What Democracy Looks Like



Like for millions of Americans, this has been an emotional morning for me, waking up to find that the GOP’s latest Affordable Care Act repeal plot — one that seemed certain to bear some kind of fruit just a few days ago — had been defeated at the eleventh hour. I’m still trying to sort out what it all means.

Many people don’t realize that the core of neoliberalism — the dominant ideology on the right for the last 40 or 50 years — is not really an obsession with economic efficiency, per se, but with a loathing of democracy. The first meeting of what would later become the Mont Pèlerin Society, the organizational and intellectual bedrock of the worldwide neoliberal movement, was actually called the Colloque Walter Lippmann, after the 20th-century American intellectual who wrote little about economics but much about, as the title of his famous 1922 book put it, Public Opinion. Lippmann’s idea was that “the public” and, by corollary, “public opinion” were chimeras, concocted by the political elite to mask the fact that ordinary people were actually too irrational, too unintelligent, too easily mislead, to form any kind of collective purpose that might bestow democratic legitimacy on governmental action.

Lippmann’s conviction is something of a cipher to unlock many of the right-wing developments of the second half of the twentieth century. James Buchanan and the “public choice” economists developed more formalized economic models that treated putative democracies and the collective action they facilitate as, in fact, only arenas for self-interested jockeying by individual power players who were unresponsive to anything that could be called “the public.” Steeped in evolutionary psychology and studies of resource management by small communities, other neoliberal intellectuals, like Elinor and Victor Ostrom, insisted that democracy and collective action could only have meaning on scales small enough to allow reciprocal, face-to-face personal relationships between all players: our modern “democratic” nation-states could never have such legitimacy; and therefore dreams of social problem-solving at the national scale was at best a mistake and at worst a cover for “special interests.” Many others, similarly working at a strange and novel interface between economics, political science, and (evolutionary and social) psychology, explained why ingrained biases made the average person unable to perceive clearly the merits of free markets and inclined them “emotionally” towards socialism, and postulated a brand of IQ determinism that attempted to scientifically debunk the political (and often racial) egalitarianism at the heart of democracy.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, right-wing business elites, in cooperation with many of these same intellectuals, waged a highly practical war on the functioning of real-world democracies around the globe. The story of the collaboration of Milton Friedman and his “Chicago Boys,” among other neoliberal economists, with Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile is comparatively well-known. But in the U.S. and the U.K., and increasingly elsewhere in Europe, millionaires and billionaires (most famously, in the U.S., Charles and David Koch) have over the last several decades bankrolled the establishment of an elaborate think-tank infrastructure to propagate their ideas, spent unprecedented amounts of money to buy candidate loyalty and eventually elections themselves, and developed and implement arcane but potent legislative restrictions on the right to vote and to organize.

If you spend a lot of time with these ideas, even if you refuse to follow them to their free-market and anti-democratic policy conclusions, they can start to make a twisted, depressing kind of sense. After all, our democracy is so dysfunctional. It frequently does work for the benefit of elites, who are all too good at manipulating ordinary citizens for their purposes. In fact, the neoliberal project seems, in this light, like a disturbing proof of concept of their core idea.

And yet.

And yet, with the Kochs’ guy, Mike Pence, waiting in the Senate chamber ready to cast the tie-breaking vote to finally achieve victory in a seven-year-long, day-and-night political struggle against the popular crowning achievement of a popular president, the plan didn’t work. Somehow, after months of activists facing arrest and physical injury to defend their basic well-being, citizens around the country calling Senators and Representatives day and night, polling numbers proving again and again the unpopularity of the GOP effort among the American populace, somehow, the millions of people who rely on the ACA for access to healthcare bought some more time. Not today.

This is what I can’t stop thinking today: They were wrong. Collective action is real, meaningful, and effective. Despite everything, the public still has a voice, can still exert its will, and can still throw up roadblocks when politicians try to literally bleed the country dry to further enrich the ruling class. To adapt a beloved protest chant, this is what democracy looks like: a stunning reminder that no matter how hard the right works to actualize its vision of government as a game played by individual self-interested rulers and nothing more, the will of the people cannot be extinguished entirely.


This is not what democracy looks like:

Democracy is, above all, the conviction that no one should be forced to submit to the arbitrary power of someone else above them, whether that’s a seventeenth-century monarch, a present-day employer (the monarch of the twenty-first-century workplace), or, yes, a politician like John McCain — holding the fate of millions of Americans in his hand and still holding it out tantalizingly before signaling his decision, a reminder of the ultimate power he wields and could choose to wield in any way he pleases.

Today in New York a couple committed suicide because they couldn’t see an end to the “financial spiral” in which they were caught — including, reportedly, health care bills that they simply couldn’t pay. Last night’s decision saved many lives. But it did not save theirs. And it didn’t save the lives of the estimated 28 million people that the ACA will still leave uninsured in 2026.

That is, if there still is an ACA by then. This morning Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows promised to have a “perfect” bill ready in two weeks to try to push through both the House and the Senate. The final bill that was defeated last night was, it’s worth emphasizing, a true abomination: scrapped together days or hours before the final vote, with an eye towards major revisions to come during the subsequent reconciliation process. And yet somehow 49 Republicans still voted for it. Who knows if McCain — or even the two “hard no” GOP Senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins — will still have the integrity to reject a bill with a more polished, respectable veneer?

So democracy won last night, but tyranny continues: the tyranny of economic deprivation, of a society that refuses to use its unfathomable wealth to guarantee the basic needs of all of its members, of a party — led by a man who is the incarnation of arbitrary power — determined to continue to subject millions of Americans to lingering suspense, uncertainty, and despair. Moving forward we will need the same outpouring of popular energy from engaged citizen-activists that we’ve seen fighting repeal the last several months — now redoubled, expanded, and sustained — to break this ugly stalemate, to win the non-reformist reforms that can humanize and democratize our nation bit by painstaking bit.


Baseball Night in America

Every five days during the baseball season I watch Clayton Kershaw pitch, and before he takes the mound each time I am convinced it will be a perfect game. It has never happened. The goal of a pitcher is to get batters out. According to a statistic called Walks & Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP), Kershaw has gotten batters out more frequently than any other pitcher in history, except for a guy named Addie Joss, who was born in 1880. He is about as good at pitching as it is possible for a person to be. But in every single one of his 283 career starts he has failed at least once at his basic task.

One time he got very close. On June 18, 2014, he retired the first 18 Colorado Rockies he faced, before he got the 19th batter to hit a soft ground ball at the shortstop, Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez fielded the ball, and threw it about a yard past the first baseman, allowing the runner to take second base. Kershaw proceeded to get the final 10 batters out. That one fielding error proved to be all that stood between him and the 24th perfect game in history. That’s baseball for you.

Baseball encourages these sorts of reflections more than any other sport. Reflection is built deeply into its rhythms on all timescales. There’s the (in)famously relaxed pace of individual games, which critics mock, commissioners try in vain to accelerate, and which fans feel lends the game a feeling at once tense and contemplative that is without parallel in sports. We are also presently at the most reflective moment of the season, the annual post-All Star Game ritual of deciding which teams have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs, and therefore which teams will become “buyers” or “sellers” at the trade deadline. The first half is an optimistic burst of enthusiasm set off by an Opening Day saturated with fantasies of infinite possibility and perfect parity; now it is time to take stock.

And as a phenomenal recent longform article by Peter Dreier and Robert Elias in Jacobin emphasizes, the history of the game since its late-nineteenth-century origins is a history of a more critical kind of reflection, pursued by the courageous players, managers, union attorneys, journalists, and others who have fought to reform and reimagine a game they loved that did not always love them back — and occasionally punished them dearly for their transgressions against the status quo. In this sense, baseball, often called the most conservative American sport, is in fact almost exactly as conservative as the nation that produced it, which is to say, it’s complicated: defined both by its tradition of iron-fisted reaction and its tradition of idealism, reform, and revolution; by the patterns of exclusion and exploitation present in its structure at its genesis and the progress extracted by those activists at an excruciatingly patient pace, almost as slow as that of the game itself.

This is why I could never quite sign on to Jon Bois’ preseason declaration that “there is no future of baseball.” By this he meant not that the sport was facing its imminent demise but that, with the last of the game’s famous championship curses broken by the Chicago Cubs last fall, the game had achieved a sort of end of history, a stationary state of the kind that John Stuart Mill thought he could see around the corner in 1848, two years after the first officially recorded baseball game in U.S. history. I do get where Bois is coming from. His piece is as good a summary as any of the strange kind of melancholy that I and some other Cubs fans I’ve talked to felt in the aftermath of the World Series win. But I still don’t think it’s quite right.

How could it be? Baseball is the sport that taught me, when I was so young that I didn’t even have any real conception of sexuality, that there was nothing worse for a man to be than gay. How could baseball be “finished” when the Cardinals still invite outspoken homophobes like Lance Berkman to something called “Christian Night;” when there remain no publicly out major leaguers; when its little leagues across the country still teach the same lessons I was taught when I was a kid? How could it be finished when so many of the same reformers that Dreier and Elias write about are still rigorously excised from official histories of the game; when owners still rip off the public for stadium funds and still inflict punishing living conditions upon their minor league players; when the league still refuses to treat domestic violence within its ranks with the seriousness it deserves; when 70 years after Jackie Robinson’s rookie season the game remains overwhelmingly white in its demographics and even in, as Mary Craig observed last week, the language its media uses to describe players of different races?

To put it another way, how could a sport so intensely bound up with American identity that the early 2000s saw a Congressional investigation held to protect its integrity from steroids ever be finished when America itself is so painfully far from finished, still wrestling with the same demons it has bequeathed to its national pastime?

Bois only sees half of the picture. He understands the fixation on perfection, on symmetry, on closure: three strikes, three outs, nine innings, nine positions; the only sport in which talk of a “perfect game” is even coherent. From this structural perspective, baseball is indeed “finished,” but it has been finished for a long time, perhaps even forever. There are no enhancements to be made to improve its austere beauty and intricate self-containment.

But the mirror image of this Platonism is baseball’s acute sense of the textures of history. It’s that sense that drove my dad to wake me up well after my bedtime to watch the last several outs of Randy Johnson’s perfect game, and to bring me to Wrigley Field to make sure I got to see my favorite player, Greg Maddux, in the flesh before his retirement. It’s a sense that encompasses the legendary championship droughts, yes, but that runs much deeper, flowing ultimately from the inevitable discrepancies between the game’s on-paper fleshless perfection and the overwhelming imperfection of the game as played and managed by human beings.

History — its ceaseless flow of victories and disappointments, its sense of collective memory and collective hope — is baseball’s answer to the cruel paradox at the heart of the game: that the perfect ideal will elude even its best players. Mike Trout will head straight back to the dugout almost seven times in ten. Clayton Kershaw will do absolutely everything right and Hanley Ramirez will still blow it for him. Josh Gibson will pile up more home runs than anyone in baseball history, patiently waiting in the Negro Leagues for a chance at proper pay and proper recognition, only to be passed over, when the opportunity to integrate the major leagues finally arrives at the end of his career, in favor of a younger player named Jackie Robinson.

And in spite of all of that, the game keeps moving. The worst players in the lineup come up to bat just as often as the superstars. The box scores pile up day after day. The disgruntled, excluded, and mistreated make demands on the sport’s establishment that may never be actualized in their careers, if ever, and a new generation of fans decides to fall in love with a game that holds out to them the near-certainty of betrayal.

There’s always next year.


Economic democracy and the history of liberalism

A swollen title, I know, but one demanded by the broad and ambitious article I want to respond to. Elizabeth Anderson has an article in Vox about democratizing the workplace that is excellent political philosophy but flawed intellectual history. That’s fine, because she’s not a professional historian and the history issue is (mostly) peripheral to her argument, but it is worth addressing.

Anderson’s article is a welcome reminder that the democratic socialist left need not abandon the liberal tradition wholesale (her chair is named after John Dewey, after all!). It’s also an illustration of the usefulness of “democracy” as a way to frame the radical changes the left seeks for modern economic institutions. But when it comes to the question of why present-day “classical liberals” have failed to draw the conclusions that Anderson would like us to draw from the work of their intellectual forbearers, I think Anderson comes up a little short.

She makes two broad arguments. Together the story goes something like this. Libertarians and neoliberals have neglected the Industrial Revolution that occurred after the time of Adam Smith and Thomas Paine, and (1) therefore ignored that privately-owned firms are now massive structures of wage slavery instead of the small personal farms or trade shops that Smith and Paine saw as the vehicle for free-market emancipation. Today, because (2) they have become obsessed with economic notions of efficiency, they have lost the political vision necessary to update the insights of Smith and Paine for the modern era and advocate for workplace democratization.

I think this is wrong. First, it is just flat-out inaccurate to say that today’s libertarians and neoliberals have underestimated the impact of the Industrial Revolution. On the contrary, they generally think it was among the greatest events in human history. Hayek edited a book glorifying it; Ayn Rand wrote a book excoriating (primarily environmentalist) critics of its ecological and social impacts; and a variety of well-known libertarians will every once in a while get together to try to figure out how the miracle happened. And they don’t just like it — they see it as a game-changing break with the past as well; people from Steven Pinker to Julian Simon have cited it as the reason why economic growth is possible at all, contra earlier thinkers like Malthus.

The substance of this discussion varies, but the common denominator is a vision of industrial capitalism as driven by what the early 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter (a figure whose importance for today’s right is massively underestimated) called “creative destruction.” In general, most libertarians and neoliberals are not in thrall to the obsession with efficiency and equilibrium that is often ascribed to them. In fact, they love the Industrial Revolution so much because they think it has freed us from precisely the kind of steady state where what goes up must come down and costs and benefits balance out; that’s the kind of Malthusian thinking our capitalist ingenuity has allowed us to move past. On the contrary, it is the messy (today we’d say “disruptive”), often quite inefficient process of market-based trial-and-error that fuels knowledge growth, innovation, and wealth.

This is the first reason libertarians hate the idea of worker-owned firms: workers would never allow their business to fail for the greater good of the market economy! That wouldn’t just be bad for the economy, but it’d also be bad for the souls of workers. Yes, Hayek conceded, in a market economy, “life and health, beauty and virtue, honor and peace of mind, can often be preserved only at a considerable material cost,” but this is actually a good thing, because it forces us to consider when we’d be willing to sacrifice materially for the sake of those values. If democratic workplaces guaranteed us “peace of mind” without us having to suffer for it in advance, moral corruption would surely be the consequence.

The fact is that the argument in favor of entrepreneurial dictatorship has nothing to do with efficiency, and everything to do with a bite-the-bullet inegalitarian political-moral view of societal progress, where noble risk-taking entrepreneurs make the sacrifices — tolerate the failures — that are necessary to generate wealth in our dynamic economy. Those sacrifices would simply never be made were the hoi polloi given the ability to prioritize their sustained wellbeing at the union ballot box. This actually oughtn’t be surprising: because Anderson is right that control of the workplace is a political question, we should expect to find that the libertarian/neoliberal answer to that question is undergirded by a political vision as well.

The more bloodthirsty version of this vision is Ayn Rand-style social Darwinism, replete with talk of parasites and John Galt, but more common these days is actually a kindler, gentler patrician styling that sees non-entrepreneurs as noble savages instead of economic leeches. To all of the leftists who never bother to read them and so reprimand them for thinking that everyone is perfectly rational they say — exactly! The vast majority of people aren’t rational at all. That’s why no central planner can foresee what they’d want, and we need to rely on free markets, captained by cognitively superior entrepreneurs, to accumulate information on their fundamentally a-rational “preferences.” They can organize the affairs of their household and perhaps even a small-scale, relatively homogenous community well enough (in the last few decades, this is often argued to be because evolution has trained us to be altruistic in these kinds of situations), when the government leaves them alone. But modern-day polities and economic firms are very large, which confuses the poor folk, and they start to think they can understand the big picture — and the good instincts which help them run their private lives free from government turn into bad instincts towards socialism. (Some of them are even so confused by this temptation towards birds-eye thinking as to think they have a thing called a mind instead of a similar collection of small semi-coordinated local parts! The silly devils.)

So the question of “scale” is resolved very differently, and actually in a more sinister fashion, than Anderson imagines. They agree that scale changes everything — but their conclusion is that the massive scale of modernity is precisely why not only economic democracy but also democratic political action in general on a governmental or otherwise societal scale is profoundly mistaken. Hayek again:

“Agreement about a common purpose between a group of known people is clearly an idea that cannot be applied to a large society which includes people who do not know one another. The modern society and the modern economy have grown up through the recognition that this idea — which was fundamental to life in a small group — a face-to-face society, is simply inapplicable to large groups.”

And here’s Victor Ostrom warning of the dangers of the fatal modern cocktail of egalitarianism and large-scale societies:

“The larger the society and the more diverse the country, the greater the propensity for error… Individuals assuming themselves to be like all the rest, no longer look upon themselves as fallible creatures subject to limited comprehension, but as omniscient observers addressing themselves to problems in the society as a whole.”

One common error on the left, among people of a more “communitarian” persuasion, is to tell exactly the same story about modernity and, rather than embrace the libertarians’ despotic modernism, come away pining for the small-scale societies of days past (what Marx called “primitive communism”). But of course, because absent a Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play-esque apocalypse, that’s not fodder for a robust present-day political program, that tends to breed scholastic quietism. Anderson doesn’t commit this error — on the contrary, her article provides a number of concrete action items for the left — but I still detect a faint whiff of it in the vaguely nostalgic tone with which she recalls the classical liberals. Such a tone is hardly merited.

As scholars like Nancy Fraser have reminded us, the early bourgeois “private sphere” household that was the site of Smithian “self-employment” was marked by profound gender hierarchy and inequality. And Anderson doesn’t mention colonialism, which expanded the scale of corporations long before the Industrial Revolution and provided the foundation of European political economy in the days of the early classical liberals. She acknowledges slavery, at least. But by valorizing Thomas Paine (generally though not without controversy considered an abolitionist) while never mentioning his friend Thomas Jefferson, she conveniently elides the reality that Paine-Jefferson American classical liberalism could just as readily be deployed in defense of Jeffersonian agrarianism, built on the exploitation of slave labor, as in (often privately expressed) opposition to the “peculiar institution.”

The expansion of the rights of women, the abolition of slavery, and the end of (most) (formal) colonial occupations all therefore had ramifications for economic justice, yes, but it is simply not the case that they were the consequence of the overdue consistent application of classical liberal political philosophy to previously insulated economic realms. As Charles Mills has forcefully argued, “inconsistency” is almost never actually an adequate explanation for the classical liberals’ many failings, and reclaiming liberal insights for radicalism requires a more sweeping reformulation.

In Anderson’s case, I think the problem lies about halfway through the article, when she writes:

Americans are used to complaining about how government regulation restricts our freedom. So we should recognize that such complaints apply, with at least as much force, to private governments of the workplace.

But I don’t think this is right at all — and this is where the history begins to impinge upon the political philosophy. Previous expansions of economic democracy — the examples cited above but also bans on child labor, the introduction of the weekend, collective bargaining, etc. — have almost always been enforced, when not originally compelled, by strong governmental action, following democratic mass movements. In other words, economic democracy requires the repudiation of the anti-government bromides of the classical liberals, and the insistence of their neoliberal successors on the illegitimacy or incoherence of the idea of collective action for a common purpose in modern democracies.

You can’t have it both ways. Either democracies can do the things Anderson advocates — ban noncompete clauses, support unions and unionization, restrict the ability of employers to fire workers, and so on — or you can accept the hostility to modern democratic governance characteristic of the libertarian tradition. The former — which is clearly Anderson’s core commitment — sees political and economic democracy as actually part of the same cloth. But the latter — which is where some of her rhetoric and historical argumentation goes — treats the two as related, maybe branching from the same trunk, but now no longer in interfolded contact. That’s the mistake that a robust understanding of the history of liberalism, and especially recent neoliberalism, can correct.

Caricaturing libertarianism

This is partly a note for myself, because my tweets auto-delete and I want to retain some thoughts that I just put up there for the future. I was responding to Noah Smith, who was excited that the Niskanen Center is telling people that markets are (necessary but) not sufficient for “real liberty.”

As I said: “This is the problem with the typical left caricature of libertarianism: it can be disarmed so easily. But critique is still essential! Libertarians KNOW that humans aren’t ultra-rational utility monsters and that extra-market institutions matter. And they have made those tenets the bedrock of a hyper-anti-democratic worldview. Far-leftists will continue in their smugness, regurgitating critiques that often were developed by neoliberals themselves. And center-leftists will continue saying “Good!!” and marveling at the appearance of a kinder, gentler libertarianism. And the right will continue to wage war on democracy, secure in their knowledge of human irrationality and the non-inevitability of markets.”

And then I put up a picture of one of my favorite Hayek quotes:

“The vast majority of people (I do not exaggerate) no longer believe in the market. It is a crucial question for the future preservation of civilization and one which must be faced before the arguments of socialism return us to a primitive morality. We must again suppress those innate feelings which have welled up in us once we ceased to learn the taut discipline of the market.”

But it would perhaps have been more apropos to cite a representative of the “new institutional economics” (The Ostroms, Ronald Coase, Oliver Williamson, etc.), to whom the Niskanen article in question is quite close in spirit. They are typically less obsessed with “The Market” than Hayek but, in a more subtle fashion, just as anti-democratic, determined to erode the legitimacy of the modern state as a vehicle for collective action to address public problems. Here’s Victor Ostrom, for instance:

“The larger the society and the more diverse the country, the greater the propensity for error… Individuals assuming themselves to be like all the rest, no longer look upon themselves as fallible creatures subject to limited comprehension, but as omniscient observers addressing themselves to problems in the society as a whole. Government them becomes an omnicompetent, universal problem-solver capable of responding to all of the problems of the society as a whole…Justice is conceived as social justice implying equal shares in social outcomes rather than equal standing in access to the games of life.”

This is also the theme of Nancy MacLean’s great new book about James Buchanan. (Peter Boettke, one of Buchanan’s key successors at George Mason and the current president of the Mont Pèlerin Society, is a major popularizer of the Ostroms’ work.)

The Niskanen Center article that Smith links, while seeming to be relatively laudatory of democracy, gives away the game about halfway through:

To resist the reification of the state is to depart from most mainstream political-theory accounts of democracy, even many that are supposed to be highly pragmatic. Most democratic theorists cannot help regarding the democratic state (or, in more populist, American form, simply “democracy”) as the common, conscious entity that “must” speak for the moral purpose of the whole, and that must, allegedly, be the final arbiter of  disputes among other institutions. There is no such must, and no such entity.

There you have it: the modern democratic state, existing like all institutions as a “conventional,” convenient, “pragmatic” complement to the market, has no special democratically-invested authority to act in furtherance of collective projects, to possess public things, and so on. What at first seems to be a level-headed departure from “market fundamentalism,” fostering appreciation for “non-market institutions,” is in fact a profoundly radical “anti-mystification” attack on the typical meaning of “democracy” for most people nowadays. “Liberalism understood in the more realist, Hayekian way is the opposite of populism,” as the Niskanen article puts it.

The Niskanen Center makes its living trading on its image among outsiders as a group of “the good libertarians.” They support a carbon tax! Many of their key figures were ousted from the Cato Institute by the Kochs! They admit that the welfare state has its uses! But look deeper and you find an organization still deeply embedded in the right-wing think tank ecology (or Russian-nesting-doll structure, as Philip Mirowski might put it), — oh, and conceding to massive popular support for a carbon tax only in exchange for gutting other environmental regulations. In this sense, they’re the think-tank parallel of the “New Prophets of Capital” that sociologist Nicole Aschoff has identified, providing a slick veneer of humanitarianism that conceals the unabated metastasization of the neoliberal order beneath.

But it’s also important to recognize that some of the intellectual framework that furnishes this humanitarian veneer isn’t just deceptive or disingenuous but actually constitutive of a perhaps less prominent, but no less sinister thread of neoliberal thought (and organization) over the last fifty years or so.

Positive and negative free speech rights

The topic of free speech on college campuses has recently mutated from a convenient way for intellectually exhausted centrist and right-leaning pundits to fill column inches to a live debate within the left. Driven especially by criticisms from Freddie deBoer and a few figures associated with Jacobin, the online left-o-verse has been abuzz of late with disputes over the merit of “de-platforming” and other tactics commonly taken as emblematic of the contemporary student left’s disregard of the value of free speech. I actually think that this development is fairly healthy and has brought some important issues to the forefront, but I think that this Nouvelle Vague of “pro-free speech” leftist writers concedes far too much to the right and has yet to articulate a coherent vision of how students can integrate a commitment to both free speech and substantive leftist goals. These flaws are intimately related, but more on that anon.

DeBoer is both the most strident and most rhetorically gifted member of this group, so he makes an illustrative example for understanding the position I’m talking about. He has three main arguments. The first is that, to paraphrase Baroness Thatcher, There Is No Alternative; that is, (1) there is nowadays simply no feasible or coherent way to avoid the liberal framework of free speech rights without falling into an intellectual morass or quietism of both smug and despairing varieties. The second is that (2) unless the left can get their more embarrassingly authoritarian comrades under control, the right will use the slow-burn optics disaster to run roughshod over public education. And the third, which I can’t find a good link for right now, is (3) that leftist students are so powerless that whatever deviations from a norm of free-speech absolutism they push for will be used to punish them in turn.

I’m somewhat sympathetic with all of these arguments individually, but together they paint an incoherent image of the state of student activists: they are (1) so used to powerlessness that they resort to implausible intellectual masturbation in lieu of real action; (2) so powerful (and overzealous) on campus that the GOP can paint a compelling picture of the animals running the zoo at universities nationwide; (3) simultaneously powerful enough to extract material changes in what university administrations are and aren’t capable of doing, but also powerless enough that they will in turn immediately face the wrath of now-almighty administrators as soon as they obtain these same successes.

(Another common incoherence of (2) and (3) is the notion that students are perched in an odd position of razor-thin precariousness, where any noisemaking will provoke punishment from powerful conservatives, either in the form of defunding and privatization or of sanctions for particular activists, but where toeing the free-speech-absolutist line will also be sufficient to postpone the hammer indefinitely.)

Here’s my competing story: whether or not public universities are defunded and privatized has almost nothing to do with what student activists do; it has been a core goal of the right since before many of today’s students’ parents were born, and the GOP will stop at nothing to accomplish it, come hell or high water, no matter how respectable or absurd the actions of students seem to outsiders. The only way to actually stop this agenda is to build real political power on the left in legislatures and to articulate and defend a robust vision of education as a public good — and a positive right — that ought to remain outside the purview of market forces. Every leftist student currently protesting racist speakers could throw in the towel and spend every night for the next four year volunteering at soup kitchens and absent those two developments the current march towards the dismantling of public higher education in the US would continue unabated.

This is the most important free speech issue of our time. And conceding the center-right’s framing of “college free speech” makes it impossible to recognize it as such. 

DeBoer’s repeated expressions of exasperation and incredulity when encountering observations of the hypocrisy of “free speech advocates” suggest that he truly cannot fathom the idea of a person who thinks free speech and academic freedom are very important values for the left but thinks the current hegemonic conception of those principles is fundamentally, even dangerously deficient. The fact that the political spectrum among the most prominent free speech rabblerousers — Jonathan Haidt, Conor Friedersdorf, Jonathan Chait, Steven Pinker, the entire American Enterprise Institute, etc. — ranges essentially from Tony Blair to Ronald Reagan does not trouble deBoer one iota. The only reason someone could possibly be concerned about that sort of thing, he insinuates, is a base drive to place partisanship (who’s on your “team”) over principle.

This means that he doesn’t realize that the most common form in which “free speech absolutism” appears in the mainstream press is as a corollary of a broader commitment to the ideology of the “marketplace of ideas,” the very same ideology which justifies treating education as a commodity that should be subjected to private market competition in the first place. Here, for instance, is the right-wing Foundation for Economic Education invoking Jonathan Haidt’s advocacy for “political diversity” in an argument against the institution of tenure. Here is Friedersdorf extolling the virtues of homeschooling vis-à-vis public school, and here he is arguing for school vouchers as his preferred method of reparative racial justice. The neoliberals looking to use the putative college war on free speech as an excuse to enact their agenda on American higher education are not just far-off GOP lawmakers but also deBoer’s fellow “free speech absolutist” writers.

So finding an alternative to their conception of “rights” is not just possible but absolutely urgent. Luckily, such an alternative is ready-made: it’s the same alternative that the left has drawn on since the rise to hegemony of classical liberalism hundreds of years ago. Against the classical liberal insistence only on the existence of “negative rights” (think concepts that begin with “freedom from…”), the left has traditionally defended the existence of “positive rights” (typically “the right to…”), and often insisted that positive rights ought to take precedence over negative rights when the two come in conflict: the idea, for instance, that economic coercion is acceptable to guarantee access to healthcare for all.

So for this leftist tradition, exemplified in the twentieth century by figures like Dewey and Habermas, the right to free speech is not just the freedom to say what one wants at any particular time unencumbered by any active restraint, but a freedom to learn, to reflect, and to use one’s capacity for critical thinking to contribute to political discourse and ultimately concrete collective political projects, in cooperation and solidarity with others. From this conception of free speech, the urgency of e.g. the defense of institutions like tenure, collective bargaining for university employees, and public funding for higher education flows quite naturally. In fact, they move to the center of our conception of what the fight for free speech on campuses actually means, and the problem of student activism starts to seem more like a politically expedient distraction.

It also, for what it’s worth, becomes clear when and for what reason suspensions of the more conventional liberal right to free speech become acceptable: in defense of this positive right of universal access to democratic deliberation and political action. Speech used to intimidate and harass students whose access to education and all it entails is in jeopardy can be subject to reasonable restraints (though as with all rights conflicts the precise practical solution cannot be spelled out entirely a priori). So, to take a real-world example, attempting to prevent Milo from outing undocumented students on campus is entirely defensible under this framework.

Indeed, collective student action more generally — protests, student writing, etc., aimed at changing the status quo — starts to seem closer to embodying the spirit of a robust understanding of academic freedom than imperiling it. “Democratic means and the attainment of democratic ends are one and inseparable,” as Dewey put it. While the neoliberal idea of the marketplace of ideas advocates an imposed discursive free-for-all as a convenient means of preventing collective bodies from ever actually doing anything, the competing leftist, positive-rights idea insists on the importance of knowledge creation and earnest communication as the groundwork of further democratic action.

This distinction is absolutely crucial (it’s central to my new article with Naomi Oreskes, for instance) but it gets occluded every time deBoer sneers at attempts to argue that the locus of the free speech fight ought to shift away from student deplatforming. If deBoer and his allies really do want to defend the right of people to work together for a better world — and I don’t doubt that they do — they should just do that, instead of insisting that we can slide ass-backwards into that same position if only we first make our peace with the libertarians.

New publication

Naomi Oreskes and I have an article for Social Epistemology that’s up online right now, discussing the implications of “post-truth” for the science studies discipline. You can read the PDF here. Targeted at an audience within science studies, it deals with a lot of the same issues that I’ve written about here of late, and should still be broadly accessible.

The left, selling itself short

Emmett Rensin has an interesting and provocative article today in the LA Review of Books, called “The Blathering Superego at the End of History.” Rensin is best known for his valuable campaign against what he calls “the smug style in American liberalism,” and this piece offers up more of the same, tearing into the condescending fact-checking technocratic ethos that has left a lot of mainstream liberals bewildered since the last election. I agree with most of what he has to say, and he has certainly found himself a worthy target. But I’m worried that he goes a little too far — responding to a fact-checking pseudo-politics with a vision of politics as just “ideological conflict” that underestimates the real political usefulness of facts. The risk, ironically, is the replacement of elitist managerial liberalism with a just-as-elitist leftist vanguardism, rather than a robust democratic vision for the left.

One example: Rensin sneers at liberals who “believed in climate change because scientists told them they should,” criticizing the ensuing conviction that “the trouble was not the metastatic excesses of capital but the failure of reactionaries to bow to empirical consensus.” But surely this is a false dichotomy! After all, the empirical consensus on climate change provides valuable new evidence of critical problems with capitalism that was not available to earlier generations of leftist theorists. Historians like Naomi Oreskes, sociologists like Bob Brulle, and investigative journalists like Jane Mayer have documented the sheer terror with which the right has regarded climate science for decades — and for good reason! The prospect of environmental catastrophe destroying livelihoods offers a powerful and accessible justification for the expansion of market regulation and democratic ownership in one of the largest sectors of the economy, more so than the comparatively a priori logical deductions of theorists past.

Other areas where today’s left has begun to successfully build mass movements also owe far more to empirical fact than abstract theory. Income inequality is one major example. Whatever the limitations of the Occupy movement, Rensin’s insistence that True Politics is about ideology, not facts, has a difficult time accounting for the fact that outrage at the fraction of total wealth owned by the top 1% — that is, an empirical social scientific fact — has served as a cornerstone for the greatest upsurge of youthful leftist energy (culminating in the Sanders campaign) in a generation. While Rensin dismisses liberals who rely on “the latest charts,” academic bestsellers like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and popular bloggers/tweeters like Matt Bruenig use charts effectively to galvanize support for a redistributionist agenda.

Similarly, empirical fact saturates the Black Lives Matter movement, another prominent and relatively successful recent leftist social movement. Whether emphasis is placed on the brute facts of particular incidents of police violence, statistical evidence of mounting incarceration, abuse and racial inequality in the increasingly privatized criminal justice system, or historical evidence of, to cite one prominent example, the roots of modern American policing in southern slave patrols, BLM demonstrates the ability of concrete social facts to aid organizers in the transformation of a relatively abstract moral intuition — the evil of racism — into a program for political action in our contemporary circumstances.

In other words, there’s no need for the left to sell itself short by ceding the territory of empirical fact to the center or the right. Empirical facts can bolster the leftist worldview — and often when the center and the right cite putative empirical knowledge in their own favor there is actually a methodological or factual error waiting to be exposed, in addition to other interpretive or moral shortcomings.

Perhaps the importance of empirical knowledge to BLM also explains, in part, why Rensin and some of his allies are occasionally rather clumsy when thinking about the role of race in leftist movement-building. There was a minor controversy this week on Twitter after Jacobin editor Connor Kilpatrick seemed to blame the rise of alt-right racism on leftists talking about “whiteness”:

Kilpatrick (whom Rensin later defended) seems to think that leftist activists should keep quiet about the operation of racism in society until revolution comes to purge white workers of their own racist sentiments:

The other reading, of course, is that Kilpatrick and Rensin actually think that the anti-racist analysis of whiteness (a strong tradition in Marxian social science stretching back to W.E.B. Du Bois and developed more formally over the last several decades) is wrong on its merits, which would be a different and even more troubling story. But giving them the benefit of the doubt, we still arrive at a position that is uncomfortably close to the condescending elitism that Rensin so justifiably despises in liberals. The white proletariat is just too damn stupid to hear about whiteness without immediately hopping on 4chan and becoming Nazis. Better to keep that knowledge to ourselves, for the time being, and spoon-feed them only the (deracialized) knowledge they can handle until they reform themselves through future revolutionary struggle.

I think this anti-democratic vanguardist impulse is the inevitable result of any vision that sees ideology, not facts, as what politics is properly concerned with (just like anti-democratic technocracy is the inevitable result of any vision that thinks facts can render ideology completely otiose). That’s because the ideological “ought” statements that Rensin thinks politics should really be about underdetermine programs for concrete action absent an empirical, factually-grounded understanding of the world we actually live in. Equality, redistribution, racial justice, economic democratization, dismantling the patriarchy, and so on are all important values, of course — but in order to know how to go about achieving those values (even if you think that the best way to do that is to plan a revolution!) at some point you’re gonna have to know concrete empirical things about the world. The question, then is whether you’ll be honest about that from the get-go, and trust people enough to make that knowledge public, accessible, open to consensus-formation as well as critical scrutiny — or pretend that ideology is enough, and end up smuggling the presuppositions and interpretations of an esoteric circle of leaders back through the rear door.

Rensin is right that elitist managerial liberalism opts for the latter choice, but I worry that Rensin’s own version of leftism does too. They become mirror images of one another: liberalism claiming the ability to cleanly sunder is from ought and pretending to discard the latter; Rensin claiming exactly the same thing and pretending that the is can be “derived” fluidly from an ought understood well enough and believed in passionately enough. He gives us Marx’s famous dictum that the point is to change the world, not to describe it. But Marx, arguably the first modern social scientist, sure did an awful lot of description anyways. It’s true that knowing what the world is like isn’t enough — the error of centrist liberalism. But you still can’t conceive of real change any other way.

Is the Science March too political, or not political enough?

The Science March is today, bringing to a head months of debate about its merits.

On the one hand, “centrists” have tended to rail against the march for sullying the apparently hitherto pristine halls of Science with unnecessary politics. Geologist Robert Young described the march as a “terrible idea” on the grounds that it would just fuel the right-wing perception that science has become “politicized.” Similarly, psychologist Jonathan Haidt expressed tepid support for a march in the abstract, but condemned the real one on the grounds that organizers had the temerity to actually talk about science’s imbrication with salient political issues.

On the other hand, people like my Harvard colleague Andy Jewett have argued that the march is actually not political enough. As Andy writes:

Scientific input into policymaking is a good thing, and the lack of such input is alarming. But science is not inevitably and intrinsically humanitarian in its outcomes. Politically, science is deeply multivalent, comporting with a variety of interests and perspectives… Evidence-based policy is important, and science should certainly play a role in politics. Yet more and better data is hardly enough to ensure equality and justice. Societies employ science in accordance with their leading values, interests, and power structures.

It will come as no surprise that I think Andy is much closer to the mark than Jon Haidt. It is certainly crucial to move beyond the centrists’ visceral discomfort with “politicized science.” In fact, as I have written elsewhere, the ideology of a politics-free science is in fact the profoundly political ideology of the present administration — and in practice it is often an ideology of a fact-free science, preferring “Truth” in the abstract to what messy, “politicized” science actually comes up with.

But I want to add one wrinkle to the discussion, and it starts with this last observation. The entire debate — the March for Science, the “don’t politicize science” camp, and the “science is always political” camp alike — assumes a strangely Platonic, transhistorical conception of science. But “Science” is a bit of a chimera. Are we talking about the scientists themselves? Their conclusions? Their methods? Their institutions? You’re talking about a very different “politics of science” depending on which of these you have in mind.

And when you have them in mind. Andy notes that the meaning of scientific findings varies with political context. Which is, to be sure, a crucial point. Findings of lower average IQ scores among black Americans can fuel pre-existing racism and programs to naturalize social inequality, or they can prompt reflection about the limits of the IQ mechanism, psychometrics more broadly, issues of “averages” and the ability of statistical analysis to mislead, the relationship between structural racism and education in America, and so on. What is the “evidence-based conclusion”? Left-leaning defenders of the importance of “scientific” work on race and intelligence (whom I believe to be profoundly mistaken) typically only point out the second slate of interpretive possibilities, but ignore the fact that American political culture is structured in such a way to all but guarantee that it will be the former agenda that is furthered in practice.

But it’s important to move beyond just the level of scientific findings. Who is a scientist, where they do their work, and what their “scientific method” consists of are also profoundly political questions, and their answers have changed enormously throughout history. These issues are concealed by the calculus that scientific finding + political values = political outcomes. To continue to use the same example, the field of social psychology’s longtime lily-whiteness is surely implicated in the selection of race and IQ as a legitimate object of study in the first place. And as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out long ago in The Mismeasure of Man, issues of statistical models and their “reification” have gone hand in hand with the production of racist conclusions about intelligence.

Perhaps most importantly, “scientists” like Charles Murray responsible for promulgating those racist conclusions have found a platform since the early 1980s in large part thanks to the growing network of privately funded conservative think thanks that have supported their work. Jane Mayer’s excellent Dark Money provides a superb overview of this history for a popular audience; writers like Thomas Medvetz and Philip Mirowski have also tread similar territory in the academic sphere. And it’s not only race science. The same network of institutions have also supported “scientific” work with right-wing implications for climate change, financial regulation, urban policy, and more.

As a vast body of literature has documented, private funding for science from corporations and conservative philanthropists and foundations has also obstructed toxicology research and chemical regulation, pharmaceutical testing, and (thanks to the field of “litigation science”), torts seeking redress against corporate malfeasance once regulatory mechanisms have been successfully ground to a halt. Furthermore, this kind of work is no longer peripheral to science as a whole. Privately-financed research in think tanks, pharmaceutical labs, or corporate-funded “research institutes” within universities is, to a great extent, the name of the game in contemporary social and natural science.

The Science March needs to talk about this! Andy Jewett is right that it’s not enough to just say that leaders have to listen to science. But changing interpretive political “values” isn’t enough either. Those value changes have to take concrete form: by challenging the whiteness and maleness of science (something the March has consistently done, to its credit) and breaking the stranglehold of right-wing private financing on contemporary science (and, as outside analysts, paying detailed attention to how these broader, institutional-level factors are manifested at the level of scientific method).

These issues are bigger than Trump. They won’t be easy to address, because they will require scientists to bite the hand that feeds them. But in order to defend “science” as left-leaning marchers would like it to be, it is necessary to demand changes to science as it is right now, and to explicitly confront the right-wing political and financial infrastructure that stands in the way.

Obama’s misleading climate optimism

President Obama is in Science today playing chess with himself about climate policy. More specifically, about whether we can avert catastrophe without it. Obama’s predicament is understandable, because it’s everyone’s predicament right now: with the Trump inauguration now right around the corner, the question is not whether but to what extent the Obama administration’s environmental regulatory apparatus will be dismantled. On the one hand, Obama wants to underline the extreme badness of this dismantling; on the other hand, he doesn’t want to leave office admitting publicly the severe jeopardy in which Trump’s election places his legacy on climate change.

So it’s disappointing but not surprising that his argument for why climate progress is heading down the pipeline come hell or high water is saddled with internal contradictions and uncharacteristic unclarity.

Obama’s first subsection declares, in remarkably stark terms, “Economies grow; emissions fall.” This claim, that GDP accumulation, technological progress, and other interpretations of that vaguest of phrases, “economic growth,” drive a “decoupling” of human activity and environmental consequences, has long been a staple of “Cornucopian” arguments against the urgency of robust regulatory climate action.

It is thus rather stunning to see Obama parrot it in the pages of Science, and even more stunning to read on and find him actually making exactly the converse argument: that aggressive policy change to encourage decarbonization has economic benefits. Obama presents a compelling case that left unchecked, climate change will have devastating economic impacts; that compliance with his administration’s energy efficiency standards can help businesses save money; and that the renewable energy sector is a more promising site for job creation efforts than the fossil fuel industry. Fair enough, but this is manifestly not a case for the principle that “economies grow; emissions fall.”

This tortured rhetorical strategy — regurgitating, in the name of optimism, well-tread right-wing talking points about the superfluity of federal climate policy and then going on to make a completely different argument — continues throughout the article. So we have Obama crediting the success of his administration’s interventions in the clean energy sector to the autonomous decision-making of private businesses on the breathtakingly vacuous grounds that “ultimately, these investments are being made by firms.” We have Obama enumerating the ways in which federal policy was able to drive increased renewable energy use before suggesting that the credit actually lies with apparently endogenous changes in “market incentives” and concluding that the states can pick up any slack on the federal level. And finally we have Obama asserting that, internationally, the climate action genie is now out of the bottle with or without U.S. leadership before concluding with a desperate plea for remaining in the Paris agreement in order to hold other signatory countries accountable.

When Obama’s argument isn’t running aground on his own far better counterarguments, it is buoyed by a healthy dose of wishful thinking. Obama massively underestimates how slim (or nonexistent) the margin of error on climate change actually is. For instance, he proudly cites an estimate that the U.S.’s energy-sector carbon emissions did not increase from 2014-2015. That’s obviously better than an increase. But in order to meet the Paris agreement’s 2 degree (Celsius) temperature increase limit, beyond which lurk severe and likely irreversible impacts, the entire developed world is looking at something liketen percent annual decline in all greenhouse gas emissions. Next to this benchmark Obama’s ballyhooed “halt in emissions growth” looks quite flimsy. And, pace Obama, we are unlikely to see even that meager progress subsist into the Trump administration.

It’s one thing for Obama to be reluctant to admit exactly what Trump’s election portends for climate change. But it’s another thing for him to promulgate the logic of center-right pseudo-solutions as grounds for his optimism. Natural gas isn’t going to fix climate change. The wisdom of the market isn’t going to fix climate change. The only thing that might fix climate change is a near-unprecedented, federal government-led, economy-wide mobilization towards renewable energy that keeps all existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground — an initiative that we will never see as long as Trump is in the White House. If Obama wants to leave a lasting legacy on climate change, that is the change he’ll have to fight for as ex-president.


Scott Alexander is dangerously wrong about Trump

[Epistemic status: extreme]

A blog post from Scott Alexander, whose writing usually stays confined to an insular circle of “Rationalists” (note the capitalization), seems to have broken through to the mainstream. At the very least I have seen it shared by people who I assume are not regular readers of his blog, so I wanted to write some sort of response now that the risk of signal-boosting the post seems rather moot.

Alexander wants us to stop thinking that Donald Trump is racist, or that his presidency will be racist, or that his voters were racist. He pretty much wants us to stop talking about racism completely vis-à-vis Trump. I think this is extraordinarily foolish. But first, to mitigate the risk of being accused of rejecting the post on face, I just want to briefly note two things that I actually do agree with him on.

First, I think it is absolutely correct that there are manifold problems with Trump besides his racism, and that the Clinton campaign and her supporters could have afforded to talk more about those things (though his implication that no one was talking about these things is demonstrably false). Second, I do not think that it is a useful exercise to attempt to parse out exactly which Trump voters, on a sliding scale from none to all, can be justifiably called “racist.” (However, I probably believe this latter point for very different reasons than Alexander).

Now onto what he gets wrong.

1. Alexander is wrong about racism

As Jamelle Bouie noted earlier today, Alexander is operating under a deeply limited understanding of what racism is. Alexander seems to believe that “racism” means “David Duke and 4chan Nazis” and not a whole lot else. Having thus stacked the deck in his favor, he proceeds to pile on the arithmetic to demonstrate that, in fact, the literal Ku Klux Klan did not comprise a sizable portion of Trump’s voter base.

Q.E.D.! Of course, when most people talked about Trump’s racism, they were never making the claim that most of his supporters were Ku Klux Klan members. Even claims that Trump is “openly racist,” onto which Alexanders heaps immense amounts of scorn, never amounted to that suggestion. The “openness” to which critics referred was the unprecedented degree to which Trump’s rhetoric and behavior (before and during the campaign) were saturated with racism — more on this in a minute.

The “open racism” label was designed to draw a contrast to past Republican candidates, like Mitt Romney, whose “racism” was largely (though not exclusively; see his infamous “47%” comment about lazy welfare-moochers) confined to his support for policies that, in massively redistributing wealth upwards and rolling back key social-justice efforts of the Obama administration, would have a disproportionately negative material effect on the lives of American people of color.

This point is crucial, because Trump and the party that he now heads still support policies that are racist in that sense. The past week alone has seen the GOP go full-steam-ahead on plans to dismantle Medicare, commandeer the EPA (a key line of defense against environmental racism), and cut taxes on the rich, just to name a few of the most high-profile examples.

The Alexander party line on this sort of argument seems to be (1) it’s unfair to say people are racist for opposing “liberal” policies and (2) it’s actually racist to “assume black people are poor” (he makes a variant of this latter point in this article re: criminal justice). The first point is circular, because it relies on his definition of racism as “holding KKK-style views,” which is what talking about racism enacted subtly through policy is designed to dispute. The second point is even more ridiculous: it asks us to ignore economic marginalization as an axis of racial oppression simply because of the fear that black poverty would then become naturalized — but that is only a risk if you agree, with Alexander, to turn a blind eye to the existence of racist politicians passing racist policies.

2. Alexander is wrong about Trump 

All of this being said, Alexander is also just flat-out wrong when he denies that there’s evidence that Trump himself holds or has espoused racist views. On the contrary, there is decades of evidence for that proposition.

The evidence begins in the early 1970s, when Trump first entered the public eye when he was sued by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments to black people. Alexander provides a pathetic parenthetical response to this story by wrongly claiming that only his father was implicated and then attempting to excuse a violation of federal anti-discrimination law by pointing out that racist views about housing were somewhat au currant among white people at the time.

Later, in 1989, Trump returned to the public spotlight when he spent almost a hundred thousand dollars on a PR campaign in favor of the execution of the wrongly-accused “Central Park Five,” all of whom were people of color. Last month Trump actually doubled down on his lingering desire to send these innocent black and Latino men to their deaths. Alexander provides a contorted statistical argument for why “tough on crime” politics is not racist — which it of course is not a priori. But we aren’t talking a priori. We’re talking about the United States, with its centuries-long history of employing the criminal justice system to wage war on black and brown Americans, and about Donald Trump, with a decades-long history of the same.

Before we even get to Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric, it is crucial to point out that Trump emerged in the last several years as a political figure thanks to his sustained campaign to delegitimize the first black American president by baselessly contending that he was not born in the United States — claims that he didn’t back down on until recently, when it became clear that the Birther movement he helped to spearhead had failed and was becoming a political liability.

Now, at long last, we arrive at this year’s campaign. Alexander’s counter-argumentation here largely relies on an out-of-hand dismissal of a generation of social science research on the concept of “dogwhistling.” That is an act of extreme intellectual arrogance, but the beauty of Trump is that it is not even necessary to resort to claims of dogwhistling to cite example’s of Trump’s racism during the campaign. Here I will focus on just the two most prominent examples, but you can scour the internet to find many, many more.

First, there are the comments about Mexican immigrants that kickstarted Trump’s campaign back in 2015. Alexander helpfully clarifies that Trump was not saying that Mexicans were bad people, simply that Mexican immigrants were bad people (specifically rapists and drug lords, in case you somehow forgot). Perhaps this defines Trump in contradistinction to the rigorously taxonomical racists that Alexander deems worthy interlocutors on his blog. But it is hardly reassuring for those of us who live in the real world, understand the practical mutability of constructed racial categories, and are worried about how those who have internalized Trump’s rhetoric might treat the people they see on the street.

Next, there is Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration and proposal for a Muslim registry — ideas which, in case anyone was credulous enough to believe dismissals of them as “just campaign talk,” have received new life in recent days. Alexander, graciously, acknowledges that this is a bad thing but comes down hard on the argument that Islamophobia is a different beast than racism. His assertion that most Muslims are “white-ish” reeks of the taxonomic scientific racism mentioned above, but otherwise this is a distressingly common argument.

Refutations abound, but the point I’d like to hammer home is this: Alexander wants to explain to people why they shouldn’t be afraid of Trump. If a pedantic explanation of why Trumpian talk of internment camps, registries, and immigration bans is not technically racism is Alexander’s idea of how to comfort alarmed Muslims (and Sikhs, who face the impact of Islamophobia too), he shouldn’t expect any breathless thanks for soothed anxieties any time soon.

Ah, but Trump said he loves Hispanics while eating a taco bowl, so I guess there’s nothing to see here.

3. Alexander is wrong about Trump’s support base

This aspect of Alexander’s argument is the most inexplicable to me, surely the most callous, and in my opinion the most dangerous moving forward. Despite writing after Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign CEO and a ringleader of the white supremacist “alt-right” movement, as his senior advisor, Alexander still stubbornly insists that there is no evidence that Trump’s campaign or his victory did anything to elevate or embolden the people that Alexander would actually deign to classify as “open racists.”

It is inexplicable to me for several reasons. The Bannon appointment is one, but Bannon is just the tip of the iceberg. Reports of elected officials, teachers, bosses, and other authority figures around the country spouting “openly racist” rhetoric after Trump’s victory abound. The Ku Klux Klan celebrated the victory loudly. No matter how small of a fraction of his vote total the KKK represented, this should alarm any conscientious American.

Alexander relies heavily on exit polling to dispute the idea that it’s important to talk about the radical racist right in connection with Trump’s victory, which is a mistake for two reasons. First, it is absolutely stunning to me that someone who talks incessantly about “epistemic status” and regularly scrutinizes statistical data that he doesn’t like in minute detail would treat notoriously fallible exit polling so unquestioningly. There is lots of evidence that this is poor methodology, including on the question of Latino voters that Alexander spends so much time dwelling on.

Second, it ignores the potentially outsized pernicious influence of that small minority (especially when they have reason to believe they will have an ear in Bannon steps away from the Oval Office). This is why I find Alexander’s dismissal of neo-Nazi support and hate crime proliferation so callous. It only takes a few people to damage a lot of lives. Reports of hate crimes since Trump’s victory are obviously small compared to the total number of people who voted in the presidential election but Alexander’s unpitying tone in discussing swastika graffiti, physical harassment, and other mistreatment of hundreds of real human beings is quite distasteful.

In particular, I take issue with Alexander’s decision to blame post-Trump anti-Semitism on the media, rather than on Trump or his anti-Semitic followers themselves. In particular, while everyone online has their favorite bone to pick with Vox, singling them out for putatively causing people to respond to Trump’s denunciation of globalism with anti-Semitism is especially objectionable given how open many Vox writers have been about the unprecedented rash of anti-Semitic harassment they’ve received during this election cycle.

The most staggering irony of Alexander’s piece, by the way, is his unreflective equation of anti-Semitism with “anti-Israel” sentiment, concluding that Trump and his movement can have nothing to do with anti-Semitism because he supports Israel and the Israeli right supports him. The true wolf-crying over the last several years has been done by right-wing activists who responded to evidence of a global resurgence in anti-Semitism by doubling down even harder on the conviction that opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestine –and no one else — are the real anti-Semites.

I think that Alexander’s willingness to write off pro-Trump grassroots violence is probably the most irresponsible part of the entire piece — and this is a piece, just to reiterate, which ignores the impact of Trump’s economic agenda on the most vulnerable members of society and downplays the danger of Trump’s explicit proposed crackdown on Mexican and Muslim Americans.

Thuggish acolytes are the backbone of any authoritarian/fascist regime. If Trump is able to enact the most destructive conceivable agenda — the sort of agenda that Steve Bannon will be whispering in his ear for the next four years — it will be because he is able to physically intimidate opponents, from community organizers to “moderate” Republicans in office.

And sure enough, as Alexander himself acknowledges, hundreds of people across the country have already declared themselves willing and able to hurt other people in their allegiance to the Trump movement, apropos of absolutely nothing substantive. It’s Day 10.