Very Serious Progressives

Peter FeganThere are a lot of people on the left who are very silly. In fact, I have to work very hard in conversations with liberals not to constantly correct them about things they have wrong. But I understand that being a liberal or a conservative is mostly a tribal thing. And their votes in elections are mostly a matter of their approach to governance, not specific policies. This drives me a bit crazy, but what am I gonna do? People are the way they are and they aren’t going to read a dozen economics blogs each day.

But far more annoying than the vast expanse of low-information liberals are the Very Serious Progressives. I run into them all the time on comment threads. They say that they believe in progressive policy, but the people just don’t want it. The Democratic Party has to pitch a message that will resonate with the moderate voter. We can leave aside the hubris these people show in their claims to know what such moderates think. The truth is, these moderates don’t seem to think much of anything at all — they bounce around with the larger political landscape. The vast majority of people are reliably partisan.

There are more fundamental things that go on in elections. In 1980, most liberals were thrilled that the Republicans had nominated Ronald Reagan for president. He had so much baggage and was so extreme that they thought he would lose. But he didn’t. And he didn’t for the reason that has determined every presidential for the last four decade: it’s the economy, stupid! (The only exception is Ford-Carter, where Ford had the slightest of economic advantages, and undoubtedly Nixon made the difference.)

I bring this up because a couple of weeks ago, Peter Fegan wrote, What’s Really Wrong with America’s Political System. He made some excellent points. For example, Ralph Nader lost Gore the 2000 election. But it is important to note (for the purposes of my model), that Gore won anyway and the Supreme Court simply gave Bush the presidency. But without Nader, it wouldn’t have been close enough to be an issue. What’s more, he’s right about Ben Nelson in Nebraska: Democrats in conservative areas have to be more conservative. It was never fair to compare Nelson, who was an excellent part of the Democratic Party, to Joe Lieberman, a conservative Democrat from a liberal state, who seemed to delight in disloyalty.

But national elections are different. Fegan scoffed at the idea of Elizabeth Warren being the Democratic presidential nominee. He wrote, “Republicans would instantly become the prohibitive favorites to win the White House.” Uh, no. The 2016 election is going to come down to the economy — just like always. The only way it won’t is if one of the parties nominates someone who is really unqualified. If the Republicans nominated Sarah Palin, they would almost certainly lose. (Note: almost certainly.) But would they lose if Ted Cruz were nominated? I’m not at all certain of that. It wouldn’t take much of a recession to assure his win.

Fegan makes the same mistake on this front that he accuses other progressives of: he thinks that policies and “messages” are what determine elections. Many progressives think, “If only people had a real progressive, then they’d vote for the candidate.” Fegan is saying, “If only people had a moderate who didn’t scare the center, then they’d vote for the candidate.” In a hypothetical race between Warren and Cruz, he wrote, “Maybe Warren would be able to articulate her vision for the country better than Cruz and win, or maybe she would be seen as the flip side of the same rotten coin and lose.” Again: no. The voters already have their “vision” of the country. It isn’t fair, but most people vote the same way every time. What swings the mood of the country is the economy.

But then, Fegan complained about Zephyr Teachout’s primary campaign against Andrew Cuomo. According to him, “[T]he fact that progressives would actually run the risk of possibly losing an otherwise safe state house, speaks volumes about their lack of judgment.” No, it really doesn’t. It speaks volumes about how unsatisfied New York Democrats are with Cuomo. And they made the reasonable calculation that the minor chance of Rob Astorino beating Teachout in a general election in a liberal state was worth it to get rid of Cuomo.

What Fegan should have taken away from the Cuomo-Teachout primary is that the New York Democratic Party should have generated more qualified candidates to take on Cuomo in a primary. But Fegan’s idea that sticking with Cuomo just because he’s a sure thing is madness. This is what has allowed the Republicans to now run against establishment Democrats who are more conservative than Republicans were four decades ago. That’s got to feel good for Republicans: knowing that even when a Republican loses, they’ll still get conservative economic policy.

Fegan seems to think it will simply be obvious that Clinton is the best candidate, “If Hillary Clinton is the best the Dems put up in 2016, progressives best play will be to bite down hard and swallow.” What does that even mean? Isn’t that what primaries are for? If we did what Fegan seems to be suggesting, Clinton would have been the nominee in 2008. After all, no one knew if North Carolina would vote for a black man. So Fegan can’t actually mean there shouldn’t be a primary — that Clinton should just be anointed.

That means Fegan’s article is really only saying that the Democratic Party should rally around Clinton when she wins the nomination in 2016. I’m not sure who Fegan is arguing against. I don’t doubt that there are a smattering of liberals around who claim they will not vote for Clinton in a general election. They are lying. In the end, everyone will get behind Clinton. I know a lot of progressives who are still kicking themselves for voting for Nader in 2000. That won’t happen again any time soon.

In the end, I think that Fegan is quite confused about what he wants to say. Some of his statements are shockingly illiberal — even authoritarian. But I think what he’s really getting at is that he is the Very Serious Progressive. And just like all Very Serious Whatevers, he wants to command the world to do the “pragmatic” thing. And who determines that? Why the Very Serious Progressive, of course! He will know who the best candidate will be by — What? — the South Carolina primary? And then the rest of us best get behind the “electable” candidate. (BTW: isn’t that what we did with Kerry?) All this means is that the world is more to Fegan’s liking than it is to, say, mine. It isn’t unreasonable to risk moving two steps backwards when the “pragmatic” choice is to move one step backwards. But regardless, I will completely support whatever Democrat is nominated.

Update (13 October 2014 12:50 pm)

I don’t want to be too down on Peter Fegan. The fact is, I don’t know his work that well. But it did just occur to me that in his article, he defended Thomas Friedman and David Frum. These are both men who are economically conservative and socially liberal. I don’t actually see this in Fegan’s writing. But I think Fegan probably is the flip side of me. I’m both socially and economically liberal. But I would jettison the social side of this for gains on the economic side. (Sadly, things are so bad in this country that many social issues have huge economic aspects, but let’s leave that.) I think Fegan simply cares about social issues more than I do. I would accept much expanded gun rights in exchange for the Federal Reserve increasing its inflation target to 4%. But it is important that we realize we are all on the same team, even when we don’t agree on everything. And that includes tactics. Fegan clearly thinks that a sure thing “better than a Republican” is a clear winner over an uncertain “better than a New Democrat.” That doesn’t mean that either is wrong. Regardless, supporting Warren in a primary is not the same as voting for Nader in a general.

H/T: Infidel753

America Does Not Care About Contagious Disease

Sarah KliffYou may have noticed that I haven’t talked much about Ebola. There’s a reason for this: I focus on domestic issues. That’s not to say that I don’t care about the people of sub-Saharan Africa. I do. I think we should do more for the people there generally, but especially for disease control. Although let’s face it: malaria is a far bigger deal. But here in America? Ebola is a very typical joke: the national version of freaking out about a hangnail while you bleed to death from a gunshot wound to your stomach.

Do you know how many pedestrians will be killed in the United States today? It is roughly ten times as many as the total number of people who have ever died of Ebola in this country. Think of it this way, the most likely way that Ebola will kill you is if you are so worried about it that you get distracted crossing the street and get hit by a car. On an individual basis, Americans who are worried about Ebola are nitwits. I’ve even come up with an acronym: TNT-BAN. It stands for, “Try Not To Be A Nitwit.” I think it is good advice, but I don’t expect many Americans to follow it.

And before someone accuses me of constructing a straw man, last week a Gallup poll found, One-Fifth of Americans Worry About Getting Ebola. And among Fox News viewers, I’ll bet the numbers are vastly higher. Be afraid; be very afraid!

But there is a sense in which we should be worried about Ebola. We should be worried about the spread of all disease. In our ever more interconnected world, the spread of disease is a bigger and bigger threat. But this is America! We don’t think strategically about anything. We just freak out when we are told to. So lots of people are in favor of doing something about Ebola right now. But after the ranters on television stop talking about it, everyone will forget about it and go back to thinking about what really matters: who is next to be voted off their favorite reality show and whether Michelle Duggar’s uterus can manage to produce one more viable Stepford Child.

Sarah Kliff wrote a very interesting article over at Vox today, The Stunning Cuts to America’s Budget to Fight Disease Outbreaks. Remember when Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Well, Democrats have never really countered that. The two Democratic presidents since him have pretty much gone along with the idea. So it is always easy to cut the Centers for Disease Control. I mean, it is the problem. Am I right?!

Public Health Funding

Over the last seven years, the funding for the CDC’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness Cooperative Agreement Funding has been cut almost in half. As Kliff noted, it “is one of the federal government’s main ways of helping local areas prepare for unexpected outbreaks.” Yet it is “an easy budget to cut when there aren’t any emergencies happening.” But not to worry, even if an emergency were happening during budget negotiations, it wouldn’t matter. There will just be another continuing resolution. The Republicans are not going to allow a new budget to become law. And they certainly aren’t going to do it with increased funding for anything other than military spending.

Ebola is not a problem. But the idea of the CDC is to make sure that it and so many other things we don’t normally think about don’t become problems. Americans generally accept the aphorism, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” But when it comes to government policy, Americans think, “Meh.” Any day now, I expect to hear Ted Cruz say, “The CDC is not the solution to contagious disease; the CDC is contagious disease.” Go team!

The Racism of The John Birch Society

The John Birch SocietyThe image below is the current leadership of The John Birch Society. Notice anything about it? The top three leaders (CEO, President, Chairman of the Board) are all white men. Of the regular council members, 23 are white men and one is a white woman. I’m not saying that this alone means the group is racist. The truth is race is an invented construct. And I’m sure even all these nominally white people have lots of mixed genes from all over the world.

But it is certain that everyone in this image thinks of themselves as white. And The John Birch Society has long been closely tied with neo-confederates and Posse Comitatus. What’s more, one of their big complaints is that the government tries to chip away the privilege of whites, even while maintaining that no such privilege exists.

There is no doubt to me that The John Birch Society is a racist group. What’s really sad is that this fact is one of the less frightening aspects of the group. Although it is doubtless true that its racism is a big reason that the group gets people to join where their minds can be further poisoned by anti-government propaganda and the fear that a Communist America is just a couple of years away — just like it has been ever since 1958 when the group was formed.

John Birch Society Leadership


I’ll be writing more about The John Birch Society in the coming days. It is important because it is the prime early example of the combination of rage, ignorance, and conspiracy theorizing that fuels the Tea Party. In fact, during the glory days of the Tea Party, The John Birch Society was right there at events signing people up. Different name; same philosophy; same people.

Jane Siberry

Jane SiberryThe great singer-songwriter Jane Siberry is 59 years old today. She is an amazing talent, but I have to admit that she has largely grown beyond me. At this point, I mostly listen to her first two albums. I admire her more recent work, but it is much more challenging. Most of the time, if I’m listening to popular music, I’m not really in the mood for being challenged.

I’ve seen her live a number of times. She is one of the very few musicians who I actually enjoyed live. In general, I don’t like live shows. But her shows in the early 1980s with her whole band were something really special. What’s more, they were actual shows and not just a bunch of her songs performed one after the other. She also made notable changes to songs done live so that it was actually worth going to the show and not just staying home with the album.

She never did become much of a star in the United States, but in Canada, she’s huge. I remember being at a conference my first year in graduate school and I shared a room with a Canadian scientist. I told him I was a fan of Siberry and Bruce Cockburn. He was shocked that I knew Cockburn and took it for granted that everyone knew Siberry, even though in the US, their reputations were exactly the opposite.

(Siberry used to have all of her albums online for free download. She seems to have stopped doing this. Let me state for the record that it was very nice of her to do that and it is her right to stop doing it at any point. But those links should not be broken! They should go to a page that explains what happened. It continues to bug me that the web is a publishing platform but people feel they have no obligation to maintain even the most basic standards of professionalism. Once a site is designed, that’s it. It’s like owning a house and thinking it never requires paint or other maintenance. Of course, I’m talking about professional websites — Siberry is selling her albums and shows and art on her website. I am not talking about, for example, me.)

I can’t find any of Jane Siberry’s first album online. So let’s just skip to her second album, No Borders Here. I wasn’t all that fond of the song “Mimi on the Beach” when I was younger. I thought it rather preachy. It’s grown a lot on me over the years. It’s basically a revenge fantasy. The title character is a selfish and superficial girl — the alpha in her group of beautiful jocks. She takes pleasure in abusing and using those in the out group. So the singer tracks down Mimi to gloat about her inevitable downfall. The song is almost eight minutes long. It was cut down to a three minute single that makes no sense whatsoever. So here’s the album track:

Here is the last (best) track off her third album The Speckless Sky, “The Taxi Ride.” I think it is self-explanatory:

And finally, from her album Dragon Dreams (when she was calling herself Issa for some reason), is “I Pick Up the Phone”:

Happy birthday Jane Siberry!