The Roots Of Trump’s Madness: Is Trumpism Driven By Bankrupt Republican Ideology Or Is It A Uniquely Awful Thing All Its Own?

Earlier this week, George Bush came out of retirement to deliver what was interpreted by many as a rebuke of Trump and Trumpism. The reaction from the left was divided, to say the least.

Many latched on to the comments to highlight just how much politics has degenerated in the era of Trump. Some commented, bemused, that they never thought they’d live to see the day when they thought Bush sounded reasonable. Others wondered aloud if we took people like Bush, McCain, or Romney for granted, heaping criticism on them only to realize years later how much worse things could get.

Others were alarmed that people would be so quick to forgive and forget all the terrible things Bush did in his day. Some pointed out that it was hypocritical for Bush to try to score points against things he himself enabled.

All this reflects something that’s been commonly debated since Trump came onto the scene more than two years ago: are Trump and Trumpism uniquely awful things that even the Republican Party of a few years ago would find unacceptable or is Trump basically a product of Republican politics that were always callous, extreme and spiraling towards dysfunction?

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For the record, no we shouldn’t rehabilitate George W Bush’s image. He may seem innocuous now, but if there a hell he’s definitely going to it…

It’s not an idle question. Determining where and to what extent the Trump Administration’s actions are an aberration from typical Republican practices is an important in step in formulating a strategy to beat Trump and the Republicans. Highlighting the similarities between the two is important if Democrats want to leverage the unpopularity of the Trump administration into down ballot electoral victories. On the other hand, highlighting how much Trump has uniquely degraded things adds a sense of urgency to the opposition against him, and dispels the notion that it’s motivated merely by partisanship. There are also risks associated with both approaches, with emphasizing the misdeeds of one appearing to normalize the misdeeds of the other. So it’s important to figure out which interpretation is more relevant and accurate.

Well, to try to answering this question, and mark the end of Trump’s third quarter in office, we decided to work out just how much of Trump’s awful policies were things that derive from Republican politics, and which reflect his own unique insanity.

 

Finding The Root Cause Of Trump’s Horrible Actions

As many readers know, since the start of the Trump Administration last January, we have attempted to keep a running tally of all the harmful actions undertaken in the Everything Awful The Trump Administration Has Done Omnibus. Furthermore, we have attempted to categorize each item on the list by their relevant policy area, as well as scoring the actions on their relative impact. This has provided the basis for some analysis on the total impact and focus of the administration over time. (An in-depth discussion of the scoring system and past analysis can be viewed here, while a full accounting of the Trump Administration’s awful actions are viewable here).

Using the Trump Omnibus as a starting point, we went through the actions of the Trump Administration so far and tried to sort them into one of three categories:

Typical of Republicans – If an action is consistent with pre-existing Republican policy, it gets sorted into this category. Alternately, if an action is driven largely by other Republicans it fits in the category.

Unique to Trump – This category involves policy initiatives that are originated with Trump. For example, the Muslim ban was something that largely originate with Trump.

Mixed – This category would include actions that are not a consensus position within the Republican Party, but which reflect a substantial and pre-existing faction within the party. There are also trends that Trump is sort of a manifestation of, but which predate him or are obviously bigger than the Trump phenomenon itself.

Once each item of the Trump administration was sorted, their scores were added up to give a rough idea of just how much of the Trump Administration’s harmful policies can be attributed to pre-existing Republican policies, and how much appear to be a unique product of his particular style of politics. This is also broken down by time to determine if the Trump Administration seems to be drifting towards or away from the rest of the Republican party.

Some of this is obviously subject to debate. Most of the time, the policy preferences implied by a given action make it clear enough, but there are things that aren’t so clear. Cronyism is a hallmark of the Trump Administration, however the Bush Administration also had its fair share of good old boys and incompetent lackeys. Where exactly one draw the line between typical Republican sabre rattling switch over to the particular recklessness of a manner who leaks classified information in twitter posts? Opinions will vary.

All this is to say, while this is all anchored in the concrete actions of the administration and established precedence, there’s still a lot of subjectivity and ambiguity that’s unavoidable in this sort of analysis. So you shouldn’t read the end results here as an absolute score, but rather as a general indicator of how things breakdown.

 

Overall Summary

Trump Uniqueness

Going by the scores from the Trump Omnibus, about 67% of the impact of the Trump has come through policies that are typical of the Republican party while 22% came through actions that are unique to Trump and his administration. An additional 11% of the impact came through policies that were a mix.

This breakdown was relatively consistent over time. The initial hope that that the Trump administration would normalize as it entered office turned out to be false, and so far there’s no indication that he’s being brought in to ideological orthodoxy with the party. But on the other hand, for all the infighting between Trump and Congressional Republicans, there hasn’t been a major split between the two as of yet, at least not on policy issues.

Uniqueness by month

One worthwhile observation is that those actions which were typical of Republicans tended to be much more substantial than those which were unique to Trump. On average they affected more people to a greater degree, had a greater degree of legal formal, and they were less easily reversed. This is, perhaps, not surprising. Much of what has distinguished Trump from typical Republicans in the popular imagination is the constant stream of outrageous, but ultimately petty, controversies he seems to cause daily. In terms of actually crafting and implementing policies, it’s not surprising that Trump would need to rely on Republican officials, since he himself doesn’t actually have all that much political capital.

 

Results By Policy Area

Trump Policy Area Uniqueness

The relative uniqueness of the Trump Administration’s policies varied significantly between policy areas. Generally, he was most distinct from Republicans in his impact on government/political institutions, while he was most typical in the realm of economic policy. Trump’s approach to civil liberties and human rights, as well as foreign policy, tended to be much more of a blend of typical Republican practices and his own idiosyncrasies.

Within these broad policy areas there were wide, and often surprising variations. So let’s look at each of them individually:

Civil Liberties and Human Rights

Civil liberties

The most uniquely awful the Trump administration has done is fan the flames of extreme right wing ethno-nationalistic extremism while dismantling programs that combat them. There is precedence for these activities, of course. Republicans have making dog whistles for decades and the right has had a number of extremist groups for years, including the oath keepers, the militia movement, anti-abortion extremists, among others. However, Trump as a political phenomena is unique in being a product of these phenomena, and his election has emboldened unreformed klansmen, outright fascists, and their fellow travellers to an extent that would have been inconceivable a few years ago.

Beyond this, though, Trump’s policies on Civil and Human Rights issues are best characterized as an extension of pre-existing trends, rather than a unique deviation.

In the realm of immigration, Trump has been more eager to impose draconian anti-immigration measures than previous Republican administrations. However, for the most part his actions align with prominent right wing movements, like the Tea Party movement, which have been pushing the Republicans to take a harder anti-immigration line for years. There are still many ways that Trump has arguably gone beyond even the Tea Party. For one thing, his enforcement of anti-immigration measures has been particularly cruel. Likewise, attempts to ban immigration from numerous Muslim countries are something that originated with the Trump administration.

In most other areas, the Trump administration is largely just reflecting awful Republican policies. The drive to disenfranchise voters with voter ID laws is a well-established Republican practice, and the Trump administration is largely just validating a drive that’s driven that’s taking place at the state level. The administration’s attempts to undermine gender and racial discrimination are typical of the Republican party. Draconian tough on crime measures and their attendant violations are common among Conservatives almost everywhere.

Economic, Healthcare, and Environmental Policy And Similar Issues

Economic policies

When Trump was running for President, and for a time after he entered office, there was some speculation that he would break from established Republican economic policies and pursue right wing form of economic populism. In practice, this would have meant meant toning down the free market fundamentalism and attacks on the welfare state in favor of focusing on nationalistic protectionism and targeted intervention to curry favor with his base. Was this the case?

For the most part, the answer to this has been a pretty resounding no.

To be sure, there are things Trump has done that might signal a shift towards economic nationalism: nixing TPP, flirting with a trade war with Canada, the carrier deal, raising more trade dispute in the WTO, and pushing for the re-negotiation of various trade deals. He may yet break off existing trade deals and lead the US into a trade wars. The Trump administration has exercised favoritism towards various businesses and industries, but it’s usually either been a matter of personal interest or the type of crony capitalism typical of Republicans rather than a sort of systemic economic nationalism. This could always change. For one thing, news this week seems to indicate NAFTA may be heading for a messy breakup, and however you feel about NAFTA this would be a very costly and disruptive. Still, so far to the extent that Trump administration has broken from typical Republican policies, it’s largely been around the margins to ambiguous effect.

In most ways the Trump administration has pursued policies typical of any Republican. The administration has aggressively dismantled consumer safety protections, environmental regulations, labor protections and worker safety rules, and financial regulations. He’s also undercut healthcare, social programs and green investments, all while pursuing tax cuts that would exacerbate inequality and destroy government finances. The spending measures he’s pursued, like his push for infrastructure, are largely packages of corporate handouts. This is all well within the scope of pre-existing Republican policy, and there isn’t much evidence that Trump’s “economic populism” is leading him to pull his punches on things that help workers.

Institutions

Institutions

Trump, as a political phenomenon and a President, has been seen in the popular imagination as a very large shock to the America’s political and governing system. For the most part this is accurate, though decidedly not in the sort of iconoclastic “drain the swamp” sense that Trump and his supporters would like to imagine. The Trump’s unique impacts seem to be overwhelmingly concentrated in the realm of government institutions.

The main driving factor in this is the abuses of power associated with the Trump administration, including the administration’s generally poor record on ethics, the ever present conflicts of interest and nepotism, and, of course, the myriad scandals the administration has fallen into. Collectively, these types of abuses of power represent the main distinguishing point between Trump and his Republican peers.

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On the other hand, it’s really easy to imagine President Mitt Romney would have also been really corrupt, though perhaps less sloppy

At the same time, Trump has uniquely degraded the political system, though he’s not as exceptional as one might think. Trump’s antagonism of the media, his demagoguery and so forth do go beyond what you might expect from typical Republicans. However, as much as these thing capture national attention, their impacts are relatively minor and abstract in the greater scheme of things. On the other hand, three of the most substantial actions he’s taken, repealing the Johnson amendment, exempting Sinclair Media from FCC regulations, and appointing Niel Gorsuch, are things that it’s easy to imagine a typical Republican administration would do as well.

The situation for the regulatory system and civil service is largely similar. Trump has foisted a number of impractical directives that badly corrode the functionality of government agencies, and he’s general antagonized and understaffed the federal workforce. However, Republicans have been imposing broad, poorly thought out mandates on governing institutions that badly undermine their capabilities for decades. Arguably Trump has been particularly reckless in the way he’s gone about it, but the difference is one of degrees. The most notable aspect of Trump’s policies towards the civil service where he’s been uniquely bad is transparency. Trump’s campaign against leakers is hardly unprecedented (see Nixon), but the issue is a good deal more pronounced than it would be in a typical Republican administration.

Foreign Policy

National Security

The Trump administration has left a rather obvious mark on Foreign Policy. This is partly due to an intentional break in policy, with the Trump administration’s inward looking nationalism contrasting sharply with the sort of Neo-Conservatism that’s more typical of Republicans. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine Bush threatening to leave NATO in the way Trump has.

But the main distinguishing feature of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is just how diplomatically inept and incoherent it is. This is an administration that’s nixed diplomatic deals with Iran at the same time that it’s enabling Iranian militias win the war in Syria, where the secretary of State and the President are openly at odds with each other. Trump’s mishandling of communications with foreign leaders is already a running joke, and by most appearances he has no interest in getting better. Perhaps the main positive thing you can say about the Trump administration’s foreign policies is that they lack the clarity of vision and competence necessary to execute the sort of grand disastrous foreign adventures that typified the Bush administration.

 

Implications

There are two broad takeaways from these results.

Most of the Things You Could Criticize Trump Over Are Things You Could Criticize Any Republican For…

Especially if one factors in the Tea Party.

The differences between Trump and the Republican Party are largely superficial. Most of the things Trump has done, especially in terms of substantial policy making, are things any Republican President would have done given the opportunity. There are differences around the margins, of course, and there may be a more pronounced split at some point in the future, but for the most part the Trump administration has been awful in the same ways the modern Republican party is awful.

Laughing at your pain
In this picture: Congressional Republicans, laughing at your pain

On the one hand, this means that all the urgency and popular disdain that’s crystallized against Trump can, should, and must also be directed at Republicans. All his awful behavior in law enforcement and civil rights issues have a long established precedence. Most of his draconian immigration policies and cruel deportation practices were things that the Republicans had been trending towards for a while. Whatever hope Trump’s apparent economic populism might have engendered was a false one, in almost every meaningful way he’s vigorously continued the systematic rigging and destabilization of the economy Republicans began decades ago. Correcting these things will need to go far beyond beating. They will also require beating back Republicans and achieving meaningful systemic change.

In short, there are plenty of opportunities to leverage anti-Trumpism into a broadside against right wing ideology and a call for an alternative.

But there are also draw backs to this. For one thing, reining in Trump or winning an electoral rout would be much easier if the Republican party and/or base were alienated by Trump. This is not likely since for the most part he’s just doing things that they basically like, especially if they’re ready to dismiss the Russian scandal as some sort of liberal conspiracy theory. There’s also an issue of normalization. If Trump is doing things that are mostly just things typical Republicans would do, then it’s easy for self proclaimed moderates and a disinterested public to dismiss criticism as simply partisan bickering.

However, that’s offset by the observation that…

 

Trump Has Accelerated The Deterioration Of Both The Republican Party And Modern US Politics In A Significant And Unprecedented Way

trump cruel

While from one perspective Trump’s actions can be seen as mostly typical of the Republican Party, the picture changes if you view Trump’s unique actions as indicating how much worse he is than a hypothetical pre-Trump Republican administration would have been, then his impact has been very stark indeed. Going by the numbers in the Trump Omnibus, we’d estimate that he’s about 25%-50% worse. Think about how reckless a person would have to be to drive 25%-50% over the speed limit on the freeway? That’s essentially what Trump Administration is doing, the only difference is more people will get caught in the flaming wreckage when it inevitably crashes and burns.

And this is all the more serious because such a large part of what makes Trump uniquely awful are things that cut straight to the core of American life. Trump has brought a level of corruption and mismanagement to the center of our governing institutions and politics that’s quite frankly unprecedented in modern American history. He’s already committed the very things Richard Nixon was impeached over, and he’s still going. The actions of some people in the Trump campaign easily qualify for the technical definition of treason. They aided a hostile foreign power trying to tamper in our election, and that isn’t some conspiracy theory, they admitted it. Compared to that, the flagrant misuse of government funds, the conflicts of interest, and nepotism look almost banal. But they aren’t banal, any one of those things would have caused a scandal that would have easily brought down administration’s not too long ago.

Worse yet, Trump is normalizing all sorts of awful things. If you went back to 5 years ago things and told people about any of this, they likely wouldn’t believe you. To be sure, 2012 wasn’t “normal” either, but by comparison 2017 is like a fever dream. The Tea Party radicalism of yesteryear is now the stated policy of the President. Not only that, they’ve gone further still. Not too long ago, a candidate saying that they were going to ban Muslim immigrants from the country would have been seen as a fringe character. Now it’s an accepted position of the mainstream right. Literal Nazi’s are coming out of the woodwork, and the dog whistle appeals to racism are more explicit than they’ve been in nearly half a century. And establishment Republicans, like Ed Gillespie, have mostly acclimated themselves to the situation. This may be an indication that they were always secretly terrible, but it’s not reassuring that they’re now free to be openly terrible.

Of course, this argument can be overdone. For one thing, it risks implying that if it weren’t for Trump everything would be okay, or that pre-Trump Republicans weren’t that bad. That’s wrong for two reasons. First, as we’ve established, most of the awful things the Trump administration has done fit within established Republican policy positions. Second, establishment Republicans have mostly acclimated themselves to the situation, enabling the Administration or adopting its methods on the belief that they’re a political winner. Whatever they would have done in the absence of Trump, their behavior has demonstrated they have no compunction about stooping to his level.

 

Conclusion

We started out with the question of whether Trump was a continuation of all the things that were terrible about Republicans before or a unique aberration that represents a special threat and warrants special urgency. The answer we’ve found is that, despite their apparent incompatibility both are valid depending on one’s perspective.

Moreover, these two characterizations are complimentary. If some someone responds to a litany of complaints about Trump by trying to argue that criticism of Trump does not apply to Republicans, you can point out that yes, in fact, in the vast majority of cases they do, which is why they’ve been prepared to enable him for so long. To anyone who wants to dismiss criticism of Trump as merely partisan rhetoric, you can point out that not long ago a large percentage of what he’s doing would have been unacceptable a few years ago, and enters into the realm of objectively horrifying.

Which case you make is going to have to depend on your audience, of course. To someone who prioritizes economic issues, highlighting that Trump has continued the sort of callous oligarchic policies that voters had roundly rejected in Bush and Romney is likely a good way to go. For someone who’s more interested in clean governance, point out what a singularly corrosive influence has been on our institutions. For a populist with no particular love of the powers that be, point out that Trump’s promise of change was always a hollow one. For self proclaimed “centrists” and “moderates”, point out how much Trump has degraded our politics and enabled radicals. And so on and so forth.

And while some may try to accuse you of talking out of trying to have it both ways, as we’ve seen, all of these arguments are accurate. There’s nothing contradictory in saying the right was starting from a low base, and then Trump dragged it way lower.

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The “Everything Terrible Trump Has Done” 3rd Qtr Brief

Since the Trump Presidency began back in January, we have endeavored to maintain a comprehensive listing of all the administrations misdeeds in the Everything Awful The Trump Administration Has Done Omnibus (full list here), and have attempted to categorize and score them accordingly. Today is October 20th, which means that as of noon today we are 9 months in to the Trump administration. To mark the occasion, we are releasing the Everything Terrible Trump Has Done 3rd Qtr. Brief.

We already provided a thorough explanation of our methodology in the Everything Terrible Trump Has Done 2nd Quarter Report, so we’ll just skip straight to the results. For anyone interested, an in-depth discussion as to how we classified and scored actions can be found here.

 

Overall Results

Trump by Qtr

The overall impact score of Trump’s bad policies were largely unchanged from the last quarter. After several months of consistent decline in the first few months of the administration, the pace of activity rebounded sharply in month 7, hit an all time low in month 8, then rebounded again. While the pace and impact of the Trump administration’s actions can vary significantly between months, generally it seems the pace has stabilized around pretty steady average over time.

Trump by Month

In the last three months, Trump did not achieve much legislatively, however he is still finding plenty of ways to enact policy through his executive orders, rule-making, and the discretionary powers of the Presidency. In fact, to a large extent the third quarter saw the Trump Administration making many of the temporary halt’s on Obama era policy permanent.

 

Top 5 Awful Policies of the Third Quarter

Based on the scores of the Trump Omnibus, we’ve determined that the top 5 harmful actions of the Trump administration were as follows:

  1. Tied between “Signed an executive order which threatens to degrade health insurance coverage for millions and raise premiums for older, sicker Americans” and “Ended health insurance subsidies for low income people that help pay out of pockets costs for millions. This not only threatens the physical and economic well being of the people who receive those subsidies, but also threatens to unravel health insurance markets”
  2. Unveiled a budget that basically no one wants which cuts taxes for corporations and the rich and horribly undermines government funding
  3. With Mike Pence providing the deciding vote, Republicans continued to advance their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act in favor of their own healthcare bill, which would deprive healthcare from millions, on to the Senate floor despite the fact that the bill is deeply unpopular and most don’t even know what was in the bill.
  4. Neglected the devastation in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricane Maria
  5. Rushed to pack courts with anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ judges

These ratings are, of course, subjective and open to debate. For example, the scoring system for the Trump Omnibus tends to privilege items that have a high level of legal formality and items with a long term impact/which are easy to reverse. That’s why Trump’s effort’s to pack courts with anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ judges, which is a relatively low key item, is ranked quite high (i’d stand by that ranking). Conversely, Trump threatening to pardon everyone involved in the Russian scandal, which is a serious enough threat that even suggesting it has severe ramifications for political norms, still scored relatively lower. You can argue about how appropriate this all is. As they say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may catastrophically undermine health insurance marketplaces”.

 

Policy Area

Generally, the adverse impact of the Trump’s policies was largely unchanged. That is to say, he did about as much damage between July 20-October 19 as he did between April 20-July 19. As before, the greatest impact was felt in policies effecting economic and physical well-being, such as healthcare, labor protections, environmental regulations, and similar issues. Actions effecting civil liberties and human rights were the next highest category, followed by issues corroding government and political institutions. This was largely unchanged from the first two quarters of the Trump Administration. Similarly, the impact was spread broadly across particular issues, which suggests the Administration is still operated in a fairly scattershot manner, hitting as many issues as it can with really coordinating.

Q3 scores

There are some notable developments from previous quarters when you get down to the level of specific policies. For one thing, the Administration’s impact on healthcare greatly increased First, in the last 3 months the Administration, and really congressional Republicans, made multiple efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, reviving repeal efforts multiple times and very nearly succeeding. When these efforts eventually failed entirely, the Trump unilaterally began implementing orders undermining the ACA and drastically restricting the quality and affordability of health insurance. This concerted effort, eventually shifting into significant policy directives. The effects of these efforts are already being felt, with the uninsured rate spiking sharply since July.

Beyond healthcare, the last quarter also saw a significant uptick in activity in the realm of immigration and civil rights issues. On immigration, Trump finally set the wheels in motion to end DACA and set the condition that any revival in DACA would require implementing draconian anti-immigration measures, among other things. Meanwhile, in the realm of civil rights his administration put substantial weight behind efforts to protect discriminatory voter ID laws, banned transgender soldiers from the military, dismantled civil rights protections in the workplace, and generally continued to pack the courts with anti-choice anti-LGBT judges, just to name a few things. Collectively, these actions added up. And, of course, the issue of right wing extremism forced its way onto the scene rather dramatically (what with the Nazis parading in the streets and all).

On the other hand, the last three months saw a relative lull in the unfolding Russian scandal, generally lacking the explosive revelations of the Spring and early Summer. The investigation is still proceeding in the background, though it will still likely be some time before the findings are released. This was somewhat offset by revelations of other abuses of power, notably the revelation that the administration decided to ignore decades of established DoJ policy on nepotism and wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax payer money in travel expenses.

Bait & Switch: A Round-Up Of Some Misleading Arguments Rampant In The Political Press

There really aren’t that many advantages to being a political junky. You have to wait for years for anything significant to happen, and in the mean time you mostly just have to wade through years and years of inside baseball and getting wrapped up in issues of the day that are likely to be forgotten in a few weeks anyways.

But one of the few perks is recognizing when you’re being presented with a garbage argument, and then picking apart why it’s a garbage argument. Sometimes this easy. Sometimes, the defects are put right at the front of whatever it is you’re reading. Other times, the content is just so vacuous, shallow, and tediously written that it’s a joy to parody.

But other times, you see something that starts out seeming to make a lot of sense, but then halfway through they pull a bait and switch and start throwing out all kinds of horrible arguments. This sort of thing is the most frustrating, as there’s an obvious argument to be made that the authors starts to make, but then just completely fails to see it.

Here’s a quick list of some of the worst bait and switches from the last six months or so:

 

Democrats And The Working Class

working class

The bait: Democrats need to do a better job of appealing to the working class…

By now we’re already familiar with this, type of article. You hear some variant of it every time Democrats lose an election. It easy to become frustrated by them, but really it bears repeating. Tepid support is regularly used as a canary in the coal mine as to the overall strength of the Democratic party and left wing politics in general for good reason. Pretty much any strategy that sees a convincing majority requires winning the working class by a substantial margin. This is especially true of working class people living in the rust belt or similar areas vital to any sort viable of national political strategy.

There really is no substitute. There aren’t enough well heeled socially progressive voters in cosmopolitan cities to deliver Democrats the wins they need in and of themselves. The idea that the well to do well off moderate suburbanites who would usually vote Republican would be turned off by Republican extremism has pretty consistently not panned out. Demographic changes aren’t going to do the job, both because they’re fairly easy to offset in the short term and because in the long term the voting patterns and allegiances of any demographic group is probably going to shift substantially (if voting patterns remained consistent across ethnic lines, age cohorts, etc., then Republican party would have become unviable decades ago).

More importantly, Democrats and the left need to do everything we can to win the working class because, fundamentally, that’s who we are as a party. We work to empower the common man and raise up the underclass to create a more just, accessible, and livable society. We can’t do any of that if we’re not reflecting the working class.

And there’s plenty of reason to argue that Democrats could do a better job in this respect. They haven’t done a great job protecting unions from Republican assaults, and when they’re in power promoting labor unions is too often treated as a low prior. It hasn’t pushed for labor protections in trade bills as strongly as it should. The party got caught up in trying to appear centrist through “welfare reform” and deregulation/privatization schemes that undermined economic security for millions. A large contingent of the party focuses on accommodating vested industrial or financial interests, and only allows it to go for half solutions. Too often it looks at the process of de-industrialization and the hollowing out of the middle class with aloofness. Even when it does act, the party can be accused of taking overly top down technocratic approach that quietly works the mechanism of government through piecemeal legislation and regulations than broad political transformation that captures the imagination and places the people themselves at the center of the process. And you could go on and on…

 

The switch: … who are invariably portrayed as the Republican base

But these articles don’t usually dwell on any of these issues. Instead, usually they just devolve into a critique of the Democratic policies on cultural grounds. Democrats lose working class voters because of the trappings of coastal cosmopolitan liberalism, which we’re told automatically alienates everyone in middle American.

And what are these working class middle Americans like? Basically, they’re Republicans. They’re inherently parochial to the point of xenophobia and tribalism. They’re religious and culturally conservative, unable to deal with or be a part of social changes. They’re patriotic to a point of unquestioning loyalty to the military or law enforcement, but they’re hostile to the government itself and its pointy headed bureaucrats and taxes and so forth. They probably work for some dirty industry, and therefor hate environmental regulations. Usually you’ll also see some other red state ephemera snuck into this image for good measure, like they drive pick-up trucks with Confederate flags or something.

There’s so much wrong with this image that it’s a little hard to know where to start. For one thing, there’s the fact that these write ups are usually writing about the white working class in particular, and usually aren’t interested in getting into non-white working class voters. That’s a huge blind spot considering that the failure of Democrats to turn out working African Americans in places like Detroit, Cleveland, or Philadelphia are usually as big of a factor in Democratic electoral loses in Democrat electoral loses in 2016 and elsewhere.

But even when focusing on the white working class, there’s a whole lot of mis-characterization going on. There’s sort of this bait and switch written into articles like this, where they seemingly start by talking about blue collar industrial union workers in rust belt cities who would usually vote Democratic, but what they conflating it with a lot of voting blocs that are pretty consistently Republican: managers, small business owners, rural voters, older voters who are actually pretty well off but entered the workforce before college degrees were a prerequisite to a middle class lifestyle, and who. The disaffection of the former group, and the enthusiasm of the latter is a factor, of course, but it’s cramming a lot of voters into pigeon-holes they don’t actually fit in. This is particularly the case when you factor in all the service sector employees who don’t fit into either of those categories.

This whole thing goes back almost to day one. For example, in the popular narrative of the election of 1980, Reagan was swept into office by “Reagan Democrats”, ethnic white industrial workers in the rustbelt who defected to support him en masse. In reality, Reagan only barely did better in the rust belt than Ford had, and the swing to Reagan in the region was actually much lower than the nation at large. Macomb County Michigan, the supposed epicenter of the “Reagan Democrat” phenomenon, is sort of a microcosm of what happens. Macomb county is, of course, largely industrial suburbs that are traditionally Democratic strongholds, but as anyone from the area knows it’s also a lot of affluent suburbs and rural(ish) townships where consistently Republicans dominate. Some voters in the former might have flipped to voting for Reagan and Trump, but for the most part they won Macomb county on the basis of turning out the part of the district that always voted Republican.

The main problem with all of this is that it misdiagnoses the issue, and papers over the question of what working class people actually want. Instead, it presents Republican populism as inherently appealing to working class voters, and liberal social mores as inherently alienating. In order to win in the Midwest, we’re told, Democrats need to spurn “San Francisco values”. At the same time, we’re assured places like Milwaukee, which was run by sewer socialists for half a century, could never be won over by the type of economic populism leftists are selling.

Donald Trump

Trump

The bait: Donald Trump’s position hasn’t exploded into a million fiery pieces yet…

We’ve all seen dozens of articles by this point that present the notion that, for all the day to day scandals rocking the administration, he, and Republicans, aren’t falling apart. Support in this or that constituency that went for Trump is still holding steady, particularly in the sort of competitive rust belt districts that are credited with electing him. Meanwhile, voters in those same districts appear unimpressed by Democratic talking points. Polls after the election say Trump likely would have won a rematch. Democrats have lost all the congressional special elections since Trump took office. And so on, and so forth. Meanwhile, the scandals that emerge from the Trump haven’t seemed to have gained a lot of traction. The Russian scandal pops up from time to time, then fades, lather, rinse, repeat. There also haven’t been any massive, self-evident disasters to turn voters against Trump and the Republican congress en masse yet (Puerto Rico is, of course, a horrendous disaster, but to a lot of voters it’s still seen as a distant thing).

There is a worthwhile take away from all this. We’ve often fallen victims to our own unrealistic expectations on the Trump Administration. Democrats tend to think that Trump and his behavior is so self-evidently awful that he’s going to alienate everyone. On this basis, Democrats have gotten to point of thinking they not only can, but should be winning races they’d usually lose by 10% or more, and very often the media plays in to this view.

Along with the expectation of inevitable voter backlash, A lot of people have been expecting the to just self-destruct on its own. Surely, one of these days, Trump is just going to up and quit. Surely some sort of bomb shell Russian revelation will unravel the whole administration in the span of days. Surely congressional Republicans are reaching a tipping point where they’ll go along with impeachment. Maybe the electoral college can be convinced to vote against Trump. Maybe congress will invoke the 25th amendment and declare Trump insane. And so on and so forth.

And then when none of this pans out, people get demoralized because they thought they should have. It’s worth remembering that, in most circumstances, these sorts of things don’t happen that way. It usually takes a while for the consequences of bad governance to produce obvious problems or register with voters. The Bush administration, for example, went for years before it’s incompetence finally caught up with it. On the other hand, scandals usually don’t metastasize to a point where they bring down administrations, and only rarely do large swathes of the population become invested in them. Even in the most serious scandals, impeachment is still a long shot. Similarly, it takes a lot to cause an intraparty split, and as much as it may cost them to hang with Trump, of course a lot of Republicans figure they’d lose more if they broke faith and tried to take him down. And that’s if they get that far in the first place, which is unlikely because the vast majority of them still agree with Trump on pretty much everything. It’s not surprising that we’re more than 9 months into the Trump Administration it’s still there.

Moreover, expecting some sort of silver bullet to come along and destroy the Trump Administration. Whether or not Trump blows himself up, Democrat’s still do need to be introspective about what they did to put themselves in their current position. Everyone still needs to do the actual leg work of presenting an appealing alternative, pressing for the things they believe in, winning people over, and mobilizing voters.

 

The switch: … therefor, Trump can do nothing to alienate his base or lose.

But buried in the implication that Donald Trump is essentially immune to his own ineptness because “the people” aren’t alienating by his awful policies or potentially illegal activities because they don’t care. As long as Trump is delivering coal miner jobs or whatever the silent, indefatigable majority will still support him.

To that end, it’s worth remembering that “Teflon Don” has an approval rating that hasn’t been above 40% since May. Republicans are still losing to Democrats in generic ballots by 9%. Democrats haven’t picked up any congressional seats, they have won a lot of more local races. Even in the elections they’ve lost, they’re still improving their margin dramatically. The point is, Trump and the Republicans are causing a backlash. The left is still doing exceptionally well, and is on track to dramatically tip the scales in its favor, both in 2018, 2020, and all the time in between.

To be sure, the relative tenacity of Trump support in places like the Midwest is an issue that Democrats and the left will need to work hard to overcome. But it’s worth remembering that Trump’s margin in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina were so low that it wouldn’t take a lot for him to lose them. Even if Trump keeps all his support in those places, if Democratic turnout increased slightly or the third party vote decreased, then Trump would lose. And, realistically speaking, Trump’s support in the places like Ohio will likely only last until the next recession, most likely in the next year or two, leads everyone to the conclusion that his economic promises were hollow.

And of course, if Trump really is implicated in massively illegal/illicit things through the Russia scandal, or any other scandal, then the politics of it really isn’t going to matter.

 

Mark Lilla’s Whole Identity Politics Thing

Mark Lilla

The bait: You shouldn’t just frame issues as affecting a narrow subset of people, you should emphasize things that appeal to people in general…

Mark Lilla’s column was picked up enthusiastically by Conservatives and self-proclaimed Centrists, who loved the argument for essentially being “the problem with liberal politics is the liberalism” and implying that the only way to win is to appeal to conservatives. The left roundly rejected Lilla’s argument, and many embraced the idea of identity politics he was railing, declaring that “all politics is identity politics” and so forth. The whole thing popped up again in August when Lilla published a book doubling down on his arguments, and commentators all doubled down on theirs.

Lilla’s argument is strongest when it’s phrased as a call for a broad, cross cutting messaging that emphasizes people’s commonalities/common stakes in things. This is an argument that should be made. It’s been pointed out that the Democratic party functions largely as a coalition of particular interest groups with their own particular of particular issues but a rather gaping hole in the middle in terms of unifying message. For its part, the leadership has often gotten into the head space of expecting shallow demographic appeals to be, in and of themselves, sufficiently to do the job. For example, a recent piece revealed that the DCCC sees their ideal candidate as a female, veteran, small business owners, as though it doesn’t matter what candidates actually believe as long as they check the right combination of boxes.

It’s just bad politics to start from the premise that only a subset of the population has a vested interested in a particular issue. If you run on that, then you’re relying on either generating and sustaining an extremely high level of political mobilization from a narrow band of the population, or you’re counting on a large sympathy vote from people with supposedly no stake in the matter (or worse, a negative stake). Even if you have a lot of such groups mutually supporting each other in sort of mutual self interest, it’s not going to be a particularly strong or consistent one.

To be sure, you can get a lot done through targeted appeals to a particular community or generating moral sympathy with a put upon minority. But the short comings of relying on those things exclusively is obvious. The natural default is you lose, while in the best case scenario you’re fighting an uphill battle.

If you want to build a sustainable majority, you should strive to convince as many people as possible that what’s in your interest is in their interest as well. Maybe that means appealing to their economic/physical self-interest. Maybe that means making an appeal to some deeply felt commonality in their principles or identities. There’s really no reason not to do that.

There’s plenty of history examples you can point to for this. The abolitionist movement only got so far pointing to the injustice of slavery and generating moral outrage at their plight, and they succeeded primarily because they were also able to present slavery as a threat to free labor and republican principles. The New Deal was sold largely through a frame of broad economic empowerment and reining in out of control corporate forces that a large cross section of the population could identify with. By contrast, the 19th century populist movement was hampered by the perception that it was strictly a party by farmers for farmers. The immigration politics of the gilded age or 1920s achieved heavy support among urban Catholics, but it didn’t add up to a particularly effective national strategy.

To use a more modern example, if you treat the issue of police brutality, mass incarceration, and the militarization of the police force as an exclusively racial issue (note, I’m not saying everyone does), you’d be ignoring a lot of other aspects of the problem that might appeal to broader set of people, e.g. anyone could get caught up in the system, it protects and enables horrible people and gives them control over life and death, it perpetuates a parasitic system of private prisons, and so on and so forth. For example, the fact that Joe Arpaio was largely interpreted through the media in terms of immigration meant that all the other horrifying things about the man.

 

The switch: … therefor all identity politics is counterproductive and you shouldn’t do it.

There’s a difference between saying that you shouldn’t rely on an argument exclusively, and saying you shouldn’t make an argument at all. Mobilizing particular demographic groups around issues that particularly affects them, and creating broad public sympathy for that group, can be very effective. If identity politics is carried to a point where everything has to be interpreted through the prism of the most put upon, de-legitimizing everything else, or where it devolves to a sort of shallow pandering, then yes, that will be alienating to people. But pointing out that systemic racism or sexism are huge problems and self-evidently wrong isn’t, in and of itself, the problem.

And, more generally speaking, working through the communities, cultural touchstones, and other things, i.e. the things people base their identities on, are still some of the most effective ways of generating political support on a tactical level. Really, the most obvious strategy is to have a sort of broad cross cutting ideological argument in conjunction with more particular identity based appeals.

The point is sort of highlighted by the aforementioned examples. While anti-slavery and the New Deal succeeded largely because they achieved a sort of broad based message, that doesn’t mean they abandoned identity politics. The anti-slavery movement didn’t stop talking about the plight of the slaves themselves. The Democratic party didn’t stop appealing to urban Catholics when they launched the new deal. And while Lilla like’s to point to the broad appeal ideals based appeals of Ronald Reagan, it’d be ridiculous to say the Republican party of the 80s wasn’t based to a large extent on its own set of identity politics (what with the Moral Majority and the continuation of the Southern Strategy and all).

 

The other switch: … therefor you need to compromise.

There’s also this weird turn Mark Lilla makes in his various articles, where after several paragraphs arguing for a strategy that appeals to a broad cross section of the population to build an electoral majority, he suddenly starts talking about compromise and the dangers of political purity, and various other familiar centrist talking points.

The argument doesn’t actually follow. One would think that the advantage of rhetorically framing issue in a way that appeals to a majority of people is that you don’t need to compromise or water down your goals. Why would you? You’ve gotten a majority of people to agree that you’d be doing what they want. You can enact your policies without having to worry about a backlash because if you do press the issue people will just support you for it more.

May this argument sort of makes sense if you imagine that what Lilla is referring is a message that’s so broad and generic that there are just no requisites to anything. But honestly, if that is your mentality towards campaigning, then the image you’ll leave with voters is “transparent shallowness”.

Economic Insecurity Is Becoming A Broader Problem, It Needs Broader Solutions

Two days ago, the Census Bureau released its numbers on income and poverty rates for 2016. The report went largely unnoticed, being a release of technical economic data that mostly just showed incremental changes from the previous year.

Digging into the numbers and putting them in long term historical context, we can find some worthwhile insights. We can see the success of tactical social programs that have helped society’s most vulnerable. But we can also a situation that is clearly deteriorating for an increasingly broad swathe of Americans. And as poverty becomes a broader problem, it requires broader solutions.

The Census Report: Good News, Bad News

The Census report this year was generally treated as a step in the right direction. More often than not, the news was framed as the poverty rate returning to a more or less normal level after remaining elevated for several years in the aftermath of the great recession. The poverty rate declined from a high of 15% in 2012 to 12.7% in 2016, just slightly above where it was on the eve of the great of the great recession in 2007, when it registered 12.5%.

And getting into the numbers, there were numerous other positive things to take away. Minorities have seen fairly pronounced reductions in poverty in recent years. The poverty rate for African Americans has declined to 22.7% for African Americans from 33.1% in 1994 and 55.1% in 1959. The poverty rate for Hispanics declined to 19.4% from 30.7% from 1994. The poverty rate for certain vulnerable populations also built on or maintained gains. The poverty rate for the elderly held at a relatively low rate of 9.3%, down significantly from 29.5% in 1967. The poverty rate for households led by single mothers stood at 28.8%, down from 39.7% in 1991. The poverty rate for households led by African American single mothers stood at 34.2%, down from 54.8% in 1991, and 70.6% in 1959. The inner city poverty rate stood at 15.9%, which is the lower rate it’s been at since 1979.

But on the other hand, there’s much to be disappointed with. The 2016 report comes after nearly 7 years of continuous growth. That after such a long period of growth poverty is still slightly above the levels it was at before the Great Recession isn’t very encouraging, especially considering that we’re most likely going to be going into a recession in the near future.

Under the numbers, there are some other insidious trends. People in the prime of their lives, i.e. between the ages of 18 and 64, have seen their poverty rates gradually ratcheting up since the 1970s. Prime age whites, in particular, saw their poverty rate increase from 5.9% in 1974 to 10% in 2014, before settling back down to 8.8% this year. Prime age black and Hispanic workers, who have enjoy marked improvement in their poverty rate since the 90s, none-the-less have also seen their gains hampered by this. Suburban poverty is also ratcheting up, from below 7% in the 70s to almost 12% in the great recession, before settling back down to an elevated 10% today. While the conditions for single parent households have improved, the poverty rate for children has remained fairly consistent.

Elsewhere, statistics tend to show that education tends to be less of a shield from poverty than it once was. Associate degree holders are as likely to be in poverty today as high school graduates were in the 90s. Bachelor’s degree holders are about as poor today as associate degree holders were in the 90s, and so on and so forth. One study showed that, in 2013, 15% of people in poverty held a Bachelor’s degree or higher, which is up from a mere 6% in 1970-72.

edupoverty.png

What To Make Of This?

Taken together, we get a picture of poverty in America that hasn’t really been clearly moving up or down since the early 80s and 90s, but which has rather been moving laterally. In the early 90s, the picture, poverty was something was something that happened intensely for certain communities or people, who were alternately victims or “blighted” depending on who you asked. Nowadays, though, poverty has become a more general phenomenon, as working class bargaining power has continued to decline, jobs become less stable, and the cost of healthcare and education spiral out of control even as being an educated or able bodied person becomes less of a sure fire deterrent to poverty. So what are we to make of that?

Well, on the plus side, it indicates that there’s actually been substantial success for liberal programs targeted at helping the most vulnerable. Despite literally decades of people trying to write off the Great Society and subsequent welfare programs as failures, we can see that they’ve actually been successful, and often spectacularly so, in helping some of the most vulnerable in society such as the elderly and single mothers. We can also appreciate the fact that the there’s evidently less “punching down” at racial minorities and people in the inner cities in the current economic system than there was back in the early 80s and 90s, though to be sure there’s still a lot of that and the Republican Party and Trump Administration seem intent on reversing that trend.

But at the same time, this should also point to the limitations of seeing economic justice as simply a matter of ameliorating the plight of this or that group at the margins through a set of tactical programs divorced from a broad based strategy of reform and working class empowerment. Relative progress for the most vulnerable is a wash if it’s in the context of a deteriorating situation, and achieving equality of opportunity is empty if there are fewer opportunities or the end reward is becoming increasing hollow. Ultimately what the poor and increasingly insecure middle class people aren’t going to need isn’t a handout or a hand up, but rather greater power to control to control their economic destiny, which means systemic change driven by broad based solidarity from the ground up.

The Time Is Ripe For Broad Systemic Reform To The Economic System

Getting such a broad based coalition to enact reform at such a deep level is, of course, always going to be difficult. Broad solidarity of this type can be undermined by the same old tactics of divide and conquer through racism, xenophobia, and resentment, and, the electoral success of Trump and the modern Republican party certainly suggests that these are still potent forces. But I’d argue that, in many ways, the current geography of poverty makes this a better time than ever to try.

Ronnie.jpg
If you doubt Reagan was as bad as Trump, remember that Reagan callously ignored the AIDS epidemic, even as it was kill tens of thousands, just to spite the gay community

The concentration of poverty of the 90s made it easy for people in the “mainstream”, i.e. white suburbanites, to see the economic system as basically working for them. It was easy to think of the “poor” as basically dysfunctional failures, blighted by dysfunctional cultures, and dangerous to the point that they needed to be kept in check with draconian “tough on crime” measures. It was common to think of people who advocated for economic justice as little more than bleeding hearts or starry eyed utopians, and welfare as something for shiftless losers (Medicare, agricultural subsidies, or countless other programs excluded, or course). Trump and the modern Republican party may be particular abrasive with their politics of beating up on minorities and the poor, but in the 80s and 90s it’s was more or less the bipartisan consensus. Even the people who were for addressing economic injustices, outside of those from the impoverished communities themselves, were inclined to see them as somehow missionaries alien to the whole thing.

But today it’s getting increasing difficult for people to think of poverty as something that only effects “those” people. The risk of poverty is broader, large swathes are one illness or job loss away from falling into poverty. More people have to tread harder and harder to keep their heads above water as debt of one kind or another piles up. And the more people who can experience poverty, the more people out there there are who have a stake in doing something about it.

True, hardship can make some people jealous and reactionary. Some may assume that the relatively rising fortunes of the formerly “blighted” are somehow the result of their success in plundering the system. Likewise, a lot of people will also maintain a false sense of security, presuming that they’re still above insecurity and presuming that the new poor are now, themselves, blighted. But these people will look increasingly delusional, and while a lot of people want to be deluded, it’s not a tenable position. A lot of other will embrace empathy in their recognition of shared economic hardships. They’ll be receptive to the realization that these are just the iniquities of a system that is increasingly indifferent to them. And if enough of these people can be mobilized, they can recreate the economic system from the ground up.

And to mobilize these people, we need big ideas with broad appeal. The Medicare for all plan is a step in the right direction, as are the campaigns for a 15 dollar minimum wage, free college education. We can craft a message in bold terms of more permanently fixing inequality by advancing democracy in the work place, bringing the banks under control, and protecting our republic against the insidious influence of oligarchy. We can emphasize that an injustice against one is an injustice against all, not just on the basis of vague principle, but because in very real terms they could happen to almost anyone.

Fight Reactionaries, Wherever You Find Them…

In the span of a little over a week, we saw two manifestations of Conservative reaction to idea of diversity and equality. While at first these stories appear to be far removed from one another, I would argue that they are, in fact, intimately linked. Indeed, the form of reaction encapsulated by the first case, and the way the public reacts to it, enables the more violent and aggressive form of reaction displayed in the second case in a way a lot of people don’t appreciate.

 

First, The Google “Anti-Diversity Memo” Makes A Nice Collegial Argument That Women Are Inherently Worse At Programming And Liberals Are Authoritarian Thought Police…

Google Manifesto

The first story broke last Friday when it was revealed that a “memo” criticizing Google’s diversity policies and claiming women were genetically less capable as programmers was going viral among Google’s internal staff. The media picked up on the story, and people denounced both the writer, mid-level engineer James Damore, and tech culture in general for its latent undercurrent of misogyny and resistance to diversity. By the end of the week, Damore was fired, nominally for propagating hurtful stereotypes that disrupt Google’s morale, but mostly because he was a liability who would have hurt Google’s public image and legal defense against harassment and/or discrimination suits if they hadn’t fired him.

In a lot of ways, the reaction to the whole episode seems somewhat out of proportion. As Vox noted, the whole episode was rather trivial in and of itself. The “memo” was essentially just a message board rant by a mid-level employee at Google with no actual influence on company policy. Perhaps James Damore is depressingly typical of the tech sector, and his memo crystallized a lot of people’s anxiety towards the sector’s abysmal record on diversity and the imbalance between Silicon Valley’s influence and lack of accountability. But in and of itself it didn’t really amount to much.

To be sure, it is wrong headed. It seems to have come out apropos of nothing, and the actual diversity policies its complaining about are so modest that it’s baffling anyone could feel so threatened by them. Google’s diversity policy isn’t some sort of hard set quota system that they plow ahead with, damning any real world considerations as it goes. Pretty much no EEO policy works that way, nor do the people who implement them want them to. Google’s diversity policy, and really everyone’s diversity policy, basically amounts to a vague goal to more diverse in the future, and they try to achieve this through good recruiting practices that make them more accessible to a wider swathe of the population and job training/education programs that seek to slowly correct imbalances in the candidate pool.

Indeed, the fact that most diversity policies are so modest and have so little impact on people like Damore lead to the conclusion that he’s either grossly misinformed or opposed to the idea in and of itself. That impression is reinforced by the way he couches his argument on the basis of cherry picked and misinterpreted scientific research, largely ignoring counter points. Beyond that, the memo devolved into a pretty boilerplate complaint about political correctness, dressed up in more modern rhetoric of “ideological echo chambers” and so forth, because Damore can’t understand why publicly antagonizing and belittling whole groups of people based on inherited traits is now considered a social taboo, while criticizing someone over a voluntarily assumed system of political beliefs is not.

But what really stands out about the memo to anyone who has read it, is just how dull it is. Many might have expected to find a fire breathing diatribe, but instead just found the long form rambling of someone who seemed to fancy themselves an expert on an issue they clearly know very little about. It tries so hard to establish a veneer of cool academic fair mindedness, even going so far as to pretentiously add citations, that it couldn’t have been too outrageous because that would have required it be stimulating in some way. In and of itself, it’s completely devoid of any interesting insights, and reads like a thousand other posts you can find scattered around message board complaining about PC culture or affirmative action or whatever.

But a number of people looked at the conciliatory tone and the affected thoughtfulness and decided “hey, even if I don’t agree with this guy, his point is well made, and he’s harmless”.

 

… Meanwhile, In Charlotteville, Outright Nazis And Klansmen Rioted And Plowed Over A Bunch Of People

Charlottesville-AP--640x480

If the Google “anti-diversity” memo was underwhelming, the events in Charlottesville this weekend were anything but. Over the weekend, various groups alt right groups, including a good number of White Supremacists, Neo-Confederates, the Klu Klux Klan, and outright Nazis converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, for their planned “Unite the Right” rally. Nominally the rally was intended to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park, but more generally it was intended to flex their new found prominence under the Trump Administration. On Friday night, hundreds participated in a torchlight march chanting “white lives matter” and Nazi slogans like “blood and soil”. Then on Saturday between 4,000 to 6,000 marched through Charlottesville brandishing confederate flags, swastikas, weapons, storm trooper helmets and other paraphernalia. Predictably, the whole thing rapidly escalated into large scale rioting, as alt right participants brawled with counter protesters, culminating in one alt right participant James Alex Fields plowing his Dodge Charger through a crowd of counter protesters, killing one and injuring dozens.

To be sure, there was a fair amount of build up to this in recent years. Barely concealed racism and threats of violence were a common feature of Tea party protests. Trump’s campaign for the presidency helped crystalize it into something a little more explicit, as the alt right was drawn to his appeals to small minded prejudice and attitude of “just go ahead and smack people who disagree with you”. Trump’s victory (in the electoral college) was taken as further encouragement by the alt right and the like, and suddenly torch light marches and victory parades by the KKK began to pop up here and there.

But even by the admittedly low standards of 2017 and the downward spiral leading up to it, the whole episode was still shocking. Suddenly the various levels of abstraction that characterized political reaction since the 70s seemed to fall away, and once again we were faced with mass violence in the interest of overt bigotry. How did any of this get even remotely close to the political mainstream again?

Well, it was a long slog, but by God the right normalized it.

 

These Are Two Sides Of The Same Reactionary Coin

Now, at first glance there seems to be a world of difference between the self-indulgent diatribes of techies on the one hand and violent acts of terrorism by unreformed Nazis and white supremacists on the other. Silicon Valley is far away from Charlottesville, and misogyny in the tech sector is a less immediate threat than torch wielding white supremacists marching through town, running over people who disagree with them. If one group ever ran into the other, they might dismiss one another as nut bars and cucks respectively (or they might start selling each other bit coins). Hell, the “I just have concerns about affirmative action and liberal group think” crowd can even sound innocuous at times, and most people tend to see them as such.

But when you look into what people in that crowd are actually saying, and it’s not clear that they’re substantially any better. Their presumption of genetic determinism is largely same. Their sense of victimization by liberal social mores is the same. Their framing of politics as an argument between left wing constructivist philosophies versus conservative willingness to grasp the objective truth is the same. And while they may like to phrase their goals as something of a compromise, their end game is essentially the same: a status quo that disenfranchises people and acquiesces to systemic brutality. In short, they only sound more reasonable. Peel back that veneer of thoughtfulness and you largely come to the same toxic ideology.

And indeed, the presence of these more conciliatory sounding, but still ultimately awful arguments like that have given cover to the resurgence of the more violently reactionary type. It enabled them the extremists on the far right to take on the conceit that they really are the rational ones, ready to deal with truths delusional liberals won’t. It emboldens them by giving them a sense of mainstream acceptability they otherwise wouldn’t have. And when people on the left point out that the apparent moderates are really nothing of the sort, the backlash against “liberal censorship” is taken as justification for violent “resistance”.

And the lines are becoming ever more blurred, as radical alt rightists recognize just how much cover they can get by putting up the appearance of civility and open mindedness. Take this comment from one attendee at the “Unite the Right” rally:

“As a white nationalist, I care for all people. We all deserve a future for our children and for our culture. White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have.”

That was this guy…

GWAHH!

The point is, we can’t just condemn the outright Fascists rioting through the streets while giving a pass to that nice Charles Murray, who just wants to have a nice civil discussion wherein he argues black people are genetically less intelligent than whites. You can’t wring your hands sanctimoniously about those mean old liberals refusing to hear out noxious right wing arguments “in good faith” while others making similar arguments have normalized beating the hell out of people they don’t like. Simply condemning the outright extremists while excusing the people whose arguments are substantially the same but dressed up in layers of civility suggests that the only thing wrong with toxic reactionary ideologies is their presentation.

 

Conclusion

All-The-Way-Frank-Langella-as-Sen.-Richard-Russell
“I fear this civil rights bill is bringing an end to an era of civility… I mean, there was institutionalized violence on a mass scale and everything, but at least a bunch of silver haired Senators in suits were all on the same page about it…

Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun, and many people who follow the history of such things recognizes this pattern well enough. Philosophy professor John Holbo noted a similar dynamic when reviewing The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830—1860:

Here’s what surprised me: the only writer in this group I had read before was George Fitzhugh, who turns out to be unrepresentative. (The editor of this volume says he was popular and influential , but most of these other writers tried to distance themselves from him, because he was not respectable and argued for stuff like expanding the disenfranchise – I guess you would call it – to include poor whites.) Slavery must be defended because the Pope is a socialist! (Yes!) Fitzhugh would have made a good blogger and lit up Twitter.

I thought the whole book would be like that: the rhetorical equivalent of Preston Brooks versus Charles Sumner. Paranoid-style jingo triumphalism plus loopy-cranky pseudo-scientific stuff plus fight-or-flight bursts of logic, concluding in abortive, daft neo-Feudal utopias that evaporate back into conservative stubbornness.

But most of these writers are barely polemical. The tone is concessive, gentleman-scholarly, mild, punctuated by patronizing sighs and arched eyebrows, to add some tone. Of course slavery is … unfortunate; but you can’t expect this old world to be perfect so we must make the best of it together. Does anyone have a plausible, practical plan for abolishing slavery, starting tomorrow? No. So what are we talking about? Just a bunch of Northerners who won’t be personally called on to do anything so painful. Yet they expect Southerners to give up most of their wealth, and destroy the value of their land in the process? Is that plausible? Abolitionism is so wrong not because slavery is so right – it isn’t! – but because utopianism must always fail. Indeed, it must always cause suffering, by the law of unintended consequences. Better to respect existing property rights, even though we know that if you look far enough in the past, there will always be ugliness at the root. It is the wonder of human institutions that beauty may flourish even from ugliness! (It is only utopians who do not appreciate this!)

And of course, after the Civil War, very little changed. As the war receded into the history books, people like William Archibald Dunning sought to reframe the whole affair and reconstruction afterwards as a matter of radical abolitionists and rapacious northerners destroying the south and empowering former slaves for their own deluded or cynical ends, all in high minded academic terms. Then when the Civil Rights movement campaigned to overturn the Jim Crow system, it was gentlemanly fellows spearheading the reaction as some kind of high minded defense of civility and liberty against tyrannical government used in the interest of equal opportunity.

But however civil the framing was, the end result was still the same. No matter how conciliatory the commentators sounded in their defense of slavery, they still perpetuated the inhumanity of the system and rallied the South to its violent defense. No matter how academic the scholars in the Dunnings School tried to sound, they still justified the murder of tens of thousands in Redemption and the disenfranchisement of millions for roughly a century. No matter how high minded their stated defense of Jim Crow was, they were still giving cover to mob violence, bombings, and institutionalized brutality.

And people keep getting away with it, because the public largely accepts the superficial niceties at face value. William F. Buckley may have been siding with murderous bigots for most of his career, but gosh darn it, didn’t he seem so collegial while he did so?

Well we need to stop that and recognize ugly, toxic ideologies for what they are. It doesn’t matter that some people who front such ideas try to maintain a sense of civility and fair mindedness. They may not be as immediately threatening as people wearing swastikas and brandishing baseball bats, but if you don’t confront the one you’re going to end up with the other.

The “Everything Terrible Trump Has Done” 2nd Qtr Report

Executive Summary

Since the Trump Administration began last January, we have endeavored to undertake a project to compile of every action the Trump administration is responsible for which has been deemed to have a negative impact on the public’s rights and liberties, material well-being, institutions, and security. By categorizing each action undertaken by the administration, and then scoring them on their relative scope, legal formality, and permanence of each action, we have been able to estimate the overall negative impact the administration and identify notable trends.

 

Through this analysis, two notable patterns have emerged. First, the administration has generally been unsuccessful in achieving the major policy objectives it has set for itself. Despite this, the administration has still had a significant and fairly consistent negative impact by way of executive fiat, reversing Obama era policies, altering the way policies are implemented, generally mismanaging the government, and carrying out numerous corrupt activities. Second, the Administration has been hit on nearly every major policy area to a significant degree, and tends to switch its focus from one policy area to the other frequently. This has caused the administration to alienate large swathes of the public and galvanized broad opposition. However, the inconsistency of the Administration also presents challenges to the opposition, as it denies it a clear issue to mobilize around comparable to Obamacare or the Iraq War. This highlights the dangers of opposing the Trump administration in a strictly reactive way, and illustrates the need for an appealing counter argument.

 

Introduction

During the 2016 election, an obvious issue arose surrounding Donald Trump and his brand of politics. While the candidate was obviously controversial and offensive to a large swath of the electorate, the sheer volume of controversies surrounding Trump’s candidacy, which broke nearly daily, made it for the average voter to lose track of them all and sift through them in any practical way. It was easy for the electorate to become desensitized to Trump’s politics, and tune out his actions as being simply white noise whether they were frivolous or highly relevant.

 

To rectify this issue, we endeavored to compile all the horrible actions of the Trump Administration into a single itemized omnibus. Beyond simple record keeping, the omnibus was intended to serve as a reference point for opponents of the administration to pull information from in political arguments. Likewise, it was hoped that the length of the omnibus would convey to observers a self-evident illustration of just how bad the Administration was. Six months into the administration the omnibus, which is available here, has expanded to include 346 items listed unbroken across 20 pages. We believe that this makes the omnibus successful in its original intent of conveying the sheer breadth of ways the Trump Administration is terrible.

 

However, as the omnibus continues to expand to a point where it’s no longer easy to navigate or process as a whole, falling victim to the same problem that it was intended to address. To that end, we intended from a very early date to begin feeding the omnibus into a system that would facilitate easy navigation for the user by allowing them to filter items by significance, time, subject area, and numerous other dimensions. To that end, we began building out the omnibus into a spreadsheet, which is available here, adding the relevant dimensions, filters, tables, and so forth.

 

We also wanted to go one step further and begin analyzing the items on the omnibus to identify relevant trends, which could then be analyzed to provide relevant insights. To that end, we have put together this report.

 

Overview Of The Report

This report is structured into three broad parts. The first part deals with the methods used in our analysis. In this part we outline the methods used to collect the items on the omnibus, and then how we categorized and scored them. In the second part, we present overall trends in the Administration’s actions, both over time and by policy area, then try to dig deeper to analyze what these trends indicate in terms of the Administration’s effectiveness and strategy. Finally, we draw on our findings to present insights, and consider their potential consequences.

 

Readers can feel free to read the report in any order they’d like. Readers who aren’t particularly interested in the methods used in our analysis can simply skip to the results, if they feel so inclined.

 

Side Note: Acknowledging Our Political Goals

We don’t deny that the omnibus and this report, their intended audience, and their intended ends, i.e. convincing everyone the Trump Administration is bad and should be thrown out, are overtly political. Of course it is. Likewise, we acknowledge that the assumptions on which the omnibus and this report are based predominantly appeal to left wing sensibilities. That’s not a problem, in and of itself, and for the most part I don’t believe the primary audience of this report will see it as such. But it’s understood that this may be a turnoff to more neutral observers.

 

Still, I’d like to emphasize that the report should have value that are not undermined by its ideological bent. Ideologies and biases are necessary frameworks for understanding the world, rather than the sort of corrupting, distorting image they’re often portrayed as. By default, everyone has biases, we’re just acknowledging ours to be honest. Ideologies can mislead people, of course, but this primarily happens when they allow their beliefs to become ungrounded. To that end, we’d stress that it’s more important to be honest and retain a firm footing in relatively uncontroversial empirical data and methodological rigor rather than try to totally scrub any personal ideology out of the analysis, which is impossible and strips out important qualitative context. We hope that it’s apparent that we try to do this.

 

A helpful analogy would be to think of our assessment as being like a prosecutor in a court case. We want our argument to be based on sound evidence and universally appealing reasoning. However, we’ll also be visceral if it helps strengthen our case by illustrating why we draw the conclusions we do. In any event, we’re not going to make the other side’s case for them in a shallow attempt to appear impartial.

 

Methodology

Compiling The Omnibus

As a first step in our process, we have attempted to compile a comprehensive list of every action the administration has enacted since the beginning of the administration which have been deemed to have a negative impact in some way. These include actions taken by the Trump Administration and the people with it ranging from controversial statements to major policy changes. We try to include everything, even if we feel something isn’t exceptionally important, simply because we want to be as comprehensive as possible. We include major actions by the Republican congress, with the reasoning being that the Administration is enabling them and vice versa. Similarly, bad decision made by the Supreme Court which hinged on a vote by Neil Gorsuch are also included, since ultimately Trump is responsible for place Gorsuch onto the court in the first place.

 

Each of these actions must have at least one or more credible source that they are linked to. To this end, we’ve regularly scoured news sites and government webpages. We also frequently search sites critical of the Trump Administration, such as anti-Trump sub-reddits, as these would naturally be places that would volunteer such news stories. Naturally, it is necessary to be discerning when we do this, and we discount items that seem too speculative, or represent what is, at best, a very niche view. With few exceptions, we tend to require that a story be covered in the mainstream media, such as the New York Times, or sites like Vox which have some acknowledged level of bias but which is tempered with something of a wonky ethos that tends to stop them from tipping in to unsubstantiated polemics. We try to avoid a source that would be obviously biased, such as the web page of a public advocacy, but sometimes we’ll accept such sites if they link their posts to hard regulations.

 

Once the actions are collected and itemized, they’re entered into a list, along with their source and the timestamp on the source.

Comey

Categorizing Actions

As have divided the items on the list into four broad categories. These categories correspond not only to the general policy area they relate to, but also the way in which their impact manifests:

 

Civil Liberties and Human Rights – Issues relating to topics concerned with individual and collective rights, with the main consequences experienced primarily as an abridgement of rights

Economic and Physical Well Being – Issues relating to the material circumstances of the world we live in, and the functioning of the economic system, with the main consequences experienced as a degradation of conditions, material loss, or inequality

Institutions – Issues related the legal frameworks, organizational structures, and practices underlying a properly functioning of and fair government, with the main consequence experienced as dysfunction

National Security and Foreign Policy – Issues related to the standing and security of the United States, with the main consequences experienced as a deterioration of national security or global standing

Below these, the items are broken into twelve sub-categories relating to the general policy areas they relate to.

Civil Liberties and Human Rights

Civil Rights – Issues related to the rights of US citizens, such as equal rights, enfranchisement and access issues and gender equality and reproductive rights

Human Rights – Issues related to more broad human rights, US citizen or otherwise, typically under international initiatives

Law Enforcement – Issues related to the enforcement of laws, criminal and non-criminal, and the functioning of the criminal justice system, including draconian tough on crime measures, and moves that undermine gun control and attempts to combat right wing extremism

Immigration – Issues related to non-citizens, and new citizens residing in the United States through enforcement and deportation actions and visas and special programs

Economic and Physical Well Being

Environment – Issues related to the natural environment, including conservation and animal protections, energy and climate change, and green infrastructure

Crony Capitalism – Issues related to rigging the economic system to redistribute income upwards at the expense of the little guy and fair play. This includes undermining the system of embedded capitalism by showing preferential treatment to corporations and allowing them to shirk their responsibilities, or tax cuts and other moves that exacerbate inequality

Healthcare and Social Spending – Issues related to providing economic assistance and services to people, including healthcare, education and student loans, and other social spending

Labor, Consumer, and Market Protections – Issues related to laws and practices aimed at protecting people from exploitation, enhancing economic empowerment, and offsetting market failures, including labor, finance, consumer protections, and trade

Institutions

Abuses of Power – Issues related to flagrant misuse of government power for personal empowerment/enrichment, including conflicts of interest and legal and ethical Issues

Civil Service and Regulations – Issues related to the day to day operations of the government, including the staffing and practices relating to the civil service, the process of issuing regulations, and transparency

Politics – Issues related to political norms and practices, including political norms and campaigning, the media, and issues of straight forward antagonism

National Security and Foreign Policy

National Security and Foreign Policy – With subcategories of national security which relate to more domestic threats and foreign policy which deals with overall diplomacy

Overall, there are four broad categories, twelve mid level categories, and thirty sub categories. An illustration of how the categorization system is arranged is provided below.

Cat Stevens

There are naturally some issues with which categories any given item should fit in, or what the specific difference is between different categories. For example, Crony Capitalism and Abuses of Power tend to have a lot of overlap. One can rig the economic system out of an ideological commitment, or they may do it just to advantage themselves and their clients. Generally, the closer you get to Trump individual, the more likely an action is to be viewed as an Abuse of Power, but there’s not really a clear line (the rule of thumb is “if it’s in Trump’s cabinet or family, it’s an Abuse of Power”). Still, for the most part the categories are broad enough that these sorts of ambiguities aren’t an issue.

 

Measuring Impact

Challenges

Measuring the relative impact of the different actions of the Trump administration is a daunting task, for numerous reasons. First, because doing a truly thorough and rigorous estimation would require a large commitment in time and effort to estimate. Ideally, every item on the list would go through some form or another of impact analysis to determine things like the forecasted monetary cost of a policy, how many people would be affected, etc. I’ll be up front in saying that I don’t have nearly the capacity for that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d like to think I’m pretty smart and hard working, but of course I’m not. There’s an entire industry of think tanks, universities, and government agencies dedicated to doing this, and not even they get everything. So realistic, I, a guy with a laptop doing this in his limited spare time, would be hopelessly out of my depth to attempt that. I can, of course, pull the analyses put together by said think tanks, universities, government agencies, etc. and use them to inform how I weight things, but that’s a luxury, not something I can realistically expect in all cases.

 

Second, as I noted above, the way policies impact people are fundamentally different across categories. There is some overlap; of course, rigging the economic system in a way that exacerbates inequality will also reflect a loss of institutional functionality, on some level, draconian tough on crime measures can have an economic cost along with a loss of rights, and so forth. But on some level this is comparing apples and oranges. It’s not impossible, but it’s not straightforward.

 

The impact involved in the category of “Economic and Physical Well Being” could typically be expressed in monetary terms. This isn’t to say all the costs are experienced as strictly an economic loss, repealing the Medicaid expansion will cost lives as much as money, but you could figure “expected years lost” or some other measure which you could convert into monetary terms if you just want an overall apples to apples measure of impact (platitudes of “you can’t put a cost on X aside”, economists do just that all the time). But items in the category “Civil Liberties and Human Rights” are basically going to be measured in things like political disenfranchisement, denial of basic human rights, and so forth. This kind of impact is clear enough, there are ways the loss of ones rights materially affects a person, and you can reasonably say when one abridgement of a person’s rights is worse than another. But rights are an abstract concept; they’re not “quantifiable” so to speak. And things get even more abstract when you’re talking about the institutions. The degradation of the legal framework and informal practices which are necessary for a functioning (and desirable) government and civil society is obviously a cost, but there’s no metric for it.

 

Third, half of any discussion of costs is subjective. Even in the relatively straightforward realm of economic impacts, you have to take into account things that are going to lead different people to different conclusions. To give an example, global warming will have a severe economic impact, but that impact will mostly be experienced decades down the line, so any meaningful economic model to measure that impact in any meaningful way. You need to include some sort of discount rate. How high should that discount rate be? That’s essentially a matter of opinion. And how do you prioritize economic costs against rights against national security against the proper functioning of the government/society? Opinions will differ. Ideally, we might have some sort of open democratic way of evaluating the relative importance of different items, but for the time being I have to play that by ear.

 

This isn’t to say the whole undertaking is hopeless. There are concrete things tie the impact scores of different policies to, and there are filters were can use to weight their relative importance to different groups of people. Indeed, considering the various prisms people view issues through is important in understanding how to appeal to people. But there’s no perfectly objective and omniscient perspective you can view policy through.

 

Additionally, there are also some issues of double counting. If you look through the omnibus, you’ll notice that some items get referenced multiple times. For example, an Obama era policy might be frozen, and then a few months later it may be repealed. Citing these instances separately can be worthwhile. They can help track the progress of a policy, and you’ll notice that the list has gotten “smarter” as it progresses, making references to previous items. Likewise, some items, like the harsh immigration measures enacted in the early days of the administration, have been continuously impacting people ever since, and therefore should be referenced multiple times.

 

Measurements

In order to try to ground my impact scores, I started by giving them ordinal scores, from 1 to 10, based on three dimensions.

Scale/Scope of Impact – Basically, how many people are impacted and to what degree. Generally, a score of 1-2 means nobody is really affected, except indirectly in some vague way. A score of 3-4 indicates hundreds could be severely affected, thousands would be moderately affected, and/or millions may be potentially affected in some vague indirect way. A score of 5-6 indicates thousands would be severely impacted, millions could be moderately affected, and/or tens of millions could be potentially affected in some vague indirect way. A score of 7-9 Indicates tens of millions or more would be severely affected or hundreds of millions or billions would be moderately affected. A score of 10 means all of humanity could be severely affected.

Formality – Generally speaking, the more formal a policy is, the more relevant it is. If an administration makes a law to enact policy, that’s a bigger deal than if the administration chooses to implement policies in different ways. Laws impose more restrictions, set precedents that inform future behavior they leave a lasting impact on institutions, etc. This measure is meant to capture that. A score of 1-2 reflects a totally informal practice. A score of 3-4 means enacting a different way of interpreting or implementing laws without necessarily changing them. A score of 5-6 means an executive order or new regulation issued by an agency. A score of 7-8 would indicate laws passed, 9 would indicate a major law passed, and 10 would be equivalent to a full constitutional amendment.

Permanence – How hard it would be to reverse a policy. This can mean politically, such as how hard it would be to repeal a law or a court decision. Or it can mean what’s materially possible. For example, if a new policy destroys a delicate eco system simply changing the law back won’t undo the damage. A score of 1 indicates that something’s completely ephemeral. 2-3 indicates they could be reverse more or less at will, provided sufficient public pressure is applied. 4-5 might indicate a more concerted push in terms of campaigning, legal challenges, etc. 6-7 would indicate that a Democratic congress/administration would likely be needed to change them, but could do so with relatively little effort. A score of 8-9 would indicate massive policy initiatives would need to be undertaken, and 10 would indicate something is effectively irreversible.

Additionally, it’s generally accepted by most people that the significance of an action is typically dependent on how much a person takes an active part in it. Failing to prevent a bad thing is not as bad as causing a bad thing, and ending something positive is not seen as being as bad as starting something negative. We shouldn’t get too involved in all the various hypotheticals* that people have made to illustrate the issue, but it’s still worth adding this additional dimension:

Active/Passive – Generally speaking, most people tend to view the morality of actions on the basis of how actively on participates in them, and while this can lead to a number of absurd hypotheticals* it’s a good standard to apply. A score of 1 indicates that the Trump administration isn’t really doing anything (maybe they’re just incompetently sending mixed messages), a score of 2 is indicating that Trump is failing to act when he should be or perhaps is only proposing doing something, a score of 3 indicates the Trump administration is reversing a good policy enacted by Obama or others, and a score of 4 means that this is something the Trump administration is actively imposing on the world.

fat trolley
*Like “Is it ethical to throw an obese man in front of a trolley to prevent the trolley from hitting a bus full of babies if the baby is Hitler and the obese man is also Hitler, who has travelled back in time to stop you from murdering himself. Also, all the other babies are Hitler, due to complications from time travel…”

 

Once these scores are assigned, they are used to calculate a score for overall impact. The scores for scope, formality, and permanence and multiplied together, then weighted the active/passive score. The active/passive score is multiplied by 0.25, such that a totally active policy would see it’s full impact realized and an unintentional gaffe would see 75% of it’s value discounted. The resulting value would be the overall impact of an action.

Impact scores

For good measure, once the scores are assigned to an action, the scores are then arranged from least to greatest. We then go down the list, comparing each item with the score of it’s immediately adjacent items. If it seems like one action has been given a score higher than another we intuitively believe should actually be ranked higher, we adjust the underlying scores until the overall impact scores seem appropriate. We went through the list a few times, and once we’ve determined that no items seem to be out of order take the scores as more or less sufficient.

 

Admittedly this score is far from perfect. As much as We’ve tried to ground the score in some tangible dimension, and take steps to try to keep all the scores in perspective, it’s still inevitably a subjective score based largely on personal intuition. For this reason, we’d caution against taking the scores as an exact measurement of significance, but rather as a general representation of relative significance, and the best that can be done given the circumstances.

 

The scores are accessible online, and we were encourage observers to tinker with the metric themselves. Democratized systems of review incorporating a broad variety of perspectives can be powerful tools for finding the “true” value of something.

 

Results

With all the items in the omnibus categorized and scored, we can now begin to assess general patterns in all the terrible things the Trump Administration has done so for.

 Overall Scores

Rankings

Overall, it was determined that the top 10 worst actions committed by the administration are as follows:

  1. Appointed Niel Gorsuch, a candidate more conservative than Antonine Scalia, to the Supreme Court after almost a year long effort to block Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland,  eventually using the nuclear option, barring filibusters on Supreme Court nominations, to do so
  2. Withdrew from the Paris accord on climate change
  3. It was revealed that during the Election, Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer who had promised “damaging information” against Hillary Clinton which he knew was connected to Russian intelligence gathered to help elect his father, very likely breaking the law and making plain Trump’s willingness to participate in foreign meddling in US elections and very likely broke the law to do so
  4. Fired James Comey under suspicious circumstances, possibly in retaliation for his role in escalating the Russian probe, and then attempted to pass blame onto Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, then admitted he fired Comey over the Russian probe and threatened him with implied tapings of their meetings
  5. Halved the total number of refugees allowed into the country from 110,000 to 50,000, blocked refugees from Syria indefinitely, suspended refugees from all countries for 120 days, and suspended new visas to individuals coming from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for 30 days
  6. Broke numerous campaign promises on healthcare by introducing and promoting the American Health Care Act (AHCA) which, among other things, slashes $880 billion from Medicaid  and substantially reduces coverage
  7. Provided the tie breaking vote to defund family planning clinics
  8. Initiated an expansive new 5 year plan to increase offshore drilling
  9. Came under investigation for obstruction of justice
  10. The budget makes substantial cuts to social programs, including education, health insurance for children, and UN peacekeeping operations, to name a few programs

 

And here are the top 5 worst actions by general policy area:

Economic and Environmental Policy

  1. Withdrew from the Paris accord on climate change
  2. Broke numerous campaign promises on healthcare by introducing and promoting the American Health Care Act (AHCA) which, among other things, slashes $880 billion from Medicaid  and substantially reduces coverage
  3. Initiated an expansive new 5 year plan to increase offshore drilling
  4. The budget makes substantial cuts to social programs, including education, health insurance for children, and UN peacekeeping operations, to name a few programs
  5. Unveiled a tax plan which, among other things slashes the Corporate income tax rate dramatically and eliminates the estate tax

 

Civil Rights and Social Issues

  1. Halved the total number of refugees allowed into the country from 110,000 to 50,000, blocked refugees from Syria indefinitely, suspended refugees from all countries for 120 days, and suspended new visas to individuals coming from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for 30 days
  2. Provided the tie breaking vote to defund family planning clinics
  3. Issued tough on crime executive orders that reverse course on police reform with the excuse of confronting a non-existent crime wave
  4. Launched a mass deportation drive that has put countless immigrants who have built their lives in the US in the crosshairs. It’s estimated that 700 were arrested in the first week of the drive.
  5. “Prioritized” the deportation of nearly all undocumented immigrants everywhere,  potentially for offenses as minor as traffic violations, setting the stage for mass deportations

 

Institutional Issues

  1. Appointed Niel Gorsuch, a candidate more conservative than Antonine Scalia, to the Supreme Court after almost a year long effort to block Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland,  eventually using the nuclear option, barring filibusters on Supreme Court nominations, to do so
  2. It was revealed that during the Election, Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer who had promised “damaging information” against Hillary Clinton which he knew was connected to Russian intelligence gathered to help elect his father, very likely breaking the law and making plain Trump’s willingness to participate in foreign meddling in US elections and very likely broke the law to do so
  3. Fired James Comey under suspicious circumstances, possibly in retaliation for his role in escalating the Russian probe, and then attempted to pass blame onto Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, then admitted he fired Comey over the Russian probe and threatened him with implied tapings of their meetings
  4. Came under investigation for obstruction of justice
  5. Overall, was determined to be the least transparent administration in decades

 

Foreign Policy and National Security

  1. Laid the groundwork for a humanitarian crisis in Yemen
  2. Possibly violated the Constitution when he ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase. Also warned Russia, and by extension Syria, in advance of the strike.
  3. Reportedly has generally created turmoil at the National Security Council
  4. Removed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence from the National Security Council and added his top political adviser, Steve Bannon
  5. Leaked classified information to the Russians, which is not only a breach of national security, but has also led US allies cautious about sharing classified information with the US.Trump leak

Overall Impact

Looking over the six months as a whole, bad policies by the Administration have mainly had consequences to the material welfare of the public through Economic and Environmental Policy. The impact on rights and freedoms via Civil and Human Rights issues has also been significant, primarily due to immigration, while damage to institutions has also been significant due large, though not exclusively to the Administration’s many scandals.

 

Trump table

Trends over Time

Pace

The early days of the Trump Administration saw a burst of harmful policies, as Trump issued a flurry of executive orders, while Trump and Congress both moved to halt implementation of Obama era policies. Congress, in particular, made extensive use of the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overrule regulations within 60 legislative days after being enacted. The pace of bad policies slowed in the following months, as the Administration ran out of quick victories and the administration became involved in scandals and failed to effectively coordinate support. More recently there’s been a slight uptick in the pace of bad policies as the administration moves from merely halting Obama era regulations to the more involved task of repealing them entirely.

Monthly

Policy Areas

In the early days of the Trump Administration, there was a significant focus on issues affecting civil liberties and human rights, most notably immigration, with a large component affecting economic issues and the environment. However, as time went on the administration’s focus shifted to issues effecting economic and physical well-being. This largely conforms to the general narrative of the Trump Administration, wherein the early days were dominated by the drama surrounding the travel ban and efforts to undo Obama era regulations, before alternately, to major policy initiatives on healthcare, the budget, and climate change later in the spring and early summer. This should not be surprising, as the travel ban and regulations issued by the executive branch are areas where the Administration had significant freedom to act unilaterally, while healthcare laws and the budget requires legislation that is larger and more complex.

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The Administration’s deleterious effects on institutions have remained largely stable over time. The Russia scandal has periodically burst to the surface, as new revelations of apparent collusion and cover-ups spring to the surface; however the scandal has not developed into a major issue that predominates everything, at least not yet. The day to day political scandals that tend to dominate the headlines, wherein Trump antagonizes the media or says something reckless, are a very small part of the whole picture so far, mainly because they have very little substantial impact. Of course, these things do accumulate, and they can gradually erode political norms over time, but this would be a gradual process. There areas where Trump has significantly undermined the political process, most notably by appointing Neil Gorsuch as well as a series of low key actions, such as ending the Johnson Amendment and efforts to make it easier to sue the media, which will have considerable long term impact. At the same time, there’s been a steady corrosion of the day to day functions of government, as the Administration has left the civil service directionless, understaffed, burdened by restrictions, and subject to a climate of paranoia.

 

National security and foreign policy issues have been largely similar to political ones. There have been several instances where the administration has antagonized America’s allies and engaged in an incoherent diplomacy. These will gradually degrade America’s geopolitical position over time. However, the impact has been relatively minor so far simple because there have been few major foreign policy initiatives to speak of.

 

The Russian Scandal

Over time the issue has escalated in importance. In the early days of the administration, the scandal largely involved the Trump Administration downplaying and failing to properly account for its suspicious contacts with Russia. However, more recently, more bold and, likely impeachable attempts to undermine the investigation and new revelations directly tying Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner to Russian meddling in the election have escalated things to a point where it may lead to a scandal that will either consume the administration or bring it down completely.

 

This is reflected in the data, with events relating to the unfolding Russian scandal taking up a larger portion of the overall impact of the Administration. In the early days of the administration, the Russia scandal accounted for around 5% of the awful things surrounding the administration, and that has increased to above 10% in the last few months, with an all-time high in the Trump Administration’s 18% (i.e. after firing James Comey). If we use Google Searches for the term “Trump Russia” as a proxy for public interest, then it seems that sustained public interest in the scandal is fairly high compared to other issues. It’s also attracted more public attention than the Clinton Email scandal ever did, so it seems reasonable to assume the scandal is somewhere beyond being a niche partisan issue that the broader public rolls it’s eyes at.

 

On the other hand, there’s reason to be skeptical that the scandal is gaining momentum. The scandal has unfolded in spurts, with shocking developments ever few weeks with quiet in between. As Nate Silver Fivethirtyeight has noted in early May, this pattern has made it difficult for the story to gain momentum in the public discourse. Silver was overstating the case; the issue is far more prominent than it was during the election. But the basic point was basically sound and there’s little reason to think this has changed. Public interest does indeed spike after each new revelations causing a spike in the level of public interest which dissipates very quickly, with no apparent upward trend over time.I can see Russia from home to, everyone can

There’s some evidence that the Russian scandal has bogged down the administration, as peaks in the Russian scandal tend to coincide with relatively slow periods of other policy making. So if the scandal did expand to massive proportions it may indeed grind the administration to a halt. But on the other hand, the link between the Russian scandal and the pace of other policy making is not exceptionally strong, and may simply be a coincidence. And this makes sense. Even if the scandal did “consume” the White House, the broader administration of appointees carrying out the day to day affairs of government and issuing regulations would largely be unaffected.

Russki

Deep Insights

Now that we have considered the general trends and impact of the Administration’s corrosive policies, we can dig a little deeper into the numbers to gain insights on how the administration operates, both in terms of how it goes about affecting policy change, and how it appears to carry out its strategy

 

Effectiveness

Overall, the Administration has not been very effective at achieving major policy victories through legislative action. While a number of ambitious proposals have been proposed in the early months of the Trump Presidency, so far the administration and the Republican congress have been failed to achieve any major legislative victories, with the possible exception of confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme. The areas where the administration, and the Republican Congress, has been most effective in achieving turning policy changes into law came simply through halting or reversing Obama era regulations, particularly in the first few days of the administration when congress could use the Congressional Review Act to throw out Obama era regulations. There are areas where the administration has been able to take active steps to implement major initiatives through executive fiat, such as the travel ban, but most of the active policy initiatives of the Administration are a matter of executive fiat and informal implementation which could, in theory, be easily reversed.

 

This is all evident when one breaks down the policies into different categories. There are only eight instances of active policy that have both a significant scope and a high degree of legal formality, and of those only were legislation. Additionally, two of those are associated with the Russian scandal more are more notable more as reckless unilateral actions which violate important laws and would have a profound impact if unaddressed, rather than a successful effort to change the law. Collectively, these represent only 10% of the Administration’s overall impact. Overall, actions that have been rated as an active shift in policy, rather than a mere proposal or reversal of existing policy, have a lower average score in terms of scale/scope, formality, and permanence, meaning they’re relatively modest, don’t affect substantial changes to the law, and could be easily reversed.

 

However in and of themselves, the combination of informal policies, policy reversals, and executive actions have still had a significant impact. Active policies at the level of implementation and executive fiat account for roughly 40% of the administration’s overall impact. Policies to reverse Obama era policies represent another 30%. Similarly, while many of the more ambitious policy proposals have not been implemented as of yet, they can still have a significant disruptive impact. For example, the uncertainty about whether or not Republicans will repeal the American Care Act has made many uncertain as made insurance companies unwilling to enter certain markets, thereby impacting people’s healthcare regardless of whether or not the ACA is actually repealed. For this reason, we estimate the impact of proposed major policy changes as being about 4%, even though they haven’t been formally enacted.

 

Strategy and Focus

In terms of strategy, the administration has been highly unfocused. The administration has focused on more topics than others, but they haven’t concentrated their efforts and have instead hit more or less every policy area, almost at random.

 

This can be demonstrated several ways. The first would be to look at the distribution across policy areas. If you lay something out from greatest to least and then fit a curve to it, you’ll typically be able to get an idea of the amount of systematic concentration in place. If there are a lot factors leading to concentration, then the slope will be very steep on left hand side and then taper off and become nearly flat as you go on. Where there’s very little concentration/coordination going on, the curve will slope downward gradually. To give some real world examples of this, a coordinated campaign will have a small portion of attacks with very high fatalities, an industry where there are a lot of economies to scale will have two or three companies who predominate, and a highly disciplined and coordinated administration would score huge victories that far outstrip everything else in one topic area that it prioritizes.

 

If we wanted to be very thorough and summarize this into a single index value, we’d actually fit the curve of an exponential function to the distribution and estimate the value of the exponent. The higher the value of the exponent, the greater the concentration. Conversely, if the value is close to or less than 1, that implies the distribution is more or less random.

 

Looking at the impact of the Administration’s policies, we find that the distribution is a pretty flat slope. The absolute value of the exponent is only 0.65 when speaking about the distribution across policy areas, and only about 1 when speaking about specific policy areas. Overall, it implies very little coordination. is also very low, and indicates the Administration is more or less hitting almost every policy area almost at random.

Policy dist

Dist spec pol.png

We can also demonstrate this by figuring a concentration index. If we take the percentage of the impact in each type of issue, square them, and add them up, we can figure an index value for concentration, with a 1 implying absolute concentration and 0 imply no concentration at all. Doing this for broad topic areas, we find that the administration has a concentration of only about 0.1, implying a very low level of concentration. If we break things down to the level of specific issues, that index value goes even lower to around 0.05. We can also conclude that, generally speaking, the area doesn’t speaking, the administration doesn’t focus broadly across one favored topic, which would be the case if the mid level index was much higher than the low level index value. Nor does it seem the administration the focuses on specific topics within policy areas, which would be the case if the mid level index value and low level index value were almost the same.  Once again, these numbers implies the administration is highly unfocused.

 

Public Reaction

If we gauge public reaction to the Trump Administration’s policies using Google Searches as a proxy and compare it to the items on the omnibus, we see a general pattern. Public interest in a given topic tends to spike after major new developments. For example, we can see that public interest in healthcare spikes in March when Republican efforts to repeal healthcare were in full swing, and again in early May when those efforts were renewed.

Healthy

Interest in environmental issues spiked after Trump pulled out from the Paris Accords.

Climate

Interest in immigration spiked after the travel ban.

Immigreat!

However, as with the Russian scandal, public interest tends to dissipate very quickly. There is no general upward trend, nor is there a sustained plateau. Likewise, not all significant developments have a corresponding spike in public interest. Low key moves and obscure regulatory changes largely don’t attract public interest, even if they have significant ramifications. For example, interest in healthcare did not increase in late May, when the Trump administration implemented a number of regulatory changes that will significantly undermine healthcare for millions of people. While the withdrawal from the Paris accord caused significant public attention, the repeal of numerous environmental standards or plans to significantly expand offshore drilling a few weeks later did not generate similar widespread public interest.

 

Analysis

Taking all these observations together, we can make numerous general observations about the Trump Administration.

 

Observation 1: The Administration Has Been Ineffective At Enacting Major Policies, But Has Still Had A Significant Impact Through A High Volume Of Piece Meal Actions

Despite holding virtually all the levers of power, the Trump Administration and Republicans have failed to pass any major legislation, and while the Republican’s efforts to repeal the American Care Act and dramatically reshape healthcare are dangerously close to passing, it still seems unlike that the Administration will achieve a major policy victory any time soon. This, we can assume, is likely due to the inability of the Administration to properly work the mechanisms of government, its failure to wield influence effectively, it’s penchant for crafting obviously flawed policies, and its tendency to maneuver itself into nigh on unwinnable political battles.

 

Of course, the fact that the only thing preventing massive harm to the rights and material welfare of the average American and irreversible corruption of the socio-economic system and government institutions is the administration’s own incompetence should be little comfort. If the Administration eventually did get its act together and pass even a portion of the major policy initiatives it has proposed, the results would be disastrous. Likewise, the Administration has still been able to do significant harm through these informal actions. Executive powers allow Trump considerable freedom to alter existing policies and determine how others are implemented. Even beyond this, Trump has caused considerable damage simply by being recklessness, corruption, mismanaging the day to day business of government, stacking the federal bureaucracy with corrupt incompetent ideologues, degrading political norms, or simply failing to act. Even if the administration became consumed by the Russia scandal, or perhaps some other scandal, this would still largely be the case.

 

There’s also the disturbing possibility that the Administration will respond its failure to operate within the system by simply breaking the system. Republicans in Congress have already done a good deal of this, most notably in the case of Neil Gorsuch, and they have demonstrated their willingness to hold the Administration accountable when it seriously misbehaves. And breaking the system by going outside of proper procedures is something the administration has done pretty frequently. Even beyond the much publicized conflict of interest cases and the violation of election laws, he does this fairly frequently. For example, the administration is already being sued by 17 states for preempting public debate when crafting his new policy on student loans. His initial travel ban was drafted by congressional staffers, and part of the reason it was thrown out was because of executive overreach. As noted in the section on trends above, actions like this have mostly been a steady, corrosive influence on governing institutions, rather than something that seems to be happening more and more frequently. However, such practices could metastasize rapidly if not checked.

 

Observation 2: The Administrations Has Hit Nearly Every Policy Area To A Significant Degree And Tends To Jump Around From Issue To Issue Rapidly

As noted, the Administration has tended to shift its focus frequently, and has hit on a wide variety of issues over its relatively short existence. Indeed, we can go one step further and say that the Administration’s approach seems almost random.

 

There are two likely explanations for why this is. The first is that this is due to the same lack of direction that has made the Administration generally ineffective at achieving major policy victories. The administration isn’t focused because it can’t focus, and there’s little in the way of strategic plans. The second would be that the Trump Administration, as a representative of an aggressive form of movement conservative with a broad ideological set of objectives. In this view, Trump and his underlings don’t prioritize particular issues because they all work towards achieving the same conservative view of society.

 

Some may wonder which of these two explanations is more likely. It’s not an idle consideration, since they imply different strategies for opposition. If Trump administration is primarily incompetent, then it stands to reason they can be confounded through tactical actions. If the Trump Administration is acting on the basis of a broad right wing ideology, then it makes sense to counter it with a similarly broad left wing ideology. I could probably dig through the evidence to find support for one explanation or the other, but I think it’s somewhat of a false choice, since the former explanation refers to means while the later refers to ends. It’s probably a mix of both explanations, and there’s no reason the opposition to the Trump administration can’t employ tactical guerrilla actions to frustrate the administration’s efforts while also engaging in broad movement building.

 

Generally speaking, the breadth and inconsistency with which the Trump Administration has been pursuing policy change presents both opportunities and challenges to anyone hoping to resist it. On the one hand, the fact that every issue the left cares about has been touched on, typically to similar extents, means that he’s galvanizing a broad range of groups. There’s no divide and conquer, and at any given time, someone has some reason to push back on something. And if there were ever a time to build the left into a cohesive movement based around shared ideology and an appealing message for social change, now would be the time to do it.

 

But at the same time, this also has a number of potential risks. If the left simply opposes Trump reactively, that means that, to some degree, they’re inheriting the same lack of coordination. And unlike the Administration, grassroots opposition does not have the benefit of being a permanent organization funded by tax payer money. As the administration jumps around from one topic to another, it’s difficult for the individual components of the opposition to remain mobilized, as it may be months before Trump pursues any significant action on a given topic. When the Trump Administration does return to a topic, it may act quickly or in a low key way, thereby bypassing a public backlash. This is what happened to some degree with healthcare, and to some degree has happened on more or less every significant policy area. There’s no single touchstone issue or framework that unites and mobilizes the opposition to the Trump Administration in the same way as Obamacare crystalized opposition to the Obama Administration and the Iraq War (and then the financial crisis) crystalized opposition to the Bush Administration.

 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, there is no conclusion at this time, and there can be no conclusion until the Trump Administration is ended, preferably in massive electoral defeat, and the last remnants of its toxic legacy are undone and those it has harmed are made whole. For now, we will continue to maintain and analyze the omnibus; periodically releasing progress reports, in the hopes that doing so will help galvanize public opposition and aid in the task of long term movement building.

Key+Steps+in+Movement+Building
I’d say this report feeds in to step 3, step 7, and maybe 9c

We Should Romanticize the North in the Civil War

Today is July 3rd, which Civil War enthusiasts might know was the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg some 154 years ago. So I thought it might be nice to have a Civil War post.

Now, over the weekend, a curious story came out of various militias, full of Neo-Confederates, White Nationalists and the sort, who congregated at Gettysburg over the weekend armed and looking for a fight. The reason? They had heard that the anti-fascist group antifa was coming to tear down various confederate memorials.

In the end, antifa didn’t come (they never planned to) and the militia men didn’t end up shooting anyone but themselves. But as much as the whole episode was the paranoid fantasy of fringe groups actively looking for brawls to participate in, the whole thing wasn’t entirely a figment of their imagination. In the past year or so, people on the left have become increasingly interested in iconoclastically tearing down the old monuments of the old Confederacy, though more often than not they mean this symbolically rather than literally.

And all and all this is probably long past due. I can understand the desire of people to find a certain degree of solace in loss, and yes, many of the people who fought for the South were basically good men even if the cause they fought for was obviously not. But the cause they fought for was not good, and the glorification of Confederate figures to near superhuman levels actively played into justifying the violent and stagnant political order of Jim Crow.

Jackson
I’m not speaking figuratively when I say “superhuman” either. Look at Stonewall Jackson’s forearms here, they’re bigger than his goddamn head!

But I think that’s only half of it. Rather than just tearing down the old symbol’s of the old Confederacy, we should also seek to build up the Union side of things. And I don’t say this out of some instrumental desire to rewrite politics by rewriting. There is much that is great about the Union war effort which has been sadly overlooked, partly because Union veterans just wanted to move on with their lives, and partly because they didn’t entirely grasp what they represented.

Well, I think it’s time we rediscovered some of these things. To begin with:

 

The Union Army Was A Ridiculously Diverse And Fascinating Cast Of Characters

Diverse

Just looking at the ethnic gives you a good impression of how diverse the Union military was. Only about 45% of the men were native old stock protestants. On the other hand, about 45% were immigrants, with German and Irish immigrants making up about half that number, and another 10% were free blacks and former slaves. Even if one assumes that a large number of the Germans were not immigrants in the strict sense (second generation Germans often got rolled up in the category), that still implies that fully half of the army was outside the ethnic “mainstream”, so to speak. And the raw numbers only tell half the story. A large number of these immigrants couldn’t even speak English.

 

And all of these diverse groups of people often had diverse politically leanings, which informed how they viewed the war effort. On the one hand, there were of course the abolitionists who saw the war in a moral, and even revolutionary, endeavor to reshape society. Even northerners who were indifferent to the aims of the abolitionists still largely saw the war as a necessary conflict to destroy the slave holding aristocracy that they viewed as an existential threat to the Republic. A large portion of the Germans in the union army, and even a good number of generals, were expatriated German revolutionaries whose views ranged from republican to hard core Communist. Many of the Irish men in the union army had been engaged in the mass politics of Catholic emancipation in their homeland, and some were radical Feinnian militants who advocated of violent resistance to British rule in Ireland (a few thousand of them went on to periodically invade Canada in the years after the war). Both the German, Irish, and other European immigrants saw the war as an extension of the war against the exploitative political/economic systems they had emigrated to the US to escape. And, of course, it’s impossible to overstate what the war meant to the newly freed slaves as a matter of personal and collective liberation.

 

There’s often very little room for these characters in the sort of Ken Burns/Killer Angels interpretation of the war, with it’s high minded soliloquies about the moral weight they carried and wistful recriminations of fraternal war. We don’t hear about people like August Willich, who fought in the Revolution of 1848, led a faction of the early Communist movement in the 1850s and gained the affection of his men by re-engineering wagons into bakeries so they could have fresh bread. You don’t hear about the German immigrants who saved St Louis in the early days of the war thanks to their prewar preparations. You don’t hear of the Chinese student who came to the United States and was so enthralled with the Union war against southern slave power, which he likened to his country’s struggle against Machu overlords, that he almost enlisted. You don’t hear about the Roanoke Freeman’s Colony, where hundreds and thousands of former slaves earned their education, served in distinction in the Union army, and briefly tried to assert their autonomy after the war before being forcibly disarmed.

 

The Northern war effort was expansive enough to incorporate all of these people, not because they were assimilated, but because the egalitarian values it represented was universal.

 

The Northern War Effort Was A Better Exemplar Of Modern, Industrial War Than Anything Which Had Come Before

organofmuskets

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not the Civil War can be considered the first modern war. Proponents point to the use of modern technologies, like iron clad ships and repeating rifles, the development of sophisticated logistical networks based on trains and industrially prepared foodstuffs, and the similarity of the trench warfare in later phases of the war to the western front in World War I. Detractors point out that, while new technologies had mad older Napoleonic tactics obsolete, commanders largely did not do much innovating because they lacked the sophistication of some professional European militaries. For example, even though both sides did use railroad based logistical networks, they did not execute the sort of innovative strategies on the level of the tightly coordinated train based maneuvers that the Prussians would use to great effect in the Franco-Prussian War a few years later.

 

I think both sides focus a little too closely, and are missing the forest for the trees. I would say that the Union war effort was, for all intents and purposes, groundbreaking, but for reasons that are a little more abstract than just the weapons and tactics used. Namely, the union was the first industrial power to engage in something approaching total war. The way it produced weaponry and mobilized men was unprecedented. The way US industry and munitions were organized was particularly ahead of its time, namely in terms of standardization, economies of scale, replaceable parts, and democratized use.

 

Contrary to popular belief, the early phases of the industrial revolution wasn’t defined predominantly by large organized factories churning out standardized products. Instead, the early until the latter half of the 19th century industry was still largely diffused into smaller shops and was still very much a craft rather than a systemic process. Because of this, industry didn’t scale up easily, and could still be prone to bottle necks. Hence why Britain, which was the workshop of the world in 1850s, still suffered crippling munitions shortages during the early days of the Crimean War (and would again face shell shortages in World War I).

 

On the other hand, the United States had been an early adopter of the concept of interchangeable parts. Thomas Jefferson had been introduced to the concept of interchangeable parts while in France, and it was at his behest that Eli Whitney was contacted to build 12,000 standardized muskets in 1798. In 1801, Whitney demonstrated his firearms in front of Congress, and the Congress was so impressed they decided to implement the system on a mass scale. In the next few decades, manufacturers in New England were at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of standardization and interchangeable parts. And with a large market in terms of population and geographic size, and governments willing to support them through strategic investments in infrastructure, they were able to take advantage of greater economies of scale than even many European powers as they did so.

 

So by the time of the Civil War, the North had facilities like the Springfield Arsenal, which at its peak was capable of churning out the 600 arms a day and almost 800,000 firearms over the course of the war. This sort of productive capacity was unprecedented at the time, and along with the Rockville Arsenal and other more small scale arms producers, allowed the Union to scale up from 16,000 men at the beginning of the war to more than 2,500,000 throughout the war without running into the same supply shortages that the British ran into a decade before.

 

And it wasn’t just small arms. For all it’s technical advances, the most impressive thing about the Monitor class ironclads is that they only took about 8 months to make. Within a year of the Monitor entering service, there were already dozens of ironclad ships exactly like it in service.

 

Monitor
And off they go…

Conversely, winning the war wasn’t just a matter of producing more and better things, mobilizing great numbers of men and so forth, it was also about strategically destroying your enemies ability to fight. Napoleon had tried economic warfare against Britain with the Continental System, but it didn’t match the Anaconda plan. Sherman’s march to the Sea did irreparably destroy the South’s capacity to fight. These were not aimed at slash and burn carnage as starvation, as previous efforts, very few people died as a result of the Anaconda plan, or Sherman’s march to the Sea. What they were was a methodical effort to strangle industries by depriving them of markets and resources, and the strategic demolition of the infrastructure that gave the enemy the ability to fight. And Sherman’s order 15, which redistributed expropriated plantation land among newly free slaves, offers a tantalizing vision of what might have been. And the order remained in effect or expanded, rather than being revoked later in the year by Andrew Johnson, it would have gave newly freed slaves a base of economic power to realize their nearly gained legal freedoms, permanently transforming the south in the process.

 

The point is, the North in the Civil War wasn’t just industrialized relative to the South, it was very much a world class industrial at the time, and in many respects was even the most advanced. And it hadn’t just defaulted to this position, as accounts of the Civil War often seem to presume, but had gotten there through a combination of foresight, ingenuity, and a socioeconomic system that fostered it. And throughout the war, they displayed the insight to realize that war was as much a matter of mobilizing resources and men as anything else. They appreciated this more than the South, and the appreciated it more than Prussian military commanders who dismissed them as merely disorganized mobs, and it’s why they were able to beat both of them time and again.

 

The Union Military Was Much Stronger As An Institution Than The Confederate One

 

Appomattox
Better off as part of a team…

It’s commonly believed that the South benefitted from superior military commanders during the Civil War. In a lot of ways this was likely true. The south was more enthusiastic in it’s support for the Mexican American war, and it had a fairly large number of military academies. So it’s not hard to imagine that the Confederate officer corps punched above it’s weight in terms of experience. And while by no means perfect, it’s hard to avoid acknowledging that. But generally speaking the idea that the southern officer corps was all around better is a myth. About 82% of west point graduates stayed with the union. There was, of course, considerable ineptitude in the officer corps owing to things like officers being appointed for political reasons or buying their commissions, but it’s not like that didn’t happen in the Confederacy as well. On the whole, it’s reasonable to assume the officer corps were about comparable.

 

This is more or less born out when you look at how the respective Union and Confederate militaries performed on average. It’s true that in the Eastern Theater, where the Army of Northern Virginia, headed by Robert E. Lee, with Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet at his side, represented a rare combination of military genius, and this helped the South delay Union victory by several years. But in the western theater, command the leadership was generally comparable, and with the advantage in resources the union advance was more or less consistent.

 

So why did Southern military commander’s get such favorable treatment?

 

Well, for one thing there was the overt efforts in the South to romanticize “The Lost Cause” after the war, while no such effort took place in the North. During the war, of course, Northern newspapers were full of dashing stories of commanders and their feats of daring do, and many of these retained their notoriety after the war. But again, Northerners were not exceptionally invested in memorializing their wartime experiences as the south was.

 

I’d also speculate that it was largely due to the fact that they were vastly different organizations. The Confederate military was a newly formed organization, and as such it hinged far more on the personal charisma of its leadership. By contrast, the Union army was an established entity whose capabilities were largely embedded in the structures and informal practices of the organization. And, as with the industrial technologies cited earlier, this allowed for much greater democratization, allowing the Northern military to work on the basis of replaceable parts. Commanders may be highly competent, and a good many of them were very competent, but they weren’t essential and could be treated as replaceable parts. Compare and contrast how the Union and Confederate armies were impacted by changes in leadership. The Army of Northern Virginia was irreparably set back by the loss of Stonewall Jackson, meanwhile the Army of the Potomac saw 4 major changes to it’s leadership in the span of a year in 1862-63 and it’s functionality was barely impacted.

 

An analogy with silicon valley tech companies. The Confederate military was more like a new start up whose success and public image often hinges on their charismatic founders. By contrast, the Union army would be more like IBM, a large established organization often seen as bumbling and obtuse, but which is in fact quite efficient when you get into it. The IBM’s of the world are a lot more sustainable, and the edgy startups that become market leaders usually have to become a lot more like IBM in the process, though they may hate to admit it.

 

All this is even more impressive when you consider what a diverse of hodge-podge of different peoples the Union military was. While it’s important not to overstate the importance of cultural/ethnic uniformity, it is none-the-less true that homogeneity is generally an asset when talking about organizational cohesion, especially when that means a large percentage of people don’t even speak the same language. Austria Hungary generally didn’t benefit from it’s diverse fighting force, after all. From this perspective It’s a wonder that the Union army functioned as well as it did. But again, the union military was institutionalized and democratized to a point where that wasn’t an issue.

 

Conclusion

Yes we can

Taking all of this together, and we get a very clear idea of the particular ethos of the North in the Civil War. In the Union, we see the vision of an expansive, democratized, forward looking society that was able to engender the voluntary effort and creativity of free men. The common soldier, civil engineer, line worker and so forth became the heart and soul of the war effort, rather than a narrow elite trained in military prowess and élan. If you want to look at the home front of World War II came from, with it’s can do attitude of men and women coming together to turn row after row of Sherman tanks and flying fortresses off the line, you can see the seeds of it in the Union Army.