Pluralistic: 25 Oct 2021

Today's links

A donkey in a domino mask standing on the Capitol Dome steps; its legs are colored red and its body is colored blue.

The Dems' most secret Congressional committee (permalink)

"Personnel is policy": the leader of an organization can set its tenor, priorities, and culture. That's especially true when it comes to Congressional committee leadership. Committee chairs decide when to hold hearings, which witnesses to call, whether to advance a bill or tie it up.

Committee chairs are set by each party's Steering and Policy Committee. Obviously, the leadership and composition of this committee matters. A lot. If personnel is policy, then the personnel who set policy about personnel is really important policy.

The Congressional GOP splits its Steering and Policy Committee into two parts. There's a Policy Committee, whose website lists its members:

And there's a Steering Committee, which also has a website:

Both committees follow the standard rules, the same ones that all congressional committees follow.

How about the Dems?


As Donald Shaw writes for Sludge in The American Prospect, the Democratic Congressional Steering and Policy Committee is a secret.

Its membership is secret. The identity of its chair? Also a secret. It runs on secret rules, and takes secret notes. It's part of Congress, so its minutes can't be obtained through public records requests.

This is the committee that elevated Rep Kathleen Rice to a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee and denied a seat to AOC. Rice went on to use that seat to kill drug price reform in the Build Back Better Act.

This is the committee that denied Rep Katie Porter a seat on the Finance Committee, despite (or, less charitably, because of) her excellent qualifications and popular ideas for financial reform to protect working Americans.

This secret committee doesn't just choose the leaders of other committees – it also sets the ground-rules and agenda for Democrats in Congress, with duties including assisting in:

  • "the establishment and implementation of a Democratic policy agenda and legislative priorities"

  • "policy development and implementation, and message coordination efforts between the Caucus, the whip organization, Members of standing committees, and other Caucus entities"

  • "ongoing policy development by the Chairs of each of the standing committees"

If the GOP can tell us who's calling the shots in its Congressional caucus, we should accept no less from the Dems.

That is, if we want the Dems to retain their control over the House, Senate and White House, we need insight into their internal machinations. Otherwise, we're left to be blindsided by the likes of Kyrsten Sinema, who lied about her willingness to support Biden's signature legislation and is now refusing to talk about.

After all, politics are changing. As Ryan Grim writes, Synema's legislation-for-sale "model of politics is outdated, though it has been the dominant form for most of her life."

The dying model ("the PAC model") was adopted by Dems in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, led by pro-business "New Democrats." They repudiated "special interests" (unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists) and courted big corporate dollars.

But the ability of candidates – starting with Howard Dean, then perfected by Obama – to raise giant sums in small-dollar donations sparked a change in Dem politics that's still underway today. Rather than selling out to wealthy corporations and individuals, they can go to the voters. Voters want policy. Rich people and lobbyists "require coddling, demand intimate access, want internships for their kids, want a dinner and a speech and photo."

In other words, doing the people's business in Congress is efficient. Even Chuck Schumer, once proudly known as "Wall St Chuck" is pursuing small-dollar donors in preference to the kinds of big money corruptors who want to call the shots.

Synema's sellout is hard work. Grim points out "endless stories about Sinema skipping important events in Washington to be at this or that fundraiser and even leaving the country to go to Paris to raise money."

It netted her $1.1m. By contrast, when Synema was running as a progressive who would tax the rich and promote a progressive agenda, she raised $7m. This is a nationwide phenomenon: backing popular policies makes politicians into small-dollar fundraising powerhouses. Mark Kelly backed the whole Build Back Better agenda and raised $8.2m last quarter. His likely GOP rival, who fundraised on how dangerously radical Kelly is, raised $0.5m.

Synema has been abandoned by the people. Out of her $1.1m raise, only $31.6k came from small-dollar donations. Taking money to do unpopular things is…unpopular?

AOC raised $1.6m backing everything that Synema blocked. Her small-dollar raise is bigger than the entire sum that Synema raised.

In other words: Dems who promote policies that Americans want and need do well. Dems who sell out to big corporations are flailing. But because so much of the Democratic Caucus's real policy is being made in secret, it's hard to know which is which.

If we want to fix the Democratic party – turn it into an election-winning, planet-saving, people-first party – we have to know who's calling the shots, and which shots they're calling.

'Cesare Borgia oath of Fealty.' from the 2019 Papal election LARP. Photo by Ada Palmer. Used with permission.

Podcasting "Against The Great Forces of History" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my latest Medium column, "Against The Great Forces of History," in which I describe how Ada Palmer's pedagogic techniques as a Renaissance historian at the University of Chicago has changed my view of how the world works.

Palmer specializes in banned information during the Inquisitions, specifically in Florence. She's an authority on how the Inquisitions dealt with witchcraft, homosexuality, pornography, heresy and banned science. You should read her blog!

Every year, Palmer takes a group of students through a LARP that re-enacts the election of the Medicis' Pope in 1490. Students are assigned to role-play real cardinals from the powerful families of the day over a period of weeks.

The climax is a conclave, held in the Neo-Gothic Memorial Chapel, in full costume (Palmer has a Google Alerts for theater companies selling off their wardrobe). The cardinals, having spent weeks horse-trading and backstabbing, gather to choose a Pope from among the final four candidates.

Here's a funny thing: two of those candidates are always the same, year after year. But the other two? They've never been the same.

In other words, the Great Forces of History are certainly bearing down on that moment. They are ordaining that the two most powerful families in the running will get a shot at elevation. But these forces don't determine the outcome – they influence it. The human choices, made by people with free will, set up fully half of the possible outcomes.

That is to say, history doesn't run on rails. It is steerable. Its great forces don't strip us of agency (and indeed, "great forces" are just the product of earlier human choices). We make history.

As you might expect from this brilliantly imaginative pedagogical method, Palmer isn't just an academic. She's also a musician – a librettist and singer of great breadth, whose works include an album-length retelling of the Norse mythos:

As well as a song about space travel that literally reduces me to tears every time I hear it:

She's also a brilliant science fiction writer, whose profound understanding of the past has created an utterly original vision of the future in her Terra Ignota series:

That series is concluding now with the fourth and final volume, Perhaps the Stars:

Palmer has influenced my thinking a great deal. We co-hosted a seven-part seminar series comparing information control during the Inquisition with other information revolutions.

And hardly a day goes by that I don't think about her Papal LARP, and what it says about being an activist. History bears down upon us at every moment, but we are not its prisoners. We make history, through our choices.

I delved into this last week at the Internet Archive's 25th Anniversary Celebration in San Francisco, in a talk entitled "Seize the Means of Computation."

The podcast episode is here:

And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the RSS feed for my podcast:

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Scored: pulse-pounding/thought-provoking YA novel about surveillance

#5yrsago Audit reveals significant vulnerabilities in Truecrypt and its successors

#5yrsago RIP, Tom Hayden: Yippie, radical, politician, author

#5yrsago San Francisco’s 58-story “leaning tower” is sinking fast

#5yrsago Tax-funded NZ company sold mass surveillance tech to torturers and GCHQ

#5yrsago UAE surveillance contractor is recruiting an army of foreign hackers to break into its citizens’ devices

#5yrsago RIP Jack Chick, father of the Satanic Panic

#1yrago RIAA kills youtube-dl

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla