All posts by Remy Smith

donald trump authoritarianism

The Alpha Male of a Chimpanzee Colony

The Primal President

Donald Trump appealed to millions of Americans through sheer primal dominance.  His bluster, his unpredictable and easily inflamed temperament, his agenda driven by extreme narcissism, and his story of (white) American warriors constantly fighting in a Hobbesian world of (racial and cultural) change made him appear as an alpha male, a force with which to be reckoned.  But really, Trump’s psychological appeal that preys on those who lust for authoritarianism makes him the alpha male of the chimpanzee colony that is now the Republican Party. 

Prestige Psychology and Statesmanship

In an ideal polity, humans embrace prestige psychology, a somewhat recent evolutionary gain that has prepared our brains to respect honor those with culturally valued skills.  These skills usually contribute to a society’s well-being and are wielded for benevolence.

Prestigious individuals apply their talents not for self-aggrandizement, but to help others.  Members of society respond by elevating these individuals to positions of leadership and revere; they seek to emulate these cherished individuals and to respect the prestigious leader’s proclivity to collaborate with other experts (prestigious themselves) and act with degrees of “magnanimity, generosity, forbearance, and dignity in their leadership roles.”

Today, we would call those individuals patricians, or statesmen.  Such qualities can be attributed to some of our best presidents, including, namely, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two men whose actions created and saved the Union while furthering liberty for all.

Donald Trump, of course, shuns statesmanship and his appeal did not draw on prestige psychology.  He won because his rhetoric appealed to primal human psychology: Social dominance.

Chimpanzee Politics

To understand Donald Trump’s appeal, we have to look at chimpanzees.  Chimpanzee societies are dominated by a single top-chimp – the alpha.  He earns his position through a mix of aggression, intimidation, and threat (which will often devolve into outright violence to squash insurrections and to completely assert social dominance through physical injuries).  The alpha chimp also manages to forge coalitions of pragmatism, allying himself with other forces to maintain leadership or, once dethroned, instantly supporting the new alpha in order to keep some vestiges of power.

Humans often act in similar ways.  Affinity for social dominance hails from from our ancient history – whereas prestige psychology developed around 100,000 years ago, social dominance became engrained some 5 to 7 million years ago.  It’s this truly primal psychology that explains Trump’s appeal.

Trump’s intemperance and (mental) instability means he’s constantly at risk of exploding – he often does this while watching Fox News in the mornings or evenings.  His looming aggression and stalking during the second presidential debate show an aggressive man lusting to pounce or charge his opponent.  Early morning Twitter tirades insult opposition (often with violent undertones), vent, and relentlessly self-promote such that the uninformed are almost bullied into believing Trump’s competency.

Primal Fear

Fear, too, permeates chimpanzee politics – and Trump’s success.  Alpha chimps must instill in their potential challengers a sense of fear, a belief that any attempt to overthrow the existing regime would be futile, resulting in pain and even death.  Trump uses fear in two ways: To solidify standing among his base and to bully other Republicans into acquiescence.

Trump portrays certain minorities as rapists (Mexicans) and terrorists (Muslims) who hope to destroy the American experiment and undermine Western civilization.  By identifying entire groups – large groups, nonetheless – as existential threats to continued existence, he instils in his base a sense of fear.  They obviously want to alleviate this fear and so flock to Trump because of his harsh rhetoric towards those groups.  And, when irrationally scared, the ends always justify the means.  That’s why people supported Trump even after his announcement that he would ban Muslims from entering the country and floated shutting down Mosques and establishing a Muslim database.  Anything would be justified to make us safe.

With a solid base unwavering in their support, Trump can bully Republican lawmakers by the implicit (or explicit) threat of a primary challenge.  Politicians are cautious creatures.  They fear losing and will go to great lengths to avoid real challenges, even if it means compromising on principles (as with most Americans, politicians don’t understand statistics and thus greatly overestimate the probability of losing to a primary challenger).  Trump can threaten to endorse and campaign for a rubber-stamp challenger and his base, so the argument goes, will follow him.  To avoid that, Republican legislators, in fear of the chimpanzee base, rally behind the president.

Transactional Coalitions

This same alpha will also be willing to enter coalitions so long as they benefit himself.  He views all relationships as transactional and will end any connection once it ceases to be useful.  Hence why Donald Trump ran as a Republican despite having little in common with the party – he needed its resources.

Similarly, after spending months denigrating the RNC and his competitors, he gleefully accepted their endorsements and help; most notably, after claiming that Ted Cruz’s father had been a part of the JFK assassination, Trump accepted Cruz’s endorsement when Cruz ignored his own “vote your conscience” convention speech.  It also explains why Trump abandoned Jeff Sessions after the latter’s recusal from the Russia probe: Sessions no longer had anything to offer Trump.


Trump’s appeal, in its primacy, relied on authoritarianism.  As mentioned, Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards minorities created a good versus evil false choice in which members of the proposed in-group – (white, Christian) Americans adhering to traditional values – came into conflict with the out-group, bad people (Mexicans and Muslims) who wanted to end the American way of life.

At worst, authoritarianism results in the utter dehuminziation of the out-group.  This is how violence and genocide happen.  The out-group becomes a subhuman with no natural rights and which must, by all means, be destroyed.

As humans think about conflict with out-groups – whether naturally or at the prompting of a malicious actor – support for highly dominant, authoritarian leaders increases. 

Authoritarian Personalities among Voters

Authoritarianism defines the alpha as well as his followers.  The (right-wing) authoritarian personality – the best predictor of Trump’s electoral support – desires nationwide values that revolve around traditional norms, submission to (strong) authority figures to either embody or reinforce those norms, and virulent antipathy to those who dare challenge the existing social order.

Trump perfectly fits the needs of those with authoritarian personalities.  His extraversion (social dominance, gregariousness, reward-seeking) and low levels of agreeableness (humility, altruism, care, empathy) cultivate a strongman image seemingly dedicated to a strict and traditional social order.

With no political philosophy, Trump acts out of pure narcissism.  He wants, above all, to promote himself.  This plays into the authoritarian dynamic as those looking for salvation and safety in an authoritarian figure feel vindicated in their choice when the leader believes himself to be a savior, that his “his superior intelligence, his charismatic dominance, his single-minded devotion to a grandiose self will triumph in the end.”  That, of course, perfectly defines Trump, a man who constantly (and wrongly) brags about his intelligence.


Donald Trump is the primal president, a man whose support and ascent to power can best be understood by studying chimpanzee politics.  He’s an authoritarian who seized the fascination of those with authoritarian personalities and expanded that solid base through fear, intimidation, and coalitions of practicality.  His support does not come from political philosophy or long-held ideology.  It’s not because of his prestige and skills or natural statesmanship.  It’s because Donald Trump tapped the tribal dominance that we evolved millions of years ago but thought we had left behind after the Enlightenment and with the embrace of civil, democratic societies.


What is the Graham-Cassidy Healthcare Plan?

Graham-Cassidy is the GOP’s last breath in the partisan healthcare fight.

With budget reconciliation – the parliamentary procedure that allows the Republicans to overhaul the healthcare system with only 50 votes – expiring on September 30, the GOP has introduced and rallied behind one final attempt to repeal the ACA: The Graham-Cassidy bill.

What is Graham-Cassidy?

A healthcare bill introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) along with cosponsors Dean Heller (R-NV) and Ron Johnson (R-WI).

What does it do?

It ends the Medicaid expansion

Graham-Cassidy eliminates the Medicaid expansion in which the federal government encouraged states to expand their Medicaid programs to cover individuals and families earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.  Thirty-one states as well as the District of Columbia expanded Medicaid with the federal government subsidized at least 90 percent of new beneficiary costs.

Instead, the money once deigned for the Medicaid expansion would be reallocated as block grants for states to spend as they choose (funding would expire in 2027).  This means that states who accepted federal dollars to expand health insurance would lose money to states that resisted the ACA – it’s a redistribution from the states that helped residents afford health insurance either through Medicaid or helping people sign up for insurance through federal exchanges to resistant states that did not try to help residents afford health insurance.

Money given to states by Graham-Cassidy’s block grants would not need to be used to help residents afford care.

Graham-Cassidy also ends cost-sharing subsidies and the tax credits that helps low- and middle-income Americans pay for insurance premiums.

What about the individual and employer mandate?

Graham-Cassidy repeals the individual mandate to purchase coverage and offers no replacement to induce people to buy health insurance.

The individual may be unpopular, but it’s absolutely needed to make health insurance affordable.  Healthier individuals, those with relatively low expected medical spending, help subsidize costs for more expensive healthcare consumers.  Remove healthy individuals from the risk pool, as would happen without an individual mandate, and insurers would be forced to raise premiums to pay for an unhealthier and costlier universe of policy holders.

Couple ending the individual mandate with eliminating the ACA’s tax subsidies, and healthy individuals will have little reason to sign up for insurance; the failure to dilute risk would lead to a death spiral.  

What about preexisting conditions?

Graham-Cassidy allows states to ignore the ACA’s ban on preexisting condition discrimination.  In other words, Graham-Cassidy would let insurers charge those with preexisting conditions exorbitant rates that may price society’s most unfortunate entirely out of coverage.  This would, at best, bring healthy individuals back to the market, but even if it does, price discrimination would keep those who need health insurance most from affording it.

Graham-Cassidy does offer states a way out of this problem. It allows them to waive out of the Obamacare ban on preexisting conditions. This would give insurance plans the ability to charge sick people higher premiums, possibly excluding them from coverage altogether. That builds a market that functions well for healthy people but is terrible for sicker and lower-income Americans.

What does the CBO say?

We don’t know.  The CBO has yet to release a Graham-Cassidy score and it won’t before the September 30 reconciliation deadline.  Republicans may vote on a bill that touches 1/6 of the economy and with the potential to disrupt tens of millions of lives without knowing what the bill will do.

Independent analysis from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities finds that Graham-Cassidy will provide “$239 billion less between 2020 and 2026 than projected federal spending for the Medicaid expansion and marketplace subsidies under current law” (italics original).

These estimates likely underestimate the destructive effects of Graham-Cassidy because the bill has a Medicaid per capita cap.  Block grants won’t adjust for higher costs related to recessions, “public health emergencies, new treatments, demographic changes, or other cost pressures,” leaving states on the hook for covering those costs.

Tens of millions would likely lose insurance.

Who loses?

“In 2026, the 20 states facing the largest funding cuts in percentage terms would be Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. These states’ block grant funding would be anywhere from 35 percent to nearly 60 percent below what they would receive in federal Medicaid expansion and/or marketplace subsidy funding under current law.”  These states all either expanded Medicaid or pushed for residents to sign up in the federal exchanges.

Anything else I should know?

Yes, Graham-Cassidy will greatly disrupt the health insurance market with the ability to collapse it in the long run.

In the short-term, all 50 states and DC would need to create their own coverage programs without guidance, standards, or administrative infrastructure.  Market rules would also have to change.  This means that come 2020, after the transition period has ended, insurers will not know what the individual markets in which they operate will look like.  Insurers, who make decisions based on risk pools and risk expectations, won’t have any idea what the risk pools would be.  They would, at best, increase premium rates to account for uncertainty and, at worst, exit the market entirely.

Ten years from now, in 2027, Graham-Cassidy’s block grants simply expire (as does the ability for states to opt-out of ACA preexisting condition protections).  “Insurers in all states would face a market without an individual mandate or any funding for subsidies to purchase coverage in the individual market yet be subject to the ACA’s prohibition against denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions or charging people higher premiums based on their health status.  Many insurers would likely respond by withdrawing from the market, leaving a large share of the population living in states with no insurers, as CBO has warned about previous repeal-without-replace bills. ”

Will it pass?

Maybe.  It needs the support of 50 senators and right now it has around 48-49.

Who’s against it?

Rand Paul, though his rhetoric now matches what he said about the BCRA before he voted for it.

Who’s undecided?

Susanne Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and John McCain (R-AZ).

Who should I call?

The above senators and Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV).


trump north korea

North Korea is Rational. Donald Trump is Not.

Kim Jong Un is a Rational Actor

Kim Jong Un has the rap of an irrational madman hellbent on leading his rogue state into a disastrous war with the United States.  The North Korean leader feeds that narrative by continually threatening the United States and her outlying territories with missile strikes.  He ignores the plight of his own people and instead invites more sanctions with each new missile test and provocative stunt.  But Kim Jong Un and the North Korean state are rational, coldly so.  Donald Trump is not, and the clash of a rational and an irrational actor heighten the risks of armed conflict.

When it comes to international relations, rational does not mean sensible.  Rational means capable of making logical calculations to boost a country’s goals and interests given its available resources.  Foremost among those interests is survival.

North Korea Wants to Survive

Survival is high on Kim Jong Un’s mind (as it was for his predecessors).  The best means of survival for a nation-state detested by almost all other countries is to ensure that any move to destroy the existing leadership has catastrophic consequences for the assailant country.

(Of course, the easiest means of survival is to integrate one’s nation in the society of states wherein openness and interconnectedness – globalism – greatly decrease the chance of war and national destruction.  North Korea has no interest in doing that.)

North Korea fervently believes that nuclear weapons will forever dissuade the United States and her allies from overthrowing the existing regime.  While the proximity of American troops in South Korea, as well as millions of South Korean allies all easily killed, has so far deterred the US from retaliating to North Korean aggression with military strikes, North Korea sees the others collapsed authoritarian regimes – Libya and Iraq, and the potential for the United States to still attack Iran despite its compliance with the nuclear deal – as warnings of what could still happen without a well-developed nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong Un views nuclear weapons as the means by which his totalitarian regime will continue, not as weapons of aggression.  He knows that any real act of war – and invasion of South Korea or missile strike against the US – will instantly result in his overthrow and death.  That’s why North Korea hasn’t invaded South Korea and has largely kept its threats rhetorical (since the Korean War, the state has acted aggressively, capturing and even killing US soldiers, but has not acted decisively enough to warrant a full military pushback).

Trump Doesn’t Understand Kim Jong Un’s Rationality

Donald Trump, and many members of Congress, don’t understand North Korean aims.  They don’t see the game theory decisions Kim Jong Un makes; instead, they see a madman rushing towards a disastrous confrontation with the United States.  And because they see us and North Korea as on an inevitable path to war, they’re willing to preemptively attack the evil regime.

That’s why Trump keeps floating a missile strike on the state or stating that continued North Korean threats would result in the United States unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  At the United Nation’s, Trump cautioned Kim Jong Un by saying the United States will “totally destroy” you, rhetoric not lobbied by previous administrations – administrations that understood North Korean goals.

Facing the threat of total annihilation, North Korea will only redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons because the sooner it does so, the sooner it might deter the unpredictable wrath of Donald Trump.  North Korea doesn’t trust the United States to uphold a deal in which the regime gives up its nuclear weapons – Qaddafi did so and died in an American-backed revolution and though Iran did so as part of a nuclear deal to which it’s complying, Trump still assails the deal and indicates he wants to pull out of it.  So Kim Jong Un will hasten nuclear development.

The Rational Actor Meets the Irrational Fool

Trump isn’t predictable.  He campaigned on an isolationist platform and frequently attacked the “stupidity” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the former of which he supported, despite what he says).  Yet in the span of 24 hours, he went from steadfastly refusing to condemn Bashar al-Assad for a chemical gas attack to launching an (illegal) airstrike on Syria.  And over the course of a couple months, Trump entirely flip-flopped on Afghanistan and will now increase our troops in the state.

He’s not rational and he’s not predictable and that pushes North Korea into a further and better armed state while increasing tensions with the United States as we amp our rhetoric and keep threatening action.  As General David Petraeus argues, “you do not want the other side thinking you are irrational in a crisis. You do not want the other side thinking that you might be sufficiently irrational to conduct a first strike or to do something, you know, so-called ‘unthinkable'” because that encourages the adversary to take matters into its own hands.

Trump’s blather and foolish posturing towards North Korea demonstrates he doesn’t understand what Kim Jong Un hopes to achieve – survival.  It also shows that Trump doesn’t know how to address a rogue yet rational state and Trump’s unpredictability and general intemperance only heighten the risks of a military conflict with North Korea.

us national debt

Don’t Worry about the Debt, Worry about the Deficit

Don’t Be Scared by Large Numbers

The national debt is a large number – now more than $20 trillion – and that number rightfully has the ability to shock.  However, as with most shocks, looking at the national debt as a number devoid of context invites fear without much rational.  We need to contextualize the national debt to understand its economic meaning.

Yes, the US national debt is large, but so is the US economy.  Economists care about the ratio of publicly-held federal debt to the US GDP (henceforth, PD/GDP for brevity), not the size of the debt itself.[1]  While the PD/GDP has increased dramatically in the past decade, it’s largely – if not entirely – due to the Great Recession.  Recessions naturally decrease tax revenue as fewer people have jobs and incomes decline.  This means the government, at the same time it’s spending more to stimulate the economy, is taking in less and so must issue publicly-held debt.  We expect the PD/GDP to increase during and immediately after recessions and we similarly expect it to stagnate once the economy recovers.

And that’s exactly what’s happened.  Upon economic recovery, government spending slowed and tax revenues increased.  The PD/GDP has increased by only 2 percentage points since 2013, exactly what we would expect to see.

public debt to gdp ratio

The chart also makes clear that while our PD/GDP is high, it’s not at a historical high.  That happened during the Great Depression, an expected happening.  It makes sense that the second-highest PD/GDP ratio would occur after the Great Recession, the second-worst economic crisis in American history (we also entered the Recession with a relatively high PD/GDP due to large tax cuts along with fighting two wars).

Economists have identified no level at which the ratio of publicly held debt to GDP causes the economic growth to slow.  In other words, at no threshold does the level of public debt hurt the economy.  But, of course, investors may worry about fiscal solvency as the PD/GDP rises.  Buying government debt is an inherent bet on whether the government will be able to repay the (full) amount owed at the bond’s maturity.  As investors perceive more risk, they demand more reward – ie, a higher interest rate.  Therefore, the best way to study whether a government has encountered fiscal responsibility is the interest rate investors demand to loan the government money.

The Market Decides

Interest rates on US debt have reached and stayed near historical lows.[2]  Investors trust the United States to repay obligations and therefore are willing to lend to the government at a premium not commanded by riskier states.  Importantly, these interests fell and remained low even as the PD/GDP rose.

historical us interest rates

Interest rates are also incredibly low for the debt of other countries with relatively high PD/GDP ratios – even ones higher than ours.  Germany’s PD/GDP is 68, only slightly lower than ours, and has a 10-year bond yield of 0.45%.  The UK’s PD/GDP is 92 and investors only demand a 1.3% yield on a 10-year bond.  France has seen its 10-year bond yield fall below 1% despite having a PD/GDP of 97.  Starkly, Japan has a PD/GDP of 235 and can still borrow money almost for free.[3]

Investors demand higher interest rates from the likes of Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy because those countries have a high PD/GDP as well as fundamental economic concerns including high levels of unemployment (especially among youth), declining public services, and high pension obligations coupled with political uncertainty.[4]

Bond vigilantes have not fixed their gaze upon the United States and other G-5 countries because they see no reason to do so.  The United States remains the safest investment one can make – there’s a reason many investors use the 10-year treasury yield as a stand-in for the risk-free interest rate.  No one fears the US’s ability to repay its debt obligations.

The Debt Never Needs to be Paid Off

Furthermore, when pundits or politicians often talk about the immense difficulty of paying off the national debt, they ignore a simple fact.  We never need to pay it off in entirety.  Debt can continue to grow so long as its rate of growth is less than that of the economy.  The quickest way to lower the PD/GDP, and thus the relative burden of the debt, would be to keep the real value of the debt constant (accomplished if the United States were to pay “the value of debt multiplied by the real rate of interest”).  Then economic growth would lower the PD/GDP.

Put another way, “when interest rates are close to the rate of economic growth, you can run a budget deficit forever as long as the primary deficit is balanced.[5] The debt load as a share of the economy won’t increase over time. And if interest rates are lower than the pace of growth — as they are now — the load will actually shrink while you run those smaller deficits.”

Fear the Deficit

We need to worry about the deficit, not the debt.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the budget deficit will continue growing over the next decade as the population ages and so benefits paid to retirees increase.[6]  These spending increases are not yet projected to be matched by revenue increases.  A Brookings Institute report found that “to return the debt-GDP ratio in 2047 to 36 percent, its average in the 50 years preceding the Great Recession in 2007-9, would require spending cuts or tax increases of 4.2 percent of GDP.”[7]  So, obviously, hard choices will need to be made.  Similarly, new programs or tax cuts cannot be enacted without methods of payment that are deficit neutral in the long-term.[8]  We need a long-term focus to address future deficits, not fiscal policy designed to eliminate the debt.

[1] The publicly-owned debt excludes money the government owes to itself.  This can be excluded because debt the government owes to itself does not affect credit markets (in fact, for many developed countries, the theoretical relationship between national debt and the “crowding out” effect has proven tenuous, though developing nations have experienced such a phenomenon).  Gross debt does not provide any insight into a government’s fiscal health.

And only public debt, not the gross amount, because debt the government owes to itself “does not affect credit markets.”

[2] At various points, the inflation-adjusted 10-year bond reached negative rates of interest meaning that investors paid the US government to spend their money.

[3] Obviously, there are reasons for these discrepancies, but the point stands: In a developed and well-functioning economy, PD/GDP does not necessarily determine interest rate.

[4] When Standard and Poor’s downgraded our credit rating, it did so because of political polarization and potentially dangerous partisan politics, not because of unsustainable debt.

[5] The primary budget deficit is the discrepancy between new spending and new revenue.  It is balanced if new spending equal new revenue; it does not take into account the interest on existing debt.

[6] Right now, the economy’s growing at about a 4% nominal rate the deficit 3% nominally.

[7] Failing to do so would result in the PD/GDP rising to around 90.  Some consider that unsustainable.  It might not be, though it provides less fiscal flexibility in the case of another recession.  Commentators also fear that interest rates will rise, and thus so will deficits.

[8] And these need to be based on realistic analysis.  Saying a tax cut will be deficit neutral if the economy grows at 4 percent is not realistic.

alaska permanent fund

The Alaska Permanent Fund is a Progressive Policy in a Red State

The Alaska Permanent Fund is a Universal Basic Income

Alaska may be reliably conservative at the federal level, voting for Republican presidential candidates since 1964 and electing one Democratic senator since 1980, but at the state level, Alaskans embrace incredibly progressive policies, namely the Alaska Permanent Fund.

In 1976, Alaska voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment that created the Alaska Permanent Fund, funded by revenue from natural resource extraction, that will provide a future stream of income for the state upon oil depletion while also supplying the state with a universal basic income.

The Alaskan Constitution

The amendment mandates that “at least twenty-five percent of all mineral lease rentals, royalties, royalty sale proceeds, federal mineral revenue sharing payments and bonuses received by the state shall be placed in a permanent fund, the principal of which shall be used only for those income-producing investments specifically designated by law as eligible for permanent fund investments. All income from [the Alaska Permanent Fund] shall be deposited in the general fund unless otherwise provided by law.”

A few years before establishing the Alaska Permanent Fund, the state received a $900 million oil windfall but, rather than saving it, spent the money on public infrastructure.  Though the state – the second youngest in the union – undoubtedly needed public investment, residents soon viewed the $900 million expenditure as a waste.

The Alaska Permanent Fund prevents future wasteful spending by removing a large portion of the oil revenue from the legislative spending stream.  Its investments will help fund the government in the future – prudent lawmakers recognized that oil revenues would not last forever (no money from a finite natural resource could) – through investment dividend.  As the state touts, the Alaska Permanent Fund takes a non-renewable natural resource and turns it into a renewable source of wealth.

How the Alaska Permanent Fund Works

Each year, the fund receives oil and gas royalties, income from the funds investments, and any other appropriations made by the state.  It then pays qualifying residents a dividend from realized investment gains.  State law fixes the dividend at an amount equal to the Alaska Permanent Fund’s net income over the last five years multiplied by 21 percent, divided by 2, and then divided by the number of eligible applicants.  This (somewhat) stabilizes the dividend across years.

alaska permanent fund

While this universal basic income is obviously not large enough to (significantly) change employment calculus, it has resulted in Alaska having the fifth-lowest rate of poverty in the country.  The Fund also frees Alaskans from the burden of an income tax, though that might change as oil depletion continues and prices stagnate at low levels.

Alaska for America?


Many progressive have begun to dream about a nationwide universal basic income to offset the likely employment drop-off from the continued automation of our economy.  Ideas floated would be on a much larger scale than the Alaska Permanent Fund – progressives want annual dividends to be at least $10,000.  But, unlike Alaska, the United States as a whole does not have an easy to pay for a universal basic income.

Hillary Clinton considered an “Alaska for America” program that would use revenues from “shared national resources includ[ing] oil and gas extracted from public lands and the public airwaves used by broadcasters and mobile phone companies,” a carbon tax, and perhaps “a financial transaction tax” to pay a universal basic income.

However, Clinton “couldn’t make the numbers work. To provide a meaningful dividend each year to every citizen, you’d have to raise enormous sums of money, and that would either mean a lot of new taxes or cannibalizing other important programs. We decided it was exciting but not realistic, and left it on the shelf.”

While the Alaska Permanent Fund may work for the state, it likely couldn’t be implemented on a national scale – at least not at a level that would provide all citizens with a meaningful basic income.  Regardless, studying the Alaska Permanent Fund may raise new insights into how a progressive goal could come to fruition.

So while a universal basic income remains a national fantasy, states – the laboratories of democracy – have experimented and Alaska, a deep-red state known for its conservatism, has developed perhaps the most progressive policy in the country.

The Worst Senators in American History

America’s Worst Senators

The American Senate has long be recognized and heralded as one of the world’s greatest legislative chamber.  Its emphasis on debate – on cooling the passions of a tempestuous public – created a chamber that, at its best, embraced dispassionate discourse aimed at educating the public and passing enlightened legislation.

Of course, the Senate has not always lived up to its glorious conception.  At many points throughout its history, the Senate ignored its founding principles and allowed the president to dominate the chamber; at far too many points, senators used the chamber’s rules and dilatory design to slow movement towards racial equality.

A legislature is only as good as its legislators.  Who are the worst senators in American history, the ones whose actions and statements stained one of America’s greatest creations?  In no particular order, here are America’s worst senators.

Theodore Bilbo (D-MS, 1935-1947)

theodore bilbo racist

The Mississippi demagogue and likely KKK member committed his public service tenure to preserving segregation and uses all power at his disposal to prevent African Americans from attaining equal civil and political rights.  Bilbo, along with other Southern senators, embarked on one of the Senate’s longest fillibusters to prevent passage of an anti-lynching bill, saying (on the Senate floor!) “If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded AngloSaxon white Southern men will not tolerate.”

In that same speech, Bilbo first dabbled with an idea to return all 12 million blacks to Africa.  He introduced legislation to achieve that goal in 1938 and continued pushing for this “repatriation” during the Second World War.  Upon the war’s completion, he added a new target for his vitriol: Jews.  Defeating Nazism apparently didn’t defeat anti-Semitism at home.

Writing to Leonard Golditch, executive secretary of the National Committee to Combat Anti-Semitism, Bilbo ranted that “there are five million Jews in the United States and the majority of them are fine public citizens, but if Jews of your type don’t quit sponsoring and fraternizing with the Negro race you are going to arouse so much opposition that they will get a very strong invitation to pack up and resettle in Palestine, the homeland of the Jews, just as we propose to provide for the voluntary resettlement of the American Negro in West Africa their fatherland. Now do not pop-off and say I am in favor of sending the Jews to Palestine. What I am trying to say to you is that there are just a few of you New York ‘kikes’ that are fraternizing and socializing with the Negroes for selfish and political and if you keep it up you will arouse the opposition of the better class of your race.”

Perhaps most shocking and stomach-churning, Bilbo published a book in 1946 entitled “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.”  The racist manifesto furthered his efforts to popularize deporting all blacks to Africa, preying on racial anxieties and pointing to the “scientific” inferiority of blacks to argue that commingling of the races – which would lead to interracial marriages – would destroy white civilization.  His own words best exemplify the true depths of his hatred and ignorance: “The experiences and history of thousands of years prove that whenever and wherever the white and black man have tried to live side by side the result has been mongrelization which has destroyed both races and left a brown mongrel people.”

James Eastland (D-MS, 1943-1978)

james eastland racistJames Eastland, another Mississippi race-baiter, spent 35 years using his august position as a United States Senator to further segregationist causes.  His reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, which ended the separate but equal regime, showed he believed in the Constitution and the Supreme Court only when the two furthered his racist intentioned.  Eastland argued that “the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because of the Supreme Court’s decision” and went on to tell states – wrongly – that “you are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent sociological considerations.”  States obviously cannot pick and choose which Supreme Court decisions and federals to follow.  The Civil War ended that phony debate once and for all.

According to Eastland, man did not create segregation.  From nature arose the separation of races and only through the tyrannical and forceful actions of men would races ever live together; such an event would never happen spontaneously.  “The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct,” Eastland contended, a “self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination… it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire.”

His rhetoric and staunch opposition to civil rights will always stand as an embarrassment to the Senate and country.

Joseph McCarthy (R-WI, 1947-1957)

joseph mccarthy

Joseph McCarthy’s brief reign of terror saw ruined hundreds of lives by relying on naked demagoguery to parlay obvious lies into a seemingly unstoppable political force.  McCarthy quickly earned national prominence after the “Wheeling Speech,” in which he claimed to have a list of 205 (or 257) suspected members of the Communist Party who had infiltrated the State Department.  During various speeches and testimonies, the list’s size varied and its contents remained a secret; McCarthy’s claims later grew to encompass the Truman Administration and the US Army.

His slander cultivated fear among public servants and even elected officials.  Few dared stand up to the demagogue because of his ruthlessness in slaying naysayers.  As such, McCarthy managed to bluff his way to success – he of course had no proof and no reason to accuse hundreds of communist sympathies, but whenever challenged for evidence, McCarthy snarled his way to maintaining the house of cards.  Only when McCarthy directly challenged the Army and a month’s worth of televised “Army-McCarthy” hearings let the public see the extent of his recklessness, deceit, and slander did he fall from grace, culminating in a formal Senate censure and his eventual death in office.

Strom Thurmond (D/R-SC, 1956-2003)

strom thurmondThe 1948 State’s Rights Party presidential nominee used his authority to thwart progress on civil rights, a dedication proved by running for president against Harry S Trump (his party’s nominee) because the Democratic National Convention endorsed a pro-civil rights plank.  Thurmond wrote the first version of the Southern Manifesto, a piece which asserted that the Supreme Court no longer had the ability to review laws (a principle since the country’s founding) and that (southern) states should therefore resist the ruling.  Many feared that the Southern Manifesto might be turned into another secessionist movement, coming, as it did, amidst heightened racial tensions because of desegregation.

In case his views on civil rights weren’t yet clear, Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the longest filibuster in American history.  He labelled Martin Luther King, Jr a “communist” and claimed “King demeans his race and retards the advancement of his people.”  His militancy towards desegregation efforts came to light after Truman desegregated the army and Thurmond pronounced “there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra [sic] race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

Huey Long (D-LA, 1932-1935)

huey long

Huey “Kingfish” Long, a radical demagogue, earned the title “America’s first dictator” by The Nation.  President Franklin Roosevelt considered him one of the most dangerous men in America (General Douglas MacArther being the other).  He came to prominence in 1928 following his election as governor of Louisiana.  There, Long “turned the state  into his duchy, had made vassals of the state’s legislators,” and continued his corrupt regime by installing a puppet governor in 1932, at which point he ascended to the Senate.

H. L. Mencken referred to Long as a backwoods Mussolini — “impudent, blackguardly and infinitely prehensile.”  Others called him “Der Kingfish,” tying him, none-too-subtly, to Adolf Hitler, then gaining power in Germany.  He fit the bill, controlling Louisiana affairs while serving the Senate.  The Kingfish often returned to Louisiana to push for desired legislation, venturing into the state capitol and forcefully arguing with present legislators.  Long had the state government use patronage as a weapon and did the same with taxation, threatening exorbitant rates and promising kickbacks to businesses that played ball.

His Senate tenure saw Long posture for a bolder goal: The presidency.  Deriding Roosevelt as a puppet of special interests, Long introduced the “Share Our Wealth” program which sought to dramatically redistribute money through maximum incomes and limits on personal wealth (his numbers did not add up).  That morphed into the “Share Our Wealth Society,” a political organization ginning up popular support for a potential 1936 presidential candidacy.  Such goals never came to fruition as a disgruntled doctor murdered Huey Long in 1935.  Sic semper tyrannis.

William Borah (R-ID, 1907-1940)

william borah

Borah served in the Senate for 33 years as a populist Republican and a leading isolationist voice.  He led the so-called Irreconcilables – the senators staunchly opposed to the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.  Together with the Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and other Republicans, Borah resisted the Fourteen Points and toured the country lambasting America’s involvement in an international organization that hoped to bring the world closer together and truly make World War I the “war to end all wars.”  Ultimately, Borah and his isolationist cohort succeeded in defeating Wilson’s grand liberal goals.

Despite rightfully predicting that the Treaty of Versailles harsh treatment of Germany might hurt the nascent Weimer Republic, when Adolf Hitler rose to power and threatened the new democratic order, Borah, though supposedly horrified by the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, refused to speak out against the regime.  He similarly opposed immigration of Jew from Germany.  Bizarrely, after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Borah lambasted Britain and France, not Germany.  In his delusions of grandeur, Borah also believed that had he met with Hitler personally, Hitler would not have invaded Poland and World War II’s onset might have been avoided.

Borah also opposed federal anti-lynching legislation.

Robert Taft (R-OH, 1939-1953)

robert taft

The son of President Howard Taft, Robert Taft made his name as a staunch conservative and opponent to the New Deal, which he labelled “socialist.”  Taft’s opposition to Roosevelt and Democratic initiatives included arguing against American involvement in World War II prior to the Japanese attack on pearl Harbor.  A staunch non-interventionist, Taft fought against all efforts to aid countries at war with Nazi Germany – his leadership in the cause pushed Roosevelt into acting without Congress, finding ways around the legislative branch to help victims of German aggression.  After the war, Taft remained suspicious of, and hoped to demolish, NATO.  He also condemned the Nuremberg Trials that sought to prosecute leading Nazis for crimes against humanity during the Holocaust.

But the absolute worst senators in American history have to be those who joined the Confederacy.

The Confederate senators committed treason by seceding from the Union and supporting a failed nation-state that rose in arms against the federal government.  They abandoned the Constitution and tried to forever divide the country in order to hold humans in bondage and continue an atrocious system of violent white supremacy.  These senators, who will always live in infamy, are:

  • Clement Clay, Jr (AL)
  • Benjamin Fitzpatrick (AL)
  • William Sebastian (AR)
  • Charles Mitchel (AR)
  • David Yulee (FL)
  • Stephen Mallory (FL)
  • Robert Toombs (GA)
  • Alfred Iverson, Sr (GA)
  • Jesse Bright (IN)
  • John Breckinridge (KY)
  • Judah Benjamin (LA)
  • John Slidell (LA)
  • Jefferson Davis (MS)
  • Albert Brown (MS)
  • Waldo Johnson (MO)
  • Trusten Polk (MO)
  • Thomas Bragg (NC)
  • Thomas Clingman (NC)
  • James Chesnut, (SC)
  • James Hammond (SC)
  • Alfred Nicholson (TN)
  • Louis Wigfall (TX)
  • John Hemphill (TX)
  • James Mason (VA)
  • Robert Hunter (VA)


theodore bilbo

Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi Disgrace

Theodore Bilbo (D-MS, 1935-1947)

theodore bilbo racist

Theodore Bilbo, the Mississippi demagogue and likely KKK member, committed his public service tenure to preserving segregation and used all power at his disposal to prevent African Americans from attaining equal civil and political rights.  Bilbo, along with other Southern senators, embarked on one of the Senate’s longest filibusters to prevent passage of an anti-lynching bill, saying (on the Senate floor!) “If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded AngloSaxon white Southern men will not tolerate.”

In that same speech, Bilbo first dabbled with an idea to return all 12 million blacks to Africa.  He introduced legislation to achieve that goal in 1938 and continued pushing for this “repatriation” during the Second World War.  Upon the war’s completion, he added a new target for his vitriol: Jews.  Defeating Nazism apparently didn’t defeat anti-Semitism at home.

Writing to Leonard Golditch, executive secretary of the National Committee to Combat Anti-Semitism, Bilbo ranted that “there are five million Jews in the United States and the majority of them are fine public citizens, but if Jews of your type don’t quit sponsoring and fraternizing with the Negro race you are going to arouse so much opposition that they will get a very strong invitation to pack up and resettle in Palestine, the homeland of the Jews, just as we propose to provide for the voluntary resettlement of the American Negro in West Africa their fatherland. Now do not pop-off and say I am in favor of sending the Jews to Palestine. What I am trying to say to you is that there are just a few of you New York ‘kikes’ that are fraternizing and socializing with the Negroes for selfish and political and if you keep it up you will arouse the opposition of the better class of your race.”

Perhaps most shocking and stomach-churning, Theodore Bilbo published a book in 1946 entitled “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.”  The racist manifesto furthered his efforts to popularize deporting all blacks to Africa, preying on racial anxieties and pointing to the “scientific” inferiority of blacks to argue that commingling of the races – which would lead to interracial marriages – would destroy white civilization.  His own words best exemplify the true depths of his hatred and ignorance: “The experiences and history of thousands of years prove that whenever and wherever the white and black man have tried to live side by side the result has been mongrelization which has destroyed both races and left a brown mongrel people.”

Institutional Combat and Republican Takeover in the Reagan Era

An in-depth look at Democratic entrenchment, the Republicans offensive, and institutional combat.

The election of 1932 forever changed the course of American politics and American society. 1932 ushered in an era of liberal feelings, expanding government, and an all-together Democratic entrenchment. For the next four decades, the government continued to expand its role and a strong system of benefits (welfare) was created and expanded, primarily through Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson. Since the 1930s, the Democrats have become entrenched in Congress and government agencies, allowing the New Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society programs to stay in place and fight the Republican offensive of the 1980s. Though the Republicans were (and so far are) unable to remove the programs and strip away the welfare system, they were successful in creating intense institutional struggles that have become the focus of politics and many discussions throughout the nation. Moreover, continued institutional combat stops the two parties from acting in the best interests of America – rather, the two parties act in fashions deemed best to bring down the other.

Following the onset of the Great Depression, Democrats were entrenched in Congress for six decades. This was possible thanks to the New Deal coalition, which included labor unions, farmers, the elderly, southerners, Jews, Catholics, and, of course, liberals. The New Deal coalition was formed because the general populace was seeking a change from the failed laissez-faire policies of Republican Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Roosevelt offered hope and new ideas to help the country escape the throes of depression. His policies of government intervention in the private markets on behalf of citizens were quite popular throughout the country and allowed for the coalition to remain intact. Such a far-reaching and inclusive coalition kept the Democrats in Congress for close to 60 years, and in the Presidency for 36 years (asides from Eisenhower, whose policies would be considered somewhat liberal today). Though FDR intended for the New Deal programs to temporary, he soon made them “permanent features of the American governmental system” (84). Being the dominant party in Congress and controlling the Presidency for numerous terms allowed the Democrats to create many social welfare programs, thus becoming entrenched in the domestic state.

Democratic entrenchment in Congress and in the Presidency allowed them to gain a firm footing in “federal social service[s], labor and regulatory agencies, and government bureaucracies and nonprofit organizations on the state and local levels that help administer national social programs” (81). At first, it was easy for the Democrats to maintain control because a liberal Congress and Democratic president allowed for safe passage of agency funding. Even when the White House was run by a Republican, Democrats are able to maintain high levels of influence and control on the aforementioned government agencies and subsidiaries. This is due to those who work in the agencies, bureaucratic networks, and administrative capabilities. Individuals who work in the agencies are generally “committed to these organizations’ goals” and are “commit to the public sector”, a trait generally found in Democrats rather than Republicans (82). Bureaucratic networks let Democrats establish links directly with voters, which played a key role in the creation of Democratic voting tendencies amongst “unionized workers and ethnic minorities” as well as “some middle-class homeowners, professionals, and members of the business community” (83). In these ways, agencies are able to resist efforts “by Republican presidents to redirect or limit their activities” (84).

By the 1960s, the Democrats were reeling and became “fully dependent on its base of power in the domestic state” (88). Perhaps the biggest challenge to the New Deal coalition was the Democratic support of civil rights for African-Americans. While Northern Democrats were “sympathetic to the plight of the blacks” (88), southern conservatives (who voted Democratic out of tradition) were not. Civil right legislation passed in the New Frontier and Great Society caused a party dealignment, with Southern Democrats slowly leaving the party to vote Independent or Republican. Blacks soon replaced white Southern Democrats. Federally funded community development corporations, community action centers, and neighborhood service centers “provided an institutional framework through which blacks could be organized to provide local political support for [Great Society] programs” (90). When blacks go out and vote, Democrats almost always win. However, the struggle for liberals is getting African-American citizens to vote, a problem President Obama was able to solve through his nationality and focus on Get Out The Vote initiatives.

During Lydon Johnson’s presidency, the conflict in Vietnam escalated into a war. Due to this, liberals within the administration and throughout the country “launched a full-scale attack on the national security establishment”, seeking to “subject the military-industrial complex to stricter external control” (91). This attack was successful in cutting defense spending throughout the 1970s. However, Democrats were charged with weakening national defenses to a critical level following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Republicans were thus able to gain support in the South and West among those who had a stake in defense spending, hence further challenging the New Deal coalition.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention saw numerous changes designed to show the party’s racial acceptance as well as to pass reforms for primaries and campaign finance. Considered by many to be the biggest change, a new rule required that “delegations to future national conventions be composed of blacks, women, and youths in a ‘reasonable relationship to their presence in the population of the state’” (93). Another platform agenda was encouraging states to use open primaries and caucuses in order to limit the “slate-making efforts of party organizations” (93). The Common Clause group sought campaign finance laws that would include limitations on individual contributors. These proposed reforms by the liberal Democrats steered the party in the direction of middle-class citizens and racial minorities. However, this came with the destruction of the local party organizations, leaving the Democrats even more “dependent upon their bastions within the domestic state” (94).

After a few years and elections of political turmoil, following Nixon’s demise at Watergate and the failure of the Carter administration, Republicans were successful in winning back the presidency in 1980 and began to implement an agenda with an idea of undermining Democratic strongholds and dismantling the social welfare programs. In order to curtail the Democratic entrenchment, Republicans used a mixture of tax reductions, domestic spending cuts, and deregulation. Doing so “diminished the Democrats’ ability to achieve their policy objectives…and provide benefits to groups allied within the party” (103). Significant tax decreases resulting less money for the government and a ballooning annual deficit. To remedy this, a number of domestic spending cuts ensued, putting domestic programs under pressure by cutting of funding (the Anaconda plan). New programs could not be created and funding levels for existing programs were always at risk of being cut. Republicans also sought to deregulate key industries, including transportation, energy, and finance, which limited regulatory agencies as they were not “able to intervene against business on behalf of groups disadvantaged by market process” (106). Deregulation also helped business break with labor, weakening the unions and thus the Democrats. Through these means, the “Republican Offensive” was successful in damaging the Democratic entrenchment; however the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 prevent the destruction of Democratic control.

As the Republicans undermined the “capacities of institutions” (107) controlled by Democrats, they also began to weaken the Democratic social base and New Deal coalition, focusing on business, the middle-class, blue-collar workers, and white southerners. Republicans were able to take business from the Democrats with Reagan’s promises of cutting “costly social programs”, weakening the “influence of labor”, and deregulation. These promises lured businesses to the right, where many of them remain today. In order to win over the middle-class, conservatives “attempted to convince” them that they weren’t “beneficiaries of federal expenditure programs”, but rather “taxpayers” (110). They were successful in creating an issue out of taxes; there was a 21% increase in voters who identified taxation as a problem between 1976 and 1984 (111). By focusing on the aspect of taxation rather than benefits, Republicans were able to lure away middle-class voters with promises of lower tax rates, stealing another block of the Democrat’s New Deal coalition. Republicans won blue-collar workers by stressing “moral and religions convictions” as well as patriotic appeals (114). In addition, Republicans subtly used the issue of race to win over blue-collar workers (115). The race issue, as well as moral convictions and beliefs – such as abortion – , helped Republicans win the votes of white Southerners, who were mostly Evangelicals. By taking these voting groups, Republicans were successful in dismantling the New Deal coalition.

Republicans also made popular bounds with their national security platform and monetary and fiscal policies. The first Reagan term saw the “largest peacetime military buildup” (117). Doing so let Reagan claim the Republican Party was the one of power, both domestically and abroad. It has been acknowledged that the Department of Defense is a Republican entrenchment. While the Reagan administration’s policies led to a soaring national debt, the decline of the dollar, and a growing trade deficit, his policies made it impossible for Democrats to campaign on their core issue: entitlement programs. Since there was a large deficit, it was impossible to run with idea of creating new domestic spending programs, hence hurting Democratic candidates. All in all, national security and monetary and fiscal policies by Republicans strengthened their institutional standing and their capacities of governance all while weakening the Democrats.

Unfortunately, rather than serving the people, the two major political parties have come to use the institutions of government as a means of battling the other. For example, budget deficits via tax cuts were used as a Republican weapon to prevent new spending programs that would have benefited many people throughout the country. Luckily, the debt was financed by foreign governments who sought to capitalize on the high interest rates used by the Federal Reserve to tame inflation. Democrats responded by passing the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act to try and pressure Reagan into tax increases. They also pursued protectionism as a means of cutting off the foreign investment that financed the burgeoning debt. This political fighting hurt the country as markets were sent into a flurry of panics, culminating in Black Monday. In national security, the Reagan administration spent huge sums of money to appear powerful and make Americans think that Republicans were the party of power. Coupled tax decreases, Reagan managed to run extraordinarily high deficits, resulting in the aforementioned disempowerment of Democrats. Federal courts of expanded their powers by “rescind[ing] the abstention doctrine” and by “creat[ing] new rights” (147). Socially, institutional combat deprived America of health care reform when a Republican Congress blocked the Clintons’ health care plan. Impeachment charges, ironically led by Newt Gingrich, were brought on Clinton despite his lack of breaking any formal law. Clearly, rather than focusing on how to best help Americans, the two major parties instead focused on how to damage the other.

Overall, institutional combat and struggles between the two major parties deprives the country of a governing body devoted to advancing policies best suited for the progression of societal well-being. Ever since the Democratic entrenchment of Congress, the presidency, and other agencies in the 1930s, Republicans have sought a way to demean the Democrats and shift the country right. This manifested itself in 1980 after New Deal coalition slowly disintegrated and the Democrats found themselves in a crisis, per se, with a crumbling base and a number of issues that seemed bound to destroy the party – among them national security and the military, as well as growing inflation caused by ample government spending. The reestablishment of the Republican Party has only served to worsen institutional combat as now the two sides are on equal grounds from which to wage political war. As long as institutional combat continues, little will be accomplished by the government and the general populace will suffer as a result.

is bernie sanders a socialist

Is Bernie Sanders a Socialist?

He has many left-wing views, but is Bernie Sanders a socialist?

Throughout his failed bid for the presidency, Bernie Sanders gained attention for his left-wing ideology that, if ever implemented, would dramatically expand the size and scope of the federal government.  To his right-wing critics, those ideas reeked of socialism; to those on the center-left, they seemed impossible to enact, though not entirely without merit.  Is Bernie Sanders a socialist, an adherent to a reviled ideology, or a left-wing ideologue who stops (just) short of socialist goals?

Despite his desire to nationalize healthcare (which, yes, is a socialist policy) and more tightly regulate the economy, Bernie Sanders is not a socialist.  Rather, he is a social democrat, a person who embraces the market, but wants the government to provide a strong social welfare net and play an active role in regulating multi-party transactions.  Many proclaimed socialists, especially those in European countries, support social democratic policies, largely because their more radical dreams couldn’t come to fruition.

Importantly, social democracy is not socialism.  In a socialist economy, the state owns the means of production and centrally planned the economy.  Private property remained and some small businesses still exist, but the state controls the vast majority of the economy in hopes of limiting the accumulation of private wealth (capital) and ensuring and equitable distribution of goods.  Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, clearly, as he doesn’t advocate the state taking over the economy.  Social democracy, Sanders’ actual ideology, keeps capital private; the private sector – not the state – control the means of production.  Government spending, regulation, and taxation redistribute privately created wealth to provide baseline equality for all people.

The Scandinavian nations that people identify as socialist – and which Bernie Sanders touts as idealized socialist examples – actually practice social democracy.  Denmark, for instance, has one of the freest markets in the world and its leaders bristle at Sanders’ characterization of the country as “socialist.”  This “Nordic model” allows people to compete for jobs, for capital holders to develop new business and amass wealth, and for the economy to thrive sans state control.  But the governments do provide a number of benefits, paid for by relatively high taxes.  In others, the perfect example of social democracy.

Bernie Sanders is not a socialist (despite his numerous claims to be a democratic socialist) and misapplies the term with a surprising frequency.  And that’s rather dangerous.  Socialism, of course, is a failed ideology that simply cannot succeed.  It invites tyrannical government control while stripping the incentives needed to create economic growth.  Even its supposed democratic variety – that is, democratic socialism – has these problems: Democratic socialism seeks the same state-centralized ends but hopes to reach them through democratic maneuvers, rather than having it imposed by the government.  Sanders’ popularity and misapplication of socialism makes voters – especially the young voters that comprised his coalition – view socialism favorably because they don’t understand it.  By and large, proclaimed supporters of socialism mistake socialism for social democracy and so press for socialism when it’s really the latter they desire.  

These mistakes enable the resurgence of true socialist adherents as their label no longer immediately turns off voters.  It also distorts real policy considerations as people push for socialism without understanding the ideology and by using false examples that actually describe an offshoot of capitalism, an offshoot in which Sanders and many of his supporters believe.  So, is Bernie Sanders a socialist?  No: Sanders is not a socialist, but his inability to grasp the difference between (democratic) socialism and social democracy enables the mainstreaming of extremists who push an ideology that fails in theory and practice.

Did Campaigns Matter in 2016?


Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (along with their outside groups) spent a staggering $2.65 billion in their quest to win the White House. The two crisscrossed the country in search of votes and with hopes of energizing partisans. Ads became universal; rallies nightly spectacles mirrored across the news stations and social media feeds. But did any of this actually matter? Did the multiple billions of dollars individuals donated and candidate and outside groups spent actually sway voters? Did the tireless thousands of miles travelled bear fruit on election night?

Probably not. Just four variables explain 96 percent of Hillary Clinton’s vote variance across the 50 states and the District of Columbia: A given state’s 2013 partisan voter index (PVI) as determined by the Cook Political Report, the state’s GDP per capita, its percent minority, and the percent of the state’s population with at least a bachelor’s degree. These variables track a state’s electoral history and its demography – the measures themselves stand independent of 2016’s torrent of advertisements and other campaign activities.

Regressing Clinton’s vote share on those variables shows that all are significant at the 90 percent confidence level; PVI, percent minority, and percent with at least a bachelor’s degree are all significant at the 99 percent confidence level (see table 1 for complete regression output).

do campaigns matter
Figure 1: Regressing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote share on state GDP per capita, a given state’s PVI, its percent minority, and percent with at least a bachelor’s degree explains 96 percent of her vote share variance. 

Importantly, swing states do not dominate the residuals. In other words, the four aforementioned variables quite accurately explain results in the states bombarded by ads and frequented by the two candidates – had swing states been subject to large errors, it might have implied that ads and candidate visits tinkered at the margins, enough, perhaps, to swing a few percent of voters. Simulating Clinton’s vote share 25,000 times with the above regression formula produces chart 1, which shows that swing state results can be explained largely by underlying forces unaffected by Clinton’s dramatic fundraising and advertising advantage.

do political campaigns matter
(Click for much higher quality)

The states with the biggest errors are Hawaii and North Dakota, by no means swing states and whose discrepancies can be easily explained. Hawaii, without its native on the ballot, moved towards its historical Democratic mean; North Dakota, an energy-rich state, swarmed to Trump in numbers greater than the simulation predicted because of Trump’s pro-energy, anti-regulation stance. Clinton also underperformed in New Mexico and Colorado, the former because of former New Mexico Gary Johnson’s presence. Colorado is the only swing state error likely attributable to ad and appearance discrepancy (Clinton went off the air in Colorado quite early in the campaign though Trump continued to purchase ad time).

Including ad spending by each candidate and the number of events held in each state by the presidential and vice presidential candidates yields no additional explanatory value. Using Ad Age data on Clinton and Trump spending from April 2015 up through election day, by state and nationally – an admittedly imperfect dataset because it includes primary ad spending and misses some spending from outside groups, though the patterns it shows still offers considerable explanatory value – and the National Popular Vote’s party event tracker (which begins after the conventions), I included ad spending and candidate events in the regression and met statistical insignificance.

Each Democratic dollar spent in a state increased, ever so slightly, Clinton’s vote share; similarly, each event she or Tim Kaine held increased their expected vote share. Republican ad spending and events had the opposite effect. But these findings are not statistically significant, meaning that we cannot say, with a resounding degree of confidence, that the relationship is causal (though it likely is). Table 2 has the complete regression results with ad spending and candidate visits.

did campaigns matter
Figure 2: Each dollar spent on advertisements and each campaign held in a given state had the expected effect, but the relationship might be due to chance.

After $2.6 billion and 399 events, it cannot be said that a year and a half of activity caused the vote to change. What does this mean going forward into a cycle of renewed Democratic activism and looking ahead to 2020, which promises to be no less ferocious or expensive than 2016? Arguably, Donald Trump’s star power and media dominance – his broadcast and cable omnipresence amounted to billions in free media – likely played a role in disseminating his message and creating or expanding the character he has for years cultivated. Perhaps in a more normal year, ads and events would have causally effected voting outcomes. Or perhaps in times of heightened partisanships formed, increasingly, around segregated demographic groups, ads and events might only influence turnout.

One thing seems clear, though: Going forward, campaign practitioners must rethink the accepted playbook. Ads and events might not drive votes, certainly not to the extent portrayed or imagined. Candidates and candidate committees – not to mention the outside groups with wealthy benefactors – must find ways to Make Campaigns Matter Again through useful and effective spending and a willingness to buck the long-ingrained campaign norm.