The Electability Contradiction

The facially plausible case for Hillary Clinton is that neither Clinton nor Sanders will get much done given the GOP Congress. Thus, it doesn’t really matter which one of them becomes President, only that it is one of them and not a Republican. Clinton is clearly way more electable than Sanders and thus Clinton should be nominated.

Interestingly, in the last month or so, many of Hillary’s media supporters have been indirectly making the case that she has serious electability problems.

Here’s Catherine Rampell making the case that Clinton is structurally prevented from behaving in the kind of authentic and sincere manner that appeals to voters:

These qualities are what make him seem “authentic,” “sincere” even — especially when contrasted with Clinton’s hyper-scriptedness. Sanders, unlike Clinton, doesn’t give a damn if he’s camera-ready.

This is, of course, a form of authenticity that is off-limits to any female politician, not just one with Clinton’s baggage.

Female politicians — at least if they want to be taken seriously on a national stage — cannot be unkempt and unfiltered, hair mussed and voice raised. They have to be carefully coifed and scripted at all times, because they have to hew as closely as possible to the bounds of propriety available to both their sex and their occupation. They can’t be too quiet or too loud, too emotional or too cold, too meek or too aggressive, and so on.

Here’s Rebecca Traister making a substantially similar point about the ways in which Clinton is structurally prevented from getting behind the kind of ambitious proposals that appeal to voters:

That hurts, and it falls into a very old, very well-worn gendered pattern, in which women — understanding that making promises they cannot back up will not get them taken seriously and that they must prove themselves extra-competent in order to be understood as basically competent — become the nose-to-the-grindstone wonks, easily compared to know-it-all bores like Tracy Flick and Hermione Granger. They’re the wet blankets, the ones all too acquainted with the limitations imposed by the world, and all too eager to explain their various ideas for working around them. Men, and especially white men, whose claims to public or political power are more easily understood, are permitted a slightly looser approach.

There’s been some talk about how a female candidate could never be as scruffy as Bernie Sanders, as uncombed and unkempt. A woman could never be as grumpy as Bernie, as left-leaning as Bernie, as uncooperative with party machinery as Bernie. And that stuff is true enough. But the bigger truth is that what Bernie does, to great acclaim, that Hillary Clinton could never do is make big promises of institutional overthrow, tug on our imaginative heartstrings by laying out a future that might not be grounded in reality, and urge a revolution.

Here is a truth about America: No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution.

Here is Courtney Enlow repeating these same points and adding that Clinton has been structurally prevented throughout her career from adopting the kinds of good and clean politics that voters like:




These are three examples from this particular genre of essay, but there are dozens more. The way the genre works is you identify a criticism of Clinton — that she’s unlikable, inauthentic, insincere, has weak policies, has a bad track record, constructed and participated in a corrupt political money machine — and then you defend Clinton from the criticism by saying sexism in society makes it impossible for her to do or have done otherwise. Insofar as it’s not fair to ask someone to do the impossible, the upshot of this argument is that it’s unfair to criticize Clinton for these deficits.

Most of the debate on these articles focuses on whether it is actually impossible for Clinton to do or have done otherwise. This debate tends to hit a dead end pretty quickly as both sides just assert that it is or isn’t impossible back and forth without having any definitive way of resolving the disagreement.

But there seems to be a bigger issue lurking in the background. If it is truly impossible for Clinton to do the kinds of things that attract voters, then that means she has serious electability problems. If it’s impossible for her to be a likable, sincere politician with inspiring, ambitious ideas that really gin up the enthusiasm, then that means she’s a weak candidate. Whether this is her own fault or the fault of pernicious forces in society doesn’t change the ultimate fact that she’s weakened by it.

If you believe that the most important thing is electability, and believe that sexism makes it impossible for Clinton to do a lot of the things that are important for electability, then where does that leave you exactly? Should you roll the dice on a candidate who, by your own account, is so heavily weighed down by double standards and gendered expectations that she cannot appeal to voters? That seems like a big risk to take with the White House on the line, doesn’t it? Can we really gamble on running someone who is apparently severely handicapped as a candidate when four Supreme Court nominations hang in the balance?

I bring this up not to actually endorse any particular argument on this front, but rather to point out the tension in many of these electability arguments. To say Clinton is electable is also to say that sexism is not that big of an impediment to being a good politician that appeals to voters. Conversely, to say that sexism is a big impediment to being a good politician is to say Clinton is not that electable.

Counterfactual Identity Swap

My favorite genre of takes is the Counterfactual Identity Swap (CIS). The way the CIS works is you take an event in the news and you speculate on what the event would be like if the identity of the actors involved were different. Unsurprisingly, the CIS always proves that the take-maker is correct about whatever their point is.

You can find CIS examples for almost any news event. Liberals and conservatives equally enjoy it.

When a problematic event involves an identity group conservatives have some sympathy for, conservatives either stay quiet about it, offer qualified support, or blame its happening on provocative liberal antics. Liberals then flood the channels with CIS takes and ask what would happen if the actors in the problematic event were an identity group conservatives do not have sympathy for. The big counterfactual identity groups used by liberals in current CIS takes are Muslims and blacks.

Likewise, when a problematic event involves an identity group liberals have some sympathy for, liberals either stay quiet about it, offer qualified support, or blame its happening on provocative conservative antics. Conservatives then give us the CIS takes, usually involving Christians, whites, or those who hold certain conservative views.

What’s so incredible about CIS takes is that the existence of them actually proves the point being made by them (at least as the point pertains to discursive responses). It really is the case that if [problematic event done by liberal-favored group] was [problematic event done by conservative-favored group], the perspectives and reactions of liberals and conservatives would completely flip. Conservative CIS takes would be replaced by liberal CIS takes. And liberal sympathy and qualified support would be replaced by conservative sympathy and qualified support.

What’s also incredible about CIS takes is that their speculative nature makes them almost entirely impossible to disprove (as it pertains to non-discursive responses). The Oregon militia situation is a great example of this. Since the Oregon militia people are a conservative-favored group, the channels have been deluged with liberal CIS takes. The most popular one seems to be that the response to a takeover of federal property like this from a nonwhite group would not be met the same way, but instead would be met with immediate overwhelming force.

But we actually have historical examples of nonwhite groups doing this that are directly on point. For example, in 1971, the American Indian Movement took over Alcatraz Island and held it for 19 months. The occupation ended after the government laid siege to the island and the thing more or less collapsed. Yet, despite actually having a nonwhite comparator for this fairly rare event, the liberal CIS takes will discount it as not on point enough and therefore not adequately instructive. Since you cannot literally rerun the Oregon militia thing with nonwhite actors, nothing will ever be able to adequately prove or disprove the liberal CIS take, and so it will flourish as a perfectly unassailable flatterer of priors.

As fun as CIS takes are, they do suffer from one main problem. The core of a CIS take is an accusation of hypothetical hypocrisy. I must admit that I don’t understand why accusing a phantom opponent of hypothetical hypocrisy gets people real excited. But worse than that, the CIS takes don’t really demonstrate any hypothetical hypocrisy is present. The reality is people don’t actually care that much one way or another about the form of some protest action. They only care about who is doing it and why. Thus they are perfectly consistent in how they approach protest actions: favoring them when done by people and for reasons they like and disfavoring them when done by people and for reasons they dislike.

Are Students Workers or Nonworkers?

I’ve been saying for some time now that, if the Left is going to push for more student benefits, it needs to do so under a pro-welfare banner, something it has not really done. My piece in Dissent on this topic features my latest rehash of this point:

If we are actually going to push a free college agenda, it should not be under a restrictive students’ rights banner, but instead under a general pro-welfare banner. The goal of free college should not be to help students per se, but instead to bind them to a broader welfare benefit system. By presenting their tuition subsidies and living grants as indistinguishable from benefits for the disabled, the poor, the elderly, and so on, it may be possible to encourage wealthier students to support the welfare state and to undermine students’ future claims of entitlement to the high incomes that college graduates so often receive. After all, the college income premium would only be possible through the welfare benefits to which the rest of society—including those who never went to college—has contributed.

Lately I’ve been trying to think of pithier ways to make this point and I think I’ve finally hit upon one.

In leftists arguments for free college, you frequently see arguments that cast students as workers. They go to class. They read. They study. They exert themselves in ways that are productive, at least in some sense of that word. The upshot of this worker description is that college students are involved in unpaid labor and that student benefits are actually necessary to pay students for what they do.

In my view, this framing has it entirely backwards. If you are going to argue for student benefits, you should not do so on the grounds that students are workers, but rather on the grounds that students are nonworkers. That is, instead of rhetorically grouping them with the workforce and justifying their entitlement as quasi-paychecks, they should be grouped with other nonworkers receiving social benefits like the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed. The argument should be that all people whose life circumstances make it difficult or impossible to work should be receiving generous welfare benefits, including students.

The impulse to justify student benefits as earned benefits (either because students are virtuous people who are making something of themselves or because students are literally doing labor) is the one I find so problematic about the community of student benefit campaigners. This impulse and the rhetoric it generates does nothing to bind student benefits (and their recipients) to a broader welfare state agenda and thus seemingly fails to secure the welfare state “buy in” that is supposed to justify having regressive student benefits in the first place.

Welfare Schools and Psychoanalyzing Education Reformers

Conor P. Williams has a piece at 74 million that purports to be a simulation of what critics of Teach for America must be like. Apparently, in Wiliams’ view, they are coffee shop elite hipsters. As far as this genre of writing goes, Williams’ piece is not particularly funny, insightful, or well-executed. It comes off, like some of his other pieces, as Williams wanting to demonstrate that he and people like him are personally cool and heroic while those on the other side are actually the lame losers. It is a brand of ego-stroking akin to the guy who likes to play up the time he did a humanitarian spring break in Africa, not (only) because he wants to advocate humanitarian spring breaks to Africa, but also because he wants people to think he’s righteous for what he did.

I thought about doing a similar piece where I simulated what Teach for America enlistees are like. I knew people who signed up to TFA around the time that they did so, and so I have some ample material to work with. But instead of creating some fictionalized parody of the arch TFA participant, I’ll just tell you what I think directly. This account is based on people I’ve known and some speculation beyond that.

I think the typical TFA person is earnest about wanting to help poor kids. However, they are not very knowledgeable about what it is that poor kids are dealing with. I don’t mean that they haven’t experienced being a poor kid (though that’s true too). Rather, I mean that they aren’t familiar with the empirical facts about the ways in which material conditions majorly influence educational attainment and life outcomes.

The reason their interest in helping poor kids gets channeled into educational stuff is because the idea that education is the universal solvent of economic problems is the hegemonic ideology of the country. Additionally, the educational story we tell in our society matches what they have personally experienced (as people who’ve excelled academically). By living in this society, they also have probably heard “bad schools” talked about a lot, perhaps by their own parents.

Because they aren’t very knowledgeable, and the hegemonic tendency of the society is to emphasize education, it’s not surprising that the naive college student signs up to be a brave education warrior. It helps also that there is a huge amount of organization that exists to give them the ability to plug in to TFA and other education reform outlets. An earnest, but ignorant, college student who wants to help poor kids can fire off a TFA application on their own campus and get right into the fight (and as Williams shows, feel really good about doing so). Similar outlets don’t really exist for any other kind of cause (there is no Welfare State for America, for instance).

Once the naive college student gets plugged into education reform organization (and especially TFA), they are then path dependent on education reform. Some might defect, but for the most part, there is nothing you will ever be able to do to convince them to decide that they’ve basically been wasting their time. Nothing. They are going to be education/school guys to the very end.

One reason I think that this interpretation is true (which I’ll elaborate soon at Demos) is that the bizarre rise of what I call “welfare schools.” These are charter schools like the Harlem’s Children Zone whose chief innovation is that they’ve combined school with their own massive welfare system. Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, has recently indicated that she is going to build her own welfare school in Palo Alto, explaining that she realized education alone wasn’t going to do much after she tried to help educate people dealing with serious poverty in Boston. Thus, she’s building a welfare school with “wraparound services” that educate the “whole child.”

I think welfare schools are a perfect example of my education reform “path dependency” theory (i.e. once you get on the educational reform path, there is no way to get you off of it). If you get into education early, as a naive undergraduate earnestly wanting to help poor kids, and then later figure out how important material determinants are, what you apparently end up doing is channeling you newfound welfare observations through the mechanism of school reform. Because you are all about reforming schools, the only thing that apparently occurs to you when you come upon this socioeconomic insight is that we have to make the schools so that they properly deal with the poverty problem (which means make the schools little welfare administrations).

Of course, not all education reform advocates have the capacity to make welfare schools. So others who got path dependent on the education line, but who also then become aware of material determinants, end up responding somewhat differently. They might point to the welfare schools or even occasionally agree that government welfare expansion is important, but they still ultimately focus on education. Education is how they started their interest in poor kids and nothing they can ever learn will cause them to switch away from it.

But imagine that the timing of their realizations about material determinants was different. Imagine if the arch TFA applicant had as deep a knowledge about the poverty-related problems when they were an undergraduate as they do now. How might their trajectory be different? It’s not hard to imagine that, armed with their knowledge about material determinants, they would have found the reform movement’s orientation lacking because it misses the root problem. They might even have criticized it for this reason. Instead of going into TFA, they might have instead decided that egalitarian political economy is what was really needed.

As I said at the top, this is speculation. But I don’t throw this out here only to troll. You see education reformers out there in the world who have an understanding of the influence of material factors on educational attainment, but that understanding seems to have come later rather than sooner. That is, they were already on that education reform path. I truly do wonder whether they would have found that path enchanting enough if they had that same knowledge in college. Perhaps, in that counterfactual world, they would have found themselves interested in welfare states rather than welfare schools.

The Argument for Free College

In Dissent, I explained the case against free college. The short of it is that, because of who attends college and what kind of colleges they attend, free college is simply not an egalitarian benefit. To me, that calls into question the entire benefit category. What precisely is the point of subsidizing goods that poor people don’t really use that much?

Generally, I see two credible points made: 1) it’s important to ensure access for the few poor that do matriculate, and 2) it’s important to ensure graduates who have economic outcomes far below the average don’t suffer. These are good enough points, but it seems like a system of public loans and income-based loan repayment solves both of them.

In the cross-country welfare literature, it is taken for granted that free college is, by itself, an inegalitarian benefit. Those who advocate for it despite this generally say free college is instrumentally useful insofar as it helps bind the rich to the welfare state. That is, when presented as a welfare benefit and even administered by the welfare agency (as student living grants generally are in the countries that use them), it can help engender broad-based solidarity and support for welfare institutions. Additionally, the aggregate gains from more educational attainment (if they exist) create more national income for use in welfare benefits and the fact that college was provided to people by the welfare state makes it hard for them to argue that the gains from college degrees belong exclusively to college degree holders.

These seem like fair enough points, but the problem I keep raising is that US free college campaigners are not making these points. Worse than that, they are actually making points that are antagonistic to using free college instrumentally to help promote the welfare state. You hear from politicians and some advocates that college students deserve the benefits because they have worked hard and merit it. This would imply that the benefits are a just reward for striving rather than a welfare handout indistinguishable from any other welfare handouts. In my view, that needs to change.

With that said, I think the free college people are also missing some other arguments in this debate. If it were me, I would emphasize two points that I don’t generally see people emphasize.

First, making public college free is shockingly cheap. Estimates differ, but Jordan Weissman has pegged it consistently in the $60-80 billion range at the highest end. That’s less than 0.5% of GDP. If you put the additional revenue needed for it on top of the overall US government revenue, it doesn’t exactly make our tax level unmanageable.

Second, free public college (as with public paid leave, public health insurance, and similar programs) simply takes one major worry of parents off the table. That is, it gives parents one less bell to toll, freeing them up to live their lives, rather than having to manage complicated financial projections in order to pay for college. And this is true of all parents, since they all seem to think college is a possibility for their kid.

This, I think, is one of the most underrated benefits of public welfare in general. Right now, a typical “ideal” adult has to coordinate 401ks/IRAs for retirement and 529s for their kids’ college. They have to figure out how to cobble together leave from work when they have kids (annual leave, sick leave, advanced leave, unpaid leave). They have to figure out how to cobble together health insurance (does the employer offer it? do I get on my spouse’s insurance or do they get on mine? which of the 10 options do I pick and how do I know?). They have to buy life insurance, disability insurance, save money in case of unemployment, and so on and so on. It’s kind of hellish.

But a robust welfare state just takes a lot of these kinds of things off your plate. Wouldn’t it be nice to just live your life knowing that benefits for retirement, disability, unemployment, paid leave, health insurance, and education are there for you? Wouldn’t it be nice not having to spend your finite time on this earth trying to coordinate tons of different accounts and employment relationships (and bear the risk and uncertainty of those accounts and relationships) in order to meet these kinds of needs? I think it would be nice and I think free college advocates miss opportunities to justify it on these grounds.