Tuesday, September 19, 2023


A surprising little instance of what looks like personal butthurt on the part of young Matty Yglesias, in the Substack Notes, aimed toward the Australian economist and Blogger Hall of Fame member John Quiggin:

So the first thing to say is that Quiggin's note is marked with a mock HTML tag <sarc off> suggesting we're possibly not meant to take it literally, and it's definitely not an accurate summary of Yglesias's post ("Polarization Is a Choice"), which doesn't even mention the polarization between parties that would like to overthrow US democracy and those that would not. 

Rather, it's the story of less inflammatory issues in the careers of two originally "moderate" presidents who were (according to the author) practically the same political person during their respective presidential campaigns, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and then decided, apparently for personal reasons, to radicalize in oppposite directions, Trump to the "right" and Biden to the "left", when in office. Thus, in the case of Trump:

... it’s not that Trump “had to” pivot right in order to win the nomination. He ran and won saying that he would protect Medicaid (along with Social Security and Medicare) and tax the rich, but then he endorsed congressional Republican efforts to do the reverse.

And you saw something similar in the way he staffed his administration. Even though he clearly beat the party establishment to secure the nomination and largely won the general election without much help from the official GOP apparatus, in office he governed as a fairly conventional conservative who just really loved tariffs.

I'm a little dubious about Trump's plans to tax the rich—as Yglesias's own source stated, six months after Trump's inauguration,

Every iteration of Trump’s tax plan, from his first campaign outline to the lightly detailed blueprint his White House team released this spring, has been scored by independent analysts as a huge tax cut for the very rich.

It seems much more likely that he was simply lying about it ("It’s going to cost me a fortune, which is actually true"), as was his habit, and had no plans whatever for Medicaid, Social Security, or Medicare, any more than he did for infrastructure, private health insurance, or bringing peace to the Middle East.

I can't understand the tendency among the punditry to attribute policy "ideas" to Trump on any subject other than things he's been known to actually think about—taxation (we know he's given a lot of thought to his own personal tax returns, and this is somewhat reflected in the 2017 tax bill treatment, particularly on pass-through income) and the appeal of racism and xenophobia, a tradition within the Republican party going back through Pat Buchanan to Charles Lindbergh and beyond, which played an enormous part, though Yglesias doesn't mention that either, in his campaign (this includes his preoccupation with tariffs, which he picked up in the 1970s during a Japan panic). As far as I can tell, he doesn't normally think about anything other than laugh and applause lines, and willingly takes orders from associates he trusts, from Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro to Leonard Leo. The idea of him as some kind of engaged ideologist, following his reading and ratiocinations along a path from center to right, seems just ridiculous to me.

The same does not apply to Biden, who certainly does think about these matters, though I'm not clear how much he thinks about them in terms of "left" and "right" (he'd deny that he considers those at all, I expect. Yglesias cites Franklin Foer's new book for an excellent summary of how Biden's policy thinking has recently evolved under the influence of a younger generation of operatives and experts including Jake Sullivan, Heather Boushey, and Jared Bernstein, to adopt a whole host of ideas taken from the Elizabeth Warren campaign

An entire generation of young Democratic wonks, with a similar establishment pedigree, found itself in the same brooding mood, tinged with fear. They didn't worry about just Trump. They fretted about what would become of the Democratic Party. It seemed as though the party was fracturing, just like the nation. At Hillary Clinton's nominating convention, they saw the rage of Bernie Sanders's supporters- and it was directed at the wing of the party that had nurtured their careers. 

Their elders were denizens of an old Democratic establishment that made a virtue of picking fights with the Left. To battle with Jesse Jackson or Robert Reich was regarded as evidence of political savvy and intelligence, since it required resisting the impulse of bighearted compassion and required consideration of the unintended consequences of social policy. But Sullivan and his cohort broke with their mentors and attempted to cultivate the rising Left.

but fails to note that the change in Biden occurred during the campaign, not after the inauguration, making it not an example of Yglesias's process; and completely leaves out the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant financial emergency, and the opportunities they opened up for implementing a Warren-style spending program, almost a year before Biden was elected, in a Congress managed by another elderly Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Yglesias offers a sort of thesis to frame his argument around:

... one choice people make that is leading to polarized outcomes is precisely the tendency to underplay the role of contingency and agency in political outcomes. If you’re convinced that deep underlying forces of polarization will assert themselves no matter what you do, you will make polarizing choices.

But then he leaves so many central contingencies out of the discussion that I can't even guess what the thesis is meant to mean. 

Especially Trump's choice to reject the results of the 2020 presidential election, and the series of crimes now working their way through the US justice system to which it led. How is this not the most polarizing thing that's happened between the parties over the last six or seven years? I believe that's what Quiggin is pointing at with his <sarc>: Yglesias's treatment, if you try to take it seriously, suggests a purely formal model of polarization in which both parties are symmetrically implicated (you went a bit right on your turn and I went a bit left on my turn), in spite of his mysterious thesis statement. and mentions no contingencies that might have made a key difference, though there are plenty that could have been, mentioned, from Trump's Ku Klux Klan upbringing to the financial collapse and Black Lives Matter movement of mid-2020, and once again the wild moment of the January Insurrection in terms of which Democrats and Republicans are now practically forced to define themselves (and certainly do, one defending democracy and the other openly opposing it with constitutional theories as well as active voter suppression like the horrors ongoing in Wisconsin and Alabama and other states). Yglesias seems to be putting it all aside in favor of a picture ("Slow and Boring") in which nothing really happened at all. It's like an imitation of an idea, and it's incredibly irritating.

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