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.

Innumeracy-as-National-Epidemic, climate edition

The Left’s answer to Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has released a deeply stupid document she refers to as a “Green New Deal”, in which she sets forth various pie-in-the-sky schemes.  Megan McArdle describes them: “replacing air travel with high-speed rail; junking every automobile with an internal-combustion engine; making affordable public transportation available to every single American (presumably including those who live hours from the nearest town?); replacing the electric grid with something smarter; meeting “100% of power demand through clean and renewable energy sources”; and — I swear I’m not making this up — providing economic security to people who are “unwilling to work.” This, too, is supposed to happen within only a decade, or thereabouts.”

“But,” McArdle remarks, “arguably Ocasio-Cortez’s team wasn’t really trying to put together a practical document. Rather, it articulates an ideal, one that we may never reach but should at least strive for. And there’s something appealing about that argument, because climate change is a pressing concern, and even if it weren’t, there would be ample reasons to want to obtain as much energy as possible from renewable sources.”

There’s actually nothing appealing about that argument, simply because we shouldn’t encourage its ocean-wide disconnect from various aspects of reality.  Electric cars and high-speed rail (also electric) still have to produce the energy somewhere.  (My arguments for nuclear power will be a different post; suffice it to say here that there’s no rationality to any carbon-reduction plan that does not begin with a massive expansion of nuclear power.)  With regard to home energy efficiency, It would save only a little of the fraction of U.S. energy consumed by heating, of the fraction of U.S. energy consumed by domestic use, of the 14% of worldwide carbon emissions produced by the U.S., which is in turn only thought to be responsible for about one-quarter of climate change.  All of it together can only be done once and is probably going to save only the equivalent of a year or two of the carbon increase produced by population growth in China and India.

And that’s before the minor matter of its cost. If you could wave a wand and get all these things tomorrow at a zero cost in financial and/or political terms, the logic would be, “Sure, why not? Every little bit helps.”  Instead, this smidgen would cost massively in all respects and be deeply unpopular with the public, with the result that it’s a political nonstarter.  Trying to do it anyway would waste enormous amounts of the one thing the claimers of climate Armageddon argue we have far less of than we think: time.

So, no, in my view, not appealing.

The George Costanza Presidency

It sometimes seems to me that Trump’s seeming successes are of a piece with his election.  That is, they’re not so much a matter of his own vision as they are a photographic negative of the failures of the elite consensus pre-2016.

Trump’s successes remind me of one particularly memorable moment on the sitcom Seinfeld involving Seinfeld’s friend George Costanza.  George told his friends, “It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong.  My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be.  Every instinct I have, in every of life, be it something to wear, something to eat… It’s all been wrong.”

After some interplay, his friend Jerry Seinfeld says he should do the reverse of his instincts.  “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

“Yes!”  George appears to have an epiphany.  “I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!”

Basically, that appears to me to be Trump’s approach.  He won the Presidency by being the opposite of everything elites have been assuming and offering the country for the past several decades.  And his administrative policy is more or less to be the opposite of most pieces of conventional wisdom about policy and public opinion and elections for that time, also.

What his administration is, more than anything, is an indictment of the particular virtue of elites and elite values and opinions.  I stress “particular” because I do not mean that elites and their values and opinions are worthless.  Or worth less.  Trump does not demonstrate that.  I mean that those values and opinions leave certain valuable things behind, or minimize or backburner them.  Over time, those things add up and come to seem disproportionately attractive.

Did the real estate developer in the White House realize that those ideas and values left behind were like great houses left behind in a deteriorating neighborhood, which become more and more of a potential bargain over time as their prices drop?  I don’t know.  I don’t know what he really believes.  For all I know he blundered across it by simply “doing the opposite” like George Costanza, and had cunning enough to sense it.  But I do think the past couple years have been very much like the sudden gentrification of an intellectual neighborhood.

An open Election-Day letter to the Left

In writing about politics, I always try to imagine how my writing will read if the current political situation– regardless of which side currently holds power– is reversed, and to write accordingly.  That consideration doesn’t affect today’s open letter to the Left, whose main party I expect will most likely at least take the House in today’s elections.

Dear Left,

This is something you won’t want to hear, especially on a day like today.

Your ambition is limited by cold, hard facts that you can neither change nor dismiss.

I can understand how you thought otherwise.  Things came so easily that the stars beckoned.   “The End of History” seemed no hyperbole.  You controlled entertainment, news and academia, and relied on those things having that cultural influence to make your arguments and change people’s minds.  But now the monopolies enjoyed by those institutions has been shattered by technology– especially the Internet.

Entertainment’s fragmentation began in the late 1970s with cable television, though as usual, no one could see it yet.  Airwaves were limited and rights were held by an oligopoly, making almost a monopoly out of broadcast television.  Technology continued its march.  Home video arrived.  VCRs, and later DVD players, meant that people could build up libraries of their favorite old shows, providing eyeball competition for new shows.  Then the Internet arrived and broke everything wide open.  Hollywood’s top levels have always been like tenure at Harvard, with a hierarchy, strict control over professional mobility, and rich, rich rewards for the Elect.  Talented actors, like graduate students and adjuncts, have always greatly outnumbered the places at the top.  But now anyone can put out entertainment on their YouTube channel.

News?  The mid-to-late-20th century era when newspapers became few and very profitable was an historical anomaly, created by the long, slow decline of newspapers as a result of technological alternatives.  Television and radio, its partial immediate successors, were as mentioned above even more of a monopoly due to their limited airwaves, but then the Internet, which reduced production and distribution costs to almost nothing, completed the process.

Academia?  The economics have been hijacked by academic unions and bureaucrats, and the content by the politically correct, with overproduction causing degree inflation and galloping credentialism.  Inevitably the Internet struck here too, with Massive Open Online Courses and places like Wikipedia and Youtube instructional videos, information’s chief cost became nothing more than a minimal level of time and effort.

You have gotten fat and lazy, both intellectually and politically.  You have forgotten how to argue.  In particular you’ve forgotten that in order to persuade someone, you have to speak the same language as them.  Bill Clinton knew how to do that.  Surrendering at least part of your identity narrative will be needed for that to happen, and unfortunately for you, identity is the last thing most people surrender.  You’ll be able to find reasons why you don’t need to.

Finally, in the midst of all this unfocused political energy, you’ve forgotten that people hate what they hate over twice as much as they like the equivalent amount of good.  If you try to accomplish too much with marginal political tricks– “phone and pen”, “50.1% making mandates for sweeping social change”, or the Supreme Court acting as a sort of unelected super-legislature– you will suffer from the one three-word sentence that limits your ambitions more than anything else:  ENEMIES BUILD UP.

Even if you regain both the House and the Senate today, and the Presidency, somehow, tomorrow, there is still nothing you can do about how people feel about you.  You can’t wave a wand and make them not enemies, or not dedicated to fucking you over in revenge.  Your favorite labels, created back in your cultural-hegemony days, are burning out by abuse and overuse.  You can’t take away your enemies’ votes.

Are there such relevant things as the Electoral College, the Senate voting being by equal representation per state, and gerrymandering?  To be sure there are, but they are not that significant.  The entire significance of those structural factors is to affect exactly how much ambition you can have and how many enemies you can make before you are stopped by the buildup of toxicity.  Public opinion is the true battleground, which is why the collapse of your means of swaying it is so catastrophic for you.  Structural factors like gerrymandering won’t change the fact that you need new ways of swaying it.  (I predict that at some point, Hollywood will begin to produce entertainment sympathetic not to Trump but to his supporters, perhaps even at the cost of killing some sacred cows of the Left on the way.)

Is this true of the Republicans also?  Yes.  They can’t take away your votes, or shut you up, or make you not hate them.

It’s still more a problem for you than for them.  Over the past fifty years, you’ve gotten most of what you ever wanted in terms of cultural victories.  If politics is now a stalemate, a political trench war of attrition, with the same few yards being taken and retaken, back and forth, then reversion to the mean in results is unavoidable.  The policy victors of the past fifty years– the free-traders, the cultural Marxists, the tax-cutters, the gun rights people, the warmongers, and so on– will be forced to surrender territory until a new equilibrium is reached.

Sincerely,

R. W. Porcupine

 

P.S. Don’t even think about impeaching Trump unless you have something more substantial up your sleeve than is commonly known, unless you want to be lumped in with congressional Republicans in 1996 and birthers.  Trying to retroactively undo election results is lazy, narcissistic and harmful to American democracy, regardless of how self-righteous you feel.

Outrage appropriation

David Freedlander writes in Politico about unexpected results in that NYC election in which the socialist Ocasio-Cortez shockingly defeated a 10-term Congressman in the real contest there, the Democratic primary:

Ocasio-Cortez’s best precincts were places like the neighborhood where Bonthius and his friends live: highly educated, whiter and richer than the district as a whole. In those neighborhoods, Ocasio-Cortez clobbered Crowley by 70 percent or more. Crowley’s best precincts, meanwhile, were the working-class African-American enclave of LeFrak City, where he got more than 60 percent of the vote, and portions of heavily Hispanic Corona. He pulled some of his best numbers in Ocasio-Cortez’s heavily Latino and African-American neighborhood of Parkchester, in the Bronx—beating her by more than 25 points on her home turf.

Actual minorities there bewailed the loss of the incumbent’s seniority, which translates into influence and Federal money for their district.

When coupled with the desperation of people like Elizabeth Warren or Rachel Dolezal to identify as the socially privileged among Democrats, along with things like the poll results of American Indians about their opinions of the Washington Redskins team name (91% either liked it or didn’t care), these results seem to make it clear that identity politics has gone from a retail issue for ethnic minorities to a luxury issue for rich, white elites.  (Or perhaps a retail issue for the latter, since their identity narrative seems to be the main thing they want.)

The latter yammer on and on about “cultural appropriation”, but this must be a form of projection, because they themselves are doing the real appropriating– of the right to be outraged at some usually tiny alleged form of racism, homophobia, or what have you.  Actual minorities, these election results make clear, are ironically like Trump’s voters in being far more transactional, far more practical, in their priorities.

Diminishing returns to extremism

I don’t have something I want to talk about at length right now, but I did just realize something.

A considerable amount of the lack of compromise in politics has been driven by the belief that you have to act extremist or be thrown out of Congress or wherever by angry, motivated extremists in your own party.  At some point, elected officials are simply going to factor in that cost and accept that something like that is almost surely going to happen– in which case, they’re going to stop kissing the asses of the extremist activists.  That is, the chance of them getting re-elected are going to get low enough that they have no reason not to say what they actually think.  Then we’ll see a different kettle of fish.

Hay-making

The slow corruption of ideals of the Democrats makes sense if you see making hay as the point of the whole thing for many (not all) people.  Some people– many of the base– believe that supporting the ideals and trying to fix problems is what the party or group is actually trying to do.  But even they have to be pretty sharp to notice how political priorities subtly steer idealism away from politically unprofitable solutions, and frequently stop being a source of energy once the reputation for trying has been established.

The hay that they’re making takes different forms, of course.  Sometimes it’s votes, sometimes it’s grant money, sometimes it’s a feeling of moral superiority.  But sooner or later they run out of grist for the grievance mill, and then they have to start putting other stuff through. And that’s when the bullshit begins.  That’s when the tail comes to wag the dog.  That’s when the process becomes more important than the result.  This happens on the Republican or conservative side too, of course; military spending is hay.

I suspect that if he exists somewhere, Martin Luther is having a quiet chuckle at the universality of human nature, because the capture and deterioration of moral institutions is exactly the circumstance he fought against.

The Democratic field in 2020

Who will the Democratic nominee be in 2020?  That was the chatter at Nate Silver’s 538, in a sort of Round Table discussion that they call a snake draft.  As a libertarian-ish Independent in a swing state, I just wanted to mention my thoughts about some of their top possibilities.

  1. Elizabeth Warren.  Ugh.  About the only things she really has going for her (not with me, with the electorate) are that she’s fairly well-known nationally, she’s a woman and she has a portfolio, as it were, akin to Bernie Sanders’s– superficial egalitarianism.  She could probably win the Democratic primary, but not the general election.  The policy superficiality aside, her flaws are the long, public history of her whoring after minority status as a Leftist status symbol, and the fact that she’s condescending and schoolmarmish in an intensely irritating way.
  2. Kamala Harris.  Who?  Yeah, I know, a senator from California.  As though that were a swing state.  Yes, she’d get lotsa donations from the Golden State, but 2016 proved yet again that money has a limited impact on political victories.  Apart from that, she’s just another generic Democrat chasing after “historic!”
  3. Kirsten Gillbrand.  Known to me chiefly for having been handed Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in deep-blue New York.  This was after Hillary was handed it, served without much distinction, lost her one competitive race before 2016, and was handed the Secretaryship of State.  That particular office is not exactly one that tempers a politician in the white-hot flame of competitiveness.  (True, fewer are these days.)  Basically a nobody, as far as I’m concerned.
  4. Joe Biden.  A long-experienced politician, originally from purple Pennsylvania, nationally known with Executive branch experience.  That he’s not at the top of everyone’s list speaks volumes about the Democratic Party’s poisonous addiction to identity politics and party identity narrative.  He’d be the one candidate who could actually get the Presidency by winning it, rather than by the Republican candidate losing it.
  5. Eric Holder.  In baseball terms, near as I can tell, Holder would be the equivalent of a .240 hitter in AA ball.  What does he have apart from being black and anyone at all having heard his name?  (Another generic Democrat chasing after “historic!”– but Obama has picked most of the low-hanging fruit.)
  6. Beto O’Rourke.  Why on earth are so many candidates with tiny resumes at the top of the Democratic list?  On the list at all, sure, but he’s like the 50-1 shot at the Kentucky Derby, and should be way down the list.  His inclusion here is likely an example of recency bias.  Unless he wins, which isn’t likely, a year or two from now people will barely remember him.
  7. Cory Booker.  Probably one of the stronger candidates, not because he’s black (see above about the low-hanging fruit) but because he actually has something resembling a struggle, as mayor of Newark, and executive experience, and some history of bipartisanship.
  8. Bernie Sanders.  Not a likely event, due to his age.  Yes, Trump’s almost as old, but seems one hell of a lot more vigorous.
  9. Michael Avenatti.  He brings to mind O Brother, Where Art Thou?  In that movie, the challenger in the Mississippi gubernatorial election is winning in the polls with a shtick about being for the “little man”, with a midget on the platform to agree with him, and the governor’s son says, “We could hire our own midget, even shorter than his.”  Avenatti would be the Democrats hiring their own midget.
  10. Oprah Winfrey.  She might actually be formidable against Trump– nationally known and admired, being at least somewhat self-made through fighting her way upward, having been successful in business.  But on the other hand, maybe not; being on a TV show where she gets to pick the guests and topics probably doesn’t prepare you that well for politics.  And in any case, she’s not running, which is probably why she’s at the bottom of the 538 discussion.

There were other candidates on the list, but the 538 people were really scraping the bottom of the barrel at that point, and my remark about most of them would amount to “who?”.

The high road?

Apparently, according to the N. Y. Times, Democrats think they’ve been taking the “high road”, and have been debating whether that’s a good idea.

What on earth do they think the “high road” and the “low road” are?

Apparently, Trump’s Tourette’s-like verbal spasms on Twitter are the “low road”, with Michael Avenatti being, perhaps, the vision of a Low Road Democrat.  What the supposed appeal to the public would be of that sort of thing indulged-in by the Left, I don’t know.  The German attempts to create a Killer Joke in the old Monty Python sketch come to mind.

But what’s the “high road” Democrats believe they’ve been taking?  Supporting Leftists who hound Trump administration members out of restaurants and Antifa supporters as parts of the base who engage in merely “controversial” tactics?  (Bernie Sanders, to his credit, came out unequivocally against that.  But he’s not a Swamp-dweller.)  Thinking they can spike a Supreme Court nominee based on 36-year-old allegations that are totally unsupported by any evidence, including that of the accuser’s best friend from those days?  Seriously encompassing talk of eliminating the equal state representation in the Senate, the Electoral College, or the Supreme Court, for God’s sake?  That’s the “high road”?  True, most such statements appear in academia or serious media outlets first.  But having a sitting U.S. Senator condone harassment for political purposes and paying no price seems to me to cross a major line.

One thing I did notice about the above-linked Times article was the complete absence of any perspective originating from the public.  It’s the elite equivalent of a TV show or movie set in, and about, Hollywood itself.  Let me, to quote a show beloved of the Left, The West Wing, spill this out on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up:

The true success of any idealistic movement is not in getting complete control of Congress and the Executive branch to pass this or that law.  The true success is not in playing administrative-agency tic-tac-toe.  And the true success is not in Supreme Court decisions imposing blanket rules rationalized with circumbendibi about 150-year-old Amendments.

The true success is in persuading ordinary Americans in their private hearts.   When done, no opponent can destroy it.  Anything else, you have no right to expect won’t ever go away.