Show a Little Class
January 9, 2012

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

Image via Wikipedia

So it looks like shortly after I gave up on Saturday night’s Republican debate, Rick Santorum said something interesting: that there’s no such thing as the middle class, because America is fundamentally a classless society.

Now, the second part of that claim is obviously, patently false. But I suspect that Santorum may be on to a partially correct conclusion based on false premises. Is American society stratified by class? Yes, absolutely. Are the top and bottom classes separated by a gooey center? Depends on what metric you look at. The middle class may exist as a (rapidly shrinking) income bracket, but as a sociopolitical signifier it obscures more than it illuminates. If you believe otherwise, consider this paragraph from Kevin Drum’s essay on the decline of organized labor (which, yes, does reference the “middle class” in its title):

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early ’90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else. By itself, that’s not a surprise. He also found that Republicans don’t respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes. Maybe that’s not a surprise, either. But this should be: Bartels found that Democratic senators don’t respond to the desires of these voters, either. At all.

If the “middle class” has so little political clout with their own representatives (nearly all of whom are, by the way, exceedingly wealthy), then what do they have? I’m reminded of a debate I had with Matt Yglesias about a month ago over whether “workers” still existed as a class. Matt ended up saying that “your average workaday fat cat CEO is,” by virtue of his technical status as an employee “just a very well-compensated wage slave.” That did, and still does, treat me as a deeply wrongheaded claim. Workers, commonly understood, don’t sit on the boards of other corporations. They can’t max out contributions to political candidates, attend $5,000-dollar-a-plate fundraisers, or hobnob with their fellow wage slaves at Davos and Aspen. Nor do workers sit on top of the fat stock portfolios that, in recent years, were the main driver of inequality. There is a culture, sociology and politics to wealth, and mostly what that logic does is generate more wealth for the wealthy. The “middle class” has about as much access to that world as acknowledged members of the lower class.

If the middle class is anything, I suspect it is a historical curiosity; a moment in twentieth century American economic history during which union strength, the New Deal and WWII-era military policy all gave a large chunk of the working class the means to significantly increase their material wealth. Some members of that group even entered the upper class, but most of them just hovered around the upper echelons of the working class, only to be brought low by the current crisis.

The distinction between an “upper working class” (sometimes called, when referring to blue collar union members, a “blue collar aristocracy”) and a “middle class” might not seem like much, but it’s hugely important in terms of social and political clout. After all, when the post-collapse decline of the middle class began, it seemed utterly powerless to defend itself. Now one party wants to exacerbate the problem, and the other wants to preserve the political impotence of the non-rich, but bring relative comfort back to a slice of the lower class (e.g. pity-charity liberalism).

So allow me to ask a question that flips around Matt’s turn of phrase regarding “well-compensated wage slaves”: If middle class Americans have so little political power, and if so much of their relative material comfort is merely a product of the 1%’s largesse, why should we think of them as more than just generously compensated members of the underclass?

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Dealing With Political Blind Spots
December 1, 2010

Ezra Klein had a great rundown yesterday on a psychological phenomenon called motivated skepticism:

 On the simplest level, American politics presents us with an incentives problem: McConnell — like most minority leaders — is an avowedly reflexive opponent of the president’s reelection. The president’s reelection campaign depends on an improved economy. That a rational actor working inside the system’s rules might prefer — and even be able to bring about — a weak economy should scare us, even if we don’t believe they’ll purposefully try and do it.

In part, that’s because the word “purposefully” doesn’t offer as much protection as we might wish. Humans have a funny way of following their incentives even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. McConnell doesn’t have to believe he’s hurting the economy in order to hurt the economy. Rather, if the incentives and distortions of heated partisanship leave powerful actors like McConnell unable to partner with the White House to help the economy recover, that in itself could do damage to the economy, particularly amid divided government (indeed, there’s some evidence that the economy performs better under unified government). And McConnell could easily do that while believing everything he’s doing is meant to help the economy.

Psychologists call the mechanism behind this “motivated skepticism.” When we’re faced with information or ideas that accord with our preexisting beliefs about the world, we accept them easily. When the ideas and information cut against our beliefs, however, we interrogate them harshly, subjecting them to endless scrutiny and a long search for contrary evidence which, when found, we accept uncritically.

 This concept seems pretty fundamental to understanding why people hold and advocate the beliefs they do. Yet so often our speculation about the motives of partisans and advocates gets reduced to who really believes what they’re saying and who’s a pure snake oil salesman. The reality is a whole lot messier than that: I don’t think Glenn Beck is trying to pull one over on his audience when he tells them to invest in gold, but Goldline advertising dollars wouldn’t exactly incline anyone to be more skeptical of gold’s value. Similarly, those on the left who expressed outrage at the Bush administration’s civil liberties abuses yet remain silent through Obama’s aren’t opportunists indifferent to the horrors of torture and indefinite detention. It’s just significantly harder to accuse someone whose success you feel invested in a war criminal.

Understanding how motivated skepticism affects your opponents’ positions is important. But I’d argue it’s even more important to be aware of how it affects your own positions. For example: Much of the time I’m a fairly predictable orthodox liberal. (You might have noticed.) My career path and social milieu, among other things, are both very strong incentives to adhere to orthodox liberalism as much as possible. Knowing that, I try as best I can to factor it into my understanding of policy matters. That means reconstructing conservative arguments own my own as best I can to make sure that I’m representing them to myself accurately, and treating liberal arguments with just as much skepticism, if not more.

At least, that’s the standard I try to hold myself to. We’re not really built to do that, but it seems to me like making the attempt to compensate for these cognitive biases is often the definition of good faith engagement.

Semi-related: You know what’s a great blog? You Are Not So Smart.

Crossposted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

The Midterms
November 3, 2010

The first thing I did at work today was accidentally spill some hot coffee on myself. That felt pretty much the whole way the previous evening did: briefly unpleasant, but not as bad as it could have been, all things considered. The biggest problem was having to live with the consequences for awhile afterwards.

You won’t hear me say this often, but I’m going to say it now: Look on the bright side. Sharron Angle, easily the most deranged Senate candidate in a good long time, did not make it. I have never been, and will never be again, this happy to see Harry Reid on my television. And while Prop 19 did not pass, surely the fact that its existence was more than a late night punch line suggests that time is on the side of the anti-prohibitionists.

And while the Tea Party had a pretty good night, there’s another silver lining there. The two sides of the Republican Party have been sniping at one another for at least the past week, and I predict more internecine strife to come. If the GOP leadership’s pact with the extreme right proves unsustainable, then that bodes well for the future of some sort of sanity.

One Thing the Election Won’t Change
November 2, 2010

is the course towards a potential “undeclared war” in Yemen. The sad fact of the matter is that a Republican Congress will be far too busy investigating the Obama administration’s illusory ties to the New Black Panthers and whether or not the EPA is engaged in a conspiracy to blunt the impact of climate change for them to bother with trivial matters like the expansion of our national security apparatus and its heavily classified, intermittently monstrous activities.

Besides which, the GOP has no credibility on these things anyway. They got the ball rolling on both the unitary executive and the one percent doctrine, so it’s a little late for them to feel outrage at these things. Not like they would, anyway; for all of the Tea Party’s talk about liberty and small government, there’s no squaring that with the fact that Sarah Palin — Mama Grizzly herself — has taken most of the surviving neocons on as her own little bear cubs.

Happy election day, everybody!

(By the way: I’m going to continue linking to most of my posts over at the League, because I am shameless, but you would do well to follow them anyway. It’s a great stable of writers. Additionally, there’s my author-specific page and accompanying RSS feed.)

Culture War 2.0
August 20, 2010

Glenn Beck
Image via Wikipedia

I was initially skeptical of Adam’s assertion that we’re in the midst of a new culture war, since the battle lines are drawn more or less the same way they always were: those who believe in American pluralism and equality of opportunity versus a group of predominantly Christian conservative white folk fueled by class and race resentment. So what if this time around, the white supremacist rhetoric is a little more subdued and euphemistic?

But on further reflection, I think Adam’s spot on. The clash on first principle grounds may be more or less the same, but there is something new and undeniably peculiar about the right-wing culture warriors self-image as a guerilla revolutionary. You can see it in everything from the silly Tea Party tricorner hats to Glenn Beck’s confounding claim that he and his followers are going to “reclaim the civil rights movement.

This isn’t just a matter of posturing, but a matter of policy. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a radical, historic pivot point in American history. The Dixie Democrats and others who opposed the civil rights movement (the same one their ideological descendants now want to “reclaim”) were fighting to maintain the status quo.

Now the situation is more or less reversed, if not exactly. When progressives aren’t playing defense, they’re pushing reforms which, while deeply important, likely won’t register on the great richter scale of history the way the Roe v. Wade decision, or the rolling back of the Jim Crow laws, did. The new right-wing cultural warriors may lace their rebuttals with references to the America of their childhood, or America the way the Founders intended, or some other platitudes about a grand, bygone Golden Age, but they’re not really advocating a return to some prior status quo. Instead, they’re advocating a radical, sweeping revolution.

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Ahead of the Curve
July 26, 2010

On my way back from #nn10 (from which I’m still recovering), I checked my RSS reader and noticed that the Washington Post was running a piece of analysis titled What the GOP could learn from Britain’s Tories.

Well gosh, that sounds a lot like a Salon column I wrote not one week ago!

While I suspect the conclusions Dan Balz and I draw on what policy lessons the right should take are pretty similar, the differences in our pieces are, I think, pretty instructive. I want the GOP to make a serious philosophical overhaul—Balz, on the other hand, comes to the fairly predictable conclusion that their problems could be solved through triangulation, aiming for the center, etc.

While it’s true that the Republican Party could benefit from coming back from the far right fringes, that seems to me like a pretty banal point. And in this column, as in so many other pieces of political analysis written in objective journo weaselspeak, the good is framed as being entirely a matter of electoral advantage.

 

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Transatlantic Punditry
July 20, 2010

My new Salon column is up, and this one puts my semester abroad to good use, taking British PM David Cameron’s recent “big society” announcement as a jumping off point to explore some of the differences between his party and the American Republican Party. As I put it:

Tories, for all of their myriad flaws, seem to be responsible adults who share some acquaintance with the real world. Republicans, on the other hand, are Republicans.

Go ahead and read the whole thing. And if you like it, today being Tumblr Tuesday and all, feel free to shoot me a recommendation.

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Post-Politics GOP
July 6, 2010

John Boehner
Image via Wikipedia

When the Republican Party originally announced they were going to solicit popular opinion through the Internet, I have to admit that I was a little confused. Weren’t the most avid users just going to be Tea Partiers? Wasn’t the GOP just going to take all of the answers and process them into a cosmetically modified version of the old platform? Why forestall the inevitable?

Well evidently, they’re trying to forestall it because it means that they effectively don’t have a platform in the meantime. And you don’t have to defend your crazy platform if you don’t have one!

Example A: The odd spectacle that is John Boehner—who, if the GOP does well in this election will become Speaker of the Houseclaiming he has “no idea” whether or not his own party is for privatizing Social Security.

Of course, we know that the GOP is for it. If we know it, then no way does Boehner not know it. But for another month, or however much longer they can drag this out, he can pretend the matter is totally up in the air, thereby avoiding a situation in which he is forced to insult either the Republican base or basic sanity.

Maybe once people get sick of watching him punting that particular ball down the road, the RNC can release an updated party platform in wingdings. Then they can shrug their shoulders and say, “Sure, we’d like to tell you our position on Social Security, but this is going to take a while to translate.”

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