Really Typical and Boring Extremism

Political SpectrumI was looking for images for a piece earlier today and I came upon an article apparently by Jay Reding (that’s the name of the site it’s on), The Destructive Politics Of Purity. Since the article included the graph at the left, I assumed he was one of those people who considered themselves independents. But that wasn’t the case. I looked through the site a bit and read the article. Mr Reding is as partisan a Republican as you are likely to find.

What he is getting at is that calling for purity in the 2008 Republican presidential nominee (John McCain) would only end in “four years of socialism” under Clinton or Obama. Actually, Clinton is a “Fabian socialist” and Obama is a “liberal crusader.” And he hypothesizes:

Does anyone think that conservatives will be welcome in a Clinton or an Obama White House? That people who believe in limited government and the rule of law will even get a voice at the table? That the Republicans will stop this country from taking a huge step farther down the road to serfdom? If so, then those people are hopelessly naive.

Nothing says “I’m a ideologically insulated true believer” like a good Hayek reference! But the truth is that conservatives were welcome in Obama’s White House. In fact, they were way too welcome. But you might think young Mr Reding would have been happy with Obama for reaching across the isle and peppering his White House with Republicans. Well, if he was, he never said anything.

In fact, he completely stopped blogging for 2009. He came back in 2010, but only to gloat about the coming Republican victory in November of that year. He had basically nothing to say about Obama. It was all horse race coverage. There was no Hayek. It was all, “Goooo team!” And that’s fine. But really: who cares?

The truth is that what insights are on the blog are straight out of Fox News and the rest of the right wing echo chamber. For example, he really thought that if Romney kept focused on the economy, he would win. But this is exactly the opposite of what Romney should have done. But knowing that would require not just listening to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, but looking at actual political science research like Lynn Vavreck’s The Message Matters.

The problem with most people on the right during 2012 was that they were so sure that the terrible economy (which they had worked so hard to cripple) would stop Obama from being re-elected. But as I thought everyone knew, the state of the economy is not what determines presidential elections; the trend of the economy does. And the economy has improved the entire time Obama has been in office. Romney needed to make the election about something other than the economy. He not only couldn’t do that; his advisers weren’t even smart enough to make him try.

I understand the desire to write about politics. But it’s important to have something to write. A lot of people ask me why I don’t write about this or that subject. And the reason is always the same: I don’t have anything to add to the conversation. But even when I am sleepwalking through the posts here, which I do sometimes (Reding writes an average of 5 posts a year; I do that per day), my outlook is something that doesn’t get voiced very much, even in the liberal world. If Reding were a libertarian, I could see it. It’s not like there aren’t already a bunch of libertarians spouting off, but at least they aren’t a major part of mainstream media. But just another conservative who thinks that Hillary Clinton is socialist? <i>Happy happy joy joy!</i>

What makes it all such a waste is that Mr Reding is a decent writer and clearly a smart man. But he is entirely typical: yet another upper-middle class man who can’t see beyond his own class. I’m sure that if you asked him, he’d tell you how hard he worked and that he earned everything he’s got. And I’m sure he’d be honest in saying that. But he’s also a poster boy for straight white male privilege. And I can’t help but think that he will never be able to see that.


I do feel a tiny bit bad about ragging on the young Republican, when all he has done is pollute the world with his limited thinking like so many others. But I did provide him with a link, which should more than compensate for any hurt feelings. And I welcome his criticism of my site or my humanity. I won’t read it, of course. But it would provide him his first post this year.

Update (21 August 2014 9:48 pm)

I just remembered what I meant to write rather than this rant. The image above perpetuates one of my most hated myths: independents are centrists. This is not true. In fact, independents are very often the most extreme people. I’ve known a lot of conservatives who won’t call themselves Republicans because they think the party is too liberal. Similarly (though less common in my experience), there are liberals who won’t call themselves Democrats because they think the party is too conservative. I agree with them, but I still call myself a Democrat.

From the Laboratories of Democracy

Laboratory of Democracy
Image via Politico

I’m very interested in this idea that states are the laboratories of democracy. It comes from an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis where he wrote that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” The idea has always been that the federal government would use the best ideas. Of course, conservatives just use the idea to decimate the federal government and give control to state and local governments for reasons I will get to in a moment.


During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney made a really interesting argument about said laboratories. As you will remember, Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts when he got a healthcare reform law passed that went on to be the prototype for Obamacare. In fact, in 2008, Romney ran on this law that he was understandably proud of. But after Obamacare was passed and all the Republicans decided it was “Socialism! Socially, I tell you!” Romney was forced to repudiated the law. But how could he, given that it was the same one he had been so proud of?!

His solution was both brilliant and bold. He said that his law was great, but that was on the state level. It worked great on the state level. But it was wrong to force the law on the entire nation. In other words: states are the laboratories of democracy, and nothing should ever come out of the laboratories! Usually I would agree. Most of what comes out of those laboratories is pernicious in the extreme.

Literacy Tests

In 1855, Connecticut changed its state constitution to require literacy tests to vote. The problem was those Irish! As Steve Thornton explained in Literacy Tests and the Right To Vote, “Citing an old English legal principle, literacy test promoters argued that if a person was not sufficiently educated, his vote could be too easily manipulated. To opponents, literacy tests constituted a legal means to disenfranchising minorities and other ‘undesirables.'”

After Reconstruction, the southern states grabbed hold the results of Connecticut’s laboratory. But there was still the problem that these states didn’t want blacks voting regardless of how literate they were and they did want more affluent whites voting no matter how illiterate they were. Not a problem! “In theory, the literacy requirement applied to every citizen. In practice, however, officials in charge of voter registration could administer the test at their discretion, which resulted in a discriminatory singling out of African Americans, the poor, and other groups.” It wasn’t until an amendment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 1970 that literacy tests were eliminated from Connecticut and other states.

Poll Tax

At the end of the Civil War, almost half the population of Florida was African American. This was a problem as far as the white elite were concerned. So after Reconstruction, they went about setting things “right.” As Darryl Paulson reported in, Florida’s History of Suppressing Blacks’ Votes, “[T]he 15th Amendment did not guarantee blacks the right to vote. Rather, it is a negative statement. It says the right to vote cannot be denied because of race.” In other words, blacks could be denied the right to vote as long as it technically wasn’t because of race.

Enter the poll tax:

Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt a poll tax. In 1889 the Legislature adopted a $2 annual poll tax as a requirement for voting. On the surface, there was nothing discriminatory about the tax. Both whites and blacks had to pay it.

In reality, the legislators knew that the $2 tax would affect blacks more because they were so poor. Although some poor whites also were disfranchised, they could often find ways to circumvent the tax. Candidates often paid the cost to entice voters. Election officials frequently “overlooked” the tax for whites.

Florida did away with the poll tax in 1938, because it created so much corruption due to the buying of votes. But it still took the federal government, in 1964, to outlaw this democratic laboratory innovation in many other states.

Voter ID

A much more recent innovation coming out of the democracy laboratories is Voter ID. What I’ve stressed here over the last few years is that Voter ID laws are really just indirect poll taxes. Republicans (Sorry, but it is always Republicans) see that those who don’t have state issued IDs are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. Forcing them to get these IDs is a kind of tax intended to disenfranchise them.

This great laboratory innovation first came out of Virginia, but it never made it into law because of the efforts the the Democratic Party and the NAACP. It wasn’t until 2004 when the Arizona Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act was passed. The Supreme Court has blocked requiring identification for registering to vote, but the requirement for voting has been upheld. Since Obama became President, there has been an avalanche of these laws.

I’m sure in twenty years, we will all look back at voter ID laws with the same revulsion that we now have at the idea of poll taxes. For now, however, Republicans and other conservatives can walk around with their heads held high saying, “We’re just trying to make sure elections are clean!” But in the end, we will see this new innovation of the laboratories of democracy for the racist, classist, and partisan attack it is.

I don’t have much of a good feeling about the states being the laboratories of democracy. In general, they bring bad things to life. For all the problems of the federal government, it is usually what is required to stop the states from oppressing their own minority groups. And even when they do good things like RomneyCare in Massachusetts, conservatives just ignore them or claim that they don’t scale nationwide. The idea of the states being laboratories of democracy is good in theory, but in practice it is useless. Or much, much worse.

Conservative Obsession With Purity

Brigadier General Jack D RipperJonathan Chait wrote an interesting article this morning, How Obamacare Violates the Conservative Cleanliness Fetish. In it, he tried to get to the bottom of the conservative opposition to Obamacare given that it is, after all, a conservative law. He posits the idea that it is all about the conservative obsession of political, social, and ideological hygiene. But he doesn’t go very far in explaining it, so let me take a crack.

You may remember Phil Davison, the man whose overwrought speech for the Republican nomination for Stark County Treasurer went viral. What you may not remember is what he said was the problem with the treasury department: infestation. Or as he pronounced it, “In-fes-tation!” Behind this is the concern about lack of purity: the treasury department had been invaded by impurities. The same thing is going on with Brigadier General Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove who only drinks rainwater and “pure grain alcohol.”

Chait quotes a study that show that the greater one’s obsession with cleanliness, the more likely he is to be politically conservative. I believe this goes way back. The literal idea of the proverb “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is about spiritual purity. But people apply to it to the physical world. This is most notable in the 12-step cult where the body being clean of drugs is equivalent to being spiritually clean.

It is not, therefore, surprising that conservatives would be obsessed with purity. Whether they are religious or not, conservatives believe in social standards—the idea that norms are given. Of course, it is curious that Republicans are almost always the first to abandon political norms in their efforts to establish what they think are the given social standards; but this is just because Republicans have become revolutionary in their political fights on behalf of conservatism. From the conservative perspective, if laws do not come from on high, what stops the nation from breaking into one big orgy?

There is a clear germophobic aspect to this. This is the idea that even the smallest impurities harm the body. And the ultimate expression of this is the slippery slope argument. Even if most people don’t see the problem with Social Security, the conservative sees it not as a policy end, but simply as a stepping stone to the Nazis rounding up all the Jews.

What’s more interesting is that fascism itself was obsessed with purity. And most of the conservative remedies to keep the nation “free” lead us far more directly to fascism. InfamousBrad over at Reddit wrote an interesting comment in a recent post, What is Fascism? It read in part:

Dr. Robert Altemeyer has surveyed huge numbers of people, and other researchers have followed up on his work by cross-checking his surveys against neuro-psychology, and they’ve concluded that right-wing authoritarianism, or fascism, is a psychological phenomenon, driven by three things:

  • Fear of filth and impurity
  • Fear of change from “ancient tradition”
  • Obsession with unambiguously knowing one’s place in any hierarchy

Neurophysiologists who’ve studied the brains of people who self-identify as far-right or fascist have argued that you can simplify the first two points: a fascist is someone who has an exaggerated emotional reaction of disgust when confronted with the possibility of anything “clean” coming in contact with anything “unclean.” Hence the fascist obsession with the word “purity”: ethnic purity, religious purity, artistic purity, national purity, sexual purity, cultural purity, etc.

So for conservatives, it isn’t that Obamacare in itself is all that bad. It is just another element of impurity in the body politic. It won’t kill us off, but it is just another poison to make us weaker and move us along the road to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Think about this the next time Paul Ryan talks about how the social safety net is making able bodied men dependent. It’s all about purity. Or: “In-fes-tation!”

Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt ChamberlainOn this day in 1936, the great basketball player Wilt Chamberlain was born. He was one of my heroes as a boy. I just loved basketball. This included playing it, even though I was short and uncoordinated. He was the father of the Holy Trinity on the Los Angeles Lakers along with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Quite a group. I don’t much enjoy basketball anymore; it’s too frenetic. But I greatly admire the people who play it.

What has always fascinated me about Chamberlain was that he was a really a bad free throw shooter. Really: for the last eleven years in the NBA, his field goal percentage was always higher than his free throw percentage. To some extent, I think this was an unconscious reaction to thinking that free throws were wrong. The rules of free throws were changed because of him. In college, he was able to simply dunk the ball from a standing position. His athleticism was amazing.

Of the ten highest scoring games for a player in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain has six. This, of course, includes the famous 100-point game between the Philadelphia Warriors and the New York Knicks. It’s interesting that in that game, Chamberlain shot 88% from the free throw line. It would seem that when he was inspired, he could shoot while unmolested from 15 feet away.

More than all of this, I read a couple of his books when I was older. He was incredibly insightful about the game. He was also a braggart and obviously insecure about himself relative to Bill Russell. There’s no doubt that Chamberlain was the greater athlete and solo player, but it is hard not to conclude that Russell was was the better team player&mdash;with the championships to prove it. But other than his understandable insecurities, Chamberlain came off as a decent guy. And an interesting one.

Here’s a little collection of him playing:

Happy birthday Wilt Chamberlain!