The Broken Overton Window Fallacy

The angst-y topic of the week for conservatives and Republicans appears to be over the future of the party, with Trumpers and NeverTrumpers at odds like Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Megan McArdle recently wrote about NeverTrumpers:

“Yet as the party heads into 2020 with Trump still very much at the helm, a number of people are beginning to ask an obvious question: “What’s the point?” Conservative resistance hasn’t ousted Trump; all it’s done is split the movement. So as political scientist and RealClearPolitics writer Sean Trende recently asked in a Twitter thread, what is the end game for the dedicated holdouts?”

McArdle explains problems with each of Trende’s three possibilities.

  1. Conceding defeat, she says, “means abandoning your dearest principles — and if you think the Trump administration is likely to end in some combination of disaster or corruption scandals, it means positioning yourself to be splattered by the fallout.”
  2. She says that “in practice there’s little benefit” to positioning yourself as the loyal opposition.  “Liberals will identify you with all of Trump’s worst excesses, while the Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist.”
  3. Pursuing active insurgency “means sacrificing any realistic chance of retaking the helm of the party,” says McArdle, in paraphrase of Trende.  She continues: “If you have been actively working to nuke Trump’s presidency, then if you succeed — or even if external events do the job for you — you can be sure that your faction will be the one group not chosen to rebuild the party out of the rubble.”

The second of these seems easily the best to me.  Liberals will identify conservatives who choose that with Trump’s excesses, sure, but then again, they’ll do that anyway.  Expecting rationality, fairness and consistency out of the Left these days is a fool’s errand; they often appear a breath’s worth of rationalization away from doing anything they please.  The Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist?  Well, no– a fifth column is almost definitionally a secret organization of fellow-travelers.  They may regard you as “cucks”– a word I hate, incidentally, and not least because it’s used ad infinitum, ad nauseam— but you have to stand for what you stand for, and once their ambition is tempered and the laws the Left proposes to put in place next time they get into power are seen clearly enough to be feared, they may come back.

But my reaction would be to reject this trichotomy.

Politics is a lot like capitalism, in being a system intended in part to produce information about what people desire and how much.  Both systems are often distorted.  In capitalism, for example, the ethanol tax credit ruins the data about how much people actually want ethanol, while in politics, the Commission on Presidential Debates skews information about how much people might like the Libertarian or Green parties’ platforms by keeping their candidates out of the debates.  As I’ve argued, politics steers idealism as much as the other way around.   The marketplace of ideas was turned to the private benefit of a pretty cozy group of politicians, bureaucratic mandarins and cultural influencers.  They steered people away from issues that were uncomfortable or politically unprofitable or economically crazy.  This is one way of avoiding bad policies, it’s true.  But distorting the marketplace of ideas that way leads to a distorted picture of what people want, and how much.

So.  What use is all this talk of unaddressed issues to a NeverTrumper trying to figure out what to do?

Well, we’ve come about to the limits of the set of policies that elites put together back in the 1980s and 1990s that Fukuyama called “the end of history”– the seemingly perfect equation of free trade producing greater societal wealth, producing (I argue) greater capacity in people for social liberalism.  No one thought the equation of this capacity was a hyperbola, so that you could reach a point of diminishing returns of marginal utility to people of ever-cheaper goods and services.  No one knew saw that there was eventually so much market for the ideas that elites of both parties quietly agreed to ignore and backburner– such as nationalism, immigration, the Savonarola-like extremes of identity politics, and a desire by poorer people not for handouts, but for meaningful work and dignity– that it could flood past the cultural and professional gatekeepers (who were in any case weakened by technological change).  The real question dividing Trumpers and NeverTrumpers is the same dividing Pelosi Democrats from Bernie Democrats:  What issues will the parties stand for going forward? 

That, then, is the question that NeverTrumpers should ask.  To date, NeverTrumpers and Pelosi Democrats have seemed united in thinking that “true conservatism” and “true liberalism” means positions only on the set of issues that they confined themselves to since about 1990 or so, and adherence to the worldview that self-justified ignoring other issues.  McArdle mentions that Jonah Goldberg argues that NeverTrumpers should keep fighting Trump simply to “do the right thing” (her paraphrase).  I like Jonah Goldberg, but honestly, a better euphemism for doubling down on one’s worldview, a worldview which saw none of this coming, is hard to imagine.  The wiser course would be to triangulate and try to see how one’s previous worldview was mistaken and which policies beloved of Trumpers they can come to terms with.  Remember that there is no other way to turn a stampede than to take the lead.

Trende’s question really amounts to one about repairs to the broken Overton Window— whether Trump’s voters will, even after their perceived best hope of realizing them is gone, surrender the issues that 2016 liberated or the ambition that Trump awoke.  It seems clear that they will not.  McArdle has often written about path dependence.  We are now in the middle of it.  If NeverTrumpers want to get rid of the man– and I can certainly understand that– I think they’re going to have to surrender the hope of controlling the issues, and instead begin the work of finding someone who can convince the Republican base that he or she can be as effective as Trump has been, without Trump’s manifold flaws, excrescences and sins.

TL; DR: The issues that Trump’s supporters wanted to talk about are not going away, so NeverTrumpers should adjust accordingly.

Natural allies

I should like to consider the folk song, and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.” — Tom Lehrer

I too have a theory that I’ve held for some time, that I’d also like to expound briefly on.

It is this: that economic conservatives and social liberals are natural allies, despite usually appearing in the platforms of the two main opposing parties, as are economic liberals with social conservatives.

Why is this?

Because more than anything else, social liberalism correlates with societal wealth, in the sense of cheapness of goods relative to your income.  In the fulsome, fatuous old Victorian phrase, if you can take care of the basics– food, warmth, shelter, entertainment– your mind “turns to higher things”.  Or if you’re like me and prefer more modern formulations (and mixed metaphors, which are goofy fun), it would be that a rising tide lifts all boats higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

That, of course, is only half of it.  The other half is that economic liberalism in large quantities– the ability and inclination of voters to vote themselves someone else’s money– kills economies.  Always.  Like strychnine or nitroglycerin, which in small amounts are useful (as appetite inducer and heart stimulant, respectively), that which is fine in small amounts is fatal in large quantities.  (Sola dosis facit venenum, as Paracelsus said.)  The most isolated such economies offer the most vivid examples, such as Venezuela, where the societal wealth, the cheapness of goods, has vanished.

Thus it is that unrestrained economic liberalism kills the societal wealth that allows social liberalism to flourish.  Venezuela has never been anyone’s idea of Berkeley, but surely it must be an even more socially conservative place right now.  Single-minded social conservatives should therefore want less societal wealth.  None are that single-minded, of course, but for the reason that is at the core of my theory, and which is at the core of many political problems:  economic desires frequently conflict with social desires.  In this case, the strong support of conservatives for economic freedom hinders their desire for social conservatism, by creating the wealth that enables people to be more socially liberal.

One jargon to rule them all

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

In a recent Twitter discussion someone replied to me using the term “marginalized groups”.

Earlier in my life, I would have been willing to continue past and debate them about the original topic under discussion.

I no longer do that.

When in an intellectual contest you allow past jargon created by the other side, you have in essence agreed to fight on terrain of their choosing.  When a side knows where you must fight, they of course craft weapons and fortifications specifically to give them the victory.  These words and definitions have been carefully and deviously arrived at by reverse engineering.  Beginning with the end result, they work backwards to figure out which beginning place, linguistically and intellectually, would proceed, rationally, logically and inexorably, to the desired policy conclusion.  Moralists and pseudo-moralists (and this includes moralism based on ideas about God, fully as much as based on ideas about government) are particularly guilty of this sort of crime against rationality and debate.   It is emotion, with a thin veneer of rationality.

Originally words were created as a shortcut– a way of expressing a part of reality that both sides know and accept, so that the speaker doesn’t need to spend inordinate amounts of time reinventing the wheel, linguistically speaking, every time he or she wants to say something.  These days, the shortcuts have taken over the language.   The Cultural Marxists have become a group of Humpty Dumptys.

Moralistic jargon is by its nature crafted to serve only one master.  It’s the One Ring of politics and society.  I’d love to carry the modern Left’s concept of sin to Mount Doom and cast it into the lava.  Failing that, however, and unlike the monarchs of our political parties, I can decline to accept any of the other rings, powerful-seeming or no.

The meaning of Trumpism

The meaning of Trumpism is clear.  It’s a paradigm fight.  (How’s that for an unburied lede?)

Democrats and “Never Trump” Republicans have been agog and aghast at the degree of enthusiasm generally displayed for Donald Trump by a huge percentage of Americans, and have been mystified by it.  How, they think, apart from mass psychosis, could it be possible that people they thought they knew could so strongly support someone so repulsive on so many levels?  Poor, rural,  working-class voters hailed as one of their own an arrogant New York multimillionaire and hard-edged businessman, a boss.  Evangelicals showed up en masse to strongly support their Satan.   Horses rode men and grass ate cows and cats were chased into holes by the mouse.

Trump’s unique fractal chaos is their desire.  A brutally honest policy platform of theirs might go something like this: “Nothing else can cut apart the Horsemen of our Apocalypse: the cozy political modus vivendi; the rotten previous political parties; the administrative ossification; the Deep State; the self-dealing by elites; the liberal ratchet and the Left’s gleichschaltung over higher education, the media and Hollywood.”  This description does not imply agreement or disagreement by me.  But into their lives, through the rent that 2016 tore in the American polity, the sweet air of ambition has swept.  It’s not only the ambition to decimate the foregoing supposed catalog of the elite paradigm, but the ambition for ambitions of their own.

If you think about it, that’s something the grassroots Right hasn’t had, hasn’t gotten to have, in a long, long time.  The last real ambition I remember them having is school prayer, which is a hope (of theirs, not mine) which hasn’t existed in a long time.  The Left would respond, “But what about tax cuts, regulation cuts and wars?”  Those are things which aren’t actually that conservative, from a grass-roots point of view.  They’re things favored by the Republican leadership, as influenced by Madison Avenue.  Anger at the Republican leadership for having allowed major donors to suck off most of the political capital is, I think, one of the reasons Trump won the nomination, and it took someone as heedless of political donations as Trump to defeat the influence of those donors over Republican policy.  You could argue abortion– but that’s a rollback of the Left’s achieved ambition, and mainly resurgent in the set of “this might actually happen” as a result of the same wave that shattered the previous Overton Window and brought Trump into the Oval Office.

Will they get their ambitions?  Hard to say.  Despite its power Trumpism is an amorphous cloud of discontent, not a precise policy tool.  (As a paradigm it’s no more coherent than he is.)  Some, probably.  Trumpism does have an effect of reversion to the mean, which means the Left will lose (and has lost) some ground.  Nothing, however, is controlling which issues it’ll lose on, or how much.  Entropy may be the Democrats’ friend, as the energy of Trumpist discontent spins off into the Void.

Union organizing for culture

Writer Daniela Greenberg’s job at Business Insider is the latest casualty of the preposterous circular firing squad that the Left’s supposed victory in the Culture Wars has foisted upon us, for the vicious crime of suggesting that any actor can play any role, and that therefore Scarlet Johansson needn’t step aside from a role playing a transgender person in favor of a transgender actor.

“Only TG people should play TG people!” they squawk.  “Only gay people should write fiction involving gay characters!  Only Chinese people can wear traditional Chinese dresses to their proms!”

In the cultural Left’s world, of course, your group identity is (assuming a lack of membership in their analogue to the Washington Generals, the officially designated Bad Guys) your moneymaker, and anything that might dilute its value must perforce be sheer theft.  What has made them think they get to expand this and apply it to everyone, though?

Part of the answer is that they lost the 2016 election, which not only made them feel angry and as if they had nothing to lose, but disgraced the leadership of both parties.  It was only the Democratic leadership, more practical and transactional than the base, that held them back before this (and at that, only partially).

The underlying impulse, however, due to the fact that large parts of the Left are essentially Calvinist.  They believe in economic and cultural predestination, and that no one gets ahead without the active assistance of others.  Have something?  “You didn’t build that!”  Want to do something or have something?  “Can’t win; don’t try– but we’ll take it using government and hand it to you in exchange for your votes.”  This is nothing new, of course, in economics.  Unions used to guard their territory with incredible jealousy, stifling innovation with rebranded greed, normalized rent-seeking and a zero-sum mentality, that culminated in the snarling bag of cats of labor in 1970s Britain.  Now it has spread to culture, in which ethnic groups are strongly encouraged to be grasping, narrowminded and suspicious of incursions on “their property”, as though Chinese culture were some sort of hydroelectric plant that you can’t permit any scabs or imperialist melting-pot advocates to enjoy or profit from until the Central Committee condescends to permit it.

Everyone is acting as though there’s no way of punishing the social-media shaming addicts.  They will be punished, though, sooner or later, the same way the Brexiteers won Brexit and Trump won the 2016 election– from sheer built-up pressure.  It had better happen soon, though, or the punishments of the Woke will go beyond shame or job loss.  Violence and vigilantism will rear their ugly heads.  None of us wants that, but so far, none of us wants to give up what we’d have to give up to avoid it– the non-Left out of having been pushed as far as we’ll go, and the Left, out of ambition born of righteousness.