An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Saturday, July 8, 2017
Mark Penn/Andrew Stein: Back to the Center, Democrats: Penn was Hillary Clinton's "senior adviser" for her 2008 campaign, which he did more than anyone to destruct and disgrace. Stein was Manhattan Borough president back in the 1990s. Neither figure has any import even among the Clinton faction of the Democratic Party, so it may be unnecessary even to bother with their half-hearted efforts to herd the Democratic Party back toward the "center" -- there must be others who are other who can articulate such views more coherently, but their raw instincts are little different. The one thing they all have in common is a visceral hatred for the left, although in particulars it could take any form that seems convenient. For Penn and Stein, this is built on selective memory:
In 1996 Clinton's "resounding re-election" came with 49.2% of the vote, leaving Gingrich and the Republicans in complete control of Congress -- "back" only if your entire conception of the Party was Clinton himself. The only bills Clinton was able to pass during his second term were ones the Republicans calculated would hurt and disillusion the Democratic Party base -- "welfare reform," repeal of Glass-Steagall, a capital gains tax cut, a bill which declared "regime change" in Iraq to be US policy. But in wasn't "leftward drift" that cost the Democrats control of Congress in 1994: it was Clinton's "triangulation" (his efforts to win over business support by attacking the party base, especially unions), as exemplified in his decision to prioritize NAFTA over health care, and to forsake traditional Democratic health care proposals in favor of a system that catered an increasingly predatory health care industry.
Still, if Clinton's second term was such a golden age for the Democratic Party, how come they lost two elections to Bush, with the Republicans maintaining control of Congress up to 2006 -- when wild-eyed Howard Dean took control of the DNC? And while Obama won decisively in 2008 with his promise of change (and less soundly in 2012 running on "no change"), it's quite a stretch to blame Hillary Clinton's epic collapse in 2016 on the party's "leftward drift." While Republicans have made huge gains since 2010, you have to ask whether this was abetted by fear of the Democratic left or disgust over the corruption and ineptness of Democratic centrists. One hint: Trump's nickname for Clinton was "Crooked Hillary."
Penn and Stein are not just deluded about history, they've come up with some peculiar ideas about what a "winning strategy" for the Democrats might entail. For instance, they think Democrats can win back the working class through a combination of Trumpian prejudices and "moderate" trade and immigration policies:
Penn and Stein never mention Clinton's signature NAFTA treaty, which was a direct attack on the working class, and the cause of a massive wave of Mexican emigration -- the other major source of immigrants (poor ones, anyway) has been US wars and US-sponsored dictators around the world. The single most important reason Democrats lost so much of the working class was their failure to protect and support unions -- they were just too busy chasing business donors. Republicans took advantage of that lapse by playing to white prejudices -- their only option, because they don't have any economic answers (but neither do the "centrist" Democrats, despite empty cant like "fair trade").
The reason this op-ed has generated any interest at all is that it raises a real question, obscures another, and is stupid enough it begs you to argue the opposite.
The real question actually has three parts: is the assumption that American politics is laid out on a left-right axis true; if so, is it true that the center has shifted right in recent years; and if so, can the Democrats gain voter share by moving right to recapture that center? "Centrism" depends on all three being true, but there are many problems with each. Many people don't think in terms of left-right (e.g., they consider other terms like integrity, or they focus on non-economic issues). The statistical center has moved different directions on different issues. And both parties obfuscate (rather than change) unpopular positions. But also 30-50% of eligible voters don't vote, so they defy categorization. If you're on the left, you probably think that's because mainstream Democrats haven't given many people credible reasons to vote. That's unproven, but one data point is that Sanders has consistently polled better against Trump than Clinton did. That argues against Penn and Stein.
The obscured question is whether actual Democrats have done better when they moved to the center. Clinton's 1992 campaign was distinctly populist, and Obama seemed to embrace progressive liberalism in 2008. Both moved sharply center/right after those elections, and both lost Congress after two years. Even though both were re-elected, neither regained Congress, and neither managed to get a successor elected. Both oversaw periods with reasonable economic growth which accrued almost exclusively to the very rich, resulting in greater inequality. Both saw (and contributed to) the decline of the public sector, and the deterioration of the safety net -- as a result, average Americans (by definition, the "center" of the electorate) saw their relative welfare decline, their risks increase, and their children's futures diminish. You might argue that median welfare declined less under Clinton and Obama than it did under the Bushes, but in absolute terms the only upward indicator "centrist" Democrats can point to is the personal wealth of the dealmakers at the top. As the quotes above make clear, Penn and Stein do their best to obfuscate this legacy.
The opposite argument -- that Democrats are more likely to win when they move left -- actually has quite a bit of historical support. Both Clinton (in 1992) and Obama (in 2008) ran successful campaigns that promised much more than they delivered or even attempted when they entered office. The Democrats' best election of the last 25 years was in 2006 (actually before the recession in 2008), when the DNC was run by Howard Dean, the self-described champion "of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party." And again, all available evidence shows that Sanders would have fared better than Clinton against Trump.
Would be "centrists" have trouble grasping this because they fail to understand how the current political dynamic destroys any ground the "centrists" try to claim. This is because the two parties are very different in goals and methods. The Republicans were taken over by a faction which relentlessly and insatiably pushes everything to the right, in large part by never conceding anything important to the other side. This doesn't preclude compromise deals, but they always exact a high price from the Democratic Party base, and as such lead those voters to become disenchanted with the Party leadership. They can do this because their policies are compatible with the beliefs of their donors -- to increase corporate power over everyday life, making the rich richer, and punishing whoever stands in their way.
One could imagine a similar dynamic on the left, but as politicians became ever more dependent on donors there has never been a comparable funding option for the left. Instead, what's happened is that "centrist" Democrats have filled the breech, banking the votes of the base while cutting deals with their favored donors -- sometimes incredibly bad deals, like NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. In this dynamic, rich donors naturally pressure Democrats to settle with Republicans, yet in the end they wind up backing the Republicans because they can't resist the promise of getting more and more power and wealth. So in this dynamic, the "centrists" screw themselves two ways: they betray their base voters, and they never really get the business support they bargained for. And after repeated failures, it starts to get obvious that they really have nothing to offer. (Hence Penn and Stein wind up pushing "fair trade" and "trying to restore manufacturing jobs.")
There are a few more angles to all of this -- e.g., Democrats hurt themselves enormously when they jump into foreign wars -- but this is the basic dynamic. Penn and Stein don't begin to understand it. For another view on the piece, and some background on who these jokers are, see: Alex Pareene: Mark Penn's Bad Column Also Makes No Goddamn Sense.
Nicholas Lemann offers a sympathetic portrait of the Clintons in his New York Review of Books piece, What Happened to Clintonism? (mostly behind their paywall), based on four recent books: Daryl A Carter: Brother Bill: President Clinton and the Politics of Race and Class; Michael Tomasky: Bill Clinton; William H Chafe: Hillary and Bill: The Clintons and the Politics of the Personal; and Joe Conason: Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton. He does manage to make Clinton seem less sinister than he appears now. To some extent the "political winds" in the early 1990s were blowing in a way that favored someone like Clinton (or Gore), so to some extent he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. (This is not the same thing as popularity within the party. I remain convinced that Jesse Jackson would have won most primaries in 1992 had he run, but I doubt he would have won, and the Party kingmakers were desperate for someone who could win.) And after twelve years of Reagan and Bush, Clinton's centrism still had an aura of plausibility: indeed, if he had a free hand he might have expanded and strengthened the safety net, rolling back the decline of the middle class, while still pursuing his pro-business initiatives. The Republicans deserve much credit (or blame) for wrecking his dream programs, but he shares blame for echoing and legitimizing their concerns and compromising with their schemes.
Conason's book covers the post-presidential years, mostly Clinton's unique combination of vanity and altruism embodied in his Foundation, probably without examining too closely how much money stuck to his fingers on its way from Davos-class donors to the world's needy. It isn't surprising that someone who worked so hard to help his wealthy benefactors make even more should aspire to be one with them, but such upward mobility has neither sharpened his political instincts nor his human empathies -- which in 2016 turned into a liability for Hillary, whose own political ambitions made his philanthropy look more like some kind of political slush fund. Had the Clintons just quietly receded into their newfound wealth few people would have cared much, but having grown wealthy from being president and making their supporters billions of dollars, running again just made them look greedy, and pretending they were running for us just added the insult of hypocrisy.
That Hillary Clinton ultimately lost the election to Donald Trump, and largely because she was the one perceived to be "crooked," is much more than ironic. Given Trump's history and personality, it should have been easy to depict him as greedy and egotistical -- a man who had spent every waking moment of the last fifty years pursuing fame and fortune, one who could hardly be expected to change his stripes the moment he nominally became a public servant. Even looking back it's not clear why Clinton's campaign failed to drive that point home -- it's not so much that they didn't try as didn't manage to be convincing. And while there are many possible reasons for this, the big one was that they spent so much of the campaign being defensive, reeling from the constant barrage of email and foundation scandals.
On the other hand, the Republicans seem to have figured out a very effective way to drive home their "crooked Hillary" meme: social media. Probably the most convincing (and disturbing) piece I've read to date on the campaign is Sue Halpern's How He Used Facebook to Win. The important thing about social media advertising is the degree to which ads can be targeted, so that Trump's people could deliver very precise messages meant to push different user buttons. This, of course, builds on a strategy Republicans have depended on for years now: cultivating single-user voters and stoking their fears to rally them against the Democrats. (Crime comes and goes, but guns and abortion have been especially reliable issues.) There is, of course, a risk in doing this too publicly: it generates a backlash. But highly targeted social media advertising limits unintended visibility, while providing a multiplier effect as fans forward their favored memes to their friends and followers. Here's a sample from the article:
Nor was Trump's digital advertising limited to pushing buttons to get potential supporters to come out and vote for him. It was also directed at undermining Hillary Clinton's support by turning potential voters for her off:
Some of these approaches had been worked by Obama's campaign in 2008 and 2012, especially in terms of micro-targeted get-out-the-vote efforts. But there's an essential asymmetry between Republican and Democratic agendas and strategies: Democrats at least try to present a coherent program that offers tangible benefits to voters (even though they, especially recently, have a poor track record of delivering on their promises, nearly every popular benefit ever dates back to Democrats). Republicans, on the other hand, favor intrinsically unpopular policies of increasing the power and wealth of a tiny coterie of elites, so they have few options other than to dissemble and misdirect -- indeed, what seems to work best for them is driving voters into blind rage. The article quotes Laura Quinn, explaining: "Trump didn't have a lot of 'Here is my agenda, here is my narrative, I have to persuade people of it,' . . . The Trump world was more like, 'Let's say a lot of different things, they don't even necessarily need to be coherent, and observe, through the wonderful new platforms that allow you to observe how people respond and observe what works, and whatever squirrel everyone chases, that's going to become out narrative, our agenda, our message.'"
It's tempting to blame all this -- literally the undermining of democracy by special interests spreading unchecked misinformation -- on social media. Indeed, the business model of paying for social media through advertising is quickly becoming as annoying and as distorting as the same model has long been in broadcast media. (Print advertising is somewhat less so because it's easier to pass over -- for that same reason, it is often more informative and less manipulative.) I have an even lower view of advertising, not just because that industry has been the source of such all pervasive techniques as message framing, focus groups, polling, targeting, but because the whole industry is built on the notion that truth is maleable to whatever special interests want it to be. As more and more money is put into the process of manipulating public opinion, actual policies become afterthoughts, not something we agree on because we want or need them, but perks for the political parties most skilled at provoking or stroking our psyches.
Hillary Clinton was unable to defend us from these machinations, partly because her naive faith in the establishment, garnered by living so many years in its bubble, didn't prepare her for such a dirty campaign, and partly because she was so complicit in so many failures of that establishment that she wound up bearing more than her share of the blame -- she even managed to make Donald Trump look like an outsider, an insurgent, a vanquisher (all ridiculous views if you give them a bit of thought). The silver lining in the election is that it frees us from the notion that all is fine and nothing has to change. Had she won, we'd still be struggling with that notion, and the Republicans would still look like a possible way out -- even though they have nothing to offer but worse. Finally, the Democrats can cast off the worst of their legacy (Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, for starters). The center is no longer an option: it's too late, and offers too little.