Ten Things We Now Know About American Politics

Ahem. We seem to have been graced by the Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times.” The surprising upset by Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton has left many people flabbergasted. Since I live in Los Angeles, it seems a lot of those people live around me.

But there were many hints of this possible outcome going back months if not almost a year. The results seem to have confirmed some new “realities” to replace former “speculations.”

  1. The polling surveys proved to be less than accurate-to say the least-but this had been going on since the early primaries. Remember, Trump was never supposed to get past the first couple of primaries. The Hollywood adage that “Nobody knows anything,” held true to the end.
  2. The Republican party has been split between its party regulars or leaders and their voters. The voters won handily, now the party will need to respond with some supplication. Trump is a symptom, not a cause. Despite being counted out, the Republicans managed to retain the Senate and the House, awarding President-elect Trump a golden opportunity to enact his agenda, whatever that is.
  3. The Democratic party establishment apparently sold their voters a pig in a poke. It was not hard to see a year ago that Hillary Clinton was probably the weakest candidate the party could have selected given the political climate. She represented the status quo, promising Obama’s third-term, after two midterm elections that repudiated his policy agenda. Moreover, she came in carrying a 25 year load of baggage that caused voters to question her authenticity and candor, to put it politely. Her tenure as Senator and SOS did little to promote her candidacy. It seems that the fact that she was the wife of Bill was her most valuable asset, but even that was tarnished as voters were reminded of Bill’s former scandals and tawdry reputation. The voters had little choice and Sanders appeal should have been the first clue that things were going very wrong, again, for Clinton. The flip of the Rust Belt is another warning signal that the party has gone astray.
  4. The mainstream media pundits once again have egg on their faces. The politicization of coverage backfired and the more they pushed, the worse it got for their favored biases. They failed miserably at their efforts to shape political opinion instead of informing objectively. Now some of the more prominent talking heads should probably seek a new profession since the public has turned them off. But no, stupid will likely double down, until they discover nobody who matters is really listening.
  5. The Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama/Clinton era is over, as each administration’s overreaching came back to bite them with a vengeance. Obama and his policy legacy is a casualty of this collapse of a 28 year party era. As painful as it might seem to some, Obama’s presidency helped to bring about the collapse of his party and the rise of an outsider like Trump. He now owns it, just like Bush wears the Iraq albatross.
  6. We have divided ourselves into a 50-50 nation, polarized by population density: urban vs. rural and suburban.* This means the popular vote will be less of an indication of true, broad support and may often diverge from the Electoral College vote. Thus, the EC is crucial to securing a clear electoral and governing mandate. It appears Clinton eked out a popular vote victory, but more importantly, Trump won the decisive margin in the EC. The swing state problem is that we don’t have enough swing voters at the center of our divide.
  7. We should probably be thankful that media and political transparency is being forced on us by technology. It is too ironic that we are getting our political insights from hackers and Wikileaks.
  8. “Politics as usual” was a big loser. The people took control of this election, for better or worse, so elites had better pay attention while the rest of us figure out how to move people power toward the broader good, rather than the narrow. When failure occurs, we need to see it clearly and own it. I’m wondering how many can do that after this election. Too many will probably respond angrily, but that’s self-defeating.
  9. The wise among us will try to figure out why our popular narrative for understanding American politics has been so wrong and what needs to change. The demonization of voters seems to be highly counterproductive in an open media environment.
  10. Lastly, political correctness and identity politics have suffered a severe backlash. Perhaps it’s time to put aside these punitive speech codes and divisive political strategies. We can only hope.

BTW, I voted for Gary Johnson, just for the 2%. He outperformed and got 3%!

*This urban-rural split is a historical divide that has defined much of our nation’s politics for the past 200 years.  We’ve managed it thus far and we can continue to do so if we can see it clearly. It’s NOT about biological identity – it’s about class interests, lifestyle choices, and political priorities. We can find compromise on all these issues.

How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics

Long-winded, but worthy enough for a reprint (from the WSJ):

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins Tuesday, understanding the psychological causes of our national rift can help us bridge it

By JONATHAN HAIDT and RAVI IYER

Nov. 4, 2016 11:05 a.m. ET

The most-watched made-for-TV movie in American history is “The Day After,” a 1983 portrayal of life in Kansas and Missouri in the days just before and after an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. If you’ve had even fleeting thoughts that Tuesday’s election could bring about the end of the world or the destruction of the country, you might want to find “The Day After” on YouTube, scroll to minute 53 and watch the next six minutes. Now that’s an apocalypse.

It’s an absurd comparison, of course, but the absurdity is helpful. It reminds us that no matter how bad things seem, we have a lot to be grateful for. The Soviet Union is gone, and life in America has gotten much better since the 1980s by most objective measures. Crime is way down, prosperity and longevity are way up, and doors are open much more widely for talented people from just about any demographic group. Yes, we have new problems, and the benefits haven’t been spread evenly, but if you look at the big picture, we are making astonishing progress.

Watching “The Day After” also might help Americans to tone down the apocalyptic language that so many have used about the presidential race. On the right, some speak of this as the “Flight 93 election,” meaning that America has been hijacked by treasonous leftists who are trying to crash the plane, so electing Donald Trump to rush the cockpit is the only sane choice. On the left, some think that a Trump victory would lead to a constitutional crisis followed by a military coup, fascism and dictatorship.

Nearly half the country will therefore wake up deeply disappointed on the morning of Nov. 9, and many members of the losing side will think that America is doomed. Those on the winning side will feel relieved, but many will be shocked and disgusted that nearly half of their fellow citizens voted for the moral equivalent of the devil. The disgust expressed by both sides in this election is particularly worrisome because disgust dehumanizes its targets. That is why it is usually fostered by the perpetrators of genocide—disgust makes it easier for ordinary citizens to kill their neighbors.

Suburban neighbors in the swing state of Pennsylvania have managed to preserve their friendship and sanity throughout a long and bitter election season. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday reports. Photo: Heather Seidel for The Wall Street Journal

In short, the day after this election is likely to be darker and more foreboding than the day after just about any U.S. election since 1860. Is it possible for Americans to forgive, accept and carry on working and living together?

We think that it is. After all, civility doesn’t require consensus or the suspension of criticism. It is simply the ability to disagree productively with others while respecting their sincerity and decency. That can be hard to do when emotions run so high. But if we understand better the psychological causes of our current animosity, we can all take some simple steps to turn it down, free ourselves from hatred and make the next four years better for ourselves and the country. Three time-honored quotations can serve as guides.

“Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” —Bedouin saying

Human nature is tribal. We form teams easily, most likely because we have evolved for violent intergroup conflict. Our minds take to it so readily that we invent myths, games and sports—including war games like paintball—that let us enjoy the pleasures of intergroup conflict without the horrors of actual war.

The tribal mind is adept at changing alliances to face shifting threats, as the Bedouin saying indicates. We see such shifts after party primaries, when those who backed a losing candidate swing around to support the nominee. And we saw it happen after the 9/11 attacks, when the country came together to support the president and the military in the invasion of Afghanistan.

But with the exception of the few months after 9/11, cross-partisan animosity has been rising steadily since the late 1990s. This year, for the first time since Pew Research began asking in 1994, majorities in both parties expressed not just “unfavorable” views of the other party but “very unfavorable” views. Those ratings were generally below 20% throughout the 1990s. And more than 40% in each party now see the policies of the other party as being “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Those numbers are up by about 10% in both parties just since 2014.

So what will happen the next time there is a major terrorist attack? Will we come together again? Or will the attack become a partisan football within hours, as happened after the various lone-wolf attacks of the past year? Something is broken in American tribalism. It is now “my brothers and me against my cousins” all the time, even when we are threatened by strangers and even when there is no threat at all.

Democracy requires trust and cooperation as well as competition. A healthy democracy features flexible and shifting coalitions. We must find a way to see citizens on the other side as cousins who are sometimes opponents but who share most of our values and interests and are never our mortal enemies.

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” —Jesus, in Matthew 7:3-5

Our tribal minds are equipped with a powerful tool: shameless and clueless hypocrisy. It is a general rule of psychology that “thinking is for doing”: We think with a particular purpose in mind, and often that purpose isn’t to find the truth but to defend ourselves or attack our opponents.

Psychologists call this process “motivated reasoning.” It is found whenever self-interest is in play. When the interests of a group are added to the mix, this sort of biased, god-awful reasoning becomes positively virtuous—it signals your loyalty to the team. This is why partisans find it so easy to dismiss scandalous revelations about their own candidate while focusing so intently on scandalous revelations about the other candidate.

Motivated reasoning has interacted with tribalism and new media technologies since the 1990s in unfortunate ways. Social media, hackers and Google searches now help us to find hundreds of specks in our opponents’ eyes, but no technology can force us to acknowledge the logs in our own.

“Nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but…this tie becomes stronger from proximity.” —Cicero, “On Friendship”

Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. It exists in tension with our extraordinary ability to develop bonds with other human beings. Romeo and Juliet fell in love. French, British and German soldiers came out of their trenches in World War I to exchange food, cigarettes and Christmas greetings.

The key, as Cicero observed, is proximity, and a great deal of modern research backs him up. Students are more likely to become friends with the student whose dorm room is one door away than with the student whose room is four doors away. People who have at least one friend from the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party.

But tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings. Since the 1980s, Democrats have been packing into the cities while the rural areas and exurbs have been getting more Republican. Institutions that used to bring people together—such as churches—are now splitting apart over culture war issues such as gay marriage.

Ever more of our social life is spent online, in virtual communities or networks that are politically homogeneous. When we do rub up against the other side online, relative anonymity often leads to stunning levels of incivility, including racist and sexist slurs and threats of violence.

So are we doomed? Will the polarizing trends identified by Pew just keep going until the country splits in two? Maybe John Adams was right in 1814 when he wrote, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”

But we have lasted 240 years so far, and both sides agree that America is worth fighting for. We just have to see that the fight isn’t always against each other; it is also a struggle to adapt our democracy and our habits for polarizing times and technologies.

Some of these adaptations will require changes to laws and institutions. Some will come from improving technology as we fine-tune social media to reward productive disagreement while filtering out trolling and intimidation.

And many of the changes must come from each of us, as individuals who have friends, co-workers and cousins who voted for the other side. How will we treat them as customers, employees, students and neighbors? What will we say to them at Thanksgiving dinner?

If you would like to let go of anger on Nov. 9 without letting go of your moral and political principles, here is some advice, adapted from ancient wisdom and modern research.

First, separate your feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from your feelings about their supporters. Political scientists report that since the 1980s, Americans have increasingly voted against the other side’s candidate, rather than voting enthusiastically for their own, and that is especially true this time. So don’t assume that most people on the other side like or even agree with their candidate on any particular issue. They may be voting out of fears and frustrations that you don’t understand, but if you knew their stories, you might well empathize with them.

Second, step back and think about your goals. In the long run, would you rather change people or hate them? If you actually want to persuade or otherwise influence people, you should know that it is nearly impossible to change people’s minds by arguing with them. When there is mutual antipathy, there is mutual motivated reasoning, defensiveness and hypocrisy.

But anything that opens the heart opens the mind as well, so do what you can to cultivate personal relationships with those on the other side. Spend time together, and let the proximity recommended by Cicero strengthen ties. Familiarity does not breed contempt. Research shows that as things or people become familiar, we like them more.

Emotions often drive reasoning, so as our hearts harden, our thinking also calcifies, and we become dogmatic. We are less able to think flexibly and address the social problems that we claim to care about. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So cultivating a few cross-partisan friendships will make you smarter as well as calmer, even if polarization grows worse.

And if you do find a way to have a real conversation with someone on the other side, approach it skillfully. One powerful opener is to point to a log in your own eye—to admit right up front that you or your side were wrong about something. Doing this at the start of a conversation signals that you aren’t in combat mode. If you are open, trusting and generous, your partner is likely to reciprocate.

Another powerful depolarizing move is praise, as we saw in the second Clinton-Trump debate. After more than 90 minutes of antagonism, a member of the town-hall audience brought the evening to a close with this question: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

Mrs. Clinton began with weak praise by saying that she respects Mr. Trump’s children. But then she made it strong and generous by noting how “incredibly able” those children are and how devoted they are to their father, adding, “I think that says a lot about Donald.” Mr. Trump responded in kind: “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. I respect that.”

That brief exchange was emotionally powerful—the only uplifting moment of the night for many viewers. Had it been the opening exchange, might the debate have been more elevated, more constructive?

This has been a frightening year for many Americans. Questions about the durability, legitimacy and wisdom of our democracy have been raised, both here and abroad. But the true test of our democracy—and our love of country—will come on the day after the election. Starting next Wednesday, each of us must decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of relationship we want to have with our politically estranged cousins.

Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, a fellow at the Martin Prosperity Institute and the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Dr. Iyer is a social psychologist and data scientist at the website Ranker and the executive director of CivilPolitics.org.

The Degeneration of Political Discourse

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this election season, it is the increasing degeneration of political discourse in our society. Probably everyone in America these past few months has experienced this phenomenon, and either jumped into the mudpit or turned away in disgust. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to turn.

Democracy, as an institution of social choice and self-governance through voting, relies on compromise to resolve divergent interests. This compromise, or middle ground, is often depicted as serving the interests of the “median voter” in election models. Our electoral system seeks to reward candidates or parties who can appeal to this median “center.” The idea of the centrist is one who moves away from the extremes to find common ground. The problem is that we have obliterated the center in our national politics.

How did this happen?

Some have blamed the two-party system that has divided us into red vs. blue and subsequently conquered us as we squabble over ideological trivia. Others have decried our lack of choice between the parties of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, sometimes using the catch-all term the Republicrats for the political class. Still others blame the systemic bias of the media in their desperate bid to remain politically and economically relevant in the digital world.

All of these factors have contributed to our political degeneration. However, I would say the problem is less about only having two parties than about how the parties abuse the system to divide us. I’ve written repeatedly about how the parties and the media benefit from our dysfunction and promote it every chance they get. It is true of Obama, as it is true of Congressional leaders of both parties. It is true of the mainstream media as it is of FOX News and Talk Radio. If we’re looking for relief, it won’t come from these sources.

It will come from us, and there’s the rub.

My own experience as a political commentator illustrates my point. A few weeks ago I wrote that I will vote Neither…Nor in this presidential election for reasons explained here.

Immediately I was accosted by partisans of both sides claiming I was really favoring the opposing candidate. So Democrat liberals accused me of essentially supporting Trump and Trump Republicans of putting Clinton into office. Obviously both can’t be true, but that seems beside the point.

What’s going on here is the desire to paint the issue in black and white and castigate one for joining the wrong side. Identity politics, the growing cancer on democracy, almost forces this dynamic. The tactic is truly the last resort of dirty, rotten scoundrels, but let me explain. What I’m referring to is a typical debating tactic of winning the debate by delegitimizing your opponent (not the argument, but the person). This tactic can take several different forms.

The most extreme way is to simply condemn your opponent’s moral character: a racist, a bigot, a crook. A related way is to impugn your opponent’s motivations: greedy, power monger, predator. Next up is to question one’s intelligence: ignorant, uneducated, low IQ. A more subtle, less aggressive method is to accuse one of being a willing victim of misinformation and propaganda. Sometimes this can be accurate in this corrupted media world, but it’s often used as a blanket dismissal of opinions, views, or facts one disagrees with: I see, you listen to FOX News or read the New York Times.

So, I call this the last redoubt of a scoundrel because it is a feint away from the issue that must be resolved or compromised, and the scoundrel merely realizes that the just compromise with the stronger rationale is not the one they favor. Hence the desire to intimidate and throw one’s opponent on the defensive in order to win an argument. It tosses  democratic compromise into the lion’s pit of do or die.

I’ve written here how this silly finite game of winning an election is overwhelming the more important infinite game of democracy founded on the principles of liberty and justice. Scoundrels do damage to justice and to liberty. Yet too many of us have succumbed to the emotional appeal of winning at all costs. Unless we stop this and start to legitimize our fellow citizens’ preferences (we’re really not debate opponents), our discourse will continue to degenerate and lead to ever increasing dysfunction with disastrous results.

The politicians won’t do this for us. Heaven help us on November 9, because this election is merely the canary in the coal mine.

 

 

 

Why I Will Vote Neither…Nor…

Halfway through the presidential primary season I decided I would not and could not conscientiously vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. As a political scientist, this was not an uninformed decision. I have been observing, and studying, the degeneration of American party politics for the past two decades and nothing has reversed this trend.

Today, faced with the reality that these are the two major party nominees, I have carefully reconsidered my position but have come to the same conclusion. I do not believe Trump has the temperament, nor do I feel Clinton has the integrity, while neither display the requisite political skills to lead this nation.

So what is one to do? Flip a coin and hold one’s nose? However, as I will argue here, there is a meaningful alternative.

My decision to vote neither-nor is based on several assumptions which all voters may not share. First, I equally disapprove of both presidential candidates offered up by the Democrat and Republican parties. You may not share that sentiment and thus should vote your conscience. (BTW, if you are truly enamored of the status-quo, perhaps you should cast a write-in vote for Ben Bernanke. Our current economic fate has little to do with Obama, Clinton, or the Congress. In geopolitics it seems we’ve just blindly bumbled along.)

Second, I live in a state where the Electoral College votes are not really in contention. More simply, I live in CA. Thus whether I vote for Trump or Clinton will have no impact on the outcome and thus can be considered a wasted vote. Unless you live in a closely contested swing state, such as FL, PA, or OH, your vote for either candidate is also a meaningless vote.

But do neither-nor voters really have a meaningless say in this election? Only if you hold your nose and vote for one of the above. If you are dissatisfied with the choices presented, this may be the first time in our lifetimes that an alternative vote has meaning – and it matters not which alternative you prefer. An abstention, or a vote for Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, or a write-in for Mickey Mouse or Bernie Sanders is a protest vote – a vote that neither major party can count on and must respond to as the tally grows. What is the signal sent if Clinton and Trump both get 30% of the vote and 40% is captured by a neither-nor protest? How will either President-elect govern with such a dearth of public support? It’s political suicide to ignore upwards of 70% of the country.

This strategy is a slightly different argument than support for a 3rd party. A 3rd party can’t win unless it displaces one of the two major parties. Thus it’s success depends on the failure of one of those parties. However, a protest vote is different in that left and right anti-establishment groups coalesce on their dissatisfaction with the status quo. In other words, Sanders and Tea Party voters can combine as a force to influence the two major parties.

Others may apply a different logic. Some will claim a protest vote is an irresponsible waste of a vote, but I consider voting against one’s conscience while knowing better is the true irresponsible action. (A more erudite exposition of my sentiments was written by Jonah Goldberg at National Review, but his is an internecine conflict on the right. One wonders what the leftist Bernie Sanders voters are thinking at this point.)

Our society’s future is more important than an emotional partisan showdown. Things won’t change unless we change from the ground up. With enough protest votes, perhaps the Washington establishment will finally have to respond to a majority of Americans voicing dissatisfaction with the political status-quo.

2016: Bernie vs. The Donald? Missing the Message.

SandersTrump

Most Americans are reduced to the passive role of spectators, fans, groupies. Or they are persuaded not to bother with politics. An elaborate class of professional technicians has taken charge of electoral politics—campaign managers and advertisers, pollsters, fundraisers, crowd organizers. These professionals, one could say, manage the passions or passivity of voters. They shape the content of what citizens know—and shape their ignorance too.

The ongoing circus of the presidential partisan primaries has voters fretting that our choices may whittle down to a contest between the bombastic Donald Trump vs. the radical socialist Bernie Sanders. I wouldn’t worry so much about that. Instead I would worry more about the underlying message regarding American “politics as usual.”

Below is an essay written by the journalist and author William Greider published in The Nation that reviews a book by Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. Greider correctly applies this history of American populism to the modern movement that is the deeper current under the froth created by Trump and Sanders.

This movement, which is actually a gradual disenfranchisement of the American voter marked by the decline of party affiliation (as Greider points out, “Voters who stay home on Election Day are now by far the ‘largest’ political party”), is a real threat to the “politics as usual” of both the Democrats and the Republicans. And this is how it should be.

The resilience of American democracy is found in the pressures of the system to adapt to change or die. This does not imply the rise of third parties, except to displace one of the two major parties, either of which could easily suffer that fate. But the genius of our electoral two-party system has turned out to reinforce this need to adapt or die.

Multi-party systems fracture into uncompromisable positions that lead to instability in national government and over-dependence on fragile coalitions that often empower narrow interests at the margin. A two-party winner-take-all system forces parties to the center of voters’ demands in order to capture a majority. This is a good thing in a large pluralistic polity like we have in the U.S.

But, as Greider clearly points out, that doesn’t mean that democratic system cannot breakdown under this electoral design. American politics has become unresponsive to voter demands and needs for a variety of reasons. This gives rise to the anti-establishment tenor of modern movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy groups. These anti-establishment groups have more in common than in opposition, but the establishment seeks only to divide and conquer its opposition in order to continue to enjoy the spoils.

Goodwyn also wisely points out that for democracy to work, voters do not need to be perfectly informed, they only cannot be misinformed with a systemic bias. Unfortunately, the media today can promote that systemic bias, which is why it is failing us. This applies to mainstream as well as alternative media. In other words, we’re not getting the unvarnished objective truth from ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX; and not from the NY TImes, Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. And certainly not The Huffington Post or TownHall. We’re getting what appeals to each media channel’s targeted political audience.

On an optimistic note, the party “establishment” candidate that first discovers how to appeal to the disaffected and brings them back into the party fold by adapting to their demands and compromising the establishment party’s platform will be successful in future elections. And this is how it should be. Greider suspects we’re not quite there yet, but the momentum has been building for about 20 years now (maybe 40+). But it’s highly unlikely we will be led into the future by the likes of an angry Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.

Bernie, Donald, and the Promise of Populism

Both candidates have been mislabeled as populists. The movement of that name was a genuine people’s rebellion that reinvigorated democracy. We can do it again.

By William Greider

September 21, 2015

The New Yorker recently attempted to explain two “populists” running for president, the only candidates generating huge and enthusiastic audiences. Instead, the article’s snide tone reflected the nearsightedness of cosmopolitan elites. Both candidates were mislabeled as “populist.” Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist; Donald Trump is a trash-talking billionaire. But the magazine also mangled the true historical meaning of populism.

The writer seemed to be channeling Richard Hofstadter, the Columbia historian who back in the 1960s famously put down populism and other rebellious movements as “the paranoid style in American politics.” People are irrational, Hofstadter explained, driven by delusional fears and conspiracy theories. Not to be trusted with governing power.

Class condescension is as old as American democracy and is back in vogue this season, thanks mainly to the plutocrat with big hair. Only, Donald Trump turned “populist” anger upside down. He’s a super-rich guy ridiculing the “stupid” people in government and bragging about how he and his fellow billionaires buy politicians to get free stuff from government. Sanders, meanwhile, is plowing a parallel furrow of dissent—a substantive and serious program for reform.

But neither fits the label “populist” because they are both working within the established order. By definition, populism requires plain people in rebellion, organizing themselves to go up against the reigning powers. Major pushback from fed-up people is not present—not yet anyway—but the great disturbances already roiling party politics suggest that the political status quo is vulnerable to more upheavals, particularly if timidity and stalemate continue to suppress meaningful change.

It depends, first, on whether the 2016 results promise real changes in economics and social equity and/or convince people they have to dump both parties and attempt power-seeking politics of their own. This is a tender moment for the two-party system.

Elites naturally fear popular uprisings, but rebellion can be good for democracy. Even if they fail, self-generated citizen insurgencies can ventilate the musty corridors of government and compel governing parties to change or die. A century ago, the original Populists provoked fright and ridicule in establishment circles on a far more threatening scale. We are not there yet. But don’t count it out if timidity wins the election next year and politics continues to run away from fundamental questions.

The People’s Party in the last decades of the 19th century was self-organized by scattered groups of distressed farmers. It grew rapidly across the South and West to oppose the powerful forces—banks, railroads, industrial corporations—destroying small, independent producers. The farmers realized the federal government was an active accomplice in their economic destruction. There was nothing delusional about their alarm and anger. It was driven by a ruinous deflation of farm prices for three decades—hard money that rewarded capital and crushed producers.

The agrarian revolt set out audaciously to win power by winning elections—electing Populist governors, representatives, and senators—hoping ultimately to elect the People’s President. They failed, of course, but their legacy was profound. These self-taught citizens developed original ideas for governing the economy, business, and banking. They envisioned a central bank to regulate money and credit that would advance equality, serving people and producers rather than the fortunes of New York bankers. The Populist vision was the road not taken.

The New York Times called them “slime.” (This magazine was pretty bad too, as The Nation’s 1896 attack on William Jennings Bryan shows.) It denounced their proposal as “one of the wildest and most fantastic projects ever seriously proposed.” Yet years later, John Maynard Keynes saluted the American Populists as “a brave army of heretics.” They failed to gain power, but Keynes recognized that their economic analysis anticipated his own. Many of the original Populist proposals were eventually enacted as New Deal reforms.

For the true history, read Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. The book profoundly altered my understanding of American history and democracy (the excellent shorter version, widely available in paperback, is titled The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America). Goodwyn’s account provides powerful rebuttal to pessimism and resignation. His unsentimental narrative keeps alive the possibility of deep structural reforms in politics and government.

Democratic Promise puts people back at the center of the story—ordinary people who tried, against all odds, to act like self-directed citizens, actively participating in self-government. Goodwyn suggested that authentic democracy remains possible—not easy or assured, only possible—if people rediscover their voice and potential power.

In modern political culture, the idea of this deeper democracy has been hollowed out, obliterated. The promise endures, insofar as we have regular elections to select officeholders, but that ritual normally does very little to alter actual power relationships. And people know this.

Most Americans are reduced to the passive role of spectators, fans, groupies. Or they are persuaded not to bother with politics. An elaborate class of professional technicians has taken charge of electoral politics—campaign managers and advertisers, pollsters, fundraisers, crowd organizers. These professionals, one could say, manage the passions or passivity of voters. They shape the content of what citizens know—and shape their ignorance too.

The process of manipulating the electorate is enormously expensive, and mostly paid for by private donations. Donors naturally expect to influence the content of the messages, so campaigns are nearly always biased in favor of moneyed interests and affluent citizens. The ultimate purpose of campaigns is thus not educating citizens; it is electing or defeating politicians. The result of this narrow-form democracy is the steadily shrinking electorate. Voters who stay home on Election Day are now by far the “largest” political party.

The critical claim in Goodwyn’s analysis is that ordinary people are both capable of participating more directly in self-government and that their engagement is necessary for a genuinely functioning democracy. Otherwise, politics produces a closely held management system with control concentrated at the top. It makes distant decisions too opaque for ordinary citizens to understand or influence, much less control. This deformity roughly resembles our current conditions. Governing elites typically fault the people for their ignorance, and many discouraged citizens internalize the blame.

But Goodwyn insisted that ordinary people, though discouraged from active citizenship, have essential knowledge—knowledge they haven’t learned from books or newspapers. Their knowledge is crucial for balanced self-government. Because ordinary Americans, regardless of status or education, know things the authorities did not teach them. They frequently know things that contradict the governing experts, and they learn them before elected representatives do.

Where do people get this distinctive knowledge? From life itself, as Goodwyn explained. Of course, people are fallible and prone to error, false enthusiasm, and fears. But so are elected politicians. So are the corporate CEOs and investment bankers, including the ones who led the country over a cliff in 2008 and crashed the middle class.

The popular anger exploding in the run-up to 2016 baffled press and political leaders. They would not have been surprised if they had listened more respectfully to the broad ranks of citizens during the past three decades. Working people knew the “American dream” was falling apart. They knew because it was happening to them. They told their stories in great detail to anyone who would listen (as a young reporter I heard those stories from auto workers, steel workers, machinists, debt-burdened families, and other victims, trying to hang on and losing the struggle).

With brave exceptions, politicians in both parties turned their backs on the cries of distress. Learned economists assured political leaders that what working people saw happening in their neighborhoods wasn’t the real story. Over time, they predicted, prosperity would reach everyone and people would agree that deindustrialization was a good thing, a necessary evolution in the economy. It didn’t happen, and neither party has come clean on its failure.

I think that’s where the anger comes from. There is widespread feeling across ideological and partisan divides not only that government failed to ensure economic prosperity and security but also that both political parties denied or ignored what average working stiffs knew and were trying to tell the politicians. Many believe they were betrayed, that the politicians lied.

Modern government lost its sense of balance and credibility for many reasons, but partly because authorities distanced themselves from the common-sense and popular knowledge of ordinary Americans. This disconnect permeates government and politics, and it’s not always due to corporate greed or corruption. Sometimes, it is due to plain ignorance.

It’s true that we have not arrived at a new “populist moment”—not yet. But the political situation looks combustible, and perhaps more promising than the usual cynicism and resignation will recognize. Could citizens come out of their passivity and restart the fight for authentic self-government? Sounds fanciful, I know, but consider this: If the original Populists could organize millions to overcome their handicaps, people should be able to do the same now. After all, the Populists didn’t even have telephones, much less e-mail.

We are already deep into a stormy new era of democratizing technologies—people are getting the power to control their own communications—and inventive new channels are flowing freely from citizens themselves.

This new condition potentially destabilizes the old politics. I think it is a major factor in generating the dizziness of this election season. Among other things, it drastically reduces the cost of making political connections, of organizing across long distances and social divisions. That itself could become an insurrectionary virtue. It might even dilute the political domination of the 1 Percent, the corporations and billionaires.

I see possibilities for meaningful unrest ahead.

SandersTrump2

We’ve All Been Trumped

silver-feautre-trumptroll-1

Regardless of how one feels about Donald Trump and his candidacy, the facts suggest his presidential chances are slim to none. But nevertheless, we can see from this chart and the explanation offered below (by 538’s Nate Silver) why we get a steady daily diet of Trumpisms. Now, a responsible press would prioritize coverage of the likely nominees and focus on Bush, Rubio, and Walker. Instead they pander to celebrity and controversy in an attempt to appeal to the scandal obsessions of their target audience, thereby surviving financially. These days the Fourth Estate does not work as intended and this is partly what drives our dysfunctional electoral politics.

“A troll,” according to one definition, “is a person who sows discord … by starting arguments or upsetting people … with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

The goal of the troll is to provoke a reaction by any means necessary. Trolls thrive in communities that are open and democratic (they wouldn’t be invited into a discussion otherwise) and which operate in presumed good faith (there need to be some standards of decorum to offend). Presidential nomination contests are highly susceptible to trolling, therefore. Access is fairly open: There’s no longer much of a filter between the campaigns, the media and the public. And it’s comically easy to provoke a reaction. How many times between now and next November will we hear that a candidate’s statement is “offensive,” whether or not it really is?

Trolls operate on the principle that negative attention is better than none. In fact, the troll may feed off the negative attention, claiming it makes him a victim and proves that everyone is out to get him.

Sound like any presidential candidates you know?

There’s a notion that Donald Trump’s recent rise in Republican polls is a media-driven creation. That explanation isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s incomplete. It skims over the complex interactions between the media, the public and the candidates, which can produce booms and busts of attention. And it ignores how skilled trolls like Trump can exploit the process to their benefit.

Let’s look at some data. In the chart below, I’ve tracked how media coverage has been divided among the Republican candidates over roughly the past month (the data covers June 14 through July 12), according to article counts on Google News. In turn, I’ve shown the share of Google searches for each candidate over the same period. The data was provided to FiveThirtyEight by Google but should closely match what you’ll get by searching on Google Trends or Google News yourself.

Even before his imbecilic comments about Sen. John McCain this weekend, which came too recently to be included in this data, Trump was receiving far more media attention than any other Republican. Based on Google News, 46 percent of the media coverage of the GOP campaign over the past month was directed toward Trump, more than for Jeb Bush (13 percent), Chris Christie (9 percent), Scott Walker (8 percent), Bobby Jindal (6 percent), Ted Cruz (4 percent) and Marco Rubio (4 percent) combined.

And yet, the public is perhaps even more obsessed with Trump. Among the GOP candidates, he represented 62 percent of the Google search traffic over the past month, having been searched for more than six times as often as second-place Bush.

So if the press were going purely by public demand, there might be even more Trump coverage. Instead, the amount of press coverage that each candidate has received has been modulated by the media’s perception of how likely each is to win the nomination.

The chart I showed you above contained data on each GOP candidate’s chances of winning the nomination, according to the prediction market Betfair.1 Candidates who are perceived as having a credible chance to win the nomination — like Bush, Walker and Rubio — receive proportionally more media attention than public attention. The reverse is true for candidates who are seen by the press as long shots, such as Rand Paul and Ben Carson.2

As is usually the case, however, life gets more complicated when we go from identifying correlations to trying to understand their causes. As we’ve seen, press coverage is highly correlated with the level of public interest in a candidate and the candidate’s perceived chances of winning the nomination. It could be, however, that public attention to a candidate is triggered by media coverage rather than the other way around. Likewise, while the media might be fairly sophisticated at identifying which candidates are more likely to win and provide correspondingly more coverage of them, the media can also produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being ignored by the media or labeled as a loser can make it hard for a candidate to attract money, endorsements and other resources that might allow them to make a comeback.

We can aspire to determine causality by comparing the timing of Google News and Google search hits for a candidate. If the press drives public interest in the candidates, spikes in Google News should precede spikes in Google searches. If instead the press is reacting to the public, Google News hits will lag search.

Unfortunately, this isn’t so easy to determine. Shifts in public and media attention tend to occur at about the same time — as you can see, for example, in the graphic below, which compares Trump’s Google News and Google search traffic from week to week.

silver-feautre-trumptroll-2

But a regression analysis — you can read the gory details in the footnotes3 — suggests that press attention both leads and lags public attention to the candidates. This makes a lot of sense. The public can take cues from the media about which candidates to pay attention to. But the media also gets a lot of feedback from the public. Or to put it more cynically: If Trump-related stories are piling up lots of pageviews and Trump-related TV segments get good ratings, then guess what? You’re probably going to see more of them.4

This creates the possibility of a feedback loop. Some event sparks a news story about a candidate, which triggers more public attention, which encourages yet more media attention — and so on. It may help to explain why we’ve repeatedly seen the so-called “discovery, scrutiny and decline” cycle in the past two primary campaigns for candidates like Trump, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain — bursts of attention that coincide with spikes in the polls but then fade or even burst after several weeks.

These “bounces” aren’t entirely new. Presidential candidates usually get a temporary bounce in support following their party’s convention, for example. But the polls in the 2012 Republican campaign were far more volatile than those in any previous nomination race. We’re really just getting started in 2016, but it’s been pretty wild as well. Bounces that might have happened once in a cycle now seem to occur all the time.

So if these spikes are media-driven, they seem to be driven by some particularly modern features of the media landscape. Social media allows candidates to make news without the filter of the press. It may also encourage groupthink among and between reporters and readers, however. And access to real-time traffic statistics can mean that everyone is writing the same “takes” and chasing the same eyeballs at once. Is the tyranny of the Twitter mob better or worse than the “Boys on the Bus” model of a group of (mostly white, male, upper-middle-class, left-of-center) reporters deigning to determine what’s news and what isn’t? I don’t know, but it’s certainly different. And it seems to be producing a higher velocity of movement in the polls and in the tenor of media coverage.

Trolls are skilled at taking advantage of this landscape and making the news cycle feed on its own tail, accelerating the feedback loop and producing particularly large bounces and busts in the polls. In 2012, Gingrich’s whole strategy seemed to involve trolling the media, and he went through a couple of boom-and-bust cycles in polls. In 2008, Sarah Palin, though beloved by Republicans, was brilliant at trolling Democrats and the media. She was extremely popular at first, although her popularity was ultimately short-lived.

Trump has taken trolling to the next level by being willing to offend members of his own party. Ordinarily, this would be a counterproductive strategy. In a 16-candidate field, however, you can be in first place with 15 or 20 percent of the vote — even if the other 80 or 85 percent of voters hate your guts.

In the long run — as our experience with past trolls shows — Trump’s support will probably fade. Or at least, given his high unfavorable ratings, it will plateau, and other candidates will surpass him as the rest of the field consolidates.

It’s much harder to say what will happen to Trump’s polling in the near term, however. That’s in part because it’s hard to say exactly what was driving his support in the first place. Trump wasn’t doing especially well with tea party voters or with any other identifiable group of Republicans. My guess is that his support reflected a combination of (i) low-information voters who recognized his name and (ii) voters who share Trump’s disdain for the trappings of the political establishment and (iii) voters who were treating him as an inside joke or a protest vote, making him vaguely like an American equivalent of Beppe Grillo. None of them will necessarily be deterred from declaring their support for him because of his comments about McCain. Some of them might even be encouraged.

But what if you want Trump to go away now?

The media isn’t going to stop paying attention to Trump. Nor should it, really: His candidacy is a political story and not just “entertainment.”5

Republicans are another matter, however. They might rightly be concerned that Trump is tarnishing their brand image or at least meddling with their already-challenging task of choosing a candidate. Other Republicans should resist the temptation to extend the news cycle by firing back at him, however — even when what he says is genuinely offensive.6

After 12 years of writing on the Internet, I’ve learned that the old adage is true. Don’t feed the troll. The only way to kill a troll like Trump is to deprive him of attention.

Footnotes

  1. The data was taken from PredictWise as of early Sunday afternoon. I’d quibble with some of Betfair’s probabilities: I don’t think there should be such a large gap between Bush (who Betfair has at 39 percent to win the nomination) and the next two candidates, Walker and Rubio. And giving Trump a 5 percent chance of winning the nomination seems extremely generous. But Betfair data reflects market prices and is therefore a pretty good approximation of the consensus view about the viability of each candidate. ^
  2. For better or worse, the press doesn’t necessarily give a lot of coverage to candidates who poll well if they aren’t otherwise seen as viable nominees. Carson and Paul get little coverage despite polling better than a lot of their competitors, for instance. You could argue that this is sophisticated behavior on the media’s part since early polls of the primaries are often inaccurate and tend to predict the nominee less well than other factors like endorsements. ^
  3. In the regression, I sought to explain Google News hits as a function of (i) Google search traffic in the previous week and (ii) Google search traffic in the subsequent week. The idea is that if press coverage lags public attention, Google search traffic from the previous week would be more predictive of press coverage, while the reverse would be true if media coverage leads public interest instead. It turned out, however, that Google searches from both the previous and subsequent week had a positive and statistically significant relationship with press coverage. ^
  4. For the record, the three previous stories that FiveThirtyEight published on Trump averaged about 100,000 pageviews. That’s a decent but not exceptional number relative to how our campaign-related stories have been doing. As you probably know if you’re reading this footnote, however, we have a pretty weird audience. ^
  5. The Huffington Post political desk is now labeling articles about Trump as “entertainment” rather than “politics.” I’m sympathetic to the impulse, but it’s a gimmick. On the one hand, Trump is still getting plenty of attention at the Huffington Post. (Perhaps even more, since they’re now crossposting Trump stories between politics and entertainment.) On the other hand, even if Trump isn’t a “serious” candidate or has no shot at the nomination, his candidacy will reverberate on the rest of the Republican field. Where is his 15 percent of the vote coming from, and where might it go if he fades? How is Trump affecting things like the RNC’s rules for debates, and who is he keeping off the stage? What, if anything, does he tell us about the mood of Republican voters? We’ve been skeptical of Trump from the outset at FiveThirtyEight, but we’re going to keep covering his campaign for these reasons. ^
  6. Whether to allow Trump to participate in the debates is a more difficult question. If he’s included, he’ll use the floor to be as disruptive as possible. If he’s excluded, he’ll scream and shout that the party is out to get him. The best approach might be to invite him but structure the debates such that there’s less opportunity for freewheeling interactions between the candidates. ^

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

So God Made a Farm Bill

This is a great satirical adaptation of a famous Paul Harvey radio address. Gets to the heart of our political dysfunction. From the WSJ:

So God Made a Farm Bill

A famous speech about those who toil in the fields gets an update

By Kimberley A. Strassel
 (With apologies to the late radio great Paul Harvey. )

And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, and then go to Washington and claim that this particular type of hard work is somehow unique in America and ought to be underwritten by the rest of the nation. I need a willing audience for that plea—a group clever enough and self-serving enough to see the electoral profit of standing for Carhartts, wheat fields and John Deere tractors.” So God made a Congress.

He said, “I need somebody in that Congress savvy enough to realize that farming means food, and food means nutrition, and nutrition means good things to voters, so farming means food stamps. Somebody to call to make that assistance bigger and forever, tame howls over soaring deficits, and plant the seeds of perpetual votes. Somebody to threaten to label anybody pushing for reform as rich, cruel and downright hateful of happy, cornfed children playing in hay lofts—and mean it.” So God made a Democratic Party.

God said, “I need somebody willing to spend five long years complaining about overspending, big government and special-interest giveaways. And get up and vote for $1 trillion in overspending, bigger government and special-interest giveaways—in the name of farmers. Then—when reminded of his reform promises—dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody to fret about drought, wax about food security, and muse (in private) that heedless government shutdowns really do have consequences. Including pressuring parties to prove they can accomplish something by voting for 949-page spending extravaganzas that nobody has bothered to read. Somebody willing to put in 40 hours spinning excuses for abandoning his principles and then, pained from the camera lights, put in 70 hours more.” So God made Republicans.

God had to have Democrats and Republicans willing to cast aside their differences in the name of handouts, and bale a legislative vehicle together with the strong bonds of self-interest. A vehicle that would combine food stamps and farm pork and thereby guarantee a coalition so powerful that it could mow over procedural ruts, race ahead of political rain and hogtie pesky opponents. A vehicle so unstoppable that its creators would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when the reformers vowed change: “Good luck, suckers.” So God made a farm bill.

God said: “I need somebody mighty enough to divert money to those who need it least, yet sneaky enough to do it behind closed doors. I need somebody to wheedle, deal, logroll, beg, trade, and cajole subsidy checks for corporate agribusiness, sushi rice, catfish, Christmas-tree promotion boards, biorefineries and at least 15 sitting members of Congress. Somebody to make sure there are no caps on subsidies and no asset tests for food stamps. Somebody in a nice suit. Somebody who has never been on a farm.” So God made lobbyists.

He said, “I need somebody or something to help patriotic Americans forget that 80% of that ‘farm’ bill is going to welfare, and most of the rest to sugar barons and cotton kings who vacation in Mallorca. Somebody or something to ensure people don’t get to wondering why it is we have a ‘farm’ bill when we don’t have a ‘laptop’ bill, or a ‘vampire-novel’ bill or a ‘swing-set’ bill in this free-market economy that Americans supposedly prize. Somebody or something who will so inspire the public with homespun images of clapboard churches and cows, leathery men holding rope, sheepdogs, plaid shirts, cowboy hats, and American flags that folks will entirely fail to realize that the people pictured—the hardworking souls tilling the back 40—are these days the last to see a dime of farm-bill money.” So God made Ram pickup trucks and Super Bowl commercials.

Finally, God looked down on all he’d created and He said: “Now I need somebody who really will work hard. Somebody who’ll get up day in and day out to plow through traffic to work, come home to help the kids and make the dinner and do the laundry, and struggle with the bills, and get up to do it all over again.

“Somebody who will limit himself to dreaming about that Ram pickup truck he can’t afford—because the IRS bill is due, and because the government-inflated cost of groceries and gas sure do make things tight, and because his own small business, which he built with his own sweat, doesn’t qualify for any handouts. I need somebody to spend his life paying for this week’s farm extravaganza, somebody who Congress made sure had no damn choice in the matter.”

So God made a taxpayer.

Who Knew What and When?

IRS

You can’t make this stuff up. Bradley Smith quoted from the WSJ:

The Internal Revenue Service’s scandalous targeting of tea party and conservative groups refuses to die, as one by one the administration’s explanations prove untrue.

We were told that the White House, like the rest of the country, learned about the program on May 10 through a planted question asked of then IRS official Lois Lerner at an American Bar Association conference. Turns out the White House knew earlier. We were told the targeting was the work of a few rogue IRS employees in Cincinnati. Then those employees insisted that they were being managed from Washington.

We were told that no political appointees were involved, but now we know the scandal goes at least to the office of Obama appointee and IRS Chief Counsel William Wilkins. We were told that liberal groups were targeted, too. But then the IRS’s inspector general, whose report exposed the harassment, clarified that only conservative groups were targeted.

Now the administration line is that the scandal is nonetheless “phony.” That assertion is part of a Democratic counteroffensive contending that the tea party and conservative groups applying for “charitable” tax status never should have sought such IRS approval.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, argued on “Meet the Press” on May 19 that conservative groups were, “under the guise of a charity, [using] undisclosed millions of dollars to do political campaigns.”

Rep. Becerra argues that 501(c)(4) status should be reserved for “something good, not groups that are in business to do politics.” That’s a remarkable statement from a man who has spent the past 22 years in elective office.

Review of “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age”

I gave this book 4 stars, but I would have given it 3 1/2 if that was an option…

This is a well-researched examination of the politics of inequality. Unfortunately it fails to analyze  the economics of inequality, with the result that Bartels’ findings are based on some false premises and misperceptions.

The most serious error is to define and measure economic inequality solely in terms of income, when, in actuality, wealth is causing most of the divergence in incomes through the ownership of financial capital. Take a look at the income graphs: incomes converge during market crashes and recessions and diverge during market booms, so inequality is largely determined by the value of financial assets. Mr. Bartels uses the terms “haves” and “have-nots” extensively, but never stops to answer the obvious question: have what? What they have is capital: financial capital, human capital, and social capital. In this sense, growing inequality is one price of capitalist success. But instead of categorizing people as rich, poor, or middle class according to income data, Bartels should be looking at what determines those incomes and how those factors have changed over the past 30 years.

The rise of what Bartels terms the “New Gilded Age” can be attributed to two main events, a historical trend, and a technological revolution. The two events are Nixon’s repudiation of the gold redemption Bretton Woods dollar standard in 1971 and Paul Volcker’s appointment by Carter to break the back of inflation with tight monetary policy. The historical trend is the continuing globalization of trade and manufacturing that started in the early 1970s, while the technological revolution is that taking place in communications and information. Each of these changes has helped tip the balance of power between capital and labor, with the result that the returns to capital far outstrip returns to labor over the relevant time period. I question whether anyone really wants to accept the trade-offs to reverse this. Those trade-offs might include slower growth, less opportunity, less job creation, shrinking incomes, lower asset prices, higher inflation, dollar devaluation, and probably a declining population. Our emerging trading partners want no part of such trade-offs – they will take capitalist success wherever they can, so that’s the world we find ourselves competing in.

Though Bartels misses these fundamental economic truths about our current state of the world, he does identify the true political danger, which is that all this capital wealth has taken control over the democratic political process. This means the “haves” are now running policy and in so doing are defying economic realities (like market crashes) with policies that perpetuate market crises (like easy Fed policy and bailouts). But it is vitally important that we get our policy analysis correct, because Bartels’ interpretation leads him to conclude that the balance can be reinstated by electing more Democrats to office. Nothing could be more misguided. It doesn’t matter which Republocrats gain office, policies will continue to favor capital. Why? Simply put, because it’s a CAPITALIST system and success is defined in those terms. This has been proven clearly with the Clinton-Bush-Obama consistency in financial policy. Same old, same old.

Unfortunately, Bartels misses all this as he focuses on the politics of inequality and the dysfunctional political system. Let’s take his two main cases that demand explanation: the estate tax repeal and higher minimum wages. The public favors repeal of the estate tax and a minimum wage that keeps pace with wage incomes, but both populist preferences fail. Bartels tries, but really can’t explain why. Could it be that both estate tax repeal and lower minimum wages favor economic growth and capital accumulation? Do the non-wealthy recognize that in this free market system, accumulated capital is everything and thus from their personal perspective it’s wrong for the government to tax inheritances, of anybody? And don’t policies that allow the real value of the minimum wage to decline favor growth objectives by keeping wages low and employment higher or even stable? Aren’t national policies biased to favor higher GDP, lower unemployment, and lower inflation? Bartels identifies how party elites override populist preferences, but both of these preferences would be more readily embraced if the party elites better understood the economic realities of the system they seek to manage. In these cases, Democratic elites (by stopping estate tax repeal) seem more out of step with reality than Republican elites (by stopping minimum wage hikes), though Bartels wrongly assumes the opposite.

The real problem with our current politics is not taxes, misinformation, or voter ignorance. It’s that neither party is identifying the true causes of our democratic malaise and proposing solutions. Liberal elites tout redistribution through taxing and spending, but Western democracies adopting this strategy are in dire financial straits. This will not change, because political redistribution is counter-intuitive in a market economy where success in measured in profits and labor is a cost. The world has now largely accepted how markets create wealth, so there’s no going back (Marxist socialism is dead). On the other hand, conservatives tout market outcomes, but fail to account for how the accepted rules of the game tilt the outcomes in favor of the already successful, to the detriment of those struggling to become successful. Neither party is proposing to change their stripes. And why should they? Elites benefit to no end by perpetuating the status quo that favors their elite status. Liberals are saying to voters, “You NEED US to survive,” while conservatives are saying, “Just let us all enjoy our riches and someday you will too.” Is it any wonder why we have voter revolts?

The key to breaking out of this degenerative cycle is to open up the capitalist production process through the broad ownership of capital. This is not redistribution: ALL capital is earned through successful risk-taking, so every citizen of a free society must participate in successful risk-taking in order to share in the returns. (This is preferred practice in technology companies and why wealth is widely dispersed by Apple, Google and Microsoft.) On the portfolio side, we have extensive markets for managing risk, which enables us to take on prudent risks in hope of gaining higher returns. There is no magic here, but this is the only way to manage globalized world markets where capital is mobile and labor is not – where profits accumulate as capital and labor costs are minimized. Education is important to the extent that it creates opportunity to build human capital, which is also put at risk to earn a positive return.

The democratic political system will thrive when we empower the have-nots by promoting policies that guarantee their economic independence through participation in capitalism. The liberal stance favoring redistribution cannot succeed because it presupposes the have-nots’ perpetual dependence on political largesse. We already know that politics will favor the policies that yield economic success and wealth creation above all else. Thus, the promise of capitalism and freedom is not to be found in labor, union or otherwise; it’s to be found in widespread, accumulated capital. We need political leaders and scholars like Bartels to rise up and bring this message to the masses. It hasn’t happened yet and I’m not holding my breath.

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