Early in high school my daughters learned a lesson about group projects: some people don’t like to pull their weight. It wasn’t the kids who struggled to produce quality work that the girls found most frustrating. As fiery Ohio State Senator Nina Turner says, “We don’t all run the race at the same pace,” and the girls got that. It was the shirkers. I myself used to want one of those bumper stickers that say, “Mean people suck.” The girls would have wanted one that said, “Freeloaders suck.”
If life were just about bumper stickers, most conservatives would agree. The welfare queen icon of the 1970’s is credited to of conservative strategist Lee Atwater, and Republicans ranging from self-serving paranoia mongers like Glenn Beck to self-righteous fundamentalists like Phyllis Schlafly wax eloquent about personal responsibility.
But if you pay attention to conservative policy priorities you will notice that conservatives don’t actually want all Americans to step up, pitch in, and take responsibility. Responsibility is for ghetto dwellers, and fat kids who eat at McDonalds, and teens who get knocked up, and poor people who have fallen on hard times. Bootstrap it, baby, even if your feet are bare.
The delusion that each of us is master of his or her own destiny generates a callous attitude toward people who are struggling; it also generates a lack of appreciation for what successful Americans have received from generations past. Conservatives who think success is a matter of bootstrapping don’t ask what investments we need to make today so that future generations have the same bounty and opportunities we had. Bootstrap believers are oblivious to the principle of pay it forward.
Seattle, where I live, is scattered with people who got rich in the high tech lottery. Some of them are keenly aware of the conditions that allowed them to win big: rule of law, great schooling, teamwork, early government investment in the internet, and so on, along with their own hard work. Some are not. I remember one retired Microsoft millionaire commenting wryly about another, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a home run.” As venture capitalist Nick Hanauer reminds us in his book, The True Patriot, there’s no such thing as a self-made man.
The fact is, just like those Microsoft and Google millionaires, America’s prosperity has been a group project. The most archetypal image of American history is not the lone cowboy but the barn building. Generations past laid the foundation for our economy, everything from physical infrastructure like roads that transport goods to market, to the abstract rules of the market itself—copyright protection, for example, or anti-trust laws. But even with that well-built foundation there are some things the market doesn’t do well. Clean water, sewer systems, national security, air traffic control . . . these are things we can’t very well create alone or by competing with each other, so we build and own them together, and we hire employees we call public servants to manage them. Many of these basics of prosperity only work if we all play by the same rules and all do our share.
But for all of their hardnosed rhetoric about personal responsibility, conservatives get mighty squishy when responsibility gets personal. Basic human flaws like selfishness and greed and a near limitless capacity for hypocrisy mean that we humans often end up with our heads on backwards; we talk one way and walk the other. That is how it is with conservatives and responsibility. Look at the walk instead of the talk, the policy priorities instead of the bumper stickers, and you will see that freeloading and shirking are perfectly compatible with conservative thinking. Here is just a handful of examples.
1. Disaster relief for some. Faced with someone else’s disaster or one that hasn’t yet made landfall, conservatives in the House and Senate fight to cut disaster relief funds. Why should I pay more taxes when my back yard is high and dry? Yet when election time came in November, New Jersey governor Chris Christie got points from Republican allies for securing federal funds in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. In the words of William Palatucci of the RNC, Christie truly cared about the problems confronting families. At the time of Sandy, Oklahoma Senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn voted against providing relief funds for the Eastern seaboard. But when tornados touched down in their home state, they had no trouble putting out a hand and asking those East Coast liberals and the rest of America for assistance. They sought help from the same FEMA insurance funds they had been trying to whack back.
I personally don’t consider it mooching when people who have been hit hard want to draw on an insurance pool that they’ve paid into, but some want to draw out without paying in. Oklahoma senators aren’t the only culprits. Most religious organizations claim that paying taxes on their real estate or income would blur the line between church and state, God forbid. But they don’t express the same concern when money flows in the opposite direction. Legislation currently advocated by both Catholic and Protestant lobbyists would allow churches to draw on public disaster relief funds that they haven’t paid into.
2. Subsidies for religion. That’s not the only way that religious organizations and individual are hoping to get something for nothing. Rather like corporations that want the rights but not the responsibilities of personhood, churches and even some religious individuals want the benefits of citizenship without the duties. They want exemptions from basic human rights laws, like the obligation to serve gay people in public accommodations or to provide preventive health coverage to employees or to respect religious freedom in the military. They also want public money without having to chip in. In recent decades, figuring out how to pay for religion on the public dime without paying into the public kitty has become big business.
Religious clergy use the same roads, electric line, water pipes, and sewers as the rest of us. They benefit from the same police services, military protection, and international diplomacy. But since 1954 they have not had to pay income tax on any compensation designated as a “housing allowance.” A clergy member could have $25,000 of his $75,000 salary so designated, use the money to purchase a house, and then, in a practice called “double dipping,” deduct mortgage interest and property taxes. On November 22, a federal judge ruled against the exemption, which re-directed an estimated $2.3 billion out of public coffers over a five year period. Given the amount at stake, it is expected that church lobbyists will pressure the Obama administration to appeal the decision. When clergy and churches don’t chip in for the services they use, either the rest of us pay more, or our country goes farther in debt. It’s that simple.
3. Corporate profits; public losses. Corporations gain a competitive advantage when they can get someone else to pay their costs—someone like taxpayers or future generations of Americans. For example, one small bike shop in Colorado Springs spends $24,000 on medical insurance for four employees, while their biggest competitors, Walmart and Target, get the general public to subsidize healthcare for their workforce. They do it by paying below-poverty wages and limiting employees to part time work. In 2011, the state of Massachusetts spent $14.6 million on insurance for Walmart employees and their dependents, and even more for employees of Target. Freeloading lets irresponsible businesses undercut good-citizen competitors and drive them out of business.
The same is true when irresponsible corporations are able to use our air and water like a free dump for hazardous waste. In India, it is estimated that pollution from coal plants causes 20 million new cases of asthma each year and kills 120,000. Here in the U.S., pollution levels are lower and asthmatics are more likely to get timely treatment. Even so we have data going back to the 1970’s showing that coal burning increases asthma attacks and respiratory ailments. Coal companies like Peabody don’t have to pay the cost of harm done, which means their profits are subsidized by the American public who take a hit in terms of both health and healthcare costs. Who really pays? The elderly and children. If coal companies had to step up and take responsibility for the real costs of their dirty products, energy innovators might find themselves on a level playing field.
4. Right to Work or Right to Shirk? Speaking of level playing fields . . . The tug-of-war between living wages and corporate profits isn’t actually a tug of war unless workers can team up and pull together, and conservative profiteers realized a long time ago that they could skew the balance of power in their favor if they could somehow defund the labor movement. The strategy they came up with, which they call “Right to Work” legislation is a stroke of freeloading genius. These laws basically say that anyone who works in a union shop gets union scale wages and benefits even if they don’t join up, pay dues, or participate in negotiations. Conservatives are banking that if some people have the right to a free ride, they will take it, and eventually there won’t be enough dues-paying members to keep labor organized.
In the children’s book, Swimmy, small fish get terrorized by big fish until they learn to team up and swim together in the shape of an even bigger fish. For the past century, the labor movement organized small fish to swim together, to cast the shadow of a big fish both in wage negotiations and in the halls of congress. Now, with globalization and technology shifts, old models aren’t working so well, which makes this particular conservative freeloader tactic well timed.
5. The Smoking Gun. If one institution in the U.S. could be held up as the pinnacle of conservative freeloading it should be the NRA. The objective of the gun lobby is to ensure that profits accrue to the manufacturers while public health and safety costs do not. In other words, for its funders the NRA advocates the opposite of personal or corporate responsibility. Thanks to relentless lobbying, weapons manufacturers are exempt from liability caused by their deadly products.
Gun advocates often are as guilty as manufacturers when it comes to shirking and freeloading. The libertarian ethic that idolizes gun rights is actually one that says I play; you pay. Today, if I left a sword lying around unsecured where it could be found by a curious child or suicidal teen, I would be more legally liable than if I left an enticing gun lying around under the same circumstances. A sword owner has a responsibility to protect the general public under what are called “attractive nuisance” laws. Seventeen percent of gun owners keep their guns both loaded and unlocked. Last year, 52 kids in King County, Washington, were caught with guns at school. If guns were treated like other dangerous possessions, careless owners would be in a world of hurt, because the hurt they create would belong, at least financially, to them.
I could give dozens more examples—extraction companies that want to draw down America’s bank account of natural resources and then put profits in offshore tax shelters; online retailers that want to replace brick and mortar stores without paying local taxes that fund worker retraining; university educated bankers who pay expensive accountants to help them avoid chipping in for higher education. . . . But the bottom line is this: When conservatives talk about responsibility, don’t read their lips; read their white papers. Corporate conservatives want special rules that let them privatize profits and socialize losses. Religious conservatives want special exemptions from civic duties and laws that apply to everyone else. Libertarian conservatives simply believe they are special—that 4000 diaper changes and university educations notwithstanding, they truly are self-made and don’t owe anything to anyone, past, present or future. It’s time we challenged the notion that the Republicans are the party of responsibility.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
Are ExxonMobil execs the most evil people in the 200,000-year history of humanity?
Internal ExxonMobil documents show that the company’s scientists predicted in 1982 that by 2020, parts per million of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere would reach 410-420 ppm. For the first time this spring ppm of CO2 exceeded 415.
The memo says in part,
Considerable uncertainty also surrounds the possible impact on society of such a warming trend, should it occur. At the low end of the predicted temperature range there could be some impact on agricultural growth and rainfall patterns which could be beneficial in some regions and detrimental in others.
At the high end, some scientists suggest there could be considerable adverse impact including the flooding of some coastal land masses as a result of a rise in sea level due to melting of the Antarctic ice sheet.
The company covered up these memos and staged a multi-million-dollar disinformation campaign to throw doubt on the reality of human-made climate change, to ensure that ExxonMobil could go on making billions in profits each year from selling gasoline.
The scientists nailed it. ExxonMobil nailed it. They can be proud of their scientific prowess and predictive abilities, right?
Wrong. They are evil.
They are the most evil human beings to walk the earth since Homo Sapiens emerged in southern Africa around 200,000 years ago.
ExxonMobil has single-handedly been conducting a vast terraforming experiment that will displace hundreds of millions of people. Some two-thirds of Egypt’s 100 million people live in the Nile River delta, which has low elevations and some of which will be submerged even in the current century. Bangladesh isn’t going to be there after a while, displacing 150 million people.
This is not to account for the increased destructiveness of tropical storms or the acidification of the oceans, which will likely kill off half of marine life.
Characters in science fiction that wreck a whole planet are rare. George Lucas’s Darth Vader destroyed a planet with the Death Star in Star Wars. Stan Lee’s Thanatos wiped out half the population of earth in The Avengers: Endgame. In 2009’s Star Trek the mad Romulan Nero destroyed the planet of Vulcan with 6 billion people on it.
CEOs of ExxonMobil such as Lee Raymond or Rex Tillerson or currently Darren Woods are banal in their evil, as Hannah Arendt would lead us to expect. They probably aren’t even interesting to talk to. They are like wind-up toys, their springs being profit, that can’t change direction, driving toward extinction.
But they are much worse in the practical effect of their evil than Hitler or Pol Pot or any of the other genocidal maniacs we’ve seen in the past century.
They deliberately wrecked a planet to make a few bucks (in Lee Raymond’s case, $400 million of them). Tens of millions of human beings will die so that they can have private planes and huge mansions.
They are Darth Vaders and Thanatoses, they are destroyers of a planet. And they manage in their cupidity and their cunning and their dishonesty to be utterly boring and worthy of no one’s interest as people. They lack a soul.
Sooner or later the judges will permit people to begin suing ExxonMobil for the environmental damage it has caused. The judges are turning these suits back now. But minds will change.
All it would take would be one gigantic glacier from Antarctica to plop in and suddenly raise sea level noticeably, a sort of climate tsunami. I wish it wouldn’t happen, but it will. The question is only when, as Exxon noticed in 1982. Judges in Miami would notice.
The company is doomed to an early bankruptcy.
Get your money out of it if you hope to retire.
And switch to public transportation or an electric car as soon as you can afford to.
That is the only redemption we will have from this cabal of evil, to know that they are already on the trash heap of history and have no part in the future of our increasingly challenged planet.
Their names will be vilified for as long as human beings live.
Democratic leaders put on the spot after GOP lawmaker makes powerful case for Trump impeachment
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan posted an incisive tirade against President Donald Trump and his administration on Saturday afternoon, becoming the first Republican lawmaker to call for impeaching the commander in chief as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
And in the process, he displayed a more cogent, compelling and thoughtful grasp on the findings laid out in the Mueller report and the requirements for impeachment than most top Democrats have shown. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who called for impeachment shortly after reading the report, has been one of the most influential and outspoken Democrats on the topic.
And to be sure, Amash is not a typical Republican. He has been strongly critical of Trump in the past, and if anyone were to make a list of GOP lawmakers who’d be most likely to support impeaching Trump, Amash would certainly be at the top of the list. His decisive turn against the president isn’t a sign that the rest of his party will soon come to the same conclusion. Still, it was notable how forcefully and emphatically he made his case.
He began by announcing his forceful “principal conclusions” from the report, echoing the language Attorney General Bill Barr used to shape public opinion about Mueller’s findings:
1. Attorney General Barr has deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report.
2. President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.
3. Partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances.
4. Few members of Congress have read the report.
“I offer these conclusions only after having read Mueller’s redacted report carefully and completely, having read or watched pertinent statements and testimony, and having discussed this matter with my staff, who thoroughly reviewed materials and provided me with further analysis,” he said.
It was interesting, but effective, that Amash focused first on Barr’s deceptions. It was important because of how the Mueller report has been so grossly misrepresented by Republicans, the media, and even some Democrats — all led by Barr’s initial spin.
“Barr’s misrepresentations are significant but often subtle, frequently taking the form of sleight-of-hand qualifications or logical fallacies, which he hopes people will not notice,” wrote Amash.
Impeachment, he said, is warranted when an official commits “high crimes and misdemeanors,” a phrase which he reads to imply “conduct that violates the public trust.” By this standard, the Mueller report shows Trump’s behavior was impeachable — despite Barr’s attempts to convince the public otherwise.
He noted, too, that he agrees with the hundreds of former federal prosecutors who have said that Trump’s actions outlined under the analysis of obstruction of justice in the report would have resulted in the indictment of any other person. And the standard of proof, he argued, is not even as high for impeachable offenses as it would be for a criminal showing. Congress only needs to conclude that the official carried out “careless, abusive, corrupt, or otherwise dishonorable conduct.”
In one of his most compelling and important points, Amash emphasized the dangers of not impeaching the president, something top Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler seem to have ignored:
Impeachment, which is a special form of indictment, does not even require probable cause that a crime (e.g., obstruction of justice) has been committed; it simply requires a finding that an official has engaged in careless, abusive, corrupt, or otherwise dishonorable conduct.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) May 18, 2019
He also included a mild critique of some Democrats calling for impeachment now, saying, “We’ve witnessed members of Congress from both parties shift their views 180 degrees—on the importance of character, on the principles of obstruction of justice—depending on whether they’re discussing Bill Clinton or Donald Trump.”
But the most scathing critique was his argument — which is practically undeniable — that on this matter, most lawmakers aren’t actually well informed.
“Few members of Congress even read Mueller’s report; their minds were made up based on partisan affiliation—and it showed, with representatives and senators from both parties issuing definitive statements on the 448-page report’s conclusions within just hours of its release,” he concluded. “America’s institutions depend on officials to uphold both the rules and spirit of our constitutional system even when to do so is personally inconvenient or yields a politically unfavorable outcome. Our Constitution is brilliant and awesome; it deserves a government to match it.”
How ‘fake history’ has powered the rise of America’s right-wing — and why it’s time for the left to fight back
Political scientist Alan Abramowitz on the decades of racial and cultural realignment that gave us Donald Trump
“Fake news” is everywhere, both as an actual product and a false accusation. But a deeper phenomenon, fake history, is a big part of how we got here. Donald Trump’s signature slogan, “Make America Great Again,” depends on a historical narrative of American greatness, swiped from Ronald Reagan, and a hazy peak in that past that Trump has never felt it necessary to identify.
This has been a long time coming. Back in 2010, with the Tea Party riding high in the news, Nils Gilman (author of “Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America“) wrote a blog post, “Rightwing productions of history,” that brilliantly explained how fake history empowers the right — which writes “history” for immediate propaganda value, with only the most tenuous concern for what actually happened historically — while academic history was too nuanced and complicated to help the left in those terms.
“There’s an underlying irony here, which is worth underscoring,” Gilman wrote. “While the political right has largely lost the interpretive battle for the American past among professional historians, they remain far more sensitive than the political left to the political importance of dominating popular understandings of key episodes from the past.”
The surprise election of Trump may have shaken things up, however. There’s been a flood of popular writing about histories of populism, authoritarianism and threats to democracy since November 2016. Where all this leads is unclear, but at least the political importance of history has become a vital concern for the left as well as the right — which creates new possibilities. To better grasp how we got here, Salon sat down to interview Gilman about his insight from the Tea Party’s heyday, and what inklings it can provide for the days ahead.
What led you to write “Rightwing productions of history” in 2010?
There were a lot of things going on at that point. One had to do with the contested legacy of the Vietnam War, and counterinsurgency. There was a whole series of books coming out at that time written by various people who are not academics. Some of them were more or less credible sources: scholars but not academics. There’s a very strong consensus among academic historians about the historical legacies of counterinsurgency programs, and the counterinsurgency program in Vietnam in particular. Basically, the last successful counterinsurgency waged by a power in the global North against power in the global South was — and this is somewhat arguable — Malaya in 1961, although Malaya became independent shortly thereafter [as the nation now called Malaysia], so it’s almost a rule-proving exception.
During the high colonial period, there were many insurgencies that were put down. What brought colonialism to an end, more than anything else, was the rising failure or inability to put down insurgencies in Algeria, in Vietnam and so on.
That was the dominant consensus view among academic historians. Now [in 2010] the U.S. finds itself embroiled in trying to lead the counterinsurgency in Iraq. And that historical view of counterinsurgency wasn’t going to work as a usable past for people who are trying to foment contemporary counterinsurgency programs in Afghanistan and Iraq. So a series of books started to appear — some of them more credible as histories than others. Max Boot (who I’ve known since college) and Mark Moyar (who my wife has known since college) are people I would certainly call credible intellectuals — they aren’t just making up bullshit. But they are very much engaged in a project of writing history that’s informed by the need to create a past that works for present political purposes.
I should note that I was actually working as a consultant at the time, trying to help people in the U.S. government try to think more historically about the insurgency processes they were engaged in.
You said “there were a lot of things going on.” What else did you have in mind?
There was also this domestic issue, which is that there are a lot of stories to tell about the past, not just one. If you ask almost any academic historian today, “What was the primary cause of the U.S. Civil War?” the absolute overwhelming consensus is one word: “slavery.” You know, complicated multi-causal factor, but you boil it all away — no slavery, no Civil War, right? But that’s not a narrative that a lot of people are very happy with.
In fact, it wasn’t the predominant narrative for a long time. It wasn’t the dominant narrative really until the 1960s and ’70s when there was a whole new historiography on that. And there are people who want to contest that history now. There’s this whole industry of people funded by right-wing think tanks and right-wing benefactors, who are interested in creating a narrative about the past which is useful for particular political projects in the present.
I actually think the political right is much better at this. Partly because they lost the academy, they want [to win] these battles to a very large extent, and are hyper-aware that the way the narrative about the U.S. past has solidified over the last generation or two makes it much harder for them to pursue certain kinds of policies. So that’s the general frame for the piece.
At the beginning you wrote, “Over the last 40 years of production of American history, historical memory has been quite radically transformed.” How would you explain to a layperson what you meant by that?
There’s different dimensions to it. One major factor is that, 30 to 40 years ago we got civics lessons in schools, which were historical stories that were told to present the political values of the country. The Revolutionary War was an uprising against the despotic foreign government, and against taxation without representation. There was education about the republican virtues. There was a story told about the rising arc of freedoms in the history of the country. These things were all told in a pretty explicit way. My kids are school-age now. They don’t get that kind of explicit civics lesson anymore. This is part of the retreat of public institutions from engaging in moral suasion in general and American civic life. So that’s one part of the story.
At the same time, there’s been a real change in many of the dominant narratives about the U.S. past. Academic historians have increasingly told stories in the name of inclusion, social histories. Fifty years ago, the dominant kinds of historiography focused primarily on political elites. The social history of revolution, which began really in the 1960s, and then became the dominant movement in the ’70s and ’80s, was about teaching history “from below,” as the saying goes.
This was the history of various working classes and oppressed groups, and groups that had been written out of history. Because the political history focused on elites naturally was the history of “dead white men,” as the saying goes. So people became interested in telling stories about the history of women, of working-class people, of African-Americans. This is done in the name of inclusion, but when the stories get told, they also become stories of oppression. As those became the dominant stories, the history of the past was no longer a history necessarily of the arc of history bending toward freedom. It was a history of a long series of only slowly, haltingly and hesitatingly overcoming oppressions — centuries of suffering. This became a story that was much less celebratory of the American past.
That created problems.
It contrasted very sharply with the kind of story that, at the same time, Ronald Reagan wanted to tell about his shining city on a hill, a glorious beacon that all others look out to. So you started to get a stronger and stronger divergence between the kinds of stories told. Certain political factions in the country — nationalists, and also darker forces like white nationalists, and people who were actually interested in perpetuating these oppressions that these social historians were trying to decry — were not very happy with this turn of historiographical events, where the dominant story was no longer a celebratory story about elites building a great and powerful country. It was instead the story about various kinds of predatory elites who had oppressed large segments of the country, not to say the rest of the world.
That was a much less useful history for people who wanted to promote U.S. power, plus the power of certain constituencies within the country. They recognized that the understanding of the past that has become the dominant view of academic history was an actual block for them to be able to enact the kinds of policies they wanted to enact. So alternative history started to be written, not by academic historians but by other kinds of people.
You tweeted recently about best-selling “historians” not being academics. What’s the significance of that, as you see it?
The fact that Bill O’Reilly is the best-selling “historian” in the country I think tells you two things. One is that there’s a huge amount of demand for different kinds of stories than the ones told by academic historians. Second — and this is a point I really want to make — why is Bill O’Reilly spending his time writing histories? Two things: One is he feels that having the kind of story he wants to tell about the past is important for his political project, and two, he sees that such histories do not exist.
It’s not just Bill O’Reilly. Jonah Goldberg wrote a ridiculous book called “Liberal Fascism,” where he argued that contemporary liberalism is a direct lineal descendent from fascism, just because there are some resonances between the anti-classical liberalism of FDR and the anti-classical liberalism of the fascists in the 1930s. There were a whole variety of different anti-classical liberalisms that arose in the context of the Great Depression. It was a major rebuke of classical liberalism, and the question was what to do about it. One answer was fascism. Another answer was communism. A third answer was the kind of mixed economy that FDR put together.
FDR is actually another very important figure in this. FDR has had, I would say, close to a cult following among American liberals, generally celebrated by American liberals as the greatest president of the 20th century.
I must have read a dozen books on him as a teenager.
Exactly. I mean he was celebrated as the guy who saved the country from the worst political fate. He saved American capitalism, he won the war. There were all sorts of things about him swept under the rug in those kinds of hagiographic narratives, matters relating to African-American civil rights, the Japanese-American internment, etc. So there was some dissent. But basically, FDR was treated as a really important figure.
Republicans have had an explicit campaign to try to displace the memory of FDR as the greatest American president of the 20th century with the memory of Ronald Reagan. I think John McCain has an explicit project to make sure that more sites in the U.S. are named after Reagan than FDR. Why is that? It’s a concerted campaign to control the symbolic understanding of the past.
One of the important things you highlighted is the asymmetry involved. There’s very little concern with getting the past right among conservatives, while among professional historians there’s so much concern with getting it right that it becomes difficult to have a usable past.
This goes to the style of academic writing, which makes it hard to reach popular audiences. Every year the best-selling histories, whether they happen to have a particular political project or not, tend not to be written by academic historians. That’s partly because of the stylistic job pressures within the academy.
There’s a second dimension, which is that academic historians, for the most part, are motivated by trying to get the story right, and to understand the balance, the complexity and the nuances. Academic historians will always tell you two things: It started longer ago than you think, and it’s more complicated than you think. Complexity is the enemy of clarification, for political purposes. Political communicators have to make strong, clear statements. It’s not useful for them to be nuanced.
In a larger context, there is a parallel here with what’s happening in the sciences, whether it’s “intelligent design” vs. evolution, or the attacks on global warming. Chris Mooney in “The Republican Brain” argued that the liberal tradition sees reason as the search for knowledge, but that’s not what the science actually says. Our complex minds actually developed from being social animals. It’s relationships and persuasion that the mind is much more attentive to.
I’m not a neuroscientist so I can’t speak to that directly, but it certainly sounds plausible. There is a fundamental relationship between liberalism — not welfare-state liberalism but skeptical, open-minded, non-dogmatic liberalism, a willingness to revise accepted positions that is central to the mindset of an effective scientist — that are antithetical to political systems that are entailed by dogma. So there is a connection there.
One framework I find illuminating is the one evoked by Karen Armstrong in the introduction to “The Battle for God” — that of logos vs. mythos. The scientific mindset, expressive of logos, is where a great deal of energy of the political left has gone for a long time, both the center-left establishment and more progressive forces. If you want to change the system, you have two choices — one is looking back to how things used to be or were “supposed” to be, and the other is to study things in a problem-solving way, to figure out how we move forward — and that seems to resonate with science.
I generally agree with that, but here’s my caveat. Effective politics speaks the language of mythos at least as much as the language of logos. My view is that populism is that style of politics which focuses on not logos, policy wonk detail but politics as a form of expression, as a vehicle for identity, and that takes place in the realm of myth. Really genius politicians manage to have some artful balance between the logos and the mythos. They manage their policy agendas that are rooted in logic and evidence, yet are able to express to people in a common idiom why this is meaningful to them, in terms of the larger values and beliefs — call that mythos — that they want to believe in.
I think the fundamental mistake that people make — policy intellectuals, especially — is to believe that everybody sees the world the way they do. Most people don’t see the world and see politics the way somebody like you or me does. We’re like political nerds, interested in policy details, and that’s not how 99 percent of people think. They think about politics as a vehicle for other things. Nowadays, they think of it as a form of entertainment. That’s why we have the entertainer in chief as a president.
That brings us to the question of how things have changed or remained the same in light of Trump. There is more widespread interest in serious history trying to make sense of him, but the question of course remains about what is good scholarship versus what will sell. The classical figure here would be Richard Hofstadter, who saw populism on the left and right as fundamentally similar, coming out of a “vital center” perspective. That’s been embraced by defenders of neoliberalism, which itself is a large contributing factor in how we got to Trump.
Let me unpack several pieces of that. First, Hofstadter’s view of populism was absolutely connected to “vital center” liberalism. You’re completely correct. The narrative that Hofstadter wanted to put together was that populists were bad, but progressives were good, because the progressives were an elite project and the populists were a mass project. Basically the liberal tradition in the first half of the 20th century from Wilson to FDR was about containing populist enthusiasms and channeling them toward progressive ends.
I would say that the dominant view over the last 30 or 40 years has been that Hofstadter’s view of everything was wrong. Hofstadter is, among American historians, maybe the No. 1 whipping boy for “people who wrote brilliantly but got things really wrong.” But I think there’s more truth to what Hofstadter had to say then it’s currently fashionable to admit. Certainly I think Hofstadter is due for a re-revisionist rehabilitation in light of Trump.
Now, a lot of people want to claim that Trump is not a populist, because the narrative that’s been dominant, put forward by Michael Kazin in “The Populist Persuasion,” or a variety of others, that historical populists were actually not these backward-looking remnants of resistance to modernity, which is basically the way Hofstadter presented them, but people who are interested in progressive politics and doing things like adding referendums, having an income tax and bank regulation. I think there was a lot of that — a certain kind of logos. But I also think it’s important to understand them as practicing not just the content of politics, but also a style of politics which we have good reason to be skeptical of. So that’s the first piece.
And the second part, about neoliberalism leading to Trump?
I think it’s absolutely true, and I’ve written about this extensively: The failures of neoliberalism, and the failures to even confront the fact that neoliberalism has catastrophically failed large segments of the population, is a precondition for the rise of Trumpism. I have a line on this: “If the left doesn’t come up with decent solutions, the right will come up with indecent solutions.”
We had neoliberalism as a historical phenomenon, with the origins in the transformation of the 1970s. You get floating exchange rates, the anti-labor union movements, the rising financialization of the economy, the decoupling of growth from wages, the capturing of all productivity gains by small fractions of the top of the income bracket, and so on. Those trends begin really in the 1970s, coming out of the oil crisis and the economic restructuring that took place at that time, and there was all sorts of ideological work done to justify that.
I’ll just cite one example: Eugene Fama’s “efficient market” hypothesis said that bubbles can’t exist. He wins the Nobel Prize for that — after 2008, the financial crash and the dot-com meltdown — because it does useful ideological work to say that there are no such things as bubbles, that all information is captured in the market. There can’t be any such thing as irrational exuberance. And I think there’s been a lot of work among academic economists to come to Jesus on the fact that a lot of boats were missed that led up to this. But no credible alternative model of political economy has actually emerged since 2008.
Ten years out from the crash, and none of the institutions have been radically reformed, and none of the trends that led to the crash have been addressed. We had a famously weak recovery. There’s a lot of people who are employed, but wages have stagnated, a lot of people have dropped out of the workforce, a lot of people are underemployed, a lot of people are employed in jobs that don’t fit their skill set. There’s a lot of problems in our economy, and none of those things have been dealt with.
You can lay this at the feet of Barack Obama in the following sense: Despite the fact that the right is absolutely crazy about the “fact” that this guy is some sort of Muslim leftist or whatever, he’s actually a liberal centrist. That’s why he had no plan, he had no idea: This is not part of the agenda. Creating universal health care is actually part of the neoliberal agenda. There’s all sorts of good neoliberal justifications for it, and he uses Mitt Romney’s plan, which is the neoliberal health care plan. So Obama himself is a neoliberal. He was so personally gracious and he was an African-American, so there are a lot of people, and I think I include myself, who have a lot of fondness for the stylistic way in which he governed.
But he didn’t do anything to deal with these underlying problems. They’re all still there, and no alternative narrative has come forward. If you think about the dominant movements on the left, since Obama was elected president: Occupy Wall Street just sort of faded away; the Tea Party came up; and Black Lives Matter was dealing with a very specific problem, police violence against African-Americans and to some extent the incarceration crisis, which is a symptom of neoliberalism, but not the cause of neoliberalism. There just hasn’t been an alternative, credible left or center-left alternative. Under those circumstances, it’s not surprising that people who are proposing some kind of real alternative become appealing to people who feel like the whole system is rotten. I think that’s the truth about Trump.
Let’s also be clear that he won the election because of a fluke in the way our presidential election process works. He lost the popular vote by a couple million, and he was also running against a historically flawed candidate. Hillary Clinton is the living embodiment of neoliberalism. Say what you will about Trump: It’s hard to win a third presidential term [for the same party], and it’s really hard when your candidate is married to the person who more than anybody else was responsible for the consolidation of the neoliberal consensus during the 1990s.
As you said, “If the left doesn’t come up with decent solutions, the right you will come up with indecent solutions.” Where do you see those decent solutions coming from?
I’ve got a lot of confidence that there is an emerging set of new technologies coming online that promise significant reinvigoration of growth and productivity. Machine learning in artificial intelligence, robotics, gene editing, nanotechnology and so on — that suite of technologies which will be combined to create a whole new industry and revolutionize existing industries really promises a lot of growth. The question is how we make that growth inclusive, because under the current political economy the coming of the robots is only likely to increase inequality.
I think there are people like Jacob Hacker at Yale, who is writing interesting things about “predistribution” as opposed to redistribution. There are discussions about universal basic income — I’m skeptical that’s really going to happen, but they’re pieces of an overall solution. By the way, that’s an idea that goes back to Nixon, right? The idea of a negative income tax. So there’s ways that might be politically viable, not just with people on the left. But I won’t pretend I have some sort of silver bullet. I think we need to have a sustained conversation about how workers’ voices get incorporated into decision-making over the distribution of the gains in the economy. That is the fundamental thing we need to work on.
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