National Review obsessed about an imaginary rejection of American exceptionalism, misrepresenting an Obama quote in the process, and Andy McCarthy was interviewed widely about his theory that Obama, aka the Drone Warrior in Chief, allied himself with our Islamist enemies in a “Grand Jihad” against America. Seriously?

Mr Dickerson makes the case that Mr Romney himself was among those deluded by right-wing media into the belief that he was likely to win the election by a comfortable margin:

Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. His campaign was adamant that public polls in the swing states were mistaken. They claimed the pollsters were over-estimating the number of Democrats who would turn out on Election Day. Romney’s campaign was certain that minorities would not show up for Obama in 2012 the way they did in 2008. “It just defied logic,” said a top aide of the idea that Obama could match, let alone exceed, his performance with minorities from the last election. When anyone raised the idea that public polls were showing a close race, the campaign’s pollster said the poll modeling was flawed and everyone moved on. Internally, the campaign’s own polling—tweaked to represent their view of the electorate, with fewer Democrats—showed a steady uptick for Romney since the first debate. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win “decisively.” It seemed like spin, but the Boston Globe reports that a fireworks display was already ordered for the victory. Romney and Ryan thought they were going to win, say aides. “We were optimistic. More than just cautiously optimistic,” says one campaign staffer. When Romney lost, “it was like a death in the family.”

Professor Potter draws harsh conclusions from Mr Romney’s apparent belief in his chances:

Peculiarly, since the race was consistently described as tight for most of the month prior to election day, and Obama had been gaining ground in all the states he needed to win, Mitt was entirely unprepared for the possibility that he was not going to be president. According to the HuffPo, Romney was “shellshocked” that he was not winning on Tuesday night, having genuinely believed that voter suppression would work all the major media polls were wrong. Paul Ryan and both wives were also stunned. According to CBS, “Their emotion was visible on their faces when they walked on stage after Romney finished his [concession speech], which Romney had hastily composed, knowing he had to say something….They all were thrust on that stage without understanding what had just happened.”

Let’s underline this: Romney had no concession speech, despite available data demonstrating that he could lose the election. None of the four adults who had planned to run the United States government, and lead the rest of what we used to call the “Free World,” seem to have understood that this outcome was possible. “On the eve of the election,” Daniel Lippman writes,” a number of polling aggregators, including HuffPost‘s Pollster and New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight, showed Obama with a huge statistical advantage over Romney.” And yet, despite the fact that Nate Silver, the boy genius of FiveThirtyEight, is almost never wrong, Romney chose to believe that these polls were just partisan attempts to persuade his supporters to stay home.

This is the outcome of lying: you have no real compass for when other people are telling the truth and you need to pay attention to it.

Ms Dowd echoes this point:

Until now, Republicans and Fox News have excelled at conjuring alternate realities. But this time, they made the mistake of believing their fake world actually existed. As Fox’s Megyn Kelly said to Karl Rove on election night, when he argued against calling Ohio for Obama: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”

Much of this growing literature seems to be driven by the desire of those who supported the reelection of President Barack Obama to gloat over Mr Romney’s defeat and to make hostile remarks about his party.  Mr Dickerson’s Slate colleague Katherine Goldstein has appealed for a limit to this gloating, but her piece has attracted far fewer readers than his, and there is no end in sight.  Conservatives had raised similar points, speaking from of course different motivations, shorty before the election.  For example, on Election Day Michael Brendan Dougherty provided a list of five points to make in trying to explain Mr Romney’s defeat to Republicans who get their news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh, starting with “Lots of Republican voters died” between 2008 and 2012, and growing more trenchant as it goes.  Political scientists have been wary of entering the fray; political science blog The Monkey Cage has only featured one post that could be construed as part of the discussion, and that was structured as a conventional media-criticism piece, not a jeer of “Hey everybody, look at the dumbass!”

Turning back for a moment, Professor Potter’s remarks struck me as somewhat oversimplified.  So I replied to them.  I wrote:

I agree with most of what you say, but I do want to register one demurrer.   “Mitt was entirely unprepared for the possibility that he was not going to be president… This is the outcome of lying: you have no real compass for when other
people are telling the truth and you need to pay attention to it.”  I often think of George McGovern’s response when he was asked when he realized he was going to lose the 1972 presidential election.  He said the first time the thought entered his head that President Nixon might possibly beat him was about 10 PM on election night.  Granted, Nate Silver wasn’t around then, but there were quite a few polls, and they all turned out to be right.  What kept the senator from taking those polls seriously wasn’t that he was addicted to lies; he was a remarkably honest man, in fact.  Nor did he surround himself with sycophants.

So why did it not enter Senator McGovern’s mind that he could lose, when it was clear to most observers that he was on his way to the short end of an enormous landslide?  I don’t think it really is such a mystery.  If you’re goal is to win a major party’s presidential nomination, it helps to be the sort of person who never for a moment considers the possibility that s/he might fail in anything s/he sets out to do.  Donors who write big checks, activists who give up their free time to volunteer on campaigns, journalists who bet their next promotions on the campaigns they are assigned to cover, and other major players in the political system all want to attach themselves to the eventual winner.  If you’re given to self-doubt and you’re opponent is certain that s/he will win, you are at a disadvantage in the contest to attract the attention of those players.  Besides, major campaigns make extremely heavy demands on the time, energy, and finances of candidates.  If one candidate is doing a realistic cost-benefit analysis while another is proceeding from the never questioned assumption that s/he will win, the first candidate is less likely to meet those demands.

What about Mr Romney?  I would point out, first, that he has enjoyed considerable success throughout his life.  It’s true that he has only won one of the four elections in which he offered himself as a candidate, and that by a narrow margin, but in his years as a businessman he reaped huge profits no matter what he did.  Moreover, as the son of George Romney and a descendant of Parley Pratt, Mr Romney grew up as a sort of crown prince of Mormonism.  All his life he has been surrounded by people who expected great things of him.  It would be very strange indeed if someone coming from that background and going through a career in which hundreds of millions of dollars devolved upon him were not to believe himself to be a man of destiny.

In other words, I agree that Mr Romney’s privileged background and the overall intellectual climate of his party are probably factors in his placid self-assurance.  However, a highly competitive system like those which have produced major-party nominees for US president will select for candidates who exhibit that precisely that quality, and it is hardly a surprise when a nominee is so deeply shaped by it that s/he cannot see defeat coming even when all indications point to it.

I’d also like to add one point to the comment I posted on Professor Potter’s site.  Every candidate who represents a political party is expected to help that party raise money, build organization, and get its voters to the polls.  Even a nominee who is universally regarded as a sure loser will therefore, if s/he is living up to the terms of his or her covenant with the party, campaign until the moment the last ballot is cast.  Few people are interested in giving money, volunteering, or voting for a candidate who says that s/he is unlikely to win.  Imagine your telephone ringing, and a voice on the other end greeting you with: “Hello, I’m Peter Politician, and I’d like to ask you to devote your resources and efforts to my doomed campaign.  As you know, I have no chance of winning this election.  Can I count on your active support?  It will cost you a great deal of inconvenience, and buy you nothing but a share of my inevitable, humiliating defeat.”  I doubt you’d respond very favorably.  Right up to the moment when the candidate delivers his or her concession speech, s/he is telling potential donors, volunteers, and voters that s/he expects to win.  That’s a lot easier to do if you actually believe what you’re saying.

Is the Republican Party strong enough to survive a Romney presidency?

The other day,Jack Balkin of Yale Law School posted an item on The Atlantic‘s website in which he argued that, if former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney is elected president of the United States a week from Tuesday, his administration will likely come with great cost to the Republican Party which he nominally leads.  Professor Balkin links to the Amazon listings for two books by political scientist Stephen Skowronek (The Politics Presidents Make and Presidential Leadership in Political Time.)  Professor Skowronek classifies US presidents by the relationship they and their parties have to each other and to what Professor Balkin summarizes as the “interests, assumptions, and ideologies that dominate public discussion.”  Together, these interests, assumptions, and ideologies set the boundaries of the political “regime” of the period.  Professor Skowronek asks two questions about each of the US presidents*: “Skowronek’s key insight is that a president’s ability to establish his political legitimacy depends on where he sits in “political time”: Is he allied with the dominant regime or opposed to it, and is the regime itself powerful or in decline?”  Presidents who lead strong parties that oppose declining regimes can sweep those regimes away and implement sweeping new policies.  Professor Skowronek’s label for the few presidents who have held and capitalized in this enviable position is “reconstructive president.”  If the regime that takes shape under the administration of a reconstructive president continues to thrive after his time in office, his successors can be either “affiliated presidents,” who support the  regime and try to extend it, or “preemptive presidents,” who oppose the regime and try to modify it.  When the regime goes into terminal decline, affiliated presidents go down to political defeat, as “disjunctive presidents,” while preemptive presidents can attempt to join the list of reconstructive presidents.

Professor Balkin argues that the current regime in the USA emerged when the Reagan-Bush administration cut personal income taxes and increased defense spending on big-ticket weapons systems.  These measures were intended to solve certain problems the USA faced at the beginning of the 1980s; the tax cuts did in fact precede an end to the “stagflation” that had plagued the 1970s, and the military buildup did in fact worry the Soviet Union.  These measures, apparently successful as solutions to those particular problems, have been the foundation stones of national policy for nearly a third of a century.  Thus, Professor Balkin classifies Ronald Reagan as a reconstructive president, the two George Bushes as affiliated presidents, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as preemptive presidents.  Like observers well to his right, Professor Balkin has come to the conclusion that lower taxes and higher spending on big-ticket weapons systems have run their course.  Our current economic woes are not an example of stagflation, and even if they were it is by no means certain that in an age of global capital further reductions in personal income tax could relieve them.  Nor does the Soviet Union, or any other potential adversary against which the weapons systems that eat up most of our military budget would be useful, exists at present.  Tied to a party that has become increasingly doctrinaire in its attachment to these anachronistic policies, a President Romney would be doomed to join the ranks of the disjunctive presidents.  He might be comfortable in their company; the last two disjunctive presidents were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, like Mr Romney businessmen who campaigned on their abilities as technocratic managers.  Professor Balkin goes so far as to declare that “The next Jimmy Carter will be a Republican president — a Republican who, due to circumstances beyond his control, unwittingly presides over the dissolution of the Reagan coalition.”

I’m not altogether convinced that a Romney administration would necessarily end as the Hoover and Carter administrations ended, with a landslide defeat for the president after one term and a new American regime created by his successor.  I suppose if I were a Democratic politician considering a bid for the presidency in 2016, I would find the idea irresistible, but it strikes me that an incumbent president does have some influence over his party.  If it is so obvious that the policies that carried Ronald Reagan to reelection in 1984 are no longer applicable to the problems of our day, then a President Romney might not only see this himself, but might well be able to find powerful forces in the Republican Party that will support him in an effort to reorient the party towards some new agenda.  He, not a Democratic successor of his, might then emerge as a reconstructive president who creates a new regime.

If Mr Romney is elected and rises to his historical moment in this way, I would suggest a parallel to the presidencies of William McKinley (1897-1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909.)  Those presidents together enacted an agenda of territorial expansion, commercial regulation, and political centralization that marked a significant departure from main line of post-Civil War politics, and established the regime that Herbert Hoover was trying to preserve thirty years later.  Surely we ought to would classify them as reconstructive presidents.  Yet the regime they replaced had been created during the Civil War, when their fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln had played the role of reconstructive president.  By this reckoning Democrat Grover Cleveland was at once a preemptive president ( 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) and a disjunctive president, opposing typical postbellum Republican policies of high tariffs and military pensions, and a disjunctive president, being the last to govern within the bounds set by the old regime.  Barack Obama might follow President Cleveland in this regard, with such measures as his health insurance reform and his moderate stand on social issues qualifying him as a preemptive president while his warmaking and support for Republican-devised subsidies to the financial firms would place him in the line of post-Reagan presidents.

I should add that I am not at all optimistic that a new political regime founded by Mr Romney and his associates would be desirable.  Given his platform, his background, and his associates, I suspect it would be pretty nearly intolerable, with taxes paid directly to the moneyed elite, frequent wars, and an end to civil liberties.  In these ways, such a regime could fairly be labeled fascist.  However, Professor Skowronek’s system focuses, not on what is desirable or undesirable, but on what is sustainable or unsustainable in a particular period of history.  And I suspect that fascism of that sort might very well be sustainable for quite some time.

*No, not about how they would do in a mass knife fight to the death, unfortunately.

Wasted votes

In a couple of weeks, voters in the USA will go to the polls to fill a number of offices, including the electors who will either return Barack Obama to the White House for another four years as the country’s president or replace him with former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney.  To be more precise, that is when the last voters will cast their ballots; millions of of Americans, Mrs Acilius and I among them, have already cast absentee ballots.

The missus and I did not, as it happens, vote for either Mr O or his leading opponent.  We had planned to vote for Ross “Rocky” Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, whose independent bid focuses, first, on opposition to the wars the USA is currently waging or underwriting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Mali, Mauretania, and heaven knows how many other countries; second, on opposition to “anti-terrorism” policies that have compromised the rule of law so drastically that Mr O openly boasts of murders he has ordered and plans to order in the future;  third, on support for investigation and prosecution of any and all war crimes that recent US presidents have sponsored.  But Mr Anderson did not gain sufficient support to be certified as a candidate in our state.  So we voted instead for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.  Dr Stein agrees with Mr Anderson on all of those points, but focuses her campaign on environmental policy and poverty issues.

Many people like to say that, because Mr O and Mr Romney are the only candidates with any chance of winning next month’s election, votes for any other candidate are “wasted.”  On its face, this expression is nonsensical.  It isn’t as if the polling places were casinos where the machines pay out if voters cast a ballot for a winner.  I have often asked people what they meant they say that votes for candidates unlikely to win are “wasted,” and have read many internet comment threads where people have been asked to explain what they mean by it.  The response is invariably a repetition of the claim that some candidate or other is unlikely to win, usually accompanied by a lot of bluster asserting that it is a sign of some moral deficiency to vote for anyone other than a likely winner.

Incoherent as these responses are, they seem to reflect a distinction that political scientists make between two kinds of voting behavior.  They talk about “instrumental voting” and “expressive voting.”  Instrumental voting, in its most basic form, represents a voter’s hope that s/he will cast the decisive ballot; expressive voting represents the voter’s attempt to make his or her policy preferences clear.

Political scientists sometimes go to great lengths to defend the rationality of instrumental voting.  Yet a moment’s reflection should suffice to show that in any election where the electorate is more than 600 or 700 people, the likelihood that there will be a single decisive ballot is quite small.  In a race like that for US president, where over one hundred million ballots will be cast and the electoral process is indirect, the probability that the outcome will be decided by a single ballot is effectively nil.  Meanwhile, if it is generally expected that the same electorate will vote again in the future and that such voting will be comparable in importance to the present election, political actors will analyze the results of the election as they formulate their plans for governing and campaigning.  The more votes a losing candidate receives, the more likely the policies associated with that candidate are to receive serious consideration in the interval before the next election.  Nowadays, the methods of analysis that parties, advocacy groups, candidates, and other political actors apply to election returns are so sensitive that even tiny numbers of votes can provide elected officials with information that they may profitably use in forming their approach to governing and campaigning.  Therefore, it is not too much to say that expressive voting is in fact the only rational form of voting behavior wherever the electorate is larger than a few hundred people.

What brought all this to my mind were three pieces I recently read dealing with the 2012 campaign.  Two of them were from lefties exasperated with Democrats telling them that any vote not cast for Mr O is effectively an endorsement of Mr Romney’s worst proposals; these were from Ted Rall and M. G. Piety of Counterpunch.  Another was from a right-wingers exasperated with Republicans telling him that any vote not cast for Mr Romney is effectively an endorsement of the misdeeds of the Obama administration; this was from Mark P. Shea.  In particular, Mr Rall’s arguments, and even his presentation of them as a series of replies to Frequently-Asked-Questions, are remarkably similar to Mr Shea’s.  Of course, the two are poles apart on most issues, but do unite in opposition to the idea of voting for either Mr O or his Republican counterpart.

The Romney strategy

Earlier today, I posted two long comments at Secular RightOne was about philosopher Alvin Plantinga.   That one I’ll just leave there, as I doubt that anyone who reads this blog would be much interested in it.

The other was about US presidential candidate Willard M. “Mitt” Romney.  I’ll copy it below.  Mr Romney recently made news by saying this:

So, in what are obviously prepared remarks Mr Romney is declaring that “47, 48, 49%” of US voters will never support him under any conditions.  That wouldn’t seem to be a statement that a candidate who expects to win an election would make.  It has been widely reported as a gaffe, and on Secular Right blogger “David Hume” (alias Razib Khan) joins those who say that Mr Romney faces “a longer shot than he had one week ago.”

I’m not so sure.  I explained there (links added):

When you say that Mr Romney’s chances of winning the election are less than they were a week ago, I assume you’re thinking of his remarks about the “47, 48, 49%” of voters who will never support him because their household incomes are too low. If that is an incorrect assumption, please let me know.

I don’t know whether those remarks will hurt him in the end. What does seem clear is that they are part of a deliberate strategy on Mr Romney’s part. A few days before the release of this video, he had said that an annual household income of $100,000 was insufficient to qualify for the middle class, that it took at least $250,000 to be a middle-income family. And there have been so many other remarks of the same kind, from “Corporations are people, my friend” to his challenge to Rick Perry to a $10,000 wager, to “Some of my best friends are NASCAR team owners,” that it is clearly a strong pattern. Mr Romney is an extremely intelligent man, and is continually receiving high-quality market research about the voting public’s response to his statements. Therefore, it is unlikely that he would exhibit such a strong pattern unless he believed that it would help him achieve some goal.

What is that goal? I’d say the answer is in the “47, 48, 49%” formulation. The last survey I saw that asked Americans to rank themselves by the level of household income showed that something like 17% of them thought that they were in the top 1%. That survey is pretty old now, but I suspect that far fewer than 49% of Americans think of themselves as part of the poorest 49%. Those who do know that they are in the bottom half of the income distribution are certainly no less likely to vote for Mr Romney now than they were before these remarks were released; if anything, those voters with sub-median incomes who would consider voting Republican are likely to cheer when they hear a politician casting aspersions on those of their neighbors and coworkers who express concern about the future of public assistance programs.

In other words, I think that Mr Romney is trying to position his candidacy as a luxury brand. He knows that people like to feel rich, and that they sometimes choose luxury products or services because the act of buying them will give them that feeling. He is in fact betting his entire candidacy on this sort of luxury appeal.

Will this wager pay off? It seems very unlikely now. Mr Romney started running for president shortly after he was elected governor of Massachusetts, in George W. Bush’s first term. At that time, he evidently hoped that, in 2008, he would be the Republican Party’s nominee for president, that because of the Bush-Cheney record the Republican Party would be very popular, and that the economy would be booming. Under those conditions, a strategy like Mr Romney’s might very well have won a presidential election.

As it happened, Mr Romney was not nominated until 2012, the Bush-Cheney record made and continues to make the Republican Party unpopular, and the economy has not been truly strong for a good many years. So it would be surprise if his strategy were to succeed. What is not surprising is that he continues to pursue it. On the one hand, Mr Romney’s own personal history is such that he could prove his independence from the plutocracy only by advocating a genuinely populist economic policy. That, obviously, is something which he has absolutely no desire to do. On the other hand, the Republican Party in general has been moving towards a more frankly pro-rich posture in recent years. Look at all the talk from leading Republicans about “broadening the base” of the tax system, that is to say, raising taxes on the non-rich. If that is the direction they are going, the only asset the Republicans are going to have in future elections is their luxury appeal. So, slim as Mr Romney’s chances may be, his decision to base his campaign on the fact that he and his social circle are all very, very rich is in fact a rational one.

Ancient Regime

Shortly before the stock markets closed yesterday afternoon, the US Supreme Court announced a ruling on the so-called “Affordable Care Act” (also known as ACA.)  Health care stocks generally rose on the news of the ruling, in some cases sharply, while shares in health insurers showed a mixed reaction.  Today, the trend has been slightly downward across the board.

A majority of the US Supreme Court held that the US government does have the power to compel citizens and other residents of the USA to buy health insurance.  While the court rejected the Obama administration’s argument that this power, the core of the law, was within the scope of the authority the Constitution grants the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, it concluded that, because the law is to be enforced by the Internal Revenue Service in the process of collecting taxes, it is supported by the government’s authority to levy taxes.

In effect, the law establishes a tax that will be paid directly to health insurance companies.  US residents who refuse to pay this tax will be assessed an alternative tax, one paid to the treasury.  As written, the statute did not include the word “tax,” speaking instead of “premiums” and “penalties.”  These words are euphemisms.  This is clear not only from the Supreme Court’s legal reasoning, but also from the most basic economic logic.  A law which directs people to dispose of their wealth in a particular way to advance a particular set of policy objectives is a tax, whatever label marketing-minded politicians may choose to give it.

Many opponents of the ACA have spoken out against the idea of a tax directly payable to private citizens.  For example, today on the Counterpunch website Dr Clark Newhall complains that the bipartisan Supreme majority represents “Corporatists United.”  Dr Newhall denounces the statute and the ruling in strong terms.  I would like to make three quotes from Dr Newhall’s piece abd add my own comments to them:

In an eagerly anticipated opinion on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare’, an unusual alignment of justices upheld the Act nearly entirely.  The crucial part of the decision found the ‘odd bedfellows’ combination of Chief Justice Roberts joining the four ‘liberal’ justices to uphold the ‘individual mandate’, the section of the law requiring all Americans to buy health insurance from private health insurance companies…

Many supporters of the ACA object to the term “Obamacare.”  The law was crafted on the model of a regime of health insurance regulations and subsidies enacted in Massachusetts in 2006.  That regime is widely known as “Romneycare,” in honor of Willard M. Romney (alias “Mitt,”) who, as Massachusetts’ governor at the time, had been its chief advocate.  So calling the federal version “Obamacare” is simply a matter of continuing to follow the Massachusetts model.  Now, of course, Mr Romney is the Republican Party’s choice to oppose Mr Obama in this year’s presidential election.  Therefore Mr Romney and his surrogates are creating much merriment for political observers by trying to attack the president’s most widely-known legislative achievement, which as it so happens is identical to Mr Romney’s most widely-known legislative achievement.

Dr Newhall goes on:

Those who make, interpret and enforce the laws no longer lie on the ‘left-right’ political continuum. Instead, they are in effect at ‘right angles’ to that continuum.  The ideology that drives the Supreme Court, the political administration and the Congress is not Conservative or Liberal but can best be described as “Corporatist.”  This is the ideology that affirms that “corporations are citizens, my friends.”  it is the ideology that drove the Roberts Court to the odious Citizens United decision.  it is the ideology behind a bailout for banks that are ‘too big to fail.’  And it is the ideology that allows Congress to pass a law like the ACA that is essentially written by a favored industry…

It seems to me very clear what Dr Newhall means to evoke in these sentences is the spectre of fascism.  During the 1930’s, fascists in Italy, Britain, Belgium, and several other countries used the words “fascism” and “corporatism” interchangeably, and economic historians still cite Mussolini’s Italy, and to a lesser extent Hitler’s Germany, as examples of corporatist economics in practice.  The American diplomat-turned-economist-turned-journalist-turned-pariah Lawrence Dennis argued in a series of books in the 1930’s that laissez-faire capitalism was doomed, that state ownership of industry was a dead end, and that the economic future of the developed world belonged to a system in which the state coordinated and subsidized the operations of privately-owned corporations.  The most famous of the books in which Dennis endorsed this system was titled The Coming American Fascism.

Not only the word “corporatism,” but also the image of a ruling elite “at right angles” to the old left/right politics might well remind readers of fascism.  The fascists continually claimed to represent a new politics that was neither left nor right; while such anticapitalist fascist tendencies as il fascismo della sinistra or Germany’s Strasserites were not markedly successful in the intra-party politics of fascist movements,* all fascist parties used anticapitalist rhetoric from time to time (think of the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” and of Joseph Goebbels’ definition of revolution as a process by which the right adopts the language and tactics of the left.)  Moreover, the image of “left” and “right” suggests that political opinions form a continuum that stretches from one extreme to another, with any number of points in between.  That in turn suggests that people who disagree may have enough in common with each other that their conflicts may be productive.  Fascism, on the other hand, demands a one-party state in which a single ideology is imposed on everyone.  Fascism finds nothing of value in political conflict, and strives to annihilate disagreement.  I think that’s what the late Seymour Martin Lipset was driving at in his book Political Man when he placed most fascist movements, including the Italian fascists and German Nazis, not on the far right, but in the “Radical Center.”

Counterpunch is edited by Alexander Cockburn, who recently declared that the United States of America has completed its transition to fascism.  So it would not be surprising if by these remarks Dr Newhall were insinuating that the ACA is fascist in its substance.  I would demur from such an assessment.  Before I can explain why, permit me to quote one more paragraph from Dr Newhall’s piece:

Why does Corporatism favor Obamacare?  Because Obamacare is nothing more than a huge bailout for another failing industry — the health insurance industry.  No health insurer could continue to raise premiums at the rate of two to three times inflation, as they have done for at least a decade.  No health insurer could continue to pay 200 million dollar plus bonuses to top executives, as they have done repeatedly.  No health insurer could continue to restrict Americans’ access to decent health care, in effect creating slow and silent ‘death panels.’  No health insurer could do those things and survive.  But with the Obamacare act now firmly in place, health insurers will see a HUGE multibillion dollar windfall in the form of 40 million or more new health insurance customers whose premiums are paid largely by government subsidies.  That is the explanation for the numerous expansions and mergers you have seen in the health care industry in the past couple of years.  You will see more of the same, and if you are a stock bettor, you would do well to buy stock in smaller health insurers, because they will be snapped up in a wave of consolidation that dwarfs anything yet seen in this country.

Certainly the health insurance industry was in trouble in 2009, and the ACA is an attempt to enable that industry to continue business more or less as usual.  In that sense, it is a bailout.  Indeed, the health insurance companies are extremely influential in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and there can be little doubt that whichever of those parties won the 2008 elections would have enacted similar legislation.  Had Mr Romney been successful in his 2008 presidential campaign, doubtless he would have signed the same bill that Mr Obama in fact signed.  The loyal  Democrats who today defend the ACA as a great boon to working-class Americans would then be denouncing it in terms like those Dr Newhall employs, while the loyal Republicans who today denounce the ACA as a threat to the “free-enterprise system” that they fondly imagine to characterize American economic life would then defend it on some equally fanciful basis.

In a deeper sense, however, I disagree with Dr Newhall’s assessment quite thoroughly.  A moment ago, I defined taxation as any law that requires people to dispose of their wealth in particular ways to advance particular policy objectives.  If we think about that definition for a moment, we can see that the United States’ entire health insurance industry exists to receive taxes.  In the USA, wages paid to employees are subject to a rather heavy tax called FICA.  Premiums that are paid for employees’ health insurance policies are not subject to FICA, and so employers have an incentive to put a significant fraction of their employees’ compensation packages into health insurance premiums.  Since the health insurers have been collecting taxes all along, it is quite misleading to call the ACA a bailout.  It is, rather, a tax increase.

Now, as to the question of fascism, certainly fascist regimes did blur the line between the public and private sectors.  The most extreme case of this was of course the assignment of concentration camp inmates as slave labor for I. G. Farben and other cartels organized under the supervision of the Nazi state.  So it would not have been much of a stretch for fascists to grant corporations the power to collect taxes.  Even if they had done so, however, fascists could hardly claim to have made an innovation.  Tax farming, the collection of taxes by private-sector groups in pursuit of profit, was the norm in Persia by the sixth century BC, and spread rapidly throughout the ancient world.  In ancient Rome under the later Republic, tax farming proved itself to be a highly efficient means of organizing tax collection. So the fact that tax farming is one of the principal aspects of the US economy is not evidence that the USA is a fascist or a proto-fascist regime.  Indeed, the fact that the Supreme Court seriously considered a case that would have challenged the legitimacy of tax farming is an encouraging sign, however unedifying the opinions that the court issued as a result of that consideration might be.

Of course, in the ancient world tax farmers bid competitively for the right to collect taxes, and the winners put their bids into the public treasury.  In the USA, there is no such bidding, and no such payment.  Instead, wealthy individuals and interest groups buy politicians by financing their campaigns and their retirements.  Perhaps we would be better off to adopt the ancient system.

At any rate, “fascism” seems a misnomer for our economic system, almost as misleading as “free enterprise” or as anachronistic as “capitalism.”  A more accurate term, at least as regards the components that are dominated by tax farming, would be neo-feudalist.  The US political class is increasingly an hereditary class; Mr Obama defeated the wife of a former president to win his party’s nomination to succeed the son of a former president, and now faces the son of a former presidential candidate in his campaign for a second term.  This hereditary nobility will now sit atop a system in which the non-rich are legally obligated to pay tribute or provide service to those in power in the land, who will in turn honor certain obligations to them.

*Fascism being what it was, “not markedly successful in intra-party politics” often meant “shot several times in the head and dismembered,” as happened to Gregor Strasser.

Some points to consider when deciding how to vote

This morning a story went out on the Associated Press wire that appeared in American newspapers under titles like “Undecided voters may sway presidential election.”  These two paragraphs got me thinking:

“I don’t believe in nothing they say,” says Carol Barber of Ashland, Ky., among the 27 percent of the electorate that hasn’t determined whom to back or that doesn’t have a strong preference about a candidate.

Like many uncommitted voters, Barber, 66, isn’t really paying attention to politics these days. She’s largely focused on her husband, who just had a liver transplant, and the fact that she had to refinance her home to pay much of his health bill. “I just can’t concentrate on it now,” she says before adding, “If there were somebody running who knows what it’s like to struggle, that would be different.”

It takes a bit of a imagination to think of ways the U. S. political system might be reformed so that a person could go from Ms Barber’s current position to the presidential nomination of a major party.  While President Obama as a child lived for a time in a household eligible for food stamps, and as recently as 1996 both major parties nominated candidates who had begun their lives in very modest economic circumstances, by the time each of those men entered his thirties he had risen well into the upper middle class.  It isn’t to downplay the challenges that faced the poor children Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Barack Obama once were that I point out that none of them ever had to keep a gravely ill spouse alive by taking on substantial debt at a time when he likely believed that his working days were numbered.

I could suggest some reforms that might empower people like Ms Barber.  Among those suggestions would be the devolution of as many legislative powers as possible to neighborhoods and other localities small enough for all citizens to assemble in face-to-face meetings, and of executive powers to boards of citizens chosen by lot.  Such a system worked quite well in ancient Athens, and when systems like it are given a chance they work well in the modern world.   However,  I doubt that such reforms will be adopted any time soon.  So, granted that we are stuck with a system in which politics is conducted on a continental scale and the average citizen can signal her or his policy preferences only by voting in occasional election, what questions should we ask as we decide how to vote?

I agree with Ms Barber that we need people in politics who can see the world from some point of view other than that of the moneyed elite among whom presidential candidates typically move.  I’d add that people like Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Barack Obama may be the last people we should expect to adopt such a point of view.  A man who rose from a childhood of poverty and obscurity to wealth and power is likely to have learned two lessons from the experience: first, that it’s no fun to be poor; second, that the way out of poverty is to make oneself useful to the rich.  Such politicians may be able to empathize with the non-rich, especially the very young among them, but they are the very last people we would expect to go out on a limb for the sake of people who are not in a position to advance their careers. And people who have been anything other than rich as adults are simply not going to have the resume that people expect of presidential candidates, let alone have the connections to organize a viable national campaign.

So, if the candidate’s personal experience of economic or other hardship is not a major criterion to use in deciding how to vote, what is?  I brought up the 1996 presidential campaign, not only because Ms Barber’s remark reminds me of the Clinton-Dole pairing, but also because I read a magazine article during it that has helped to clarify my political thinking ever since.  Written by David Samuels, it was titled “Presidential Shrimp: Bob Dole Caters the Political Hors d’Oeuvres” and appeared on pages 45 through 52 of the March 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine (volume 292, number 1750.)  Subscribers to Harper’s can access the article online here; I stopped subscribing to it years ago, and of course I don’t keep 16 year old magazines around the house, so when I read Ms Barber’s remark this morning I had to take a trip to the library to track the article down.

One night in December, 1995, Mr Samuels’ press credentials gained him admittance to a fundraising dinner for the Dole campaign.  The dinner, held at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, was organized by a group of Massachusetts businessmen, among them “Mitt Romney, the Mormon banker who nearly knocked off Ted Kennedy in the Senate race here in 1994.”  It’s a bit misleading to say that Mr Romney “nearly knocked off Ted Kennedy” in that race; though an early poll or two had given Mr Romney a narrow lead, at the end of the day Mr Kennedy was reelected by a margin of 58% to 41%, hardly a squeaker.  Nor is it accurate to call Mr Romney a banker; as a private equity operator, he borrowed a great deal of money, though he neither lent money nor held it in trust in the way banks do.   Be that as it may, it was a bit of an uncanny moment to see his name in an article from so many years ago that I was looking up for insight into an election in which he is one of the leading candidates.  What they call an “Eldritch moment,” I suppose.

Mr Samuels used vignettes from that dinner to illustrate several points about how U. S. political campaigns operated in those days.  After listing many of the major donors in attendance, Mr Samuels writes: “If Bill Clinton is the candidate of high-wage, capital intensive business- investment banking, high tech, and entertainment- Dole looks increasingly like the candidate of low-wage, labor-intensive retail, manufacturing, and small business” (pages 49-50.)  Nowadays, a candidate with a donor profile dominated by retail, manufacturing, small business, and agribusiness concerns would be unlikely to advance as far as Mr Dole did; as Tom Frank demonstrates in his recent book Pity the Billionaire, it is precisely these groups that have funded the “Tea Party.”  Despite the headlines that tendency generated, it certainly did not represent much of an inconvenience for Mr Romney’s finance capital-backed march to this year’s Republican presidential nomination.

Mr Samuels describes Mr Dole’s public persona in a way that rings true to me: “[T]here is something appealingly adult about Dole’s performance.  As he smirks and blinks, and tramples on his applause lines, it is not hard to imagine some kind of fundamental honesty that prevents him from pulling out all the stops and putting on the expected show.  Dole’s best lines, his best moments in the Senate, have in common a weary and knowing respect for his audience.  The very depth of Dole’s cynicism can even translate as charm: ‘I’m not going to lie to you’ is one of the few lines that the senator delivers with any conviction in public, not because Dole doesn’t lie but because, unlike so many politicians, he is at least aware that he is lying” (page 51.)  As a connoisseur of world-weary cynicism, my favorite moment of the 1996 campaign came when Mr Dole, expected to repeat his campaign slogan “Bob Dole. A Better Man.  For a Better America,” said “Bob Dole.  Better man with a better plan.  Or whatever.”  The man had such contempt for the process that he couldn’t be bothered to memorize his own slogan.  That almost made me want to vote for him.

This image of Bob Dole as a man who “is at least aware that he is lying” inspires Mr Samuels to a flight of political science fiction: “In a rational political system, of course, geared to show off the strengths of the two opposing candidates for the highest office in the land, Bob Dole would be allowed to go on television and explain to the voters who is supporting him (and why,) who is supporting Bill Clinton (and why,) and encourage the voters to choose between them based on this practical knowledge.”  Mr Dole’s “weary and knowing respect for his audience” made it possible to imagine him operating under those conditions.  I can almost hear his voice saying “I represent a consortium of investors drawn from private equity, agribusiness, trucking, manufacturing, and retail.  They want a capital gains tax cut, managed trade deals like NAFTA, subsidies for exports, a rollback of workplace safety standards, and lax enforcement of securities regulations.”

I don’t disagree that our evaluation of the opposing candidates should begin with consideration of their sponsors and of what those sponsors expect in return for their investment.  But it mustn’t end there.  In a two-party system, we not only elect one party to fill an office, we also elect the other party to serve as the opposition.  So we should not only consider each party by the potential office-holders it offers us, but also by its likely effectiveness as an opposition party.  The first presidential election in which I voted was 1988.  I remember one afternoon that autumn when I read literature from the campaigns of George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.  The more I read, the less appealing either of them looked.  The next day, I was walking to a class when it occurred to me that whichever of them was elected, Congress would rewrite any proposals he sent them.  That struck me like a thunderbolt.  Suddenly it was obvious to me that a President Dukakis would be in no position to enact the parts of his platform I disliked, while the President Bush we actually ended up with would have a relatively easy time enacting his very worst ideas.  So it was easy for me to vote for Mr Dukakis.

Moreover, while it is undoubtedly true that the people who provide the money for a campaign set the boundaries to the policies the candidate can espouse, that campaign must also enlist the support of groups that provide little money but many votes.  So, our parallel universe Bob Dole would tell us not only what his sponsors expected in return for their money, but also what they had authorized him to offer to constituency groups whose support he needed.  For example, none of his principal backers had a financial stake in the abortion-rights debate, yet Mr Dole adopted a rigidly anti-abortion line in preparation for the 1996 campaign.  A Republican candidate who failed to do so at that time would have lost his hold over voters without whose support he would have had no chance at all in the Midwestern states where presidential elections are usually decided.  A pro-choice Bob Dole would have been a certain loser and therefore an extremely poor investment.

So, when we elect a president, we elect three things: we elect a consortium of investors to serve as the president’s de facto Executive Council; we elect the other party as the official opposition; and we elect the most volatile constituency groups within the president’s coalition to a position in which they have a veto over executive action.  Notice, it is not the largest groups backing the president that hold this veto; it is the groups whose support the president cannot take for granted and must earn.  Therefore, when we choose a presidential candidate, we should do so because we see a way in which the economic interests of that candidates’ backers will promote the national interest as we understand it; because the other party, as the opposition party, is able to block the worst aspects of our candidate’s agenda and unable to block some of its best aspects; and because our votes, coming from us as members of particular constituencies,  are unlikely to send a signal that the candidate’s party can take our support for granted.

Mr Samuels, writing more than 16 years ago, noted that wealth was rapidly becoming more concentrated in the USA: “That the economic program of the new Democratic financiers may also imply the continuing hemorrhage of American jobs abroad is of little concern to those who pay the party’s bills today: with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer at unprecedented speed, the first term of the Clinton presidency bears an alarming resemblance, in its effects if not in its tone, to that of Ronald Reagan” (page 48.)  In the years since, this process of concentration has reached fantastic levels, as the financial sector’s elite has pulled away from every other group.  Mr Samuels describes scenes in which manufacturing bosses join the likes of Mr Romney and other financiers as the senior-most figures at the top table.  Today presidential candidates treat the heads of manufacturing businesses the way they treat disabled children,  seating them at the dais when they plan to introduce the as inspiring examples of what is still possible in America.  “And they are going to keep that factory and those jobs right here in the USA!,” applause, applause.

As the number of people who qualify as truly rich and the range of fields in which their fortunes are amassed shrinks, the universe of moneymen who can finance national campaigns shrinks even more rapidly.  It shrinks not only in number, but also in the variety of interests it represents.  This shrinking variety has three major consequences.  First, the differences between the major parties fade into irrelevance as they come to depend not only on consortia of investors who are equally rich, but on consortia that are drawn from the same sectors and that massively overlap in membership.  Second, the likelihood grows that the moneyed elite, small as it is and detached as it is from any but a tiny handful of concerns, will become bizarre, absorbed in ideas that may come naturally to its members for some economic or other reason, but which have no relevance to the public at large.  Third, the less rapport there is between an elite and the public it governs, the more repressive its government is likely to be.

These three processes are all well advanced in the USA.  For evidence that the differences between the parties are fading into irrelevance, consider the unprecedented level of legislative and executive activity in Washington in the last twenty years.  Contrary to the weirdly fashionable complaint that national politics is mired in gridlock, the Congress has in these last decades appropriated money by the trillion, cut taxes by the trillion, and condoned the printing of dollars by the trillion, deregulated entire industries,  required citizens to pay taxes directly to corporations in favored industries, established massive new agencies, started several wars of aggression, and granted the president unrestricted power to monitor, detain, torture, and kill whomever he pleases.   Granted, politicians running for reelection rarely point to any of this activity as an achievement of which they are proud, and not one item of it enjoys the support of even a plurality of voters, let alone a majority.  But it certainly constitutes extreme productivity, and every part of it was enacted with broad bipartisan support.  The unpopularity of this formidably efficient bipartisan cooperation attests to the detachment of the moneyed elite that sponsors both parties from the life of the country more generally.  The legislation that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have signed granting their office the powers of a police state show that the donors behind both men see the nonrich public as a source of danger to their position and want to give their political agents the means to intimidate it into silence.

Even when there is a functioning avenue of communication between the elite and the rest of us, minor parties are essential to a two party system.  Voters who decide that the party they usually support has become too different from the other party can signal their displeasure by crossing over to support the other party.  But in the absence of minor parties, voters who decide that their party has become too much like the other party have no effective way to signal their opinion.  Abstaining can send that message, but may not give the party a clear incentive to alter its behavior.  Given a choice between continuing to do what they have been doing and holding on to whatever success they have already gained or changing their approach in hopes of bringing nonvoters back to the polls, surely it would be a rare leadership cadre that would take the path of high risk.

When the ruling elite has drifted as far from the voting public as they have in the USA, the role of minor parties is crucial.  The only party that will resist the excesses of the elite, let alone embrace a program that may reverse the centralization of power in ever fewer hands, is one that faces certain defeat otherwise.  The Republican Party draws its base of support from voters who are comfortable with hierarchy ; it is therefore unlikely to become the vehicle for such resistance.  The Democratic Party absorbs the votes of people who want to create a more open political system; if that is the goal, it is therefore necessary either to wrest control of the Democratic Party from its current sponsors, or to destroy it and make way for a new party that will rise to that challenge.  Therefore, I will cast my ballot for Rocky Anderson for president.

The Rodney King Era

The February 2012 issue of The American Conservative includes several pieces that reflect, directly or indirectly, on the presidential campaign currently underway in the USA, and a couple that have a broader interest.

The American Conservative started in 2002 as a forum for right-wingers who did not want the US to invade Iraq.  It continues to give voice to conservative anti-militarism.  Several items in this issue further develop right-wing arguments against warfare, among them: Doug Bandow’s “Attack of the Pork Hawks” (subtitle: “Loving the Pentagon turns conservatives into big-spending liberals”); William S. Lind’s “Clearing the Air Force,” which argues that the only useful functions of the United States Air Force are those that support operations led by the Army and Navy, and therefore that those functions should be transferred to those services while the independent Air Force is dissolved; and Kelly Beaucar Vlahos’ “Gitmo’s Prying Eyes,” about the Defense Department’s attempt to erase attorney-client privilege for the “unlawful combatants” it holds at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.  Noah Millman’s review of Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel identifies Mr Gorenberg not by his usual sobriquet of “left-wing Zionist,” but as a “Jewish nationalist” who accepts a deeply conservative conception of nationhood as the maturity of a people, and who opposes Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories because that occupation reduces Israel from achieved nation-state to insurgent revolutionary movement.

The cover story, Scott McConnell’s “Ron Paul and his Enemies,” notes that Dr Paul’s campaign has inspired levels of alarm and anger from various elite groups in official Washington far out of proportion to the modest levels of support the good doctor has attracted.  Mr McConnell’s explanation of this is that those bêtes-noires of The American Conservative, the “neocons,” fear that Dr Paul will trigger a movement that will threaten the prestige they enjoy in policy-making circles in the American government.  The neocons are the neo-conservatives, adherents of an intellectual movement that traces its origins to the anti-Stalinist Left of the 1930s and 1940s and its rise to political salience in the work of a group of activists, academics, and functionaries who attached themselves to the Senator Henry M. Jackson in the 1960s and 1970s.  Like the late Senator Jackson, the neo-conservatives are generally sanguine about the ability of the US government to do good by means of large scale programs intervening in the domestic affairs of both of the United States itself and of other countries.  The group around The American Conservative consists of old-fashioned conservatives and libertarians who are deeply skeptical of Washington’s potential as a doer of good in any sphere.  Mr McConnell’s argument, summed up in his piece’s subtitle– “An effective antiwar candidate is what the neocons fear most”– is that, even though neoconservatives now hold such a stranglehold on respectability in foreign policy discussions in official Washington that the manifest failure of their signature project, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, could not weaken it, they know that it is in fact very tenuous.  The mobilization of a powerful antiwar constituency within the Republican Party could send the neocons to the sidelines very quickly, he believes.  Therefore, they must move quickly to silence Dr Paul, lest the 29% of Republicans who tell pollsters that they share his antiwar views should crystallize into a force that could shift the national discussion away from the presuppositions of militarism.

One stick with which neoconservative spokesmen and others have beaten Dr Paul is a series of racially charged columns that appeared in newsletters he edited in the early 1990s.  Mr McConnell discusses the controversy over these columns thus:

Here the reprise of the story of the newsletters published under Ron Paul’s name 20 years ago proved critical. The New Republic had made a national story of them early in the 2008 campaign. James Kirchick reported that numerous issues of the “Ron Paul Political Report” and the “Ron Paul Survival Report” contained passages that could be fairly characterized as race-baiting or paranoid conspiracy-mongering. (Few in Texas had cared very much when one of Paul’s congressional opponents tried to make an issue of the newsletters in 1996.). With Paul rising in the polls, the Weekly Standard essentially republished Kirchick’s 2008 piece.

I’ve seen no serious challenge to the reporting done four years ago by David Weigel and Julian Sanchez for Reason: the newsletters were the project of the late Murray Rothbard and Paul’s longtime aide Lew Rockwell, who has denied authorship.* Rothbard, who died in 1995, was a brilliant libertarian author and activist, William F. Buckley’s tutor for the economics passages of Up From Liberalism, and a man who pursued a lifelong mission to spread libertarian ideas beyond a quirky quadrant of the intelligentsia. He had led libertarian overtures to the New Left in the 1960s. In 1990, he argued for outreach to the redneck right, and the Ron Paul newsletters became the chosen vehicle. For his part, Rockwell has moved on from this kind of thing.

Intellectual honesty requires acknowledging that much of the racism in the newsletters would have appeared less over the top in mainstream conservative circles at the time than it does now. No one at the New York Post editorial page (where I worked) would have been offended by the newsletters’ use of welfare stereotypes to mock the Los Angeles rioters, or by their taking note that a gang of black teenagers were sticking white women with needles or pins in the streets of Manhattan. (Contrary to the fears of the time, the pins used in these assaults were not HIV-infected.) But racial tensions and fissures in the early 1990s were far more raw than today. The Rockwell-Rothbard team were, in effect, trying to play Lee Atwater for the libertarians. A generation later, their efforts look pretty ugly.

The resurfacing of the newsletter story in December froze Paul’s upward movement in the polls. For the critical week before the Iowa caucuses, no Ron Paul national TV interview was complete without newsletter questions, deemed more important than the candidate’s opposition to indefinite detention, the Fed, or a new war in Iran. On stage in the New Hampshire debate, Paul forcefully disavowed writing the newsletters or agreeing with their sentiments, as he had on dozens of prior occasions, and changed the subject to a spirited denunciation of the drug laws for their implicit racism. This of course did not explain the newsletters, but the response rang true on an emotional level, if only because no one who had observed Ron Paul in public life over the past 15 years could perceive him as any kind of racist.

If the Weekly Standard editors hoped the flap would stir an anti-Paul storm in the black community, they were sorely disappointed. In one telling Bloggingheads.tv dialogue, two important black intellectuals, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, showed far more interest in Paul’s foreign-policy ideas, and the attempts to stamp them out, than they did in the old documents. Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates likened Paul to Louis Farrakhan. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but the portrait fell well short of total scorn. It was difficult to ignore that the main promoters of the newsletters story, The New Republic and the Weekly Standard, had historically devoted exponentially more energy to promoting neoconservative policies in the Middle East than they had to chastising politicians for racism.

In 2008, Mr McConnell, then The American Conservative‘s editor, had responded to Mr Kirchick’s original piece with stern reproof for Dr Paul.  The magazine then endorsed Dr Paul for president anyway, though Mr McConnell himself would later express his preference for Barack Obama. In the paragraphs above, Mr McConnell seems to be rather straining to downplay the newsletter matter.  For one thing, while Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are by anyone’s standards “important black intellectuals,” each of them is rather conservative and neither of them could be accused of having a low tolerance for white-guy B.S.- rather the opposite, in fact.  It is true that the early 1990s were a time of unusually raw tension between whites and African Americans; indeed, the late 1980s and early 1990s were an extremely strange period in American history, as Dr Paul’s 1988 appearance on The Morton Downey, Jr Show should suffice to demonstrate.  But this does not excuse Dr Paul’s pandering to the racialist right in those years.  Rather, it makes it all the more culpable.  In 1991, many parts of the USA, from Crown Heights in New York City to South Central Los Angeles, were teetering on the brink of race riots.  In that year, a majority of white voters in Louisiana pulled the lever in support of the gubernatorial campaign of Neo-Nazi David Duke.   To peddle racially charged rhetoric at that time was, if anything, more irresponsible, because more dangerous, than it would be today.

An editorial in the same issue discusses Dr Paul from a slightly different perspective.  In a single page, it dismisses the newsletters twice, once as “artifacts of a time- the Andrew Dice Clay era in American politics, when the populist right reacted to political correctness– then a new phenomenon– by sinning in the opposite direction”; then with this line: “The Rodney King era is a distant memory; the wars and economic outrages of our bipartisan establishment are still very much with us.”  If these dismissals leave you unsatisfied, there is still a refuge for you on The American Conservative’s webpage, where blogger Rod Dreher has repeatedly expressed his objections to Dr Paul’s newsletters in very strong terms (see here for one of the strongest of these objections.)

No discussion of “the Rodney King era” would be complete without a reference to The Bell Curve, in which psychologist Richard Herrnstein and historian Charles Murray argued that American society was becoming more stratified by cognitive ability, that cognitive ability is largely inherited, and therefore that America’s class system will likely become more unequal and less fluid as the highly intelligent pull ever further away from the rest of us.  Four chapters of the book dealt with race, analyzing the average IQ scores of various ethnic groups and concluding that African Americans as a group are likely to be among the hardest hit by the adverse consequences of this trend.  Professor Herrnstein and Mr Murray offered chillingly few suggestions as to how this grim scenario could be prevented or ameliorated; Mr Murray’s right-of-center libertarianism led him always to emphasize out the ways in which social programs intended to broaden opportunity sometimes redound to the disadvantage of their intended beneficiaries, an emphasis which, in conjunction with the book’s overall argument, seemed to suggest that there is no escape from the most dystopian version of its predictions.  Published in 1994, The Bell Curve rose to the top of the bestseller lists and garnered enormous attention; today, it would be difficult to imagine a major publisher agreeing to release it.  The nativist theory of IQ which is at its heart, and particularly the explicit development of that theory’s implications in the four chapters on race, makes it such an easy target for anti-racist spokesmen that a publisher who released it nowadays would be risking public infamy.  Yet in those days, The Bell Curve hardly represented the far edge even of acceptable public discourse.  So the far more aggressively anti-black Paved With Good Intentions, by Jared Taylor (a self-styled “white nationalist”,) found a major publisher and considerable sales when it was published in 1992; his recent followups to that book have been self-published.

Mr Murray has returned to the scene with a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  By focusing exclusively on whites, Mr Murray need not dwell explicitly on racial differences in average IQ score or any theory as to what causes these differences; by setting 2010 as an ending date, he need not dwell on its grimmest implications for the future.  Reviewer Steve Sailer, himself a tireless advocate of the nativist theory of IQ, reviews this new book and finds some interesting nuggets in it.  For example, Mr Sailer refers to figures, evidently included in the book, which indicate that while 40 percent of affluent American whites are now unaffiliated with any religion (as compared with 27% of their counterparts in the early 1970s,) 59% of less well-off whites are now religiously unaffiliated (as compared with 35% of the same group in the earlier period.)  That leads me to wonder if the very conservative, rather militant forms of Evangelical Christianity that are so popular among the white working class, as well as the right-wing political views that so often accompany that form of Christianity, are a sign that the individuals who profess them identify themselves as cadet members of the  professional classes.  Their militancy, even when presented as a challenge to some relatively liberal subset of the upper middle class such as elite academics or Democratic Party politicians or leaders of mainline Protestant churches, advertises to all that they are church-goers, and thus strivers, not to be confused with the defeated mass who have lost interest in such institutions and faith in the promises they represent.

Timothy Stanley’s “Buchanan’s Revolution” looks back at the last antiwar rightist to make a splash as a US presidential candidate, Patrick J. Buchanan.  Mr Buchanan was one of the founders of The American Conservative, and the magazine still runs his column (including a recent one lauding Ron Paul.)  So it is no surprise that the treatment of him here is respectful.  However, in light of what was going on with race relations in the USA in 1992, it is sobering to see these passages:

Of all Pat’s buddies, the one most excited by his campaigns was columnist Samuel Francis, who had worked for North Carolina senator John East before landing a job with the Washington Times. Physically, he was a fearsome toad. The journalist John Judis observed that “he was so fat he had trouble getting through doors.” He ate and drank the wrong things and the only sport he indulged in was chess. The mercurial, funny, curious Francis was an unlikely populist. But he was ahead of the curve when it came to Pat’s insurgency.

Back in the 1980s, Francis had predicted an uprising against the liberal elite that governed America. The only people who would break their stranglehold were the ordinary folks who made up the ranks of the “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. Mr. MARs was Mr. Average. He was either from the South or a European ethnic family in the Midwest, earned an unsatisfactory salary doing skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar work, and probably hadn’t been to college. He was neither wealthy nor poor, living on the thin line between comfort and poverty. All it took to ruin him was a broken limb or an IRS audit.

But Francis argued that the Middle American Radicals were defined less by income than by attitude. They saw “the government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously… MARs are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected. If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective, it is reflected in a statement … The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.”

Preferring self-reliance to welfare feudalism, the MARs felt that the U.S. government had been taken captive by a band of rich liberals who used their taxes to bankroll the indolent poor and finance the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The MARs were a social force rather than an ideological movement, an attitude shaped by the joys and humiliations of middle-class life in postwar America. Any politician that could appeal to that social force could remake politics.

Two things made the MARs different from mainstream conservatives (and libertarians). First, not being rich, they were skeptical of wealthy lobbies. They hated big business as much as they hated big government. They opposed bailing out firms like Chrysler, or letting multinational companies export jobs overseas. They were especially critical of businesses that profited from smut, gambling, and alcohol. Although free market in instinct, they did appreciate government intervention on their behalf. They would never turn down benefits like Social Security or Medicare.

Second, the MARs were more revolutionary than previous generations of conservatives. Conservatives ordinarily try to defend power that they already control. But the MARs were out of power, so they had to seize it back. This was why conservatives like Buchanan behaved like Bolsheviks. “We must understand,” wrote Francis,

that the dominant authorities in… the major foundations, the media, the schools, the universities, and most of the system of organized culture, including the arts and entertainment—not only do nothing to conserve what most of us regard as our traditional way of life, but actually seek its destruction or are indifferent to its survival. If our culture is going to be conserved, then we need to dethrone the dominant authorities that threaten it.

Buchanan agreed. He wrote, reflecting on Francis’s words, “We traditionalists who love the culture and country we grew up in are going to have to deal with this question: Do we simply conserve the remnant, or do we try to take the culture back? Are we conservatives, or must we also become counter-revolutionaries and overthrow the dominant culture?”

The populist counter-revolution that Francis proposed was not explicitly racial. In theory, Hispanic or black industrial workers were just as threatened by economic change and high taxes as their white co-workers. And the cultural values of Hispanic Catholics and black Pentecostals were just as challenged by liberalism as those of their white brethren. But in Francis’s view, these ethnic groups had become clients of the liberal state. Only political correctness—argued Francis_prevented whites from admitting this and organizing themselves into their own ethnic interest group. In this worldview, the Democrats gave handouts to African-Americans in exchange for votes. Hispanics were brought in from Mexico to lower wages and break unions, providing cheap domestic labor for the ruling class and maximizing corporate profits. The only people without friends in high places were the middle-class white majority.

Buchanan and Francis disagreed over this point. Pat was concerned about the decline of Western civilization. But he never saw Western society in explicitly racial terms. He opposed both welfare and mass immigration, but he thought they hurt blacks and Hispanics as much as whites. Francis believed that human characteristics—including intelligence—were shaped by race.


During the primary, (economist Harry) Veryser arranged a meeting between himself, Pat, Francis, and (scholar Russell) Kirk. Buchanan and Francis behaved as if no one else was there, and Pat sat in rapt silence listening to his friend expand upon the coming revolution. It was an intellectual romance, said Veryser. Harry was embarrassed, Kirk was furious that he wasn’t paid the attention he deserved. Both concluded that Buchanan was in love with Francis’s mind, that he truly believed that the two men could remake the world. Francis was a true believer, and his zeal infected Pat. He gave to Buchanan’s peculiar rebellion the theoretical structure of a popular revolution.

I used to read Samuel T. Francis’ column in Chronicles magazine.  It was a microcosm of Chronicles itself; full of one fascinating bit after another, often making the most interesting sort of points, and then, by the way, dropped in the middle someplace, a bizarre remark that could only be attributed to racism.  In one of the last to appear before his death in 2005, he was going on about the things that American children ought to, but don’t, learn in public schools.  He was developing a powerful vision of public education as a vehicle for cultural continuity and the formation of a common national heritage.  It was thrilling stuff, if not entirely convincing, until the middle of the fifth or sixth paragraph when he listed among the things that all Americans should learn in school “why slavery was right, and why the South was right to maintain it as long as it did.”  Then he went back to being interesting, but really, it was hard to focus after that.  And really, all of his columns were like that, brilliant, fascinating, and marred beyond saving by such outlandish remarks.  When The American Conservative started in 2002, Dr Francis wasan occasional contributor, writing three articles for the magazine (one each in 2002, 2003, and 2004.)  The editorial team there evidently took more of an interest than did their counterparts at Chronicles in toning the racialist content of his columns to a minimum, so that there were no true lightning bolts of lunacy.

Dr Francis, to the embarrassment of his more respectable friends, called himself a white nationalist and socialized with David Duke.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Dr Francis was a figure of some influence.  The “job with the Washington Times” that Mr Stanley mentions was that of editorial page director.  That a man of his views could attain such a position is another marker of how raw the racial resentments of whites were in the Rodney King era. In his obituary of Dr Francis for The American Conservative, Scott McConnell wrote that at Dr Francis’ funeral he found himself talking with none other than Jared Taylor.  Mr Taylor said that the cab driver who took him from the airport to the funeral had asked who Dr Francis was.  In response, Mr Taylor proclaimed “He stood up for white people!”  The cab driver, a white workingman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was visibly shocked and uncomfortable.  I very much doubt that many like him would have been upset by such a remark 14 years before.

One of Ron Paul’s rivals for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Willard Milton Romney (known familiarly as “Mitt,”) is mentioned by name in a review of economist Bruce Bartlett’s book, The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform, Why We Need It, and What It will TakeMr Bartlett was a staffer for Dr Paul in the 1970s, but has not been associated with him in recent years.  Reviewer Tom Pauken quotes Bartlett as saying that the USA’s corporate income tax exempts money spent on interest payments, but does not give such favorable treatment to money returned to shareholders in dividends.  It is unsurprising, then, that US businesses raise vastly more money by borrowing than by selling equity.  Mr Pauken says that this situation “has been great for private-equity moguls and leveraged buy-out operators like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwarzman, who have made fortunes gaming the system.   But it has been destructive to the long-term health of many US companies and to American workers who have lost jobs as a consequence of tax incentives that encourage companies to pile up debt.”  Mr Bartlett calls for the repeal of the corporate income tax and of several other taxes, and their replacement by a border-adjusted value added tax.  I’ve endorsed similar proposals here, often under Mr Bartlett’s influence, and am glad to see that he is still working the old stand.  As for the connection to Mr Romney, I would mention a link I posted on our tumblr page to a recent column by Paul Rosenberg called “Mitt Romney, ‘Welfare Queen.'”  The caption I gave that link was “In the USA, corporations can write interest payments off their income taxes, while they have to pay taxes on dividends they pay shareholders.  So, shareholders collect almost nothing in dividends, while banks and private equity firms collect trillions of dollars in interest payments.  Those interest payments are an alternative form of taxation, and people like Willard M. Romney are tax recipients, not taxpayers.”  I think is a reasonably fair summary of Mr Rosenberg’s argument, though Mr Bartlett’s views are somewhat more complex.   

A few months ago, I noted here a column about the Revised Common Lectionary that Philip Jenkins had contributed to Chronicles magazine.  Professor Jenkins argued that the committees that produced that selection of Bible readings had left out all of the passages in which God is shown commanding or praising violence, thus creating a false impression of the scriptures.  Professor Jenkins has presented that argument at book length, in a volume called Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.  Patrick Allitt’s review of Professor Jenkins’ book in this issue draws out some interesting points.  For example, the books of Joshua and Judges, which include many of the Bible’s most bloodthirsty passages, describe events that supposedly occurred in the late Bronze Age, but in fact were written at least 600 years after that period.  That not only means that the massacres they celebrate are not only unlikely to have taken place (archaeologists have found no residue of such conflicts,) but also that they were written at about the same time as, and very likely as part of a dialogue with the authors of, the passages about social justice and universal benevolence that warm the hearts of those who read the books of Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah.  The thorny passages in Deuteronomy also date from this relatively late period.  So to suppress the Mr Angry Guy passages from the Heptateuch is to misrepresent the Mr Nice Guy passages from the prophets.  I should mention that elsewhere on the magazine’s website, blogger Noah Millman appends a nifty bit of rabbinical logic to the review.

Intellectuals in the traditionalist right often mention the name of philosopher Eric Voegelin.  The late Professor Voegelin’s works are too deep for the likes of me, but an essay by Gene Callahan about his ideas in this issue of the magazine had me thinking of making another attempt at reading one of Professor Voegelin’s book, most likely The New Science of Politics (simply because it’s the one I’ve made the most progress with in my previous attempts.)  Of the many extremely interesting bits in Professor Callahan’s essay, the most interesting to me was his summary of a notion Professor Voegelin labeled the “hieroglyph.”  By this word, Professor Voegelin evidently meant “superficial invocations of a preexisting concept that failed to embody its essence because those  invoking it had not experienced the reality behind the original concept.  As hieroglyphs, the terms were adopted because of the perceived authority they embodied.  But as they were being employed without the context from which their original authority arose, none of these efforts created a genuine basis for a stable and humane order.”

I think this notion might explain a great deal.  Take for example a term like “national security.”  In such a place as the USA in the early nineteenth century, a poor country with a tiny population, a vast border, a radically decentralized political system, and every empire of Europe occupying territory in the immediate neighborhood, a patriot might very well advocate an aggressive program of territorial expansion, political consolidation, and a military buildup.  Such steps might well have been necessary for the infant USA to maintain its independence.  Today, however, such policies only weaken the United States.  Our international commitments empower our enemies, our national government threatens our liberties, our military expenditures divert capital from productive uses and weigh heavily on the economy as a whole.  To secure the blessings that make the United States of America worth living in and dying for, we must be prepared to revise or discontinue all of the policies customarily justified under the rubric of “national security.”

Likewise with the term “free market.”  As someone like Mr Bartlett has done so much to demonstrate, our current financial and corporate elites by no means owe their preeminence to success in unfettered competition.  Rather, they are the figures who have been most successful at manipulating a system that is defined and sustained by the continual involvement of government in every phase of economic life.  And yet even those among the rich who are most blatantly tax-recipients find defenders who speak of them as if they were so many Robinson Crusoes, in possession of nothing but that which they themselves had wrested single-handed from nature.  Virtually all conservatives and most libertarians are guilty of this form of hieroglyphic use of the term “free market” and its accompanying imagery at least occasionally.  Some libertarians, like the aforementioned Murray Rothbard, acknowledge the fact that the existing economic system is not a free market in any meaningful sense, and so speak not of a “free market” that is to be defended, but of a “freed market” that is to be created when our currently existing economic system is abolished.  The late Professor Rothbard and his followers frankly call the existing system, the one which they find unacceptable, “capitalism.”  For my part, I am perfectly willing to accept and defend the system Rothbardians call capitalism, though I would also call for a recognition that where there is subsidy, there must also be regulation.  And of course I would hope that we would have a lively democratic political culture that would guide our regime of subsidy and regulation to aim at socially desirable ends, rather than simply functioning as a means by which the power elite can entrench its position at the top of the economic and political order.

*I don’t actually agree with Mr McConnell that Llewellyn Rockwell is the likeliest author of the articles in question.  The most obnoxious piece, which in fact contains all of the tropes that drew fire in the other pieces, appeared under the byline “James B. Powell.”  A man by that name did in fact write for the Ron Paul newsletters, and is today a member of the board of directors of the Forbes Corporation.