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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

Now that we have more data (from the 2022 midterms), I think it might be useful to make the steelman argument for why Dem-leaning elites and pols should talk about the democracy issue:

1– Election-denier or Thiel-ish fascist freak candidates performed horribly in the midterms

2– The democracy issue resonates with the Dem mass donor base, and candidates who rake in the Resist Lib bucks can spend a lot on paid media where they have complete power to define the issue space and can focus on issues where they’re strong with the median voter, like abortion, Social Security, and Medicare. (This may be a major causal mechanism behind point 1– and it is worth noting that in 2022, Dems struggled most in expensive media markets like NYC, Miami, and LA)

3– Although Peter Thiel is comfortable bankrolling anti-democracy candidates, most other large business leaders and billionaires seem to be more squeamish about it; keeping more of their money on the sidelines is helpful

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I agree, the election results show that Republicans did pay a price for nominating “Trumpy” candidates

-In PA, Doug Mastriano who was very anti-democracy did much worse than Mehmet Oz who was on the same ballot

-In GA, Trump endorsed Herschel Walker lost while Brian Kemp, who certified the 2020 election, won comfortably.

-In OH, Establishment R Mike DeWine won by much more in the governor’s race than trumpy JD Vance did in the Senate Race.

-Even in 2020, downballot Republicans generally outperformed Trump, the Rs gained house seats even as the lost the presidency.

I think Yglesias is right abroad his broad point that policy wise, Trump’s nationalism is more electorally potent then Paul Ryan’s policies. That is why Trump won in 2016. But elections since 2016 have shown that incompetence and being anti-democracy is unpopular aside from positions on trade or policing, as “mainstream” Rs have done better than hardcore MAGAs. That suggests calling out the gop on being anti-democracy is still a good tactic.

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Business leaders also just have a strong preference for stability and consistency. Much easier to make capital allocation plans if you can predict what the government is likely to do in the next 6-12 months.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

Can we someday get that follow up about Thiel's misreading of history? There's been some very strange things going on with the Libertarians, where it's the Claremont Institute, the Mises Caucus, Paul Ryan's "classical liberals", etc.

Maybe get a guest post from Jane Coaston? In a world where these marginal voters really matter, and libertarians tend to be high propensity voters, that split 2:1 GOP:Dems, there's something to be done to win their votes.

Besides that, maybe the exact hoorah-rah-rah about "Democracy" still isn't an effective platform for Democrats to run on, but there's a framing about "minority rule" or "majority rule" that even most conservatives will embrace. How minority rule eventually becomes a narrower and narrower minority. How they don't want to suffer a king, etc. This "minority rule" argument can be applied to economic monopolies, union-busting, voter suppression, demographic diversity, congressional stale mate tactics, congressional expansion, the supreme court, whatever you want.

Hell, even why we shouldn't be embracing autocrats and dictators and royal families abroad.

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>Can we someday get that follow up about Thiel's misreading of history?<

I was thinking the same thing as I read Matt's post today. I, too, would like a clarification of Thiel's "misreading of history."

And I will add: Thiel and his fellow-travellers are awfully naive about the prospects for strong rule of law absent the framework of democratic governance. People like him have (literally) more to lose than anybody if the US one day slides down the path to authoritarianism. Just ask Jack Ma. Indeed, you already see a growing gap between chamber of commerce conservatism in the US and its blood and soil counterpart. A lot, one can't help but notice, like, uh, China: The "getting rich is glorious" wing of the Party has been outhussled and outmaneuvered by the far uglier and more dangerous faXism wing.

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Fortunately the same pun works in Mandarin; 法习斯!

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Damn, that's true.

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Lol. Also go look at the Sunday night thread and tell me if I’m insane, please?

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Is Jane Coaston a libertarian or just a liberal like us who doesn't like occupational licensing?

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Jane Coaston was a proud card-carrying Libertarian back in the ole Weeds Podcast days, but since then lost the faith and became independent. Her reporting beat has always been the history of conservatism, and conservative factions, and right-wing trends.

But yeah, technically all of us are liberals, living in the era of liberalism, after the end of history.

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>but there's a framing about "minority rule" or "majority rule" that even most conservatives will embrace.<

For the many. Not the few.

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The boring unpopular thing to say (that's not going to get me a lot of little hearts) is that it's actually OK to discuss the 'right' amount of democracy in a country. Holding national referenda every month on everything would be even more 'democratic' than having Congress pass bills- putting, I dunno, the national budget or science funding or interest rates up for a national referendum would be even more democratic. It would also be a terrible way to run a country! It's totally fine to have the 'right' amount of democracy, and accept that running a $22 trillion economy involves a lot of boring unelected technocrats. That's not even mentioning the whole Bill of Rights (totally not up for a vote no matter how unpopular some of the provisions may be with the public- imagine holding a referenda on Muslim civil rights in say early 2002).

Frankly, I think the issue with industrial planning like the IRA is that too many elected politicians were involved in crafting it. I'd prefer Congress funds a certain amount and just hands the details off to bureaucrats who never have to face voters. The US is in some ways more 'democratic' than countries like Britain or Germany or Japan, frequently to its detriment, and I think it's OK to talk about that

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>The boring unpopular thing to say (that's not going to get me a lot of little hearts) is that it's actually OK to discuss the 'right' amount of democracy<

I don't think such a view is particularly unpopular among this blog's commentariat. The notion that, say, the United States (to pick one, obvious example) has too many elections isn't really controversial.

And more fundamentally, any polity characterized by "democratic values" puts some of those values above and beyond the reach of simple majorities. Again, not controversial.

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It’s difficult to quantify “democracy” and I think the frequency of elections is a bad metric. Bicameralism is undemocratic because it imposes frictions on the exercise of the popular will. Ditto the filibuster. Ditto judicial review.

Britain has fewer elections and more monarchs than the U.S., but is more democratic than we are because the House of Commons has so much power that electoral majorities have consequences, and hung parliaments rarely last long.

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"Britain has fewer elections and more monarchs than the U.S., but is more democratic than we are because the House of Commons has so much power that electoral majorities have consequences, and hung parliaments rarely last long."

Certainly not locally where an astounding amount is still controlled from Westminster. The mayoralty of the London metro area is a new position within the last 30 years and still quasi ceremonial. I don't even think there are local taxes levied in the UK other than property tax. I think it all goes through Westminster.

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The only non-Westminster tax other than the property tax in the UK is the semi-independent Scottish income tax system.

All other taxes are national, as the general taxation power (ie the ability to create new taxes and set the rules; only the rates are set by Scotland or local councils) is reserved entirely to Westminster.

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Seems kind of ridiculous to have to partially decide on your national vote based on how they're going to use national tax revenue in your local area.

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If the government is going to be picking winners and losers, I'd rather we be able to fire the people who made bad decsions.

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Sure. Which currently unelected technocratic jobs would you like to be up for a popular vote? The Federal Reserve? Powell can run a national campaign promising voters he'll slash interest rates? (What % of voters could articulate what the Fed does?) Supreme Court justices? The generals in the Army?

The reason your idea doesn't work as a governing principle is that the vast vast majority of voters are not going to put in the time to understand if the government made a good or bad decision in 'picking winners and losers'. Voters are going to spend 4 minutes paying attention to the issue, and ultimately vote for whoever they'd rather have a beer with, or who has the right culture war mantras- not, whose semiconductor industrial policy was best over a decade span

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I want Congress to make big decisions and I want Congress to be electorally accountable. All off the positions you mention in your first paragraph are in some ways accountable to the electoral process. Supreme Court justices can be impeached and removed by Congress for any reason. The electorally accountable president can fire generals at will. And the president can also remove the fed chair and/or not re-appoint them. The low- and mid-level bureaucrats you want deciding how we spend trillions of dollars aren't accountable to anyone (except maybe the FBI and local law enforcement if they commit crimes).

While I don't like the exact plan Trump has for federal employees if he becomes president again, I am sympathetic to the idea that we should make federal employees more accountable and maybe easier to fire. As we saw during the Trump administration, if low- and mid-level bureaucrats don't want to do something their political bosses tell them to, odds are it at least will take a very long time to happen or not get done at all. Federal employees are human, and that means that they and the agencies they make up have their own personal and parochial interests. Those interests need to be subordinated and accountable to the political process. Elections should have consequences, and federal employees shouldn't be immune.

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It seems like you're unaware that federal agencies are run by political appointees now- so the same as the Fed, SC, etc. I'm not proposing that the bureaucracy do literally whatever it wants! I'm proposing that Congress set the broad outlines (like, for industrial policy) and the agencies fill in the details. Contrary to the naive populist view that Congress writing say industrial policy makes them more aCcOuNtAbLe- again, most voters have no clue what specific laws are passed, but niche vocal interest groups absolutely do.

An American version of the famous Japanese agency MITI (1) would likely not have included Davis Bacon Wages, daycare requirements, or profit caps into the IRA. They're free to ignore the interest groups and just write good policy!

Federal employees are on a sliding scale of job protections now- for example, the intelligence agencies aren't covered by the same protections as say the Department of Education (no one seems to know this). I don't see to better results out of the intelligence agencies than the more protected groups

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_International_Trade_and_Industry

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"They're free to ignore the interest groups and just write good policy!"

They will write what they think is good policy. Which is where the Davis Bacon Wages, daycare requirements and profit caps came from!

You are arguing that that if we removed decisions to bureaucrats that they would make better decisions, but I have no faith in that assertion.

I would support putting SCOTUS up to a vote - probably the only judges who should be voted on. I don't want generals voted on, because I want the military to be subordinate to civilian government in every way and not have any type of outside legitimacy. The FED - I'd be okay with the President/Congress nominating candidates and voters selecting among them for fixed terms.

Bureaucrats are great at providing information to decisions makers, but decision makers should be responsive and responsible to the public.

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>Which is where the Davis Bacon Wages, daycare requirements and profit caps

Wait uh weren't those in legislation passed by Congress and not from the bureaucracy haha. 'Davis Bacon' is literally a (very stupid) law passed by Congress- it's named after the legislators!- not some type of administrative regulation.

>You are arguing that that if we removed decisions to bureaucrats that they would make better decisions, but I have no faith in that assertion

I can only note that among all of the countries that have done successful industrial policy (South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China)- *none* of them have relied on legislation passed by politicians. 3 of those 4 were autocracies when they went from being as wealthy as say Peru to being extremely rich- the 1 democracy in there, Japan, had the entire thing run by a very competent bureaucracy. (1) Politicians simply don't have the time or attention span to make sophisticated long-term decisions about industrial policy, and they're too easy to pressure by interest groups that want a handout. I'm unaware of any congressionally-run competent kind of long-term planning for a country.

Right now I'm halfway through a famous book on MITI and how they rebuilt Japan postwar, so I'm all fired up about this (2)

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_International_Trade_and_Industry

2. https://www.amazon.com/MITI-Japanese-Miracle-Industrial-1925-1975/dp/0804712069

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My guess is that for some non-zero number of voters, they like democracy and are proud of the American experiment generally, etc., but constantly being pitched about democracy being in peril and 'our institutions' and all that feels like the parts of high school they hated, i.e. being lectured in history class. Call them the "I just wanna grill" folks or whatever, but they basically want the crazies to go away so that they can stop thinking so much about elections and the republic. I'm sure some number of them look at fashie weirdos like Blake Masters and think, "Well, anyone but that fuckin' guy. Creeps me out. Big 'I'm running for class president' vibes."

Sometimes when I think about this topic, my mind wanders to BJJ, because I am a late-30s white guy and that is the law now. Sometimes when you are rolling with someone and fighting for advantages, there's a thing that happens when you try something and it doesn't work, and then the other person tries something else and it doesn't work, and the result is that you both kind of flail for a second and fall apart, and there is a scramble where both people rush desperately to try to gain control, but oftentimes it's 50/50 who grabs it first.

What I worry about most in the US are the people are are rooting for the scramble, because they think if everything goes to shit, they are in best position to grab control.

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BJJ?

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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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Oh, thanks.

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Thanks for updating me on a few memes from other generations. It's an excellent point about the scramble. Additionally, I wonder how many were even capable of comprehending the more abstract points from their history and social science classes. I still remember the marvelous lecture in an accelerated 7th grade class from our crew-cutted teacher, who laid out the political spectrum on the blackboard right in the midst of the Johnson v. Goldwater campaign. I was already prone to some kind of inborn enthusiasm for understanding all sides. But I know for a fact (from Facebook) that others who were in that exact same lecture now believe that what is "democratic" can only be the political standpoint that they feel strongly about. It's some kind of cognitive incapacity for the type of abstract reasoning that fortunately happened to be possessed by our country's founders.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

>People aren’t going to care about democracy if their most basic needs aren’t met.<

That's true, although hardly a secret. Humans in the aggregate simply aren't that noble. Maybe the realization of this is what set Thiel off, who knows? For me, probably the deepest change in my view of politics in recent times is my (now) strong conviction that the quality of elite leadership matters a great deal. Perhaps one reason many have trouble accepting this reality (as I did myself once upon a time) is that it implies rather a great deal is riding on a very thin reed of hope. What are the chances that any system of government enjoys a particularly extended period of enlightened elite leadership? It seems far safer to simply make the *overall system* safer and more robust and not have to rely on being gifted with good political leaders (and indeed, we ought to do whatever we can along these lines; that's one reason America ought to jettison Madisonianism in favor of parliamentarianism: you want to maximize your advantages given the near certitude that, yes, eventually history will deal you a shit hand in terms of your elites).

But making the system safer and more robust may not be enough. The Weimar Republic is said to have employed one of history's most elegantly balanced, democratic constitutions.

Once upon a time I'd often think to myself: well, any people—Americans are no exception—get the quality of governance they deserve (vote for). But I think recent history strongly suggests that, left to their own devices (all the more so if their constitution is dodgy, like America's), they'll often be visited by gross misgovernance if they don't have a few wise, noble and benevolent leaders to see them through. That's just the harsh, consequentialist reality of the nature of homo sapiens.

Anyway, the tldr is: What Thiel (perhaps unwittingly) advocates as I understand it is *exacerbating* the natural tendency of humans toward maladministration via the adoption of a maximally weak and dangerous form of government.

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Why anyone who has done as well as Thiel and whose main motive appears to be enjoying wealth would want to upend our institutions is beyond me. He’s already fabulously wealthy, he can afford to pay taxes and still have a big yacht, and government doesn’t really mess with him.

Putin does mess with oligarchs who cross him. Best to hedge against tyrants when you have it made.

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Thiel is rich but his brain worms remain hungry?

My guess: Ridiculously wealthy people need hobbies. Sometimes it's sports teams. Sometimes it's buying Twitter. Sometimes it's subverting democracy because you've convinced yourself that you'll be king when it happens (a common error I see among self-proclaimed libertarians).

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I think that he might have a deep-ingrained aesthetic preference for hierarchy and authoritarianism, possibly acquired during his childhood in apartheid-era Namibia.

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>Why anyone who has done as well as Thiel and whose main motive appears to be enjoying wealth would want to upend our institutions is beyond me<

He's just not that bright. An intelligent fool. Not that uncommon a type.

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I agree with you on the elite quality issue, and I think that two of the best things about democracy are

1– creating a particularly low-bloodshed mechanism for elite vs elite competition, and consequently

2– creating a mechanism for peacefully dethroning political elites who catastrophically fail

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And 2 is why I prefer parliamentarism's no-confidence vote over presidentialism's impeachment.

Incidentally, Americans tend to conflate parliamentarism with PR and parliamentarism with the absence of separation of powers.

The UK and Canada and Australia and India are all parliamentary without PR, there are lots of examples of presidential systems with PR, especially in Latin America.

There are no examples of an executive parliament elected separately from the legislative parliament that I'm aware of (the Swiss Federal Council is appointed by their parliament, for example). Indeed, the closest I can think of is the US Electoral College.

Still, the US could adopt parliamentarism without ending separation of powers by a constitutional amendment moving the meeting place of the Electoral College to DC (rather than in the several states), eliminating the certification process and making the College the determiner of the qualifications of its own members (in the same manner as Congress), entitling the College to hold multiple ballots for President, and entitling the College to replace the President at any time during their term by a simple majority voting for a new President who would take over with immediate effect (ie a constructive vote of no-confidence).

You'd probably also require that members of the College be paid the same as members of the House and have the same staffing budget.

[And you'd need to build a new building to house them]

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If you're paying 538 politicians to work in Washington for four years, then you probably want to create something for them to do - my suggestion is that you give them a comprehensive subpoena power and get them to do investigations into the executive implementation of policy.

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I agree with your broader point that elites are critical and more important than the underlying systems. What really convinced me of this was the realization that the UK, Germany and France have all done much worse than the US over the last 20 years. A time I would have described as quite terrible for the US and their parliamentary systems as being more robust.

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Worth noting, though, that Europe is embedded in the much kludgier and less democratic institutional structure of the EU— which also decoupled regulatory policy and monetary policy from fiscal policy in a way that was particularly toxic after the ‘08 recession. There are some serious institutional design issues there.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

Excellent and often understated point!

I do think that is a major contributor - that just goes back to elites being critical that they haven't been able to adjust. The US took less than a decade to figure out that the Articles of Confederation don't work. The EU still has Hungary mucking up their political process.

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Isn’t the purpose of institutions to select which elites get to rule? Harvard professors are elite. Ditto partners in big law firms. They hardly rule.

American institutions have proven resilient, we weathered the great recession better than Europe, our economy has grown faster than theirs for decades. But our institutions are imperfect and could be improved. And China has so much latent strength that if it can just overcome ancient poverty and Maoist caprice it will become the new hegemon.

I hope American institutions will reject Trump. We really could go the way of Hungary or, worst case, Peron era Argentina.

I do think Iowa caucus goers might be loathe to elect a dude who is in prison.

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>Isn’t the purpose of institutions to select which elites get to rule?<

I'd argue the purpose of "institutions" is to play a leading role in the formation of elites who are *good* at ruling. If your daddy's a billionaire, you've got a better chance than the son of a carpenter at becoming a senator. Sure, our political-economic structures should attempt to minimize this probability gap. But our institutions should be helping to boost the odds that those who do end up ruling do so ably.

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isn’t the point of good institutions to create and empower a wise elite? this elite could be meritocratic, where anyone born with a great mind and temperament to a good family has a punchers chance of cracking it. strikes me that’s kind of what the US had until the younger Bush won the Presidency. Since then, every Republican presidential candidate has either inherited a large fortune or been married to a major heiress.

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I don't think McCain won the nomination because he was rich. Was Romney's inheritance that big? I thought he basically built his fortune on his own. As for Trump, tastes can differ as to how important his (squandered) inheritance was.

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Mitt's dad was a self-made automobile exec and governor. Mitt was born into money and its associated privileges and networks.

Though I think the big picture is that presidential campaigns are tremendously expensive and difficult to get off the ground unless you're already wealthy (and connected with other wealthy people).

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>I wish I could like this a million times.<

Kind of you.

>I’m a huge supporter of “the people get the government they deserve”<

Well, that used to be my take, too. But the "awakened to consequentialist reality," more recent version of me has glumly accepted the fact that humans (in the aggregate) just aren't that noble or wise or benevolent. Saying people "deserve" the results they engineer via elections is like saying dogs "deserve" getting pepper-sprayed by the mailman. It's just in their (our) nature. (And sure, we humans have consciousness and can use reason; but voting is an exercise in large numbers, and, at the median, people very frequently do a crap job assessing the qualities of various politicians.)

To clarify (in case I wasn't sufficiently clear above): I'm 100% NOT arguing against democracy. I take the Churchillian view that it's barely adequate, but still far better than any alternative. I'm simply arguing that democracy works a lot better when it is buttressed and protected by an elite class who strive to act virtuously. Which, to be clear, is somewhat depressing, because it sure would be nice if simply getting the mechanics right (a perfectly designed constitution)—set it and forget it—were sufficient

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

>I tend to not be so fatalistic. Things can and do improve.<

I think there's a difference between fatalism (not even bothering to try and improve things) and realism (observing that things often turn out badly because, uh, they often do turn out badly). To put it another way, things can and do improve, undoubtedly. But things can and do go to shit, as well (or at least things go through a long and very unpleasant period of darkness or backsliding before righting themselves.) Recognizing only the latter would be wrong, of course. But so, too, would be recognizing only the former. So, since the latter sometimes DOES come to pass, it's natural to ask what are the typical reasons.

I would submit (much more readily than I might have 20 years ago) that the phenomenon of "corrupt or unethical or self-serving elites" is right up there. But sure, it's not the only thing that matters.

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>I think it’s a good thing where the population is suspicious of elites to ensure they don’t get self-serving.<

Me, too! Bad things tend to happen when our elites are self-dealing pieces of manure. Which is more or less my point.

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"Yes. I think that civilization is a thin veneer that can regress."

I agree, and sometimes I think this is really the major difference between people who see the creaks and groans in our guardrails and get extremely worried, and the people who are basically like, "eh, we have elections every four years and nothing ever changes".

I mean, this shit is kind of flimsy, and the extent to which a lot of things were held together by dental floss and good vibes (read: norms) became extremely apparent the last 4-6 years.

In my opinion, people who have not read a lot of world history don't really appreciate the extent to which shit can go downhill in terrifying and fast ways, even accidentally, and that's not even taking into effect a major political party purposely trying to tip over the apple cart because they think it'll shake out well for them. Hell, it doesn't even have to be quick or dramatic, there are a lot of little societal things that can go downhill that would make day-to-day life appreciably worse.

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Did Bukele really undermine El Salvador's democracy? In the abstract, sure, but in reality? I'd say that if your most basic needs aren't being met, you don't really have a democracy, like if murderous gangs are running your neighborhoods.

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Another way of thinking about this is to pay a bit more attention to the κρατία (kratia) and a bit less to the δῆμος (demos)

If you don't have the rule of law then it doesn't matter who the people are that write the laws. If you don't have a state with a monopoly on violence, then it doesn't matter who has control over the official state, because that official state doesn't really rule the country.

It really isn't a democracy if the nominal government isn't actually in control. Bukele breaking the gangs means that at least you now know who is in charge and the lines of accountability for Bukele are better than those for the gang leaders.

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Needs in this context are somewhat relative. You only need to eat every few days to stay alive, but none of us would say that three meals a day isn't a "need". Lots of Americans have had falling living standards, largely due to wage stagnation. That feeling of decline is terrifying.

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It was a mistake for Biden to not include John Kasich in his administration and to not find a spot for Liz Cheney when she was voted out. Both took big political risks that went unrewarded by the Democrats. Creating a safe space for non-MAGA Republicans to land would give Democrats a potential supermajority, allowing them to debate issues within their caucus rather than with a caucus that is nearly impossible to negotiate with. Instead, we force these reasonable Republicans meander around waiting for its party to regain its senses, most getting replaced by MAGA candidates. History may not look kindly on the progressives clinging to their causes and redlines on issues over taking the opportunity to create a big tent.

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founding

I’m not entirely sure. Giving them spots in a Democratic administration makes them look even more like Democrats and less like Republicans. It’s important for Republicans to give them rewards to preserve their virtues for Republican voters.

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I’m not sure either, but I certainly see the doomsday scenario unfolding for 2024 with the status quo. There are a lot of independent voters out there that would follow those guys if they led the way, I think. We will probably never find out for sure.

PS - thanks for the replies to my comments! I enjoy the back and forth.

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It's tragic that the US doesn't have an electoral system that can put Kasich and Manchin and Sinema (and people like Huntsman and maybe Romney) into one political party and let them represent the 10% of so of people that agree with them.

Liz Cheney is different - her political positions would fit fine into the Republican party, she just isn't prepared to support Trump because of his approach to the political process (ie Jan 6 and so on).

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I agree, but am guessing it is more than 10%. There have been a lot of independents and moderates from both parties who have lost their voice and feel unrepresented by either party.

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The pool of people that they could get to vote for them is higher than 10%, but the actual number that will vote for any individual set of centrist policies is about 10%; there are lots of people who are annoyed by both parties, but many are annoyed for different and incompatible reasons.

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An election happened since today's article was written. Democrats talked about democracy a lot, and had one of the best mid-terms ever for a party in the WH. Anti-democracy Republicans under-performed, including in swing states. It's possible Democrats successfully linked democracy to issues voters care about, but a simpler explanation is that democracy is itself an issue voters care about.

More generally, since someone else has made a sharply critical comment about Matt's writing on this topic, I'd like to try to make a more nuanced critique which is that it's a hard topic to write about. There is one America, we can't run empirical studies on how politics shakes out in a "Beutler/Stancil America" where Democrats try to truly shatter the current political paradigm, or indeed a Joe Manchin America where Democrats pander to the existing paradigm more aggressively. I understand it's important so Matt can't ignore it just because it's hard, but I've just never found Matt's popularism argument compelling, or frankly all that clearly argued. Matt derided "identity politics for librarians" even though book bans are a topic where the Democratic position has very strong public support, to the point Joe Biden featured it it in his campaign launch video.

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While I agree with you on 2022 shifting my priors on how effective pro-democracy messaging is, I will say that Biden’s launch video mentioning book bans was the one he put online to raise money. The one the DNC paid to run in the swing states focuses on his efforts to bring back jobs to forgotten places.

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Smart.

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I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks MY's ideas about "popularism" are seriously under-theorized. I'm someone who generally doesn't think politicians should run around saying toxically unpopular things if they want to win, but whenever MY tries to explain popularism, I come away very confused about what precise point he's trying to make. (E.g., is it a normative claim or a positive claim? I could go on.)

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Positive: popularism helps Democrats win elections. Normative: Democrats winning elections is good.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

I know it's not intended but this is kinda illustrative of the imprecision of MY's writing on this topic IMO. "Say stuff that helps win" is not insightful! The question is how to know (in advance) which messages are effective, views on the answer are very much contested.

Then you get into more accurate but challenging question of "which messages, subject to the constraint that the imperfect Democratic party is able to deliver them, are most effective"...I wonder how much of MY's efforts in this area is really trying to address that.

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Well that’s what Simon and David Shor do over at Blue Rose

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The normative part of your comment seems unrelated to popularism. The ideas should apply equally well to Republican or even Islamist candidates (the way it's usually framed).

The positive part says that "popularism" helps Democrats win. But what does that even mean? My issue with MY's writing on this topic is that he never clarifies what exact counterfactual he's considering when he instructs politicians to "say more popular things."

E.g., if Karl Marx were to run for U.S. president and say he's a huge supporter of free markets, would that increase the number of votes he received or decrease it? My guess is that no one would believe him and that he'd simultaneously lose some of his base. Does popularism still apply here?

MY never even gets into the issue of whether messages are credible, whether the identity of the candidate delivering a message matters, whether their previous actions matter, etc. These seem like important considerations, to say the least.

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founding

I think his central claim is that there are always many things you care about, and many interest groups in your coalition, and you should emphasize the more popular parts of your agenda rather than emphasizing the less popular parts. Interest groups often want you to emphasize the less popular parts, as a costly symbol of your commitment to them. But they should be happier to let you leave it unstated and instead emphasize the normie concerns that you also share.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

This is a bit of a strawman. MY is not the only one to have got as far as "we should try to win even if it annoys parts of the coalition". There is extensive debate about the best way to do that.

And to be clear, some people believe MY's approach is itself counter-productive to the goal of winning.

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founding

There are many theories of how to win - aiming for the median voter, and activating the base are two of the most common theories. Matt's idea is that you should aim for the median voter, and he wants to explicitly remind people that the median voter is a married 50-something white person in an unfashionable suburb. He doesn't claim his theory is in any way original - it's just one that has gone out of fashion in mainstream Democratic party politics, but that people like him and David Shor want to be more explicit about. But I think this is all that "popularism" amounts to - figure out what sorts of policies the members of your coalition are interested in, and emphasize the most popular parts in your discussions with the public. It's not a deep or difficult theory, though it does inspire some controversy among people who disagree about the empirical question of whether you can be more successful by activating the base or aiming for the median, and also among people who disagree about the normative question of whether it is more important to be successful at implementing some of your policies or to earnestly state the policies you believe are most important even if you are less successful.

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Highlighting Trump’s threat to Democracy might persuade the persuadable better than more partisan themes. Those in the thrall of right wing paranoia and/or low social trust are unlikely to vote for Biden. But there are a lot of affluent people who would rather pay slightly higher taxes than live under a demagogue who conned a mob into storming the Capitol.

There is no viable strategy that will get Democrats big enough majorities to pass much partisan legislation in the next Congress. If there is ever a time to defer big goals in favor of a centrist coalition, it’s 2024.

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Is it consistent to be so rah-rah about democracy but also support Roe v Wade, Biden's student loan forgiveness, expanded CDC powers during covid, etc?

Democracy is good don't get me wrong, but small-l liberalism>>>small-d democracy any day

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Is this like asking how can we have democracy, but also sales taxes we'd all prefer were gone?

It is a representative democracy after all, and there's a long lineage of liberal history, about consent of the governed, informed electorate, leadership with expertise, etc.

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That's sorta what I'm getting at -- it seems like policies we don't like are undemocratic but policies we do like are just representative democracy. And people sniff out that hypocrisy which is why no one not already on Team Blue is convinced by the "democracy in peril" rhetoric

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Sure, and that's again why we have a representative democracy, where those elected citizens work out compromises, and then we get a chance to vote on whether those compromises are tenable, and maybe kick the bums out. Like, it's easy to isolate something, create false parallels, and look at it with "hypocrisy glasses," but there's a lot of compromises between factions and coalitions that create a ruling "majority."

Beyond that, do I really have to convince you, that if Donny got the election stalled, and got Mike and Nancy killed, we'd have had a pretty bad constitutional crisis?

Do you really think "democracy in peril" is just rhetoric?

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I think if the election got stalled or anything that would be a terrible constitutional crisis, yes.

I guess I'm just more sanguine about the strength of our institutions and don't think we came all that close to that happening. That's not to minimize Trump or anything -- he's terrible and no one should vote for him -- and I fully admit that I may be not taking the threats to democracy sufficiently seriously.

To me it's just, idk, hearing all this talk about "democracy in peril" sounds so much like how every election is the most important election of our lifetimes. Gets exhausting after awhile and makes me want to just tune things out.

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I mean, you're just highlighting how the sort of hypocrisy narratives crate cynicism and nihilism and disenfranchisement and then we get increasingly small minority rule, where the bums refuse to get voted out.

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If one side supports attempted coups to overturn elections and the other supports student loan forgiveness etc, I think you can make a case for the latter being "rah-rah about democracy" even so.

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I think that murder is worse than theft. If I say that theft is wrong, that doesn't mean I support murder, anymore than if I'm against murder doesn't mean I like theft. They are different and unequal wrongs.

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This thread is helping me understand how people are interpreting the "democracy is in peril" idea. For me it boils down to voter suppression and campaign financing: the fear that the ultimate bulwark of democracy will go away: there will be no future possibility of voters electing, for example, executive and legislative officials who can nominate and confirm judges; state officials who determine voting districts; and campaign financing by oligarchs becoming so persuasive that non-authoritarian candidates will never, ever win again.

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"In terms of Biden’s approval rating, I think gas is the primary factor."

I thought this too last year. It's now clear that both Matt and I were wrong about this. For the last 18 months, Biden's approval rating has varied by no more than two percentage points no matter what is happening in the country and the world (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/biden-approval-rating/?cid=rrpromo).

I'd say that what this means is that it doesn't matter what Biden runs on next year -- a booming economy (fingers crossed), Trump is a menace, Dobbs, what have you. 99% of the people are calcified in their opinions (and that probably includes the SB commentariat). And as for the remaining swing voters, who knows what would move them one way or the other.

It all comes down to how many people hate Trump or hate Biden and bother to vote.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

The Liberal Patriot writers, especially Ruy Teixeira, never seem to tire of repeating the mantra: The Dems should moderate on cultural/social issues. Would this be a good way to attract more moderate/ 'independent voters? Seems to me it would. But perhaps that's just me.

(And I don't mean capitulate, I mean moderate.)

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I actually think the biggest bang for buck here is just not using the sort of language that you’d find in a grad seminar or a 2012-era tumblr post. Talking this way doesn’t improve material outcomes for anybody, and it confuses or alienates a lot of voters who might find your actual material policy position sympathetic or unobjectionable.

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This is emblematic of several problems facing post-liberalism. All of which fall under the umbrella of "its loudest public adherents want social cachet, and the [X] of mass politics is boring," where X can be "language," "beliefs," "organizations," or just about anything else.

Which is how we get a situation where the loudest articulators of "woke politics" are using language in ways that even post-graduate degree holders find almost incomprehensible, while frantically sprinting away from the left edge of the Overton Window as fast as they can, scattering the burnt-out hulks of non-profit organizations behind them on the political spectrum as they found and destroy them one after another.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

I think that there are two different strains of contemporary post-liberal thinking on the left. They both stem from a strong sense that Obama-era liberalism failed, so there’s some degree of overlap in adoption, but they have very different relationships with the phenomena you’re describing.

A lot of American self-described socialists (mostly social democrats, in practice) are post-liberal in the sense that they want a more economically active and redistributionist state. They care and talk a lot about material issues (to the point where, in 2016, Clinton supporters aggressively attacked Sanders for being a class reductionist who didn’t care enough about identity issues). They’ve succeeded in pulling mainstream Democrats left on issues like stimulus spending, industrial policy, and anti-trust. Whether or not you think they’re right, these people have substantive policy commitments, and they and affiliated elites have pushed them with some success.

The other post-liberal strain is structured by the belief that there’s something deeply (and in some views, exceptionally) perverse or bad about American culture that causes social problems, and that unless that issue is resolved, both procedural and material solutions to social problems will inevitably fail. In this view, the central problem of politics is something more like a spiritual or ethical awakening, and other benefits will flow from it. This view isn’t totally meritless (racial animosity does make certain kinds of policy intervention harder in the US; it is in fact actually good for people to have broader circles of concern and be more compassionate), but it isn’t amenable to real expression in policy because both a: governance and resource allocation are actually hard, so no awakening will be sufficient to achieve the desired outcome, and b: state power can create incentives, but it has only a limited ability to bring about genuine changes of heart. Groups dominated by this tendency tend to dissolve into arguments about language because it’s the closest approximation of internal enlightenment that they can assess.

I identify strongly with the first of these post-liberal tendencies. There are a lot of coordination problems that markets are ill-equipped to solve, and individual utility scales with the log of wealth; both an active state and redistribution are utility-positive.

I have some sympathy with the second tendency as a guide to day-to-day individual life (cultivating virtue is good), but I think that it’s deeply misguided as a foundation for public policy. And ultimately, I think the appropriate solution is always to bring political discussions back to questions about how the state can use its coercive powers and spend money, because those are the main things it can actually do.

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The first tendency you describe isn't really something I'd call "post-liberal" in any real sense, certainly not what I meant when I started using the term. It still shares the liberal conception of a morally neutral public square, it believes in evidence-based and empirically-driven policy formulation, it is fundamentally materialist in outlook, it is not concerned (except insofar as there's some overlap with the climate doomer faction) with moral virtue and the signaling thereof.

I don't always *agree* with that faction, mind you. I agree that markets are imperfect, subject to rent-seeking distortions and information asymmetries, and am open to seeing regulation, law, and taxation reformed to better iron those wrinkles out and provision better outcomes for the working and middle classes. I am open to transfers that also help the truly poor, but perhaps more leery than you of the potential for that tendency to get out of hand and, coupled with well-meaning but stupid market regulations, to curtail growth in ways that harm everyone. For instance, having made a serious study of East Asian and German political economy I am deeply skeptical that major industrial policy should be used to do anything outside of addressing military, strategic, and climate/resilience needs which perhaps total a few percent of GDP and warrant industrial policy spending a tenth that large. Likewise, I do not regard "deregulation" as a curse word except in financial markets and certain club goods; in fact, if we don't manage to deeply deregulate construction of electrical transmission infrastructure, land-intensive renewables, housing, and a few other sectors, the IRA will go down in flames, and CHIPS won't be as effective as we'd hoped. But broadly speaking I find these folks to be sane, and discussion, back-and-forth, deal-making, even persuasion, to be possible with them.

The second tendency... yea, suffice it to say I find basically *no* points of agreement with those folks. They are almost uniformly overly-educated but poorly informed, not knowledgeable regarding the rest of the globe, deeply ignorant of well-evidenced sociological and psychological research, oblivious to the views of large parts of the Democratic political coalition (esp. those for whom they often claim to speak), and both closed-minded and quick to take offense. They are, in most every way, the mirror image of rightist religious fanatics.

They also singularly misunderstand the past and ongoing value of a liberal and pluralist system, fail to see or admit to the gains that system has produced for the issues they claim to care about most, and somehow believe that despite making up no more than 20% of the electorate (being extremely charitable here), they could somehow parley breaking the pluralist system into being able to ram their conception of virtue down everyone else's throats. Hence, "post-liberal".

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It's probably too late, since the extreme Left has already convinced the Right that **all** of us are completely depraved (for example, we're all pedophile groomers if we support standard public library acquisition policies.) But it's possible that local Democratic candidates could win some elections by signaling moderation where the Republican candidates are way too extreme for moderate Republican voters.

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RemovedMay 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023
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Can't you think of a few blue state Republican governors who seem to fit this description?

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Defending democracy? Not after the lamestream media tried to deny Jared Mencken his deserved victory last night by claiming an unfortunate fire was some sort of nefarious conspiracy. Luckily the good people at ATN had his back and a true American hero will ascend to his rightful place.

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Bidet’s margin in NH was better than his national average in 2020. In 2016 however, Clinton won the state while falling short of her national popular vote margin.

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The main problem with Trump is not his policies, not his "ideology", not his personal scandals, not his narcissism, not his inattention, not his grifting- though they are all bad. The main problem with Trump is that he tried-and continues to try- to subvert the most fundamental rule of democracy, a peaceful transition of power. He cannot be "normalized."

He's not the first politician who wanted to be nice to the rich and cut their taxes. He is the first major politician of either party who mobilized political violence to overthrow the electoral process. He isn't just a particularly bad or inept Republican, who, if he had better policies, might be bearable. He is a destroyer.

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Being anti-democracy in an established democratic system really only works if you have a lot of charisma. All the Trump picks in 2022 lost because they didn't have the same charm as Trump does, so they were very effectively painted as weirdos and crazies, in part because of the democracy stuff, but also in part for other stances. Part of the structural "problem" (for them, so good for the public) of anti-democratic politicians is that one of the preconditions for becoming anti-democratic is wanting some outcome that can't be achieved through democratic means, which is definitionally outside the mainstream. And if you can't cover up the fact that you're striving for something most people don't want with personality, you lose.

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"But the fact is I wouldn’t like some hypothetical non-authoritarian version of him either, because the deepest commonality between Trump and DeSantis (and old-fashioned Republicans like George W. Bush) is their fundamental ideological commitment to helping rich people minimize their taxes."

Your standard: Refusing to acknowledge that the -DEEPEST- commonality is their commitment to a specific tribal side on our centuries old issue around race in this country.

I know you think that the solution is to -pretend- (or maybe over time now, with enough talk you have even convinced yourself) this isn't the biggest thing in US politics. But that makes every daily read here a "in what convoluted way today will MY vomit 16 paragraphs of minute analysis followed by recommendation for political action without ever acknowledging the primary issue isn't the primary issue" experience.

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If you find the content so off-putting then why read it?

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

Same reason I have a The Economist subscription - opposition research.

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I cancelled my Economist subscription in 2004, after reading Micklethwait and Wooldridge's 'Right Nation', probably the stupidest book I'd ever read, prophesying decades of GOP hegemony in the US. Since then, the GOP has lost the popular vote in every Presidential election. Not surprising Micklethwait is now Mike Bloomberg's shill.

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The primary feature of this Substack is MY's and his followers' denial that the race issue is THE US political issue that colors all other issues. Hence, my contributions are limited to that primary element here.

A secondary feature is MY's basic cowardice - where he kinda sorta maybe (maybe not) occasionally implies his point is: acknowledging this out loud is a political loser so I won't do it. Very Susan-Collins-want-it-both-ways kind of cowardice.

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There is a reason that Barack Obama talked less about race than Bill Clinton or Joe Biden and it’s not that he is unaware of the reality of racism.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

The reason is: he didn’t have to. His existence as what he was spoke for him every day. Also, when he did speak about it, it wasn’t a MY game of sleight of hand about where he stood on the issue.

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The race issue is important but it would be really boring if that was all we talked about. What else can be said at this point?

Nevertheless, I'm not sure it colors all other issues, since I'm sure there are plenty of Republican voters out there who are absolutely not racist (they may be recoiling a bit from "woke" anti-racism but so are al lot of Democrats.) At the same time they think the U.S. government is too big, that taxes are too high, and that Republicans are a better bet for their stock portfolios and financial security, etc.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

Yes it is -so- boring to address the actual problem. Much more interesting to side step it completely for the 437th time in a new and interesting twist of side-stepping.

This is the US. There is no such thing as 'absolutely not racist.' Just different flavors racist. Denying the obvious that it DOES color all other issues is flavor 67B. I myself have flavors 51F, 97DD, and 131, among others.

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If you wake up on a Monday and decide to do "opposition research" and throw in some drive by insults along the way - perhaps take a walk and look at alternate choices instead. I think you'll end up much happier in life.

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I delight in the pomposity of calling one's daily reading on the can "opposition research".

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

I’m feeling pretty chipper this morning. You are the one sounding a bit grumpy.

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founding

Assume you are correct.

Now what policy do you propose and how will you implement it?

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Choosing ‘swing voters’ to target is a value-laden decision.

There are all flavors of swing voters. If you always choose the kind that needs to be played and stroked about their racism… So you -conveniently- are always minimizing the issue of race in your efforts (such that this lie/farce even becomes part of your own belief set; there is only so much cognitive dissonance any one person can hold) that tells me a lot about your values.

Policy? - Hold onto a reasonable value system and target a set of ‘swing voters’ that do not call for promoting an obvious BIG lie about race issues in the US. Don’t sweat alienating white voters who hold the existing white supremacy status quo as their core value. Maybe even be seen doing it artfully to build enthusiasm in the ‘swing voters’ you target.

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MY's portions have gotten a -bit- smaller, probably due to recent inflation. But his portions are still -PLENTY- big versus actual nutrition-content.

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I'm so glad heroic truth-tellers like you exist to guide us all on the path to righteousness.

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“…the -DEEPEST- commonality is their commitment to a specific tribal side on our centuries old issue around race in this country”

Aw, that’s just your false consciousness talking.

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Trump will receive a greater vote-share of every minority demographic in this upcoming election just like he improved in 2020. But people named Kenneth O’Brien can keep racializing everything for their white savior egos all they want

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Trump will receive only a minority of the black and brown vote - especially a minority of the black vote. It will be a minority-value still somewhere well within the historic variability every national (R) presidential candidate has gotten from these communities. Trump will also receive somewhere in the vicinity of 60% of the white vote. I have racialized nothing. I, like all of us, live in the racialized context that is our country. I'm no savior and I don't need to be saved. I'm going to be fine either way. But I do plan to listen to what 90-ish percent of a community that has the most to lose is telling me... Not to an imagined message of an imagined tiny trend of individuals away from that 90%ish number - all as imagined by people who have as little to lose as I do depending on outcome.

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May 15, 2023·edited May 15, 2023

On popularism: I like it and think it's smart.

I also understand that other people dislike it intensely, as it suggests "This view that you loudly express on this issue about which you care passionately hurts the team more than it helps, so we would prefer to avoid broadcasting it."

For example: There is a non-zero number of people who would like the government to go door-to-door confiscating guns. But by campaigning on "We're going to bring down the price of gasoline and ground beef," you can get elected and then do something about guns (even if it's not going door-to-door confiscating them). The price of this approach is hurting the feelings of the would-be gun grabbers by telling them to pipe down for the sake of not scaring normies.

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