Pluralistic: The Pizzaburger Presidency (29 May 2024)

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A press conference in the White House briefing room. The press secretary has been replaced with a woman's torso topped with a 'pizzaburger' (a hamburger patty between two pepperoni pizzas) in place of a head.

The Pizzaburger Presidency (permalink)

The corporate wing of the Democrats has objectively terrible political instincts, because the corporate wing of the Dems wants things that are very unpopular with the electorate (this is a trait they share with the Republican establishment).

Remember Hillary Clinton's unimaginably terrible campaign slogan, "America is already great?" In other words, "Vote for me if you believe that nothing needs to change":

Biden picked up the "This is fine" messaging where Clinton left off, promising that "nothing would fundamentally change" if he became president:

Biden didn't so much win that election as Trump lost it, by doing extremely unpopular things, including badly bungling the American covid response and killing about a million people.

Biden's 2020 election victory was a squeaker, and it was absolutely dependent on compromising with the party's left wing, embodied by the Warren and Sanders campaigns. The Unity Task Force promised – and delivered – key appointments and policies that represented serious and powerful change for the better:

Despite these excellent appointments and policies, the Biden administration has remained unpopular and is heading into the 2024 election with worryingly poor numbers. There is a lot of debate about why this might be. It's undeniable that every leader who has presided over a period of inflation, irrespective of political tendency, is facing extreme defenstration, from Rishi Sunak, the far-right prime minister of the UK, to the relentlessly centrist Justin Trudeau in Canada:

It's also true that Biden has presided over a genocide, which he has been proudly and significantly complicit in. That Trump would have done the same or worse is beside the point. A political leader who does things that the voters deplore can't expect to become more popular, though perhaps they can pull off less unpopular:

Biden may be attracting unfair blame for inflation, and totally fair blame for genocide, but in addition to those problems, there's this: Biden hasn't gotten credit for the actual good things he's done:

Writing in his newsletter, Matt Stoller offers an explanation for this lack of credit: the Biden White House almost never talks about any of these triumphs, even the bold, generational ones that will significantly alter the political landscape no matter who wins the next election:

Biden's antitrust enforcers have gone after price-fixing in oil, food and rent – the three largest sources of voter cost-of-living concern. They've done more on these three kinds of crime than all of their predecessors over the past forty years, combined. And yet, Stoller finds example after example of White House press secretaries being lobbed softballs by the press and refusing to even try to swing at them. When asked about any of this stuff, the White House demurs, refusing to comment.

The reasons they give for this is that they don't want to mess up an active case while it's before the courts. But that's not how this works. Yes, misstatements about active cases can do serious damage, but not talking about cases extinguishes the political will needed to carry them out. That's why a competent press secretary needs excellent briefings and training, because they must talk about these cases.

Think for a moment about the fact that the US government is – at this very moment – trying to break up Google, the largest tech company in the history of the world, and there has been virtually no press about it. This is a gigantic story. It's literally the biggest business story ever. It's practically a secret.

Why doesn't the Biden admin want to talk about this very small number of very good things it's doing? To understand that, you have to understand the hollowness of "centrist" politics as practiced in the Democratic Party.

The Democrats, like all political parties, are a coalition. Now, there are lots of ways to keep a coalition together. Parties who detest one another can stay in coalition provided that each partner is getting something they want out of it – even if one partner is bitterly unhappy about everything else happening in the coalition. That's the present-day Democratic approach: arrest students, bomb Gaza, but promise to do something about abortion and a few other issues while gesturing with real and justified alarm at Trump's open fascism, and hope that the party's left turns out at the polls this fall.

Leaders who play this game can't announce that they are deliberately making a vital coalition partner miserable and furious. Instead, they insist that they are "compromising" and point to the fact that "everyone is equally unhappy" with the way things are going.

This school of politics – "Everyone is angry at me, therefore I am doing something right" – has a name, courtesy of Anat Shenker-Osorio: "Pizzaburger politics." Say half your family wants burgers for dinner and the other half wants pizza: make a pizzaburger and disappoint all of them, and declare yourself to be a politics genius:

But Biden's Pizzaburger Presidency doesn't disappoint everyone equally. Sure, Biden appointed some brilliant antitrust enforcers to begin the long project of smashing the corporate juggernauts built through forty years of Reaganomics (including the Reganomics of Bill Clinton and Obama). But his lifetime federal judicial appointments are drawn heavily from the corporate wing of the party's darlings, and those judges will spend the rest of their lives ruling against the kinds of enforcers Biden put in charge of the FTC and DoJ antitrust division:

So that's one reason that Biden's comms team won't talk about his most successful and popular policies. But there's another reason: schismogenesis.

"Schismogenesis" is a anthropological concept describing how groups define themselves in opposition to their opponents (if they're for it, we're against it). Think of the liberals who became cheerleaders for the "intelligence community" (you know the CIA spies who organized murderous coups against a dozen Latin American democracies, and the FBI agents who tried to get MLK to kill himself) as soon as Trump and his allies began to rail against them:

Part of Trump's takeover of conservativism is a revival of "the paranoid style" of the American right – the conspiratorial, unhinged apocalyptic rhetoric that the movement's leaders are no longer capable of keeping a lid on:

This stuff – the lizard-people/Bilderberg/blood libel/antisemitic/Great Replacement/race realist/gender critical whackadoodlery – was always in conservative rhetoric, but it was reserved for internal communications, a way to talk to low-information voters in private forums. It wasn't supposed to make it into your campaign ads:

Today's conservative vibe is all about saying the quiet part aloud. Historian Rick Perlstein calls this the "authoritarian ratchet": conservativism promises a return to a "prelapsarian" state, before the country lost its way:

This is presented as imperative: unless we restore that mythical order, the country is doomed. We might just be the last generation of free Americans!

But that state never existed, and can never be recovered, but it doesn't matter. When conservatives lose a fight they declare to be existential (say, trans bathroom bans), they just pretend they never cared about it and move on to the next panic.

It's actually worse for them when they win. When the GOP repeals Roe, or takes the Presidency, the Senate and Congress, and still fails to restore that lost glory, then they have to find someone or something to blame. They turn on themselves, purging their ranks, promise ever-more-unhinged policies that will finally restore the state that never existed.

This is where schismogenesis comes in. If the GOP is making big, bold promises, then a shismogenesis-poisoned liberal will insist that the Dems must be "the party of normal." If the GOP's radical wing is taking the upper hand, then the Dems must be the party whose radical wing is marginalized (see also: UK Labour).

This is the trap of schismogenesis. It's possible for the things your opponents do to be wrong, but tactically sound (like promising the big changes that voters want). The difference you should seek to establish between yourself and your enemies isn't in promising to maintaining the status quo – it's in promising to make better, big muscular changes, and keeping those promises.

It's possible to acknowledge that an odious institution to do something good – like the CIA and FBI trying to wrongfoot Trump's most unhinged policies – without becoming a stan for that institution, and without abandoning your stance that the institution should either be root-and-branch reformed or abolished altogether.

The mere fact that your enemy uses a sound tactic to do something bad doesn't make that tactic invalid. As Naomi Klein writes in her magnificent Doppelganger, the right's genius is in co-opting progressive rhetoric and making it mean the opposite: think of their ownership of "fake news" or the equivalence of transphobia with feminism, of opposition to genocide with antisemitism:

Promising bold policies and then talking about them in plain language at every opportunity is something demagogues do, but having bold policies and talking about them doesn't make you a demagogue.

The reason demagogues talk that way is that it works. It captures the interest of potential followers, and keeps existing followers excited about the project.

Choosing not to do these things is political suicide. Good politics aren't boring. They're exciting. The fact that Republicans use eschatological rhetoric to motivate crazed insurrectionists who think they're the last hope for a good future doesn't change the fact that we are at a critical juncture for a survivable future.

If the GOP wins this coming election – or when Pierre Poilievre's petro-tories win the next Canadian election – they will do everything they can to set the planet on fire and render it permanently uninhabitable by humans and other animals. We are running out of time.

We can't afford to cede this ground to the right. Remember the clickbait wars? Low-quality websites and Facebook accounts got really good at ginning up misleading, compelling headlines that attracted a lot of monetizable clicks.

For a certain kind of online scolding centrist, the lesson from this era was that headlines should a) be boring and b) not leave out any salient fact. This is very bad headline-writing advice. While it claims to be in service to thoughtfulness and nuance, it misses out on the most important nuance of all: there's a difference between a misleading headline and a headline that calls out the most salient element of the story and then fleshes that out with more detail in the body of the article. If a headline completely summarizes the article, it's not a headline, it's an abstract.

Biden's comms team isn't bragging about the administration's accomplishments, because the senior partners in this coalition oppose those accomplishments. They don't want to win an election based on the promise to prosecute an anti-corporate revolution, because they are counter-revolutionaries.

The Democratic coalition has some irredeemably terrible elements. It also has elements that I would march into the sun for. The party itself is a very weak institution that's bad at resolving the tension between both groups:

Pizzaburgers don't make anyone happy and they're not supposed to. They're a convenient cover for the winners of intraparty struggles to keep the losers from staying home on election day. I don't know how Biden can win this coming election, but I know how he can lose it: keep on reminding us that all the good things about his administration were undertaken reluctantly and could be jettisoned in a second Biden administration.

Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago 1940s telephone manual

#20yrsago Red Mars: a very belated appreciation

#15yrsago East German spy fired notorious shot that changed West German politics

#15yrsago Conference Board of Canada admits that its publicly funded, plagiarized, biased copyright “research” is junk

#15yrsago USA, Canada and the EU attempt to kill treaty to protect blind people’s access to written material

#15yrsago What will happen to your crypto-keys when you die?

#15yrsago Bayou: chilling ghost story, a graphic novel about race and haunts in the deep south

#15yrsago UK Tory MP added a servant’s wing to his house at public expense

#15yrsago Cambridge study: DRM turns users into pirates

#10yrsago UK Home Office’s terrorist detection checklist

#10yrsago Peter Watts’s The Scorched Earth Society: A Suicide Bomber’s Guide to Online Privacy

#10yrsago You Are Not a Digital Native: on the publication of the Homeland paperback, a letter to kids

#10yrsago Appeals court nukes the copyright troll business-model

#10yrsago 2084 wants to have a word with 2014 about Net Neutrality

#5yrsago Congressional shaming prompts notorious Pentagon price-gouger to refund $16.1m

#5yrsago Supreme Court of Canada to rule on the enforceability of arbitration clauses

#5yrsago Connecticut’s racist NIMBYs have used zoning laws and dirty tricks to make it one of the most unequal, racially segregated states in the union

#5yrsago Analysis of a far-right disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the EU elections

#5yrsago AT&T’s dystopian advertising vision perfectly illustrates the relationship between surveillance and monopoly

#5yrsago Profiles of young Americans who entered voluntary exile rather than paying their student loans

#1yrago Steven Brust's "Tsalmoth"

#1yrago Ideas Lying Around

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