Latest Efforts to Refute Charles Murray

Over the past five to ten years, many people have noticed increasing narrow-mindedness on much of the left. As always, the cost to suppressing ideas is to give up the intellectual high ground. For a long time, criticism of narrow-mindedness couldn’t penetrate the left-wing bubble (that’s the thing about bubbles.) It’s as if critics are trying to draw them into open intellectual combat, and they won’t take the bait. But they may be starting to wear down. Two of the latest entries in the endless series of efforts to debunk Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve indicate that some on the left feel the need to fight the stigma of dogmatism.

One appeared in Vox ( The authors tried to push back on the notion that Murray’s work provokes “politically correct moral panic,” and that his conclusions are only disputed by those “afraid of the policy implications.” They conceded much of Murray’s case: yes, IQ is a meaningful measure of intelligence, yes, it is partly heritable, etc. They took refuge in a kind of “God of the gaps” argument: we don’t yet know particular genes for IQ! And don’t worry, we’re a long way from finding them! (So it appears progressives do after all need to be a bit afraid of the progress of knowledge…)

The Voxen gave us no real way to evaluate the claim about the likely future course of science. Serendipitously, the New York Times ( had an article just days later reporting work by scientists identifying 52 genes linked to intelligence. The Times reassured us that the genes “do not determine intelligence, their combined influence is miniscule, suggesting that thousands more are likely to be involved and still await discovery [uh oh!], and intelligence is profoundly shaped by environment.” However, the Times reported that the study is “a significant advance in the study of mental ability,” and “could make it possible to begin new experiments into the biological basis of reasoning and problem solving [red alert!]”)

My focus, though, is on the other article, in Current Affairs, by one Nathan Robinson ( Robinson acknowledges “Murray’s self-perception as a persecuted truth-teller, who uses real facts that the politically correct simply don’t want to hear, is reinforced by the fact that many people who hate him haven’t read his work. Press coverage of Murray has distorted his positions, and it’s frequently true that people label him a ‘white supremacist’ or ‘eugenicist’ without knowing what he actually says about race, genetics, and intelligence.

“Plenty of writings about Murray, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s long file on him, are sloppy or biased…Murray often gets the better of his opponents because they stretch the case aginst him beyond its limits, allowing him to correctly point out that they are misrepresenting him….

“Nor should Murray necessarily be called, as so many label him, a ‘pseudoscientist.’ His writings are above-average in their statistical scrupulousness, and he uses no less logical rigor than many highly qualified social scientists do. The problem is far less in his use of the scientific method than in his normative values and conceptions of the good, which affect the uses to which he puts his science.”

Okay, this sounds promising. He’s distinguishing fact from value. So it would seem we’re going to get an argument that Murray’s conclusions are wrong because he makes an error in moral reasoning somewhere along the way, not that his facts are wrong because our morality requires that they be wrong.

Robinson makes clear he is fine with the book’s thesis that our society is becoming stratified by IQ, fine with the claim that it is correlated with economic outcomes, and doesn’t object to the claim that “there are ethnic differences in IQ scores.”

But then the first of three objectionable claims he accuses Murray of making is that “black people tend to be dumber than white people.” Isn’t that a factual question? Well, it rests on the judgment that IQ is “IQ scores match whatever it is that people mean when they use the word intelligent or smart in ordinary language.” Robinson disputes without evidence, and without contesting Murray’s case that it is.

But is there a flawed moral theory involved here, even a racist one? Does Murray posit that intelligent people are of greater moral worth than dumb people? Robinson makes no effort to develop his argument. Obviously, the Vox writers, who acknowledge IQ as a measure of intelligence, are racist and morally odious according to Robinson’s argument.

Nevertheless, Robinson has to this point gone thousands of words into the piece behaving like an honest debater, one who is outlining a case for why Murray is wrong, not why he MUST be wrong. The reader at this point may have a false sense of security about his approach.

Because while he was supposedly okay with the correlation between income and IQ, now it turns out that he isn’t, if we are talking about racial gaps. “The central argument of The Bell Curve is that, given the structure of American society, IQ is a core determinant of where one will end up in life. When it comes to ethnicity, Murray and (coauthor) Hernestein use the fact that blacks, Latinos, and whites who have the same IQ scores will have roughly similar economic outcomes to argue that it is IQ differences, rather than racial oppression, that cause differences in those outcomes.” So it’s fine to talk about this thing as a general matter, but don’t touch race, because it will threaten Nathan Robinson’s preferred conclusions.

Then it’s back to intellectually honest Nathan Robinson: he suddenly acknowledges that Murray’s thesis about the role of IQ in contemporary society lends itself perfectly well to left-wing conclusions after all, and that Murray points this out. After all, why should the genetic lottery, rather than any life choices, determine how well-off someone is? Can we really have equal opportunity to succeed if that is the case?

So again, the thesis is fine, but not as applied to blacks. It may be that, in theory, you can make a fine redistributive case out of the IQ matter. Still, in reality, people aren’t likely to find that argument as compelling as one that appeals to the moral guilty over slavery and historic oppression of blacks, especially if it includes ongoing “institutional racism.” Because the IQ gap threatens to crowd out such explanations, it is morally repugnant. Or as Robinson puts it,

“The controversial aspect of The Bell Curve, then, is not its core thesis about IQ and class. Rather, it is that Murray and Hernnstein are contemptuous of the idea that racial oppression [plays] a significant role in American society.”

Robinson then goes on at length about slavery and Jim Crow to give his point maximal moral impact. Finally, he gets carried away and says that, given these disadvantages blacks face, Murray should have considered the hypothesis of “black genetic superiority,’ and the fact that he didn’t shows that he is racist. This despite having begun this portion of the argument by denouncing Murray for supporting genetic basis for IQ differences.
After taking care to appear rigorous in his treatment of The Bell Curve, Robinson becomes quite sloppy in his section on Human Accomplishment, Murray’s survey of great achievement in art and science. He apparently assumes we aren’t reading carefully and critically any longer. Sympathetic readers have already reassured themselves that Robinson, and they themselves, are rigorously engaging inconvenient ideas. So Robinson becomes lazy, and barely bothers to support his caricature of Murray’s position in Human Accomplishment with textual evidence from the book.

Robinson rejects (while caricaturing) Murray’s view that there is objective beauty or excellence in art. But it turns out that Robinson thinks these things exist every bit as much as Murray does, and in fact speaks Murray’s language in Human Accomplishment perfectly well:
“When we talk about black American music of the early 20th century, we are talking about one of the most astonishing periods of cultural accomplishment in the history of civilization. We are talking about an unparalleled record of invention, the creation of some of the most transcendently moving and original artistic material that has yet emerged from the human mind. The significance of this achievement cannot be overstated.” (Bolding mine.)

Robinson then returns to the Bell Curve, and gives up on subtlety altogether. He claims that Murray believes “We should restore the conception of equality held by the Founding Fathers, who thought black people were subhumans.” He bases this claim on the final chapter.

“Murray is right; people do get stuck on the ‘Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability’ chapter and neglect the rest of the book. It’s a shame, because the infamous chapter isn’t actually the worst chapter. The worst chapter is actually the last: ‘Chapter 22: A Place For Everyone.’”

That chapter notes the history of premodern thought, which assigned people to their places: “Society was to be ruled by the virtuous and wise few. The everyday business of the community fell to the less worthy multitude, with the most menial chores left to the slaves.” It then turns to modern thought, based on rights rather than duties. Locke and the American Founders, Murray and Hernstein explain, recognized natural intellectual differences among people but still held that all had equal rights. However, their concept was one of negative rights, as we would now say. The American Founders wanted a meritocratic “natural aristocracy” to rise. To summarize, “men were unqual in every respect except their right to advance their own interests.”

Murray and Hernstein advocate returning to this model of equal negative rights, and against the modern egalitarian tradition, which they argue underestimates the differences among people and requires extensive social control. Moreover, the leveling effect of egalitarianism eventually destroys concepts of virtue, excellence, beauty and truth. At a more concrete level, Murray and Hernstein advocate ways to allow everyone a “valued place,” defined as one where “other people would miss you if you were gone,” something he argues that low-IQ people once had but have lost.

Robinson instead claims that Murray and Hernstein advocate a neoreactionary return to the world of assigned place. He quotes their description of this premodern though, including the bit about society being ruled by the wise and virtuous few with menial chores left to slaves, out of context, indicating that it is what they are advocating. He makes no effort to describe their actual negative rights, meritocratic advocacy, but since Jefferson is among the thinkers whom Murray quotes, Robinson takes the opportunity to further link meritocracy with slavery.


Trump’s First 182 Days

Because Trump’s candidacy and Presidency have been highly unusual events, they have presented a chance to test rarely-tested hypotheses, and there has been widespread agreement that the variance in possibilities is very high compared with an ordinary President. How conservative would he be? What really motivates him? Will he threaten our system or be incapable of getting anything done? What kinds of things can a President do without the usual qualifications and knowledge we require of candidates?
I’m going to try to evaluate Trump’s Presidency in light of various expectations about it. To frame the expectations, I’ll start with an imagined dialogue between a reluctant Trump supporter and a Never-Trump conservative, taking place in October 2016, but you can skip that and just go ahead to the evaluation.
1. Aren’t conservatives supposed to believe character matters in leadership? There’s a connection between ethics and doing the right thing in politics. No institutions or incentive structure can automatically produce good outcomes, without any minimal level of morality being necessary. That’s what we said when Bill Clinton was President. To endorse Trump is to abandon that view.
2. How can you possibly support Trump? He’s done things that are a priori disqualifying- the Mexican judge, the disabled reporter, calling for Hillary’s assassination, kicking black people out of his rallies, inciting violence.
3. Trump’s violation of norms is dangerous. This is true even if I can’t point to a specific likely result in a scientific, cause-and-effect sort of way, because as every conservative knows, civilization is fragile and we can’t know what might bring it down. But as an example of the sort of thing that might happen, consider Mitt Romney’s trickle-down racism theory: by bringing racism into the political mainstream, and (still more) to the White House, Trump might change the culture in such a way as to embolden people to commit violence against minority groups.
4. Either Trump or Hillary is likely to be a one-term President. In the case of Hillary, this is because she is taking over when the current progressive era is clearly on its last legs. In the case of Trump, this is because he is likely to be a disaster. If we elect Trump, it is probably 12 years before we get a decent, effective conservative President- if ever, (see point five.) If we elect Hillary, we probably get one in four years.
5. Trump could do incalculable damage to the country and (less importantly) to conservative values. Generally speaking, bad things lead to more bad things, illiberalism leads to more illiberalism, and identity politics brings more identity politics. It can’t end well. We can avoid escalating along that cycle, take the high road, allow Hillary to become President and spin her wheels for a few years, and then start recovering.
6. As a loose cannon, a President Trump is a threat to the national and world order. If he is elected, NATO will not quite be sure it can rely on us, and Russia will be tempted into aggression, which could even lead to overreaction by Trump and nuclear war. His election will escalate America’s descent into factionalism and even violence, and security dilemmas that make cooperative solutions to our problems impossible.
7. Anyway, Trump isn’t even a conservative.
1. This election is decisive.
a. Scalia’s seat is up for grabs, which if delivered to the Left would create a five-Justice bloc that would accept virtually any assertion of executive power to advance a left-wing agenda. Conservatives seem to have a structural advantage in Congress, liberals in the Presidency, and there is no longer enough common ground for bipartisan compromise, meaning liberal. Democratic Presidents have nothing to lose by going all-in on executive power, and without a Supreme Court to check them, there’s almost nothing that can be done. Additionally, things that we used to take for granted, such as religious liberty, are under threat; so the stakes are much higher than in past elections.
But it’s not just Scalia’s seat. Every election, we hear that there could be three or four Court vacancies; and every election, it becomes more likely to be true.
b. Obamacare will simply become too entrenched under Hillary Clinton to ever be repealed.
2. Voting is a binary choice. You can’t prevent one or the other of Trump and Hillary from becoming President. So why not pick the one you most want to prevent from becoming President?
3. Bad as Trump is, he’ll have liberal bureaucracy, liberalish courts, and even the ordinary checks and balances from a Republican Congress to prevent him from doing things like mass deportations and a Muslim ban or engaging in corruption. Certainly he’s weakening a set of norms and putting things up for grabs, but those norms remain powerful forces in his way; whereas a President Hillary would be working with progressive culture, media and courts at her back, with no real ability for Congress to check her.
4. Were conservatives exactly vindicated when it comes to Bill Clinton? What disaster did his character bring about for America? If the choice is between a return to the Bill Clinton years and the rule of the 2016 Democratic Party, it seems like a pretty easy choice.
5. I’m under no illusion that Trump will sacrifice himself for conservative goals. I simply want to get someone who isn’t a committed progressive; ideologically speaking, a replacement-level President.
NT (rebuttal):
1. Okay, perhaps Bill Clinton wasn’t the best example. But still, the kind of character flaws Trump demonstrates are in his public character. You need someone who has the country’s best interests at heart, has some idea what he’s doing, some ethic of responsibility.
2. Nothing is ever over. There’s always another fight. Even after FDR’s new deal, there were still pieces to pick up, a worthwhile country left to preserve. Even after the Warren Court, there was a fighting chance to restore Constitutional government. I accept that, for now, there is no prospect of conservative victory. To believe otherwise is to delude yourself, selling your soul to the devil. Better live to fight another day.
NNT rebuttal: And in the mean time, self-government and checks-and-balances will collapse and people will be banned from holding more and more jobs for their religious doctrines regarding marriage. You talk about the collapse of basic liberal norms, but look how suddenly norms around free speech and freedom of religion are collapsing. I don’t know what can be done if basic political norms are shifting beneath us, but if it must happen, I prefer a weak tyrant to a strong one.
NT second rebuttal: Well, suppose it’s a question of protecting racial minorities and Muslims from violence and protecting Christian bakers from losing their livelihoods? If you want to force me to pick a lesser evil, I’d say it’s the latter. It’s true that Hillary, with cultural norms on her side, can be more systematic than Trump can, but on the other side the dangers of chaos are too great to imagine.

– The never-never Trumper has proven right, to an important extent, that Trump’s lack of conservative commitments, and his lack of knowledge, haven’t prevented him from achieving conservative goals. It turns out that there was a lot of low-hanging fruit (oil pipelines; sex-segregated bathrooms; the Obama rule that would have made it harder for old people needing help managing their finances in dealing with the social security system to pass gun background checks; the Paris climate agreement.) The biggest prize so far, of course, has been the Gorsuch nomination.

The reason for this low-hanging fruit being available was that Democrats had become heavily reliant on control of the Presidency. Congressional Republicans as a group, and even the most moderate Republicans, had nothing to offer Obama, and he had nothing to offer them, so for the last six years there was no basis for the compromises that would have produced a lasting legacy. Obama’s only option was to do what he could through easily-reversed executive action. Trump didn’t have to be beholden to the Republican base to do some of the things he’s done, or spend a lot of political capital; he merely had to not be beholden to the Democratic base.

And to some extent, Trump made himself so unacceptable to Democrats that he had to deliver for the Republican base. So the Republicans who voted for Trump, even when they themselves found him repulsive, because at least the other side hated him, have seen their approach work to some extent.

Changing Obama’s environmental policy is higher fruit, but Trump seems really committed to it and has Scott Pruitt as his EPA administrator, which is likely to prove his most important cabinet pick outside of the foreign policy realm.

Obamacare repeal is much more difficult than this low-hanging fruit. The NNT argument above was that merely getting the Democrats out of the White House was enough to do a lot; there is no need for Wilsonian Presidential leadership, just sign what Congress has been chomping at the bit to pass. But it turns out Republicans weren’t all sure, or all in agreement, about what they wanted to pass, and Trump’s lack of knowledge makes him unable to tell them what to do, which is what many of them apparently wanted.

Congress of course is having to exercise its policy muscles for the first time since 2010, when Democrats controlled it. Congressional Republicans are having to act on their own initiative in a way that they haven’t since the Clinton years. Congressional reassertion should be a good thing in the long term.  The jury is still out on whether Republicans can achieve some limited success on health care.

– Trump’s ability to deploy government power for illiberal purposes has proven quite limited. His crackdown on sanctuary cities has been pretty well constrained, as has his travel ban. There are no deportation forces, and so far no funding for the wall. Trump flip-flopped on bringing back torture. The never-never Trumper was right, in his third argument, about the kind of constraints Trump would face. (Our imaginary debaters may have favored Trump on many of these policies, but the fact that he’s been blocked on these things show how constrained he is, compared with Obama during his time with a filibuster-proof D Congress or in his late-Presidency unilateralist period, or a hypothetical President Hillary.)

Relatedly, I had assumed that once Trump took office, the government’s belated efforts to rein in Saudi Arabia in Yemen would be over. Apparently not, as Saudi Arabia still feels the need to “ease our concerns” about the toll on civilians. So we’ve gone from about a one to a three on a scale of one to ten in caring about Yemen’s civilians, and Trump hasn’t swung things back the other way.

More generally, there seems to be a consensus that the “Trump as weak President” hypothesis is coming more true than “Trump as tyrant.”
•On foreign policy, Trump’s character gives him an advantage in pursuing the madman theory of diplomacy (other countries think you might do something against your self-interest, so they can’t predict for sure that you’ll be constrained), along with all the disadvantages of actually being a loose cannon. NATO countries are increasing their defense spending. On the other hand, we have the whole Qatar situation, some bungling in South Korea, all the dangers involved in weakening commitment on NATO, and constant risk as long as Trump is in office. The odds of Trump’s causing a catastrophe in his first 160 days were never that great, but over the course of his four years in office, they’re still high.
So far in this commentary, I have ignored the views of outright pro-Trump people, and those of progressives. The pro-Trump argument was that Trump would shake up the establishment, a goal that had different meanings to different people. This isn’t so much a matter of what Trump will do, as what the shock of his election will do to the establishment; and we can better evaluate this when we see what the next Democratic or non-Trump Republican President does. So far, we have seen Paul Ryan try to translate Trumpism into policy by embracing a border tax, which nobody else, including Trump, seems to want.
As for progressives, they have been less likely than Never Trump conservatives to take the view that Trump threatens catastrophe of a kind that goes beyond the usual left-right battles (see the Never Trumper’s 3, 5 and 6.) Conservatives, being conservative, are more likely to see civilization as fragile and vulnerable to catastrophe.

Progressives, by contrast, have tended to be complacent. Progressives might get excited about a hot-button issue out of all proportion to its importance, as they did for a few days with the Paris Climate accords; and they might act in theatrical ways as they seek to enhance their cultural authority. Conservatives observe these things and conclude that progressives have embraced hysteria. This sort of thing isn’t at all the sort of Burkian catastrophizing of the kind that they can take seriously. But the seeming hysteria masks what is actually complacency. (

In the first place, Trump’s rise enhances progressives’ feeling of moral superiority. Losing an election doesn’t mean losing their standing as the cultural elite; in fact, Trump’s rise enhances their ability to claim moral superiority to elite Republicans and moderate Democrats. The theatrical reactions aren’t the sort of thing people would do if they really thought collapse was imminent, but they fit this purpose perfectly.

Trump’s election didn’t dash any great hopes, anyway. Obamaism was up against a dead end, facing diminishing returns.  Progressives had long since given up on “hope and change,” “New Politics,” and all that, or really on achieving anything through mainstream politics. Stopping Trump or bringing him down would be nice, but reaffirming cultural hegemony is the highest priority. (See

This is why, when moderate Democrats after the election argued that Democrats should abandon identity politics and appeal to the whole working class, including the white working class, progressives didn’t respond with their own strategic calculations to counter the idea, but with moral indignation. “Why should we sympathize with those people? Why is nobody asking them to empathize with us and listen to us! They’re tainted with toxic masculinity and white privilege!”

It would be different if progressives thought Trump really could take down the establishment, but they are reassured by his obvious incompetence, and the famous dysfunction and infighting of his White House. The dominant narrative has been that Trump lacks accomplishments rather than that he is doing horrible things. Even actions the left theoretically regards as crimes against humanity, such as the reversal of Obama’s transgender bathroom policies, have met muted response. The initial travel ban did get a heated response, but quickly fit in to the “Trump as failure” narrative rather than the “Trump as dangerous” narrative, especially after lower court defeats. Now the Supreme Court has partially reinstated it, but nobody really seems excited.

Does Free Market Ideology Drag Down Republicans?

Many people seem to believe something like the following:
“A pure free market isn’t a popular idea, including among Republican voters. Therefore, advocacy of purely free markets is a political liability for Republicans. Trump’s primary and general election wins prove that.” It’s true that a purely free market is not a popular idea, but overall the claim is far removed from actual political battles in the U.S.

These battles don’t consist mainly of Democrats proposing popular regulations or spending programs and Republicans opposing them on ideological grounds. The part
Rather, when there is organic, grass-roots disagreement over a particular economic intervention, Republicans will tend to side with the popular resistance to the policy. So, yes, the end result is Democrats offering “something” and Republicans offering “nothing,” but when Democrats are offering things that many or most people oppose, this only makes sense. Similarly, Democrats don’t advocate every possible state intervention. The parties fight over things that are actually controversial, rather than always taking the statist or anti-statist position.

On some issues, competition for the median voter, along with various forms of status quo bias, insure that the parties aren’t very far apart. Politicians seem to think we want broadly free markets with a lot of spending on social security and Medicare, a minimal safety net, and labor and environmental regulations. There’s battles in the trenches between the 49-yard-lines, but no major differences.

So, what does that leave the parties fighting over? There are some issues that energize the bases much more than voters in the middle. When we look at specific issues, I don’t find that many of them fit the general narrative that free markets are dragging Republicans down. Hillary Clinton wanted taxpayer-funded abortion, and the Republicans don’t. Democrats want to take action against global warming, Republicans don’t. No reform conservative would likely claim that these issues are hurting Republicans. Global warming often brings coal workers and their friends and relations over to the Republicans, and the majority of voters agree with Republicans on taxpayer-funded abortion. Many other “base issues,” Roe v. Wade, gun control and religious freedom, don’t really fit the narrative, either.

Then there’s health care, the exception to the rule of general agreement on the role of government in the economy. Democrats passed Obamacare; Republicans rejected it. Republicans want to pass some sort of repeal-and-replace, and Democrats don’t. Here the Republicans were taking the popular position until 2017, when their own bill proved unpopular. So the lesson is that whatever interests the status quo entrenches will fight hard for it, and the majority of voters will side with them and against disruption. Thus, bases should force their Parties to enact extreme and unpopular changes in an effort to permanently change the status quo; lost Congressional seats become fallen soldiers in a victorious war. (Victorious until the other party does the same thing, at least. The paradox is that if Republicans act on this theory and pass their health care bill, they will have disproven it, by showing it didn’t really work for Democrats. And if Republicans act against the theory, by chickening out, they will have vindicated it in the case of Democrats.)

For every “reform conservative” who complains that Republicans won’t do anything for white working-class voters, there’s ten progressives who lament that white working-class voters want to be self-reliant, and don’t want the government to do anything for them.

Trump’s famous deviations from Republican orthodoxy consist mostly of his opposition to entitlement cuts and free trade.

But the entitlement position isn’t really a deviation. Republicans as a Party have always tried to be as conservative as they can get away with on entitlements, and no more so. Otherwise, they’d never win elections. Much of the time, they have not pursued entitlement cuts or reform at all.

GW Bush and Tom Delay passed an enormous prescription drug entitlement and won in 2004. Then, Bush bet the ranch on social security privatization and lost in 2006. The thinking in the latter case was that entitlements were a long-term problem, and the best way forward for future generations was investment. Medicare was known to be the bigger long-term problem, but for social security there was at least something positive to offer the public – personal accounts. So Bush was taking an arguably rational risk.

Social security reform proved a political failure and moved off the agenda, but meanwhile debt became a more salient issue both with the public and inside-the-beltway. Led by Paul Ryan, Republicans turned their focus to the bigger crisis, Medicare (since solving the little one hadn’t worked anyway.)

Now, entitlement cuts were unpopular. But in cases where there really is a looming debt crisis, voters and politicians face a complicated set of incentives; a simple rule of “don’t support anything unpopular” doesn’t really work. Voters want to make sure politicians only raise taxes on people like themselves, or cut spending for people like themselves, as much as is necessary, and no more. One never knows when Republicans are pushing entitlement cuts for ideological reasons, and only claiming it’s necessary for the deficit. And vice versa for tax increases.

Meanwhile, each Party, knowing there is a need to resolve the debt crisis one way or another, whether the public likes it or not, have strong incentive to insure that the crisis is solved on its own terms. They have less incentive than usual to worry about their proposals being unpopular (plus, the public is more willing than usual to consider tax hikes/spending cuts under such circumstances).

The fact that crisis situations force the Parties to try extra hard to impose their own terms on the solution is why the Democrats went ahead and passed Obamacare, and why Republicans went ahead and pushed Medicare reform.

“But you just said the Parties weren’t ideological, that they’re just instruments of public opinion.” But public opinion isn’t quite coherent enough to govern. The Paul Ryan Republicans aren’t being ideological in the sense of ignoring the particular problems of the time and just imposing their Reaganite, one-size-fits all model, as reform conservatives often say. Ryan’s budget was precisely an attempt to respond to existing problems.

Of course, no grand bargain on the debt came about, deficits went down, the moment passed, and it became impractical to try to solve the long-term problem. It made sense for Republicans in 2016 to nominate a candidate who promised not to touch entitlements.

This would fit with my general story of Republicans responding to circumstances. Viewed from a sufficient distance, it’s an instance of political markets operating efficiently. The problem is, that efficiency required a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

It may be (I don’t know) that Marco Rubio could have stopped Trump by matching his promise not to cut entitlements. If so, there’s a reformoconish case to be made here: the mainstream of the Republican Party was too stuck in its 2010-12 political strategy, and that moved it away from the mainstream of voters.

The Tea Party had pushed the Republicans into that strategy, and now it made it hard for them to get out- Rubio had to worry about Cruz capturing votes if he went soft on the debt. But the Tea Party initially achieved its power because it tapped into mainstream anger- over bank bailouts, Obamacare, and worries about mounting deficits. It wasn’t a case of zombie Reaganism or rich donors controlling the Party. The problem wasn’t that mainstream Republicans were stuck in 1980, but that they were stuck in 2011.
Trade and the minimum wage are issues where free market ideas really do seem to drive the Republican positions. Polls showed that the Tea Party wasn’t that into free trade, for instance. Republicans’ pre-Trump position on trade seems to hurt them with at least some swing voters, though like with entitlement spending, Republican principles are honored more in the breach. Bush tried to buy Pennsylvania with steel tariffs in 2004, and it didn’t work. The reality may be that people in manufacturing communities are just generally dissatisfied with the course of the economy, and that no policies can overcome that dissatisfaction; there’s debate over whether trade or immigration, in isolation as policy issues, really put Trump over the top. (Or maybe reform conservatives are right, and their favored policies will alleviate these communities’ problems.)

In the case of the minimum wage, Republicans’ position hurt them with a majority of voters.

The trade and the minimum wage have something in common: on these issues, voters favoring economic intervention can view themselves as not wanting a handout for anyone. They see protectionism and the minimum wage not as handouts, but as just deserts. A free marketer will argue that someone’s labor is worth what the market will pay for it. But lots of people think hard work has a kind of moral worth, and that anyone who works ought to get a “decent” wage. Similarly, someone favoring tariffs wants people to be paid for working, not to receive welfare.

Trade opponents have a hard time electing politicians who will fulfill any anti-trade promises, though, because Presidents conclude that it will damage the U.S. economy, and voters will turn on them even if they thought they wanted protectionism. (; also, Caplan, Myth of the Rational Voter.) For the same reason, if Democrats took complete power, they would be unlikely to move the minimum wage up to the outer limits of what the public would support ($15 is the “left-wing” position in the Democratic Party Overton Window, but by the standard of public opinion it isn’t left-wing at all.)
Reform conservatives don’t usually clamor for trade restrictions, although they do favor immigration restrictions. Nor do they tend to push minimum wage hikes. Instead, their favored policies include increased child tax credits and wage subsidies. But I don’t know that free market dogmatists are holding these ideas back. Rubio had a tax credit proposal in the primaries but evidently concluded he couldn’t get people interested in it and didn’t make a big deal about it, and who’s to say he was wrong? Rand Paul railed against it and got 2.8% of the vote or whatever, and Rubio defended it fiercely under this attack, but I don’t recall Cruz or the rest of the field raising the issue.

Thoughts on Anti-Political Libertarianism

When I was growing up, in the 1990s, there was a commonly held view that people were becoming anti-political, and that a rejection of politics meant a more libertarian world. If politics became irrelevant, then government would become irrelevant. Technology would leave it behind. Silicon Valley was to be the anti-Washington, center of the anti-political America. The more sophisticated you were, the idea went, the more you rejected politics. All this contrasts with the idea of self-government, that people hold government in check and make sure it represents them.

If we reject politics, we have no ability to resist any group (a technocratic elite, for instance) that gains control of government and declares itself “beyond politics.” In fact, distaste for politics may lead people to embrace such a group. Techno-utopian anti-political sentiment can easily become: “get politics out of the way, so that technical experts can run government pragmatically.”

At TED talks, where futurists and thought leaders get together and figure out how to make the world a better place, this “post-political” ideology is prevalent. I recall seeing an Al Gore TED in which a questioner told Gore it was sad he failed to become President simply because of a “design flaw” in the Constitution, presumably meaning the Electoral College. Using such technological language to frame an understanding of the political world leaves no place for competing goals or ideas, only unintentional glitches in a program whose goals we all agree on.

So a distaste for vulgar, petty politics is, by itself, not much of a grounding for libertarianism. Barack Obama’s “get politics out of the way, so I can implement my grand vision” is not at bottom so different from libertarian Nick Gillespie’s “get politics out of the way, so I can express my individuality by smoking pot, listening to Nirvana, and choosing a highly personalized eggplant or ice cream flavor.” (Gillespie: “There is no mainstream…There are only alternative lifestyles now, so in a real sense I think we’re living in a semi-libertarian world.”) And it is perfectly possible to have a state that is free of political constraints and an economy that delivers more and more ice cream flavors every year, as China has shown.

Liberaltarians are usually people who think the culture they are most comfortable with, blue state culture, is more receptive to libertarian thinking than red state culture.  This is because they think we are still living in the 1990s, when there was no ideological left.  But the zeitgeist has shifted greatly, and really, the liberaltarians drifted with it. For all their supposed independence, the Bush years and cultural polarization combined to make a certain kind of libertarian more inclined to identify with the blue state camp, and more hostile to things like religion, patriotism and natural law, that can ground opposition to that camp’s enthusiasms. Relatedly, this year’s Libertarian Presidential candidate is of course the most reasonable, centrist, mainstream, serious Libertarian of all time, Gary Johnson. He favors forcing bakers to bake at gay weddings; there must be no dissent against the reasonable, centrist state religion. (So much for “there is no mainstream”! But Johnson’s for unlimited choices in ice cream flavor.)


As an illustration of the libertarian anti-political ideal, consider Shakespeare’s Falstaff. He’s a Reason magazine reader, a sophisticated amoralist, anti-war and anti-patriotism. He is certainly not a rebel, however. The political commitments involved in becoming a rebel would be inconceivable for him. The rebel is Hotspur, who has the fighting spirit that Falstaff thoroughly rejects. As Harold Bloom writes, “Going to the battle, Hotspur cries out, ‘Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily,’ while Falstaff, on the battlefield, says, ‘Give me life.’”

In fact, Falstaff is a friend of the state, and deploys his wit against rebellion. The rebel Earl of Worcester comes to negotiate; King Henry IV asks why he has taken up arms against the King. The Earl responds that he didn’t want war. Henry asks “You have not sought it! How comes it, then?” Falstaff says “Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.” Clearly, he instinctively sides with the crown and his dear friend Prince Hal. In his rationalism, he gently pokes fun at reverence for the throne, but the throne can do without reverence and be justified instead on the grounds of Hobbesian rationalism.

Theories on Trump

First, I’ll look at why Trump won the Republican nomination, even I and a lot of people thought he wouldn’t. Basically, why didn’t the things people thought would stop him actually stop him. Then I’ll consider the separate question of the actual source of his appeal.

Why Trump Wasn’t Stopped

Part of the problem was he had support from self-described moderates and self-described conservatives. Whereas, normally, liberal states help defeat anti-establishment conservatives, in this case they supported the anti-establishment moderate. He was a pragmatist who would bring his business acumen to Washington, and so presumably attracted a lot of Mitt Romney 2012 voters.

What was also necessary for him to win, though, was the polarization in the anti-Trump vote. The sort of moderates who see conservatism as too vulgar, and favor deference to respectable opinion, naturally opposed Trump, but they could not rally behind Ted Cruz. They became Kasich bitter-enders. Conservatives could not stand Kasich. People like me kept expecting a convergence toward Rubio, and it finally looked like it was going to happen, and then somehow it didn’t. Why not?

Movement conservatives embraced unreasonable expectations of Congressional Republicans and concluded that they couldn’t be trusted. I always figured that sort of thing was just all talk. Did the Tea Party really think the post-2010 Republican Party hadn’t changed from the Party of George W. Bush? Apparently so. “Insiders” (Boehner, McConnell, Paul Ryan and, by association, Rubio) weren’t delivering much in the way of policy victories, and couldn’t find other ways of proving to Tea Partiers that their intentions were good. Cruz, with the government shutdown, signaled commitment.

I happen to think conservatives were mistaken, and that Boehner and McConnell were quite good at what they did. But there weren’t any outstanding proofs of this. And conservatives wanted proof. Social trust allows societies to function; requiring a really complete proof of trustworthiness is inefficient. Breakdown in trust is a big part of our political crisis, and the Tea Party is part of this larger society, so naturally it participates in this distrust. (The lower social trust is, of course, the more rational it then becomes for people to distrust each other.) After 16 years of failed Presidencies (the same amount of times worth of failed Presidencies as we had between LBJ’s second term and Carter’s Presidency, inclusive), after TARP, after Obamacare, the Tea Party just couldn’t bring itself to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone in “the political class.” In that sense, it really wasn’t about Boehner-McConnell-Ryan-Rubio themselves.

Trump’s Positive Appeal

But what about Trump’s own appeal (to what is, we should always bear in mind, a minority of Republicans)? Here’s some explanations:

1. His proposed Muslim immigration ban. Anti-establishment, anti-Islam candidates are big in Europe; why shouldn’t they be in the U.S.?

2. The departure of college-educated voters, experts and people with respectable opinions from the Republican Party. There is less deterrent for a candidate to say non-respectable things when the people who are turned off by such things are voting the other way regardless.

3. Masses of nominally conservative voters are voting on identity rather than policy. Or, rather, it’s difficult to separate politics being “about policy” from politics that is about identity and group power.  Technocratic policy empowers technocrats at the expense of others.

Lots of people like to say “politics isn’t about policy,” with the implication that voters are irrational, but that need not be true.  Often, it’s hard to put together a coalition of people motivated sufficiently motivated by a particular policy issue (anyway, those are the despised “single issues voters.”  Respectable critics of the voting public want it both ways!  Here I mean the voting public in general, not the particular electorate that voted for Trump.)  It’s hard, I was saying, to build a big enough coalition of single-issue voters, but it is easy to convey to a large number of people that you are will be a certain kind of President, and take stances on issues that are consistent with that type.

A voter may not know much about policy or, more importantly, be able to predict what policy issues will come up; but he wants to know that in general that people in power are acting in his interests, and aren’t beholden to the interests of bad people. Part of social trust breaking down of course is that people are more likely to vote in this way; people of other identities are more likely to act to keep you down, therefore you have to act to keep them down. See for instance Syria.

Progressives have in the last decade expressed, in rhetoric and action, increasing contempt for the “out group”- old people, white people (by which they mean “the wrong kind of white people,”) America (meaning “the wrong kind of Americans”), people without a college education, and so forth. Progressives have conveyed that people who are declining in social status have deserved this decline, that they are on the “wrong side of History.” (Of course, elite conservatives and Republicans have their own set of problems with these voters- Mitt Romney’s 47%.)

The conservative intelligentsia responds to progressive identity politics with universalist arguments for moral truth or equality under the law or universal human reason; or else arguments for a national common good. Sometimes, they respond with nationalism, which is (or can be) its own form of identity politics. But at the popular level, the counter to identity politics is…identity politics, fighting fire with fire.

Relatedly, a movement conservative is focused on policy. If Democrats pass Obamacare, the answer is to repeal Obamacare. Probably a big part of the reason Democrats went ahead and passed Obamacare, despite public opposition, is that they believed the kind of person who was against Obamacare (which was the majority of the public) is really too contemptible to deserve a political voice. They had no right to be “anti-government”; they themselves were more dependent on government than anyone, and thus should be grateful to the governing class, which ruled in their interests and knew what these interests were.

But for a movement conservative, Obamacare itself, not the cultural contempt that leads to it, is the problem.  For a voter voting on cultural identity, Obamacare is only a data point in a larger story, a symptom of a general problem.  They are responding to the contempt itself, which they see expressed in countless other ways.  Their goals are therefore necessarily vaguer, less defined. They are drawn to a candidate who signals identity with them.

4. Masses of nominally moderate voters aren’t voting directly on policy. As I mentioned, Trump has appeal to Romney voters as a businessman who will run government competently (so again, we’re not talking about a focus on policy issues, but on “competence over ideology.”) His story is a bit different from Romney’s- he presents himself as the master of the art of the deal. He will ruthlessly outsmart competitors (China) the way they have hitherto done to us, and will break gridlock to make bipartisan deals with Democrats.

He also presents a similar image to McCain’s- outsider, teller of politically incorrect truths, enemy of party orthodoxy, special interests and money in politics (he was “self-funding,” of course.) All these are good signaling devices to attract centrist voters. Such voters are confident something is wrong with government- otherwise, it would fix things. They don’t themselves know what needs to be done (otherwise, they would vote for whoever promised to do these things), but they are confident a leader could figure it out if only he weren’t beholden to the wrong sort of people. They are convinced the politicians are acting in someone else’s interest rather than theirs, even though they can’t precisely identify how these interests are in conflict.

McCain’s famous straight talk was also comparable to the approach of Trump, whose voters believe he “tells it like it is.”  (McCain even talked about “Gooks” in Vietnam!)  A key difference is that whereas McCain won free publicity by straight talking in ways that appealed to the media, Trump wins free publicity by making the media hate him. The media says “look at this horrible thing Trump said,” but the audience doesn’t all share the media’s values. Here again the breakdown in trust may be responsible for the difference between what was effective for McCain and what is effective for Trump; people are no longer willing to accept the media as an authoritative arbiter. Those who still trust the media voted for Kasich.


But a policy-centered explanation for Trump’s rise is available, too. Back in September 2015, Ross Douthat made the case that Trump’s rise had some policy basis to it. Rather, it was Ben Carson (remember- September 2015) whose boom was personality driven, as evangelicals indulged in their regrettable tendency to pin their hopes on a heroic political savior. Trump, in contrast, was “populist and nationalist, a critic of open immigration and free trade and a backer of Social Security and progressive taxation, and he’s drawing support from working-class Republicans who tend to share those views.”

However, the reason Republican candidates tend to back upper bracket tax cuts is because all the passion within the Party is on that side. In any case the kind of upper-bracket tax cuts championed by “mainstream” Republicans like GW Bush, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio advocate aren’t big enough for it to be worth anyone’s while getting worked up about them (Douthat always writes as if people like Steve Forbes or Ted Cruz routinely win Republican nominations; it’s how he indulges his own need for us versus them thinking.)

It is true that supporting Trump would make sense for a single-issue anti-immigration voter. But single-issue immigration candidates like Tom Tancredo never got anywhere in GOP primaries, and immigration opponents have shown a solid ability to keep the GOP in line without such people.

One possible conclusion is, then, is that Trump took the positions that made sense for a candidate pursuing the voters he was pursuing, but those policy positions don’t explain his support.

But then, other anti-immigration Republicans don’t tend to oppose free trade, so their appeal to an economically nationalist voter isn’t as complete. Then there’s the more general Jacksonianism- isolationist foreign policy, keeping out the Muslims, the argument that football is becoming too soft, keeping Jackson himself on the $20, where he’s the only voice for tens of millions of Americans. With this list, of course, we see policy substance and cultural signaling inextricably entwined; and of course the division I have been maintaining between them is artificial, though useful.

There were other ways in which Trump’s policy pitch was distinctive.  Most Republicans’ climate change talk reflects the views of conservative voters. It took place at an elite level, focused on scientific debate and cost-benefit analysis, the same things that liberal elites focus on but from the other side. Trump’s focus, by contrast, is on the loss of coal jobs, and the need to put those people back to work. When movement conservatives think of the catastrophes of the Obama years, the loss of coal jobs probably doesn’t come to mind, but at the popular level that is one of the issues that animates opposition to Obama.

Trump makes the most natural appeal to voters who know someone who’s been laid off from a coal job. For those who don’t, the concrete pitch probably still works- the Trump voter will engage in abstract thought, but needs a concrete starting point to do so. If Trump will fight for coal workers’ jobs, he’ll fight for everyone else’s jobs, too. His coal stance is consistent with a pattern; he’s also protecting jobs by making sure the Chinese don’t get the better of us on trade, after all.

Mississippi Religious Freedom Law Struck Down

A judge struck down a Mississippi law designed to protect opponents of gay marriage. Unlike other Religious Freedom Restoration Act bills, which are broadly worded to protect any religious belief, the Mississippi law explicitly protects religious beliefs about marriage. The judge’s argument was that by singling out only specific religious beliefs for protection, the law is endorsing these beliefs. Which is a debatable point, but at least it sounds like a nice, neutral argument, doesn’t it?

But then there’s this account of oral arguments (

“The judge was asking the state, what were the nonreligious reasons for this bill? And they said, ‘Well, Obergeffell (the Court case legalizing gay marriage) tipped the tables of justice away from people who are against gay marriage.’

“And Judge Reeves said, ‘Well, isn’t that like saying Brown v. Board of Education tipped the tables away from segregationists.’”

And that’s not nearly so neutral, is it? The justification has suddenly morphed to “these religious beliefs are wrong, so I’m going to strike down a law protecting them.”

Whether Voters are Rational

If they aren’t, why are they so good at getting what they want? Consider the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton had to do conservative things to appeal to the median voter, and Bush had to do liberal things for the same reason. Some note that despite this, liberals hated Bush, and conservatives hated Clinton, and say that this shows irrationality. But it also shows voters getting what they want. To the extent both candidates offer the same basic set of substantive policies, the only remaining source of differentiation is a set of symbolic policies, and various forms of cultural signaling. So voters are rational enough, or politicians think they’re rational enough, that they get what they want substantively regardless, and the only thing left to vote on is irrational factors.

On the other hand, there are differences between the Parties. After all, not everything is about chasing the median voter. Another part of winning is to appeal to various constituencies. But aren’t these constituencies pretty good at getting what they want? Pro-gun voters are famously good at getting their way, for instance. The abortion issue has been one of the biggest substantive disagreements in American politics for decades, and people passionate about that issue quite rationally became single-issue voters and took over the respective political parties. But not everyone is strongly pro-life or pro-choice; you need to give people non-substantive reasons to vote as well.

“But wait,” you might be saying. “If similarities between the Parties proves voters are rational, and differences also prove they are rational; if voting on substance proves voters are rational, and voting on style also proves they are rational, what would make them irrational?” Indications of voter irrationality might include: an inability to get what they want; routinely voting for exciting, charismatic or superficially appealing candidates; and voting on style at the expense of substance (not just in the absence of substantive reasons to vote.

The only time recently that I can think of when an American political party really defied the voters was the Democrats passing Obamacare in 2009. When that was happening, voters in Massachusetts rejected their superficial preference for the Democratic Party and elected Scott Brown, a pro-choice, anti-Obamacare Republican perfectly suited to the state’s actual political preferences, to try to stop the bill’s passage. In the 2010 election, similarly, voters rejected Democrats in a landslide. This doesn’t add up to a proof that voters are rational, but it adds up to a lack of evidence that they are irrational. If you go back far enough, you can find other instances of Parties defying public opinion: Dukakis opposed the death penalty in 1988, and lost big; Goldwater rejected the New Deal in 1964 and lost in a landslide.


Sometimes, people indict voters by pointing to their ignorance of certain facts. For instance, “A…1996…survey found that…70 percent believed the federal budget deficit had risen in the previous five years while only 12 percent said correctly that the deficit had declined.” True, but the times when people appear to actually treat the deficit as a voting issue are those times when it really is peaking, such as 1992 and 2010. “Interviewees on the average thought that the unemployment rate of a little over 5 percent stood at over 20 percent.” Sure, but election results famously correlate well to actual economic data. Similarly, I’ve read that voters told pollsters in the mid-80s that they still thought inflation was really high. But again, they seem to have treated inflation as an actual voting issue in the 70s, when it really was high. When it declined, they rewarded Reagan with a 49 state landslide in 1984.

Of course, if election results correlated too perfectly with economic data, we could object that voters were only slightly rational- that they were using a crude criterion and ignoring circumstances. But there are outliers. In the 1982 election, for instance, the economy remained in recession, but Republicans lost only 26 House seats and no Senate seats, less than models would have predicted. Reagan’s “stay the course” message succeeded. As a 2010 New Republic article described it:

“Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with ‘the worst economic mess in half a century.’ ‘Slowly, but surely, we are lifting the economy out of the mess created over the past several decades,’ he said. ‘We are on the road back.’ The Democrats, he charged, had caused the recession through profligate spending, which had caused inflation, which had caused unemployment…

“According to the NBC/Associated Press exit polls, when voters were asked whether Reagan’s economic program would eventually help or hurt the economy, 46 percent said it would help and 45 percent said it would hurt. Forty-four percent of voters blamed the Democrats for the country’s economic ills and only 41 percent blamed Reagan. A mere six percent of voters saw Reagan’s program as a ‘success,’ while 36 percent thought it was a failure. But 49 percent thought that ‘Reagan needs time for his economic program to succeed.’ That was, public opinion analyst William Schneider concluded, ‘precisely the president’s argument in his “stay the course” campaign.’” So apparently, voters can be persuaded to evaluate the policies themselves, not just take a “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” look at the results.


Mark Twain’s “Corn Pone Opinion” was a typical essay on the stupid, conformist masses. In it he wrote “men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently…In our late canvass half of the nation passionately believed that in silver lay salvation, the other half as passionately believed that that way lay destruction. Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all.” But people lined up according to their interests. As Wikipedia says : “Everyone agreed that free silver would raise prices; the question was whether or not this inflationary measure would be beneficial…The debate pitted the pro-gold financial establishment of the Northeast, along with railroads, factories and businessmen, who were creditors who would benefit from disinflation (resulting from demand pressures on the relatively fixed gold money supply against a backdrop of unprecedented economic expansion), against poor farmers who would benefit from higher prices for their crops (resulting from the prospective expansion of the money supply by allowing silver to also circulate as money).”