Liberal concern-trolling

Voyou has a great post up about liberals who express concern about the effects of property damage during protests:

Liberals complain about property damage during the various marches and actions, but they’re quick to add that it is not they themselves who are disturbed or offended; rather, they are concerned about the effect this property damage will have on others, particularly the cops who will react violently and the media who will focus on images of destruction to the exclusion of whatever else the demonstration achieved. The liberal’s position here is perverse in the Lacanian sense: it expresses itself not as an actual desire, but as a desire to be the instrument of the desire of some fantasized other. Part of what supports this disavowed desire is that the objection to property damage can present itself as neutral, even expert, strategic advice. It’s bad strategic advice, though, and I think in a revealing way.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but I’d like to take this in another direction. If liberals are so good at anticipating and manipulating public opinion, why have they been so massively unsuccessful for the last thirty years? If liberals are such experts at persuasion, why is seemingly no one persuaded?

I think the answer is that this kind of “concern trolling” presupposes that persuasion is impossible. People supposedly have certain immutable reactions to given actions — for instance, the media will inevitably focus on property damage, and the police will inevitably crack down — and those are just brute facts that we have to deal with. The question of how these seemingly instinctive reactions came about is just as unasked as the question of how we might try to move people away from them. Making the case that the media should be focused on more important things or that the police shouldn’t vastly overreact — neither is on the agenda for these liberals.

The result is that every election becomes a kind of “heist,” where we just barely pull together enough ideas to get X% of the soccer moms, etc., etc. Then, in the rare cases where liberals actually gain power, every policy debate is characterized by the infamous Obama-style “preemptive compromise” — again, since the opponents’ preferences are hard-wired, there’s no need to have any actual debate. The entire debate can happen in the mind of the liberal, and the opponent will “have to” sign on for the carefully crafted compromise that takes all the opponent’s preferences into account. In the same way, if liberals preemptively reject policies that typically prompt conservative criticism, their conservative opponents “have to” refrain from attacking them on said issue. And the consistent lack of success of this strategy only shows that liberals aren’t doing it hard enough.

This view of how the world works is a vertiginous mix of wild optimism and brutal cynicism. On the one hand, it seems to presuppose that the general public is fully informed and fully convinced on every issue. Public opinion polls — at least those that support conventional wisdom of what public opinion should be — are treated as authoritative snapshots of immutable views. On the other hand, it assumes that persuasion always comes too late — people are radically stuck in their views, which were formed in some mysterious way that we somehow can’t influence.

In real life, however, the general public doesn’t really know or care what they’re talking about. You might as well cite an online “Which Friends character are you?” quiz showing that Joey is most representative of the majority of Americans and build your policy agenda around that (“Naked Thursdays!”).

In fact, it appears that poll results are usually a trailing indicator. If you’d asked people in June 2001 whether we should invade Iraq, I doubt you’d get much support. When there was bipartisan agreement that we should, suddenly everyone was on board! Similarly, I’m pretty confident that one would find a reliable correlation between how many people claim the deficit is an important issue and how much time politicians are spending debating the deficit.

This makes sense when we realize that most people don’t really have the time or inclination to delve into the weeds of policy debates and, when asked about such issues, most often want to say what they should say. Hence it’s possible that regular reporting of public opinion actually generates a kind of feedback loop where people hear what they supposedly think and then assume they’d better think it because it’s what “everyone” thinks.

I don’t know how to wrap up this post, so I’ll just stop here.

10 thoughts on “Liberal concern-trolling

  1. I think The West Wing, at least during its Aaron Sorkin years, is a great image of the liberalism you’re describing. Maybe Toby’s character in particular. The only real challenges to that picture I can remember come from Amy Gardner and Donna Moss: Amy calls bullshit on their claim to be an “education presidency” when they’re always running scared from the inevitable reactions to pro-women legislation, and Donna responds to an assertion that voters are stupid in election years (i.e., react in stupidly predictable ways) by saying something like, “No, we just treat them like they’re stupid.”

  2. “This makes sense when we realize that most people don’t really have the time or inclination to delve into the weeds of policy debates and, when asked about such issues, most often want to say what they should say. Hence it’s possible that regular reporting of public opinion actually generates a kind of feedback loop where people hear what they supposedly think and then assume they’d better think it because it’s what “everyone” thinks.”


    Isn’t that ultimately the question about all social contract states? If most people are effectively so irrational and so unclear as to their own self-interests, then the whole project of the democratic republic is a fantasy. In effect, this is Plato’s criticism of the demos.

    Put in another form: at least confined to this post, you’re agreeing with the substance of Rupert Murdoch’s anti-democratic strategy. And what that in turn means is that democracies are in fact ruled by demagogues and do typically cycle into tyrannies – that Plato was correct in comparison to Aristotle and all the modern social contract theorists.

    Further, your comment reinforces Plato’s point that ruling cannot be a part-time occupation. If ruling + daily occupations produce too much stress upon the average mind, then, again, the democracy is in actuality ruled by whatever demagogues can best utilize those time-saving heuristics that make for easy (but easily false) decisions on the part of the stressed demos which does not have the leisure to understand.


  3. I didn’t intend to be making any kind of normative statement about democracy in the abstract. I’m saying that in our system, a representative republic, people generally seem content to “outsource” their opinions to either a particular party or to the political class as a whole. It also seems to be the case the incumbent party maintains power if the economy is doing well and loses it if the economy is doing poorly. What I conclude from that is that liberal politicians should focus on creating good policies with good economic outcomes, rather than pretending that the American people will notice or care what particular means they use — as in Obama’s love of compromise as an end in itself, for example.

  4. Adam,

    I don’t think we can avoid viewing your first post as an abstract normative well as a descriptive one. Further, your new comments not only don’t help your case, but actually also add to the normative statement. Essentially, when you argue that the demos doesn’t really care about the political means, but only concerns itself with the ends, you are bolstering the argument against democracy: you believe that the people actually do want tyrants. Sure, they don’t want tyrants who hurt them as individuals, but the demos has so little interest in politics it’s impossible to see them as having any other government but a tyranny (I mean a tyranny in the Greek sense, not in the modern sense: Putin runs a archetypal tyranny in the Greek sense, but Putin isn’t massively tyrannical in our modern sense.)

    In fact, there’s considerable empirical evidence that you’re correct. But that means that the demos doesn’t really want to deal with legislatures (which is naturally going to be a process-driven enterprise). And the American Presidents (quite correctly, in my opinion) have in fact consistently been removing power from the legislature, especially using the loophole of their control of the military and foreign policy. Now, I regard this as a positive step, but I’m not sure you do.


  5. I’m not much of a proceduralist. If empowering the executive led to more socialist results, have at it. If Congress seizing back its prerogatives would allow for such outcomes, whatever. If a junta of enlightened CEOs funded candidates who pushed through universal healthcare and a massive redistribution of wealth, so be it. Our system is a total clusterfuck that was built not to work, so anything that has the potential for getting something moving is worth a try.

  6. In fact, I’d settle for any policy that at least made sense on some obvious level. During the entire time I’ve been watching politics, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything that fits that description.

  7. Adam,

    Are you sure that’s the position you want to take? It is actually also my position, but I’m a monarchist and your sentiments are the basis of a monarchist politics (or, at least, are strongly anti-democratic). That is, you are rejecting the entirety of all modern political thought. If popular enlightenment is impossible (and that’s where your comments are headed), then the entire corpus of modern political thought is effectively a fantasy (and is even far more fantastical than the regime of the Republic). In fact, modern political thought may well be the very greatest and most effective of Noble Lies, far beyond even the most ambitious possible fever dream of any Platonist.

    This in turn means that your discussion in another thread about Catholic social doctrine – a thread which has primarily turned into a discussion of left/right – is a chimera. It is entirely unclear what left / right might mean within a pre-enlightenment politics. All of modern political understandings would become incomprehensible.

  8. Capitalist society rules out democracy substantively (we are subject to the compulsions of capital and incapable of consciously choosing the direction of our society) and it also constitutes people in such a way that makes them unsuited to the exercise of democracy (what Adam is referring to). I don’t think recognizing that democracy is not a historical possibility at this time requires you to renounce the concept of democracy as a guiding principle for a post-capitalist society.

  9. Jake,

    I think that’s far too glib. First, there’s no real reason to assert that Adam’s comments apply solely to capitalism. His assertion that the citizens need leisure to do politics is as valid under non-capitalism as it is under capitalism. Plato makes the same statement as Adam does, only Plato says it a couple of thousand of years before capitalism appears.

    Second, if you’re arguing against democracy as the solution to the contemporary situation, it becomes pretty dubious that you’re ever going to argue for democracy ever, even in an ideal post-capitalist society. Sure, you can pretend that you’re going to support the tyrant temporarily now, but that we’ll eventually get a democracy. But how often does that calculation work out? Mostly, we end up with just a permanent tyranny (or a succession of tyrannies, one after the other).

    Since I’m not a supporter of democracy, what I would suggest is that, instead of supporting actually plausible solutions (monarchy for one), you’re opting for current tyranny just so you can preserve the illusion that some future ideal democracy will magically arrive. But that democracy will not (and in fact cannot) happen, so you’re just signing everybody up for tyranny.

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