The Real Obama

What the president does in retirement will reveal his true self…

The best thing about being an ex-president is that you can do whatever you want. Do you want to retire to the countryside to build henhouses and tootle around in your amphibious car? You can do that. Do you want to teach Sunday school and build houses for poor people, and maybe broker an occasional international peace agreement? You can do that also. Do you want to spend your days painting pictures of your dogs, your feet, and the soldiers you caused to be maimed? It’s an option! The retirement activities of presidents offer useful insights into their natures, because they are finally freed of all political constraints on their action. At liberty to pursue activities of their choosing, we get a sense for what they actually enjoy, and who they actually are.

During his two terms in office, Barack Obama’s most zealous devotees tended to explain away apparent failures or complacencies by referring to the constraints high office places on anyone who ascends to it. Even some critics on the left may have suspected that the deeds of Obama’s administration were out of sync with his natural instincts, that Obama was a man of high conscience weighed down or blunted by Washington’s leviathan bureaucracy, or frustrated by the exigencies of an unstable world.

Obama’s retirement should therefore finally give us meaningful insight into who he really is or, to put it another way, who he has been all along. The albatross of office finally lifted from his neck, America’s 44th president is now free to do anything and everything he desires without impediment. He can be the person he has always wanted to be, the person whom he has had to keep hidden away. Who, then, is the real Obama?

Well, it turns out the real Obama is quite like the one we knew already. And what he most wants to do is nestle himself cozily within the bosom of the global elite, and earn millions from behind a thinly-veiled philanthropic facade.

In January, Obama launched his post-presidential foundation with a board that consists of private equity executives, lobbyists, and an Uber advisor, tasking it to implement the world’s most meaningless mandate (“to inspire people globally to show up for the most important office in any democracy, that of citizen”). Able to choose his friends from out of anyone in the world, Obama has been seen kitesurfing with venture capital magnate Richard Branson (worth more than $5 billion) and brunching with Bono. (You can usually judge a person pretty well by their friends, and nobody who voluntarily spends his free time with Bono should be trusted.)

Obama’s recent forays into politics have also confirmed him as a friend to the elite. He used his last weeks in office to personally help derail the candidacy of left-wing congressman Keith Ellison for DNC chair. After Ellison became an early favorite in the race, Obama used his influence to recruit and boost the more centrist and less controversial Tom Perez, who won after a series of vile smears were launched against Ellison by influential party donors.

Obama also extended his influence overseas. Ahead of the first round of voting, he effectively endorsed French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who “wants to roll back state intervention in the economy, cut public-sector jobs, and reduce taxes on business and the ultra-rich.” (Macron also once responded to a union worker who needled him over his fancy suits by declaring that fancy suits accrue to those who work the hardest, an assertion that is manifestly false.)

Then there were the speeches. In December, conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, asked what Obama should do with his post-presidency, had jokingly pleaded: “No speeches at Goldman Sachs, please.” After all, Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speeches had become the ultimate symbol of Democratic hypocrisy, a clear demonstration of how those who profess to oppose inequality will happily reap financial benefits from it. For Sullivan, it was laughable to think that a man like Obama, who maintained a public image characterized by modesty and personal integrity, would instantly lapse into the tawdry and unscrupulous Clinton practice of cashing in.

But then Obama cashed in. Mere weeks after leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue he signed on with the Harry Walker Agency (the very same outfit through which the Clintons have jointly pocketed a virtually incomprehensible $158 million on the speaker’s circuit). It was then revealed that he had been paid a whopping $400,000 fee by Cantor Fitzgerald a bond firm which deals in credit default swaps, the inscrutable instruments of financial alchemy that helped cause the 2008 financial meltdown. (After that came news of another $400,000 speaking fee.)

At the first sign of backlash against Obama’s pursuit of riches, media and political elites unleashed a torrent of toadyism in his defense. After expressing faint concern about Obama’s speaking fees, Amanda Marcotte chastised “people who’ve never had money worries” for casting judgement on “those who have,” elsewhere complaining: “The obsession with speaking fees is politics version of begrudging athlete salaries while ignoring owner profits” (an analogy that only holds up if Obama literally works for Wall Street). The Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen added: “If someone wants to pay Barack Obama $400,000 to give a speech I can’t think of a single reason why he shouldn’t take it…Obama is not doing anything wrong. He’s giving a speech. Nothing to apologize for.” It seemed that American liberalism’s eight year journey from  “Change We Can Believe In” to “Everybody Grifts…” was finally complete. (There is a fun game one can play with ideologically-committed Democrats that we might call “Rationalize That Injustice.” See if there are any right-wing policies that they won’t justify if told that Obama did them.)

Certain defenses of Obama opted for an explicitly racial framework. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah exclaimed “So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards? Fuck that, and fuck you!” April Reign, creator of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, equated Obama’s critics with defenders of the slave trade. Attorney Imani Gandy, who litigated foreclosure cases on behalf of J.P. Morgan before becoming a prominent social justice activist on Twitter, seized upon the controversy to call antipathy towards Wall Street “the whitest shit I’ve ever heard.” This particular line of argumentation almost defied credulity, especially since critics of Obama’s speaking fees were simply extending a criticism originally applied to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Obama and Branson enjoy the ocean together.

But while certain rationalizations of Obama’s conduct have ventured into burlesque satire, it is worth taking Michael Cohen’s question seriously: what’s so wrong with Obama doing a speech for money? He speaks, they pay, nobody gets hurt. What’s the actual harm? Since Obama isn’t actually in a position to give Wall Street any political favors, and since he’s a private citizen, why should it matter? Indeed, Debbie Wasserman Schultz told those who might be upset by the speech to “mind their own business.”

Well, first, there are some basic issues of personal ethics involved in post-presidential buckraking. There is something tawdry about immediately leaving office to go and make piles of money in any way you can, and it’s a short hop from doing your inspirational speaking schtick for corporate events to doing it in television commercials or at birthday parties for investment bankers’ teenage children. That’s why Harry Truman famously refused to serve on corporate boards, declaring that doing so would be undignified. (“I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”) And those who think Obama is being held to an impossible standard (that impossible “do good things rather than simply lucrative things” standard) should remember that Jimmy Carter has spent a productive and comparatively modest retirement writing, campaigning for the basic dignity of Palestinians, and quite regularly intervening to criticize American policy at home and abroad.

Some have said that as a “private citizen,” Obama’s choices of how to make money should be beyond moral scrutiny. But it’s private citizens who could use a lot more moral scrutiny. Obama’s choosing to become a mansion-dwelling millionaire is not wrong because he used to be the president, but because being exorbitantly rich in a time of great global poverty is heinously immoral. Moreover it defies credulity to suggest, as some have in earnest, that Obama needs to take money from this particular source. He is already guaranteed a lavish annual pension of more than $200,000 in addition to expenses and almost $400,000 in further pension money accrued from his time as an Illinois State Senator. He and the former First Lady have just signed the most sumptuous post-presidential book deal in history (worth $65 million, or almost 1500 times the median personal income) and will assuredly spend the next several decades enjoying a standard of material comfort few Americans have ever known, Wall Street speaking fees notwithstanding.

Finally, there’s the political hypocrisy. On the very same day as the infamous speech, Obama was elsewhere decrying the pernicious political influence of wealth, somberly declaring that “because of money and politics, special interests dominate the debates in Washington in ways that don’t match up with what the broad majority of Americans feel.” Obama’s public posture has always been that he resents the political influence of special interests and financial elites, yet as both a political candidate and a private citizen they have showered him with money he has been only too happy to accept.


Yet Michael Cohen is also partially right: the speech itself is not actually terribly important. It’s a mistake to focus on the personal ethics of Obama’s actual decision, and if we frame the relevant question as “Should Obama have taken the money?” then it’s easy to lapse into something of a shrug. So the guy wants to get rich. Fine. He’s no worse than every other member of the 1%. They’re all indefensible, and as long as nobody continues to maintain the illusion that Obama is any different from any other politician, there’s no reason to single him out as uniquely wicked. (One suspects, however, that some people do still maintain the illusion that Obama is different from other wealthy denizens of the political class.)

The most important aspect of the story is not that Obama accepted Cantor Fitzgerald’s offer, but that the offer was made in the first place. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the impression that certain powerful interests are now rewarding the former president with a gracious thanks for a job well done. Rather than asking whether Obama should have turned down the gig, we can ask: if his administration had taken aggressive legal and regulatory action against Wall Street firms following the financial crisis, would they be clamouring for him to speak and offering lucrative compensation mere weeks after his leaving office? It’s hard to think they would, and if a Democratic president has done their job properly, nobody on Wall Street should want to pay them a red cent in retirement. Obama’s decision to take Cantor Fitzgerald’s cash isn’t, therefore, some pivotal moment in which he betrayed his principles in the pursuit of lucre. It’s simply additional confirmation he has never posed a serious challenge to Wall Street’s outsized economic power.

In fact, we’ve known that for as long as we’ve known Obama. He was popular on Wall Street back when he first ran for president. According to Politico, he “raised more money from Wall Street through the Democratic National Committee and his campaign account than any politician in American history,” and in just one year “raked in more cash from bank employees, hedge fund managers and financial services companies than all Republican candidates combined.”

Serious economic progressives did not become disillusioned with Obama when he accepted $400,000 for a speech, but when he arrived in office at the apex of the financial crisis and immediately stuffed his cabinet and advisory team with a coterie of alumni from Goldman Sachs (a top donor to this campaign in 2008). At the height of the worst financial catastrophe since the Great Depression, during a time of unique (and completely warranted) antipathy towards rapacious corporate interests, Obama had been elected with the single greatest mandate to implement sweeping change in recent political history. Given the same extraordinary kind of political demand, FDR took the opportunity to proclaim that “The old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering…they are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

But when Obama was faced with a similar moment of calamity and possibility, he opted instead for the avenues of brokerage and appeasement. He chose not to push for criminal prosecutions of financial executives whose greed and negligence caused the 2008 economic crash. In 1999, Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, had proposed the concept of “collateral consequences” (colloquially known as “too big to jail”), whereby “the state could pursue non-criminal alternatives for companies if they believed prosecuting them might result in too much ‘collateral’ damage” to the economy. Thus, when banking giant HSBC was revealed to be laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda, Obama’s Justice Department allowed the bank to escape with a fine and no criminal charges, on the grounds that a prosecution might damage HSBC too much and have wider effects on the economy. Top prosecutors had evidence of serious wrongdoing by HSBC, but Holder prevented them from proceeding. A report prepared for the House Financial Services Committee concluded that Holder “overruled an internal recommendation by DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section to prosecute HSBC because of DOJ leadership’s concern that prosecuting the bank would have serious adverse consequences on the financial system.” Yet Holder later falsely suggested that the decision was made by the prosecutors rather than himself. (“Do you think that these very aggressive US attorneys I was proud to serve with would have not brought these cases if they had the ability?”) One should note just how unjust the “collateral consequences” idea is: it explicitly creates separate systems of justice for rich and poor, because there will always be more economic consequences to prosecuting major banking institutions than individual poor people. The same crime will therefore carry two different sets of consequences depending on how much you matter to the economy.

Holder also institutionalized the practice of extrajudicial settlements, under which “there was no longer any opportunity for judges or anyone else to check the power of the executive branch to hand out financial indulgences” to corporate offenders. Thus even as guilty pleas were extracted from banks and financiers for crimes ranging from fraud, manipulation, and bribery to money laundering and tax evasion, not a single malefactor from Wall Street ended up behind bars. (Meanwhile, America’s prisons remained full of less economically consequential people who had been convicted of the same crimes.)

Obama’s politics were the same when it came to policy-making. After several years of sustained corporate pushback, aided by both the White House and Congress, the much-touted Dodd-Frank law was whittled down to the status of a mild and extremely tenuous reform. A similar pattern inflected Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the now-precarious Affordable Care Act. While undoubtedly improving on the horrific status quo in American health care, Obamacare was notably soft on the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, both of which were extensively consulted during its composition. Far from being the Stalinist caricature of Tea Party fever dreams, Obamacare was based on plan put in place by a Republican governor and sketched out by the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s. No matter how much the American right may distort the record, Obamacare was essentially a massive corporate giveaway (after all, it mandated that millions of people become new insurance customers), and it manifestly failed to tackle the crux of the problem with US healthcare, which is that market actors are involved in the provision of health insurance to begin with. Obama arguably had the votes to create a public option that would have ameliorated matters somewhat, even without his having made any serious attempt at exerting political pressure in favor of one. But instead, he opted to needlessly compromise with the very corporate actors who stand between Americans and the guarantee of healthcare as a right.

This consistently pro-business approach has ensured that Obama isn’t the only administration official that corporate America has showered with gratitude. For plenty of Obama’s top lieutenants, the revolving door between Wall Street and the corridors of the US government has kept spinning continuously. David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and former senior advisor, now works for Uber. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is executive vice-president at McDonalds, lobbying hard against raising the minimum wage. Eric Holder, who had left the white-collar defense outfit Covington & Burling to become attorney general, returned in 2015 to once again represent many of the same banks and financial firms he had ostensibly been charged with regulating and prosecuting while in office. (Covington had literally been keeping Holder’s office waiting for him. “This is home for me,” Holder said of the corporate firm.) And having presided over massive bailouts during his tenure running the US Treasury, Timothy Geithner headed to Wall Street to take up a lucrative gig at private equity firm Warburg Pincus.

This is why Matthew Yglesias was wrong to characterize Barack Obama’s speaking fee as a betrayal of “everything [he] believes in.” In fact, it was the exact opposite: totally consistent with everything he has always stood for. The point isn’t that he’s “sold out.” It’s that, when the soaring cadences and luminous rhetoric are stripped away, Obama never offered any transformative change to begin with. Thus his $400,000 speech matters, not because it represents a deviation from the norm, or a venal lapse in personal ethics, but because it conveniently demonstrates a pattern that has been there all along.


In the Obama presidency, many liberals found the embodiment of their political ideal: an administration of capable, apparently well-intentioned people with impeccable Ivy League credentials, fronted by a person of undeniable charisma and charm, and with a beautiful and photogenic family to boot.

But examining Obama seriously requires acknowledging the fundamental limits of his brand of politics: a liberalism that continues to trade in the language of social concern while remaining invested in the very institutions undergirding the poverty and injustice it tells us it exists to fight; see, e.g., the upper-middle-class liberals who decry educational inequities while sending their own children to private schools. Like the Davos billionaires who “fret about inequality over vintage wine and canapés,” Obama denounces money in politics but can’t keep himself from taking it. And because he’s such a part of the very elite system whose effects he abhors, “Obamaism” was always destined to be a fundamentally empty and insincere philosophy.

Matt Taibbi issued a prescient assessment of Obama all the way back in 2007, when it was still unclear who would win the Democratic presidential primary:

“The Illinois Senator is the ultimate modern media creature—he’s a good-looking, youthful, smooth-talking, buttery-warm personality with an aw-shucks demeanor who exudes a seemingly impenetrable air of Harvard-crafted moral neutrality… His entire political persona is an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind…[He appears] as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view…His political ideal is basically a rehash of the Blair-Clinton “third way” deal, an amalgam of Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the middle of the middle….In short, Obama is a creature perfectly in tune with the awesome corporate strivings of Hollywood, Madison avenue and the Beltway—he tries, and often succeeds, at selling a politics of seeking out the very center of where we already are, the very couch where we’ve been sitting all this time, as an exciting, revolutionary journey into the unknown.”

The real tragedy of the Obama story is that in 2008, millions of desperate Americans cast votes for a presidential candidate they believed would fight for meaningful change. He successfully marketed “hope” and “change” to a country that was reeling from a horrific financial collapse (his 2008 presidential run even won a “Marketing Campaign of the Year” award from the ad industry, beating out Apple and Zappos). But beneath it all was no serious vision of change; the grand speeches, paid and unpaid, turn out to contain little more than well-crafted platitudes. (Christopher Hitchens once pointed out that while everyone considered Obama a powerful and memorable speaker, nobody could ever seem to remember a single specific line from any of his orations, a good sign he’d in fact said nothing at all.) And as Obama biographer David Garrow concludes, “while the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core.”

But Obama’s weaknesses are not the product of some unique personal pathology. He is simply the most charismatic and successful practitioner of an ideology shared by many contemporary Democrats: a kind of Beltway liberalism that sacrifices nearly all real political ambition, espousing a rhetoric of compassion and transformation while rationalizing every form of amorality and capitulation as a pragmatic necessity. In a moment when militancy and moral urgency are needed most, it seeks only innocuous, technocratic change and claims with the smuggest certitude that this represents the best grown adults can aspire to. In a world of spiralling inequality and ascendant corporate tyranny, it insists on weighting equally the interests of all sides and deems the result a respectable democratic consensus. Bearing witness to entrenched human misery, it wryly declares it was ever thus and delights in lazily dismissing critics with scornful refrains like “That will never get through Congress…” Confronted with risk or danger, it willingly retreats to ever more conservative ground and calls the sum total of these maneuvers “incrementalism.” In place of a coherent vision or a clear program of reform, the best it can offer is the hollow sensation of progress stripped of all its necessary conflicts and their corresponding discomforts.

One could see, in the defenses of Obama’s Wall Street speech, just how far this ideology narrows our sense of the possible: it tells us it is unrealistic and unfair to conceive of a president who does not shamelessly use the office to enrich himself. What passes for pragmatism is in fact the most dispiriting kind of capitalist pessimism: this is your world, you’re stuck with it, and it’s madness to dream of anything better. There Is No Alternative.

We can almost respect Hillary Clinton for embracing this idea openly, and barely even pretending to represent our most elevated selves rather than our most acquisitive ones. The cruelty Obama perpetrated was to encourage people to believe in something better, then give them nothing but a stylized status quo. At least now that he’s windsurfing with billionaires and doing the Wall Street speaking tour, there’s no longer any reason to keep believing that underneath it all, he was a true idealist whose innermost desires were thwarted by crushing political realities. All along, his innermost desire was to meet Bono over eggs benedict.

The Obama of 2008 was to be this century’s FDR, signifying a moment of lasting realignment and transcendent progress rather than one of growing alienation and despair culminating in the election of Donald Trump. But the liberalism of 21st century America, it turns out, is ill-equipped to achieve the transformative change it once so loftily promised: not because it made a noble attempt and failed but because it never really sought this change to begin with.

While Obama may not have been sincere, a great many of his voters were, and the millions who embraced his message revealed a genuine hunger for transformative change.

Now all we need is a political movement that actually seeks it out.

Who Profits from Poverty?

On the success of Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted”

Praise for Matthew Desmond’s Evicted has been nearly universal. It has won a PEN Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and, now, the 2017 Nonfiction Pulitzer Prize. To quote the New York Times, it is “a comet book — the sort of thing that swings around only every so often, and is, for those who’ve experienced it, pretty much impossible to forget.”

For many readers, it is a first foray into the housing question. Desmond draws our attention not only to the power of evictions to reproduce poverty, but also to their prevalence: evictions are common in communities that are black and white, poor and not so poor. For many more readers, it is also a first foray into Midwestern poverty. As American liberals scramble to understand what went wrong in swing states like Wisconsin, Desmond illustrates how the daily desperation of Milwaukee’s low-income communities translates into “lost confidence in… political capacity.”

But while the book makes valuable contributions to public understanding of eviction, the overwhelming critical enthusiasm for Desmond’s book should perhaps give us pause. After all, most journalists and academics live in municipalities where housing inequality runs high. We might, in general, expect Desmond’s call for fairly apportioned housing to engender some resistance — or at least some uncomfortable reflection — from those readers who enjoy the fruits of housing market exclusion from brunch on the corner to dinner in the brownstone.

Instead, Evicted has met only eager approval. The reason for this, I believe, is that most readers feel that the Desmond’s evictions are distant from them — something they merely observe as sympathetic spectators, rather than something in which all of us actively participate. The deceptive simplicity of Desmond’s policy prescription—housing vouchers—implies that an inclusive housing system can be accomplished in one fell swoop, without any substantial sacrifices or lifestyle change on the part of the privileged.

As a moral portrait, Desmond’s book is Manichean, with clear delineations between good and evil. The protagonists confront injustice after injustice: Arleen and her children are evicted, and then they are robbed, and then evicted once more. Lamar, who lost both of his legs when he passed out in a freezing house, faces eviction with his two children, and is unable to collect his disability benefits. Villainous landlords, meanwhile, inflict injustice without much remorse. “You know, if you have money right now, you can profit from other people’s failures,” says Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher and one of Desmond’s main landlord contacts. “I’m catching properties. I’m catching ’em.” Sherrena gambles, she travels, she evicts. At times, Desmond is careful to humanize Sherrena, who is making her way in a world that does not afford many opportunities to black women. Overall, however, Desmond portrays her as self-pitying (“If you ever thinking about become [sic] a landlord, don’t… Get the short end of the stick every time”), self-important (“these low-quality people,” she complains of her tenants), and self-satisfied (“The ’hood is good”). The other landlord who appears in Desmond’s account is Tobin Charney, who makes over $400,000 from 131 trailers. He is, according to his tenants, a “greedy Jew.” From chapter to chapter, we are led from heartbreak to righteous outrage.

But the moral universe in Evicted is small. This is the strength of Desmond’s ethnography. He digs deep into the lives of his subjects to give a portrait of poverty that is both honest and respectful. Yet Desmond begs us to consider the question of scope — both for his diagnosis of the eviction problem and his prescription for it. “It is ultimately up to future researchers to determine whether what I found in Milwaukee is true in other places,” he writes.

This sets forth two very different tasks. The first is basic and empirical: Are low-income renters in other cities around the world vulnerable to eviction and the suffering that flows from it? The second, however, requires us to go beyond eviction to assess the distributional justice of housing markets beyond the landlord-tenant relationship. Who profits from renters’ poverty? Who gains from tenure insecurity? And what would we need to sacrifice to guarantee inclusion in our cities? After all, our cities are not populated exclusively by grasping landlords and their impoverished tenants. All of us participate in the housing market, and many of us benefit from it in ways that hurt our neighbors.

In “Home and Hope,” the book’s epilogue, Desmond carefully lays out his policy prescription for America’s broken housing system. “The idea is simple,” Desmond writes. The government should guarantee rental subsidies to all low-income families struggling to pay rent. With vouchers in hand, families could choose where they wanted to live — “as long as their housing was neither too expensive, big, and luxurious nor too shabby and run-down” — without the fear of falling into debt and, inevitably, facing eviction. “A universal housing voucher program would carve a middle path between the landlord’s desire to make a living and the tenant’s desire, simply, to live.”

Desmond is fervent in his advocacy. The program would, he writes, “change the face of poverty”:

Evictions would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training, and start modest savings. They would find stability and have a sense of ownership over their home and community.


It is here, in the epilogue, that the limits of Desmond’s book come into view. He tucks a confession into a footnote. “A universal voucher program would not solve all our problems,” he writes — “especially in tight markets.” But where, we might ask, are Desmond’s loose markets? All across the United States, housing markets are tightening at an increasing clip — from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Austin to Houston, Washington to Boston. In those markets, while addressing some short-term problems, housing voucher programs create a host of new, long-term ones.

Consider Britain, where I have spent the last two years researching the ongoing housing crisis. Britain’s housing voucher system earns Desmond’s praise. “Great Britain’s Housing Benefit is available to so many households that a journalist recently reporting on the program asked, ‘Perhaps it is easier to say who does not get it?’ ‘Indeed,’ came the answer.” But Britain’s housing market remains one of the most exclusionary in Europe. Far from narrowing the gap between rich and poor in Britain, Housing Benefit has — in many ways — done the opposite.

First, Housing Benefit drives up demand in places like central London, where properties would otherwise be unaffordable to the vast majority of people. Vouchers in hand, renters can pursue high-rent properties — so long as they are not, to use Desmond’s phrase, “too big, expensive and luxurious.” With this rising demand, landlords can then raise their rents, knowing that the state will foot the bill. Often, this inflationary pressure — rather than preventing evictions — incentivizes them. Evictions in Britain’s private rental sector have soared over the last five years, even as tenant arrears have been in steep decline. The reason for the rising rate of eviction is landlord opportunism. Because they are certain that their properties will fetch increasingly higher rents, landlords make use of evictions to free up their property.

By driving up the value of local housing stock, Housing Benefit can also behave like a regressive tax on low-income renters. Homeowners reap huge windfall gains from house price inflation — the average house in London rose by £40,000 in value in 2015 alone. For these homeowners, the gains of house price inflation far outweigh the tax burden of housing benefit expenditure. So it is low-income renters that ultimately bear the cost of their vouchers — funding homeowners’ retirement along the way.

Desmond’s housing voucher system may very well “change the face of poverty,” but it will do nothing to challenge housing market exclusion in America’s major cities. There, the face of poverty will become even more segregated. Low-income renters will be funneled toward low-income neighborhoods, where at least — if new regulations are introduced, as Desmond hopes they will be — evictions will fall. High-income renters will be funneled toward high-income neighborhoods where — repeating “white flight” — they can reproduce systems of privilege. We can further consider the link between gentrification and displacement. With security of tenure, homeowners gain from gentrification: house prices rise, local amenities multiply, and neighborhood services improve. Without security of tenure, renters face displacement: rents rise, landlords evict, and local shops price them out.

The most powerful insight of Desmond’s book is, to quote its title, that there is profit to be made from poverty. The implication of my argument here, though, is that it is not just landlords that reap this profit — all local homeowners and wealthy renters stand to gain from housing market exclusion. Who, after all, cries loudest in the name of not in my backyard? Not the landlords. Instead, it is those wealthy renters and homeowners who seek to maintain the status quo.

This is the piece that is missing from Desmond’s Evicted: housing markets are broadly zero-sum. Accumulation for some is immiseration for others. We are all tied together — landlords and tenants, homeowners and homeless.

In Evicted, though, there is no confrontation between these groups. They do not confront each other in the street — unwinding gentrification or redressing school segregation. Nor do they confront each other in city hall — crafting policy for a fairer housing market.


And this raises the question: If we make solutions to social problems appear simple, noncontroversial, and non-zero-sum in the abstract — or, in this case, in the ‘loose market’ of Milwaukee — when the implementation of these solutions will, in fact, threaten the resources and status of those in power, are we charting a course for a better world or soothing the conscience of elites?

Let’s imagine an inclusive housing market — a place where, Desmond hopes, the “basic right of all Americans” to affordable housing is balanced against “the right to make as much money as possible.” What would it look like? More importantly, what changes in our cities would be necessary to get there?

At the most basic level, inclusion would require that cash not rule everything around us. Wealthy residents would not have priority in the choice of apartments based on their economic advantage. They would, like the thousands and thousands on public housing lists across American cities, have to wait their turn. Gentrification would move at a snail’s pace. Pop-up shops could not descend on low-income communities, replacing affordable with luxury amenities. Public school districts would no longer segregate the privileged from the poor.

In a word, inclusion would require de-commodification — the transformation of our cities from sites of speculative investment to sites of rights-based community organization and development.

This is a sacrifice, however, that most wealthy (and white) urban residents are unwilling to make. Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her excellent work on public schools in Brooklyn, shows just how tightly her middle-class neighbors cling to the system of segregation that keeps low-income students on a separate campus. If applied in cities like New York, Desmond’s voucher program would have rippling effects for institutions like public schools, but Hannah-Jones’s work suggests that these would come with considerable resistance. Residents of large American cities are simply too attached to the distributive justice of the dollar. What do you mean, the banker will ask, that I cannot outbid my rivals for this house, this apartment, this bagel?

Desmond predicts some level of resistance to housing reform. “Those who profit from the current situation,” he writes, “will say that the housing market should be left alone to regulate itself.” But in reality, it’s not only free-market conservatives who will resist housing reform. Most likely, the American liberal will support regulation until it shows up in his backyard.

Evicted is indeed a masterpiece of “relational ethnography.” Desmond is thorough in his data collection, unearthing minute details that bring us deep into the lives of his subjects. He is careful in his depiction — never too sentimental — of the complex social and economic relations that produce and are products of eviction. And he is measured in his suggestion of a common-sense housing reform that would raise the welfare of millions of Americans.

If, however, we want to solve the problem of urban inequality on our doorstep, we need a whole new set of solutions. A housing voucher system will not suffice. We must think instead about what we are willing to give up on behalf of inclusion. We might start with tolerating the noisy construction next door, which will build the new units that are necessary to house our cities’ low-income residents. Or we might raise our property taxes, funding new housing developments with the balance. Or we might send our children to the local public school, finally following through on our constitutional promise of integration. But it will be hard, and it will be painful. There can be no true social reform, after all, without sacrifice.

Campus Politics and the Administrative Mind

Anyone who supports the goals of campus activists should be willing to criticize their focus on bureaucratic remedies…

Recently, I was asked by a friend what to make of recent controversies at American colleges regarding “no platforming” tactics, the efforts of student activists to shut speakers they disagree with out of campus speaking opportunities. It’s an issue I think about often – as one of those few remaining leftists who remembers that civil liberties are essential to left-wing practice, as a college employee, and as someone who grew up surrounded by campus activism. I told my friend, only halfway joking, that I would think more of these efforts once college students had “no platformed” Barack Obama. Obama, after all, has far more blood on his hands than Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter. But, I also told her, I didn’t see that coming anytime soon.

Why? In part, it’s likely that the idea of no platforming Barack Obama would be far less popular among campus protesters than with Yiannopoulos or Coulter, even though there are plenty of radical critiques of Obama. However badly Obama failed left-wing ideals, with his complete failure to take on Wall Street, his expansion of our military entanglements, and his general moderation in a time demanding extremity, for many young left-leaning people Obama remains the kindly, progressive figurehead of political life. This reflects the “squashing” effect of college activism: the social and organizational dynamics of campus life can push your committed anticapitalist into the same groups and actions as your more conventional liberal Democrat. Furthermore, many college activists likely still have not really developed their exact ideological position.

There’s nothing wrong with those things. Political organizing is about forming coalitions, and part of the point of activism for young people is to sort out what, exactly, they believe. But analytically, this ideological confusion makes it harder for outside observers to draw the right lessons about what exactly the socialist left believes and what its tactics should be. The 2016 election saw liberal vs. leftist fights break out for more than a year, thanks to the Clinton-Sanders primary. Leftists criticized liberal Democrats relentlessly, and righteously, for the latter’s inability to conceive of a real alternative to austerity and neoliberalism. Yet I’ve been surprised to see many of those same leftists defend campus protesters at all turns, not seeming to understand that many of those same protesters will leave college life to become precisely the kind of upwardly-mobile Clintonite Democrats they despised during the election. That’s what a lifetime spent around college activists has shown me.

Besides, there’s another, more salient reason it’s hard to imagine a successful effort to shut down a speech by Obama or Hillary Clinton or a similarly prominent Democrat: there are few colleges or universities where such attempts would be tolerated, thanks to the culture and economics of the contemporary university. Though conservatives frequently attack higher education as a radical enclave, the institutional culture of the contemporary university is really far more aligned with institutional liberalism than radical leftism. The concept of the “deep state” has been debased lately, but in its original form – the idea that there is a bureaucratic class that persists within elected governments regardless of the outcomes of elections and which has its own interests that it asserts through subtle administrative power – is true of colleges, perhaps even more than of governments themselves. And the deep state of most universities is not radical but rather progressive. It’s not comprised of Sanders-style insurgents but of Clinton-style establishmentarians. It’s this class of people that college students have been petitioning, and so the presumptions held by that class of people represent the boundaries of what much contemporary college activism can achieve.


In particular, to ban an Obama or a Clinton from campus would be to risk offending the donor class that is so essential to the fiscal functioning of the kinds of private colleges where campus activism tends to flourish. I am hardly the first to point out that Republican state legislators have made great hay by claiming that public universities are leftist indoctrination machines, and that no platforming tactics should be used carefully given this potential backlash. The donors and alumni are the much less-discussed private college equivalent, and if anything, private colleges are even more in thrall to their interests than public schools are to the state.

Leftist defenses of campus activism have been almost entirely silent on the strange interplay between campus protesters and the administrators they petition, but that relationship is an absolutely essential facet of this discussion. In particular, we need to recognize that higher education has developed an entire set of administrators whose fundamental purpose is to prevent controversy from happening before it starts. I’ve come to call them the “Liability and Controversy Avoidance Class.” They are the diversity officers, the Title IX coordinators, the fixers of Greek life controversies, the public relations and marketing people who know just how much intersectionality language to pepper into their press releases.

I don’t think that none of these jobs are worthwhile; in fact some of them are essential. But anyone who cares about genuinely radical action on campus has to understand the way that universities have adapted to protests by treating them as a marketing issue to be managed. Sometimes university administrators are indeed the (potentially sympathetic) gatekeepers who hold the keys to students getting what they want. But as much as it may be in the short-term interest of those admins to give in to student demands, in the macro sense they have interests that are at best orthogonal to those of activists. And a student movement that fails to understand that risks finding itself defeated not in a romantic violent clash in the streets, but by the numbing power of middle management, by being shunted into committee, by being “handled.”

Conflict avoidance has become the great growth industry of the American college. Conservatives have, in recent years, made much of the various missteps involved in Title IX enforcement on campus, claiming that the tendency of universities to trample on due process in adjudicating Title IX complaints tells us something about modern feminism. They’re wrong. Rather, Title IX enforcement tells us something about the nature of bureaucracy. In particular, it tells us that people employed by an institution will always serve the needs of that institution first. Title IX ostensibly empowers administrators to pursue sexual inequality claims on campus with the backing of the federal government. But what it actually produces in practice is a small army of college employees whose real job is preventing colleges from absorbing the worst consequences for failing to achieve sexual equality. That is, by virtue of being employed within these institutions, even the most ethical and passionate Title IX enforcement officer ends up playing a defensive role on behalf of the institution. This is not an indictment of anyone’s integrity; it’s a statement about the nature of institutions.

A friend of mine worked a Title IX job for several years. She’s one of the most committed and informed feminists I know. When she started, she described her position as a dream job. But she ended up leaving after only a few years, burnt out by the drudgery and frustration of a job that combined the bureaucratic morass of the university with that of the federal government. And when she left, she said that she had come to understand that the very nature of Title IX and similar regulation means that the purpose of positions like hers would inevitably be a matter of avoiding litigation for the institutions that paid her salary. That is the inevitable tradeoff: a law that creates real punishments for organizations will compel those organizations to create structures designed to avoid those punishments.

That’s not a reason to abolish Title IX; I remain a supporter of the law, in broad strokes, because we need to give the effort to achieve gender equity on campus teeth. But the fact remains that a Title IX enforcement officer paid by a university will by necessity place the university’s needs above that of students. The same can be said of the diversity officers that are now being employed by more and more universities. In response to the student uprisings at schools like Yale, Amherst, and Oberlin several years ago, many institutions set about hiring administrators to ensure that minority students on campus feel included and safe; some of them have built or are building new minority student centers or similar structures. (The tendency to respond to student demands by cutting checks is another hallmark of the college administration playbook.) Those goals are laudable. But the same constraints on Title IX officers will surely afflict these diversity officers, and again regardless of their personal integrity.

That’s important for everyone to understand, because increasingly the act of being a campus protester involves petitioning administrators for what you want. The archetypal behavior of protest groups during the brief campus uprising, after all, was to submit a list of demands to the college board or president. I don’t find this some sort of strategic mistake, but I do think it’s remarkable just how many college activists I meet treat asking administrators for things as the end-all, be-all of protest. And as that belief spreads, so too do the conflict avoidance strategies. Crucially, at most schools these strategies will never involve just telling students “no.” Rather, they will delay rather than deny, give students some of what they want rather than all, and always affirm the righteousness of what the students are doing and the legitimacy of their complaints. It turns out that the discourse of social justice is compatible with administrativ-ese, if only a conflict avoidance officer really puts their mind to it.


Besides, the problem with appealing to authority is that sometimes authority says “no.” And while the courageous protesters at the University of Missouri – and their successful campaign to depose the school’s president – show that you can eventually raise the stakes for administrators dramatically, there will also always be times when the authority has the wherewithal just to turn you down. At that point, the strategy of petitioning authority collapses. So look at Oberlin, which is often taken by conservatives to be the nadir of loony campus politics and by liberals as an example of principled campus resistance. Oberlin student protesters presented the school’s president with a controversial list of demands, which included things like dictating aspects of curriculum and firing specific campus faculty and staff. They also insisted that their demands list was non-negotiable. So Oberlin’s president didn’t negotiate – he just said “no.” By coupling the extremity of their demands to a preemptive rejection of negotiation, the students had given him all the cover he needed. I haven’t heard much of that effort since; I assume many of the framers of the document have graduated and gone on to live their post-collegiate lives. (That’s another structural issue with campus organizing: the ability of establishment power to run out the clock.)

None of this is intended as some scathing indictment of campus activists. It is, instead, an attempt to analyze conditions in campus politics without romance. As I have said before, and will say again, the best way to understand current campus political controversies is as a negotiation between competing interests under neoliberalism. That’s true no matter how much integrity, passion, and savvy the student organizers possess. It’s just an observation of the endless layers of control that we’re living under in neoliberal capitalism – that we’re all living under.

Sadly, I find this conversation almost impossible to have in left spaces. Many leftists I know – smart, committed people who are ordinarily capable of thinking critically and with nuance about people with whom they broadly agree – have adopted a stance of blind support to campus activists, no matter what their goals or tactics. I understand this impulse, emotionally and socially. It’s a dark time and we’re looking for solidarity wherever we can. Campus attracts so much left-wing attention because it feels like one of the only places where we feel like we can win. But the conditions there are very specific and very idiosyncratic, and the tactics and strategies that work in the collegiate space are unlikely to work in the workplace or society writ large. But if we insist on seeing college activism as an integral part of left practice, then I also insist on seeing it clearly, on looking at it with sympathetic but critical eyes. To do so, we must be willing to ask uncomfortable questions about the nature of that work.

The View From The Back Row

Journalist and photographer Chris Arnade discusses a country divided by meaning, morality, education, and economics.

In 2016, pundits speculated endlessly on that mysterious place called Trump Country. To many in the Beltway, much of America was a foreign country, to be analyzed statistically rather than in person. Chris Arnade, on the other hand, was determined to escape his coastal bubble. Arnade got into his old van, and has spent the last several years traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, interviewing people all over the country, discovering their joys, sorrows, discontents, and aspirations. In the process he has produced a set of photographs and stories, depicting the everyday Americans who are left out of the media’s understandings of the country, and who feel left out of the 21st century economy. Arnade spoke to Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson about what he has learned in his travels.

NR: You’ve traveled over 100,000 miles across America talking to people from all stripes of life. What are some of the misconceptions that people have about the country they live in? What are some things people think they know about America that are totally wrong? 

CA: Everyone knows we’re a divided country, but I don’t think people understand exactly how deep that division is, and what the true nature of it is. I was a banker for 20 years. I lived in Brooklyn Heights, I sent my kids to private school. I was paid well; I had a Ph.D. in physics. I was kind of the New York neoliberal elite who valued science, valued rationality. And that elite built a world over the last 30 years that is massively unequal. I think everybody knows statistically that we have massive wealth inequality and continued racial inequality. But we kind of pat ourselves on the back and say we’re an egalitarian society in other ways. We’ve given equal legal status to gender, sexuality, and race. And so we kind of think we’ve addressed many of the issues. But when you go out in the country, you realize that we’re massively unequal, and we’re unequal beyond economics. We’re unequal in terms of the way we live, how we choose to live, unequal in our valuation framework, what we view as moral, what we view as right and wrong, what we view as the goals. And beyond the obvious racial differences, which are huge—I spent, as much time in poor minority neighborhoods as I did in poor white working class neighborhoods—the most salient division I see beyond race is education.

NR: Yes, you’ve described this framework for thinking about educational inequality, what you call the “front row kids” versus the “back row kids.” The kids who did well in school and advanced to the top of the economic ranks, and the kids who were sort of left behind, and the differences that creates in their worldview. Could you talk a little bit about that framework and what that division in worldview really is?

CA: Right, the front row kids and the back row kids. Now within that there are some divisions and complexities obviously. But the most salient thing about it is that it’s not about political party. It’s non-partisan. “Front row kids” means both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. The front row is anybody who comes from an elite school, Princeton, Harvard, the Ivies or has a postgraduate degree, Ph.D. They’re mobile, global, and well-educated. Their primary social network is via college and career. That’s how they define themselves, through their job. And within that world intellect is primary. They view the world through a framework of numbers and rational arguments. Faith is irrational, and they see themselves as beyond gender. You can describe this using other frameworks, like “the Acela corridor” types.

On the Democratic side, you can think of the Matt Yglesias types in the media, these kinds of global technocrats, policy wonks. Their framework is: “Give me a problem and I’ll devise a maximally optimal solution using my data.” Most importantly, though, they view their lives as having been better than their parents, and they think their children’s lives will be better than their own. And for them, that’s still true.

The front row kids have won. They’re in charge of things. They are the donor class in politics, they’re the analysts and specialists who scream every time someone has a policy difference they disagree with. “You can’t do X, you’re going to cause a global world war.” Or “You can’t get rid of NAFTA,” “you can’t do Brexit.”

NR: What about the “back row kids,” then? What is that segment of society, and what is the difference in its worldview?

CA: It encompasses a lot of types of people, but it’s defined by its difference with the front row. It’s not just the “white working class,” it includes minorities, black kids who are stuck in east Buffalo or central Cleveland or Bronx in New York. Mostly they don’t have an education beyond high school degree and if they do it’s kind of cobbled together through trade schools and community colleges and smaller state schools. Their primary social network is via institutions beyond work such as family. And their community is defined geographically, meaning they generally don’t leave where they grew up. They might leave for 5-6 years to go to the military, take jobs that bring them to Alaska for a few years, but they’ll come back.

All photos © Chris Arnade 2017.

And they have different kinds of worldviews and values. They find meaning and morality through faith, which is also a form of community. And if you read the work of [Harvard sociologist] Michèle Lamont, she writes about the ethos of the decency of hard work. It’s the idea that you don’t necessarily use your brain to advance, you use your strength and you use your commitment. You’re going to play by the rules, you’re going to break a few rocks, you’re going to work hard. It’s also, and here’s where I’ll sweep a lot under the rug, a kind of traditional view of race and gender.

This group of people views their life as worse than their parents, and they think their children’s lives will be worse than theirs. And that’s rational, from their perspective. After all, they’ve lost. Their kind of worldview has been devalued, because it’s the front row kids that have been in charge: the globalized, rational meritocracy versus the more traditional concepts of morality.

NR: You mention rationality. One of the things that seems to puzzle elites as they try to understand these other parts of society is that they feel the grievances there are genuinely irrational. From their perspective, free trade has been good for everybody, it’s made everybody better off than the alternative. And so they don’t understand these kinds of populist backlashes in the form of the support for Trump (or Bernie Sanders), because they feel like the rage and the desire to destroy the elite is a failure to recognize their own self-interest. After all, why would you vote for someone whose economic policies are irrational, or who, like Trump, might destroy the universe? It just doesn’t make sense. They don’t know why people hate experts, since experts have expertise, and expertise is good!

CA: Well, let me approach it this way. I think that when you talk about any group’s failings as being atavistic, because of laziness, because of weakness, because of some other failing, you’re doing it wrong as a progressive. So when we progressives look at poor minorities and, from a sociological perspective, the frustrations and deviances that are there, and when conservatives say “Hey, there’s more crime in black neighborhoods because they’re more violent” or “There’s higher unemployment because they’re lazier,” we liberals rightly push back. We say “Whoah, let’s look at the structural issues here. Let’s look at the structural racism that denies them access to jobs. Let’s look at the structural inequalities in the educational system which provide a harder route for them to leave.”

And I’d say you have to do that for all groups, instead of dismissing them as irrational. And that includes the white working class. You have to look at the context of what they’re facing. So from their perspective, knocking over the system probably makes sense because their worldview is being devalued. It’s being devalued monthly, has been devalued for 25 years.

Now, some of that devaluation I agree with; I believe the idea that you should get supremacy from being white and male should be devalued. But regardless of what you disagree with, that devaluation is happening. And they’re also being devalued economically. And then, even further, their whole worldview, their sense of place and meaning, is being eroded.

So let’s talk about NAFTA, you alluded to NAFTA and free trade. Mathematically it works, because the winners win more than the losers lose. So on a net basis, you say: “Hey look! The data says everybody wins.” There are three fundamental problems with that. One is that winners never share with the losers, that just doesn’t happen. Secondly, what you’re measuring is a very narrow framework of what’s valuable; you’re making the assumption that everybody wants more stuff, having more stuff is what meaning’s about. But the back row finds meaning through their connections, their community, through their structure. When they lose, they’ve lost everything. When the factories go, the town and community fall apart. Their churches hollow out. Their families start facing problems with drugs. So when your sense of meaning and place and valuation comes from your community, and your community gets eroded, that’s it. Game over.

NR: And this something quite real, it’s not an illusion, it’s not just on paper. You’ve traveled all over, and there really are communities like that, that have just been hollowed out. And you’ve extensively covered the drug epidemic.

CA: I didn’t get into this because I wanted to write about politics. I got into this because I was writing about drugs. And I always kind of glibly say that wherever I went to find drugs, I found hope leaving. And where I found hope leaving I saw Trump entering, if it was a white community. Drugs don’t just go into a place because people are lazy; drugs go into a place because drugs work and help. They’re a get-meaning-quick scheme. So is fascism, so is populism. Both these things give a sense of meaning. People use drugs because they think their life is stuck. It’s a form of suicide, and for them, it’s a way of finding some relief from something that seems like it’s not working. That they’re humiliated and devalued, and they want to find a way to fight back against that. And drugs are just one way to do that, with another way being fascism and populism.

NR: So the rise of Trump is definitely some kind of response to despair and hopelessness, then.

CA: Oh, hell yeah. But I would go even further. First, just because I say I’m not surprised this happened, doesn’t mean I’m justifying it. But what I’m saying is: if you want to put a recipe together to create populist fascist white identity politics, we’ve done it over the past 20-30 years. We’ve created a system that’s immensely unequal, created a ruling class, which is educated and uses their education to elevate themselves and demean anybody else. And we’ve rendered it not simply economic, but cultural as well. These divisions are massive. You can blindfold me and put me in any town in the United States and I can tell you within five minutes if it has a college in it or not.

There are these marches across the country that are taking place against Trump. And they’re great. I approve. I don’t like Trump. But there’s a meme that’s going around now that says: “Look it’s all across America. It’s even happening in Texas! And Arkansas! But it’s happening on a goddamn college campus in Texas and Arkansas. I spent a week and a half in two towns, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, Michigan, separated by 35 miles. One has a college, one doesn’t. Which one do you think voted for Trump? First time they ever voted for a Republican.


To go back to the question of the rationale for being “irrational”: you have to put people, the way they think, in context. When people are faced with constraints, or when they view the world as having a different goal from themselves, from their perspective they make the right choices. So in my mind, voting for Trump, they felt like they had limited options. They’re backed into a corner, and they’re looking at the system that they feel like is devaluing them every year so they’re just going take a hammer and break it.

NR: Which is actually a kind of rational thing to do in that situation, given the set of values they hold.

CA: I even put it in mathematical terms for people, because I used to be a Ph.D. in math. I can give you the economic framework for it. If you look at their probability outcomes, their downside is limited, the upside is not limited. So you break the system, you want volatility.

Now you can ask the question, what about the black working class? Why aren’t they doing it? Well, there’s some huge differences there. One is the front row kids have made a very valiant attempt to elevate minority communities, and that’s great. I applaud that. So blacks, minorities know who butters their bread and they say, “Ok, I’m gonna go for that.” But in addition, if you look at this election, one of the things I wish I had written more about: I spent time in black working class neighborhoods, and I didn’t hear a lot of enthusiasm for Hillary. I heard a lot more distaste for Trump on college campuses than I did in poor black communities. They rendered their frustration, not by voting for Trump, it was by not voting. Or by a mute cynicism. They’ve been so, so eroded for such a long time that there has been pressure to just kind of throw their hands up, and give up on the political process. The black back row is frustrated, but they’ve been frustrated for 80-100 years.

NR: So there’s class divide in non-white communities, too, and the front-row/back-row framework isn’t just about the white working class versus a kind of racially diverse elite. And perhaps the difference in expectations makes a difference to the amount of rage there is.

CA: And their lives are getting marginally better. Marginally. If you look at the rate of change, it’s going up from a very low base. In many cases, that’s what matters.

But if I had to kind of get one point across about the elite, it’s this: they speak a different language. They don’t know how different their worldview is. They have no clue. And it took me 3 ½ years to figure it out.


NR: You’ve suggested that that is actually going to prevent them from understanding when Trump is succeeding and failing, because what he does will send different messages to different groups of people.

CA: Yeah. So, for example, right now, this immigration action, from the measure of the front row, has been a disaster. But measured from the other valuation framework, not so much. He’s doing what he said he was going to do. The outrage is not shared everywhere. They like that Trump drives the media and the elites crazy. Trump is a genius at knowing how to find that gap and exploit it.

NR: There’s actually a quote from him where he says something like: “There are two audiences. There’s New York society bullshit, and I don’t care what they think because they’ve always hated me. And then there’s America, and America has always loved Donald Trump.” So that’s what he says.

CA: Think about this: what does he spend his life doing? He spends his life selling cheap meaning to people, people who feel meaningless or humiliated. The biggest buzzword I would use to describe what I’ve found in Trump country is “humiliation.” And a desire for pride.

NR: You wrote a piece suggesting that “respect” was the big thing that they all cited as wanting.

CA: At our core, everybody wants to feel valued as a part of something larger. And right now the front row has that. At least up until this election, they had that. They generally can look at their lives and say: “I’m an adjunct professor of Greek History at Bumblefuck University…” Uh, don’t use Bumblefuck.

NR: We can change it.

CA: At Cornell. Anyway, they have a source of pride. But that person has a lot more in common with a bond trader than a truck driver.

NR: Liberal professors definitely don’t think they have more in common with bond traders…

CA: Well, that’s my whole frustration. That was the revelation I had over the last 2½ years. You have to view it from a framework of valuation and morality. And also culture, it’s not about economics. You have to use the old framework of is something banal or sacred? Is it profane or is it sacred?

I often use my favorite example, which is McDonald’s. I grew up in a white working-class town, so for me, it’s kind of rediscovering what I already knew. But McDonald’s, which is viewed with contempt, is actually a center of community, it’s where people gather. McDonald’s is not a joke.

And actually, I can link this back to Trump and explain how he exploits this. Remember when he sends his VP to eat in Chili’s in Times Square? The front row kids went ballistic. Fast food is profane, it’s low culture, it’s banal. It’s without meaning. And they went insane. But viewed from the back row’s perspective, McDonald’s and Chili’s and Applebee’s and Wal-Marts are a central part of the community.


NR: I seem to remember there was a moment during the campaign when Trump said something like “Oh, Melania is a great cook, she makes the most wonderful meatloaf.” And then people said “That’s not being a chef! Anyone can make that.”

CA: He does that intentionally. Because he knows getting the front row to scream will cause them to do what they do when they get mad. They’ll use scorn and derision. They’ll mock. Because that’s what you do when you’re an educated person. To engage with someone, to even bother to argue with them is beneath you. So they mock. Look at Jon Stewart. Look at all the fucking Comedy Central people. You mock the opponent because to engage with them is beneath you. Now when you’re at the bottom, in the back row, your form of engagement is anger, is bitterness, is violence. Because the people above you refuse to engage, what are you going to do?

NR: Well, if you’re not mocking them you’re fact-checking them. That’s the other weapon.

CA: Right, because that’s your valuation framework. Let me give you another example. I was a banker. I liked TARP. For however many fucking years of my life, I supported TARP. I supported all the goddamn neoliberal acronyms: NAFTA, TARP, TPP, all of it. So I can have an argument with a macro person. I go into town to McDonald’s, because I hang out in churches and McDonald’s when I go into town. So if I go in there and I say “Well, TARP will help.” They’ll say, “Yeah, but why are you giving 20 billion dollars to Wall Street?” And I can say, “Well, actually, the money was used to buy assets, and the assets increased in value, and then we got paid back.” And they’d say: “Well, what the fuck? Look at that factory over there: that’s been, kind of sitting there.” And you look out the window and there’s a factory that’s all rusted and boarded up. “That used to employ lots of people. Where was our bailout?” And you have those conversations 30 times and you say: “Maybe I should stop saying ‘Well, actually.’” Maybe I should listen. It’s always a “Well, actually.” And these are clever arguments, but ultimately they just benefit you.

NR: That’s how I feel about a lot of these arguments for why things like the TPP benefit people in the statistical aggregate. Because even if that’s the case, you’re still not really granting people their humanity, because you’re treating them as numbers on a balance sheet, and you’re the one who is in charge of moving the numbers around and doing what’s best for them, and you don’t care if they understand, they’re just supposed to be grateful. 

CA: Again, you’re judging things within a framework that benefits you, a data framework. This mentality says: “We want data geeks. We’re rational people, so we want to do two things: We want to maximize GDP, and we want to do it efficiently.” That’s the neoliberal mantra, which is Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton. And when you take that worldview, and you take that framework, the natural thing to do is to hand that power to businesses, to deregulate, because that’s how you can maximize GDP and be most efficient. Let’s give industry whatever it wants. And you maximize GDP but you steamroll everything in the process, forgetting about the consequences.  Forgetting that that may not be what everybody wants. People don’t just necessarily want uber-efficiency and more stuff. They might think meaning comes from having a community, having a network. Being valued, not just having 5 iPods, but having one iPod and four friends!


NR: I saw something similar in the way some Democrats were frustrated that people didn’t appreciate Obamacare enough. “You’ve all been made better off, I don’t see why you’re upset.” But if it’s complicated to use, and it’s policy being made from afar, and people aren’t being engaged in politics or included, they can get better off in the narrow statistical aggregate, and still not appreciate it, for a very rational reason.

CA: One thing elites don’t get about the working class—and there are differences, but in the aggregate—is that they don’t want handouts from above. They would much rather have good jobs than handouts. And both conservatives and liberals have misused this notion. But it’s true that people want things that give them a role, that respect them. Obamacare is complicated. It did get a bad rap, because this tribal division in the U.S. means things can get knocked just because they have the wrong label attached. But I’m on Obamacare, and it’s a nightmare to use. I can’t tell you how much I just want to kill myself every time I have engage with it. It’s not easy to use.

NR: I think about the difference between the way that policies look on paper, versus the way that people actually experience them. One of the major problem with a kind of technocratic attitude is that it’s not sympathetic to the real-life frustrations that people have, because these are often things that are never going to show up in the numbers. So unemployment rates might be going down, and that’s great, but the kind of jobs there are might be qualitatively worse.

Anyway, your writings are not particularly hopeful about the prospects for the divide. And post-election, you don’t seem to have much hope that the media is going to help. Their realization seems to have been “Oh, we should have visited more parts of the country,” but there’s not really a change in how well they understand people different from them, just a sort of recognition that there is another America and it’s powerful and angry. And so you don’t think the front row has much hope.

CA: Nope, not much, and also, just to make this clear, I don’t have much hope the back row is going to understand the front row either. It’s a two-way street. I happen to believe the front row is in power so there’s more of an obligation for them to understand the back row. Although currently, the back row has gained power for a short period here.

NR: Well, they’ve sort of gained power. They elected Trump, but Trump isn’t exactly “back row.” I mean, elite Democrats are furious. But all the people that Trump appoints, and all the people that are going to be running the country, they’re not necessarily people from the angry working class.

CA: I do think he is going to burn the very people that voted for him, not so much because he doesn’t have intentions of working for them as because he’s just incompetent himself. But I also disagree because, despite the people that he has around him, I think his overall arc is towards his supporters’ valuation framework more than it is towards the front row valuation framework. I just think he’s personally corrupt, and he’s incompetent, and he’ll get taken advantage of by the people around him.

NR: Also he doesn’t actually care about people.

CA: Oh no, he doesn’t. I mean, this whole thing is just another scam. He’s been doing that all his life. But he’s certainly not helping the front row with his policies, and he has no intention of doing that. He may help his buddies, some front row people might be smart enough to glom onto him and sell out and be corrupt. But overall 8 years of a Trump administration is not going to do the front row well. It will do the back row better than the front row, I would speculate, if he wasn’t incompetent.

But I think ultimately the division we have is close to unsolvable. There’s no policy that’s going to address it, because I think it is so social and cultural. It requires almost a national kumbaya, the front row going back and living in different communities and opening their mind, and it requires the back row to drop a little bit of their anger. I just don’t see that happening in either case.

NR: Well, we’ll leave it on that somewhat hopeless, discouraging note.

CA: I hope that wasn’t too negative.

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.

It’s Basically Just Immoral To Be Rich

A reminder that people who possess great wealth in a time of poverty are directly causing that poverty…

Here is a simple statement of principle that doesn’t get repeated enough: if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person. The same is true if you possess hundreds of millions of dollars, or even millions of dollars. Being extremely wealthy is impossible to justify in a world containing deprivation.

Even though there is a lot of public discussion about inequality, there seems to be far less talk about just how patently shameful it is to be rich. After all, there are plenty of people on this earth who die—or who watch their loved ones die—because they cannot afford to pay for medical care. There are elderly people who become homeless because they cannot afford rent. There are children living on streets and in cars, there are mothers who can’t afford diapers for their babies. All of this is beyond dispute. And all of it could be ameliorated if people who had lots of money simply gave those other people their money. It’s therefore deeply shameful to be rich. It’s not a morally defensible thing to be. 

To take a U.S. example: white families in America have 16 times as much wealth on average as black families. This is indisputably because of slavery, which was very recent (there are people alive today who met people who were once slaves). Larry Ellison of Oracle could put his $55 billion in a fund that could be used to just give houses to black families, not quite as direct “reparations” but simply as a means of addressing the fact that the average white family has a house while the average black family does not. But instead of doing this, Larry Ellison bought the island of Lanai. (It’s kind of extraordinary that a single human being can just own the sixth-largest Hawaiian island, but that’s what concentrated wealth leads to.) Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others.

Note that this is a slightly different point than the usual ones made about rich people. For example, it is sometimes claimed that CEOs get paid too much, or that the super-wealthy do not pay enough in taxes. My claim has nothing to do with either of these debates. You can hold my position and simultaneously believe that CEOs should get paid however much a company decides to pay them, and that taxes are a tyrannical form of legalized theft. What I am arguing about is not the question of how much people should be given, but the morality of their retaining it after it is given to them.

Many times, defenses of the accumulation of great wealth depend on justifications for the initial acquisition of that wealth. The libertarian-ish philosopher Robert Nozick gave a well-known hypothetical that is used to challenge claims that wealthy people did not deserve their wealth: suppose millions of people enjoy watching Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. And suppose, Nozick wrote, that each of these people would happily give Wilt Chamberlain 25 cents for the privilege of watching him play basketball. And suppose that through the process of people paying Wilt Chamberlain, he ended up with millions of dollars, while each of his audience members had (willingly) sacrificed a quarter. Even though Wilt Chamberlain is now far richer than anyone else in the society, would anyone say that his acquisition of wealth was unjust?

Libertarians use this example to rebut attempts to say that the rich do not deserve their wealth. After all, they say, the process by which those rich people attained their wealth is totally consensual. We’d have to be crazy Stalinists to believe that I shouldn’t have the right to pay you a quarter to watch you play basketball. Why, look at Mark Zuckerberg. Nobody has to use Facebook. He is rich because people like the product he came up with. Clearly, his wealth is the product of his own labor, and nobody should deprive him of it. People on the right often defend wealth along these lines. I earned it, therefore it’s not unfair for me to have it.

But there is a separate question that this defense ignores: regardless of whether you have earned it, to what degree are you morally permitted to retain it? The question of getting and the question of keeping are distinct. As a parallel: if I come into possession of an EpiPen, and I encounter a child experiencing a severe allergic reaction, the question of whether I am obligated to inject the child is distinguishable from the question of whether I obtained the pen legitimately. It’s important to be clear about these distinctions, because we might answer questions about systems differently than we answer questions about individual behavior. (“I don’t hate capitalism, I just hate rich people” is a perfectly legitimate and consistent perspective.) 

I therefore think there is a sort of deflection that goes on with defenses of wealth. If we find it appalling that there are so many rich people in a time of need, we are asked to consider questions of acquisition rather than questions of retention. The retention question, after all, is much harder for a wealthy person to answer. It’s one thing to argue that you got rich legitimately. It’s another to explain why you feel justified in spending your wealth upon houses and sculptures rather than helping some struggling people pay their rent or paying off a bunch of student loans or saving thousands of people from dying of malaria. There may be nothing unseemly about the process by which a basketball player earns his millions (we can debate this). But there’s certainly something unseemly about having those millions. 

One of the reasons wealthy people rarely have to defend their choices is that “shaming the rich” is not really compatible with any of the predominating political perspectives. People on the right obviously believe that having piles of wealth is fine. Centrist Democrats can’t attack rich people for being rich because they’re increasingly a party for rich people. And socialists (this is the interesting case) tend to believe that questions about the morality of having wealth are relatively unimportant, because they are far more interested in how the state divides up wealth than in what individuals choose to do with it. As G.A. Cohen points out in If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, Marxists have been concerned with eliminating capitalism generally, which has kept them from thinking about questions of the justice of people’s personal choices. After all, if the problem of inequality is systemic, and rich people do not really make choices but pursue their class interests, then asking whether it is moral for wealthy people to retain their wealth is both irrelevant (because individual decisions don’t affect the systemic problem) and incoherent (because the idea of a moral or immoral capitalist makes no sense in the Marxist framework). In fact, there is a certain leftist argument that giving away wealth in the form of charity is actually bad, because it allows capitalism to look superficially generous without actually altering the balance of power in the society. “The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves, because they prevented the core of the system from being realized by those who suffered from it,” as Oscar Wilde ludicrously put it. (In their book Blueprints for a Sparkling Tomorrow, Nimni and Robinson parody this perspective by portraying two leftist academics who insist on being rude to servers in restaurants, on the grounds that being polite to them obscures the true brutality of class relations.)

But I think it is a mistake to avoid inquiring into the moral justifications for wealth. This is because I think individual decisions do matter, because if I am an extremely wealthy man I could be helping a lot of people who I am choosing not to help. And for those people, at least, it makes a difference when a billionaire decides to retain their wealth rather than rid themselves of it.

Of course, when you start talking about whether it is moral to be rich, you end up heading down some difficult logical paths. If I am obligated to use my wealth to help people, am I not obligated to keep doing so until I am myself a pauper? Surely this obligation attaches to anyone who consumes luxuries they do not need, or who has some savings that they are not spending on malaria treatment for children. But the central point I want to make here is that the moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have. If you end up with a $50,000 a year or $100,000 a year salary, we can debate what amount you should spend on helping other people. But if you earn $250,000 or 1 million, it’s quite clear that the bulk of your income should be given away. You can live very comfortably on $100,000 or so and have luxury and indulgence, so anything beyond is almost indisputably indefensible. And the super-rich, the infamous “millionaires and billionaires”, are constantly squandering resources that could be used to create wonderful and humane things. If you’re a billionaire, you could literally open a hospital and make it free. You could buy up a bunch of abandoned Baltimore rowhouses, do them up, and give them to families. You could help make sure no child ever had to go without lunch.

We can define something like a “maximum moral income” beyond which it’s obviously inexcusable not to give away all of your money. It might be 5o thousand. Call it 100, though. Per person. With an additional 50 allowed per child. This means two parents with a child can still earn $250,000! That’s so much money. And you can keep it. But everyone who earns anything beyond it is obligated to give the excess away in its entirety. The refusal to do so means intentionally allowing others to suffer, a statement which is true regardless of whether you “earned” or “deserved” the income you were originally given. (Personally, I think the maximum moral income is probably much lower, but let’s just set it here so that everyone can agree on it. I do tend to think that moral requirements should be attainable in practice, and a $30k threshold would actually require people experience some deprivation whereas a $100k threshold indisputably still leaves you with an incredibly comfortable lifestyle better than almost any other had by anyone in history.)

Of course, wealthy people do give away money, but so often in piecemeal and self-interested and foolish ways. They’ll donate to colleges with huge endowments to get needless buildings built and named after them. David Geffen will pay to open a school for the children of wealthy university faculty, and somehow be praised for it. Mark Zuckerberg will squander millions of dollars trying to fix Newark’s schools by hiring $1000-a-day-consultants. Brad Pitt will try to build homes for Katrina victims in New Orleans, but will insist that they’re architecturally cutting-edge and funky looking, instead of just trying to make as many simple houses as possible. Just as the rich can’t be trusted to spend their money well generally, they’re colossally terrible at giving it away. This is because so much is about self-aggrandizement, and “philanthropy” is far more about the donor than the donee. Furthermore, if you’re a multi-billionaire, giving away $1 billion is morally meaningless. If you’ve got $3 billion, and you give away 1, you’re still incredibly wealthy, and thus still harming many people through your retention of wealth. You have to get rid of all of it, beyond the maximum moral income. 

The central point, however, is this: it is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.

The Racism v. Economics Debate Again

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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