Pluralistic: Conservatives are fringe outliers – and leftists could learn from them (16 June 2023)

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The title page of Richard Hofstadter's 'Paranoid Style in American Politics' from the November, 1964 issue of Harper's Magazine. A John Birch Society pin reading 'This is REPUBLIC not a DEMOCRACY: let's keep it that way' sits atop the page, obscuring the introductory paragraph.

Conservatives are fringe outliers – and leftists could learn from them (permalink)

The Republican Party, a coalition between Big Business farmers and turkeys who'll vote for Christmas (Red Scare obsessed cowards, apocalyptic white nationalists, religious fanatics, etc) has fallen to its bizarre, violent, noisy radical wing, who are obsessed with policies that are completely irrelevant to the majority of Americans.

As Oliver Willis writes, the views of the radical right – which are also the policies of the GOP – are wildly out of step with the US political view:

The press likes to frame American politics as "narrowly divided," but the reality is that Republicans' electoral victories are due to voter suppression and antimajoritarian institutions (the Senate and Electoral College, etc), not popularity. Democrats consistently outperform the GOP in national races. Dems won majorities in 1992/6, and beat the GOP in 2000, 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020. The only presidential race the GOP won on popular votes since 1988 was 2004, when GW Bush eked out a plurality (not a majority).

But, as Willis says, Dems "act like it is 1984 and that they are outliers in a nation of Reagan voters," echoing a stilted media narrative. The GOP's platform just isn't popular. Take the groomer panic: 71% of Americans approve of same-sex marriage. The people losing their shit about queer people are a strange, tiny minority.

Every one of the GOP's tentpole issues is wildly unpopular: expanding access to assault rifles, banning immigration, lowering taxes on the rich, cutting social programs, forcing pregnant people to bear unwanted children, etc. This is true all the way up to the GOP's coalescing support for Trump as their 2024 candidate. Trump has lost every popular vote he's ever stood for, and owes his term in the Oval Office to the antimajoritarian Electoral College system, gerrymandering, and massive voter suppression.

Willis correctly points out that Dem leaders are basically "normal" center-right politicians, not radicals. And, unlike their GOP counterparts, politicians like Clinton, Obama and Biden don't hide their disdain for the radical wing of their party. Even never-Trumper Republicans are afraid of their base. Romney declared himself "severely conservative" and McCain "put scare quotes around 'health of the mother' provisions for abortion rights."

The GOP fringe imposes incredible discipline on their leaders. Take all the nonsense about "woke capitalism": on the one hand, it's absurd to call union-busting, tax-dodging, worker-screwing companies "woke" (even if they sell Pride flags for a couple of weeks every year).

But on the other hand? The GOP leadership have actually declared war on the biggest corporations in America, to the point that the WSJ says that "Republicans and Big Business broke up":

But America is a two-party system and there are plenty of people who'll pull the lever for any Republican. This means that when the GOP comes under the control of its swivel-eyed loon wing, the swivel-eyed loons wield power far beyond the number of people who agree with them.

There's an important lesson there for Dems, whose establishment is volubly proud of its independence from its voters. The Biden administration is a weirdly perfect illustration of this "independence." The Biden admin is a kind of referee, doling out policies and appointments to its competing wings, without any coherence or consistency.

That's how you get incredible appointments like Lina Khan at the FTC and Jonathan Kanter at the DoJ Antitrust Division and Rohit Chopra at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureat – the progressive wing of the party bargained for these key appointments and then played their cards very well, getting incredible, hard-charging, hyper-competent fighters in those roles.

Likewise, Jared Bernstein, finally confirmed as Council of Economic Advisers chair after an interminable wrangle:

And Julie Su, acting labor secretary, who just delivered a six-year contract to west coast dockworkers with 8-10% raises in the first year, paid retroactively for the year they worked without a contract:

But the Biden admin's unwillingness to side with one wing of the party also produces catastrophic failures, like the martyrdom of Gigi Sohn, who was subjected to years of vicious personal attacks while awaiting confirmation to the FCC, undefended by the Biden admin, left to twist in the wind until she gave it up as a bad job:

It's how we get key roles filled by do-nothing seatwarmers like Pete Buttigieg, who has the same sweeping powers that Lina Khan is wielding so deftly at the FTC, but who lacks either the will or the skill to wield those same powers at the Department of Transport:

By refusing to stand for anything except a fair division of powers among different Democratic Party blocs, the Biden admin ends up undercutting itself. Take right to repair, a centerpiece of the administration's agenda, subject of a historic executive order and FTC regulation:

Right to Repair fights have been carried out at the state level for years, with the biggest victory coming in Massachusetts, where an automotive R2R ballot initiative won overwhelming support in 2020:

But despite the massive support for automotive right to repair in the Bay State, Big Car has managed to delay the implementation of the new law for years, tying up the state in expensive, time-consuming litigation:

But eventually, even the most expensive delaying tactic fails. Car manufacturers were set to come under the state right to repair rule this month, but they got a last minute reprieve, from Biden's own National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who sent urgent letters to every major car manufacturer, telling them to ignore the Massachusetts repair law:

The NHTSA repeats the car lobby's own scare stories about "cybersecurity" that they blitzed to Massachusetts voters in the runup to the ballot initiative:

The idea that cybersecurity is best maintained by letting powerful corporations gouge you on service and parts is belied by independent experts, like SecuRepairs, who do important work countering the FUD thrown off by the industry (and parroted by Biden's NHTSA):

Independent security experts are clear that letting owners of high-tech devices decide who fixes them, what software they run, etc, makes us safer:

But here we are: the Biden admin is sabotaging the Biden admin, because the Biden admin isn't an administration, it's a system for ensuring proportional representation of different parts of the Democratic Party coalition.

This isn't just bad for policy, it's bad politics, too. It presumes that if some Democratic voters want pizza, and others want hamburgers, that you can please everyone by serving up pizzaburgers. No one wants a pizzaburger:

The failure to deliver a coherent, muscular vision for a climate-ready, anti-Gilded Age America has left the Democrats vulnerable. Because while the radical proposals of the GOP fringe may not enjoy much support, there are large majorities of Americans who have lost faith in the status quo and are totally uninterested in the Pizzaburger Party.

Nowhere is this better explained than in Naomi Klein's superb long-form article on RFK Jr's presidential bid in The Guardian:

Don't get me wrong, RFK Jr is a Very Bad Politician, for all the reasons that Klein lays out. He's an anti-vaxxer, a conspiracist, and his support for ending American military aggression, defending human rights, and addressing the climate emergency is laughably thin.

But as Klein points out, RFK Jr is not peddling pizzaburgers. He is tapping into a legitimate rage:

a great many voters are hurting and rightfully angry: about powerful corporations controlling their democracy and profiting off disease and poverty. About endless wars draining national coffers and maiming their kids. About stagnating wages and soaring costs. This is the world – inflamed on every level – that the two-party duopoly has knowingly created.

RFK Jr is campaigning against "the corrupt merger between state and corporate power," against drug monopolies setting our national health agenda, and polluters capturing environmental regulators.

As Klein says, despite RFK Jr's willing to say the unsayable, and tap into the yearning among the majority of American voters for something different, he's not running a campaign rooted in finally telling the American public “the truth.” Rather, "public discourse filled with unsayable and unspeakable subjects is fertile territory for all manner of hucksters positioning themselves as uniquely courageous truth tellers."

We've been here before. Remember Trump campaigning against a "rigged system" and promising to "make America great again?" Remember Clinton's rejoinder that "America was already great?" It's hard to imagine a worse response to legitimate outrage – over corporate capture, declining wages and living conditions; and spiraling health, education and shelter costs.

Sure, it was obvious that Trump was a beneficiary of the rigged system, and that he would rig it further, but at least he admitted it was rigged, not "already great."

The Democratic Party is not in thrall to labor unions, or racial equality activists, or people who care about gender justice or the climate emergency. Unlike the GOP, the Dem establishment has figured out how to keep a grip on power within their own party – at the expense of exercising power in America, even when they hold office.

But unlike culture war nonsense, shared prosperity, fairness, care, and sound environmental policies are very popular in America. Some people have been poisoned against politics altogether and sunk into nihilism, while others have been duped into thinking that America can't afford to look after its people.

In this regard, winning the American electorate is a macrocosm for the way labor activists win union majorities in the workplaces they organize. In her memoir A Collective Bargain, Jane McAlevey describes how union organizers contend with everything that progressive politicians must overcome. A union drive takes place in the teeth of unfair laws, on a tilted playing field that allows bosses to gerrymander some workers' votes and suppress others' altogether. These bosses have far more resources than the workers, and they spend millions on disinformation campaigns, forcing workers to attend long propaganda sessions on pain of dismissal.

But despite all this, labor organizers win union elections and strike votes, and they do so with stupendous majorities – 95% or higher. This is how the most important labor victories of our day were won: the 2019 LA teachers' strike won everything. Not just higher wages, but counselors in schools, mandatory greenspace for every school in LA, an end to ICE shakedowns of immigrant parents at the school-gate, and immigration law help for students and their families. What's more, the teachers used their unity, their connection to the community, and their numbers to get out the vote in the next election, winning the marginal seats that delivered 2020's Democratic Congressional majority.

As I wrote in my review of MacAlevey's book:

For McAlevey, saving America is just a scaled up version of the union organizer’s day-job. First, we fix the corrupt union, firing its sellout leaders and replacing them with fighters. Then, we organize supermajorities, person-to-person, in a methodical, organized fashion. Then we win votes, using those supermajorities to overpower the dirty tricks that rig the elections against us. Then we stay activated, because winning the vote is just the start of the fight.

It’s a far cry from the Democratic Party consultant’s “data-driven” microtargeting strategy based on eking out tiny, fragile majorities with Facebook ads. That’s a strategy that fails in the face of even a small and disorganized voter-suppression campaign — it it’s doomed in today’s all-out assault on fair elections.

What’s more, the consultants’ microtargeting strategy treats people as if the only thing they have to contribute is casting a ballot every couple years. A sleeping electorate will never win the fights that matter — the fight to save our planet, and to abolish billionaires.

If only the Democratic Party was as scared of its base as the Republicans are of their own.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Swedes take to the street to fight domestic spying

#15yrsago How Canada’s DMCA will criminalize everyday Canadians

#10yrsago Men in Toronto Mayor Rob Ford crack photo arrested in gang sweep

#10yrsago NSA admits it listens in on US phone calls and reads US emails without a warrant

#10yrsago Turkish EU minister: protesters will be treated as terrorists

#5yrsago Adventure House: the sequel to the Haunted Mansion that never was

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Brad DeLong (, Bill McKibben).

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