The Clinton Comedy of Errors

What can we learn from the disaster depicted in “Shattered”?

It would be very nice never to think about the 2016 election again. It was miserable, and it is over. What is done will never be undone, and there is no sense “re-litigating” yesterday’s arguments. We should, to use a popular formulation, look forward not backward. Instead of dwelling on which persons may have made what catastrophic mistakes, opponents of Trump should be spending their time thinking about what to do next and how to do it.

Yet reexamining the forces that led to Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton is essential for understanding how to prevent a similar result from occurring again. What this does mean is that the most useful examinations of the 2016 race are those conducted with an eye toward drawing lessons. Divvying up responsibility is not a worthwhile exercise for its own sake, and only needs to be done insofar as figuring out causes is a way of preventing future effects.

It’s important to be careful, then, in looking back on Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign for the presidency. We can ask whose fault Clinton’s loss was, and assign percentages of blameworthiness to James Comey’s letter, Bernie Sanders’ criticisms, Vladimir Putin’s machinations, Bill Clinton’s libido, and Hillary’s own ineptitude. But that’s only useful to the extent that it’s useful, and a better question than “Whose fault was this debacle?” might be “What should we gather from this if 2020 is to be different?” Those two questions overlap (if you know whose fault it is, you can try to make sure they stay in the woods and out of public life). But the point is that for anyone who has progressive political values, the exercise of examining 2016 should be constructive rather than academic.

This need to avoid gratuitously flogging dead horses for one’s own satisfaction is important to keep in mind while reading Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ new book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown, $28.00). Allen and Parnes had access to numerous Clinton insiders, and their book is full of sumptuous campaign gossip. But while Clinton-haters will be tempted to relish the book’s tales of hubris and incompetence, there’s no point conducting a needless exercise in schadenfreude. For progressives, the issue is whether the story told in Shattered can yield any useful lessons. And it can.

Shattered depicts a calamity of a campaign. While on the surface, Hillary Clinton’s team were far more unified and capable than their counterparts in 2008 had been, behind the scenes there was utter discord. The senior staff engaged in constant backstabbing and intrigue, jockeying for access to the candidate and selectively keeping information from one another. Clinton herself never made it exactly clear who had responsibility for what, meaning that staff were in a constant competition to take control. Worse, Clinton was so sealed off from her own campaign that many senior team members had only met her briefly, and interacted with her only when she held conference calls to berate them for their failures. Allen and Parnes call the situation “an unholy mess, fraught with tangled lines of authority, petty jealousies, distorted priorities, and no sense of general purpose,” in which “no one was in charge.”


Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook comes across very badly indeed, and appears to have been the wrong man for the job. First, he had a Machiavellian streak (the authors call him a “professional political assassin” bent on “neutralizing” competitors), which he seems to have directed less towards defeating Donald Trump than towards squelching his power rivals within the campaign team by selectively depriving them of knowledge.

Second, and worse, he appears to have been an idiot. Mook was a numbers nerd obsessed with data analytics, but had such blind confidence in his statistical calculations that he followed along when they told him to send Hillary to spend the last stretch of the campaign in Arizona rather than Wisconsin. Every single decision he made was based on the elaborate analyses of campaign stats guru Elan Kriegel (a man whose name should live in infamy), from which Mook concluded that it was a “waste of time and energy” to try to persuade undecided voters or to go to rural areas. Mook ignored pleas from state-level organizers for adequate organizing and advertising budgets, and rebuffed everyone who dared to question the algorithm’s superior wisdom. They were fools who didn’t understand the superiority of cold hard math to fuzzy intuition, and Mook felt they failed to adequately appreciate the superior rationality of his strategy. Thus every time Bill Clinton warned that the campaign was dangerously losing support among the white working class, and “underestimating the significance of Brexit,” Mook responded that “the data run counter to your anecdotes.” After the election, asked to explain what the hell had happened, Mook blamed the data. (I can’t help but be reminded of Michael Scott obediently following his GPS as it directs him to drive into a lake, because “the machine knows.”)

Numerous tactical decisions were simply inscrutable. A planned rally in Green Bay, which would have paired Clinton with Barack Obama, was canceled after the Orlando nightclub shooting and never rescheduled. Mook “declined to use pollsters to track voter preferences in the final three weeks of the campaign” even though some advisors warned him that it was an “unwise decision because it robbed him of another data point against which to check the analytics.” Bernie Sanders recorded a TV spot promoting Clinton, but the campaign declined to air it, which some insiders thought was a “real head-scratcher” giving the difficulty Clinton was having in swaying former Bernie voters. A campaign staffer confirms that “our failure to reach out to white voters, like literally from the New Hampshire primary on… never changed.” Mook was so confident they would win, however, that he had already been considering how to get himself appointed to head the DNC afterwards. The arrogance was infectious: phone-banking volunteers, who realized there was little enthusiasm for Clinton among the electorate, were puzzled that “campaign staffers were so confident” and “acting like they had this in the bag.”

But it would be a mistake to pin too much blame on Robby Mook as an individual. Allen and Parnes say that Clinton herself was an adherent of the “facts over feelings” dogma, and was so “driven by math… that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see that she was doing nothing to inspire the poor, rural, and working-class white voters.” Clinton favored evidence-based decision-making, but often to the point of absurdity. Everything she said or did was focus grouped, calculated, and reworked by committee in order to be mathematically optimal. A vast speechwriting bureaucracy watered down every public utterance to the point of total vapidity (they even “deliberated over the content of tweets for hours on end,” an especially galling revelation when one considers the quality of the resulting tweets). Yet Clinton was somehow puzzled as to why the public found her robotic and inauthentic! Her team even proudly told the New York Times of their brand-new plan to make Hillary appear more warm and likable, then they were somehow surprised to discover that the idea of an “authenticity strategy” was considered hilariously oxymoronic.

In writing about Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine as Vice President, I wrote that he was so bland that he seemed to have been selected by algorithm. This turns out to be almost exactly what happened; Clinton didn’t know or care much about Kaine, but he was simply the end result of a formulaic process of elimination. Nobody had any notion that he would energize voters; he was merely logically inevitable, having met the maximum number of designated criteria. (Note that if Clinton had picked Bernie Sanders she would have won the election, but this was never even seriously considered.)


Many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters have been resentful over the attention paid to the infamous “email scandal,” suggesting that Clinton was unfairly damaged in the press over something trivial. But by Shattered’s account, Clinton’s own poor management of the situation helped drag the story out. Even Barack Obama was exasperated with Clinton. He “couldn’t understand what possessed Hillary to set up the private email server” in the first place, and then thought “her handling of the scandal—obfuscate, deny, and evade—amounted to political malpractice.” Clinton did make factually untrue statements to the public about whether she sent or received classified documents on the private email server and her campaign tried to mislead the press into treating the FBI’s investigation as less serious than it actually was. (The Clinton campaign falsely insisted that the investigation was a mere “security review” rather than a criminal investigation, and even got the New York Times to partially go along.) She spent months refusing to apologize as donors and allies “furiously” pressured her to engage in some public contrition to defuse the issue, and Clinton ally Neera Tanden wrote in an email that “her inability to just do a national interview and communicate genuine feelings of remorse and regret is now, I fear, becoming a character problem.” Sometimes Hillary Clinton’s public relations instincts were almost unbelievably poor: when a reporter asked her if she had wiped her email server, Clinton replied “What, like with a cloth or something?” This did not exactly scream forthrightness and seriousness.

Clinton did know that she was clueless about the psychology of the American voter, at one point admitting “I don’t understand what’s happening with the country. I can’t get my arms around it” and knew she “couldn’t grasp the sentiment of the electorate.” But throughout the process, she disregarded the advice of those who cautioned her about getting on the wrong side of the prevailing populist tides. She had “ignored warnings from friends not to give the paid speeches” to Goldman Sachs that would ultimately create months of bad press when she pointlessly refused to release the (relatively benign) transcripts. She insisted that one speech should retain a “sappy” reference to the $2400-a-ticket Broadway musical Hamilton, despite several suggestions from speechwriters that it “connected with her liberal donors and cosmopolitan millennial aides but perhaps not the rest of the country.” (Note that she did this even after Current Affairs had carefully explained how the idea of a nationwide mania for Hamilton is a myth that exists only among political and cultural elites.) And she spent August hanging out in the Hamptons with wealthy donors and celebrities, attending a swanky fundraiser with Calvin Klein, Jimmy Buffett, Jon Bon Jovi, and Paul McCartney, and joining them for a celebrity sing-along of “Hey Jude.” (The New York Times ran a story explaining to voters why Hillary had disappeared from the campaign trail entitled “Where Has Hillary Clinton Been? Ask the Ultra-Rich…”) To the parts of the country seething with resentment of coastal elites, this was probably the worst possible way for Clinton to pass the summer months.

By far the largest problem with Clinton’s campaign, however, and the one that recurs consistently throughout Allen and Parnes’ narrative, is the team’s total inability to craft a compelling message for the campaign. “There wasn’t a real clear sense of why she was in” the race to begin with, and she was consistently “unable to prove to many voters that she was running for the presidency because she had a vision for the country rather than visions of power.” Despite Clinton’s vow to learn from the mistakes of her loss against Obama, “no one had figured out how to make the campaign about something bigger than Hillary.” A speechwriter assigned to draft an address laying out the reasons for Hillary’s candidacy found the task nearly impossible; Clinton simply couldn’t provide a good reason why she was running. She literally did feel as if it was simply “her turn,” and campaign staffers even floated the possibility of using “it’s her turn” as a public justification for her candidacy. Just as many people suspected, Clinton didn’t run because she had a real idea of how she wanted to change the country (after all, “America Is Already Great”), but simply felt as if she was the most qualified and deserving person for the job. Pressured to come up with a slogan to capture the essence of Clinton’s run, the team finally settled on “Breaking Barriers,” which the campaign staff all hated and the public instantly forgot.

The one area in which Clinton appears to have truly shined is in debate preparation. Allen and Parnes reveal that she obsessively prepared for her televised encounters with Donald Trump, conducting multiple intensive drills and meticulously memorizing policy details. Staff recalled that “she needed to theorize everything to the ground.” Her advisor Philippe Reines went to extraordinary lengths to perfect his Trump impersonation, even considering dyeing himself orange. Clinton’s practice rounds paid off. She was widely seen as having mashed Trump into dust, her carefully-polished and intelligent answers presented a dignified contrast to Trump’s sniffing and blustering. (It’s amusing to think of how much effort Trump probably put into his own preparation, having given us possibly the most revealing example in U.S. history of what “just going ahead and winging it” in a nationally-televised presidential debate would look like.)


But even Clinton’s excessive attention to the debates reveals one of the campaign’s core weaknesses. Clinton comes across as subscribing to what Luke Savage classifies as theWest Wing view” of political power, namely that success in politics is produced by having the best argument in favor of your position. On this view, if you win the debates, you are supposed to become president. Thus Kennedy beat Nixon by beating him in a debate, and Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush the same way. It’s a perspective that seems to have infected both the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign, each of which appears to have been blindsided by the fact that their right-wing opponents could not be defeated by polite discourse and appeals to reason. As Savage points out, this was the mistake made by Ezra Klein, who wrote that Clinton’s three debate performances “left the Trump campaign in ruins,” conflating “the debate” with “the campaign” and contributing to the media consensus that because Hillary had proven Trump to be wrong and unqualified, she was therefore somehow likely to win. In reality, the debates are theater and do not matter. (Or if they do, it is not because of the quality of their arguments but the quality of their persuasive power.) A similar critique can be made of late-night political comedy; it may be satisfying when John Oliver “eviscerates” Donald Trump, but it can also leave us with the false sense that Trump has somehow been “taken down” in some actual meaningful sense, even though it’s perfectly possible for someone’s power to grow even as they are rhetorically humiliated night after night.

This is the sort of lesson from Shattered that goes well beyond Clinton. And in analyzing the book’s account, it’s important to distinguish between those failings that are unique to Clinton and her 2016 political team and those that represent wider tendencies in the Democratic Party. The Clinton-specific traits are less relevant, since she is gone from the political world (unless, God forbid, she actually does run for Mayor of New York or Chelsea Clinton takes a break from occupying a string of vague sinecures to pursue a congressional seat). But some things are deep-rooted and will come back again and again until Democrats wake up and fix them.

The defects that are Clinton-specific (or, at least, not fundamental to contemporary Democratic politics) are managerial incompetence and Nixonian levels of cronyism and paranoia. Clinton was obsessed with loyalty, “prizing [it] most among human traits” (above, e.g., virtue). She had downloaded and rooted through the emails of all her 2008 campaign staff to determine who had screwed her, and tried to sniff out “acts of betrayal.” She even assigned “loyalty scores” to various members of Congress, “from one for the most loyal to seven for those who had committed the most egregious acts of treachery.” She and Bill had worked to unseat those who made the list of traitors. Even among trusted staff, secrets were kept closely guarded. When Hillary Clinton became sick with pneumonia, important campaign officials were kept in the dark, causing them to send mixed messages to the press and look as if they were hiding something. After the 2008 campaign, Clinton had wondered what had created the campaign’s destructive atmosphere of suspicion and mutual hostility, and she decided to reset in 2016 with a whole new group of people. This time it happened again, yet she still found herself perplexed as to what or who the common denominator could be. (Another theme of Shattered is that the Clintons never, ever blame themselves for anything that goes wrong.)

On the incompetence front, as other reviewers have noted, much of Shattered reads like a discarded story outline from Veep. In one of the book’s more amusing moments, a Clinton staffer mishears a request to book a major TV interview with “Bianna.” The staffer hears “Brianna” instead, and books the interview with the tough-minded Brianna Keilar of CNN, rather than the desired Bianna Golodryga of Yahoo! News, who is married to a Clinton advisor and thus expected to be a soft touch. The resulting encounter did not go well. Actually, while this anecdote has been widely commented on, it’s a little unfair to read too much into it. All politics is Veep-like to one extent or another, and misunderstandings and bunglings are the Washington way. The true case for incompetence comes from Clinton’s inability to manage a campaign team or plot an electoral strategy.

These particular aspects of the Clinton campaign can theoretically be corrected for in the future, without changing the party much. Barack Obama demonstrated that Wall Street-friendly Democratic centrism can be politically deft and free of Nixonism. It can even be somewhat inspiring, despite ultimately being vacuous. But some of the tendencies displayed in Shattered are inevitable, and bound to recur without serious structural reforms to the Democratic Party.


First, the Clinton campaign’s inability to forge a coherent vision for the country was no accident. Goodness knows they tried; dozens of smart people sat around in rooms for months trying to figure out why Hillary Clinton was running and what she wanted to do. But it was an unanswerable question, because the answer is that she didn’t really want to do anything and wasn’t really running for any good reason. She couldn’t give them a good answer, so obviously they couldn’t give her one. And that’s honestly not because Hillary Clinton is a uniquely egotistical and myopic person. Instead, she’s simply one of many adherents to a kind of “managerial” liberalism, which sees its aspirations for governance less in terms of some clear vision for how the world ought to be, and more as an enterprise in which small groups of smart, qualified, decent-but-pragmatic people should be appointed to preside over the status quo, perhaps tweaking here and there as they see fit. This philosophy means politics is not a contest to enact serious and principled moral commitments, but is little more than a resume-measuring contest. The Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything in particular, other than the fact that it isn’t vulgar, irrational, racist, and unqualified like Donald Trump.

Politics thereby becomes hollow, drained of its center, with a lot of expertise but without an underlying set of core values. The Clinton campaign puzzled over the fact that they had “laid out a million detailed policies” without the public being able to remember a single one of them. But that shouldn’t have been surprising; if you’re not motivated by a coherent set of principles, then your ideas won’t be coherent either. One reason Republicans are highly effective at messaging is that their worldview holds together and is intelligible. Freedom is good, markets are freedom, therefore markets are good and government is bad. Once you know what you stand for and why, it’s easy to deliver a clear message, and even Herman Cain, with his colossally stupid “9-9-9” tax plan, produced a more memorable policy proposal than anything to come from the squabbling of Clinton’s Authenticity Committees. (And it would be a mistake to think that Republicans are unfairly advantaged by the fact that dumb, oversimplified policies are the easily communicated ones. The Civil Rights movement paired demands for complex legislation with elementary appeals to morality, and Martin Luther King’s speeches are things of both great intellectual subtlety and astonishing clarity and cogency. Heck, the original Martin Luther also managed to get his theses across, even though there were 95 of them.)

At no point in Shattered does anyone in the Clinton campaign display a sign of caring about anything beyond the narrow goal of getting elected. The decision of whether to promise criminal justice reform is not taken based on whether it’s morally reprehensible for a country to keep multiple millions of its own people in cages, but on a calculus of whether it would make African American millennials marginally more likely to turn up to the polls. Clinton did not emphasize issues of gender and race in the campaign because she cared about them the most (after all, in 2008, she had been equally happy to cast her appeal explicitly toward white people instead). Rather, Robby Mook’s algorithm had concluded that each dollar spent on encouraging black and Hispanic Democrats to vote was more probable to yield a return than a dollar spent trying to persuade an undecided working-class white voter.

This is what can happen when you stay in politics too long. You get in because you want to do some good. Then, for the sake of expediency, you make a moral compromise here and there. Yet if you don’t have a clear sense of what you’re ultimately firmly committed to, sooner or later you’ll just be doing whatever it takes in order to reach higher office. You begin by rationalizing that the ends justify the means. But if you’re not careful, things will soon become all means and no ends. Politics will become about itself rather than about whatever it is you started off trying to do. Of course, political ideas must be pragmatic and grounded. But Clintonian politics takes this to its amoral extreme, never taking a stand for reasons of conviction rather than because it polls well. This is what gives you things like Clinton’s infamously mealy-mouthed public statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which pleased neither side. Ezra Klein euphemistically refers to this as Hillary Clinton’s desire to listen to and incorporate all people’s perspectives, but it’s actually just a cowardly refusal to stand for anything. (Bill Clinton is actually much more unprincipled in this respect; see Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America.)

There’s something else missing from the world depicted in Shattered: democracy. That is, for the Clinton campaign, people are voters. They are there to elect you, and they mostly exist as boxes on a spreadsheet. Outside the campaign cycle, they are nonentities. Inside the campaign cycle, you only talk to them if you have to. Mook wasn’t trying to engage people in a larger political project; he was trying to coax as many as possible into dragging themselves to the polls and filling in a bubble for Hillary. There was no sense of trying to get people to join in; on-the-ground organizing was only done to the degree absolutely necessary, with television advertising frequently preferred. But if the Democratic Party is actually going to take back power, it can’t simply consist of a small team of elite campaign operatives and an electorate whose only function is to vote every two to four years. Ordinary people have to be encouraged to participate in the political life of their communities, and the fact that they haven’t is one reason that Democratic representation in state governments has been plummeting.

Perhaps the things the Democrats need at the moment can be summed up as follows:

  1. Vision
  2. Authenticity
  3. Strategy

In other words: What do you care about? Are you the sort of person people should trust to do something about it? And do you have a plan for how to do it? Clinton’s answers to these three questions, respectively, were “Nothing,” “No,” and “Yes.” She had a plan, but it wasn’t really a plan for anything, because neither she nor anybody on her team actually had an underlying animating vision of what they are trying to help the world to become. Democrats would do well to think about the Vision-Authenticity-Strategy formulation, because unless they can convince the public that they possess these things, it’s hard to see how the Republican dominance of government can be reversed. (Further elaboration on how to introduce these elements into progressive politics can be found in the final chapter of Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity.)

Now, let me just deal briefly with what I’m sure will be the principal objection to the various above critiques and suggestions: Hillary Clinton’s loss was not the fault of Clinton herself or her campaign team or the Democratic Party. Instead, she was subject to external sabotage from James Comey and the Russians. Democrats should not be looking inward and examining themselves but outward at the unfair interventions that turned a popular vote victory into an Electoral College loss. This appears to have been Clinton’s own perspective on the reasons for her defeat; in conversations after the election, according to Allen and Parnes, she “kept pointing her finger at Comey and Russia.”

But ultimately, there’s a simple response to this objection: Very well. You’re completely correct. Also it doesn’t matter.

First, let’s be clear on what we mean by identifying something that “caused” the result. Because the election was extremely close, and well under 100,000 people would have had to change their minds for the result to be different, hundreds and hundreds of factors can be identified as “but for” causes of the result, i.e. but for the existence of Factor X, Clinton would have won. So, say we narrow our 500 “but for” causes down to 4: the Clinton campaign’s incompetence, the Russian leaking of embarrassing internal documents, obstinate voters who refused to come out for Clinton, and James Comey’s letter. If we assume for the moment that we think each of these had an equal effect, we can see how it’s the case that in the absence of any one of them, the result would have changed:


That means that the decision of which factor to pick out for blame is subjective. Since both Comey’s letter and Clinton’s incompetence are equal causes, in that without one of them the result would have tipped in the other direction, the person who blames Comey and the person who blames Clinton are equally correct. Again, the actual chart would have about 5 million causes rather than 4. But the point is that we have to decide which of these causes to focus our attention on.

Thus the statement “The Clinton campaign lost because it lacked vision, authenticity, and strategy” is consistent with the statement “If it wasn’t for James Comey’s letter, Hillary Clinton would have won the election.” But personally, I believe it’s far more important to focus on the causes that you can change in the future. You don’t know what the FBI director will do, and you can’t affect whether he does it or not. What you can do is affect what your side does. So the Democrats cannot determine whether James Comey will choose to give a damning statement implying their candidate is a criminal. But they can determine whether or not to run a candidate who is under FBI investigation in the first place.

Note that even if you think Comey was the major cause of Clinton’s loss, it still might be advisable to turn your attention elsewhere:


If you fix the other things, then even a highly impactful Comey letter won’t tip the election. And correspondingly, even if you prove that Clinton’s own actions were 99% responsible for her loss, a Clinton supporter would be technically correct in identifying Comey as causing the outcome:


In any scenario, it’s probably best to figure out what your party itself can do to address the situation. After all, if we’re really adding up causes, Donald Trump himself is probably the primary one, yet it would be a waste of time to sit around blaming Donald Trump, if it’s also true that you ran a horrible campaign that alienated people.

You can also think certain things acted as precipitating causes without necessarily being at fault. For example, you might think that WikiLeaks was a direct cause of the result, but not think them at fault because it’s their job to post the material they receive. The same goes for the New York Times covering the email story; it might have contributed to the outcome, but you might think this isn’t their fault because they’re journalists and that’s what they do. Likewise James Comey; you might believe he was doing his job as he saw fit. And Bernie Sanders: Clinton may have lost both because she gave speeches to Goldman Sachs and because Bernie Sanders repeatedly criticized her for it, but you might think that one of those things is more justified than the other. There’s a question of which things you can change to improve outcomes, and then there’s a question of which things you should change. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton realized that Democrats could win more elections if they adopted the Republican platform of slashing welfare and locking up young black men. This did change outcomes. But it was also heinous. And personally, I think you’re changing something about the party, you should change “Democrats enriching themselves from Wall Street speeches” rather than “people pointing out that Democrats are enriching themselves from Wall Street speeches.”

Shattered is both tragic and comic. It’s tragic because Donald Trump becomes president at the end. But it’s comic in that it depicts a bunch of egotistical and hyper-confident people arrogantly pursuing an obviously foolish strategy, dismissing every critic as irrational and un-pragmatic, only to completely fall on their faces. There was, Allen and Parnes tell us, “nothing like the aimlessness and dysfunction of Hillary Clinton’s second campaign for the presidency—except maybe those of her first bid for the White House.” And however horrible it may be to have Donald Trump as commander in chief (it is incredibly, deeply horrible and threatens all of human civilization), reading Shattered one cannot help but get a tiny amount of satisfaction from the fact that Mook and Clinton’s cynical and contemptuous attitude toward the American public didn’t actually produce the result that they were certain it would. One wishes they had won, but one is also a tiny bit glad that they lost.

Vision, authenticity, strategy. You need to have clear sense of what you want to do and why you want to do it. You need to show people that you mean it and believe in it. And you need to have an idea of how to get from here to there. The Clinton campaign had no vision, was inauthentic, and botched its strategy. But that’s not a problem unique to Hillary Clinton, and singling her out for too much criticism is unfair and, yes, sexist (especially because Bill is much worse). This is a party-wide failure, and it will require more than just banishing the Clintons from politics. If the Democrats are to have a future, they must offer something better, more honest, and more inspiring. With Republicans dominating the government, we cannot afford to end up shattered again.

I Don’t Care How Good His Paintings Are, He Still Belongs In Prison

George W. Bush committed an international crime that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Critics from the New Yorker and the New York Times agree: George W. Bush may have been an inept head of state, but he is a more than capable artist. In his review of Bush’s new book Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (Crown, $35.00), New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl says Bush’s paintings are of “astonishingly high” quality, and his “honestly observed” portraits of wounded veterans are “surprisingly likable.” Jonathan Alter, in a review titled “Bush Nostalgia Is Overrated, but His Book of Paintings Is Not,” agrees: Bush is “an evocative and surprisingly adept artist.” Alter says that while he used to think the Iraq War was “the right war with the wrong commander in chief,” he now thinks that it was the “wrong war” but with “the right commander in chief, at least for the noble if narrow purpose of creatively honoring veterans through art.”

Alter and Schjeldahl have roughly the same take on Bush: he is a decent person who made some dreadful mistakes. Schjeldahl says that while Bush “made, or haplessly fronted for, some execrable decisions…hating him took conscious effort.” Alter says that while the Iraq War was a “colossal error” and Bush “has little to show for his dream of democratizing the Middle East,” there is a certain appeal to Bush’s “charming family, warm relationship with the Obamas, and welcome defense of the press,” and his paintings of veterans constitute a “message of love” and a “step toward bridging the civilian-military divide.” Alter and Schjeldahl both see the new book as a form of atonement. Schjeldahl says that with his “never-doubted sincerity and humility,” Bush “obliviously made murderous errors [and] now obliviously atones for them.” Alter says that Bush is “doing penance,” and that the book testifies to “our genuine, bipartisan determination to do it better this time—to support healing in all of its forms.”

This view of Bush as a “likable and sincere man who blundered catastrophically” seems to be increasingly popular among some American liberals. They are horrified by Donald Trump, and Bush is beginning to seem vastly preferable by comparison. If we must have Republicans, let them be Bushes, since Bush at least seems good at heart while Trump is a sexual predator. Jonathan Alter insists he is not becoming nostalgic, but his gauzy tributes to Bush’s “love” and “warmth” fully endorse the idea of Bush’s essential goodness. Now that Bush spends his time painting puppies and soldiers, having mishaps with ponchos and joking about it on Ellen, more and more people may be tempted to wonder why anyone could ever have hated the guy.

Nostalgia takes root easily, because history is easy to forget. But in Bush’s case, the history is easily accessible and extremely well-documented. George W. Bush did not make a simple miscalculation or error. He deliberately perpetrated a war crime, intentionally misleading the public in order to do so, and showed callous indifference to the suffering that would obviously result. His government oversaw a regime of brutal torture and indefinite detention, violating every conceivable standard for the humane treatment of prisoners. And far from trying to “atone,” Bush has consistently misrepresented history, reacting angrily and defensively to those who confront him with the truth. In a just world, he would be painting from a prison cell. And through Alter and Schjeldahl’s effort to impute to Bush a repentance and sensitivity that he does not actually possess, they fabricate history and erase the sufferings of Bush’s victims.

First, it’s important to be clear what Bush actually did. There is a key number missing from both Alter and Schjeldahl’s reviews: 500,000, the sum total of Iraqi civilians who perished as a result of the U.S. war there. (That’s a conservative estimate, and stops in 2011.) Nearly 200,000 are confirmed to have died violently, blown to pieces by coalition air strikes or suicide bombers, shot by soldiers or insurgents. Others died as a result of the disappearance of medical care, with doctors fleeing the country by the score as their colleagues were killed or abducted. Childhood mortality and infant mortality shot up, as well as malnutrition and starvation, and toxins introduced by American bombardment led to “congenital malformations, sterility, and infertility.” There was mass displacement, by the millions. An entire “generation of orphans” was created, with hundreds of thousands of children losing parents and wandering the streets homeless. The country’s core infrastructure collapsed, and centuries-old cultural institutions were destroyed, with libraries and museums looted, and the university system “decimated” as professors were assassinated. For years and years, suicide bombings became a regular feature of life in Baghdad, and for every violent death, scores more people were left injured or traumatized for life. (Yet in the entire country, there were less than 200 social workers and psychiatrists put together to tend to people’s psychological issues.) Parts of the country became a hell on earth; in 2007 the Red Cross said that there were “mothers appealing for someone to pick up the bodies on the street so their children will be spared the horror of looking at them on their way to school.” The amount of death, misery, suffering, and trauma is almost inconceivable.

These were the human consequences of the Iraq War for the country’s population. They generally go unmentioned in the sympathetic reviews of George W. Bush’s artwork. Perhaps that’s because, if we dwell on them, it becomes somewhat harder to appreciate Bush’s impressive use of line, color, and shape. If you begin to think about Iraq as a physical place full of actual people, many of whom have watched their children die in front of them, Bush’s art begins to seem ghoulish and perverse rather than sensitive and accomplished. There is a reason Schjeldahl and Alter do not spend even a moment discussing the war’s consequences for Iraqis. Doing so requires taking stock of an unimaginable series of horrors, one that makes Bush’s colorful brushwork and daytime-TV bantering seem more sickening than endearing.

But perhaps, we might say, it is unfair to linger on the subject of the war’s human toll. All war, after all, is hell. We must base our judgment of Bush’s character not on the ultimate consequences of his decisions, but on the nature of the decisions themselves. After all, Schjeldahl and Alter do not deny that the Iraq War was calamitous, with Alter calling it one of “the greatest disasters in American history,” a “historic folly” with “horrific consequences,” and Schjeldahl using that curious phrase “murderous error.” It’s true that both obscure reality by using vague descriptors like “disaster” rather than acknowledging what the invasion meant for the people on whom it was inflicted. But their point is that Bush meant well, even though he may have accidentally ended up causing the birth of ISIS and plunging the people of Iraq into an unending nightmare.


Viewing Bush as inept rather than malicious means rejecting the view that he “lied us into war.” If we accept Jonathan Alter’s perspective, it was not that Bush told the American people that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when he knew that it did not. Rather, Bush misjudged the situation, relying too hastily and carelessly on poor intelligence, and planning the war incompetently. The war was a “folly,” a bad idea poorly executed, but not an intentional act of deceit or criminality.

This view is persuasive because it’s partially correct. Bush did not “lie that there were weapons of mass destruction,” and it’s unfortunate that anti-war activists have often suggested that this was the case. Bush claims, quite plausibly, that he believed that Iraq possessed WMDs, and there is no evidence to suggest that he didn’t believe this. That supports the “mistake” view, because a lie is an intentional false statement, and Bush may have believed he was making a true statement, thus being mistaken rather than lying.

But the debate over whether Bush lied about WMDs misstates what the actual lie was. It was not when Bush said “the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised” that he lied to the American people. Rather, it was when he said Iraq posed a “threat” and that by invading it the United States was “assuring its own national security.” Bush could not have reasonably believed that the creaking, isolated Saddam regime posed the kind of threat to the United States that he said it did. WMDs or not, there was nothing credible to suggest this. He therefore lied to the American people, insisting that they were under a threat that they were not actually under. He did so in order to create a pretext for a war he had long been intent on waging.

This is not to say that Bush’s insistence that Saddam Hussein had WMDs was sincere. It may or may not have been. The point is not that Bush knew there weren’t WMDs in Iraq, but that he didn’t care whether there were or not. This is the difference between a lie and bullshit: a lie is saying something you know to be untrue, bullshit is saying something without caring to find out if it’s true. The former highest-ranking CIA officer in Europe told 60 Minutes that the Bush White House intentionally ignored evidence contradicting the idea that Saddam had WMDs. According to the officer, when intelligence was provided that contradicted the WMD story, the White House told the officer that “this isn’t about intel anymore. This is about regime change,” from which he concluded that “the war in Iraq was coming and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy.” It’s not, then, that Bush knew there were no WMDs. It’s that he kept himself from finding out whether there were WMDs, because he was determined to go to war.

The idea that Saddam posed a threat to the United States was laughable from the start. The WMDs that he supposedly possessed were not nuclear weapons, but chemical and biological ones. WMD is a catch-all category, but the distinction is important; mustard gas is horrific, but it is not a “suitcase nuke.” Bashar al-Assad, for example, possesses chemical weapons, but does not pose a threat to the U.S. mainland. (To Syrians, yes. To New Yorkers, no.) In fact, according to former Saddam aide Tariq Aziz, “Saddam did not consider the United States a natural adversary, as he did Iran and Israel, and he hoped that Iraq might again enjoy improved relations with the United States.” Furthermore, by the time of the U.S. invasion, Saddam “had turned over the day-to-day running of the Iraqi government to his aides and was spending most of his time writing a novel.” There was no credible reason to believe, even if Saddam possessed certain categories of weapons prohibited by international treaty, that he was an active threat to the people of the United States. Bush’s pre-war speeches used terrifying rhetoric to leap from the premise that Saddam was a monstrous dictator to the conclusion that Americans needed to be scared. That was simple deceit.

In fact, Bush had long been committed to removing Saddam, and was searching for a plausible justification. Just “hours after the 9/11 attacks,” Donald Rumsfeld and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were pondering whether they could “hit Saddam at the same time” as Osama bin Laden as part of a strategy to “move swiftly, go massive.” In November of 2001, Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks began plotting the “decapitation” of the Iraqi government, pondering various pretexts for “how [to] start” the war. Possibilities included “US discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attack or to anthrax attacks?” and “Dispute over WMD inspections?” Worried that they wouldn’t find any hard evidence against Saddam, Bush even thought of painting a reconnaissance aircraft in U.N. colors and flying it over Iraqi airspace, goading Saddam into shooting it down and thereby justifying a war. Bush “made it clear” to Tony Blair that “the U.S. intended to invade… even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons program.”

Thus Bush’s lie was not that there were weapons of mass destruction. The lie was that the war was about weapons of mass destruction. The war was about removing Saddam Hussein from power, and asserting American dominance in the Middle East and the world. Yes, that was partially to do with oil (“People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are… We’re not there for figs.” said former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, while Bush CENTCOM commander John Abizaid admitted “Of course it’s about oil, we can’t really deny that”). But the key point is that Bush detested Saddam and was determined to show he could get rid of him; according to those who attended National Security Council meetings, the administration wanted to “make an example of Hussein” to teach a lesson to those who would “flout the authority of the United States.” “Regime change” was the goal from the start, with “weapons of mass destruction” and “bringing democracy” just convenient pieces of rhetoric.

Nor was the war about the well-being of the people of Iraq. Jonathan Alter says that Bush had a “dream of democratizing the Middle East” but simply botched it; Bush’s story is almost that of a romantic utopian and tragic hero, undone by his hubris in just wanting to share democracy too much. In reality, the Bush White House showed zero interest in the welfare of Iraqis. Bush had been warned that invading the country would lead to a bloodbath; he ignored the warning, because he didn’t care. The typical line is that the occupation was “mishandled,” but this implies that Bush tried to handle it well. In fact, as Patrick Cockburn’s The Occupation and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in The Emerald City show, American officials were proudly ignorant of the Iraqi people’s needs and desires. Decisions were made in accordance with U.S. domestic political considerations rather than concern for the safety and prosperity of Iraq. Bush appointed totally inexperienced Republican Party ideologues to oversee the rebuilding effort, rather than actual experts, because the administration was more committed to maintaining neoconservative orthodoxies than actually trying to figure out how to keep the country from self-destructing. When Bush gave Paul Bremer his criteria for who should be the next Iraqi leader, he was emphatic that he wanted someone who would “stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq.”

As the situation in Iraq deteriorated into exactly the kind of sectarian violence that the White House had been warned it would, the Bush administration tried to hide the scale of the disaster. Patrick Cockburn reported that while Bush told Congress that fourteen out of eighteen Iraqi provinces “are completely safe,” this was “entirely untrue” and anyone who had gone to these provinces to try and prove it would have immediately been kidnapped or killed. In tallies of body counts, “U.S. officials excluded scores of people killed in car bombings and mortar attacks from tabulations measuring the results of a drive to reduce violence in Baghdad.” Furthermore, according to the Guardian “U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers” because they had “a formal policy of ignoring such allegations.” And the Bush administration silently presided over atrocities committed by both U.S. troops (who killed almost 700 civilians for coming too close to checkpoints, including pregnant women and the mentally ill) and hired contractors (in 2005 an American military unit observed as Blackwater mercenaries “shot up a civilian vehicle” killing a father and wounding his wife and daughter).

Then, of course, there was torture and indefinite detention, both of which were authorized at the highest levels. Bush’s CIA disappeared countless people to “black sites” to be tortured, and while the Bush administration duplicitously portrayed the horrific abuses at Abu Ghraib as isolated incidents, the administration was actually deliberately crafting its interrogation practices around torture and attempting to find legal loopholes to justify it. Philippe Sands reported that the White House tried to pin responsibility for torture on “interrogators on the ground,” a “false” explanation that ignored the “actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration” approving 18 new “enhanced interrogation” techniques, “all of which went against long-standing U.S. military practice as presented in the Army Field Manual.” Notes from 20-hour interrogations reveal the unimaginable psychological distress undergone by detainees:

Detainee began to cry. Visibly shaken. Very emotional. Detainee cried. Disturbed. Detainee began to cry. Detainee bit the IV tube completely in two. Started moaning. Uncomfortable. Moaning. Began crying hard spontaneously. Crying and praying. Very agitated. Yelled. Agitated and violent. Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Dizzy. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself. Began to cry. Asked God for forgiveness. Cried. Cried. Became violent. Began to cry. Broke down and cried. Began to pray and openly cried. Cried out to Allah several times. Trembled uncontrollably.

Indeed, the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation tactics concluded that they were “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers.” They included “slamming detainees into walls,” “telling detainees they would never leave alive,” “Threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, threats to cut a detainee’s mother’s throat,” waterboardings that sometimes “evolved into a series of near drownings,” and the terrifyingly clench-inducing “involuntary rectal feedings.” Sometimes they would deprive detainees of all heat (which “likely contributed to the death of a detainee”) or perform what was known as a “rough takedown,” a procedure by which “five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him outside of his cell, cut his clothes off, and secure him with Mylar tape. The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.” All of that is separate from the outrage of indefinite detention in itself, which kept people in cages for years upon years without ever being able to contest the charges against them. At Guantanamo Bay, detainees became “so depressed, so despondent, that they had no longer had an appetite and stopped eating to the point where they had to be force-fed with a tube that is inserted through their nose.” Their mental and emotional conditions would deteriorate until they were reduced to a childlike babbling, and they frequently attempted self-harm and suicide. The Bush administration even arrested the Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. Army Captain James Yee, throwing him in leg irons, threatening him with death, and keeping him in solitary confinement for 76 days after he criticized military practices.


Thus President Bush was not a good-hearted dreamer. He was a rabid ideologue who would spew any amount of lies or B.S. in order to achieve his favored goal of deposing Saddam Hussein, and who oversaw serious human rights violations without displaying an ounce of compunction or ambivalence. There was no “mistake.” Bush didn’t “oops-a-daisy” his way into Iraq. He had a goal, and he fulfilled it, without consideration for those who would suffer as a result.

It should be mentioned that most of this was not just immoral. It was illegal. The Bush Doctrine explicitly claimed the right to launch a preemptive war against a party that had not actually attacked the United States, a violation of the core Nuremberg principle that “to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Multiple independent inquiries have criticized the flimsy legal justifications for the war. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan openly declared the war illegal, and even Tony Blair’s former Deputy Prime Minister concurred. In fact, it’s hard to see how the Iraq War could be anything but criminal, since no country—even if it gathers a “coalition of the willing”—is permitted to simply depose a head of state at will. The Iraq War made the Nuremberg Laws even more empty and selective than they have always been, and Bush’s escape from international justice delegitimizes all other war crimes prosecutions. A core aspect of the rule of law is that it applies equally to all, and if the United States is free to do as it pleases regardless of its international legal obligations, it is unclear what respect anybody should hold for the law.

George W. Bush may therefore be a fine painter. But he is a criminal. And when media figures try to redeem him, or portray him as lovable-but-flawed, they ignore the actual record. In fact, Bush has not even made any suggestion that he is trying to “atone” for a great crime, as liberal pundits have suggested he is. On the contrary, he has consistently defended his decision-making, and the illegal doctrine he espoused. He even wrote an entire book of self-justifications. Bush is not a haunted man. And since any good person, if he had Bush’s record, would be haunted, Bush is not a good person. Kanye West had Bush completely right. He simply does not think very much about the lives of people darker than himself. That sounds like an extreme judgment, but it’s true. If he cared about them, he wouldn’t have put them in cages. George Bush may love his grandchildren, he may paint with verve and soul. But he does not care about black or brown people.

It’s therefore exasperating to see liberals like Alter and Schjeldahl offer glowing assessments of Bush’s book of art, and portray him as soulful and caring. Schjeldahl says that Bush is so likable that hating him “takes conscious effort.” But it only takes conscious effort if you don’t think about the lives of Iraqis. If you do think about the lives of Iraqis, then hating him not only does not take conscious effort, but it is automatic. Anyone who truly appreciates the scale of what Bush inflicted on the world will feel rage course through their body whenever they hear his voice, or see him holding up a paintbrush, with that perpetual simpering grin on his face.

Alter and Schjeldahl are not alone in being captivated by Bush the artiste. The Washington Post’s art critic concluded that “the former president is more humble and curious than the Swaggering President Bush he enacted while in office [and] his curiosity about art is not only genuine but relatively sophisticated.” This may be the beginning of a critical consensus. But it says something disturbing about our media that a man can cause 500,000 deaths and then have his paintings flatteringly profiled, with the deaths unmentioned. George W. Bush intentionally offered false justifications for a war, destroyed an entire country, and committed an international crime. He tortured people, sometimes to death.

But would you look at those brushstrokes? And have you seen the little doggies?

Andrew Sullivan Is Still Racist After All These Years

Viewing racial groups as undifferentiated blobs defined by stereotypes is a dangerous form of bigotry…

Andrew Sullivan’s latest piece of writing for New York is a bizarre thing indeed. Entitled “Why Do Democrats Feel Sorry For Hillary Clinton?”, it spends most of its length making the (correct) argument that the person most responsible for the poor management of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign was Hillary Clinton. But after laying out the thoroughly convincing case for this bleedingly obvious proposition, Sullivan takes a rather unexpected detour into the politics of race. Suddenly pondering on the causes of achievement gaps among racial groups, Sullivan muses thusly:

Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it?

As I say, for anybody who had been pleasantly savoring Sullivan’s Clinton critique, the abrupt transition is somewhat jarring. But apparently this is the format of Sullivan’s new New York column; he meanders from subject to subject, riffing on whatever he finds important or what comes into his mind.

And so it’s curious that this, of all things, should be occupying Sullivan’s thoughts. He is, after all, restating a version of an argument that has been made for about forty years, one that has been the subject of countless responses from social scientists. The argument has a name (the “Model Minority” argument) and an extensive Wikipedia article. In its core form, it goes roughly as follows: “I don’t see why black people are always whining about racism in this country. After all, Asian people seem to do just fine. If there’s so much ‘racism,’ why are Asian test scores so high, hm?”

There are more sophisticated versions of this argument, but Sullivan is stating it in its absolute crudest form, suggesting quite openly that instead of America being a “profoundly racist society,” a better explanation for why some races are “earning more” and are more “well-educated” on average is that members of those racial groups have made better choices, e.g. the choice to have marry and tell their kids to get an education.

Now, I think the above paragraph by Sullivan is deeply and obviously racist. I also think it is willfully empirically ignorant. But since the argument he is making is very common, and since charges of racism and ignorance are very serious and require substantiation, let me explain why Sullivan’s perspective is both bigoted and mistaken.

The first objectionable aspect of Sullivan’s argument is his suggestion that Asian-Americans have “turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones.” In and of itself, this is a racist notion, because it suggests that certain racial stereotypes can be “true” and “positive.” Because I believe that racial stereotypes are inherently racist, since stereotypes are crass and prejudiced generalizations, I find Sullivan’s idea that stereotypes about Asians could be “true and positive” to be racist.

There are several problems with Sullivan’s embrace of racial stereotypes about Asians. First, as Matthew Bruenig documented at Jacobin, because racial stereotypes treat race as a helpful analytic category (even though “Asian American” lumps together people of totally different backgrounds), they lead to poor social science. Bruenig points out why it’s ignorant to discuss “Asian Americans” as being “better educated” or “more prosperous.” First, Asian Americans as a group actually have a higher poverty rate than non-Hispanic whites. But more importantly, using “Asian American” as a category obscures the massive differences among different Asian Americans, with Filipino Americans having a substantially lower poverty rate than whites and Hmong Americans having a far, far higher poverty rate than whites. Because some subgroups of Asian Americans have far higher incomes than white Americans, statistics for Asian Americans overall look pretty good. But one can only posit a theory of how “Asian” emphasis on education and family ties has led to their success if one ignores the fact that many groups of Asian Americans have not achieved this incredible success, even though they share whatever distinctively Asian cultural characteristics Sullivan thinks are important.


But stereotypes don’t just create empirical failures by obliviously viewing distinctive groups as amorphous racially-defined blobs. They are also deeply harmful, and there is no such thing as a “positive” racial stereotype. By saying there are such things as “positive” racial stereotypes to begin with, we are allowing for the possibility of ordering racial groups hierarchically (the “diligent” races, the “lazy” races, etc.), and if some groups are associated with “positive” racial traits it is inevitable that others will be associated with negative ones. Members of the British Colonial Office during the 1950s, for example, praised “the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians,” contrasting them with “the unskilled and largely lazy Asians.” It may seem as if calling West Indians “industrious” is paying them a compliment, but in doing so one is adopting a framework by which character traits are assigned to ethnicities, a framework which views people not as individuals but as the prisoners of their racial identity.

Regardless of what judgments are being made, positive or negative, the inclination to judge people by their race is poisonous. Certain white people see nothing wrong with classifying Asians as “smart” or “hard-working.” After all, what could possibly be objectionable about stereotyping someone as intelligent? But all racial stereotypes have deleterious impacts, particularly on children. For many young Asian Americans, the “Model Minority” stereotype causes serious psychological anxiety. Because, thanks to racial stereotypes, they are expected to be scientifically-minded, humble, and diligent, Asian American students often feel a sense of inadequacy if they cannot live up to unreasonable expectations, an incredible psychological burden of racial expectation that leads to not seeking help when they are struggling and has been linked to suicide. (Some schools even offer counseling for Asian students trying to deal with the mental health consequences inflicted by Sullivan’s worldview.) Every racial stereotype is ugly, and every single one hurts the people to whom it is applied, and the very idea of a “true, positive” racial stereotype is both unscientific and insidious.

(It’s worth mentioning that Sullivan’s perspective also conforms to a common line of thinking among those who emphasize the importance of racial categories: that if one sees Asians as superior, one cannot be racist. I have seen this repeatedly from those who attempt to defend Bell Curve-type thinking; they believe that if they claim Asians are equal or superior to whites, they cannot be white supremacists. Here we should note the implications of this worldview: that someone who used the n-word and advocated the return of Jim Crow would not be racist so long as he carved out an exception for Asians. And that’s not a theoretical argument: white South Africans exempted Japanese people from Apartheid restrictions by making them “honorary whites.” The fact is that it doesn’t matter what your racial hierarchy is; if you have a racial hierarchy at all, you’re a racist. If you think black people are lazy, but Asian people are superhumans, you are being racist against both groups by treating them as cartoons instead of people.)

There are other serious deficiencies with Sullivan’s argument. For one thing, in his attempt to blame racial cultural traits for differing economic outcomes, Sullivan does not give a moment’s consideration to the differences in history between groups. It’s been pointed out over and over that since black people disproportionately consist of the descendants of slaves, while large numbers of Asian American immigrants are among the most prosperous and well-educated in their home countries, it’s absurd to attribute the resulting economic disparities to freely-made cultural and behavioral choices. An honest person would at least mention and discuss the importance of differences in background, including the education levels of Asian immigrants and the fact that black people spent two centuries being whipped, raped, and killed. Sullivan does not mention and discuss these things. Therefore Sullivan is not an honest person.

That dishonesty is the central problem with Sullivan’s passage. The causes of people’s economic and education outcomes are of central concern to the social sciences; an extraordinary amount of research is done on these topics. Sullivan pretends that this research does not exist, acting as if the long conversation on the errors and dangers of the Model Minority myth simply has not been happening, even though it has been going on for multiple decades. He wishes to beat up on the “social justice” types for their comical view that America is racist, without considering any of the actual evidence they put forth to support the view that America is racist. This means that Andrew Sullivan is not interested in finding out the truth, but in advancing a particular prejudiced worldview.

One has to conclude, then, that Sullivan hasn’t learned much since the days when he helped midwife The Bell Curve and grant flimsy race science a veneer of intellectual respectability. He still believes race is a reasonable prism through which to view the world, and that if only our racial stereotypes are “true,” they are acceptable. He is therefore an unreliable and ideologically-biased guide to political and social science. He is also a racist.

The Racism v. Economics Debate Again

Anyone who says the election was “about race” (or “about” anything) has little regard for truth…

I would have thought we could have moved on by now. Both before and after the 2016 election, there were months of acrimonious debate over the question of whether Trump voters were motivated by racial hatred or anxiety over their economic prospects. And I thought the general conclusion would have been that the premise was wrong to begin with, that you couldn’t talk about “Trump voters” as a single unit, because the category includes a broad spectrum of people with a varying set of motivations. Some of them liked Trump’s rhetoric on jobs and globalization, some liked his rhetoric on immigration and Islam, and some liked all of it. Both of the appeals obviously contributed to his victory. (Those of us on the left, however, frequently suggested that Democrats should focus on winning over the economically-motivated Trump voters, rather than the wealthy racists, because the ones anxious about jobs are the ones whose support Democrats have a greater chance of peeling off.)

The “racism or economics” debate is a pretty easy one to resolve, then. Trump’s campaign was based on bigotry, but also fueled by a backlash to the unfairness of the contemporary globalized economy. And many workers fell for his promises to bring jobs back, just as racists got excited over his stigmatization of Mexican immigrants. A question that appears contentious and intractable actually has a fairly obvious answer.

But British journalist Mehdi Hasan has decided to reignite the debate once more, with a new column in The Intercept arguing that racism was the primary cause of Trump’s victory and that Democrats who say Trump voters were hurting economically are “trafficking in alternative facts.” Hasan is blunt and his conclusions unqualified: “The race was about race,” he says. “It’s not the economy. It’s the racism, stupid.” Hasan singles out Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for criticism, saying that by claiming Trump voters were economically motivated, Sanders and Warren are ignoring the “stubborn facts” and “coddling…those who happily embraced an openly xenophobic candidate.”

Hasan’s column repeats arguments that have been made over and over for two years, from Salon to Vox to The Atlantic. Many liberal pundits have consistently dismissed the idea that Trump voters acted out of defensible economic motives, instead suggesting that they were just as deplorable as Hillary Clinton made them out to be. (In fact, they go beyond Clinton, who was trying to draw a distinction between those who were deplorable and those who should be respected and listened to.) The position is somewhat surprising coming from Hasan, though, who has often seemed sympathetic to the Sanders left, and it’s doubly surprising for appearing in Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept, which has been consistently critical of Vox-ian liberalism.

If Hasan thinks this is true, then, it is worth dealing with his evidence. His argument for the proposition that the election was “about race” is as follows: There are a series of statistical correlations between racism and Trump support. Donald Trump did better than Romney or McCain among voters with high racial resentment. The best way to predict whether any given person is a Trump supporter is to ask them whether they think Barack Obama is a Muslim. If they say yes, they’re almost certainly a Trump supporter. (“This is economic anxiety? Really?” comments Hasan incredulously.) Those who hold negative racial stereotypes about African Americans are far more likely to be Trump supporters. (“Sorry, but how can any of these prejudices be blamed on free trade or low wages?”) On the other hand, having a low income did not predict support for Trump, and Trump supporters actually tend to have higher incomes than Clinton supporters. And while there may be “economic anxiety” among Trump voters, it tends to be the product of racial resentment rather than its cause; in 2016, people who were racist tended to be economically anxious, while people who were economically anxious did not thereby become racist.


These are the entirety of the facts that Hasan presents to support his conclusion that the election was “about” race and that Bernie Sanders is factually wrong to say things like “millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own.”

I have long been critical of those in the political press who loudly insist on their superior allegiance to Fact and Truth. By contrast with Hasan, who quotes John Adams that facts are “stubborn things,” I tend to believe facts are fundamentally slippery things. Statements that are literally factually true can often be highly misleading, and sometimes you do actually need the addition (not substitution) of some “alternative facts” in order to understand what is really going on. For example: I can cite GDP growth as proof that Americans are doing well economically. But it’s not until I understand the distribution of the economic benefits across society that I will know how the majority of Americans are actually doing. Or I can cite the fact that lifespans are increasing as evidence that American healthcare is “making us live longer.” But it might be that richer people are living longer while poorer people are actually living less long, making the word “us” erroneous. If a fact is true, but is incomplete, then it might actually leave us more ignorant than we were before.

This is precisely the situation with Hasan’s statistics. They are carefully selected to support his argument, with the statistics that don’t support it simply ignored. He, like many others who have written “it’s about racism” pieces, depends heavily on evidence that racism “predicts” support for Trump while income doesn’t, meaning that racists are more likely to be Trump supporters while poor people aren’t more likely to be Trump supporters.

But if we think about this statistic for a moment, we can see why it’s a dubious way of proving that Trump support was “about” race. First, Hasan is confusing the statement “Most racists are Trump supporters” with the statement “Most Trump supporters are racists.” Of course most racists are Trump supporters; racists tend to be on the political right, because the political left defines itself heavily by its commitment to advancing the social position of racial minorities. It would be shocking if racism didn’t predict support for Trump, because it would mean that racists had decided to ignore David Duke’s endorsement of Trump and vote for a candidate who embraced the language of “intersectional” social justice feminism. Nor is it surprising that Trump did better with racists than his more centrist predecessors. The more racist your campaign rhetoric is, the more the racists like you.

The income statistic is similarly unsurprising. Of course Trump’s supporters tend to be higher income. Republicans are the party of low taxes on the rich, and Trump wants to lower taxes on the rich. Democrats are the party of social programs for the poor. So poor people were always going to disproportionately be for Clinton, and rich people were going to disproportionately be for Trump. Furthermore, since Democrats are disproportionately the party of racial minorities, and racial minorities tend to be less wealthy than white people (due in part to several hundred years of black enslavement), the racially diverse Democratic base will ensure that poverty doesn’t predict Trump support.

Note how neither of these facts address the actual question. If we want to understand the relative role of race and economics in creating votes for Donald Trump, it doesn’t really help us to know that racists tend to be Trump voters. Imagine we have 100 voters, 10 of whom are high-income racists and 90 of whom are low-income non-racists concerned about the economy. Well, we know our 10 rich racists will probably vote for Donald Trump. And we know that being a low-income non-racist doesn’t really predict support for Donald Trump, so let’s say those votes split equally, or even break slightly in favor of Clinton. We count the votes, and the result is: 54 Trump, 46 Clinton. Trump gets 10 rich racists, plus 44 poor non-racists. Clinton gets 46 poor non-racists.

We can see, then, what can be concealed by statistics showing that “wealthy racists tend to support Trump” and “poor and economically anxious people tend to support Clinton.” Those two statistics are consistent with a situation in which the vast majority of Trump’s support occurs for economic reasons rather than racial ones. Yes, it’s true, the presence of racists in Trump’s coalition put Trump “over the top.” But it’s also true to say that the Democrats losing half of all economically anxious people put Trump over the top, and if you focused on the racism, you’d be focusing on the minor part of Trump’s overall support.

In laying out this hypothetical, I am not attempting to show that this is actually what happened. The two statistics (“racists support Trump” and “poor people support Clinton”) are also consistent with a situation in which 100% of Trump’s supporters are racist. Instead, I am demonstrating that the two premises in and of themselves can’t lead us to the conclusion Hasan wants to draw (and that other pundits have drawn over and over from them), which is that Trump’s support was about racism.

Hasan calls the idea that Trump “appealed to the economic anxieties of Americans” a fiction and concludes that “instead, attitudes about race, religion, and immigration trump (pun intended) economics.” But what he’s proved is that racial attitudes trump economics as predictors of a particular individual person’s support for Donald Trump, not that racial attitudes trump economics as the main issue Trump voters cared about or the main reason for his success. If we take the question “Was the election about race or about economics?” to mean “What was the relative role of race issues and economic issues in determining the outcome of the election?” then Hasan’s evidence does not actually address his question.

To get closer to a real answer, we might do better to look at what the most important issues were to Trump voters. What attracted them to Trump? Do they care more about economics or about race? We can begin to get an answer from a Pew poll conducted in July of 2016, which ranked issues by their importance to voters, broken down by the candidate they were supporting. Among voters generally, the economy was considered a “very important” issue to 84%, with immigration only the sixth-most important issue. Among Trump supporters, though, economic issues were considered very important to 90%, compared to 80% of Clinton supporters. For Trump supporters, immigration was the third-most important issue, with 79% considering it very important. Thus nearly every Trump supporter was “very” concerned about economic issues, and economic issues won out by at least 10% over immigration.

We still don’t know very much from this. But we do know that a good chunk of Trump supporters cared about economics without caring as much about immigration (and we must assume that all Trump voters who cared about immigration were racists in order to accept Hasan’s conclusion). Of course, “being worried about the economy” can mean a lot of things; a rich man can be worried about his tax rate increasing, and we don’t know anything about racial attitudes from this survey. But it should caution us against coming to simple conclusion like “the election was about race.”

Even if we stick to demonstrations of the factors that predict Trump support, we find Hasan burying crucial evidence. Hasan quotes a Gallup report that, in his words, “found that Trump supporters, far from being the ‘left behind’ or the losers of globalization, ‘earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration.’” But let’s look at the original context of that quote:

[Trump’s] supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations, but they earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration. On the other hand, living in racially isolated communities with worse health outcomes, lower social mobility, less social capital, greater reliance on social security income and less reliance on capital income, predicts higher levels of Trump support.

Hasan’s presentation of the Gallup analysis therefore borders on intellectual dishonesty. If you quote the bit about high average incomes and no lower likelihood of unemployment (facts which, as I explained before, we would expect given the general composition of the Republican base compared to the Democratic one), but you don’t quote the part about bad health outcomes, blue collar jobs, and low social mobility, then you’re selecting only those facts that confirm your worldview and refusing to deal with the ones that contradict it.

This is the trouble with Hasan’s overall argument, and with these types of pieces generally. They accuse others of ignoring “the facts,” but they don’t really care about facts themselves. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Hasan mention the fact that the economy was “very important” to 90% of Trump supporters? Why wouldn’t he even deal with that statistic, even if he had a good argument for why it should be disregarded? It’s the duty of a responsible political analyst to address the evidence that undermines their position.

Hasan is likewise unfair in his characterization of the Sanders/Warren position on Trump voters. He says that “for Sanders, Warren and others on the left, the economy is what matters most and class is everything.” But Sanders repeatedly accused Trump of running a “campaign of bigotry” and whipping up nativist sentiments. In the op-ed Hasan quotes, Sanders says that “millions” of Trump voters voted out of economic concerns. But he does not deny that large numbers of Trump’s voters may be racist. (He has explicitly acknowledged that “some are.”)

In fact, I don’t know a single leftist who denies that Trump ran a racist campaign that energized racist voters. The leftist position is, rather, that there are many (“millions of”) Trump voters who were drawn to his anti-Establishment stance because of their economic hardships, that Democrats should have had a better message to target those particular Trump voters, and that suggesting Trump voters as a unit are racist is both politically unwise and unsupported by evidence. Hasan is extremely derisive toward this position, with his repeated suggestion that it’s factually ignorant, even stupid. But he doesn’t offer any actual proof for why it’s wrong. Instead, he willfully mischaracterizes it.

Actually, the left-wing stance here should be extremely uncontroversial. It doesn’t even have to presume that the majority, or even a very large percentage, of Trump voters were “economically anxious” rather than racist. Consider the 100-voter scenario from earlier. Say we have 48 rich racists and 52 poor anxious people. Trump snags all the racists by default, but then manages to lure 4 anxious poor people through his message on trade. Trump wins. In that situation, it’s still worth pointing out that Democrats needed a better economic message, and that economics were an important determinant of the outcome. A lot of the misguided attempts to decide what the election was “about” result from failures to think about marginal differences. If most Trump voters were racist, and a minority were economically anxious, and the election was decided by a small number of votes in Rust Belt states (which it was), then politically you might reasonably decide that it’s not worth focusing on the racists (who will never vote for you) and instead you should craft a rhetorical appeal to the economically anxious Rust Belt voters who can mean the difference between winning and losing. (As I said, though, so much depends on how you want to define the phrase “what the election was about.” If it’s about majorities, you might get one answer. If it’s about margins, you might get another. In Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity I go into more detail about how anyone can construct any story they like about the election and have it be true in a certain sense.)

I should add here that the necessity of fairness applies no matter which side of this you think is correct. If I say “90% of Trump voters thought the economy was the most important issue, therefore the race was about economics,” and I do not mention or deal with the disproportionate amount of racial prejudice among Trump voters, I am also cherry-picking the facts that support my preferred conclusion. Anyone who tells you the one issue that the election was “about,” and cites factors that “predict” support, without telling you the full range of relevant information, is arguing either ignorantly or dishonestly. They are not putting all of the facts on the table; rather, they are just giving the evidence that supports their own position. This is partisanship and bias, which nobody should engage in. Having a well-defined set of political commitments does not justify misrepresentations of the truth.

Frankly, Hasan’s column saddens me. I have really respected some of the excellent work he has done on his interview programs (even though he has a consistently irritating tendency to constantly interrupt his guests). And I’m disappointed in The Intercept, which promised to follow Glenn Greenwald’s idea that you can be opinionated and honest at the same time, for publishing it. That’s not because it offers a conclusion I disagree with; I’m happy to have a discussion about the role of racism in the 2016 election, as weary as I am of that particular debate. Rather, it’s because Hasan uses the characteristic argumentation technique of the glib pundit: instead of helping the reader think through an issue and showing your work, you just throw out a few random statistics that back up your position.

The truth about race and economics in the election is easy to grasp. They both mattered, and we can focus on whichever we choose. (Personally, I think that means focusing whatever is most useful or instructive, and that the question “Do Trump supporters tend to be racist?” is less consequential than “Are there enough non-racist, economically anxious Trump voters to where economic anxiety played a significant role in his margin of victory thereby meaning Democrats need to address the issue more?”) And if Mehdi Hasan were as committed to Facts and Truth as he professes himself to be, he would be happy to concede this rather than perpetuating a pernicious misrepresentation.

Rahm Emanuel’s College Proposal Is Everything Wrong With Democratic Education Policy

Emanuel’s idea is the reductio ad absurdum of the “college solves poverty” idea…

On Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new educational proposal: starting with this year’s freshman class, every student in the Chicago public school system will be required to show an acceptance letter from a college, a trade school or apprenticeship, or a branch of the military in order to graduate. “We live in a period of time when you earn what you learn,” Mayor Emanuel said. (Democratic politicians’ attempts at folksiness are always pretty grim.) “We want to make 14th grade universal,” he also said. The proposed measure is almost certainly a publicity stunt which will have little effect in practice. But Emanuel has made it clear how he thinks educational problems should be solved.

The Emanuel plan is perhaps the stupidest idea a nationally prominent politician has publicly endorsed in the past decade. I hesitate to even explain why it’s stupid lest I insult my readers’ intelligence by belaboring the obvious. But it’s worth spelling out what’s wrong with this, because the fact that a major Obama-aligned Democratic politician is attempting to do this says a great deal about the worldview of the establishment Democratic Party. So here goes.

In Mayor Emanuel’s opinion, working-class kids are too stupid to recognize their own interests. They’re simply unaware that people who go to college earn more than people who don’t, which is why (silly them) they don’t go to college. If you just force them to go to college by flunking them out of high school unless they promise to go to college, they’ll all become highly compensated white-collar workers and America will be a wealthier place.

Allow me to propose an alternative model: working-class kids are not stupid. They’re aware that college grads earn more money on average than they ever will. They’re also aware that not all college degrees are created equal, and that a degree from a community college or some fly-by-night for-profit—the kind of school most working-class kids from Chicago might actually get into—is dramatically less valuable than one from Sarah Lawrence, where Rahm got his BA. They’re aware that college degrees aren’t what they once were, partly because so many degrees are from mediocre institutions; perhaps they’ve seen family members work hard to get that University of Phoenix diploma only to wind up little better off than they’d have been otherwise.

They’re also aware that college costs money, not only money for tuition but all the money you won’t be able to earn while you’re in school, and that people whose parents can’t support them, people who may in fact need to help support their families themselves, can’t afford to just not work for two to four years. Finally, they’re aware that college is hard, particularly for working-class kids with less academic preparation than their middle-class peers who also have less social support and need to work while their peers are studying, and that working-class kids are at a high risk of dropping out. They know that going into debt to attend a college and then dropping out with no degree can be financially catastrophic.

In other words, they know, unlike their mayor, that what happens to the average kid who goes to college—a middle-class kid from the suburbs with white-collar parents who can afford to subsidize his textbooks and partying for four years—is a very poor indicator of what will happen to them, personally, if they decide to go to college. Knowing all this, they make their choice; 62% of Chicago’s high school students decide to have a crack at college after they graduate, 38% don’t.

Now, it may well be that there are a few kids in that 38% who are making the wrong choice, just as there are a few in that 62% (very possibly more than a few) who are making the wrong choice and will just end up dropping out with debt or graduating with a worthless degree and more debt. It might be that a better school guidance program would push some kids into college for whom it’s the right decision. But Rahm isn’t proposing to nudge a few more kids into college; he’s proposing to hold the high school degree of every student in the system hostage until they all go to college, or sign up for the army, or enter an apprenticeship.

What’s likely to happen if his proposal passes? Well, trade schools and apprenticeship programs are bright enough to know that the world only needs so many plumbers, so not a lot of students are going to manage to go that route. Some will join the army, at which stage Mr. Emanuel can congratulate himself for having forced some working-class kids to die for their country on pain of facing the stigma of the high school dropout for the rest of their lives. Some will simply decide to leave high school without graduating. But many will be forced into a choice they know is the wrong one, and have a crack at whatever community college or awful open-admissions for-profit college they can get an acceptance letter from. Expect to see the already overburdened and underfunded community college system pushed to the wall. Expect to see a small boom in the for-profit college industry and the exploitative student loan industry that feeds it. Expect to see many, many students drop out of school with nothing to show for it but un-bankruptable education debt that will haunt them for years.


And finally, perhaps most importantly, expect to see those students who do manage to graduate from whatever bottom-tier school is willing to accept them quickly discover that the degree Rahm Emanuel forced them to earn at great personal expense isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. First, because college-educated workers, like any other commodity, are subject to the law of supply and demand, and Rahm’s plot to dump hundreds of thousands more of them onto the Chicago labor market will cause supply to greatly outpace demand and prices to crater. Second, because employers will recognize that people who got a college degree from a bottom-tier school that slashed admissions standards to take advantage of the Rahm-and-debt-fueled bonanza don’t have the same skill set or qualifications as the college students they now pay higher wages. In other words, producing a genuinely more educated workforce is a lot harder than Rahm’s plan to print a whole bunch more college diplomas, but even if you could produce a genuinely more educated workforce it wouldn’t raise wages; you’d just have more people competing for the same number of white-collar jobs., and wages would go down.

(Of course, middle-class kids who went to Sarah Lawrence would still do just fine.)

Emanuel’s plan, in other words, will be a disaster if implemented. But if the plan were just his own idiosyncratic idiocy, it would be beneath refutation. Unfortunately, it’s not. The mayor of Chicago is an utterly characteristic representative of the dominant wing of the Democratic Party, and his “you earn what you learn” claptrap reflects what has been a core element of its messaging and policy for decades: the notion that we can solve poverty through education. For most of my lifetime, the Democratic Party’s answer to the apparently permanent stagnation of working-class wages has been to advise the electorate that it’s a knowledge economy and only a better-educated workforce can hope to earn more.

This is terrible policy based on obviously shoddy reasoning: while it’s true that highly educated computer programmers make a lot of money, the notion that if everyone were a highly educated computer programmer everyone would make more money is absurd, first because not everyone can become a highly educated computer programmer and second because if everyone could then computer programmers would no longer make a lot of money.

It should be emphasized, though, that  on top of being terrible policy this is also terrible messaging. When voters hear that your analysis of the economy is that it simply has no place anymore for uneducated workers, and that your plan to increase working-class wages is “educate people better for the knowledge economy,” they get three messages: first, that if you’re a low-income thirty-year-old high school graduate with a family who can’t go to school, the Democrats’ plan for you is that you’ll die poor, because hey, it’s a knowledge economy, what can they do? It’s a knowledge economy. Second, that Democrats think your poverty is pretty much your fault for not doing better in school. And third, that Democrats are so completely out of touch that they genuinely believe that becoming a high-tech worker is a serious option for your working-class kids. In other words, what you hear is that Democrats don’t know you, don’t care about you, look down on you, and have no plan to help you. Is it any wonder that you don’t bother to vote, or that if you do you vote for someone who promises to bring the jobs back?

Every time Democrats say or imply that there’s no way for people to succeed in the 21st-century economy without a college degree, they announce loud and clear that they’ve largely given up on helping the existing working class.

But if the Democratic line on education fails on policy and politics grounds alike, why are they so attached to it? I’d suggest two reasons.

First, claiming that class differences result from educational achievement flatters the American elite’s sense of its own meritocracy. If differences in income are mostly explained by differences in education, elites don’t have to worry about why their own incomes have skyrocketed over the past three decades while the rest of the country has done so poorly; it’s the natural result of market forces rewarding talent and hard work. You can see this perhaps most clearly in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ excitement about charter schools, an excitement most of the Democratic establishment shares: charters are the noblesse oblige of an utterly self-confident meritocratic elite, an elite which believes that they earned what they have and that the way to make everyone else better off is not to take from the deserving rich and give to the undeserving poor but to make the poor more deserving. (The fact that many of these charters’ educational model is to replace those stupid, lazy public school teachers with brilliant and disruptive Yale graduates says everything here.) The education-solves-poverty line sells well with affluent white-collar professionals, and the average Democratic politician spends vastly more time addressing herself to the needs of those professionals than talking to working-class voters.

But second, and far more importantly, building an economy that once again provides decent, well-paying and dignified jobs for the working class is very difficult. It’s far easier to pretend that the jobs are waiting in the wings if only the working class were educated enough to deserve them than to take on the employers who refuse to offer those jobs. Rebuilding the American working class would require a higher minimum wage, a serious effort to encourage unionization in the service sector, and, at least in areas with sky-high unemployment (places like Chicago), a major federal jobs program to put people to work and force private-sector employers to raise wages. Every one of those initiatives would require direct confrontation with businesses big and small. Creating more innovative charter schools, or forcing more students into college, requires no such confrontation. Placing the burden of fixing the economy on working-class students and their teachers rather than on big business and the wealthy makes plenty of political sense, in its way.

But it won’t work. And liberal pundits who scoff at Trump voters by reminding them that those manufacturing jobs he promised won’t come back would do well to remember that Democrats’ agenda on working-class jobs is just as empty a promise.

Now Peter Singer Argues That It Might Be Okay To Rape Disabled People

The New York Times lets the utilitarian philosopher make his most horrific argument yet…

Advocates for people with disabilities do not care for utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. This is because Singer has publicly justified killing disabled newborn infants because of their disabilities. In his book Practical Ethics, Singer weighed the moral justifications for taking the lives of disabled babies. He concluded that in severe cases, such as for children with spina bifida, it might well be morally wrong not to take a baby’s life. For less serious conditions, such as hemophilia, Singer concluded that the decision as to whether or not to kill the infant should depend on whether it would make the parents happy, and whether they intended to “replace” the child with another, non-disabled one:

“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”

Singer’s early statements on euthanizing the disabled led to protests of his talks during the 1990s, and caused controversy when he was appointed Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In the years since, Singer has done little to repair his reputation among advocates for the disabled, having repeatedly given interviews containing controversial statements about the moral justifications for infanticide. And he has only dug a deeper hole by stating that he wouldn’t be willing to raise a child with Down’s Syndrome because it wouldn’t make him happy (“For me, the knowledge that my [hypothetical Down Syndrome] child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal… would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop), as well as by posing queries like the following:

“Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being?”

This kind of stuff (repeated again and again) has led some disabled people to get the not unreasonable impression that Peter Singer, perhaps the world’s most prominent ethicist, would prefer it if they died. (And unfortunately, Singer’s hideous remarks have undermined the creditable efforts he has made to get people to care more about the suffering of children around the world. For a utilitarian, Singer does not seem to think much about the utility of sabotaging his credibility as an ethicist in order to make callous and inflammatory comments about disabled people.)

One might therefore have thought that Singer could not possibly alienate disabled people any further, or make himself sound like any more of a monster.

But one would be wrong. For now, Singer has co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times in which he appears to defend the morality of raping disabled people.

The actual argument Singer makes in his Times article is jaw-droppingly repulsive. But, first, it’s necessary to understand the incident he’s commenting on. At issue is the case of Anna Stubblefield, a Rutgers University philosophy professor convicted of sexually assaulting her mentally disabled pupil, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The case is, to say the least, extremely unusual. The student, D.J., was a severely impaired 30 year old man with cerebal palsy, who had never spoken a word in his life and communicated through “screams” and “chirps.” Stubblefield acted as his personal tutor, using a discredited pseudoscientific technique to elicit what she insisted were complex communications from D.J. Eventually, based on what she believed D.J. wanted, Stubblefield began engaging in sex acts with him, having become romantically attracted to him over the course of her time assisting him.

D.J.’s family were horrified to discover that Stubblefield, who had supposedly been helping D.J. produce highly intelligent messages demonstrating his complex inner feelings, was in fact committing what they regarded as abuse. Stubblefield insisted that D.J.’s disabilities were only physical, that he was mentally bright and simply needed a means of expressing himself. D.J.’s family believed his mental deficiencies were as extreme as his physical ones, and that believing he could consent to a sexual relationship was like believing a child could consent to one. On the family’s complaint, Stubblefield was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced.

Here’s where we get back to Peter Singer. Singer, along with University of Oxford professor Jeff McMahan, argues that Stubblefield’s sentence was grossly unjust, for several reasons. The judge in the case did not permit Stubblefield to present evidence that D.J.’s cognitive capacities were high enough for him to communicate and consent. The case was filled with assumptions that D.J. was a helpless victim, rather than actual proof that he was. If, as Stubblefield claimed, his abilities were being underestimated, and this could be proven using a (non-discredited) technique, then he could be asked about whether he consented to the sexual relationship. Instead, because of his inability to speak, D.J. was presumed to be voiceless.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument. In fact, as Singer and McMahan note, it’s one made by advocates for the disabled, whose position on the Stubblefield case has not necessarily been what one might intuitively expect. While the disability community is obviously concerned with protecting disabled people from being sexually assaulted, they are also wary of arguments that diminish the agency of the disabled themselves, by portraying them as necessarily childlike and incapable of reasoning or making choices. Some have argued that the prosecution actually demeaned D.J., granting him less personhood than Stubblefield did.


If Singer had stuck to the argument that Stubblefield should have been allowed to present more evidence, and that D.J.’s wishes should have been given more respect, he might actually have earned himself back some favor in the disability community. Not much favor. But perhaps a shred.

Instead, he decided to give another defense of Stubblefield, and in doing so offer one of his most outrageous arguments yet: it might actually not be bad to rape cognitively impaired people. As Singer and McMahan write:

If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether. This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him; for even if he is cognitively impaired, he was capable of struggling to resist.

Consider carefully what is being said here. Here, Singer and McMahan are assuming D.J. is severely impaired. But, they say, that means he is too intellectually inhibited to understand the notion of consent. And because he doesn’t understand consent, he can’t withhold it. And because he didn’t fight back, it’s reasonable to assume he was having a good time, making it unclear why it would be harmful to perform a non-consensual sex act on him.

Again, let’s be clear on what they are saying: if someone is intellectually disabled enough, then it might be okay to rape them, so long as they don’t resist, since a lack of physical struggle justifies an assumption that someone is enjoying being raped. (Singer is also offering a variation on his own prior arguments in favor of bestiality, which work because Singer believes disabled people and animals are the same for purposes of ethical analysis.) Note that his reasoning would also justify sexually molesting infants, who are likewise incapable of understanding the notion of consent.

The New York Times therefore just published a philosophical defense of raping disabled people, and Peter Singer has—somehow—reached a new low on disability issues. (Actually, to be precise, an argument that it’s not clear what the harm is in raping disabled people, along with the implication that non-consensual sex acts against physically and mentally incapacitated people aren’t actually rape anyway if the victims do not know what consent is.)

Singer’s casual rationalization of sexual abuse actually offers a useful illustration of why nobody should subscribe to utilitarian philosophy to begin with. Utilitarians are meticulous and Spock-like in their deductions from premises, but their impeccable logic inevitably leads toward utterly horrifying or bizarre conclusions that totally conflict with people’s most basic shared moral values. Utilitarian reasoning can lead you to believe that there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad,” only “better” and “worse” (which means that genocide isn’t inherently bad, and in fact could be fine if it’s the least-worst available option in a certain set of circumstances). It can lead you to believe that it’s less morally justifiable for a couple to remain childless than it it is to murder an elderly homeless person in their sleep (because failing to create a potential happy long life is worse than taking someone’s unhappy short remaining life). It can, as Freddie deBoer has pointed out, lead you to believe that in the Jim Crow South, you should frame an innocent black man for a crime, knowing he will be lynched, if doing so would calm the resentments of the white community and thereby avoid having them perpetrate a wave of far more brutal violence. It can also lead you to be an apologist for sweatshops and factory collapses. Due to the nature of their premises, utilitarians constantly end up endorsing the moral necessity of an endless number of inhumane acts. It’s a terrible philosophy that leads to brutal and perverse conclusions, and at its worst, it turns you into Peter Singer.

I suppose that, at this point, nobody can be surprised at Singer, though it really was somewhat unfortunate that he chose to follow up an argument for granting disabled people their agency with an argument for why sexually abusing them doesn’t cause harm. But he’s made it clear over his career that he doesn’t care about the consequences of dehumanizing people. Perhaps more shocking is the fact that the New York Times either didn’t notice what was being argued, or felt that the argument made a legitimate contribution to debates about consent and disability. Either way, the continued presence of Peter Singer in national dialogue about disability shows just how far we have to go before people like D.J. will actually be granted their full humanity, by prosecutors and philosophers alike.