28 February 2012

Understanding American politics

This is a collection of my favorite writing about the fundamentals of American politics from around the web; expanding it slowly has been an ongoing project. All of these articles have contributed significantly to my own thinking about how American politics works. Many of them are long, but every one of them has my highest recommendation as a good use of your time.

Note that the quotes I provide here represent more an effort to entice readers to read the whole thing than attempts to deliver the essence of each piece.

I’ve broken this collection into a few rough sections:

Defining a few terms

So we are on the same page:

A vocabulary of the political spectrum

My own lexicon clarifying language commonly used for describing politics in the US, distinguishing between the moderate, wing, hard, radical, and far left & right, summarized by this diagram:

More on “radical”

It does not mean bad, it means a particular frame of mind.

Democracy & liberal democracy

Deeper than elections.


Not the same thing as liberalism. A particular approach to economic policy … and almost all policy.

Fascism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism

Alas, we have to talk about these to talk about American politics. And the distinctions between them are important.

American political incoherence

It’s difficult for politically-engaged people like me to remember that most Americans — even most American voters — don’t really have a coherent political philosophy.

Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics.

This essay from David Roberts at Vox is not just for tech nerds; it’s for almost anyone who calls themselves a “moderate” or “independent” because of disgust with American political talk, providing a good short critique of that position and an overview of how the political spectrum in the US really works.
  • There are no independents, moderates aren’t moderate, and the center is corporate
  • Republicans and Democrats are different, and the former are more extreme

The Myth of a Conservative Public

Alan Abramowitz, a political science prof at Emory University, writes about how polling information shows that a lot of Americans are conservative in principle but liberal when you ask about specific policies.
even in the heyday of modern liberalism, the 1960s, most Americans agreed with broad statements of conservative principles. At the same time, however, when it came to specific programs addressing societal needs and problems, programs such as Medicare and federal aid to education, Free and Cantril found that large majorities of Americans generally supported activist government.

In many ways, the results of the Gallup News Service Governance Poll were strikingly similar to the findings that Free and Cantril reported back in the 1960s. On matters of principle, Americans in 2010 leaned strongly to the conservative side.


Until you examine some of the other results of the same survey — the ones involving government responsibility for addressing specific societal needs and problems.

And it is perhaps even more surprising that 67 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “preventing discrimination,” that 57 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “making sure all Americans have adequate healthcare,” that 52 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “making sure all who want jobs have them,” or that 45 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “providing a minimum standard of living for all Americans” (versus only 33 percent who felt that government should have little or no responsibility in this area).

Living on the edge, but still taking up way too much space

Cervantes at Stayin’ Alive examines the paradox of Americans’ enthusiasm for numerous particular government efforts at the same time as they resist “big government” at the level of talking to individuals. Why does American ideological conservatism win out over operational liberalism so often at the ballot box? The underlying engine — the reason why European-style social democracy never caught hold in the US — unhappily comes as no surprise. (See also a similar comment on resistance to Obamacare.)
Almost everyone in Fishtown claimed to be a conservative, and expressed scathing contempt for liberals. So what were some of their conservative ideas? .... nationalizing the oil companies ... government sponsored health care, a higher minimum wage ... massive investments in public transportation ... cleaning up the air pollution — all kinds of radical right wing ideas.
What’s going on? I confess I have left out the most important issue that the good people of Fishtown were worried about. In their own words, it was the niggers. They were all on welfare, and they were taking all the jobs. (That’s right, I often got that in consecutive sentences. And by the way, I would estimate that ¼ of the households in Fishtown consisted of single mothers on welfare, or disability pensioners.)

Decision Makers

Chris Hayes examines “swing voters”. He too discovers that many Americans don’t have a coherent political philosophy.
As far as I could tell, the problem wasn’t the word “issue”; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the “political.” The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief — not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

Say — you want a revolution?

Doug Muder at the Weekly Sift looks at voter apathy and digs into the implications.

Some years ago, I was at a restaurant a couple blocks from my apartment when that cycle’s Democratic congressional candidate (Katrina Swett, which would make the year 2002) came in to campaign. It was late enough that most of the lunch traffic had left already, so shaking every hand in the room didn’t take her very long.

After the candidate left, our waitress — a pleasant young woman who had been doing a perfectly fine job as far as I and my friend were concerned — came over with an inquisitive look on her face. I thought she was going to ask us whether we knew anything about Swett, and whether she would be a good person to represent us in Washington. Instead, she asked whether we knew anything about Congress. “Is it, like, important or something?”

Most Americans Are Unaware Of [Insert Issue Here]

People also just don’t know what’s going on.
In truth, polls may be radically overestimating Americans’ knowledge. Respondents are known to offer strong feelings for policies that do not actually exist. To test the extremes of this fact in the most disturbing/hilarious possible fashion, I conducted a national poll to see how Americans thought about military intervention in an imaginary country.

For elites, politics is driven by ideology. For voters, it’s not.

Interesting research covered by Ezra Klein at Vox
One consistent finding in Kinder and Kalmoe’s research is that party identification bests ideological identification. Most people are a Republican or a Democrat before they are a conservative or a liberal. And most people will stick with their party long after they’ve abandoned their ideology.

No, America is not a conservative country

David Atkins at Hullabaloo describes the historical forces that create the illusion that the US is inherently more conservative than Europe.

Instead, what we see in the U.S. is three things: first, the lack of direct experience of domestic warfare that allows for an unchecked militarism untempered by the sobering experiences of Europe and Asia.

Second, the moneyed corruption of a winner-take-all system without publicly funded elections that creates economically conservative laws in spite of a fundamentally progressive populous. Americans want a stronger safety net and higher taxes on the wealthy. That we don’t get them is more a product of the corruption of government than of our relative conservatism as a people.

But the biggest problem is the most controversial one, and I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flack for saying it. We have a racism problem in this country ....

American political media

Our press isn’t liberal or conservative. In truth, it has a weird political outlook all its own.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right:
On the Actual Ideology of the American Press

Jay Rosen at PressThink examines how American news media is neither liberal nor conservative, but something else ... something bad for American politics.
You’ve got
  • The Church of the Savvy
  • The Quest for Innocence
  • The View from Nowhere
  • Regression to a Phony Mean
  • He Said, She Said
  • The Sphere of Deviance
These form the real ideology of our political press. But we have to study them to understand them well.

More Broder

Duncan “Atrios” Black calls some of the consequences of this news media philosophy “High Broderism”, after Washington Post journalist and commentator David Broder.
We normally think of “High Broderism” as the worship of bipartisanship for its own sake, combined with a fake “pox on both their houses” attitude. But in reality this is just the cover Broder uses for his real agenda, the defense of what he perceives to be “the establishment” at all costs. The establishment is the permanent ruling class of Washington, our betters who know better. It is their rough agenda which is sold as “centrism” even when it has no actual relationship with the political center in a meaningful way. Democracy’s messy, in Broder’s world, and passionate voters are problematic.

Moderately Anti-Democratic: The Lie Of The Political ‘Center’

Seth D. Michaels at Talking Points Memo on why political commentators’ enthusiasm for an illusory “centrism” damages our actual politics.

These elite pundits practice their own sort of intransigent ideology. They insist in every possible instance that The Problem Is Both Sides and that whatever the right answer is, it’s clearly at the midpoint between Both Sides. And they assume that the terms “moderate” and “independent,” so beloved as self-descriptions, correspond exactly with their preferences in both policy and style. Like the proverbial fish who doesn’t know he’s wet, they push deficit-reducing grand bargains that cut the social safety net as though it’s just common sense, not a choice based on political belief. It’s advocacy journalism that imagines itself objective.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare are really popular and really important to keep people out of poverty. Cutting or privatizing these programs is a fringe position pushed by the kind of “unrepresentative groups” with “disproportionate power” that Brooks pretends to dislike — including Third Way.

Le Hameau de la Potomac

Digby of Hullaballoo (my favorite political blog) coined the term “The Village” to describe the news media’s brand of elitism. (If you want to follow her dead link to the Aravosis article she mentions, I have it captured by the Internet Archive.)

It’s shorthand for the permanent DC ruling class who have managed to convince themselves that they are simple, puritanical, bourgeois burghers and farmers, even though they are actually celebrity millionaires influencing the most powerful government on earth.

It’s about their phoniness, their pretense of speaking for “average Americans” when it’s clear they haven’t the vaguest clue even about the average Americans who work in their local Starbucks or drive their cabs.

Hide the Bunnies

More on the theme from Digby, including a mortifying long quote from Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn which inspired Digby to say this:
Like many a political observer, until I read this, I thought of DC as being more like a European Court filled with jesters and courtiers and grey eminences advising in the shadows. But Versailles could never be this hypocritically provincial — and proud of it. DC is America, through and through — America, ca. 1690. The Reverend Broder sentences the heretics to the stake while Sally Goodwyfe runs around screaming “burn them, burn them!”

Wall Street values in This Town

Another from Digby about the corrupting power of money on public servants and journalists.
The larger message of This Town is the sad-eyed truth that, ultimately, everyone sells out. The money quote for Leibovich is former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s honest explanation, “Washington is where the money is. That’s generally what keeps people here.” That comment meshes with my favorite aphorism about dewy-eyed young aides “coming to Washington to do good and staying to do well.”

A Funny Little Story About The Media

A Tiny Revolution explores how consequential this ideology of the news media really is. I also recommend checking out the commentary on this piece from Digby, Rotten Elites and Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine story How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics.
At the time, I remember thinking this:
  1. How interesting that the DC press corps knows grimy details about lots of politicians but only chooses to tell the great unwashed when they decide it’s appropriate.
  2. How interesting that the DC press corps feels it’s their place to make decisions for the rest of America; i.e., rather than laying out the evidence that Hart was weird, flaky, etc., and letting Americans decide whether they cared, they decided run-of-the-mill citizens couldn’t be trusted to make the correct evaluation.
  3. How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.

BipartisanThink and the Principle of Seriousness

Matthew Yglesias at Slate makes an instructive little observation about a rhetorical trick which keeps them from “taking sides” at the price of keeping us informed about what is happening.
If the parties fail to agree because one party is being unreasonable and the other party is failing to cater to their unreasonable demands, then the apparently reasonable party is in fact failing to be serious. After all, a serious proposal is one that stands a chance of passing. Reasonable proposals will not pass a Congress in which one party is being unreasonable, so by definition the Principle of Seriousness allocates the blame equally to both sides.

False Equivalence: The Master Class

James Fallows unpacks a telling example of how the “a pox on both their houses” rhetoric of the press distorts our understanding of the relationship between the two political parties.
The essence of the false-equivalence mindset is the reflexive assumption that “reality” is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert. Maybe that reflects early immersion in the Goldilocks saga. (“This one is too big. That one is too small. This one is just right!”) Maybe it’s a holdover from the age of Walter Cronkite. Perhaps it’s the D.C. worthy-person’s mantra, familiar from conferences and talk shows, that “partisans on both sides” are the main threat to progress. Whatever. We see it all around us now.

Myths Debunked: The Liberal Media

In case you need an antidote to claims that the news media is “liberal”, an index of links to various articles debunking that canard.

The Two Sides of American Politics

Between looking into history and looking at recent events, I have become a perennialist about the split in American culture. Most Americans’ thinking about politics is muddled, yes, but it springs from two great cultural wells with profoundly different ideas about the American project, what society should mean, and how our politics should work. This is not a new division but one that goes back to the beginning.

Why Democrats and Republicans don’t understand each other

Ezra Klein writing at Vox offers some research outlining some fundamentals, making some useful distinctions about how liberal versus conservative is related to, but not the same as, Democrats versus Republicans.
  1. There are more conservatives than liberals but more Democrats than Republicans
  2. Republicans prefer purity, Democrats prefer compromise
  3. Democrats are under more pressure from interest groups to pass policy
  4. Policymaking has a liberal bias
The parties act differently because they are different

Metaphor, Morality, and Politics

George Lakoff may be the best-known contemporary liberal commentator to look at the political divide in America. A linguistics professor, he describes our political thinking as rooted in two profoundly different systems of metaphors.
For me, one of the most poignant effects of the ignorance of metaphorical thought is the mystification of liberals concerning the recent electoral successes of conservatives. Conservatives regularly chide liberals for not understanding them, and they are right. Liberals don’t understand how anti-abortion “right-to-life” activists can favor the death penalty and oppose reducing infant morality through prenatal care programs. They don’t understand why budget-cutting conservatives should spare no public expense to build prison after prison to house even non-violent offenders, or why they are willing to spend extra money to take children away from their mothers and put them in orphanages — in the name of family values. They don’t understand why conservatives attack violence in the media while promoting the right to own machine guns. Liberals tend not to understand the logic of conservatism; they don’t understand what form of morality makes conservative positions moral or what conservative family values have to do with the rest of conservative politics. The reason at bottom is that liberals do not understand the form of metaphorical thought that unifies and makes sense of the full range of conservative values.

Red Family, Blue Family (PDF)

Doug Muder offers a modification of Lakoff’s theory of the American political divide, shifting the metaphor.

Ault’s insights about fundamentalist families give a clue as to where Lakoff went wrong. The right distinction isn’t between the conservative nuclear family and the liberal nuclear family, but between two completely different ways of experiencing family. Those two modes of experience may express themselves in families that are not nuclear at all.

The key distinction in Ault’s account is not strictness vs. nurturance, but the Given vs. the Chosen. What, in other words, is the source of your responsibilities to other people? Are you born with obligations? Or do you choose to make commitments? As with strictness and nurturance, every actual person experiences some combination of obligation and commitment. But emphasizing one or the other makes a striking difference.

Who Owns the World?

Doug Muder again, talking about a different but deeply related distinction between liberal and conservative thought: the profound difference between justice and charity.
When you’re expecting a compassionate response and don’t get it, it’s tempting to write people off as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way are quite generous. They give money away. They put themselves out for others. They volunteer. But the model they put on this behavior isn’t justice, it’s charity. Justice, to them, would mean keeping what is theirs. Giving it away is charity.

A New Ideology

This blog post doesn’t really belong on this index, but along the way it includes this aside which does:
ultimately the difference between the right and the left is this; the right thinks you get more out of people by treating them badly, the left thinks you get more out of people by treating them well.

Why People Vote Republican

A discussion of the “moral foundations theory” which Jonathan Haidt, offers saying that liberals and conservatives share some moral sensibilities but not others. (Haidt has a TED talk which lays it out very clearly.) Worth looking at since it does usefully name some things, and because intellectuals on the broad left reference it often, but I must include a serious caveat ...
In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.
... there are serious problems with the moral foundations theory, explored in my next recommendation ...

The Moral Foundations of Fascism

Moral foundations theory has serious limitations in what it describes, gaps which other schools of thought address.
Researchers in the field have not merely poked holes in MFT from several different directions, they have developed better alternative explanations, including a more comprehensive framework for earlier research on authoritarianism.
And even on its own terms, the theory describes conservative sensibilities which are bad.
MFT seeks to obscure the darker sides of conservatism revealed in the work on both right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social-dominance orientation (SDO),” Sinn said. “MFT seeks to repackage RWA as simple in-group solidarity (denying the out-group antagonism) and completely denies SDO as the twin-driver of conservatism. Multiple studies show that the so-called binding foundations are simply RWA and that so-called ‘individualizing’ foundations replicate (the reverse of) SDO.” The only thing new MFT offers is “highlighting the special role of purity in conservatism,” he concluded.

Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.

Muder again, with a nice summary of the Republican myth of America ... and the need for the Democrats to define one of their own.

It’s easy to poke holes in this story, but before we do, let’s take a moment to appreciate its sheer diabolical beauty. For example, the story itself contains no prejudice other than nationalism, but it easily adapts to whatever bigotry a listener brings. Those lazy citizens who expect someone else to support them, do they have a certain complexion? The threatening barbarians, is that Arabic they’re speaking? Spanish? The corrupt citizens, might they be gay? Or atheists? Or Jews?

Maybe. Maybe not. Bigotry is harnessed, but deniable.

Similarly, the story can unite people who disagree, because the renewal it calls for can be anything. Does the lost vision the Founders include a fundamentalist style of Christianity? Or a robber-baron style of capitalism? Or what the League of the South calls “Anglo-Celtic culture“? Maybe some of that lost virtue is sexual: Men are having sex with other men, and women don’t know their place any more. They want to be free to have sex with whomever — barbarians, even — and escape the consequences of their sin through birth control or abortion.

Liberal vs. conservative

My own attempt at a succinct description of the two philosophies.
For conservatives, a just society ensures that people who are moral and responsible prosper, while people who are immoral and irresponsible do not prosper, suffering consequences for their actions. A good social order delivers rewards for virtue and punishments for vice.
For liberals, a just society provides for people’s needs and allows personal freedom, and this depends upon equity. Liberal conceptions of personal freedom include both negative liberty (freedom from constraints) and positive liberty (resources which enable one to act). A good social order is one in which everyone is free and equal.

We have the left and right all wrong: The real story of the politics of nostalgia and tradition

Corey Robin looks at some historical examples to show that no, conservatives are not always looking to past, with liberals looking to the future.

When it comes to history, conservatives have demonstrated a flexibility about time best captured by an aristocratic character in “The Leopard,” Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s novel about nineteenth-century Sicily: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” In defense of an established order of power, any innovation can be countenanced, any past disposed of. Time, in other words, is not the key.

But if the right’s window does not open onto the past, must the left’s open onto the future? Not necessarily, claim two fascinating new books ...

Conservatives Aren’t Racist: It’s Worse

Jarvis Slacks offers a succinct description of conservative versus liberal sensibilities on his way to examining responses to racism in the criminal justice system.

It’s important to try and understand how Conservatives think when it comes to race, crime, social strata and the justice system. We’ll have to cook it down to its essence first. Conservatives believe that we are personally responsible for our lives. The decisions you make dictate what will happen to you. If you make mistakes, you are responsible for those mistakes. You are also responsible for your safety. That’s why Conservatives believe in gun ownership. You should also be responsible for your future (why Conservatives don’t like Social Security) and your health (why Conservatives don’t like Universal Health Care). This idea works in a world where you are in the middle of a prairie, killing buffalo and living off the land. It doesn’t work as well when you live in a city of a million people, sharing resources (Why many Conservatives don’t like cities).

Progressives believe in Social responsibility. We are all in this together. That’s why, for Progressives and Liberals, Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and Universal Health care, that all makes sense. To a Progressive, pooling our resources and working together is the smart thing to do for our long term security.

America’s Tribes

Michael Lind at the New America Foundation also argues that the split in American politics and culture is perennial.
On opposite sides in the English civil war, and then in the US civil war, the Yankees and Cavaliers have always been on opposite sides in US politics. For generations, the moralism of Protestants in New England, such as Cotton Mather and John Adams, has clashed with the worldly honour code of renaissance country gentlemen in the south, such as Thomas Jefferson and Robert E Lee. In New England, the politics of reform was organised around the town meeting; in the coastal south, the politics of deference and patronage was based on the courthouse gang. “Good government” is a New England idea. So is the idea of American exceptionalism, of an American mission to set an example to the world, or to save it. The ancestors of the New England Yankees emigrated to the American colonies in order to found a perfect Calvinist commonwealth. By contrast, the ancestors of the southern elite emigrated to the colonies in order to get rich quick by lording it over Indians, blacks, and poor whites. For New England, the US is — or should be — a New Jerusalem. For the south, the US is simply the successor to the British empire. The southern oligarchs, like their cousins who once ran imperial Britain, think in terms of profit, not providence.

How a Brutal Strain of American Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America

Sara Robinson describes our political division as reflecting a fight between Yankee and Southern elites and their conceptions of “liberty”.

When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he’s really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can’t help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they’re willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.

Once we understand the two different definitions of “liberty” at work here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense.

Small-government Freedom vs. Big-government Rights

Another (unflattering) examination of what conservatives mean when they talk about “freedom”, tracing it back to the antebellum South.
The relative value of freedom vs rights depends in large part on how much power you have. If you are wealthy, well-connected, or otherwise privileged, then there are all kinds of things you could do, if government would just stay out of your way. But if you are poor, then the barriers you face have more to do with your lack of resources than with government regulations.

Ressentimental Journey

Digby again. Another perennialist, Digby holds that the Culture War we think of as being born in the ’60s goes much deeper, a split that gave us the Civil War and dates back to before even then.

It’s true that those who say that the 1960s presented a very specific, unique challenge to the aristocrats who reacted with new tools and coordination against what they saw as a serious political and cultural threat. But nonetheless I still see this as a continuation of the battle that has raged in our country since its inception, a battle between the two warring American tribes. Those two tribes originally broke down on geographical lines, North vs. South, but have since evolved into something much more complex, beyond just class or region or race, although it has elements of all three. Underlying all the “issues” of any given era is the notion of moral righteousness and inferiority, ressentiment, that stemmed from the original sin of slavery and created two American “tribes” which operate reflexively under certain recurring impulses.


But this phenomenon can’t simply be explained today as North vs. South or the liberal elite vs "heartland values" or whatever it’s called this week. This is a battle between two American tribes, defined by human themes of resentment, morality, wealth, class, power, race and family. It is not specific to any particular issue or even any region anymore (even if its political boundaries might fit more or less within the original lines) and history suggests that it’s unlikely there will ever be a final reconciliation through politics. Even a bloody civil war couldn’t settle our differences. It’s hard to believe that something as pedestrian as electoral politics could do it.

A House Divided

Billmon of his blog Whiskey Bar describes how the perennial conflict of political cultures has mutated over time. (The maps have been lost to time, though I feel sure that the first two must have been these and the third one of Spain must have been much like this.)

If I had to boil our modern kulturkampf down to two words, they wouldn’t be blue and red, they would be “traditionalist” and “modern.” On one side are the believers in the old ways — patriarchy, hierarchy, faith, a reflexive nationalism, and a puritanical, if usually hypocritical, attitude towards sexual morality. On the other are the rootless cosmopolitians — secular, skeptical (although at times susceptible to New Age mythology) libertine (although some of us aren’t nearly as libertine as we’d like to be) and less willing to equate patriotism with blind allegiance, either to a flag or a government.


.... the modern American political dialectic is superimposed on older but still extant divisions: geographic (North and South), religious (Catholic and Protestant), ethnic (WASPs and everybody else) and of course class (with the great divide in American politics usually falling between the middle class and the poor.)

These geological layers of conflict — some still active, others now almost dormant) vastly complicate the political landscape and create major headaches for partisans on the opposing sides ....


The problem is not so much that there are two Americas, but that each of them — particularly “red” America — believes they constitute the only true America. Thus all the talk on both sides about “taking back the country” ....

It’s Hamilton vs. Jefferson All Over Again

Chris Ladd at the website of conservative apostate David Frum succinctly describes the tribal split, as many historians do, as between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. (Extra credit: Christian Parenti at the neo-Marxist Jacobin provides a reading of Hamilton compared with Jefferson with interesting similarities and differences, Billmon comments inspired by that, but Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money calls the discussion silly.)

Simply put, Hamilton was a proto-capitalist New York banker who wanted to see the country embrace a commercial model. His vision would require a strong central government to invest in infrastructure and regulation.

Jefferson was a Southern plantation owner who wanted a republic of small landholders where each was practically sovereign on his own property. His model required almost no central government. It was simple and in the beginning it was dominant, especially in the South.

Small-government Freedom vs Big-government Rights

Doug Muder at the Weekly Sift goes deep on what conservatives mean when they say “freedom”.
The relative value of freedom vs rights depends in large part on how much power you have. If you are wealthy, well-connected, or otherwise privileged, then there are all kinds of things you could do, if government would just stay out of your way. But if you are poor, then the barriers you face have more to do with your lack of resources than with government regulations.

On Politics: Barbarism, Inequality, Tyranny

This last piece on understanding the two American political sides is from conservative John C. Wight, who offers not two categories but three, in order to distinguish conservatives from libertarians. Some of how he describes liberals is risable — “theory does not allow them to regard traitors or corrupters or criminals or anarchists or foreign soldiers or spies or saboteurs or terrorists as enemies because the only enemy is the institution”! — and Wright is evidently the kind of bigoted weirdo one often encounters among libertarians, but with those caveats I grant that the piece itself is nonetheless droll and illuminating about how conservatives & libertarians understand themselves.

At the current time, among the nation in which I live, there are three distinct political theories in competition for the minds and souls of the next generation.

Each theory is based on a distinct view of the character of the nation and of mankind; each theory identifies a different discontent with civilization in general or our current laws and customs in particular. That is, the reason why there are three theories is because there are three general opinions as to the main danger facing mankind in general and the nation in particular.

Those who value civilization are called conservatives. For them the enemy is barbarism.

Those who value equality are called liberals. For them the enemy is exploitation, that is, the abuse of the free market by the rich or by the many to oppress the poor or the few.

Those who value liberty are called libertarians. For them the enemy is slavery, that is, the abuse of the authority of the sovereign to oppress the citizen.


The reason why political discussions between partisans of these theories are so often futile is that their goals are unrelated to each other, and the fears of one seem highly theoretical, if not ridiculous, to the other.

Reclaiming Liberalism

Edmund Fawcett at Aeon provides a good overview of the liberal idea on the way to advocating for it.
So, what kind of thing is liberalism? You can treat it as an ethical creed, an economic picture of society, a philosophy of politics, a capitalist rationale, a provincial Western outlook, a passing historical phase, or a timeless body of universal ideals. None of that is strictly wrong – but all of it is partial.
At its broadest, liberalism is about improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power. Four ideas in particular seem to have guided liberals through their history.

The first is that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable.
Secondly, human power is not to be trusted.
Liberals also hold that, contrary to traditional wisdom, human life can improve.
Finally, the framework of public life has to show everyone civic respect, whatever they believe and whoever they are.

A Thrive / Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum

I cannot resist including Scott Alexander of the nerdy, witty, long-winded, philosophical blog Slate Star Codex offering a nerdy, witty, long-winded, philosophical rumination on the difference between left and right.
My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

The Nature of American Conservatism

My own intellectual and political reflexes reflect such a deep-seated American progressivism that I have devoted significant energy in recent years to trying to understand what drives American conservative thinking.

The Deeper Struggle

A meditation from the reliably incisive Timothy Burke on why the older essays in this collection, which come after, may not be so relevant.

What the liberal-progressive world largely doesn’t understand is that the 35% of the electorate that stand with Trump no matter what he does (maybe a quarter of people resident inside the borders of the US) do not believe in democracy. It is not that they don’t realize that Trump is an authoritarian, etc., that democracy is in danger. They realize it and they’re glad. Mission accomplished. They have a different view of power and political process, of social relations. They are brutalists. Fundamentally they think power is a zero-sum game. You hold it or you are held by it. You are the boot on someone’s neck or there will be a boot on yours. They agree that what they have was taken from others; they think that’s the way of all things. You take or are taken from.

They do not believe in liberty and justice for all, or even really for themselves: it is not that they reserve liberty for themselves, because they believe that even they should be subject to the will of a merciless authority (who they nevertheless expect to favor them as an elect of that authority). We often ask how evangelicals who think this way can stand the notion of a God who would permit a tornado to destroy a church and kill the innocents gathered in it for shelter. They can stand it because they expect that of authority: that authority is cruel and without mercy because it must be. They simply expect authority to be far more cruel to others than it is to them. And they expect to be cruel with the authority they possess.

We keep thinking of this as a deformed or ignorant political sensibility, the product of sleeping through civics class. It’s not. It’s a fully-worked out, fully inhabited vision of human life and it has been with us for quite a while.

Partisanship IS Democracy

David Atkins at Hullabaloo examines superstitious distrust of “big government”.

City councilwoman Jan Martin says she hears this all the time. That it’s become a matter of faith in the city that private is better. And she tells us a story. In the dark days, after the tax measure was defeated, city council was having another meeting about slashing government.

Jan Martin: And a gentleman came up to me and actually thanked me for the adopt a street light program. He had just written a check to the city for $300 to turn all the street lights back on in his neighborhood. And I did remind him that for $200 if he had supported the tax initiative, we could have had not only streetlights, but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers. That by combining our resources, we as a community can actually accomplish more than we as individuals.

Robert Smith: And he said?

Jan Martin: He said he would never support a tax increase.

What Conservatives Really Want

George Lakoff again, offering a shorter introduction to his model, applied specifically to conservatism.

Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.


Freedom is defined as being your own strict father — with individual not social responsibility, and without any government authority telling you what you can and cannot do. To defend that freedom as an individual, you will of course need a gun.

Why Trump?

Lakoff once more, not only because his commentary on Trump’s appeal to conservatives is appealing, but also because of some observations along the way, notably this one:

Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation [...]

Direct causation is easy to understand, and appears to be represented in the grammars of all languages around the world. Systemic causation is more complex and is not represented in the grammar of any language. It just has to be learned.

Empirical research has shown that conservatives tend to reason with direct causation and that progressives have a much easier time reasoning with systemic causation. The reason is thought to be that, in the strict father model, the father expects the child or spouse to respond directly to an order and that refusal should be punished as swiftly and directly as possible.

Dead Right

John Holbo reads conservative David Frum’s book, looking for Frum’s political philosophy ... and doesn’t find it.
This is supposed to sound sober and sensible. If cultural conditions are functions of economics, you can’t change the culture without altering the economics. So conservatives must keep up the titanic, colossal, epic, probably cosmically doomed and tragic economic struggle to keep government small … so people will not dress funny or wear their hair in hairy ways? Sort of wimpy, as ragnaroks go. Notable disproportion here between means and the wished-for end. Even if you are the sort of person who feels deeply offended by funny, ethnic clothes (we’re off the deep end) – even if you think it is anything like your business to dictate fashion sense to everyone around you (we’re so off the deep end) – how could you possibly think it was so important as all that? And yet immediately we are off and running about after the bourgeois virtues, all dying out: thrift, diligence, prudence, sobriety, fidelity, and orderliness. I won’t bother to quote. Why can I not exhibit all these virtues beneath and/or behind a beard, kente cloth and/or keffiyeh? Frum seems to find it too obvious to bear arguing that the trick is impossible. (Yet he can’t actually think that.) Does Frum seriously believe there are no shrewd, sober businessmen in those parts of the world where businessmen wear beards and keffiyehs and kente cloths? (Obviously he doesn’t. That’s crazy.) So what does he think? I think he just has a powerful feeling that: things ought to be a certain way. And if they are that way, everything will be all right.

Mill and Nietzsche on Frum

Holbo’s sequel post to Dead Right, almost as instructive as the original.
He’s a seething mass of potent preferences and aversions, which are after all merely customary observances: some reasonable, most groundless and arbitrary or outdated. But it is intolerable to him to check and see which are which, because he is powerfully attached to the whole set – even the teeny, tiny aesthetic ones. (Cut your hair, damn hippies!) Yet it is necessary for Frum to produce reasons, because he is also powerfully determined others should share his preferences. And he is averse to authoritarianism. He does not wish to impose his mere private preferences tyrannically. As Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man puts it: all should be compelled to bow down before me voluntarily. This entails tortuous, self-deceptive mental gynmastics.

The Mile-High Club: What the Right Really Thinks About Sex

Corey Robin comments on a conversation between Ross Douhat and Dan Savage (!) and comes to conclusions similar to Holbo’s above.

Douthat defends repression not on the grounds that it is stabilizing but because “the nature of human excellence depends on—this, I, sound absurd—overcoming impulses for the sake of your partner, your children, the people you love.”

And here we come to Ground Zero of conservative commitment. The conservative believes in excellence, as Douthat says, but it is a vision of excellence defined as and dependent on “overcoming.” It’s a vision that abhors the easy path of acceptance, of tolerating human frailty and need, not because that path is wrong but because it is easy. Or, to put it differently, it’s wrong precisely because it is easy.

The John Birch Society Is Back

An overview of the history and ideas of a key strain of thinking on the hard right in the US.
in reality, the John Birch Society never went away. It was weakened, yes, and its ranks have atrophied drastically. As an organization, the Society lacks its former influence and numbers. It is a pale imitation of its former self. But the increased popularity of the brand of paranoid, conspiracy-minded conservatism it pioneered suggests its finger is still firmly on the pulse of a certain type of anti-government ideology—one that is closer to the levers of power than ever before, especially in Texas, home of Alex Jones, Ron Paul and Ted Cruz.

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years

Rick Perlstein (author of three great books about the origins of contemporary movement conservatismBefore The Storm, Nixonland, and The Invisible Bridge) writes in Rolling Stone about how the American hard right we see in the form of the Tea Party today is far from a new phenomenon, and should be understood as the latest manifestation of a school of American thought that goes a long way back.
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I’d argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there — if you knew where to look. What’s changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP.
Over fifteen years of studying the American right professionally — especially in their communications with each other, in their own memos and media since the 1950s — I have yet to find a truly novel development, a real innovation, in far-right “thought.”

The Long Con: Mail-Order Conservatism

Another long article from Perlstein in The Baffler about the profound link between conservative direct mail campaigns and other mail scams, and what they imply about the conservative sensibility.
It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound ....

Nixon’s Babies

Another from Digby about the dirty aspects of movement conservatism, inspired by the Tom DeLay influence-peddling scandal.

I think the evidence show that the conservative movement was bound for corruption from the get-go. The modern Republicans, from their earliest incarnation in the 60’s, starting with still active operatives like Morton Blackwell and Karl Rove to the next generation of Abramoff, Norquist and Reed, have always operated as dirty tricksters, and corrupt power brokers. The modern Republican Party is not, and never has been, the party of Ronald Reagan, not really. It’s the party of Richard Nixon.


They have come to represent the three most important wings of the modern conservative movement --- the Christian Right (Reed), the movement ideologues (Norquist) and the big money boys (Abramoff.) They are the Republican party. And they are all corrupt.

Off with their heads! Eric Cantor, the Tea Party guillotine, and the certainty of conservative sell-out

Thomas Frank at Salon makes an observation about a tension which drives conservative politics.
The clash of idealism and sellout are how conservatives always perceive their movement ... That right-wing leaders are seduced by Washington D.C., and that they will inevitably betray the market-minded rank-and-file, are fixed ideas in the Republican mind, certainties as definite as are its convictions that tax cuts will cure any economic problem and that liberals are soft on whoever the national enemy happens to be.

And so the movement advances along its rightward course not directly but by a looping cycle of sincerity and sellout in which the radicals of yesterday always turn out to be the turncoats of today; off to the guillotine they are sent as some new and always more righteous generation rises up in their place.

Why Conservatives Think The Ends Justify The Means

One more from Rick Perlstein, this time in The Nation, talking about the different stakes for liberals compared to conservatives.
That first principle is the matter of procedure versus norms. As I wrote in a 2003 review of Eric Alterman’s book What Liberal Media?
We Americans love to cite the “political spectrum” as the best way to classify ideologies. The metaphor is incorrect: it implies symmetry. But left and right today are not opposites. They are different species. It has to do with core principles. To put it abstractly, the right always has in mind a prescriptive vision of its ideal future world—a normative vision. Unlike the left (at least since Karl Marx neglected to include an actual description of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” within the 2,500 pages of Das Kapital), conservatives have always known what the world would look like after their revolution: hearth, home, church, a businessman’s republic. The dominant strain of the American left, on the other hand, certainly since the decline of the socialist left, fetishizes fairness, openness, and diversity. (Liberals have no problem with home, hearth, and church in themselves; they just see them as one viable life-style option among many.) If the stakes for liberals are fair procedures, the stakes for conservatives are last things: either humanity trends toward Grace, or it hurtles toward Armageddon.

A very important point. It has to do, too, with the almost opposite definitions liberals and conservatives affix to the word “principle.” For liberals, generally speaking, honoring procedures—means—is the core of what being “principled” means. For conservatives, fighting for the right outcome—ends—even at the expense of procedural nicety, is what being “principled” means.

In short, if you’re a conservative, isn’t the point of an election to win, so you can bend the world to your will, no matter the means it takes to get there? Even if you don’t necessarily have the majority’s support?

What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong With It?

Phil Agre reaches for a fundamental definition of conservatism. He offers an unflattering answer, which includes the hostility to democracy which Perlstein alludes to.
Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:
Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.
These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves “conservatives” have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.

The right’s climate denialism is part of something much larger

David Roberts at Grist makes an observation about how conservative media attacks public faith in institutions.
The core idea is most clearly expressed by Rush Limbaugh:
We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. …

The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

The right’s project over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society’s leading institutions. Experts are made elites; their presumption of expertise becomes self-damning. They think they’re better than you. They talk down to you. They don’t respect people like us, real Americans.

Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview about the Southern Strategy

Rick Perlstein gives us not only the original interview in its entirety, but helpful context and analysis.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites .... “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Those words soon became legend—quoted in both screeds (The GOP-Haters Handbook, 2007) and scholarship (Corey Robin’s 2011 classic work of political theory, The Reactionary Mind). Google Books records its use in ten books published so far this year alone. Curious about the remarks’ context, Carter, who learned Lamis had died in 2012, asked his widow if she would consider releasing the audio of the interview, especially in light of the use of race-baiting dog-whistles (lies about Obama ending work requirements for welfare; “jokes” about his supposed Kenyan provenance) in the Romney presidential campaign. Renée Lamis, an Obama donor, agreed that very same night. For one thing she was “upset,” Carter told me, that “for some time, conservatives believed [her] husband made up the Atwater interview.” For another, she was eager to illustrate that her husband’s use of the Atwater quote was scholarly, not political.

So what does the new contextual wrapping teach us? It vindicates Lamis, who indeed comes off as careful and scholarly. And no surprise, it shows Atwater acting yet again in bad faith.

Thinking Like A Conservative

Perlstein unpacks the underlying logic of key elements of conservative rhetoric in this series of posts at The Nation.
  1. mass shootings and gun control
  2. biding time on voting rights
  3. shutting down government
  4. goalpost moving
  5. epistemology and empathy
  6. government dependency

Allow me to remove this rhetorical club I keep in a sheath alongside my waist and beat some of my liberal friends with it, because I’m getting frustrated, frustrated, frustrated, and I can’t hardly take it no more. Despite a continuous flow of examples to the contrary this spring, summer and, now, autumn, our side keeps on wishfully, willfully and rather ignorantly denying the plain evidence in front of their faces about how conservative politics works. Namely, I keep seeing predictions that this, that or the other signal from polls or the political establishment or a traumatized public will “finally” “break the spell” of right-wing extremism on a certain issue, or even on all issues—and then we see that prediction spectacularly fail.

We can’t keep on going this way, my friend. You have to finally come to terms with how conservatism works. Now, that guy in the White House, Obama—I’ve given up hope that he’ll ever get it. I still have faith in you, though. Stop judging conservative by the logic of “normal” politics, or by the epistemology of the world as you, a liberal, understand it. Or as Poli Sci 101 understands it. Every time you do that, you denude us of strength for the fight. Grasp the right on its own terms. Stop trying to make it make sense on your own.

Christians in the Hands of an Angry God

“Infamous” Brad Hicks examines contemporary evangelical theology at length, tracing its connections to conservative politics.
How did so many seminaries and so many preachers and so many authors get converted to this false gospel? What deal did they make with Satan himself, and why? What did they think that they were doing? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’ve met one of the people who “signed” that deal and helped enforce it. He was quite proud of his achievement, and years later told many of us about the meeting where that decision was made. It is only recently that I came to understand just who the other side in that deal really was, as opposed to who the fundamentalists in that room thought they were dealing with.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right

Randall Ballmer has a different reading than Brad Hicks of how evangelicals became politicized.

One of the most durable myths in recent history is that the religious right, the coalition of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, emerged as a political movement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.


But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.

A Very Old Story

Digby at Hullabaloo traces “Heartland” cultural resentment back through the Civil War and before.
Indeed, this has been a problem since the dawn of the republic. And it isn’t a problem that will be solved by the Red States gaining and maintaining power. They have held power many times throughout our history and they were still filled with resentment toward “the north” (now “the liberal elites.”) And, it won’t be solved by adopting different stances on “moral issues,” or telling the current Democratic southern constituencies to suck it up. Maybe it’s time we looked a little bit deeper and realized that this tribal problem isn’t going to be solved by politics at all.

The “liberal elites” will no doubt be making more compromises in the direction of heartland values for pragmatic reasons. But, judging by history, it won’t change a thing. Neither will Republican political dominance.

The Resentment Tribe

Digby again looking at the cultural resentment animating our politics, quoting extensively from Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address.
Wherever resentment resides in the human character it can find a home in the Republican Party. This anger and frustration stems from a long nurtured sense of cultural besiegement, which they are finding can never be dealt with through the attainment of power alone. They seek approval.

The Cooper Union Address

Abraham Lincoln’s speech, made during his Presidential campaign, itself rewards the contemporary reader. As Digby says, it describes the deep resentments of American conservative political culture vividly.

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly — done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party

Doug Muder again, explaining how a proper understanding of the Reconstruction era explains American politics today, revealing the Tea Party strain to reflect the same anti-democratic impulses and methods developed in the wake of the Civil War.

If the Napoleonic Wars were your model, then it was obvious that the Confederacy lost in 1865: Its capital fell, its commander surrendered, its president was jailed, and its territories were occupied by the opposing army. If that’s not defeat, what is?

But now we have a better model than Napoleon: Iraq.

After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasional pitched battles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place.


So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost.

Herrenvolk Democracy in the United States

Billmon describes how conservatives want to persevere rule by “real Americans”.
In a U.S. context, I take “herrenvolk democracy” to mean the sacred principle that all white people (or at least, white men) are equal. U.S. was born as a “herrenvolk” democracy — a necessary feature in a system that a) embraces social contract theory, b) enslaves people.
For the populist RW [right wing], tyranny essentially = rule by those who are not of the herrenvolk — i.e. Sarah Palin’s “real America.” But belief only “real Americans” should be allowed to rule is awkward to express openly because of notional U.S. dedication to equality. And so we get a lot of RW ideological window dressing designed to make herrenvolk values look like principled opposition to big govt.

When the Palinist Impulse Collides With Governing

Mike the Mad Biologist shares Billmon’s take on the hard right.
The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way.

Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism

David Neiwert, a journalist whose blog Orcinus and other work covers the far right in America, lays out a description of what fascism is, how it works, and what it does and does not have to do with American conservatism in a very long essay built around the central figure of Rush Limbaugh. It’s long, so you may want the PDF.
Rush Limbaugh likes to call himself “the most dangerous man in America.” He offers this epithet tongue in cheek on his radio program, but the truth is, he isn’t kidding. Over the decade and more that Limbaugh has ruled America’s talk-radio landscape, it has become inescapably clear that he is, if nothing else, certainly the most dangerous demagogue in America, maybe in history.
One of the problems with the easy bandying of the term “fascist” nowadays is that, by being loosely attached to figures who are only conservative — including people like Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush — it obscures the actual mechanism by which genuine fascism manifests itself. It also lends itself to a hysterical assessment when clarity and focus are what’s really needed.
The line between right-wing extremists and “the conservative movement” has been increasingly blurred in the past 10 years. The distance between them now has grown so short in some cases as to render them nearly indistinguishable.
This, in addition to sloppy thinking, is why some on the left will offhandedly label Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush “fascists.” I’m here to explain why, despite all appearances, they aren’t. Yet. And how we’ll know when they are.

An Observation From Highpockets

Digby observes how conservatives account for the failings of their leaders and their policies. Written back in 2005, but ever relevant, and ofoften referenced by lefties saying, “Conservatism can never fail; it can only be failed”.

Movement conservatives are getting ready to write the history of this era as liberalism once again failing the people. Typically, the conservatives were screwed, as they always are. They must regroup and fight for conservatism, real conservatism, once again. Viva la revolucion!

There is no such thing as a bad conservative. “Conservative” is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives’ good graces. Until they aren’t. At which point they are liberals.

Get used to the hearing about how the Republicans failed because they weren’t true conservatives. Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets. It’s a lot like communism that way.

The Conservative Mind

A long article from Corey Robin, explaining his thesis that contemporary conservatism has a direct continuity with early conservative thinkers like Burke and Hayek, who are commonly misunderstood.

Historically, the conservative has sought to forestall the march of democracy in both the public and the private spheres, on the assumption that advances in the one necessarily spur advances in the other. Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been to cede the field of the public, if he must, but stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field.

No simple defense of one’s own place and privileges, the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the capitalist, with his vision of the employer’s untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father’s rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth. Each in his way subscribes to this statement, from the 19th century, of the conservative creed: “To obey a real superior ... is one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting.”

Conservatism is dead because it lives

Another from Corey Robin, describing the victory of conservative ideas even as the Republicans’ grip on electoral victory begins to fade.
Conservatism is dead because it lives. It has triumphed. It may lose elections, but its basic assumptions, going back to the reaction against the New Deal, now govern both parties. The economist John Quiggin calls it Zombie Economics, and it has never seemed a more appropriate metaphor. The dead walk among us. They are us.

Why Go After Women and Workers? The Reactionary Mind Explains It All For You.

Another quote from Corey Robin, excerpting from the end of his book The Reactionary Mind his thesis about conservatism protecting private power.
Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been Adams’s: cede the field of the public, if you must, stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field. The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power—even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state....

Why the Left Gets Neoliberalism Wrong: It’s the Feudalism, Stupid!

Another observation from Corey Robin, about how many “libertarians” who are uncomfortable with state power and enthusiasts for The Market are enthusiasts for private power.
When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees. And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.

From The Reactionary Mind

A summary of conservatism at its roots, from the Introduction to Corey Robin’s book.

Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion mistakes the actual disagreement between the right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. “We are all agreed as to our own liberty,” declared Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose. I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us. Such was the threat Edmund Burke saw in the French Revolution: not merely an expropriation of property or explosion of violence but an inverse of the obligations of deference and command. “The levellers,” he claimed, “only change and pervert the natural order of things.”

The occupation of a hair-dresser, of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honor to any person — to say nothing of a number of more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule.

By virtue of membership in a polity, Burke allowed, men had a great many rights — to the fruits of their labor, their inheritance, education, and more. But the one right he refused to concede to all men was that “share of power, authority, and direction” they might think they ought to have “in the management of the state.”

Even when the hefts demands shift tot eh economic realm, the threat of freedom’s extension looms large. If women and workers are provided with the economic resources to make independent choices, they will be free not to obey their husbands and employers. That is why Lawrence Mead, one of the leading intellectual opponents of the welfare state in the 1980s and 1990s, declared that the welfare recipient “must be made /less/ free in certain senses rather than more.”

For the conservative, equality portends more than a redistribution of resources, opportunities, and outcomes — though he certainly dislikes these, too. What equality ultimately means is a rotation in the seat of power.

Comment on The Travesty of Liberalism

In a famous comment at the blog Crooked Timber, Frank Wilhoit has a description of conservatism which parallels Robin’s. Follow the link above for more context, which is illuminting.

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

There must be in-groups whom the law protectes but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

The Punishers Want To Run The Country or
We Are All Tipped Waitstaff Now

No More Mister Nice Blog explains Republican resentment of Federal workers in terms of their psychology and vision of society, echoing Corey Robin’s thesis.
At heart the entire Republican Party is made up of winners and losers and they are united in just one thing: they think that money is the only way to tell who is who. If you have money, you use that to distinguish yourself from the losers and to demonstrate your superiority by punishing them further. If you are a loser—a worker, for example, or have no health insurance (say) your job as a Republican is to take your status as a given, accept it, and turn around and get your jollies kicking someone else farther down the line.
The right boundaries for workers are that they know their place, that they can be fired capriciously, and that they exist primarily to make the employer feel good about himself and, further, that like waiters in a restaurant and prostitutes with their johns their job is also to make the employer believe that he is receiving an extra good form of treatment not accorded to others diners or johns.

When the BENGHAZI! Mentality Collides With Economic Policy

Mike the Mad Biologist links and quotes several sources to demonstrate Corey Robin’s thesis that conservatism is about supporting private hierarchies. Here’s him quoting Leo W. Gerard:
The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. .... High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”

What’s It All About Then

Paul Krugman talking about the debate over economic policy responses to the Great Recession following the ’08 financial crisis describes not just conservatives’ advocacy of austerity but most conservative punditry on most topics.

Proponents of austerity, however, were lying about their motives. Strong words, but if you look at their recent reactions it becomes clear that all the claims ... were just excuses for an agenda of dismantling the welfare state. That in turn helps explain why the intellectual collapse of their supposed arguments has made no difference to their policy position.

One interesting point, which Wren-Lewis gets at and I’ve mentioned on other occasions, is that the austerity side of this debate isn’t just disingenuous; it doesn’t seem to comprehend the notion that other people might actually argue in good faith. No time to do the link right now, but back when we were discussing stimulus many people on the right, economists like Lucas included, simply assumed that people like Christy Romer were making stuff up to serve a political agenda. And now I think we can see why they made this assumption — after all, that’s how they work.

The paranoid style in American politics

This classic Richard Hofstadter essay from 1964 remains relevant, showing how a certain flavor of right-wing paranoia has always been with us.

The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

Politics, Not Economics

A series of tweets from Umair Haque of the Harvard Business Review about the relationship between conservative politics and the global economic crisis.
10. Conservatism EXPLICITLY aims for rent-seeking, social fracture, systemic externalities, and elite capture.
23. (Neo)feudalism is essentially the event horizon of modern conservatism. Where it comes full circle, and regresses into lunacy.

Conservatives Don’t Hate the Immigration Deal. They Hate All Deals.

Jonathan Chait provides a nice set of clear examples of how conservatives complaining that the challenge in our governance is that Democrats refuse to compromise are engaging in projection.
Conservative Republicans ... hate compromise in general. By an 82-14 margin, liberals want their elected officials to make compromises. By a 63-32 margin, conservatives want elected officials not to compromise. Republicans simply don’t trust bipartisan deals.

Regurgitating the apple: how Modern Liberals “think”

This last piece on conservative thinking, in an odd reversal, is actually a talk by Evan Sayet given at the prestigious conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation attempting to explain to conservatives how liberals think. As in the previous link, it seems to liberals that Amercian conservatism often seems to consist of no positive program at all, but rather a contrarian opposition to liberalism. This piece is a fascinating window into how that appears from the other side.
I assume that just about everybody in this room agrees that the Democrats are wrong on just about every issue. Well, I’m here to propose to you that it’s not “just about” every issue; it’s quite literally every issue. And it’s not just wrong; it’s as wrong as wrong can be; it’s 180 degrees from right; it is diametrically opposed to that which is good, right, and successful.

What I discovered is that this is not an accident. This is part of a philosophy that now dominates the whole of Western Europe and the Democratic Party today. I, like some others, call it Modern Liberalism. The Modern Liberal will invariably side with evil over good, wrong over right, and the behaviors that lead to failure over those that lead to success.
But if they’re not stupid and they’re not evil, what’s their plan?

More vocabulary from Left Blogistan

Having introduced the terms “High Broderism” and “The Village”, here are some more whimsical terms from left-leaning bloggers that teach a lesson about American politics.

If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride — A Pony!

Belle Waring offers a funny and useful snark trope.
It’s like when you can’t decide whether to daydream about being a famous Hollywood star or having amazing magical powers. Why not — be a famous Hollywood star with amazing magical powers! Along these lines, John has developed an infallible way to improve any public policy wishes. You just wish for the thing, plus, wish that everyone would have their own pony! So, in Chafetz’ case, he should not only wish that Bush would say a lot of good things about democracy-building and fighting terrorism in a speech written for him by a smart person, he should also wish that Bush should actually mean the things he says and enact policies which reflect this, and he should wish that everyone gets a pony. See?

The Green Lantern Theory of The Presidency

Ezra Klein describes a troubling superstition in American politics.

According to Brendan Nyhan, the Dartmouth political scientist who coined the term, the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency is "the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics." In other words, the American president is functionally all-powerful, and whenever he can’t get something done, it’s because he’s not trying hard enough, or not trying smart enough.

Wingnut welfare

The system of sinecures which keeps conservative soldiers gainfully employed.

Wingnut welfare refers to jobs or deals offered to conservatives on the basis of ideological purity rather than talent or experience. The term was coined in 2005 by blogger Jane Hamsher, who used it in reference to Pajamas Media.[1] It has since become a popular term among liberal bloggers.

Wingnut welfare typically describes positions at conservative publishing houses, opinion journals and websites. However, not all such positions are considered wingnut welfare. The term is generally applied to those positions or deals which are divorced from free-market business principles. Put simply, wingnut welfare recipients are not expected to generate profit or even make any money at all. Such operations are heavily subsidized by wealthy benefactors such as William Regnery Jr. and Richard Mellon Scaife and organizations such as the John M. Olin Foundation.

The Balloon Juice Lexicon

A witty guide to numerous other common refrains used on political blogs. Useful as a reference, but also well worth browsing. In three parts:

More classics

A grab bag of other invaluable blog posts which help explain What’s Going On in American politics.

This American moment of reälignment

A general theory of US politics in the wake of DJT, focusing on why the heck the Democratic Party establishment is so feckless.

How could they?

A compelling, persuasive, and mortifying explanation for violence, grounded in deep research.
We did in fact find a pattern in all the violence. There was a unifying theme, with all the predictive and explanatory power one could wish for.
In every case, the violent act is perceived by the perpetrators, observers – and in some cases the victims themselves – as just.

At the same time, if violence is motivated by moral sentiments, what is it motivated toward? What are these perpetrators trying to achieve? The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships.


Does this mean that it necessarily ‘feels good’ or that people are never conflicted when they engage in it? No. People hate hurting others. It can be extremely distressing and traumatic, and can require training, social support and experience to do it. But that’s true of many moral practices. It can be difficult to tell the truth or to stand up for what’s right. People often resist or fail to do what’s required of them. Most of us would agree that it’s morally right to jump into icy water to save someone who is drowning, but that doesn’t mean we relish doing it.

Common Fraud

A long and fascinating exploration of an example of deceptive advocacy propaganda.

A few years back I had an argument with one of my brothers. I said that right-wing disinformation had a whole lot more money and organization behind it than anything the left had to say. He said no, it didn’t. I said yes, actually; it did. He again said no it didn’t, so I saw there was no use in talking about it, at any rate not with him. But it’s true. Corporate America doesn’t just buy airtime and put together slick ads for its products. It also uses its money to generate some of the slickest disinformation on the planet.

We think we’re so clever, we think we can cope, we think we’re on top of the problem. We don’t just take any old advice off the Internet. We think we know where to find the good stuff. We know to think twice before listening to corporate spokesmen. We give extra credence to private netizens who, out of the kindness of their hearts, are giving us the straight dope on something. We’ve done it a hundred times before. We’ve done the same when someone asked a question we could answer, and felt good for being able to help them.

It’s different now. There’s too much money at stake for that frontier to stay open. Deceiving us has become an industrial process.

Special Providence — Improv on the world stage

A useful thumbnail description of the four different foreign policy traditions in American politics descried in Walter Russell Mead’s book:
  • Hamiltonians who “open foreign markets and ensure freedom of the seas, cultivating allies where necessary”
  • Wilsonians who “strive to make the world safe for democracy”
  • Jeffersonians who “fear that the very instruments necessary to spread democracy (especially a big military, an activist federal government and the high taxes needed to pay for both) could pose threats to domestic political and economic freedoms”
  • Jacksonians who are pro-military but isolationist ... until insults to national honor make them decide that “America’s enemies must be brought to their knees, if necessary through the application of overwhelming armed force”

Southern Strategery

Digby again, with an examination of how racism (particularly in the South but not limited to it) has shaped American politics in ways that make the country resistent to social democracy.
Racism is the original sin of the American experiment and progress in expunging it is slow going, especially in its ground zero, the south. It may even be that some of our most cherished beliefs about ourselves — individualism and self-sufficiency — are partially grounded in an ugly reaction to slavery and the fallout from it. White Supremacists and neo-confederates are exactly what they appear to be and more subtle aspects of their philosophy play themselves out in the multitude of ways that people rationalize their beliefs about government social programs and many other things in American culture.

Obama stump speech strategy of conciliation considered harmful

Written back in 2007, when candidates Obama, Clinton, and others were about to enter the Presidential primaries, this article offers a good capsule description of the dynamic created by Movement Conservatism in American politics on its way to prophetic criticism of Obama’s tactics of compromise with the Republican party.
Slowly but surely, well funded and well organized Conservatives pushed their ideas from unthinkable, to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular, and finally into policy, in a process described as The Overton Window. As surely and ruthlessly, progressive ideas were marginalized, and then silenced altogether. And spending what it took, the winger billionaires used the Conservative Movement to restructure politics, and having restructured politics, economics. To their economic benefit.

The Powell Memo: A call-to-arms for corporations

Bill Moyers explains the powerful influence of the Powell Memo in shaping the landscape of American politics as Nixon’s Southern Strategy evolved into Movement Conservatism.
Lewis Powell felt compelled to assert, in a memo that was to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson ... that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

The Powell Memo (also known as the Powell Manifesto)

The original text of the memo itself.
But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assidously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

A short history of white racism in the two-party system

Doug Muder with a clarifying explanation of how the Democratic and Republican coalitions shifted during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Instructive because movement conservatives have been misrepresenting this history in recent years in order to claim that Democrats Are The Real Racists. The real history shows something more interesting instead: that for historically contingent reasons our nation’s two cultural tribes have never neatly divided between our two political parties ... until now. (Original Sin by Sam Tanenhaus at The New Republic offers another telling of this tale.)

If you’ve seen the Lincoln movie, maybe you’re still walking around with this bit of cognitive dissonance: In 1864, the Democrats are the party of slavery and the Republicans the party of emancipation and racial justice. What’s up with that? How did we get from there to here?

The story is doubly worth telling because Republicans like Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg have been misrepresenting it so grossly.

American Democracy is Doomed

Matthew Yglesias at Vox describes how the shift to ideologically-coherent political parties in the US is a new development ... and a potentially disastrous one.
Today’s partisan polarization, in other words, is not the same as its Gilded Age predecessor. The old polarization was about control over jobs and money — the kind of thing where split-the-difference compromises are easiest. That polarization was eventually undermined by a new politics built around principles. For decades, politicians found themselves cross-pressured between their commitments to a national party network and to various ideological causes. Today, however, politicians are no longer cross-pressured. We have strong Gilded Age-style parties, but organized around questions of principle rather than questions of patronage.

The left’s gone left but the right’s gone nuts: Asymmetrical polarization in action

David Roberts at Grist examines the polarization of the last few decades and says some interesting things about commentators’ fantasies of a “center”.
Here’s the way I’d put it: Today, the national Democratic Party contains everything from the center-right to the far-left. Economically its proposals tend to be center to center-right. Socially, its proposals tend to be center to center-left. The national Republican Party, by contrast, has now been almost entirely absorbed by the far right. It rejects the basic social consensus among post-war democracies and seeks to return to a pre-New Deal form of governance. It is hostile to social and economic equality. It remains committed to fossil fuels and sprawl and opposed to all sustainable alternatives. And it has built an epistemological cocoon around itself within which loopy misinformation spreads unchecked. It has, in short, gone loony.

Why Welfare

A review in The Economist of Alberto Alesina’s and Edward Glaeser’s book Fighting Poverty: A World of Difference which show that support for social democratic welfare state in the United States is undercut by racism.

Racial diversity in individual states is correlated with the generosity of welfare. For instance, the authors find that in 1990 Aid to Families with Dependent Children ranged from over $800 per family per month in mainly white Alaska to less than $150 in Alabama and Mississippi, where almost one-third of the population is black. Even after adjustment for inter-state differences in average incomes, the correlation with race remained strong. Across countries, too, racial diversity goes with low government spending on poverty relief.

The reason, argue the authors, is that “race matters”, and they marshal statistical evidence, much of it from opinion surveys, to back this up. People are likely to support welfare if they live close to recipients of their own race; but are antipathetic if they live near recipients from another race. The divergent attitudes of Europeans and Americans to the poor are underwritten by the fact that the poor in Europe tend to be ethnically the same as most other folk. In America, their skin is often a different colour.

The authors say that “political entrepreneurs”, eager to use race as an excuse to turn the poor against redistribution, shape attitudes to race and to poverty.

Tea Party Yankees

Seth Ackerman brings convincing historical research to show that the Republican wing we call the Tea Party isn’t a Southern invasion; it’s more structural than that.

Today’s Republican extremism owes more to the Constitution that established the Union than the secessionists who sundered it. It’s Hoover’s party — and Madison’s — not Calhoun’s


The notion that this brand of Southern Democratic politics prefigured modern-day Rush Limbaugh-style Tea Party Republicanism is fallacious. If, today, there are modern-day equivalents of Russell’s genre of Southern Democrat – on issues other than civil rights – they are not Eric Cantor or Ted Cruz, but rather Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, John Breaux, or Claire McCaskill. In other words, the closest modern-day equivalents of the conservative Democrats of the 1940s are modern-day conservative Democrats.

As for the process by which those traditional Southern Democrats were eventually displaced by an ever-expanding Southern Republican Party – a process Judis attributes to Goldwater and his fellow conservatives “seiz[ing] the mantle of states’ rights” – it was a gradual, uneven, and complex one. What is notable, though, is that over the long run it represented a process of convergence with the rest of the country – not a retreat into some moonlight-and-magnolias particularism. And for good reason: during those decades, the South’s social structure was converging with the North’s at a stunning pace. Once a poor, rural and agricultural backwater, the South emerged as a suburban, postindustrial growth region. In almost every aspect of its society – including its new forms of racial stratification – it increasingly resembled the North. And the same was true of its politics.


After two centuries laboring under a Constitution crafted by principled opponents of democracy, who saw as one of their central goals the suppression of any chance that concerted majorities might ever use the state for positive ends, how can anyone be surprised that this country is hospitable to anti-government extremists?

Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex

Doug Muder at the Weekly Sift again, describing a pattern of far right ideas that can be traced to the logic of the Confederacy.
Those ideas are not related to each other in any logical sense, so it would certainly be possible to believe a few of them without the others. But they originated together in the defeated South and have spread through the same channels ever since. As a result, although lots of people believe one or two of these ideas, if you hear more than a few of them from someone, probably you’ll eventually hear all the rest. When well-armed white men are rabidly opposed to the federal government and talk at length about their love of their own freedom, chances are excellent that they will eventually start waxing nostalgic about slavery, as Cliven Bundy did.

Anatomy of the Deep State

Mike Lofgren offers an overview of the contemporary systems of oligarchic political power which aren’t quite a conspiracy, but are an abrogation of American democracy.
Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude.

The Three-Ladder system of social class in the US

Michael O. Church offers an understanding of the different intersecting infrastructures of class in the US, the cultures that go with them, and the political implications of the interactions between them. (I also include this on an index of articles about social class categories.)

Typical depictions of social class in the United States posit a linear, ordered hierarchy. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that there are 3 distinct ladders, with approximately four social classes on each. Additionally, there is an underclass of people not connected to any of the ladders, creating an unlucky 13th social class. I’ll attempt to explain how this three-ladder system works, what it means, and also why it is a source of conflict. The ladders I will assign the names Labor, Gentry, and Elite.


That said, these ladders often come into conflict. The most relevant one to most of my readers will be the conflict between the Gentry and the Elite. The Gentry tends to be left-libertarian and values creativity, individual autonomy, and free expression. The Elite tends toward center-right authoritarianism and corporate conformity, and it views creativity as dangerous (except when applied to hiding financial risks or justifying illegal wars). The Gentry believes that it is the deserving elite and the face of the future, and that it can use culture to engineer a future in which its values are elite; while the upper tier of the Elite finds the Gentry pretentious, repugnant, self-indulgent, and subversive. The relationship between the Gentry and Elite is incredibly contentious. It’s a cosmic, ubiquitous war between the past and the future.

Between the Gentry and Labor, there is an attitude of distrust. The Elite has been running a divide-and-conquer strategy between these two categories for decades. This works because the Elite understands (and can ape) the culture of the Gentry, but has something in common with Labor that sets the categories apart from the Gentry: a conception of work as a theater for masculine dominance. This is something that the Elite and Labor both believe in– the visceral strength and importance of the alpha-male in high-stakes gambling settings such as most modern work– but that the Gentry would rather deny. Gender is a major part of the Elite’s strategy in turning Labor against the Gentry: make the Gentry look effeminate. That’s why “feminist” is practically a racial slur, despite the world desperately needing attention to women’s political equality, health and well-being (that is, feminism).

Church offers an equally unnerving follow-up post:
At the time, I was unduly sympathetic to my native social class, the Gentry. This blinded me to something I had begun to suspect, and that Alex Danco articulated— that a sociological “middle class” is a comfortable illusion, a story capitalist society tells itself to mask its barbaric nature, performing a similar function to the notoriously clueless middle manager, Michael Scott.

The Twin Insurgency

Essential in understanding our global crisis in governance
Unlike classic 20th-century insurgents, who sought control over the state apparatus in order to implement social reforms, criminal and plutocratic insurgents do not seek to take over the state. Nor do they wish to destroy the state, since they rely parasitically on it to provide the legacy goods of social welfare: health, education, infrastructure, and so on. Rather, their aim is simpler: to carve out de facto zones of autonomy for themselves by crippling the state’s ability to constrain their freedom of (economic) action.

How could they?

A chilling and persuasive explanation for violence, which offers a thin but profound strand of hope for preventing it
We did in fact find a pattern in all the violence. There was a unifying theme, with all the predictive and explanatory power one could wish for.

Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.

1 comment:

JCD said...

I think the concise category-summary you give of liberals and conservatives in America is extremely useful (though I'm not quite convinced that those are the best words to use for the categories).

I wonder if you've encountered Isaiah Berlin's "two liberties" observation, and if so, what resources you could recommend for comparing the two liberties idea with the Jonathan Haidt-esque psychology/ethical-theory of liberalism vs conservatism. Haidt mentions Berlin, and interacts with him on some level, but I don't know of any place where he fully addresses the similarities and differences between his own (psychological) account and Berlin's (ideological) account.

Two liberties:

A sample of Haidt mentioning Berlin:

John Gray criticizing a closely-related part of Haidt's thought, including a connection to Berlin: