Saturday, August 06, 2016

Insults Don't Persuade

The San Joaquin Valley of California in August...
The San Joaquin Valley of California in August, near Westley, Stanislaus County, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For every post insulting Trump voters, Bernie voters, third-party voters… remember that insulted people (the voters) are unlikely to listen to whatever reasonable explanations you might offer for another candidate or solution. 

Elites do this constantly. Ask "What's the Matter with Kansas?" or "Why is the Central Valley of California so Ignorant?" and then wonder why those same people tune out the arguments. 

You cannot issue general insults of the Rural West, the Great Plains, the South, the Southwest, and then wonder why those same voters don't give a rip what urban "thinkers" have to say. They don't trust the elites because the elites treat Flyover Country like dirt. 

Gee, I wonder why those "ignorant fools" we keep insulting won't listen to experts? 

There are reasons the voters in these rural areas have tuned out and turned away from the Democratic Party, Progressive Elites, and Mainstream Republicans. They are tired of being treated like caricatures instead of real people. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Sanders and Trump: Power of Digital Communities

The last decade has demonstrated the power of social media in mass revolutions, even if those revolutions fizzle or come to disastrous ends. The Arab Spring, the Orange Revolution, Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party all relied on social media to build momentum. Unfortunately, the Islamic State, nationalist political parties, and plenty of undesirable groups also mastered social media.

The current election campaign in the United States reflects the power of social media. President Obama's two White House campaigns demonstrated the effective uses of data science and social media. The campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump don't appear to possess the same zeal for data analytics as the Obama campaigns, but they do reflect a more organic social media environment.

Bernie and Trump memes on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter aren't designed by campaign advisors. The images and slogans come directly from passionate supporters. Communities have formed, however ephemeral they might be, around the anti-establishment campaigns of these two men.

Online forums like Daily Kos seem to be fading, yet the power of social networks is rising, especially among progressive/liberal online communities. The connections are less centralized and less organized than Red State or Town Hall on the conservative side. Maybe this reflects generational differences.

As online communities gain influence, political parties lose influence. We see this in the United States, as Sanders and Trump embody rejections of the moderate establishment. The extremes are rebelling online. Passions online seem to be reinforced, echoing and growing louder throughout the campaign.

I'm not sure this trend is good for the United States, as the extremes are not where most citizens reside. The extremes are taking over the political discourse, which is only going to lead to greater disenchantment and greater conflicts.

Social media has helped the extreme, passionate, minority of activists. That's the new reality of politics.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Digital Media Future

By May, I'll be half-way through an MFA in Film and Digital Technology. People ask why a Ph.D in rhetoric would need an MFA. My explanation follows.

Rhetoric (and composition, since they are often lumped together in academic settings) has struggled between the tension to teach traditional rhetoric and a need to update our courses and field to reflect new technologies and trends in communication.

Other departments expect us to teach how to format academic papers (MLA, APA) and write traditional genres: the five-paragraph (yuck) "essay" (which isn't an essay at all), the term paper, the journal article, the "book review" (again, which isn't a review at all), the thesis, and so on. We know these forms and many of us want to resist them. Yet, our classroom work is often relegated to the "service" of other academic fields.

Shifting away from composition seems necessary for me to explore rhetoric where it is now most effective at reaching broad audiences. It isn't that we can't define "composition" itself broadly, but that to be a "composition" teacher is too often to be a (resistant) advocate of forms and writing styles I dislike.

I do not like dense academic language. I don't like the strict formatting rules, meant to emphasize the words when so many other ways to communicate should be permitted and encouraged. I don't like a lot of what I have had to teach in writing courses, and I have often reminded students that we use academic writing to reach a narrow, specific, and powerful audience. (Power is contextual, right? Power over grades is real power over students, even as academics have less influence in public policy today.)

Enrolling in an MFA in Film and Digital Technology allows me to resist the "rhet/comp" quicksand, while I hope to continue to speak out and advocate for changes in writing across the disciplines.

Persuasion today occurs on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and a dozen other social media outlets. Media clips live on, with links being passed along in a "viral" spread among friends of friends. The old days of an academic appearing on "Meet the Press" changing news coverage and influencing the public are fading away.

Digital media are not really "new media." Though they offer new potentials for creation and distribution, a creative video embodies the old idea of a public square, an "agora" with people trying to influence each other.

And so, I will return to the academic job market later this year (2016) with a focus on the digital, the multimedia content of today and whatever is to come. Academic papers? Those have always been a rarified niche, and that niche is shrinking (ironically, due in part to the wild expansion of academic journals with smaller and smaller audiences).

I'm glad to be moving forward, seeking to cross a bridge between the past and future of public discourse.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Blogging and Audience

Should we teach our digital composition students the "tricks of the trade" for bloggers and other new media publishers?

The ancient texts on rhetoric discuss proper attire, gestures, and tone of voice to appeal to audiences. Aren't these almost as shallow as writing the best headline to drive traffic to an online post? Clearly our Greek and Roman ancestors understood that the superficial (nice robes, deep voice) was part of the persuasive art.

We tell our students to focus on the quality of their arguments, while blogging, reporting, and scholarly writing fades fast on the Web of today. The great World Wide Web that was going to bring information to everyone is one giant magazine rack, thanks to Facebook and Twitter.

Short headlines, ideally implying something sexual in nature, drive traffic. Shocking. Horrible. You won't believe your eyes. From the Huffington Post to old-stalwarts like The Atlantic, clickbait headlines dominate the flow of information (as opposed to knowledge or wisdom, because those are lacking).

Yes, online reflects the physical world. Magazine racks always had a little space for the fine arts, music, poetry, and philosophy. But it was (and is) Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy that ruled the stands. Their digital cousins rule the Web.

Clickbait isn't my specialty as a blogger and my websites don't scream "You'll never guess what happened!" For years, that was okay, but I continue to see declining traffic to my websites and blogs. The loss in readership means I'm not giving audiences what they want, which is interesting.

The Web was supposed to allow niches a space to flourish. When millions or even billions are online, then it should be easy to maintain a few thousand readers. Online, barriers of geography and class were supposed to fall. A website on almost anything was going to find an audience.

People have always been more interested in stories about sex, relationships, and sports than public policy. However, the Web was supposed to help us find our little communities of special interests.

That leads to the question, what do readers expect? Know your audience, we tell our students. What does an online audience want? What does it take to even get that online audience?

Search engine optimization (SEO) used to work. But it turns out that people are shifting away from search. At first, I thought that was impossible, but then I started to think about how I find news.

Yes, I use Google, but I use Google News, not Google Search. I read my Facebook feed and (admittedly) click on stories of interest. I have dedicated apps on my phone for the Washington Post, New York Times, RealClearPolitics, Politico, and a handful of other media sources.

I cannot recall the last time I used my RSS reader. I have Apple's News app on my phone, but I forget to check that, too. The dedicated apps are where I go for information, including some searches. That means I'm searching only within the sources I've already favored. I'm not exploring, like I might have explored in the late 1990s or even ten years ago.

What do we tell students in media courses? What do we tell our composition and rhetoric students? Has the nature of public discourse changed in this brave new world of app-based reading? Stumbling upon stories of interest isn't easy when you stay in the apps from major newspapers or magazines.

How do you teach about obtaining and keeping an audience? Or, do you hope that great content will somehow always find readers? How does that great site find readers without the Google searches of the past?

I don't have answers, but I am trying to decide how I should approach this topic of audience in coming years as a professor and speaker. Tossing things out onto the Web and hoping simply isn't enough. Neither are the old tricks of SEO, from good keywords to proper use of HTML tags.

When there was Yahoo, the curated director of websites, you could find some pretty great content. When we used RSS, you could skim headlines and the first paragraphs from hundreds of online posts. Today? We're buried in an avalanche of purposefully titillating tweets, many with attractive models. Even the images and content that isn't sexual is called "porn" for a reason: food porn and fashion porn posted to Pinterest.

Digital media and public rhetoric. The dream has come up against reality. Our best media inventions always end up being used for base entertainment, but somehow deep discourse survived and thrived on the fringes. Is that changing?

Sunday, January 03, 2016

What are the "Digital Humanities" Anyway?

When I read academic job listing for "Digital Humanities" the skills range from HTML coding to video editing. Some list audio editing. The jobs are so varied that you cannot pinpoint what the phrase means. Is my doctorate in rhetoric, scientific and technical communication sufficient? Often it is not. Some posts suggest an MFA or Ph.D. in media production.

Starting January 2016, I am going to be working towards completion of my MFA in Film and Digital Technology. This feels like a last-ditch effort to revive my academic career, while also giving me more credentials to support my creative writing. With or without an academic revival, I'll benefit greatly from the courses and the exercise of creating and editing digital works.

One of the frustrations I've had on the job market is that nobody seems to know what the "Digital Humanities" are or how to prove you have the skills to teach the courses.

My age and my experiences are a serious obstacle on this job market.

When I completed my undergraduate degrees, I had been working at the USC Computing Services on what was the BITNET and ARPANET. I was using USENET newsgroups and performing online searches with WAIS and Gopher. (See

As someone who grew up in the PC era, the time of Apple, Atari, and Commodore (and Sinclair, Tandy, and TI), I was programming at a time when there were few programming degrees (computer science is not programming, generally). My wife and I launched a dial-up Internet service in the early 1990s. Think about that. We were among the pioneers who had multi-line BBS servers. By the time classes on HTML and Web development were offered, I had been using markup languages for a decade.

I can setup database servers and write SQL fairly well. I can crunch data with SAS, SPSS, and JMP. I know scripting languages like PHP and Perl (ouch), though those are a bit out of style. Not to whine too much, but I certainly consider myself a "digital" person.

When I apply for jobs, I'm competing against people with degrees that did not exist when I was doing the work. I'm competing against transcripts that list courses and skills I have taught or could teach. That's a lousy situation, so I turn to portfolios and other ways to demonstrate my skills.

Online, I maintain these Blogger accounts (old tech) because I'd hate to lose all the old posts and the loyal readers I have. However, I also develop new sites using newer technologies to prove my skills are current. That's what you have to do, right?

My passion is the rhetoric of narrative, sometimes called the "rhetoric of fiction" or the "rhetoric of story" — though none of these names really captures what my interests are. I want to use digital media (online distribution) to tell stories to wide audiences. I also want to study how others share their stories, both fiction and non-fiction.

I am a playwright and screenwriter. Several of my plays have been produced regionally and I've helped with screenplays that have been sold. (Admittedly, my screenplays by me and for me have not been produced.) As a writer, I seek to reach as many people as possible, which means I do have a bias for "creative" writing over academic writing.

I hope yet more credentials help on the academic market. If not, I'll write some great plays and keep chasing the screenplay dream, too.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Religious Thoughts from Atheist Me

I don't like religion (at least not as in viewing some external sentient being/entity as being in control of the universe). But, I also respect and admire many religious people.

On my bookshelves are texts on religion because religions and their stories represent the values and narratives of cultures. Rhetoricians should pay attention to how religion is used to promote political agendas, because faith is a powerful motivator.

I do not like any politician using faith for any reason. I take separation of church and state seriously. That's also why I dislike religions, most of which are inherently political with suggestions for how to run nations.

Every writer should know the basic stories of as many religious traditions as possible. In the United States, knowing Christian and Jewish traditions helps storytellers see how other writers draw on tradition. Religious stories, like fairy tales, mythology, tall tales, and legends, let us use short hand for entire concepts. If I call someone a "Good Samaritan" or make a reference to the "Wisdom of Solomon" that's often enough to convey a great deal.

The left, right (blah), statists, individualists, whatever categories you use, too often use religion to sell their agendas. Understand, I am offended by all uses of faith for these ends.

Yet, I also respect people who, motivated by faith, really have fought to improve our world through individual action. I just wish people didn't need faith to find the goodness in their own hearts.

And now, a rerun of blog posts the led to some angry email responses and one online comment that was only mildly crude.

Monday, September 14, 2015

(Not) Back to School Time

Though graduate rhetoric programs are expanding (slightly), there's no where near the number of jobs in academia to meet the supply. Rhetoric, though often lumped into "composition and rhetoric," is a distinct field with subspecialties beyond academic writing. My degree was within a "Rhetoric, Scientific and Technical Communication" program. I'm interested in how the rhetoric of creative writing affects public policy, which is loosely lumped with "technical" writing… because I couldn't locate a "rhetoric of creative writing" or "rhetoric of fiction" program.

Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction is the seminal work on how works of written fiction are rhetorical, with authors making strategic choices to engage readers. However, narrative is narrative, and lines between "fiction" and "non-fiction" are blurry — with fiction aiming for its own "truth" and effective "non-fiction" embracing creative storytelling.

I love discussing rhetoric and writing. I tell my students stories sell ideas. But, there are no students this school year.

Maybe a seminar or two might happen, but I'm not in a university classroom. For the first time since the 2010-11 academic year, I'm not heading back to school this August. Before that, I had been in graduate school and teaching from 2004-05 until 2009-10 (six years, inclusive). That means I've spent at least part of ten of the last 11 years preparing for school as a student, an instructor, and a professor.

Maybe I'll head back part-time somewhere, teaching something, in the next year or two. I would jump at some teaching opportunities, but I'm not rushing to head back to the basic college composition ("academic writing") classes — and that's where most openings are for a "rhetoric" professors, even though I'm not an academic writing specialist. (I am interested in the rhetoric of cinema and theater, as they fall within both visual rhetoric and the rhetoric of creative writing.)

Not teaching means my routine has been disrupted a bit. It bothers me to not have that mid-August through mid-June plan in place, especially the paycheck. Moving forward was the right choice, but not an easy choice. The offer to adjunct part-time wasn't appealing this year, although it might have been wise to maintain a steady job history in higher education.

I loved teaching two sections a business writing class this last spring semester, after a difficult fall semester. I didn't enjoy the other class I was teaching, and still struggle to determine what went wrong. Teaching is like live theater: the audience can change the performance and you end up in a cycle… up or down.

For now, this blog and other platforms will be where I explore the rhetoric of creative writing, film, and stage.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Fascist! The Left-Right Spectrum Is Bogus


It's the insult that's separated enough from "Nazi!" that it remains popular on blogs, in columns, and even within books claiming to be scholarly. Books claim to identify liberal fascism, conservative fascism, and I am fairly certain there must be a book about moderate fascism.

The problem is that left-right political dichotomies fail to appreciate that political theories and governmental systems overlap and intertwine. American liberals and progressives point to the nationalistic and "traditional values" of Italian Fascism to claim all fascists are of the right. American conservatives and libertarians emphasize the origins of the Italian fascist movement from within unions and socialist organizations to claim all fascists are of the left.

As professor Crispin Sartwell writes:
The left-right spectrum is often characterized in terms of two extreme poles. One way to see that this is incoherent is that these poles can be defined in mutually incompatible ways.
Reducing this down to the (relatively) minor differences between the two major parties in the United States, they are both statist parties interested telling citizens how to live via federal laws, regulations, and the tax code. For the progressives, it's okay to regulate my food, my car, my healthcare, and other aspects of life that I can't be trusted to choose wisely. For the conservatives, it's equally okay to dictate what I can watch (and when) and what secrets I can keep from prying eyes. Statism is simply a matter of kind.

Both parties talk about life, liberty, equality, and freedom. (I'm not sure either mentions the pursuit of happiness anymore). The talking heads and pundits, especially the loudest voices, quickly point to the "fascism" of one side or the other. And we wonder why so many people reject the parties and don't vote.

The United States political parties are both corporatists. But wait, that's a trait of fascism, right? Yes, and no. It's a trait of any political system in the era of corporations. (Public companies didn't exist in current form before the Industrial Revolution, but mercantile companies did exist, and national leaders pandered to those.) For the Democrats, tax breaks to "green" companies and "socially responsible" companies is good, and tax breaks for carbon energy companies is bad. For Republicans, military research funding is good, while tax breaks to green companies is "picking winners and losers" via centralized social engineering.

My point should be clear by now: our parties both pick winner and losers, with close ties to corporations that align with their political and philosophical visions of what is "good" for the nation. And both parties appeal to patriotism, "equality" (at least of opportunity), and other sources of nationalist pride. Both parties talk about small business, working people, and so on, and so on.

Are they both fascists? No. Neither major party is anything close to Italian Fascism. (Colleagues on left and right will argue with my assertion by finding outliers on the fringes.)

In practice, fascism was both anti-liberal and anti-conservative, seeking to transcend class while opposing communism and neoliberalism. It is, at best, a complex rejection of pretty much everything except what the fascists decided was good. Read the books by Roger Griffin on the topic of fascism and the problems with left-right divisions become even more clear (or less clear). Complicating the left-right model, every government claiming to be fascist has also claimed to be socialist in some way. Yet, fascists oppose communism and models of egalitarian equality.

Historians have built careers on claiming Fascists and National Socialists are of the right, including Roderick Stackelberg. Because Stackelberg offers a simple, comfortable, and (at least for progressives) morally clear definition of "left" as supporting equality among people, thereby suggesting the "right" not only accepts but celebrates inequality, his version of left-right is popular on left-leaning websites and in politically progressive books. Apparently, we can ignore the "Fascist Left" that gave rise to Benito Mussolini and the German socialists who initially supported Adolf Hitler. Yes, there was a left-right within Fascism, too.

(I've noticed that people feel superior after telling us that nobody is superior. Maybe that's the hallmark of political rhetoric: accidental superiority through seeing the "obvious" that other, less enlightened citizens cannot see. )

Things are simply not so simple.

There are radicals from the left and right who consider themselves libertarian, something few people seem to know or appreciate. There are conservative communitarians (the Amish certainly fit this model, as do some Orthodox Jews). Theoretical and implemented political structures get blurry.

A year ago, Sartwell addressed the problems of the left-right divide for The Atlantic. You should read the entire article, with which I'm certain most of my colleagues will disagree — since many have told me so. ("I have nothing in common with the right! Nothing!" Yes, because that's how we should start academic queries into serious questions of dichotomy.)
The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus
by Crispin Sartwell
June 20, 2014

Note: Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College. He is the author of the collection How to Escape.

Americans are more divided than ever by political ideology, as a recent Pew Research Center study makes clear. About a third of people on each side say of the other that its proponents "are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being." They're both right about that.

My prescription isn't civility or dialogue, which though admirable are boring and in this case evidently impossible. Rather, my approach is "philosophical": to try to confront both sides with the fact that their positions are incoherent. The left-right divide might be a division between social identities based on class or region or race or gender, but it is certainly not a clash between different political ideas.

The arrangement of positions along the left-right axis—progressive to reactionary, or conservative to liberal, communist to fascist, socialist to capitalist, or Democrat to Republican—is conceptually confused, ideologically tendentious, and historically contingent. And any position anywhere along it is infested by contradictions.
Only someone with no knowledge of United States history could deny that the Democrats and Republicans, and earlier parties, swapped positions and geographic power-centers every three to four generations. Today's parties are "flipped" versions of their nineteenth-century ancestors.

Conservative Richard Nixon might be among the most progressive, centralized presidents in U.S. history. Certainly Abraham Lincoln was a unionist, a federalist of the most dedicated variety. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were vehement individualists, opposed to large organizations and central powers.

What about religion? Aren't the Evangelicals in the Republican Party trying to control everyone? That's a bit more complex than this moment in time suggests. As Sartwell writes:
…To take one example, the radical and egalitarian reform movements of the early and mid-19th century in the U.S.—such as abolitionism, feminism, and pacifism—were by and large evangelical Christian, and were radically individualist and anti-statist. I have in mind such figures as Lucretia Mott, Henry David Thoreau, and William Lloyd Garrison, who articulated perfectly coherent positions that cannot possibly be characterized as on the left or the right.
The idea that the individual is sovereign is the key to libertarian, classical liberalism as developed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. To implement and protect these personal freedoms, Republicans turned to federal powers. Negative rights, protections from encroachment on liberty, still had to be codified.

It was the Republican "Federalists" who used federal law, and Constitutional Amendments, to expand the right to vote and other protections to women and minorities. The GOP used federal power to tell states what was and was not acceptable. Curiously, the GOP also argued in favor of states' rights to decide issues of slavery, because the North wanted to ignore federal rulings that support the notion slaves were property. See how messy even "states' rights" can get? For them until you're against them. Marijuana legalization is an example of this "states' rights" argument flipping from right to left.

If we return to fiscal capital, instead of human capital and freedom, surely there is a clear difference between left and right? Isn't the real battle among political and economic ideologies about the state versus private capital? Sort of…

As Sartwell writes, that's the easy left-right discussion, and one both sides in the United States (and elsewhere) seem to accept. As I wrote in the opening, the United States' political parties are both corporatists.
The most common way that the left-right spectrum is conceived—and the basic way it is characterized in the Pew survey—is as state against capital. Democrats insist that government makes many positive contributions to our lives, while Republicans argue that it is a barrier to the prosperity created by free markets. On the outer ends we might pit Chairman Mao against Ayn Rand in a cage match of state communism against laissez-faire capitalism.

The basic set of distinctions on both sides rests on the idea that state and corporation, or political and economic power, can be pulled apart and set against each other. This is, I propose, obviously false, because hierarchies tend to coincide.
We do love our cage matches. And, from the left, all one has to do is scream "Ayn Rand! The right loves Ayn Rand!" and the cheers of support will ring out through the blogosphere. (Che was much worse, someone who ordered and watched executions — despite some glossy and romanticized biographies — but Rand… she's a louse and a louse associated with libertarians and the right. Every side as its flawed champions.)

People fight, literally killing each other, over which side is "better" than the other. Capitalists versus communists. Fascists versus everyone. And in the end, everyone is really fighting versions of themselves. Why is that? Because the communists are now capitalists. The capitalists are now socialists. The genuine fascists… are still confused.
State and economy are merged in different permutations in Iran and Egypt, in China and Russia, in the U.S. and the E.U. We might say that the current Chinese state combines the most salient features of Maoism and corporate capitalism: It's all devoted to generating maximum cash and putting it on a barge—destination: the very top of the hierarchy. And yet it also attempts to bestride the earth with the iron boot of collectivist totalitarianism. Now, that appears incoherent if you are trapped in the spectrum. A conventional political scientist associates capitalism with John Locke and Adam Smith and democracy ("liberalism," I suppose). On the other hand, since socialists reject free enterprise and propose grand redistributionist schemes, they require a big, powerful state. For a long time, people thought of the Chinese system as combining opposed or contradictory elements.

I'd say no one is so sure anymore. We should think instead of the Chinese state as a provisional culmination of both state socialism and corporate capitalism. In ideology, they are opposites. But we don't live in the textbook on political ideologies. We live in a world where corporate capitalism has always completely depended on state power, and the basic practical thrust of left statism has always been annexation of the economy. The Soviet Union was a variety of monopoly capitalism, and the modern American state is a variety of state socialism.
Yes, Sartwell is correct, we are all everything and entirely confused. But that won't stop us from fighting over the details of the balance (or imbalance) among all the various positions. We have our tribes and are going to stick with them.

How did the tribes get so much power? Because they told creation myths that fed into their versions of right versus wrong. Ideology is rarely logical, but we convince ourselves that ours happens to be logical and natural. Or, as Marx claimed, scientific!
Our mistake was that we believed the account these ideologies gave of themselves. But that scrim was always thin. There are capitalist theoreticians who have fantasized and recommended stateless free markets, and there are communist theorists who have fantasized no markets at all, always glossing over the fact that what they actually meant was the permeation of every aspect of life, including markets, by the state. These were fantasies. What these people wanted appeared to be entirely opposed, but they were each devoted to their own sort of hierarchy, and hierarchies tend to coincide.
We're all heading in the same direction, but our stories claim otherwise. Stateless markets? Marketless states? Doubt anyone could tell the difference. Maybe I'm just as guilty of cultural and ideological blindness as everyone else Sartwell describes. My faith in markets is based on a distrust of government, but in the end power exists somewhere.
The idea that free markets are historically distinguished from large, powerful states is an ahistorical ideology shared by the capitalist right and the communist left. We might think of the left-right spectrum as a single ideology rather than a taxonomy of opposites. Thus, the left/right or Democrat/Republican split—which turns American politics into a hyper-repetitive, mechanical set of partisan bromides about free markets versus government programs with egalitarian results—depends on a historical mistake.
Another indication that the divisions of left-right are artificial and confusing is that most of us agree with some people and positions from across the supposed political spectrum. Until the last decade, I've never understood how the two political parties were defined, with moderates from the two parties more alike than members of their respective parties. (That's no longer the case, since it is hard to locate moderates.)

As an agnostic libertarian dedicated to equal rights and opposed to corporatism, I don't "fit" with either party — but I agree with many voters I've met on many issues. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, "libertarians" are grouped with social conservatives, corporatists, and supply-side monetarists. Seriously? Where do my ideals fit within the Republican Party? They don't. Not even close.

I'm not part of any political party, and politicians in the two major parties might want to reconsider their own associations. The parties are incoherent and internally divided by conflicting interests.

Business leaders don't want Republicans talking about social issues. Manufacturing union leaders don't appreciate Democrats talking about environmental policies. The interests of constituents in the parties don't align. Should police (law and order supported by Republicans) follow their union leaders (labor supported by Democrats)? Parties offer confusing delineations. Agreeing with "enough" of a party's platform, or having a historical bond to the party seems sufficient for many people.
It's awfully strange that Rand Paul and John McCain belong to the same political party and are generally held to be on the same end of the political spectrum. I'd say they each disagree more profoundly and substantially with the other than either disagrees with Barack Obama, for example. Some of the most historically salient "right-wing" movements are monarchism, fascism, fundamentalism, and libertarianism, which have nothing in common except that they all have reasons to oppose Marxist communism, and vice versa. Yet they also all have similar reasons to oppose one another. Toss in David Brooks Burkeans, security-state neocons, and so on, and you have a miscellany of unrelated positions.

The left pole, meanwhile, could be a stateless society of barter and localism; or a world of equality in which people are not subordinated by race, gender, and sexuality; or a pervasive welfare state; or a Khmer Rouge re-education regime. The Nazi Party, Catholic Church, hereditary aristocracy, Ayn Rand capitalists, and redneck gun enthusiasts are all on the same side of the left-right spectrum. So are hacktivists, food-stamp officials, anti-globalization activists, anarcho-primitivists, and advocates of a world government. It would be hard to come up with a less coherent or less useful way of thinking about politics.
Our fear of the "fascists" of the other side, the party we know will increase concentrated power… leads us to concentrate power, simply in the other direction. We become the thing we feared, but of course our centralized power won't be problem. With our side (whichever that is) now in power, equality and justice can prevail! Until they don't.

Sartwell uses the progressive, scientific and bureaucratic left as an example of the best plans not meeting expectations.
Examining another familiar opposition, between "equality" and "liberty," produces another cluster of contradictions. The left holds up "equality" as a fundamental value. The means leftists propose to increase economic equality almost always increase political inequality, because these means consist of larger state programs: more resources and rules, coercion and surveillance in the hands of officials or state contractors, including in welfare-type programs. The welfare state is more pervasive now than it was a century ago, and we now have institutions like compulsory public education. These are achievements of the left, programs they are still trying enhance, but have they actually resulted in more equal societies? Quite the contrary, I believe: They have led to ever-more-frozen hierarchies. The mainstream left is a technocratic elite, with a cult of science and expertise and an ear for the unanimous catchphrase. This is anything but a meritocracy; it an entrenched intergenerational class hierarchy.
What seems to astonish Sartwell is that the "sides" at battle agree on the nature of the conflict. Why do we agree on this capital versus the state definition of political disputes? And isn't this something of a modern invention? Until the Italian banking system emerged thanks to the House of Medici, economics and politics were pretty simple: monarchs ruled, everyone else did as told — or plotted to kill the monarch to install a new monarch.

History aside, we've decided this capitalism-state balance debate is the stuff of real and intellectual wars. That conflict is the outline of modern history since the nineteenth century.
Milton Friedman and Vlad Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Barry Goldwater, Barack Obama and Rand Paul, Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro, Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman and Augusto Pinochet: They may well have disagreed about this and that. But they have agreed, or said they did, that the state was a force that was historically pitted against private capital. To reduce one was to increase the other and vice versa. They vary inversely and the balance between them that you recommend constitutes the fundamental way of characterizing your political position.

This spectrum stretches from **authoritarianism on the one end to authoritarianism** on the other, with authoritarianism in between. It makes anything that is not that incomprehensible. It narrows all alternatives to variations on hierarchy, structures of inequality, or profoundly unjust distributions of power and wealth. There are alternatives, and the one I would suggest is this: We should arrange political positions according to whether they propose to increase hierarchy or to dismantle it. Instead of left and right, we should be thinking about vertical versus horizontal arrangements of power and wealth.
I doubt Sartwell would agree, since he suggests authoritarianism also dominates in the middle, but it seems that a "balanced" private-public, individual-group dynamic gets closer to some sort of less centralized power. Or maybe not.

I was hoping we wouldn't find those moderate fascists.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Same Party, Different Reasons

I'm reading a economic philosophy text that has this Captain Obvious moment: Political power seeks out economic power; economic power seeks out political power. In China, the state leaders became capitalists. In the U.S., business leaders became statists. Well, gosh, golly, people with one form of power like to hang with other people with power and they all see the world through the same elitist prisms.

Curiously, this power-like-power issue affects the Democratic electorate more than the Republican electorate. But is it money setting the agenda, or that people in power reflect the values of their party activists? I believe politicians are simply counting votes.

An analysis of voting trends found the super wealthy and the low-income voters occupy the same political party, but for very different reasons when they rank concerns. (Tangent: The GOP does not attract most millionaires – a little shy of half — but does receive the support of a majority in the top quintile, which starts at $187,000.)

Rich progressives: Green energy, climate change lead the concerns.

Low-income liberals: Minimum wage, unionization, and child care.

Is there overlap? Certainly, but the group with the money sets the agenda. As a result, "feel good" green policies receive priority among elected leaders. This isn't a result of the leaders not caring about workers, though green policies raise prices and have more consequence on the working lower- and middle-income than wealthy households. (Also, when you're poor, green issues aren't your top priority. Surviving is.)

It might be that because leaders are wealthy, they socialize with other wealthy people and hear the concerns of those voter-donors more often.

For the Republican party, something stranger happens. The activists who are loudest are not the wealthy and, in fact, the policies of the candidates conflict with the wealthiest donors. Most of the top-tier donors to the GOP support gay rights, legal reform, and relaxed immigration rules. Charles Koch loudly opposes most GOP orthodoxy on these social issues, particularly legal reform.

What explains the balance of power dynamics between the parties and their donors?

It is curious, that Republic politicians ignore donors and large business organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, on hot-button issues. It could be cynical, but I know some conservative politicians and they really do believe what they say on social issues. Maybe it is that these are not the key issues to the top donors, so these donors tolerate appeals to the socially conservative base.

Monday, August 24, 2015

You're ideology is wrong! (And so is mine)

Simplistic arguments backed by faulty logic abound on the Internet. Among the most common of these are claims that specific political and economic ideologies have a) proved to be failures or b) never been tried in practice. On the left, writers claim that Somalia is an example of libertarianism or Ayn Rand's objectivism. On the right, writers and commenters point to the former Soviet Union, China, and North Korea as examples of socialism or Marxism failing.

Developed Western nations are, in Europe and North America, democratic republics operating as social welfare states with generally "free" markets.

Pragmatically, whether you believe in Karl Marx's theories of social economic evolution or Adam Smith or Hayek or von Mises or anyone else doesn't matter. Our nations, as their citizens have voted and their politicians have legislated, evolved into hybrid systems of "democratic socialism" with wealth redistribution, social safety nets, and the creative destruction of capitalist markets. Our nations adjust, sometimes suddenly after a cycle of leaders or two, but we are unlikely to reject this mix of markets and welfare.

What we argue about is the extent to which we can trust markets, government, and the general nature of human beings. Sometimes, though less commonly, we pause to ask if our political and economic views are cultural or "natural" — but we generally assume we are the models of how people think. (I do believe humans have some common traits: protecting family or tribe over the stranger, for example.)

Why must we argue the extremes, when we should admit that most people in the West are somewhere in the muddled middle, not ideologues? Because we have to argue vehemently, we assume, to change the opinions of the middle. Plus, arguing loudly earns cheers of support from those agreeing with us.

Now, a return to the absurdity of arguing against the "radicals" — who all tend to claim to care more about the "individual" and the "human" than the system, curiously enough. It's not by accident that Marx and true communists saw perfection as no longer needing centralized government and libertarians in the anarcho-capitalist range also dream of this perfect world without government. These are radical optimists, both with too much faith in human nature… and unable to see their similar end points (see upcoming post on why "Left-Right" is a flawed, circular model).

Somalia is not an example of libertarian policies. In fact, warlords enforce dozens if not hundreds of small fiefdoms with strict regulations. Private property, a key tenant of classical liberalism, is not respected and nor is the rule of law… Unless you count strict religious laws.

and a great write-up on the absurdity of using Somalia as an example of anything Western:

North Korea is not an example of socialism. Claiming a dynastic totalitarian regime represents socialism or any of the ideals of Marx is either intentionally misleading or appallingly ignorant. North Korea is a cult, not a model of communism or socialism or anything Marx theorized. It's a nutcase with a nation.

Even communists reject North Korea as communist.


The only "more socialists" nations (comparatively) we might study are in Latin America, and the complicated post-colonial histories reflect lots and lots of interference in the "natural" development of those nations. Central and South America, like much of Africa, is the consequence of history. Nations didn't view their conquests though the prism of modern values. Today, the best we can do it not mess up other nations even more and justify this by claiming one political or economic ideology is unquestionably the "right" and "natural" way for all cultures to function.

Again, a reminder that an upcoming post explores the complications and problems with the left/right divide in political rhetoric. Of course, it's so much easier to call each other fascists and thugs…