I don’t remember exactly when I arrived at 9000’ – I mean, I remember the circumstances but not the date – but I know that soon after I got here I delivered my opinion that the greatest long-term political threat to the country was the rightward drift (or sprint, at times) of the national Democratic party.
Which I ascribed (and still do) to control of the national party being captured by a relatively new predatory class of political consultants, of whom Mark Penn was and still is the exemplar. This band of deeply subversive wretches had one product to sell: immediate short-term success – success in the next election, no matter what the longer-term cost. Whether they delivered this success is by the by – in fact their performance has been mixed at best. What is anything but by the by is their unquestionable success in capturing the Democratic side of national elections, presidential and senatorial. The moment of their final and complete capture occurred in the early nineties when the Clintons bought into their methodology lock, stock, and barrel. In fact, they more than bought into it: they extended it to the problem of appearing to govern successfully, of staying popular while in office. The technique they developed has become known as triangulation. This isn’t a terrible name for it, but its basis is more than obsessive compromise, obsessively seeking the mean in every political controversy. Its true basis, which was consciously-advanced consultant dogma, is a strange distortion of Hotelling’s Law, a distortion brought about by the by-now-analyzed-to-death rightward plunge of the Republicans.
Harold Hotelling, who was active from roughly the late twenties to the late sixties, was a titan in the history of statistics. He also more than dabbled in economics, where he provided sound statistical underpinnings for Georgism (aka “Market Socialism”), a late-19th century school of economics that can be thought of as a rigorous theoretical defense of the Commons. One of his contributions to economics goes by the name of Hotelling’s Law and is very well known for a peculiar reason: its conclusions can be accurately conveyed by easily understandable visual analogies, the most famous of which is “the two ice cream sellers at the beach” parable.
If you don’t know it, the two ice cream sellers at the beach parable goes like this. We’ve got maybe a mile-long stretch of beach packed with hot, hungry, thirsty bathers, and two competing ice cream sellers approach it from the landward side. Where will they set up their carts and start selling? They will naturally, instinctively cut the beach into thirds and each will take a position halfway between one of the outer segments and the center segment – like this:
Fig 1: (a)———X———Y———(b)
where X and Y represent the ice cream sellers and (a) and (b), the left and right boundaries of the beach. In terms of the market, X owns the segment on the left and Y owns the segment on the right, but toward the middle of the center segment they compete, because the bathers there are more or less equidistant from both of them. This is therefore an unstable configuration because, X and Y being competitors, each will naturally attempt to encroach on the other’s sales by moving closer to the center. Eventually they will wind up in this stable configuration:
Fig 2: (a)————-XY————-(b)
As one popular explanation puts it, “Ever noticed how refrigerators in the same price range look almost identical from brand to brand? Or why car dealerships all tend to pop up along the same stretch of road? Or even why the menus at McDonalds and Burger King are hard to tell apart?”
This is also a pretty good picture of the American electoral landscape circa, say, 1960. Both parties are relentlessly centrist, but marginally, the Democratic X is still the party of the left and vice versa. If there is to be movement, it will seem easiest for voters at (a) to drag X leftward and for voters at (b) to drag Y rightward. As disappointing as their distance from X is to the (a)-people, X is still closer to them than is Y, and more importantly, the voters between (a) and X are far more congenial to the (a)-dwellers than are the voters between Y and (b).
There’s some sound math at work behind Figures 1 and 2. I mention it because we’re going to leave it behind us very soon, since now comes the great distortion. Independently of the apparent market forces, the (b)-dwellers are able to pull Y rightward – while at the same time, the (a)-dwellers’ faint grip on X grows ever weaker. Suddenly we go from Figure 2 to
Fig 3: (a)————-X—Y———-(b)
and then very quickly to
Fig 4: (a)—————X-Y———-(b)
as X moves to gobble up some of the ideological territory that Y has abandoned. This sequence repeats itself until the end of the Reagan era, when we’re approximately at
Fig 5: (a)——————-X—-Y—(b)
as Y continues its rightward march and market forces push X into the territory Y has vacated.
At this point the pseudo-statistically-adept Democratic consulting class emerges (from more or less thin air) to quickly convince the party elders (and especially Mr. and Mrs. Clinton) that the optimal configuration for them is now
Fig 6: (a)———————XY—(b)
In no time at all, the Democrats adopt this consultant-authored rule: whenever Y moves ever so slightly to the right, X must immediately follow step for step. Because X’s rightward creep will be risk-free: X will lose no one on its left but will keep picking up voters to its right.
Now if this theory were in fact true, Al Gore would have beaten George Bush in an historically unprecedented landslide. But he won by only a very small and, it turned out, insufficient margin. It didn’t matter: the consultants were by now so firmly embedded that not even a kick in the balls from reality itself could dislodge them. By 2016 the consultants believed they were facing this enticing prospect
Fig 7: (a)————————XY(b)
as, first, the Koch-class and their tea-head shock troops kept booting the GOP ever rightward and, second, Hillary followed mercilessly and triumphantly in their wake. But in fact what happened was something, that if we hold onto the by-now-ought-to-be-thoroughly-discredited beach model, is not only very different but close to impossible:
Fig 8: (a)————————XY………………….………(b)
In other words (or in words, period) a wholly unexpected mass of voters, the dot (“…”) people, swarmed onto the beach and crowded in to the right of Y and somehow occupied a stretch of beach that no ice cream seller had ever noticed before. Consultant-world, which is still synonymous with Clinton-world, is struggling to explain Figure 8. Who are these mystery voters? Where did they come from? What do they want? And most of all, how do we make them ours?
This is horseshit. It’s been horseshit since before Figure 3, which is where the pretty pictures began to jettison the sound mathematical foundations of Figures 1 and 2. But until now it’s been saleable horseshit. The question remains, have we yet reached the point where it stinks enough that the horseshit buyers will decide to kick the horseshit sellers back to their hedge funds and real estate development deals?
Let’s try to answer that question.
In my next installment, which will arrive in this very place somewhere between a day and a month from now, I will look at this from the triple context of the famous Overton Window, Bernie Sanders’ stump-delivered agenda, and the Democrats’ theoretically promising but pathetically weak and casual Better Deal. I will argue that a much fleshed-out Better Deal (call it what you like) based on a much fleshed-out and small-d democratically debated agenda like Sanders’ would have a realistic chance of moving the Overton Window back to where it was circa 1946. I will argue (or just note that I’m taking it for granted) that when the program is ready, the candidates will appear.
In my third installment (to be delivered whenever), I will discuss how the mechanisms of the gigantic but rarely analyzed state-capitalist sector of the US economy (which I’ve worked around for thirty years and which paid me directly for twenty) can be applied to three items that will inevitably appear on that hypothetical, Sanders-like national agenda: jobs (i.e., good jobs, and where they’re needed), climate change and other environmental catastrophes, and infrastructure restoration and replacement. I will argue that a single prescription (and only a single prescription) can address all three of those problems far more successfully than the usually-proposed-and-hardly-ever-enacted timorous and piecemeal proposals that we’ve become used to hearing about – and used to seeing fail time and again (usually in congress, well before they’re actually attempted). I will argue that in the seventy-five years since 1942, the Department of Defense has slowly and clumsily evolved downright magnificent techniques of planning, management, and control that can fairly easily be adapted to socially useful projects of the scale of missile, aircraft, and submarine acquisitions – projects that, when combined, really can begin to address those problems effectively.