Saturday, April 9, 2016

Candidate Analogies

I wanted to reply to this tweet by Tom Carson, but no way to unpack so much misunderstanding in 144 characters:

Bernie is the lefty Goldwater, Hils is the lefty Nixon. I suspect I'll end up voting for Nixon, but I've seen this movie before.

First, very obvious point: left and right are never symmetric, let alone mirror images of one another. Granted, the core issue can be viewed as a continuum: people on the left believe that all people are fundamentally decent, that everyone shares equal rights and deserves respect and fairness, while people on the right hold that for civilization to exist and survive society must be organized as a hierarchy, with those favored by great wealth lording over the hapless masses, using whatever force is needed to maintain order. Unpack this a bit and you'll see that left and right are inhabited by fundamentally different kinds of people. So when you say "X is the lefty Y" the main thing you're saying is that X is so profoundly different from Y that analogies can only be superficial.

Even so, the only linkage I can imagine Carson making between Goldwater and Sanders is that he thinks Sanders, if nominated, will lose as badly this year as Goldwater did in 1964. Leaving that for the moment, it's hard to see much similarity -- even in the funhouse mirror of centrist punditry. Most obviously, Goldwater was extremely rigid in his adherence to principles -- most scandalously in his opposition to using the federal government to secure civil rights systematically denied by a dozen-plus state governments -- whereas Sanders has always been flexible and pragmatic (e.g., in supporting Obamacare even though he knew it wasn't the best, or even a very good, solution). And Goldwater was so fanatic in his opposition to Communism he couldn't be trusted not to start a thermonuclear war. Sanders elicits no such fears -- which isn't to deny that neocon warmongers fear him.

As for the Nixon-Clinton mashup, I reckon that the association here is that both are unscrupulous opportunists willing to say and do anything that seems to work to their personal advantage. No doubt that both Clintons have been opportunistic at times, often siding with rich and powerful interests against the very people they depend on for votes. Nothing unusual about that, but you have to question how far left they really are on the left-right line I plotted above. I don't really consider them lefties at all.

Still, for all the times the Clintons have been slagged as liars -- Christopher Hitchens' book on them was titled No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family -- I'm hard pressed to recall specific deceits (aside from the Lewinsky blow jobs, and blaming Arafat for the Camp David failure, the latter a big one), as opposed to grandstanding (like the Sista Souljah slam) or plain old bad policy choices (like NAFTA, or repealing Glass-Steagall). I don't doubt that the Clintons are greedy, ambitious, and vain -- willing to use office to get rich, and to use their wealth to build a political machine to seek further office. Still, the scandals that have dogged their rise have been remarkably hollow.

On the other hand, Nixon holds a unique place in American history, not just for bad policy and malign intentions but for actual crimes against American democracy as well as egregious crimes against world peace -- sure, the later have since become routinized and Nixon didn't invent them all, but the scope of his crimes was breathtaking -- and for a while shocking, although his obsession with winning at all costs and his cynicism at manipulating people's fears has since become baked into the American pie. If Carson wanted to pose a true conundrum, he might have posed a choice between the real right-wingers Goldwater and Nixon. I have no more answer there than I would have had if asked who is the best (in the sense of least awful) of this election's crop of Republican presidential aspirants.

Carson at least is right to place Nixon on the right, avoiding the recent revisionism trying to rehabilitate him as some kind of closet liberal. I suppose the main impetus behind this has been to show how far the right has stooped since Nixon's time, but doing so forgets (and forgives) the fact that the rotten impulses that have permeated today's right owe more to Nixon's craven realpolitik than to Goldwater's so-called principles.

If you do have to make predecessor analogies, you might try casting Trump as Nixon and Cruz as Goldwater. With the latter pair you at least know what you're up against and start organizing against it, although the prospect of itchy trigger fingers is always a threat. But with the Nixon-Trump pair, you don't know shit -- just that it's likely to be pretty nauseating and the sickness they sow is likely to return again as precedent, possibly for even worse.

I suspect that what worries Carson about Sanders has less to do with Goldwater's 1964 loss than McGovern's in 1972, thanks in no small part to Nixon's dirty tricks. McGovern wasn't fundamentally more liberal (let alone lefty) many other Democratic candidates -- Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 -- but he lost bad, due I think to a combination of factors. One is that the media has always had it in for anyone who might rock the boat (Roosevelt was the exception, but he came along after the boat had already capsized, and Obama got something of a pass for the same reasons). McGovern also ran afoul of the Democratic Party's patronage-focused elites, especially their hawk faction, and also the rump Wallace voters -- all of whom chose Nixon's dirty tricks over the most decent and honest politician the Democrats ever nominated.

All those losses by self-avowed liberals -- a string that really starts with Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956 -- have left centrist pundits with the stunted thought that Americans refuse to lean left. If Sanders is further to the left than McGovern (or anyone else on that loser-laden list) what's to stop the entire establishment banding together to stop him? (Billionaire self-promoter Michael Bloomberg has already vowed to run a spoiler third-party campaign if Sanders is nominated.) That seems like a fair question, but I'm not sure the coincidences it is based on really supports the conclusion. Several things have changed since, say, McGovern won and lost:

  1. The Cold War is not only over, it's rapidly becoming ancient history. Before 1990 the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism allowed the right to question the patriotism of anyone even remotely on the left, and more often than not Democrats joined in on the red baiting, often to their own detriment. Moreover, with continued abuse the old slurs have lost their potency.

  2. The long period of post-WWII affluence left a large segment of the middle class basically feeling satisfied with their lot and to be hopeful of their future prospects, making it easier to identify with the system. The shift toward increasing inequality after 1980, and the subsequent hollowing out of the middle class, have finally reached a point where the system is no longer viewed as fair or hopeful -- and recognizing that loss of opportunity has finally become unavoidable for young adults.

  3. The mass media of the post-WWII years, which did so much to homogenize public discourse, has fragmented into more limited but more partisan media, allowing each of us to customize our own bubble of information. This both pulls many of us in a more partisan way and leaves many others so poorly informed that they drop out of the political system.

  4. Unlimited political spending has pushed the Republican Party far to the right, so they pose a much greater threat to our liberties, security, and well being than ever before. In fact, they threaten us so severely that it's becoming increasingly hard for centrist Democrats to break ranks, as many did against McGovern in 1972, not to mention William Jennings Bryan in 1896-1908.

These point don't guarantee that Sanders can defeat a full bore Republican assault, but they offer some reasons to think that he might do much better than McGovern did. The similarity to McGovern that I worry more about is Sanders' exceptional integrity and public spirit, which at least in McGovern's case was overwhelmed by Nixon's dark money and dirty tricks. The one thing we can be sure of is that in this year's election the Republicans and their dark money sponsors won't hesitate to go places Nixon only dreamed of. The voters could very well reject such tactics, but the Republicans have had no small measure of success thus far at manipulating people to vote against their own interests and desires.

Hillary Clinton has relied heavily on arguments that she's much more electable than Sanders is. The most common argument here is that she can attract a broader slice of the left-right spectrum, allowing her to pick up moderate/centrist voters Sanders can't reach while keeping the left captive, if only as the lesser evil. There are several problems with this formulation: most people don't fit comfortably, let alone mechanically, on a left-right axis, but bring other factors into play, including several where Clinton may compare poorly against Sanders -- for instance, integrity and credibility. Sanders has stood firm with his principles much more consistently than Clinton, and a good part of the reason for that is that he's much less tainted by association with private interests -- e.g., he's never spoken to Goldman-Sachs, much less for $650K. One thing that's clear from primary results so far is that Sanders has done much better among (presumably centrist) independents than Clinton has.

Indeed, in head-to-head polls Sanders regularly outperforms Clinton against virtually any Republican candidate, suggesting that for whatever reason Sanders is the more electable Democrat. Yet some Clinton supporters, even ones who admit to being closer to Sanders on the issues, persist in their belief that Clinton is more electable. Aside from ideology, the other reason they commonly give is the claim that Clinton has already had to face so many attacks from right-wingers that she has been thoroughly vetted, whereas Sanders has yet to feel the full fury of the Republican hate machine. That may be true but glosses over several things, including that Clinton has more points on which she is compromised, and that she's not exactly unscathed by all those attacks -- her unfavorability polls are exceptionally high.

On the other hand, I think there is one area where Clinton does have a substantial advantage over Sanders, and that is her ability to raise dark money and use it to underwrite the same sort of vicious mudslinging right-wingers can be counted on doing. So when the campaign gets dirty, as it's sure to do, she's arguably in a much better position to fight that kind of fight. Whether that's an argument in her favor is hard to say, but it's certainly a reasonable position -- the counter is that if Sanders could win without PACs and dark money that might help break the grip big money has on the political system, and our democracy would be much better for it.

Still, Clinton wooing big money donors and playing the dark money game won't be enough to make her Nixon, even a hypothetical lefty version. Nor will it make her a right-winger, even though it would indebt her to people who are on right of center, at least in terms of equality. And having done all of that, I wonder how much energy or will she is going to be able to muster to start to reverse the nation's long slide into oligarchy. At some point things get so bad that lesser evils don't cut it. If Sanders' popularity shows anything it's that many Democrats believe we've passed the point where yesterday's palliatives are all it takes.

It's normal for people to reach for historical analogies when trying to understand today's issues, but it can also lock you into illusions and blind you to opportunities. And sometimes produce outright absurdities. My original response to Carson's tweet just touched on one small aspect of this post, which is that real people don't necessarily gravitate toward the middle when faced with real choices:

Hell, even my George Wallace/George McGovern-voting mother knew one key thing about politics: never vote for Nixon.


Tom Carson [Sun, Apr 10, 2016 12:09 pm]

Oh, well. All I was thinking of was the familiar contrast (in both parties, at least until the GOP went completely off the rails) between the idealist who inspires true believers but doesn't seem to have many concrete notions of how to put his policies into practice and the experienced pragmatist who knows all the nuts and bolts but inspires mistrust even among people who will eventually vote for him/her. The other Tom certainly read much more into it than that.

Tom Hull [Mon, Apr 11, 2016 4:21 am]:

Easy to read much more because the analogies are fraught with so much extraneous baggage, underscored by "I've seen this movie before" and pushed overboard by "I suspect I'll end up voting for Nixon." Maybe Twitter's 144-character limit made more precision difficult, but as written I objected both to the premises and the conclusion, and for that matter I think the sense of déjà vu is misleading, implying that the differences can be dismissed. I think that way too many people think up clever historical analogies and become prisoners of them.

As for Carson's more limited I'm not convinced that it's even true. There is at least some anecdotal evidence that Sanders has been fairly effective at influencing legislation, rather surprising given that he's had to work at least nominally outside the party system. On the other hand, is there any evidence that Hillary got anything done during her short stint in the Senate? She has a few things to show for her term as Secretary of State, but nothing that's worked out particularly well. (My impression is that Kerry has been far more effective, although he's also had to deal with bigger messes, some contributed to by Hillary.) And is it unfair to bring up Hillary's pet project from her husband's first term: that health care insurance fiasco? One could argue that her main interest in all these posts was to check off resume boxes in her quest to become president, and beyond that could she care less? Her campaign spiel this time is that she'll "fight for us" but when has she ever, really? Sanders may be the idealist by virtue of having some ideals, but chumming around with high-rolling bankers and foreign policy "professionals" doesn't make her the pragmatist -- more like the opportunist.

Still, like Carson I worry that the gap between what Sanders wants to achieve and what is possible given the pervasive corruption of the current system will prove daunting and disspiriting. On the other hand, he is clear and realistic that his agenda will require something much bigger than his own campaign to achieve: what he calls "a political revolution." And it's not at all clear how he intends to accomplish all that: that he polls so well at this point clearly has more to do with the "quality" of competition than with the maturity of a political movement.

If we look back in history, the only really effective Democratic presidents were FDR and LBJ. While it's tempting to say that they each were remarkably adept at balancing idealism with pragmatism -- they certainly were -- the real secret to their achievements was that they had big majorities in Congress. Sanders strikes me as having many of the same qualities of FDR and LBJ, but what he doesn't have is clear command of the Democratic Party machine, much less majorities in Congress.

Clinton, on the other hand, was pretty much anointed the party savior until Sanders challenged her. If she could somehow turn her campaign into a campaign for the Party she nominally leads -- if she could come up with a plan to retake Congress and the state houses so she could actually implement the things her Party's faithful hope and pray for -- she would easily clobber Sanders: the nomination has been hers from day one, and it's getting troubling that she can't seal the deal.

As I've said many times before, I think that's because the last two Democrats in the White House have been more comfortable with Republicans in control of Congress than with Democrats who might insist that they actually do something for the party base. Hillary has ties to both, so why should we think that she won't follow suit and use the Party elites for her own personal vanity project? It is, after all, much easier to win by pointing to the threats posed by the likes of Trump and Cruz than to build a (for lack of a better term) "political revolution" -- especially for someone who may have progressive leanings but has never shied away from compromising with money and power.

I hope she proves me wrong, but I doubt she will.

Tom Carson (Mon, Apr 11 6:15 pm):

Thanks for the response and taking the trouble to both include and answer my attempt at a clarification on your blog. To be honest, I regret that my original tweet was so flippant. Twitter plainly just isn't the place for that kind of comparison, which requires nuance and amplification galore to make sense as anything more than bizarre snark. Especially since unexplained Goldwater and Nixon analogies are fightin' words to any self-respecting lefty, as they obviously were to you.

Heck, I didn't even make it clear that I meant I was expecting to vote for "Nixon" (that is, Hillary) in November. In other words, I wasn't expressing a preference, just somewhat glumly guessing who the eventual nominee would be. On the other hand, I can't help being pleased that my silly crack provoked you to so much interesting and cogent analysis -- not, of course, that your analysis is ever anything but.