How The Economist Thinks

Is it fair to trash The Economist? You bet it is.

Current Affairs is well-known for its signature “Death to The Economist bumper stickers, which have greatly improved the expressive capacities of the American motorist when it comes to demonstrating a discerning taste in periodicals. But, occasionally, members of the public send us adverse feedback on our vehicular adhesive strips. “What,” they ask, “is your problem with The Economist? Why be so rude? How can you wish death upon a perfectly innocuous and respectable British political magazine?” Current Affairs, it is said, is behaving badly. We are being unfair.

It’s true that death is an extreme consequence to wish on another magazine, even if the magazine in question is The Economist. And sometimes I do wonder whether the sentiment goes a bit too far, whether it would be more fair to wish something like “a minor drop in circulation” or “a financially burdensome libel suit” on our London competitor.

But then I remember what The Economist actually is, and what it stands for, and what it writes. And I realize that death is the only option. A just world would not have The Economist in it, and the death of The Economist is thus an indispensable precondition for the creation of a just world.  

In his deliciously biting 1991 examination of the role of The Economist in shaping American elite opinion, James Fallows tried to figure out exactly what was so repellent about the magazine’s approach to the seeking of truth. Fallows puzzled over the fact that American intellectuals hold a disproportionate amount of respect for The Economist’s judgment and reporting, even though the magazine is produced by imperious 20-something Oxbridge graduates who generally know little about the subjects on which they so confidently opine. Fallows suggested that The Economist’s outsized reputation in the U.S. was partially attributable to Americans’ lingering colonial insecurity, their ongoing belief that despite all evidence to the contrary, British people are inherently intelligent and trustworthy. Fallows even dug up an embarrassingly snooty quote from Robert Reich, boasting about his sensible preference for British news: “I, for one, don’t get my economics news from Newsweek. I rely on The Economist — published in London.”


But the most damning case put by Fallows is not that The Economist is snobbish and preys on the intellectual self-doubt of Americans through its tone of Oxonian omniscience. (Though it is, and it does.) Fallows also reveals the core flaw of the magazine’s actual reportage: thanks to its reflexive belief in the superiority of free markets, it is an unreliable guide to the subjects on which it reports. Because its writers will bend the truth in order to defend capitalism, you can’t actually trust what you read in The Economist. And since journalism you can’t trust is worthless, The Economist is worthless.

Fallows gives an example of how reality gets filtered as it passes through the magazine and reaches The Economist’s readers:

Last summer, a government man who helps make international economic policy told me (with a thoughtful expression) he was reading “quite an interesting new book” about the stunning economic rise of East Asia. “The intriguing thing is, it shows that market forces really were the explanation!” he exclaimed in delight. “Industrial policies and government tinkering didn’t matter that much.” By chance, I had just read the very book—Governing the Market by Robert Wade. This detailed study, citing heaps of evidence, had in fact concluded nearly the opposite: that East Asian governments had tinkered plenty, directly benefiting industry far beyond anything “market forces” could have done. I knew something else about the book: The Economist magazine had just reviewed it and mischaracterized its message almost exactly the way the government official had. Had he actually read the book? Maybe, but somehow I have my doubts… The crucial paragraph of The Economist review—the one that convinced my friend the official, and presumably tens of thousands of other readers, that Wade’s years of research supported the magazine’s preexisting world view—was this: “The [Asian] dragons differed from other developing countries in avoiding distortions to exchange rates and other key prices, as much as in their style of intervening. Intervention is part of the story—but perhaps the smaller part. That being so, Mr. Wade’s prescriptions seem unduly heavy on intervention, and unduly light on getting prices right.” These few lines are a marvel of Oxbridge glibness, and they deserve lapidary study. Notice the all-important word “perhaps.” Without the slightest hint of evidence, it serves to dismiss everything Wade has painstakingly argued in the book. It clears the way for: “That being so . . . ” What being so? That someone who has Taken a First [at Oxbridge] can wave off the book’s argument with “perhaps”?

Here, then, is the problem with the magazine: readers are consistently given the impression, regardless of whether it is true, that unrestricted free market capitalism is a Thoroughly Good Thing, and that sensible and pragmatic British intellectuals have vouched for this position. The nuances are erased, reality is fudged, and The Economist helps its American readers pretend to have read books by telling them things that the books don’t actually say.

Now, you may think that Fallows’ example tells us very little. It was, after all, one small incident. He spoke to one man, who had gotten one wrong impression from one faulty Economist review. Perhaps we were dealing with an exceptional case. Presumably Fallows encountered this kind of thinking regularly, but perhaps he’s singling out the minor part of the magazine’s otherwise-stellar reportage and reviews.

Let me, then, add a data point of my own. Until last week, I had not read The Economist since high school, where debate nerds subscribed to it in order to quote it to each other and prove themselves informed and worldly. But a few days ago, I was trying to compile a list of news outlets that Current Affairs staff should regularly glance at, in order to make sure we are considering a broad and ecumenical set of perspectives on contemporary geopolitics. I remembered Current Affairs’ ostensible rivalry with The Economist, and thought it might be a good idea to at least read the damn thing if we’re going to be selling bumper stickers calling for its execution. I am nothing if not open-minded and fair.


What, then, did I find upon navigating over to The Economist’s website? The very first article on the page was a piece called “A selective scourge: Inside the opioid epidemic,” subtitled “Deaths from the drugs say more about markets than about white despair.” Its theme is classic Economist: the American opioid epidemic is not occurring because global capitalism is ruining lives, but is the tragic outcome of the operation of people’s individual preferences. A quote:

It has even been argued that the opioid epidemic and the Trump vote in 2016 are branches of the same tree. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, both economists at Princeton University, roll opioid deaths together with alcohol poisonings and suicides into a measure they call “deaths of despair”. White working-class folk feel particular anguish, they explain, having suffered wrenching economic and social change. As an explanation for the broad trend, that might be right. Looked at more closely, though, the terrifying rise in opioid deaths in the past few years seems to have less to do with white working-class despair and more to do with changing drug markets. Distinct criminal networks and local drug cultures largely explain why some parts of America are suffering more than others.

25 years after Fallows wrote his Economist takedown, not a single thing has changed. The 1991 Economist used the meaningless phrase “that being so” to dismiss an author’s entire argument and conclude that markets should be left alone. The 2017 Economist concedes that “as an explanation for the broad trend,” economic despair “might be right,” but that “looked at more closely,” drug deaths are not about despair. “Looked at more closely” functions here the same way that “that being so” did: it concedes the point, but then pretends it hasn’t. After all, if despair might be the correct “explanation for the broad trend,” what does it mean to say that “looked at more closely” the trend isn’t the result of despair at all? It’s either an explanation or it isn’t, and if it doesn’t hold when “looked at more closely,” then it wouldn’t be “right” as an explanation for the broad trend.

What happens when The Economist looks at opioid deaths “more closely” is simple obfuscation. The magazine shows that opioid use looks different in different parts of the United States, because the drugs themselves differ. For example, when it comes to heroin, “Addicts west of the Mississippi mostly use Mexican brown-powder or black-tar heroin, which is sticky and viscous, whereas eastern users favour Colombian white-powder heroin.” Note the subtle invocation of “free choice” language: heroin users in the Eastern United States “favour” Colombian heroin. It’s not just that this happens to be the available form of the drug; it’s also that they have a kind of rational preference for a particular form of heroin. Every subtle rhetorical step is toward exonerating capitalism for people’s suffering, and blaming the people and their own foolish choices within a free and fair marketplace.

The Economist’s article on the opioid epidemic offers some legitimately interesting observations about regional variation in types of drug use. Increases in deaths have been concentrated more heavily in places where drugs are available in easier-to-ingest forms. The trouble is that The Economist argues that this implies the idea in the article’s subtitle, that deaths from drugs “say more about markets than white despair.” That’s just a conclusion that doesn’t follow from the provided evidence. The magazine’s own charts show that drug use of all kinds has been rising, meaning that the differences between usage types can’t account for the broad trend. The drug type differences can tell us why different places may experience differing levels of rises in opiate deaths, but they can’t tell us why so many people are now drugging themselves who weren’t before. And we can’t answer that question without considering economic class; opiate addiction has disproportionately risen among poor white people, meaning we have to find a way to understand what specific race- and poverty-correlated factors are causing the change.

The Economist is not, therefore, an honest examiner of the facts. It is constantly at pains not to risk conclusions that may hurt the case for unregulated markets. This tendency reached its absurd apotheosis in the magazine’s infamous 2014 review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The magazine objected to Baptist’s brutal depiction of the slave trade, saying the book did not qualify as “an objective history of slavery” because “almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” When outraged readers pointed out that this is because, well, the victims of slavery tended to be black, The Economist retracted the review. But as Baptist observed in response, there was a reason why the magazine felt the need to mitigate the evils of slavery. Baptist’s book portrayed slavery as an integral part of the history of capitalism. As he wrote: “If slavery was profitable—and it was—then it creates an unforgiving paradox for the moral authority of markets—and market fundamentalists. What else, today, might be immoral and yet profitable?” The implications of Baptist’s work would have unsettling implications for The Economist. They would damn the foundations of the very Western free enterprise system that the magazine is devoted to championing. Thus The Economist needed to find a way to soften its verdict on slavery. (It was not the first time they had done so, either. In a tepid review of Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity with the hilariously offensive title of “Slavery: Not Black or White,” the magazine lamented that “the horrors in Mr Grandin’s history are unrelenting.” And the magazine’ long tradition of defending misery stretches back to the 19th century, when it blamed the Irish potato famine on irresponsible decisions made by destitute peasants.)

Why, then, have a “Death to The Economist” bumper sticker? Because The Economist would justify any horror perpetrated in the name of the market and Western Enlightenment values, even to the extent of rationalizing the original great and brutal crime on which our prosperity was founded. Its tone, as Fallows observed, is one “so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact.” And the problem with that is not that The Economist is cocksure (I of all people should have no objection to cocksureness in periodicals), but that it doesn’t wish to be freighted with inconvenient truths. The fact that The Economist has a clear set of ideological commitments means that it will pull the wool over its readers’ eyes in the service of those commitments, which saps it of intellectual worth. It will lie to you about the contents of a book by waving them away with a “that being so.” Or it will reassure you that capitalism has nothing to do with opiate deaths, by asserting without evidence that when “looked at more closely,” drug addiction is “less” about despair. It will fudge, fumble, and fool you in any way it can, if it means keeping markets respectable. And it will play on your insecurity as a resident of a former British colony to convince you that all intelligent people believe that the human misery created in “economically free” societies is necessary and just. It will give intellectual cover to barbarous crimes, and its authors won’t even have the guts to sign their names to their work. Instead, they will pretend to be the disembodied voice of God, whispering in your ear that you’ll never impress England until you fully deregulate capitalism.

So, then: Death to slavery. Death to injustice. Death to The Economist.

In Defense of Liking Things

The fidget spinner probably doesn’t tell us much about civilization’s decline, and it’s okay to enjoy it….

Nobody can reasonably accuse me of liking too many things. I am a veteran practitioner of the “Actually, This Thing You Thought Was Good Is Not Very Good At All” school of writing. I am promiscuous in my hatreds, grievances, and peeves, and I know well the pleasures of announcing that whatever my least favorite recent cultural development is spells ruin for the civilized order.

But it’s possible to take one’s disagreeableness to excess. There is always the risk of becoming that most unwelcome of characters, the curmudgeon. At its best, written criticism can usefully point out social problems in ways that help clarify people’s thinking. At its worst, it can be stuffy and joyless, a philosophy of “miserablism.” If you’re not careful, you can turn into P.J. O’Rourke, Joe Queenan, or even, *shudder*, Andy Rooney. The infamous “Whig View Of History” is the idea that things follow an inevitable trajectory towards progress, enlightenment, and decency. The curmudgeon’s view of history is that everything is just getting worse all the time, that all of the things people like suck, and that they suck harder than anything has ever sucked in the history of things sucking.

The “fidget spinner” is a little plastic toy that has become popular recently among large numbers of children and modest numbers of adults. You twiddle it in your fingers and it goes round and round. You can do nifty tricks with it. It seems like fun. It’s even alleged to be good for kids with ADHD, because it gives them something to do with their hands.

Critics from The Atlantic and The New Yorker, however, have declared that the fidget spinner captures everything that is wrong with our century. Far from being an innocuous and amusing cheap little rotating thingamajig, the fidget spinner is, according to The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead, an embodiment of Trump-era values. It is a sign of a narcissistic and distracted culture, captivated by trifles, ignorant of its own decline, and oblivious to all that is sacred, intelligent, and morally serious. We are fidgeting while Rome burns.

Mead’s indictment of the fidget spinner is worth quoting at some length, in order that we may appreciate it in its full fustiness:

Fidget spinners… are masquerading as a helpful contribution to the common weal, while actually they are leading to whole new levels of stupid. Will it be dismissed as an overreaction—as “pearl-clutching,” as the kids on the Internet like to say—to discern, in the contemporary popularity of the fidget spinner, evidence of cultural decline? …. Perhaps, and yet the rise of the fidget spinner at this political moment cries out for interpretation. The fidget spinner, it could be argued, is the perfect toy for the age of Trump. Unlike the Tamagotchi, it does not encourage its owner to take anyone else’s feelings or needs into account. Rather, it enables and even encourages the setting of one’s own interests above everyone else’s. It induces solipsism, selfishness, and outright rudeness. It does not, as the Rubik’s Cube does, reward higher-level intellection. Rather, it encourages the abdication of thought, and promotes a proliferation of mindlessness, and it does so at a historical moment when the President has proved himself to be pathologically prone to distraction and incapable of formulating a coherent idea… Is it any surprise that, given the topsy-turvy world in which we now live, spinning one’s wheels… has been recast as a diverting recreation, and embraced by a mass audience? Last week, as the House voted to overturn the Affordable Care Act, millions of parents of children with special needs… began to worry, once again, about their children becoming uninsured, or uninsurable, an outcome the President had promised on the campaign trail would not occur. This week, after summarily firing James Comey…. [Donald Trump] issued a baffling series of contradictory explanations for what looks increasingly like the unapologetic gesture of a would-be despot. Each day, it becomes more apparent that Trump is toying with our democracy, shamelessly betting that the public will be too distracted and too stupefied to register that what he is spinning are lies.

There are at least eight things that I love about this passage. First, it adopts the full New Yorker hierarchy of values: from elevating that thing called the “common weal” as the highest good, to “outright rudeness” being the basest of transgressions. Second, the idea that the fidget spinner is somehow “masquerading” as contributing to the common weal, as if fidget spinners come in packaging that promises a morally edifying and intellectually nourishing experience. Third, the idea that the fidget spinner’s rise “cries out for interpretation.” (Does it really?) Fourth, I love rhetorical questions where the obvious answer is the opposite to the one the author wishes us to offer. (“Will it be dismissed as an overreaction…?” Yes.) Fifth, the idea that unlike the selfish fidget-spinner, the noble and pro-social Tamagotchi encourages us to care about the feelings of others. Sixth, the hilariously overstated and totally unsubstantiated claims (spinning a fidget spinner is an act of “solipsism” that causes us to “abdicate thought” and put our interests above everybody else’s). Seventh, the tribute to the great and deep “intellection” of the Rubik’s Cube. Eighth, the tortuous and contrived Trump parallel, in which the fidget spinner now tells us something about James Comey and the Affordable Care Act.


But Mead is not alone in denouncing the spinner’s effect on human values. Ian Bogost of The Atlantic analyzes the economic dimensions of the toy, seeing it as the logical conclusion of a capitalistic logic that wishes to pacify us with doodads and trinkets to keep us blind to our own exploitation and ennui:

[Fidgets spinners] are a perfect material metaphor for everyday life in early 2017… [They are] a rich, dense fossil of the immediate present… In an uncertain global environment biting its nails over new threats of economic precarity, global autocracy, nuclear war, planetary death, and all the rest, the fidget spinner offers the relief of a non-serious, content-free topic… At a time when so many feel so threatened, aren’t handheld, low-friction tops the very thing we fight for?… Then commerce validates the spinner’s cultural status. For no cultural or social trend is valid without someone becoming wealthy, and someone else losing out. And soon enough, the fidget spinner will stand aside, its moment having been strip-mined for all its spoils at once. The only dream dreamed more often than the dream of individual knowledge and power is the dream of easy, immediate wealth, which now amounts to the same thing.

Now, I haven’t played with a fidget spinner. I’ve never even seen one. My understanding is that their prime audience is the 12-and-under set, and I am friends with very few middle schoolers these days. But I will admit that from my limited experience watching videos of the things on YouTube, I did not begin to suspect that the fidget spinners displayed “the dream of individual knowledge and power.” Nor did I notice the parallels between the twirling of the spinner and the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency. Perhaps this shows the limits of my analytical capacities, or perhaps I am blinded by the pervasiveness of the American ideology of individualism. I’ll confess, though, my basic reaction so far is that the toys look nifty and the tricks you can do with them are pretty cool.

And I’d like to think that it’s okay to feel this way. Not everything that exists in the time of Donald Trump has to be a metaphor for Donald Trump, and not every silly trinket produced by capitalism is evidence of our decline in intellectual vigor. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. (Although in Freud’s case, the cigar was a penis.) Cultural critics often display an unfortunate tendency toward “Zeitgeistism,” the borderline-paranoid belief that there are Zeitgeists everywhere, massive social and historical essences to be found in all kinds of everyday practices and objects.

One problem is that the kind of theorizing done by Bogost and Mead amounts to the telling of “just so stories,” unfalsifiable narratives that merely confirm the theorist’s already-existing worldview. That means that anyone can tell whatever story they like about the fidget spinner. You could call it evidence of solipsism, because it causes humans to interact with the spinners rather than one another. But then I could offer a different story: the fidget spinner is evidence of social dynamism and of an increasingly tactile, physical, and body-conscious world. Which one of us is right? Neither. It’s all B.S.

Any critic who wishes to offer the fidget spinner as evidence of some wider destructive social tendency faces another problem: it’s not really any more pointless or individualistic than the yo-yo, and we’ve gotten along with those for about 2500 years. If you want to see fidget spinner as uniquely representative of Trumpism and so-called “late capitalism,” you have to find a way to argue that it is fundamentally different from a yo-yo in some philosophically significant way. And since it isn’t, and since if the fidget spinner shows civilizational decline then every dumb toy in history would necessarily have to prove the same thing, every cultural critic who tries to posit a Fidget Spinner Theory of Everything ends up somewhat stuck.


You can see this amusing dead-end whenever Bogost and Mead attempt to explain why the spinner is nothing like the generations of faddish knicknacks that came before it. (I’d imagine there were similar pieces in 2009 about how Silly Bandz explained the Obama era, or 1990’s thinkpieces on what Beanie Babies could tell us about the Clinton economy.) Mead is at pains to come up with reasons why Rubik’s Cubes and Tamagotchis are serious and worthwhile, while fidget spinners are decadent and stupid. Bogost, meanwhile, makes a hilariously convoluted attempt to meaningfully distinguish the fidget spinner from an ordinary spinning top:

A top is a toy requiring collaboration with the material world. It requires a substrate on which to spin, be it the hard earth of ancient Iraq or the molded-plastic IKEA table in a modern flat. As a toy, the top grounds physics, like a lightning rod grounds electricity. And in this collaboration, the material world always wins. Eventually, the top falls, succumbing to gravity, laying prone on the dirt… Not so, the fidget spinner. It is a toy for the hand alone—for the individual. Ours is not an era characterized by collaboration between humans and earth—or Earth, for that matter. Whether through libertarian self-reliance or autarchic writ, human effort is first seen as individual effort—especially in the West. Bootstraps-thinking pervades the upper echelons of contemporary American life, from Silicon Valley to the White House. … The fidget spinner quietly attests that the solitary, individual body who spins it is sufficient to hold a universe. That’s not a counterpoint to the ideology of the smartphone, but an affirmation of that device’s worldview. What is real, and good, and interesting is what can be contained and manipulated in the hand, directly.

Since they had spinning tops in the 35th century B.C., for Bogost to confirm his belief that fidget spinners must embody “bootstraps thinking” and “the ideology of the smartphone,” he knows he has to find some important difference. “Ah, well, you see, the top touches the ground but the fidget spinner goes in the hand, and individuals have hands, therefore the fidget spinner is individualistic and libertarian while the spinning top is humble, worldly, and environmentalist.” (Of course, Bogost is still powerless to deal with the yo-yo question. These both go in the hand and don’t touch the ground. What about the yo-yo, eh, Bogost?)

I’m particularly irritated by this kind of cultural criticism because it embodies one of the most unfortunate tendencies in left-ish political thinking: the need to spoil everybody’s fun by finding some kind of problem with everything. There is enough serious human misery in the world for the left to point out; there’s no need to problematize the fidget spinner as well. Whenever I see something like, say, Jacobin’s critique of Pokemon Go as being the “bourgeois” embodiment of an obedience-worshiping “technology of biopolitics,” I can’t help but think: “Do we really have to be these people? Because this isn’t the side I want to be on.” We’re allowed to like things. Even stupid things. And you don’t have to rain on every single parade that passes by. Rule #1 for creating a left that people will want to join: don’t be a humorless joykill who tells people that their stress toy makes them Donald Trump. 


I might feel more sympathetic if criticisms like Bogost and Mead’s were intellectually rigorous or substantially true. But they aren’t. They don’t hold up to the most minimal logical scrutiny, because they fail to carefully answer the question of why we should consider the fidget spinner unique next to every other dumb little thing in history. They make ridiculous overstatements, and then don’t explain why we should accept their just-so stories rather than another, equally contrived but opposing, set of just-so stories.

The reason that the fidget spinner is popular is not that it embodies our society’s most depraved and fatuous tendencies, or that it signifies the erosion of our attention spans in the era of Trump. It’s popular because it’s a legitimately impressive little novelty device. Like all novelties, it will wear off. And there will be as much political significance to its disappearance as there was to its appearance: hardly any.

Fun is important, and sometimes people have fun by playing tiddlywinks or spinning a top or finding one of the myriad of other trivial diversions that keep us from having to face the full horror of our mortal existence. And people on the left shouldn’t spend their time coming up with implausible theories for why everyone is delusional and stupid for enjoying playing with spinny-things. They should be trying to understand the roots of human suffering, and proposing ways to alleviate it.

Anything else is just a distraction.

Imagining The End

The left should embrace both pragmatism and utopianism…

There’s a quote frequently used by leftists to illustrate how deeply ingrained society’s prevailing economic ideology is: “today, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” First offered by Fredric Jameson, and now almost starting to lose meaning from overuse, the quote points out something that honestly is quite astonishing: it does seem far easier to conceive of the possibility of being boiled alive or sinking into the sea than the possibility of living under a substantially different economic system. World-ending disaster seems not just closer than utopia, but closer than even a modest set of changes to the way human resources are distributed.

Jameson’s quote is often used to show how capitalism has limited the horizons of our imagination. We don’t think of civilization as indestructible, but we do seem to think of the free market as indestructible. This, it is sometimes said, is the result of neoliberalism: as both traditionally left-wing and traditionally right-wing parties in Western countries developed a consensus that markets were the only way forward (“there is no alternative”), more and more people came to hold narrower and narrower views of the possibilities for human society. Being on the right meant “believing in free markets and some kind of nationalism or social conservatism” while being liberal meant “believing in free markets but being progressive on issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation.” Questions like “how do we develop a feasible alternative to capitalism?” were off the table; the only reasonable question about political intervention in the economy became: “should we regulate markets a little bit, or not at all?”

There’s definitely something to this critique. It’s true that, where once people dreamed of replacing capitalism with something better, today human societies seem to face a choice between apocalypse, capitalism, and capitalism followed shortly by apocalypse. Every attempt to speak of a different kind of economy, however appealing it may be emotionally, seems vague and distant, and impossible to know how to actually bring about. Plenty of young people today are socialists, but socialism seems a lot more like a word than an actual thing that could happen.

Some of this is the result of a very successful multi-decade campaign by the right to present free-market orthodoxy as some kind of objective truth rather than a heavily value-laden and political set of contestable ideas. And the Jameson quote also partly succeeds through a kind of misleading pseudo-profundity: it’s always going to be easier to imagine visceral physical things like explosions than changes in economic structures, and so the relative ease of imagining the former versus the latter may not be the especially deep comment on 21st century ideological frameworks that the quotation assumes.

But if socialism seems more remote than ever, it’s also surely partly the fault of socialists themselves. If we ask the question “Why is it difficult to imagine the end of capitalism?”, some of the answer must be “Because socialists haven’t offered a realistic alternative or any kind of plausible path toward such an alternative.” It’s very easy to blame “neoliberal” ideology for convincing people that free-market dogmas are cosmic truths. Yet while Margaret Thatcher may have propagandized and evangelized for the principle that less government is always better government, she didn’t actually prevent people on the left from using their imaginations. If our imaginations have been stunted, it may also be because we have failed to use them to their maximal capacity, falling back on abstractions and rhetoric rather than developing clear and pragmatic pictures for what a functional left-wing world might look like.


I blame Karl Marx for that, somewhat. Marx helped kill “utopian socialism” (my favorite kind of socialism). The utopian socialists used to actually dream of the kind of worlds they would create, conjuring elaborate and delightfully vivid visions of how a better and more humane world might actually operate. Some of these veered into the absurd (Charles Fourier believed the seas would turn to lemonade), but all of them encouraged people to actually think in serious detail about how human beings live now, and what it would be like if they lived differently. Marx, on the other hand, felt that this was a kind of foolishly romantic, anti-scientific waste of time. The task of the socialist was to discern the inexorable historical laws governing human social development, and then to hasten the advance of a revolution. According to Marx, it was pointless trying to spend time drawing up “recipes for the cook-shops of the future”; instead, left-wing thinkers should do as Marx believed he was doing, and confine themselves “to the mere critical analysis of actual facts.”

But analysis doesn’t actually create proposals, and it was because Marx believed that that things could sort themselves out “dialectically” that he didn’t think it was necessary to explain how communism might actually function day-to-day. Ironically, given Marx’s dictum that philosophers should attempt to change the world rather than merely interpreting it, Marx and his followers spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out social theories that would properly interpret the world, and precious little time trying to figure out what changes might actually improve people’s lives versus which changes might lead to disaster. (Call me crazy, but I believe this tendency to shun the actual development of policy might have been one reason why nearly every single government that has ever called itself Marxist has very quickly turned into a horror show.)

The left-wing tendency to avoid offering clear proposals for how left ideas might be successfully implemented (without gulags) is not confined to revolutionary communism. The same affliction plagued the Occupy Wall Street movement; a belief in democracy and a hatred of inequality, but a stalwart refusal to try to come up with a feasible route from A-B, where A is our present state of viciously unequal neofeudalism and B is something that might be slightly more bearable and fair. By refusing to issue demands, or consider what sorts of political, economic, and social adjustments would actually be necessary to actualize Occupy’s set of values, the movement doomed itself. The direct precipitating cause of its fizzling was Occupy’s eviction from Zuccotti Park by the NYPD. But it’s hard to think how a movement that isn’t actually proposing or fighting for anything clear and specific could ever actually get that thing. (Occupy’s “no demands” proponents would have done well to listen to Frederick Douglass, who declared that “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”)

There’s a bit of the same lack of programmatic strategy in the popular leftist disdain for “wonks” and “technocrats.” Nobody finds D.C. data nerds more irritating than I do, but these two terms have become casual pejoratives that can seemingly be applied to anyone who has an interest in policy details. Certainly, it’s important to heap scorn upon the set of “technocratic” Beltway-types who value policy for its own sake, and allow political process to become an end in itself, drained of any substantive moral values or concern with making people’s lives better. But in our perfectly justified hatred for a certain species of wonk, it’s important not to end up dismissing the value of caring about pragmatism and detail.

In fact, I almost feel as if the term “pragmatism” has been unfairly monopolized by centrists, with the unfortunate complicity of many people on the left. “Pragmatism” has come to mean “being a moderate.” But that’s not what the term should mean. Being pragmatic should simply mean “caring about the practical realities of how to implement things.” People like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair helped redefine “liberal pragmatism” to mean “adopting conservative policies as a shortcut to winning power easily.” But being pragmatic doesn’t mean having to sacrifice your idealism. It doesn’t mean tinkering at the margins rather than proposing grand changes. It just means having a plan for how to get things done.

Thus leftism should simultaneously become more pragmatic and more utopian. At its best, utopianism is pragmatic, because it is producing blueprints, and without blueprints, you’ll have trouble building anything. Yes, these days it’s hard to imagine a plausible socialist world. But that’s only partly because so many people insist socialism is impossible. It’s also because socialists aren’t actually doing much imagining. William Morris and the 19th century utopians painted vivid portraits of what a world that embodied their values might look like. Today’s socialists tell us what they deplore (inequality and exploitation), but they’re short on clear plans. But plans are what we need. Serious ones. Detailed ones. Not “technocratic,” necessarily, but certainly technical. It’s time to actually start imagining what something new might really look like.

I’m Not Sure It’s An Attack On Democracy

James Comey should have been fired. But Trump just committed a serious blunder.

The first point to make here is that firing FBI director James Comey was completely justified. Trump-appointed Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein laid out an extremely persuasive case in his memorandum on “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI.” Rosenstein said that in the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, James Comey seriously overstepped the boundaries of his role. Comey’s role was far too public, and in both his decision to issue his own public recommendation on whether Clinton should be prosecuted, and his gratuitous commentary on the investigation (a judicious silence is the preferred stance), Comey turned the email investigation into a spectacle. Rosenstein is witheringly critical of Comey’s infamous press conference, in which Comey chastised Clinton for her irresponsibility:

The Director ignored [a] longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.

Rosenstein’s memo should please Hillary Clinton’s supporters. He quotes from bipartisan legal authorities, and confirms what many Democrats have been insisting loudly since October: that James Comey’s actions were improper. Thus Democrats, many of whom believe Comey’s transgressions cost them the election, should agree that firing Comey was completely warranted and necessary, and that the Trump administration’s stated grounds for doing so were correct. If Hillary Clinton had done it, most of them would have cheered, and strongly defended the decision.

But Democrats aren’t cheering the firing of James Comey, because nobody actually believes that Donald Trump fired Comey for mishandling the Clinton email investigation. After all, since many people believe that Comey’s actions gave Trump the election, Trump should adore Comey. For Trump to have fired Comey for the reasons he said he did, Trump would have to have a high-minded and principled devotion to fairness and propriety. And since nobody can think of a single time when Donald Trump has taken an action for reasons of high-mindedness and principle, there is a near universal belief that Trump’s citation of the Clinton investigation as his reason for firing Comey is a flimsy pretext.

Instead, Trump is more likely to have fired Comey over the FBI’s ongoing investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Politico reports that in recent days, Trump had been furiously yelling at his television whenever the Russia story came up, and may have been exasperated with Comey over Comey’s public confirmation of the existence of an investigation.

Because of that, the firing is being viewed as outrageous, possibly even a “constitutional crisis.” Trump is being compared to strongman rulers who try to eradicate all checks on their power; he is possibly even a “ruthless despot.” The Guardian reports a consensus among observers that Trump’s decision has “taken US democracy into dark and dangerous new territory.” The New Yorker’s John Cassidy calls Comey’s firing “an attack on American democracy,” and says that the incident confirms worries about Trump’s attitudes towards “democratic norms, the Constitution, and the rule of law.”

A lot of highly-charged criticisms are being leveled at Trump, and it might be good to sort them out. Is this an attack on the Constitution, democracy, and the rule of law? Is Trump becoming a dictator? Is this a usurpation or abuse of power? Well, first, we should consider what the terms involved actually imply. Terms like “democracy” and “rule of law” are often bandied carelessly about without regard to the distinctions between them. (People even use the words “democracy” and “Constitution” interchangeably sometimes, which obscures how obscenely undemocratic the Constitution actually is.) I hate to sound like a civics teacher, but let’s just be clear: the Constitution is a particular set of rules and procedures for the government, democracy is popular control of government institutions, and the rule of law is the principle that laws should be applied according to certain defined standards (consistency being foremost). So: (1) Trump violates the Constitution if he defies the rules and procedures that are specified in it (2) Trump erodes or destroys democracy to the extent that he removes government from popular control and (3) Trump contravenes the “rule of law” when he tries to keep laws that apply to other people from applying to himself, his family, and his cronies.

I swear this is not just semantics or pedantry (though I know the people who swear this the most insistently are the ones most likely to be semanticists or pedants). It has some important implications. In firing Comey, Trump has not attacked “democracy” or “the Constitution.” Under the Constitution, the president oversees the executive branch, and it is his prerogative to decide whether the FBI director is doing his job well. An argument that this decision shouldn’t be up to Trump is an argument that this decision should rest with someone other than the president. But constitutionally speaking, it’s up to the president, and Trump hasn’t ripped up the Constitution.

The suggestion that Trump has undermined “democracy” requires an even greater distortion. In fact, it’s far more undemocratic to believe that the FBI director should be independent. As it stands, the (unelected) FBI director is held accountable by the (elected) president. If the people don’t like what the president does with his FBI director, well, that’s why there’s a 2020 election. But insulating parts of the executive branch to operate on their own is not “democracy.” It may be a reduction of presidential power, which we might want, but it’s also an increase in a less accountable bureaucratic power, one made even more terrifying when it’s handed to law enforcement. The ultimate model of the “independent” FBI head is J. Edgar Hoover, who operated for decades as the controller of his own “government within a government.” This is important, because Democrats who loathe Trump may be increasingly tempted to want “independent” parts of the executive branch to put checks on his power. But that can amount to empowering the “deep state,” those parts of the government that aren’t subject to popular control at elections. And wishing that the FBI and CIA had more control over Trump may amount to wishing that a secretive unelected part of our government can wield power over the democratic part. Like or loathe Trump, at least the American people got to decide whether he would be president.


But what about the “rule of law”? Here’s where Trump’s firing of Comey actually is alarming. Trump may not have violated the Constitution, and he may have exercised the power democratically handed to him by the voters. However, in trying to squelch an investigation into his own possible lawbreaking, Trump has undermined the idea that laws should apply equally to all. Having a two-tiered justice system, in which the powerful can simply wish away any attempts to hold them to the same standards as everybody else, creates a dangerously unequal society and can slowly lead to tyranny. Trump may not have broken any laws in firing Comey. But the “rule of law” is different than just “the application of all the laws that exist.” It is a principle for how laws ought to be. A state can have laws without having the “rule of law.” (The law might be “all justice shall be arbitrary,” for example. And while in that case we’d have law, we would have a grossly inconsistent law that doesn’t approach “rule of law” standards.) When Trump tries to limit the enforcement of laws against himself, he undermines that standard.

At the same time, this doesn’t make Trump a “dictator.” And if people are convinced that Trump has become a “dictator” or an “autocrat,” they may actually fail to see that firing Comey was a foolish blunder on Trump’s part, rather than a successful seizure of power. In trying to get rid of the Russia investigation, Trump has drawn far more attention to it and made himself look guilty, and now he might face bipartisan calls for an independent special prosecutor.

It’s actually kind of funny that nobody in the administration was able to convince Trump not to do it. Any sensible adviser would have pleaded with him: “Mr. Trump, I know you’re angry with Comey, but you can not fire him. I know you want the Russia story to go away, but this will instantly make it ten times worse, because it will look as if you are trying to hide something.”

This is exactly what happened. Hardly anybody believes the “Clinton email” justification, which would require us to think Trump felt Comey was unfair to Clinton. Instead, they think he is trying to cover something up. As John Cassidy writes:

Until the White House comes up with a less ludicrous rationalization for its actions, we can only assume that Trump fired Comey because the Russia investigation is closing in on him and his associates, and he knew that he didn’t have much sway over the F.B.I. director. That is the simplest theory that fits the facts.

Importantly, this is not the “simplest theory that fits the facts.” It is one of two competing simple theories. The other theory is that Trump fired Comey because he feels about the Russia investigation the same way that Clinton felt about her email investigation: that it’s a bunch of overblown nonsense, and that Comey is helping keep a B.S. non-scandal afloat through his irresponsible overzealousness. In fact, from Politico’s account, this is what Trump himself seems to have conveyed within the White House.

So it could be, as Cassidy says, that Trump knows Comey was closing in on some devastating truth. But it could also be that there isn’t any devastating truth, and that Trump simply became frustrated that Comey seemed to be getting too big for his britches, assuming an outsized amount of power relative to the president. In fact, one can easily imagine Trump eating nachos while watching Fox News, bellowing “Why is Comey on television again? I’m the one who’s president!”

Cassidy is right that “Trump is scared because the investigation is getting closer to the truth” is the most logical explanation if we assume that Trump is a rational actor instead of a petty, tantrum-throwing child. But it could be that Trump wasn’t so much “scared” of the Russia investigation as infuriated by its persistence. Now, though, because he couldn’t calm his temper enough to let Comey do his job and conclude the investigation, Trump is going to face an investigation that drags on even longer. And if it does turn out that there’s nothing to the story, this will be a hilarious display of incompetence. In firing Comey to get rid of the Russia investigation because he thinks it’s a non-story, Trump may have made it a far more important story and caused Republicans to think of it as something legitimately suspicious rather than just sour grapes from Democrats.


As people have pointed out, the closest parallel to the Comey incident is Richard Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre, in which Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor assigned to investigate Watergate. But people are using this to show that Trump, like Nixon, tried to escape the scrutiny of ordinary law enforcement. Trump, they say, is showing Nixonian autocratic tendencies.

But people should also remember what happened after the Saturday Night Massacre. Needless to say, things did not actually end very well for Richard Nixon. Nixon’s firing of the special prosecutor led to a massive increase in public support for Nixon’s impeachment; a week after the “massacre,” for the first time, a plurality of Americans believed Nixon should be removed from office. The firings were a blunder, born of the president’s delusion that he could do anything.

That may well be what we have here. It’s not an attack on democracy, it’s not the shredding of the Constitution. It’s a legal, but stupid and disastrous, attempt at self-aggrandizement. Trump hasn’t managed to make himself a dictator. Instead, he’s just made people think he’d like to be one, and has made the same mistake that ultimately brought down Richard Nixon. Nixon believed that because he was president, he could act as pleased without regard to political or legal consequences. This was not the case. Donald Trump may well learn a similar lesson. 

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.

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.

Compassion and Politics

We should probably try to be humane and care about people…

For a brief moment earlier this month, it seemed as if McDonald’s had gone political. From nowhere, the company’s Twitter account began attacking the President of the United States, calling Donald Trump a “disgusting excuse of [sic] a president” and taunting him over the size of his hands. It was an abrupt shift in tone from a social media account better known for conducting meaningless polls about hamburgers and engaging in clumsy attempts to keep up with the hashtag generation (e.g. “When bae is a Big Mac #relationshipgoals”).

Of course, the account had been broken into; anyone who thought American corporations would be capable of showing some moral and political backbone against Trump must have forgotten how the country’s liberal-leaning tech CEOs turned from opposition to instantaneous capitulation and groveling immediately after Trump’s election. But the momentary flicker of controversy over the McDonald’s tweet did provide one small insight into a certain prevailing political tendency. For, immediately upon hearing of the incident, Business Insider editor (and Democrat) Josh Barro decided to remark as follows:

“This is a real brand misstep for McDonald’s. Fat slobs with bad taste are a core Trump demographic.”

It was a nasty and elitist remark. (It was also wrong. As Guardian journalist Chris Arnade has documented, far from being for “fat slobs,” McDonald’s are often vibrant gathering-spots in working-class communities.) Josh Barro has always been a proud elitist, though. He believed the election of Trump proved it was better to let elites control political decision-making than to let the “masses” pick and has quite seriously declared that “elites are usually elite for good reason, and tend to have better judgment than the average person.”

A small amusing fact here is that Barro is “elite for good reason.” That good reason is that his father, Robert J. Barro, is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard University, a Harvard alumnus well-connected in the world of think tanks and financial journalism. Little surprise then, that Joshua Barro grew up to be… a Harvard alumnus who has worked almost exclusively in the world of think tanks and financial journalism. Elites are indeed elite for good reason, but it has precious little to do with the consequences of individual striving or merit.

In itself, though, an attack on McDonald’s-goers by one Business Insider editor would be of little interest. Business Insider is, after all, a rag, and Barro’s opinions are of no material consequence to humankind. But the attack exemplified a notable recent trend in the discourse of prominent wealthy Democrats: the heaping of limitless contempt upon poor people. Instead of heeding suggestions that greater amounts of empathy for working-class Trump constituencies might make Democrats less likely to lose these people’s votes, lately some liberals have doubled down. As Clio Chang pointed out recently in Jacobin, figures including Paul Krugman (“I try to be charitable, but when you read about Trump voters now worried about losing Obamacare it’s kind of hard”) and Markos Moulitsas (“Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance; they’re getting exactly what they voted for”) have reacted to stories about hardships and deprivation in Trump-leaning communities with unqualified disdain. Ex-New York Times theater critic Frank Rich recently declared he had “no sympathy for the hillbilly,” and suggested that:

“Liberals looking for a way to empathize with conservatives should endorse the core conservative belief in the importance of personal responsibility. Let Trump’s white working-class base take responsibility for its own votes — or in some cases failure to vote — and live with the election’s consequences… Let them reap the consequences for voting against their own interests.”

This kind of thinking isn’t limited to media commentators. It seems to be a strand in liberal thinking more broadly. Matthew Stoller collected a series of Huffington Post comments on an article about poor whites dying from ill-health and opiate addiction:

  • “Sorry, not sorry. These people are not worthy of any sympathy. They have run around for decades bitching about poor minorities not “working hard enough,” or that their situation is “their own fault.” Well guess what? It’s not so great when it’s you now, is it? Bunch of deplorables, and if they die quicker than the rest of us that just means the country will be better off in the long run.”
  • “Karma is a bitch and if these people choose to continue to vote Republican and try to deny other [sic] from attaining the American dream, they deserve no better than what they are getting!”
  • “I for one have little sympathy for these despairing whites. If they can’t compete against people of color when everything has been rigged in their favor, then there’s really no help for them. Trump and his G(r)OPers will do little to elevate their lot. If anything, these poor whites will be hired to dig grave pits and assemble their own coffins.”

The odd thing about all of this is that, just as Rich says, this is the conservative way of thinking about people experiencing deprivation. Rich is a wealthy man telling poor people that their problems are their own fault and they should exercise some personal responsibility. This does not sound like the rhetoric of liberals, who until recently were supposed to be the hippie bleeding-hearts and the boosters of failed but well-meaning Great Society entitlement programs. Now they’re telling the working class that they should either hoist themselves up by their bootstraps or, better yet, die and make the world a better place.

Something seems to have happened here. And to see what it is, we might do well to return to the example of Business Insider’s Josh Barro. For while Barro is currently a Democrat, he wasn’t always. In fact, after many years in the Republican Party, he only made the switch last year. Someone, then, whose publicly-stated view is that the country should be run by its enlightened oligarchs and the children of its Harvard economics professors, thinks the Democratic Party is a more congenial home for his politics than the Republican Party.

That clearly shouldn’t be the case. The Democratic Party, if it is adequately representing its fundamental democratic principles, should be a party that someone like Josh Barro would never want to join. The fact that he does want to join it should be serious cause for concern among the Democratic leadership. If the Democratic Party is actually on the left, then nobody who holds the views that Barro does (that the “masses” are incapable of judging for themselves and must be ruled by “elites”) would ever voluntarily join it. In fact, we can design a kind of useful metric—a Barrometer, if you will—for determining whether your political party is adequately representing working people’s interests. It’s quite simple: if Josh Barro is in your party, then your party is failing to represent working people’s interests. Having Barro turn up in your political camp is like when Zuckerburg turns up to Burning Man: it means the party’s over.

Now, there are multiple possibilities here. It may be that the Democratic Party actually represents wealthy snobs who think McDonald’s is for fat idiots and think miners with black lung deserve their fate for Voting Against Their Interests. Or it may be that the party simply doesn’t threaten the political interests of those wealthy snobs. But either way, it’s clear that the contemporary Democratic Party isn’t going to be making much of an attempt to redistribute power or wealth downward.


An important dimension of this is captured by National Review’s Kevin Williamson. Williamson is an uncommonly good writer and morally hideous human being who attained some notoriety when he decided that poor white communities “deserved to die” for failing to contribute anything to the global economy. He offers a standard right-wing take on poverty and deprivation: if your life sucks, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself. Capitalism, for Williamson, is a bringer of endless bounties, and the idea that it has “victims” is preposterous. (It is strange that such enthusiastic promoters of unregulated markets love to talk about the wondrous economic processes by which pencils are made but have less to say about workers getting brutally maimed in auto parts assembly plants.)

But Williamson notes something puzzling: lately, a number of Democrats seem to agree with his view that poverty is a function of poor decision-making:

“Today’s Democrats talk about the Republican-leaning parts of the United States as though they were particularly unsympathetic Third World countries, populated by people who not only lost life’s lottery but deserved it.”

Williamson says that the Democrats are now the party of the “respectable upper middle-class”; they’re the party of life’s winners, and Republicans are becoming the party of the losers: after all, most of our country’s most visible billionaires supported Clinton (Gates, Buffett, Bloomberg, Cuban, Zuckerburg, etc.), whereas the collapsing epicenters of the country’s opiate epidemic are the heart of Trump Country.

Williamson’s economic winners-and-losers framework is wrong in some important ways. (For one thing, it only works if you look solely at white people.) But he’s right to detect a distinctly snobbish and bourgeois sensibility in contemporary Democratic politics. Yesterday’s Rockefeller Republican is today’s Clinton Democrats, and Rockefeller Republicans were fundamentally aristocratic in their inclinations.

Perhaps this explains why, as Bernie Sanders has noted, it’s hard to figure out what the Democratic Party actually stands for these days. After all, what common political interests are shared by both black communities in Detroit and Warren Buffett? (Though we do know that Buffett has a longstanding passion for offering black people exorbitant mobile home loans.) What unites a Hispanic domestic worker in Los Angeles with her studio executive boss? Only the most toothless and ineffectual political program could capture the wealthiest and the poorest alike.

But to see how Democrats might begin to reformulate an actual set of values, let’s go back to Frank Rich. Rich says that Democrats “need to stop trying to feel everyone’s pain,” because this would “cater to the white-identity politics of the hard-core, often self-sabotaging Trump voters who helped drive the country into a ditch on Election Day.” And herein lies a core fallacy: that in empathizing with people, you necessarily excuse them, and that by acknowledging someone’s suffering, you thereby endorse their political agenda. You don’t have to sign on to “white identity politics” in order to think that nobody deserves to have their health insurance taken away, no matter how stupid they’ve been either personally or politically. Rich writes that Democrats should “hold the empathy and hold on to the anger” because “if National Review[‘s Kevin Williamson] says that their towns deserve to die, who are Democrats to stand in the way of Trump voters who used their ballots to commit assisted suicide?”

The answer is that Democrats are supposed to be the ones who aren’t callous assholes like Kevin Williamson, that they’re the ones who are supposed to believe people don’t bring their pain on themselves and that you don’t discard people merely because they’ve made foolish decisions. (After all, the entire left argument about criminals is that poor decisions are frequently a product of bad circumstances rather than their cause, yet certain Democrats seem incapable of extending to Trump voters the logic that they would apply to death row inmates.) Democrats are supposed to recognize the degree to which responsibility rhetoric ignores how little meaningful choice individuals have under the current economic and political system, and how ludicrous it is to blame them for things that are the product of massive structural forces. Since our lives are the product of our environments and our biology, and since we have almost no control over either of those things, talk of responsibility usually massively overstates the role of raw human willpower in shaping human destinies.

There’s a perfectly simple and consistent principle from which Democratic (or progressive, or left, or just humane) politics are supposed to start: basic compassion for those who are suffering. The moment you find yourself saying “they brought it on themselves” or “I have no sympathy,” you have ceased to practice the (often difficult!) basic moral principle that should drive left-wing politics, which is a deep compassion for people’s struggles and a desire to help them make their lives better.

Note that this gets around common objections to having “sympathy for the hillbilly.” It’s sometimes suggested that instead of empathizing with Trump voters, we should empathize with those who will be victimized by Trump’s policies, e.g. Muslims and the undocumented. But the whole idea of universal compassion is that you don’t have to choose: you care about people in proportion to the amount they are being hurt, so the people who will be hurt the most can receive the most attention without diminishing the struggles of those who are being hurt somewhat less. This also means that nobody needs to have much sympathy for rich Trump voters (which, as it is often pointed out, constitute a disproportionate fraction of the Trump constituency). If you voted for Trump because you’re a well-off bigot who thinks your taxes are too high, no hearts shall bleed for you.

A good statement of compassion-ethic was formulated by Arthur Schopenhauer (the most sensible, and therefore least-read, 19th-century German philosopher), who felt that the foundation of morality was in our ability to empathize with each other and care about the sufferings of the world. As he wrote:

“Boundless compassion for all living beings is the surest and most certain guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no casuistry. Whoever is filled with it will assuredly injure no one, do harm to no one, encroach on no man’s rights; he will rather have regard for every one, forgive every one, help every one as far as he can, and all his actions will bear the stamp of justice and loving-kindness. … In former times the English plays used to finish with a petition for the King. The old Indian dramas close with these words: ‘May all living beings be delivered from pain.’ Tastes differ; but in my opinion there is no more beautiful prayer than this.”

All living beings. That means caring about what happens rather than caring about who it happens to. It means valuing both the crime victim and the prisoner, or the families of both the dead U.S. soldier and the dead Yemeni child. It doesn’t discriminate by race or nation, but only by the degree of harm being experienced.

Having compassion as your starting point doesn’t lead to a particular necessary set of policy prescriptions. It doesn’t make you a strict pacifist, or mean you need to think single-payer healthcare is practicable. But it does mean you can’t end up like Frank Rich or Kevin Williamson, using the word “victims” in quotes and trying to determine who deserves to have a parent poisoned by industrial waste because they supported Trump’s EPA nominee. It doesn’t mean you can’t think people are stupid, or can’t think they should be making different choices, but it does mean that no set of bad choices means you should be afflicted with black lung or be crushed to death by industrial machinery. Nor does it (or should it) necessitate being patronizing, and treating the destitute like infants or curiosities. In fact, in a certain way you actually grant someone their humanity by being frustrated over their choices rather than seeing them as little more than the helpless product of circumstance. But none of that means that you end up like Markos Moulitsas, taking pleasure in watching people reap the harmful consequences of the decisions you warned them against. 

There are plenty of ways in which to reconstruct a moral foundation for liberal politics. People’s inclinations on this may be different. But Schopenhauer was right. “May all living beings be delivered from pain.” That’s not a bad place to start.