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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
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NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Sunday, November 24, 2019

WHERE WE ARE. OR RATHER, WHERE ARE WE?


I want to take a few moments to step back from the flood of revelations and commentary and try to get some perspective on where we are.  As I was turning things over in my mind, I recalled the work of an old Political Scientist from the 50s, Samuel Lubell.  I may have this wrong [it was well over 50 years ago], but I recall him arguing, on the basis of his detailed examination of voting behavior, that it was a myth that there were middle of the road unaligned moderates who listened carefully to political arguments and then sometimes swung a little left, at other times a little right.  Actually, the so-called moderates were as closed minded as those on the left and those on the right.  They just happened to be closed minded about issues that were pushed sometimes by Republicans and at other times by Democrats.

I thought about this as I tried to assess honestly the claim that Democrats in 2020 must choose a middle-of-the-road candidate who can win back the Obama voters whose votes for Trump put him over the top in three or four crucial states.

We all know the terms of the debate.  Those pushing Biden or Klobuchar [or Buttigieg or Bloomberg or Yang] point to the data that clearly show that if Trump had not won those Obama voters, he would not have won the Electoral College.  We on the left counter that the Obama voters of color who stayed home in those states in 2016 vastly outnumber the Obama/Trump voters, and that if Clinton had been able to mobilize the stay at home Democrats, she would now be President.

I don’t want to argue about which policies are best.  I know where I stand on those questions.  I want to try to guess what the shape of the actual electorate is going to be in 2016.  At least some of the evidence is favorable to the preferences of those of us on the left.  The elections since 2016 have shown a steady and very deep erosion of Republican support in the suburbs, especially among previously Republican White women [a small slice of the overall electorate, let us remember.]  Even more important, Democratic turnout is through the roof, and seems to suggest that 2020 will see the largest percentage of eligible voters turning out in a century.  On the other hand, leftwing candidates have been winning principally in reliably Democratic districts. 

I am terrified that I am allowing my passion to cloud my judgment, and since I really do think another four years of Trump might put paid to progressive dreams for a generation.

What do you all think?

30 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

I think that it's very healthy that you remark that you're terrified that you are allowing your passion to cloud your judgment.

I'm not claiming that you do that more than any of the rest of us do, by the way.

All of us should repeat that phrase to ourselves silently before we opine politically.

I see so much confusion of passion with political judgment everyday, here in Chile and in the U.S. from what I see online. The left may well be worse in that respect than the right since the left believes that they act from high ideals, while many on the right simply act out of the most selfish interests, which in a way keeps them from getting their judgment clouded.

Howie said...

So then everybody's close minded? What's the point if everybody's close minded?

s. wallerstein said...

Howie,

If you're referring to what I say above, yes, it's a problem that can affect any of us, and the only way that I know of to avoid it is to reason defensively, just as you drive defensively on the look-out for dangers. To reason defensively (when you're reasoning about
political issues that you care deeply and passionately about) means that you take a deep breath and wonder whether your passions are clouding your judgement and that you always follow the principle that if it's too good to be true, then it most probably isn't true.

Jerry Brown said...


"I don’t want to argue about which policies are best."

Come on already. You sound like the network news with that position.

Dean said...

The professor is not sidelining argument about best policies because doing so gives the cynical appearance of objective neutrality. He's doing it because he wants to imagine the likely outcomes of an election, an entirely separate issue. He wants to "get some perspective." Both queries are valid. What are the best policies? What are the odds we'll achieve them?

Jerry Brown said...

Yeah, I know that Dean. Just saying that proposed policy still (I hope) has some impact on the outcome of elections. It isn't just a race where you want one horse to win and the rest to lose just because you picked the number it's wearing. Or maybe it is for some people at this point. Those will probably be satisfied with the way the news covers it.

David Palmeter said...

I think the key is in your statement that, “They just happened to be closed minded about issues that were pushed sometimes by Republicans and at other times by Democrats.”

I see a myriad of separate issues out there--health care, climate change, taxes, defense and foreign policy, taxes, gun control, abortion. This list goes on. People tend to go with the party that agrees with them both quantitatively and qualitatively on most issues, i.e., not just the number issues, but how strongly people feel about any particular issue. Issues like abortion and guns are hot button issues--many people will vote for a candidate who agrees with them on abortion or guns even if that candidate has positions the voter doesn’t like on other issues.

Most on the left will go one way on these issues and the right will go other way. The centrists are simply those for whom the overall balance is close.

Voters usually strongly oppose taking away anything they presently have and like. This has been the Republican problem with Social Security and Medicare; it’s the problem with opposition to gun control and farm price supports. I think Ted Cruz is only presidential candidate of either party since the Iowa caucuses began who admitted in Iowa that he opposed corn an ethanol subsidies, both of which are a national scandal that line pocket of people like Chuck Grassley.

And--my big worry--it’s the problem with M4A. Those suburbanites who don’t like Trump, don’t like his policies on climate etc., also have good, high paying jobs with good employer-provided health insurance, and they’re worried about their taxes going up astronomically and losing their private health insurance. Ditto the auto workers and steel workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin who have the Cadillac health insurance policies that they won through collective bargaining. Their opposition to M4A is likely, I fear, to override their preferences on other issues.

Jerry Fresia said...

Les Leopold argues "Beware the Moderate Democrat"

https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/02/02/beware-moderate-democrat

2016 Voter Survey Group, polling 8,000 Americans:

- Left Populists account for 44.6 percent of the electorate according to this study.

- 28.9 percent are Nativist Populists. This means that nearly three-quarters of all voters fear runaway inequality and want to reduce it. But these economic populists are divided on identity issues.

- Arch Conservatives account for another 22.7 percent.

- And that leaves a miniscule 3.8 percent for the Socially Liberal/Fiscal conservatives.

James Camien McGuiggan said...

A bit of news on things across the pond that you might find heartening:

There's a general election going on at the moment (polling date is December 12th), and the right, running a campaign of shocking mendacity (and supported every step of the way by a solid majority of the billionaire-owned print media), has a huge polling lead over the Sandrs-esque Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn. (The headline figure - 10+ points - is misleading because of the nature of the UK electoral map; for perspective, a 5-7 point lead would be sufficient for an outright majority, but it's not like Labour would have a majority below that threshold.) The polling is pretty dire.

BUT.

Most polling models still assume that youth turnout will be conentionally low, but Labour activists on the ground are noting (a) that the ground campaign is unprecedented in size and enthusiasm; and (b) that so many young people have registered to vote for the first time that if they also voted, they could shift the polls by something like EIGHT POINTS. This is from a baseline of already historically high youth turnout in the last general election in 2017.

We'll see if it pans out, and whether it's enough. But an eight-point poll swing through turnout is mind-boggling, and I wouldn't believe it only for how it accords with what I'm hearing from campaigners. What I'm taking away from this is that wherever the roof of youth turnout is, it is, from our point of view, vanishingly distant. Give me a passionate, sincere politicians such as Corbyn who can get out the vote over a moderate any day of the week.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Dr. Wolff is correct about the political middle: there isn't any middle. Voters identify as republican, democrat, or independent. In fact independents lean one way or the other, and the very small number that don't lean are a very diverse group that is largely apolitical. Party identification numbers look like this: 31% identify as democratic, 33% independent and 26% republican. Of the independents, 17% lean democratic, 13 percent lean republican, and 7% don't lean. The 'true ' independents are an unusual group. They are less interested in politics, less likely to be registered to vote, and only 1/3 voted in the midterms.

I would suggest that the midterms settle the question of strategy. Huge turnout created a blue wave, as it has been termed. Republicans who saw huge increases in the democratic vote in their districts should be worried that a larger wave will swamp them in 2020. I guess that they are more afraid of Trump supporting a primary challenge. On the other side, I don't see moderate democrats abandoning the party if a progressive is nominated. Negative opinions of Trump are so strong I can't imagine anyone not voting or switching parties because of a Sanders or Warren nomination.

Having a progressive nominee does present some problems, such as countering right-wing red-baiting. Bernie got a lot of that in his time as Mayor of Burlington, VT, and knows how to deal with it. Scare tactics will be a part of the Trump strategy, but more important will be huge fog of untruth and negative campaigning that will be unleashed by republicans (and Russians) to try to drive down turnout. Whoever the democratic nominee is has to counter that in their press strategy and in their field organization. The best field organization in modern politics was Obama's, and there will need to a massive effort everywhere to identify supporters, or, as Lincoln said, "find 'em and vote 'em."

Turnout in national elections has been in the mid 50%'s. Obama in 2008 exceeded the average by 4 points or so with a 58% turnout. Typical is 54%. But turnout in 2018 was 53.4% which suggests to me that a turnout of 58 - 60% may be possible. All things being equal, that means a landslide democratic victory. Negative partisanship is very high now - meaning both sides hate the other - and it also indicates high turnout
is likely.

One last observation: the middle of the political spectrum exists only on the x axis line denoting ideology from left to right. It is what Marx called a bad abstraction. Despite how much we talk about moderates there aren't any. Bizarrely enough, 38 percent of voters describe themselves as moderates. The republican party is so far to the right that no one who calls themselves republican can be a moderate. The democratic party is a left of center party. If you examine the distribution of democratic politicians the 'right' of the party is the tail of a bell curve distribution, and it just barely touches the center of the spectrum. So all those folks who think of themselves as moderates or centrists don't vote that way (whatever 'that way' is), otherwise the distribution of elected officials would be very different than it is. It's "The Myth of the Middle."

marcel proust said...

2 points:

1) an old Political Scientist from the 50s, Samuel Lubell. I may have this wrong [it was well over 50 years ago] It is 2019. Yes, it is well over 50 years ago, as in "at least 60 years ago is well over 50 years ago."

2) if Clinton had been able to mobilize the stay at home Democrats... I am not sure that this lays blame where it belongs. IIRC, voter suppression was important in Wisconsin (certainly Milwaukee) as well as other states that Obama carried in 2012 (NC, e.g., MI too I believe).

Enam el Brux said...

A relevant article: There is no center: dems must focus on repairing elite-mass relations.

s. wallerstein said...

Christopher M.,

What is a bad abstraction according to Marx?

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

s. wallerstein,
There is a discussion titled The Method of Political Economy early on in the Grundrisse. In it Marx talks about how it may seem right to begin one's analysis with population. But on its own, population doesn't tell you much about peoples relation to the means of production which determines the concrete relations that give one a meaningful understanding of people in society in a given historical period.

"Population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes or which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest, e.g. wage labor, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labor, prices, etc." (Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus, p. 100)

I should not have used the phrase "what Marx called a bad abstraction." I don't think he used the phrase. Maybe I should say un-usefull abstractions. Speaking of un-usefull abstractions, it seems to me that if we assume a line, with a middle and extremes demarcated, upon which we place political parties, we have set ourselves up. Placement on a line seems to be a meaningless exercise unless we know what groups make up the party, what class interests are reflected in the political party, etc.

Of course, along with the left and right, the line has a middle, a center, and that may lead us to think that there are people who occupy that space, when in fact there are not. There isn't even a semblance of a political ideology that can claim that space. Today, as we face a fascistic right-wing party, there is certainly no middle ground. But we have come to think that the middle is an inherently better position to occupy than the dreaded extremes. Bloomberg, after all, is going to use the notion that the center is better than the extreme represented by the progressives. What he really wants is a party whose interests will be less offensive to capital. But being less offensive to the interest of capital is not how he will sell himself. He will sell himself as a moderate, a centrist and that tells us nothing about his candidacy. This isn't about a different spot on a continuum, it's a qualitatively different aim, contrary to the aim of the progressive wing on the party.

We have conceptions about politics that prevent us from understanding it, and not the least of which, is the Myth of the Middle. I think it is the dominant mode of understanding politics among those for whom politics is not an important part of their everyday lives. "If only the two parties could return to the center and compromise everything will go back to normal" is something we have all heard a million times. Trouble is, it's B.S.

s. wallerstein said...

Christopher M.,

Thank you for your very clear explanation. There is a book by Tariq Ali, The Extreme Center, which I haven't read I confess, but the title gives me the impression its line of thought is akin to yours.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Extreme_Centre

Darko said...

Dear professor,

pardon me for asking here,
have you studied any oriental philosophy/consciousness/spirituality?

Jerry Fresia said...

Noam Chomsky: Democratic Party Centrism Risks Handing Election to Trump

https://truthout.org/articles/noam-chomsky-democratic-party-centrism-risks-handing-election-to-trump/

David Palmeter said...

The Chomsky interview doesn't seem to square with its title.

Anonymous said...

I find your ability to read by far exceeds your ability to think.

Like many academics your chacterizations are often simplistic and childish. You need to know A LOT more about capitalism, the beauty of the free market, the tyranny of government, and the genius and humanity of many entrepreneurs.

Note that Democrats go into government broke and come out millionaires and 9/10 MDs in government are Republicans.

jgkess.cfl.rr.com said...

Like many an Anonymous Comment, your "characterizations" are "often simplistic and childish". Ayn Rand would be proud of you. She, at least, had the courage of her convictions.

Jerry Fresia said...

jgkess.cfl.rr.com

Indeed, Ayn Rand put her name to her feeble thinking. On the other hand I doubt she would put her name to THAT.

A member of the jeunesses dorées of Trump world, no doubt (to borrow a phrase from
our simplistic friend).

Dean said...

I like the pretense of precision and objectivity in "9/10 MDs in government are Republicans." I assume this is intended to reflect a skewed distribution of smarts, but maybe it just means that medical doctors who are Republican inordinately find themselves unable to abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, pace the Hippocratic Oath. Hence, they enter public service.

s. wallerstein said...

Maybe they look for government jobs because, unlike doctors who are Democrats, they can't make it in the private sector. Don't rightwingers generally claim that people who work for the public sector are those who can't compete in the private sector?

Anonymous said...

The name on my Google account is not my name and my experience with Democrats is that they lack honor and decency and will do anything to get even if you disagree with them.

After such a person hacked my computer and did tremendous online damage I learned my lesson.

In real life I fight for social causes and make myself well known.

Though it won't come to that, I will match my charity, volunteer work, social involvement and honor against all of yours. If you doubt me you only reinforce my experience with people like you.

I admit to enjoying Dr. Wolff's talks, but see limits, naivete, and anyone who trusts government and Marxism is just a sciece fiction nerd without the science.

aall said...

Anonymous, your syntax is showing. How's the weather in St. Petersburg?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Wolff calls Marx the world's greatest social scientist. He is nothing of the sort and his mantra from each according to his ability to each according to his needs is a sexist and romantic notion that misses human nature and instead arrives at the funny bone in man's mind, his imagination.

Academics live for imagination, though they are too psychotic and delusional to admit it.

Among the best American short philosophies are the treatises on corporate culture, which are far more idealistic than Marx, plus they really work and unlike applied Marxist brutality they do not rely on breaking eggs.

The tragedy of self appointed messiahs is that imagination, as Maoimonoides pointed out, is the real root of evil and money, though not the greatest evil, holds much evil since it is the principle imaginary power of this world; the spiritual world is different and, as Maimonides also points out, G-d and the spiritual world are so different from this world that the terminology we apply to this world is only a homonym when applied to G-d or the spiritual world.

Vico is greater than Marx and the greatest American industrialists , like Ford whose anti-Semitism illustrates his human failing, but whose philanthropy and goodness to his workers completely debunks Marx's myth of the evil capitalist, which relies on the ugliness of the European mind, is matched by many great Americans like Carnagie and other mystics whose real stories, as opposed the the romantic and ridiculous myths of Marx, is an education in my sense, which is wisdom.

Wisdom does not take place without disillusionment and real education gives that disillusionment, which is quite different from Marxism, which is propaganda, simplistic, and easily debunked albeit not by men drunk on their own delusions who therefore mistake taste with fact and virtue.

jgkess@cfl.rr.com said...

My dear Anonymous, I'm guessing that English is your second language---"thinking" is perhaps your third.

Anonymous said...

Typical Republican MD, maybe as smart as your propaganda spouting windbag heroes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Frist

do your own research and learn to think, my insulting, self-righteous, mentally ill political opponents.

s. wallerstein said...

Anonymous,

No one was insulting anyone here, until you appeared two days ago insulting Professor Wolff, who is too much of a gentleman to insult you back. So you threw the first punch.

As for who is mentally ill, I'm not a psychiatrist, but it does seem like a sign of being a bit unbalanced that someone, in this case you, shows up in a blog where it is obvious beforehand that no one will agree with them and picks a fight, as far as I can see, for the pure pleasure of picking a fight. We regular commenters are not all in agreement here, some are Marxists, others just progressives, but all of us are left of center and I believe that all of us value Professor Wolff's learning and wisdom.

steveo said...

We need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 to be on a path to stay under 2C. If Trump is elected, the US probably loses 4 years of cutting emissions, so that we may need to cut more like 7% a year- which seems a stretch to do.It seems the odds of exceeding 2C get much better, meaning catastrophe. I sometimes think we need to new words or way to talk about the future---a level 3 cat (3C) , level 4 cat (4C) etc.