Hugo Drochon on Nietzsche’s Politics

DrochonWhen Hugo Drochon first encountered Nietzsche’s intoxicating Beyond Good and Evil, he was struck by the realization that “many things in life didn’t rise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith.” But what exactly did Nietzsche think and how did he engage with the main political events and transformations of his time? While Nietzsche’s impact on the world of culture, philosophy, and the arts is uncontested, his political thought has long been mired in controversy and remains, according to Drochon, seriously under-explored. In his new book, Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Drochon places Nietzsche’s politics back in the nineteenth century from which they arose, asking what politics meant for the famous thinker as well as how his ideas speak to contemporary debates. Recently, Drochon took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

When did you first encounter Nietzsche?

I first encountered Nietzsche during the second year of my undergraduate degree. I took two different courses that year that were to be quite significant for me: ‘History of Political Thought’ and ‘Theories of International Relations’. The latter focused on different theories of IR, from classic realism, liberalism, neo-realism and neo-liberalism, to more critical approaches including critical theory, green theory, feminism and postmodernism. Theory was new to me, but I was an instant convert. I think I bombarded the lecturer with questions until she finally said to me: ‘go read Nietzsche’. Happily we had an anthology for the History of Political Thought course – one I also really enjoyed, and which set me upon my future career path – which had as its final text Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I read it over the summer.


It was an epiphany. Nietzsche just spoke to so many themes that resonated with me, and he opened up my eyes to the fact that many things in life didn’t arise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith. Moreover, all readers of Nietzsche will bear witness to the intoxicating nature of his writing.

Did you decide there and then you would work on Nietzsche’s politics?

Not quite, that would come a little later. In the last year of my undergraduate I studied Marxism, democratic theory and the French Revolution, which all combined very nicely in a certain way. And whilst I was impressed by the analytical tools Marxism provided, I always felt the picture it offered was incomplete. It was up to Nietzsche to fill it out.

So you came back to Nietzsche’s politics.

Yes. Beyond Good and Evil had struck me as being obviously interested in politics in different ways, but when I turned to the secondary literature to get a firmer grasp of what Nietzsche’s politics were meant to be, I was left feeling quite dissatisfied. Not least because half the literature denied Nietzsche was interested in politics!

A legacy of his use by the Nazis during WWII?

Undoubtedly. After his misappropriation by the Nazis it was natural to depict Nietzsche as a thinker who was not interested in politics as a way of saving him from the philosophical abyss he had fallen into after the war, which Bertrand Russell had branded ‘Nietzsche’s War’. And we are undeniably indebted to Walter Kaufmann and others for having done that. Since then there has been a renewal of interest in Nietzsche and politics, but that has mainly been through the various ways Nietzsche is thought to contribute to the renewal of ‘agonistic’ democracy. What exactly politics meant for him, however, is still something that remains, in my view, mostly under-explored.

How did you go about exploring Nietzsche’s politics?

I think the main move was to place Nietzsche back into his own context of late nineteenth century Germany and Europe – our current debates are still too stuck, to my mind, in the twentieth century. Nietzsche was writing during Bismarck’s era, not Hitler’s. And Bismarck’s era was fascinating. It saw a number of tremendous transformations, not least the unification of Germany through Bismarck’s infamous politics of ‘blood and iron’, and the power politics between the great European nations. It was an era full of tensions and contradictions, with the simultaneous rise of nationalism and colonization – the ‘Scramble for Africa’ – socialism and democracy.

Bismarck’s ‘Great Politics’ inspired the title of your book?

Indeed. The idea was to see whether Nietzsche thought and engaged with the main political events and transformations of his time, and if he did then whether that might open the door to understanding what Nietzsche’s own politics might amount to. Nietzsche, in fact, actively participated in many of the major events of his time: he served as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which sealed Prussia’s dominance over the newly-founded German Empire. And he thought hard about them too. Drawing from his own experience of the war, Nietzsche was at first very critical of Bismarck’s ‘great politics’. But with Beyond Good and Evil he was able to develop his own theory of what great politics should truly be about. Instead of a politics of nationalism and self-aggrandizement, Nietzsche wanted to unify Europe through a trans-European ‘Good European’ cultural elite. This united Europe could then play on a level playing field with the British and Russian Empires in the ‘Great Game’ of international politics, but it would also have a more exalted calling of fostering the emergence of a new high European culture, reminiscent of the Greeks of old.

By placing Nietzsche back in his nineteenth century context, does that mean he has nothing to say to us today?

I hope not. But if we are to understand what we might still learn from him today, we must first get a good handle on what politics meant for him, instead of just seeing how he might contribute to our contemporary debates. In the book I argue that Nietzsche’s greatest legacy is the conceptual tools he affords us in understanding the world we live in. Of course the late nineteenth century is quite different to our own time, but it also saw the development of certain aspects of politics – democratization, not least – which are still relevant to us today. The notions Nietzsche developed to theorize his world can help us better understand the world we live in today. Therein lies, in my view, his greatest teaching.

And guide us too?

Hopefully, yes. Coming up to the EU referendum in the UK on the 23 June I wrote a piece for Project Syndicate about how Nietzsche can help us think about the European question. Much of what Nietzsche says about Europe is of course dated, but there is at least one way in which I think Nietzsche can help. That is in his distinction between a ‘great’ – as he understood it – and ‘petty’ politics of European unification, which is how he recast Bismarck’s power politics in light of his own. So do we want a ‘great’ politics of European unification or a ‘petty’ politics of European fragmentation? Unfortunately the vote didn’t really go in the direction I was advocating, but I hope to have at least shown how Nietzsche can be made to address our present concerns.

Final question: who do you want to reach with this book, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Nietzsche scholars of course, but I’d like to think historians of political thought, political theorists/philosophers, intellectual historians, and a larger discerning public might be interested in it too. Nietzsche has a broad appeal, and I hope to offer here a slightly different dimension. I’ve suggested some of the things I hope to achieve above – relocating Nietzsche’s politics to his own time; how the intellectual tools he fashioned for himself can help us better understand the world we live in today – but let me finish with one last thought. I said I first came across Nietzsche in an anthology of political thought, where I read Beyond Good and Evil. That anthology, in its revised version, has replaced Beyond Good and Evil with On the Genealogy of Morality, which is in line with how Nietzsche is being taught across universities today. That, to me, is a shame. I do not mean in the least to deny the importance of the Genealogy – which is a fantastic book, and I can understand how it is easier to teach given its more focused material – but Beyond Good and Evil strikes me as a more complete text (the Genealogy was meant to serve as its appendix), which applies Nietzsche’s main philosophical ideas directly to his political context. If we are serious about studying Nietzsche’s political thought in its own right, then we must try to understand how Nietzsche’s politics is related to his philosophy. Beyond Good and Evil is the best place to do just that.

Hugo Drochon is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought and a postdoctoral research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, at the University of Cambridge.

Ethics in the Real World: An interview with philosopher Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of such influential books as Animal Liberation, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, has taken the time to answer questions about his new collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter. Applying moral philosophy to recent current events, Singer’s essays address thorny issues such as whether chimpanzees are people, whether smoking should be outlawed, and whether consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized. Read on for Singer’s own thoughts on altruism, the influence of his work and its controversial nature.

You’ve written essays on climate change, extreme poverty, animal rights, abortion, and the ethics of high-priced art, to name just a few. Is there a certain topic that has attracted the most attention?

PS: From that list, the two issues on which my views have been most widely discussed are our treatment of animals, and what we ought to be doing about extreme poverty. These are also the issues on which my writings have had the biggest impact. In the case of animals, they have contributed to new laws that have improved the lives of billions of animals, and in the case of extreme poverty, my work has spurred the development of the effective altruism movement, which has caused hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to the non-profit organizations that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.

You address a wide range of ethical questions with arguments that challenge people’s deeply held beliefs. In your experience, do people change their beliefs based on others’ arguments?

PS: There is no doubt that some of them do. Almost every time I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how reading my work led them to become vegan, or start donating a share of their income to organizations that are aiding people in need. I know someone who donated a kidney to a stranger as a result of a discussion of one of my articles in his class

Who is the audience for your new book, Ethics in the Real World?

PS: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This book is for everyone who is willing to reflect on how he or she lives, and everyone who wants to be stimulated to think about how we ought to live.

You’ve been called both the most influential and the most controversial philosopher of our time. Why do you think your work stirs controversy?

PS: It can be controversial to question accepted moral views. To discuss whether it is more seriously wrong to kill a member of our own species than to kill an animal, you need to ask “What is wrong with killing?” Even if you conclude, as I do, that in most circumstances killing a human being is worse than killing an animal, some people object to raising the question at all. They don’t want their ethical views disturbed. And we all know what happened to Socrates.

What would you have been if not a philosopher?

PS: Probably a lawyer. I was planning to continue with law, because I enjoy a good argument, but I got a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy, and found that in philosophy I could argue for what I really believe is right and true, and not just for what is in the interests of my client.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He first became well known internationally in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include How Are We to Live?, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Most Good You Can Do. He divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne.



Offer and Söderberg on the real-world consequences of economics–and the Nobel Prize

Offer and SoderbergThe Nobel Prize in Economics arose during a changing time for the world’s markets. Was this a coincidence? Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg say no. In  The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn, Offer and Söderberg detail  how the prize, which was first awarded to economists Jan Tinbergen and Ragnar Frisch in 1969, was created by the Swedish central bank to enhance the central bank authority and the prestige of market-friendly economics. Offer and Söderberg have taken some time to answer questions about the origins of this esteemed prize and how it emerged from a conflict between central bank orthodoxy and social democracy.

What is the core argument of this book?

AO & GS: Since the 1970s, academic economics and social democracy have disputed how society should be managed. The challenge is those parts of the life cycle when people have little market power, the contingencies of motherhood, education, illness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Economics claims that it is best to buy protection in financial markets, by means of saving, borrowing and insurance. This is backed up by the supposed authority of science, symbolized by the Nobel Prize in Economics. It is also the objective of business and finance in their quest to capture profit from everybody’s income streams. Social democracy deals with dependency by means of transfers from producers to dependents, providing education, healthcare, pensions, physical infrastructure and culture, and pooling the individual risks by means of taxation and transfers. We question the claims of economics to impartiality and superior reason.

Why does the Prize in Economics matter?

AO & GS: Nobel prize-winners provide a high-quality sample of economics. The prize has a halo that makes economics credible to the wider public, for policies which are often inimical to the public interest. It arose out of the long conflict between the interests of the wealthy in stable prices, and of everyone else in social and material improvement. Between the wars, this conflict became focused in central banks, which became a brake on social democracy. After the Second World War, the Swedish Central Bank clashed repeatedly with the social democratic government over financing the welfare state, and extracted the prize as a concession. The prize was then captured by conservative Swedish economists, who used it to provide credibility for sustained resistance to social democracy. This story shows how ideas and arguments work through society and politics, and how the prestige of science has been mobilised for political ends.

Who is this book for?

AO & GS: It enlarges understanding of economic and social development with a wealth of new findings that will engage students and academics in economics, social science, and history. This includes the two-thirds of economists who hold onto social-democratic values, at odds with their professional indoctrination. Policy makers in government, business, finance, and voluntary organizations may find that the concepts on which they rely are not well founded. The argument is written to be attractive to read for anyone interested in current affairs, economic policy, and the future of society, all over the world.

After the financial crisis many new books have criticized mainstream economics. How is this book different?

AO & GS: One rebuttal by economists is that critics have no alternative to offer. But economics is not in fact hegemonic: public policy is dominated by a pervasive, pragmatic and effective system of social democracy which allocates about 30 percent of GDP in most advanced countries (lower in the USA due to a private health system). ‘It works in practice, but will it work in theory?’ is the challenge of economics. It imagines a world of self-interested, rational persons whose choices scale up to a benign equilibrium, as if by an invisible hand. But this vision is arbitrary, difficult to apply, and not even consistent. Economics has turned its back to social democracy, and has also missed the buildup to the recent financial crisis.

Many Americans regard social democracy as something exclusively European. Why should Americans be interested?

AO & GS: This is delusive, like the tea party member who asked the government to take its hands off his medicare. The United States deploys a broad range of social democratic arrangements: free public schools up to eighteen, a public higher education system; health services for the indigent, the old, and military veterans; unemployment benefits, some income and disability support, and a reasonable system of old-age pensions (social security). Much of its other spending (fiscal and other subsidies, especially the mortgage interest offset against tax) is regressive and misdirected. Americans are becoming aware of the cost of their dysfunctional and expensive medical system. Educational debt is a crisis in the making. Private retirement arrangements are failing. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, has mounted a formidable challenge in the Democratic primaries. The other candidates have joined him in advocating more social security and free higher education; like the tea party member, the supporters of Trump are also responding to the weakness of American social democracy.

Many commentators in Europe are discussing the crisis of social democracy in terms of lack of vision and declining support. What do you think is the future of social democracy and how must it adapt to survive and flourish in the future?

AO & GS: The problems of social democracy arise partly from its success. It developed as a one-size-fits-all solution for male manual wage-earners, and was difficult to adapt to a more diverse, educated, and affluent society, and to service economies that employ men and women in almost equal proportions. Social democracy is still the bedrock of personal security. Its objectives and methods are not fully understood by its practitioners and advocates, and hardly at all by those who benefit. Centre-left politicians, beguiled by market rhetoric, have not served it well. The values of reciprocity and solidarity underpin social democracy: they are more attractive ethically than unbridled greed, but also more effective and efficient. The ‘market turn’ held out the prospect of moving beyond social democracy to private ‘nest egg’ provision for economic security. Home ownership promised wealth for everybody. Driven by easy credit and mounting debt, this seemed to work for a while but has now built up inequality, social exclusion and financial crisis. The advocates of self-regulating markets did not anticipate such a precarious outcome.

Avner Offer is Chichele Professor Emeritus of Economic History at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. He is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and the British Academy.  His books include The Challenge of AffluenceGabriel Söderberg is a researcher in the Department of Economic History at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden. The two recently collaborated on the book The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn.

Maurizio Viroli: Machiavelli not in support of Donald Trump

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Maurizio Viroli

Donald Trump has cashed Niccolò Machiavelli’s political support. The endorsement, with important qualifications, comes via Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, a world authority in the field of Machiavelli studies (The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2016). In his view, Donald Trump puts well in practice Machiavelli’s advice that “winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.” Trump does not care at all of being regarded as a gentleman, and has openly expressed his disrespect for John McCain and Mitt Romney, two leaders who are, in his mind, gentlemen but losers. He wants, on the contrary, to be a winner.

The problem with Machiavelli’s alleged endorsement is that he would consider Trump a very poor pupil, if he truly believes that to be a good Machiavellian one must endorse the view that to win dishonorably is better than to lose honorably. ‘Donald – Machiavelli would say – I appreciate your efforts, but you have got my counsels wrong. Read my books carefully. I have never ever written, or implied, that to win dishonorably is better than losing honorably. What I have taught is that to win dishonorably is better than to lose honorably, if you cannot win honorably. Your goal, to put it differently, must be to win honorably, unless you are compelled to use dishonorable means.’

Is there anyone prepared to argue that an unescapable necessity forces Trump not to be a gentleman? If he wanted to, he could run his campaign against Hillary with impeccable gentlemanly style. I am almost sure that Professor Harvey Mansfield too would agree that nothing prevents Trump from being a gentleman. Unless it is his very character, his truest nature, and his deepest self that force him to behave in an ungentlemanly manner.

But if this is in fact the case, Machiavelli would severely reprimand the republican candidate ‘Donald, how many times do I have to tell you that if you want to become the president of the United States of America you must learn to simulate and dissimulate? I repeat it: a wise prince must be very careful never to let out of his mouth a single word that would not make him appear merciful, trustworthy, humane, blameless and religious. If you cannot restrain your tongue, just keep being a businessman and leave politics alone. People like you do cause great, and often tragic, damages to their countries.’

If one of Trump’s distinctive qualities is that he is always himself, that he always does things his way, then he lacks yet another virtue that Machiavelli regards as necessary in political leaders, namely the ability of adapting one’s conduct with the times. Although firmness is, in general, a virtue in private life, in politics it is often a vice. The main cause of the success or failure of men depend upon their manner of suiting their conduct to the times. Impetuous and cautious leaders alike may lose, or win, “but he errs least and will be most favored by fortune who suits his proceedings to the times,” Machiavelli writes. On balance, therefore, Machiavelli would endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump: not because she embodies his ideal of a political leader, but because he would consider her less amateurish than Trump. And for him a political amateur in power is a sure recipe for tragedies.

Professor Mansfield maintains that Machiavelli and Trump have in common the mark, of “deplorable, out-of-date sexism.” If by sexism we mean the mentality based on the belief that males are better fit than females to be leaders in the most prestigious social activities, above all in politics, then Trump qualifies as a sexist, but Machiavelli surely does not, even if he was not politically correct either. He has written in the most eloquent manner that women do in fact possess the fundamental leadership qualities of prudence, courage and compassion. Caterina Sforza, the duchess of Forlì whom he met in 1499, was for him the perfect example, but not the only one. It is the princess of Carthage Dido who illustrates, in The Prince, the fundamental Machiavellian principle that it is impossible for a prince new to avoid the reputation of being cruel. In the unfinished poem, The (Golden) Ass Machiavelli puts in the mouth of a women a long and wise lecture on politics, history and the human condition.

Like Professor Mansfield, I mourn and bemoan the fading of gentlemen in political life in particular and in social life in general. I know I will be severely chastised, but I do believe that women can be, and many of them are, perfect gentlemen, if to be a gentlemen means, as Mansfield writes, to be a person “who is gentle by habit and character,” and not because he or she “is somehow forced to be.” By these standards, Hillary is surely a better gentleman than Trump. For this reason too Machiavelli would support her over. Professor Mansfield, I respectfully suggest, should do the same thereby gaining Machiavelli’s admiration. I know that this would mean a lot for him, as it does for me.

Viroli Maurizio Viroli is professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin, and professor of political communication at the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano. His many works include Niccolò’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli (Hill & Wang) and How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens (Princeton). His most recent book is The Quotable Machiavelli.


Hammer, Painting, Person: How to Value Democracy

Jason Brennan

What kind of value does democracy have? Should we value it the way we value hammers, paintings, or persons?

When we ask what makes a hammer valuable, we usually ask whether it is functional for us, as we are. Hammers have a purpose—to pound in nails—and good hammers serve that purpose. Hammers primarily have instrumental value. They help us achieve an independent goal. If some other tool better serves that goal, then we’d gladly replace our hammers with that other tool. No one insists on using a hammer when a driver or wrench works better.

When we ask what makes a painting valuable, we usually look to its symbolic value. We ask whether the painting is sublime, whether it evokes various feelings or ideas. We also value some paintings more highly because of how they were made, and who made them. An ugly Picasso scribble on a napkin might fetch a hundred grand, but if you or I drew the same picture, it wouldn’t fetch a dollar.

When we ask what makes human beings valuable, we will often say that they are ends in themselves. Sure, people can also have instrumental value—the person who makes you coffee serves a purpose—but they also have intrinsic value. People have a dignity, not a price, or so many philosophers insist.

What about democracy? Most political philosophers agree that democracy has instrumental value. It functions pretty well, and tends to produce relatively just outcomes. So, they think, democracy is valuable at least in the way a hammer is valuable.

They have a point. In general, the best places to live are liberal democracies, not genuine monarchies, sham democracies, oligarchies, or one party states. But, still, if democracy only has the kind of value a hammer has, then if we we’re able to identify a better functioning form of government, a form of government that better realizes procedure-independent standards of justice, we would happily replace democracy with this better functioning regime.

However, most philosophers—and many laypeople living in modern democracies—also think we should also value democracy the way we value a painting or a person. They claim that democracy uniquely expresses the idea that all people have equal worth and value. They claim that democratic outcomes are justified because of who made them and how they were made. They see democracy as an end in itself. Some philosophers think that democracy is an inherently just decision-making procedure. A few go so far as to hold that anything a democracy decides to do is justified simply because a democracy decided to do it. They deny there any procedure-independent standards by which to judge what democracies do.

Proceduralism is the view that certain political regimes are inherently just or that certain regimes are inherently unjust. Proceduralists about democracy tend to think democracy has the kind of value paintings and people have. For instance, the philosopher Thomas Christiano seems to think democracy is an end in itself, while David Estlund (in his 2007 Princeton University Press book Democratic Authority) argues most other forms of government other than democracy are inherently unjust.

Pure proceduralism, the most radical version of proceduralism, holds that there are no independent moral standards for evaluating the outcome of the decision-making institutions. Whatever a democracy does is just just because a democracy does it. This view—which is popular among certain democratic theorists—is on reflection rather absurd. For instance, suppose we had a dispute about whether citizens should be allowed to rape children. Suppose the majority votes, after following an idealized deliberative procedure, to allow adults to rape any children they please. They also vote to have the police ensure that no one stops adults from raping children. A pure proceduralist about democracy would have to say that, in this case, child rape would indeed be permissible. For that reason, pure proceduralism appears to be absurd. There are at least some procedure-independent standards of justice. It would be odd if there were independent moral truths about how to make decisions but not independent truths about what we may do.

Instrumentalism, in contrast, holds that 1) there are procedure-independent right answers to at least some political questions, and 2) what justifies a distribution of power or decision-making method is, at least in part, that this distribution or that method tends to select the right answer. So, for instance, in criminal law, we have an adversarial system, in which one lawyer represents the state and the other represents the defendant. There is an independent truth of the matter about whether the defendant is guilty. This truth is not decided by the jury’s fiat. Rather, the jury is supposed to discover what the truth is. Defenders of jury trials and the adversarial system believe that, as a whole, the system tends to track the truth better than other systems. If they learned they were mistaken about that, they’d stop advocating jury trials.

When it comes to democracy, do you advocate it on procedural grounds, instrumental grounds, or both?

In my forthcoming book Against Democracy, I argue that democracy is nothing more than a hammer. It is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. It is not intrinsically just. It is not justified on proceduralist grounds. Any value democracy has is purely instrumental. If we can find a better hammer, we’re obligated to use it. Further, I argue, there’s a good chance we know what the better hammer would be, and it’s time to experiment and find out.

BrennanJason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He has written numerous books including The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism and is the coauthor of  Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His most recent book is Against Democracy. He frequently writes for the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Jason Brennan: Justice isn’t “whatever democracy decides”

brennanThree cheers for democracy! Not so fast, says Jason Brennan, who argues that justice isn’t necessarily ‘whatever democracy decides’, and that participation in the political process all too often fails to produce citizens who are smarter, nobler, and more considerate of others. In his new book, Against Democracy, Brennan says democracy isn’t the only path to moral justice, and that it’s time to experiment with a new form of government called epistocracy. Recently, Brennan took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Your book is a response to a view you call “democratic triumphalism.” What is that view and what’s wrong with it?

JB: Triumphalism—a widely accepted set of conclusions—holds that democracy deserves three cheers. Cheer one: Political participation is good for us, makes us smarter, and produces fellow-feeling. Cheer two: We have a basic right to an equal share of political power. Cheer three: Democracy is a uniquely just form of politics.

I think democracy doesn’t deserve the first two cheers, and probably doesn’t deserve the latter. Politics is bad for us and we’re bad at politics.

Empirical work generally shows that participating in politics makes us worse: meaner, more biased, more angry. Ideally, I argue, we’d want to minimize our degree of political participation. Further, I examine about twelve major arguments for the claim that we’re owed the right to vote, and find them all lacking. In the end, the right to vote isn’t so much about giving individuals power over themselves, but power over others. The problem is that because individuals matter so little, most individuals use what little power they have unwisely. As a result, democracies tend to make bad decisions. Against the third chair, I suggest that epistocracy—a constitutional, republican form of government in which political power is to some degree, by law, apportioned according to competence—may outperform democracy.

What kind of value does democracy have, then?

JB: The best places to live right now are almost all liberal democracies. So, the point isn’t to argue that democracy is a disaster. But it’s not the end of history either. In my view, democracy has the same kind of value a hammer has. It’s an instrument for producing just and efficient outcomes, according to procedure-independent standards of justice. If we can find a better hammer, we should feel free to use it.

Some people deny there are procedure-independent standards of justice. Justice, they say, is whatever a democracy decides. But on reflection, I doubt anyone would accept that. Suppose the US has a referendum and unanimously votes to nuke Tuvalu. Or suppose 70 percent of voters decide to enact protectionist policies simply because they don’t understand economics. I don’t see either move as just.

We tend to treat the right to vote as a badge of honor, as a way of saying, “You’re a valuable member of our national club.” I think that’s a mistake. We should view the right to vote the way we view a fishing or plumbing license. We should view the president not as a majestic leader but as the chief public goods administrator. We need to downgrade the “status” we attach to political participation and power. If we did that, then differences in voting rights would carry no further stigma than the stigma I face for lacking a plumbing license.

You claim people have a “right to competent government.” What does that mean, and why think that?

JB: Political decisions are high stakes. They decide matters of life and death, peace and prosperity. Our decisions can deprive innocent people of life, liberty, and their rights, or greatly harm them.

Most of us think a jury owes the defendant (or owes the rest of us) a competent decision. They should decide a criminal trial by 1) being aware of the relevant facts, 2) processing those facts in a rational way, and 3) deciding on good faith rather than out of prejudice, malice, or bias. Similarly, I argue, any group that wields political power must act out competently and in good faith. Just as it would be unjust to enforce a jury decision if the jurors paid no attention to the fact and decided on whim, it would be unjust to enforce a vote made out of ignorance, misinformation, or whimsy.

Are democracies competent?

JB: Sixty years of empirical work show that mean, median, and modal levels of political knowledge among the electorate are low. In fact, voters aren’t just ignorant, but systematically misinformed about many issues, including simple issues like what the unemployment rate is, and complicated issues like basic economic theory. Further, empirical work shows that voters would have different policy preferences if they were better informed. In a world where every voter has high information, we’d never have an election between Trump and Clinton. We’d have better candidates.

That said, democracies do tend to have pretty good policies compared to, say, monarchies and oligarchies. But part of the reason for that is that democracies don’t just do what the people want. Instead, elites, parties, bureaucrats, and others have significant discretion to act against the will of the people.

Some political theorists have advanced ambitious arguments trying to claim that democratic electorates are highly competent as a whole even though most voters are ignorant. These arguments, however, are usually based on mathematical theorems that, while correct in principle, bear no resemblance to the reality of democratic behavior. For instance, Hélène Landemore’s book Democratic Reason (PUP 2012) isn’t a defense of any actual existing  or likely to exist democracy, but instead at most an argument about why democracies would be smart if only voters behaved in radically different ways.

Throughout the book, you talk about three species of voters: hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. What are these?

 JB: I use these as terms of art to describe three classes of voters. In the Lord of the Rings, Hobbits are simply folk who don’t care much about the outside world, and just want to eat, drink, and be merry. The political analogue would be a person who doesn’t care much about politics, doesn’t have strong opinions, doesn’t know much, and doesn’t participate much. Roughly half of Americans are political hobbits. Think the typical non-voter.

Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. Consider: Soccer hooligans are pretty well informed about soccer, but they are biased and mean. They tend to be nasty toward fans from other teams. They only accept information that makes their team look good. Political hooligans are like that about Team Republican or Team Democrat. They have more information, and they participate frequently. But they are biased, and only accept evidence that confirms their own pre-existing views. They tend to think anyone who disagrees with them is mean or stupid. Roughly half of Americans are political hooligans. Think your typical activist or party member.

Vulcans are dispassionate, scientific thinkers. They have high knowledge, but are also aware of what they don’t know. They change their minds when the evidence calls for it. In the US, hardly anyone is a Vulcan.

Most political theories that defend democracy inadvertently do so by imagining how democracy would work if only we were all Vulcans (or on our way to becoming Vulcans). But we’re not Vulcans; we’re hobbits and hooligans. And so many proposals for making democracy better actually make it worse. For example, democratic deliberation not only fails to deliver the results political theorist say it would, but backfires.

 Your view is often criticized as elitist. What’s your response?

JB: We don’t say it’s elitist to think a plumber knows more about pipes than I do. We don’t think it’s elitist to say a truck driver knows more about driving than I do. But for some reason it seems elitist to say that I know more about economics than the average truck driver or plumber. Why? The issue here is that we treat truck driving and plumbing as low status, and political power as high status. But, I think, we should change that attitude. We should upgrade the status of non-political activities and downgrade the status of political activity. Once we do that, we can freely say something that’s, to be blunt, obviously true: The electorate doesn’t know what it’s doing, and putting so much power in the hands of a body that doesn’t know what it’s doing is dangerous.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Policy at the McDonough School of Business in Georgetown University. He is the author of  The Ethics of VotingWhy Not Capitalism? and Libertarianism.

Along with these books, Brennan is the co-author of Markets Without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He is a regular writer for the blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.



Jason Stanley: How free market ideology perverts the vocabulary of democracy

Election_Blog_Series_Banner2[1]By Jason Stanley

This essay appears simultaneously in Aeon Magazine and is republished with permission in our Election 2016 series

Citizens of the United States are quite taken with the vocabulary of liberal democracy, with words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, which conjure key democratic values and distance the nation from the Old World taint of oligarchy and aristocracy. It is much less clear, however, that Americans are guided by democratic ideals. Or that ideology and propaganda play a crucial role in concealing the large gap between rhetoric and reality.

In truth, the Old World systems have proved extremely difficult to shrug off. In their 2014 paper, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue that, as in an oligarchy, ordinary US citizens have no ‘substantial power over policy decisions [and] little or no independent influence on policy at all’.

Moreover, the US regularly subscribes to a form of managerial aristocracy. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder successfully replaced the mayors and city councils of several cities with ‘emergency managers’ supposedly able to negotiate financial emergencies better than elected officials. In the current presidential race, Hillary Clinton advertises her managerial expertise via the language of policy, while Donald Trump parades his via the language of business. Neither language is democratic. Neither invites self-governance.

Why is there no outcry about these oligarchical and aristocratic methods? Is it because plutocrats have power over the mechanisms of representation and repression? Is it, in short, about power? In my view, power can’t explain why voters are so enthusiastically voting for the very people who promise the least democratic outcomes. Nor are Americans knowingly rejecting democratic ideals. Instead, I see an anti-democratic ideology at work, inverting the meaning of democratic vocabulary and transforming it into propaganda.

Consider the example of mass incarceration in the US. Black Americans make up around 13 per cent of the population, but around 40 per cent of country’s ballooning prison population. Even if we assume, falsely, that black American crime rates justify this disparity, why is the state so punitive? Shouldn’t citizens instead be motivated to address the underlying socio-economic conditions that lead to such dramatic differences in behaviour between equals?

In The New Jim Crow (2010), Michelle Alexander argues that a national rhetoric of law and order has long justified mass incarceration. President Richard Nixon used it to crack down on black Americans under the cover of an epidemic of heroin use; this continued in the 1980s, as a merciless ‘war on drugs’ whose victims were all too often black men. In the US, the ideology of anti-black racism takes the view that blacks are violent and lazy, thereby masking the misapplication of the ideals of law and order.

Compare the ‘war on drugs’ to the current heroin crisis among middle-class white Americans, which has led to a national discussion of the socio-economic distress facing this class. Law and order doesn’t come into it. ‘The new face of heroin’ is new because, unlike the old face, it calls out for an empathetic response, rather than a punitive one. Now that heroin is ravaging white communities not black ones, the language of law and order (deemed appropriate to keep blacks in their place) has been retired. More significant still is that while the ideals of law and order preclude their unequal application, the propaganda of law and order does not: Americans were thus prevented from seeing the disguised gradient of law and order by racist ideology.

But what is the flawed ideology masking the misapplication of democratic ideals? Let’s bring it out by exploring the most cherished US democratic ideal, the ideal of freedom – popularly embodied in attacks on ‘big government’. Voters are repeatedly told that ‘big government’ is the primary source of coercion that limits freedom, which it certainly sometimes does, as the Patriot Act reminds us. But corporations also limit civic freedom in significant ways.

For example, corporations are leading direct attacks on the freedom to collectively bargain. Via outsourcing, free trade agreements allow corporations to move jobs to countries where labour is cheap; meanwhile, as a result of pressure from the conservative non-profit Citizens United, corporations can fund political candidates, thereby increasing corporate control of government. The weaker a government is, the more power corporations have over it. Across the political spectrum, there is anger that government is too influenced by industry lobbyists.

Voters concerned about government – as opposed to corporate – constraints on freedom are under the grip of what I will call a free market ideology. According to that ideology, the world of capital is by its nature free. All other substantial freedoms, including political freedom and personal freedom, are made possible by the freedom of markets.

Why do citizens who cherish freedom as an ideal vote to constrain their own freedoms by increasing the power of corporations? It’s because free market ideology masks the ways in which corporations deploy undemocratic modes of coercion. When a corporation bans employees from expressing, outside of work, opinions it disapproves of, this is seen as a legitimate protection of its economic interests. If workers have to sign non-disclosure contracts that silence them after they are employed elsewhere, it’s accepted as the cost of doing business.

The contradictions here are telling. If our most basic freedoms are self-expression and choiceful action, then corporations frequently limit our most basic freedoms. In liberal democratic theory, it is government that is regarded as the protector of such rights. But it’s precisely because government is attacked in the name of freedom that corporations have vastly greater power to constrain and shape it.

Free market ideology uses democratic vocabulary as propaganda, obscuring a non-democratic reality. Take education. In a liberal democracy, education equips citizens with the tools and confidence to weigh in on policy decisions and play a role in their own self-governance. Hence, democratic education is at the very centre of democratic political philosophy, as the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, W E B Du Bois, John Dewey and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attest. But the US rhetoric surrounding education is explicitly anti-democratic. Citizens prefer ‘efficient’ education systems that train children to perform vocational tasks, rather than education that fosters community, autonomy and civic participation.

The rhetoric politicians use when running for office is usually explicitly anti-democratic. Managerial culture is paradigmatically undemocratic: a CEO is like a feudal lord. But if markets are zones of freedom, then CEOs ought to be its representatives. Free market ideology also explains why, when politicians with great wealth run for office, voters are not put off by the threat of oligarchy: wealth is acquired in markets – which are the source of freedom. Finally, free market ideology explains why voters so easily give up their right to hold institutions accountable to experts who promise ‘efficiency’. Efficiency is the ideal of business, and business is the engine of the market – again the source of freedom.

Free market ideology has perverted democratic vocabulary, transforming it into propaganda that, in turn, obscures an anti-democratic reality. Yet there’s hope that voters have wised up to this and begun to challenge party elites. Such moments of awareness feel dangerous but offer great opportunities. Voters are using the proper tool – elections – to make their concerns heard. Will anyone listen?

Stanley jacketJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests, Language in Context, and Know How. His latest book is How Propaganda Works, recently released by Princeton University Press.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom: The Perilous Politics of Housing Poor People


By Nicholas Dagen Bloom

The rolling disaster of America’s urban poverty housing programs is evident in the packed homeless shelters, tent encampments, high rent burdens, lead poisoning, frequent evictions, and public housing disinvestment featured widely in American newspapers, books, and television shows. The differences in housing conditions that once separated big American cities (such as New York from Los Angeles) are much less important than they were a decade or two past.

To shore up their urban base, the Democratic presidential candidates even made quick visits to public housing developments in New York City, an acknowledgement of a new urban housing crisis in both the quantity and quality of housing. The candidates showed genuine concern, looked earnestly at the damage caused by decades of federal disinvestment, and reminded voters of their generous housing platforms.

Both candidates know that it won’t be easy. Liberals with national ambitions and power who support housing programs have wrestled with the issue of housing poor people for decades. They want to help, but they understand that most Americans distrust direct federal housing programs for the poor. And housing the poor, on its own merits, comes with many liabilities.

President Franklin Roosevelt, under intense pressure from his New York base, may have created the first permanent public housing multifamily program in the United States (the Housing Act of 1937) for the third of the population that was “ill housed”, but he also believed most “families should have individual homes . . . however modest.” His public housing program, attacked by conservatives as “creeping socialism,” thus remained comparatively small and stingy. Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration proved, in time, nationally popular as it made single-family homes more affordable, operated in an indirect manner on the housing market (mortgage insurance), left private builders and owners almost entirely to their own devices (redlining), and focused almost exclusively on the lower/middle class rather than the urban poor. The success of the FHA in helping build suburbia in the 1940s and 1950s undermined the mass support for public housing because most of the middle-class got their dream homes.

Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, made public housing a national priority in the context of a temporary postwar housing shortage, winning the Housing Act of 1949 that called for 800,000 public housing units. Yet the Korean War emergency, which slashed public housing subsides dramatically, stretched those targets out over a decade. As the postwar housing shortage eased in the 1950s, as private builders created miles of affordably priced suburban single-family homes, it was primarily in big cities where residual support for public housing remained, often for purposes related more to commercial redevelopment than humanitarianism.

Even many dedicated liberals wavered in their faith as the public housing towers rose in the 1950s and 1960s. Liberal Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY), in an address to the NAACP in 1962, admitted that subsidized housing “has been building up social and economic problems even more serious that the problems it was expected to solve” including racial and social segregation. And while Rockefeller himself remained committed to big government housing programs, building more housing than any New York Governor then or since, subsidized housing figured very little in his national appeal. Most of his state housing programs, even for the poor, also relied on public/private partnerships.

By the 1960s, the “projects” had taken on their full range of negative connotations even though in cities like New York they provided a necessary form of permanent low-cost housing for the urban poor and working class (and still do today). Most American politicians of both political parties ran from programs like public housing, substituting a complicated mix of subsidies for private interests in the low-income housing field.

Many of these new public/private programs proved, in many respects, quite successful. Richard Nixon ended new public housing in 1973 and introduced vouchers (Section 8) in private housing to de-concentrate poverty concentration. Ronald Reagan slashed direct housing programs but signed off on the new Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) which gave tax breaks to corporations who invested in new affordable housing serving income levels generally higher than public housing. The 1990s and Bill Clinton will best be remembered for the Hope VI program which paid for the knocking down and redeveloping public housing as privately run, mixed-income communities.

Even the meltdown of the private housing market during subprime financial crisis in 2007 did not lead to a new era of direct government housing despite the fact the poor, or those just above the poverty line, were far more likely to be victims of predatory schemes and evictions. Presidents Bush and Obama secured trillions to stabilize the big private or semi-private players in housing market (the FHA, Freddie Mac, Citibank, Bank of America, etc.) so that the private market could continue as the primary housing provider for all American households.

Americans on the whole today thus remain well served by the private housing market, but the poor, and those living in expensive cities in particular, face a bleak housing future in the privatized affordable housing system.

Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee and the only liberal likely running this fall, has endorsed a mix of portable Section 8 vouchers, additional tax credits for affordable housing, home ownership subsidies, and renovation of urban housing. These notable initiatives share in a well-worn path of minimizing direct federal involvement. And tested programs like these are likely to improve the lives of many poor people, particularly those lucky enough to use these programs to find housing in higher-income neighborhoods. But American politicians, even liberals, have yet to face the hard truth that to do right by the poor may take a lot more than more subsidies of private interests.

There is a large and growing population in and around cities that needs permanent, basic housing as a prerequisite to getting their lives in order. Existing large-scale low-cost government run housing for the poor such as public housing (or supportive housing with social services on site) is complicated to manage, a public relations quagmire, and often very expensive to build right and preserve. Yet we are already paying embarrassing amount to house the homeless and poor in “temporary” institutional settings such jails, hospitals, and shelters. Preserving what public housing is left (such as the 178,000 units of public housing in New York) and building more decent, very low-cost housing remains a standing invitation for federal officials—should they accept the responsibility.

BloomLasnerNicholas Dagen Bloom is associate professor of social science and director of the Urban Administration program at New York Institute of Technology. His books include Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. His most recent book is from Princeton University Press is Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

Karl Marx—Into the Inferno

The Open Society and Its Enemies jacket imageOn the 198th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, his ideas retain a vital place in the intellectual landscape. The global financial collapse has refocused attention on his theory that capitalism must inevitably be shaken by recurrent and increasingly violent crises. His analysis of the destructive nature of capitalism rings true in an era when the explosive economic growth of human society threatens irrevocable changes in the climate of the entire planet. Marxian concepts such as the exploitation of labor and alienation seem shockingly prescient when we consider the impoverished working conditions in a modern fulfillment centre, where the employee’s every action is monitored, measured and mechanized to the utmost. Of the great nineteenth century thinkers, only Charles Darwin equals Marx in the scope and scale of his influence.

Princeton University Press has published several books dealing with Marx and his work. Perhaps the best known is The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper. Popper sharply criticized Marx’s theories on historical development, seeing in them the roots of the totalitarian ideologies that dominated Europe in the years leading to the Second World War. Conversely, in Karl Marx’s Theory of History G. A. Cohen sought to defend and reconstruct historical materialism in one of the seminal works of analytical Marxism. Isaiah Berlin’s intellectual biography Karl Marx measures the full range of Marx’s work in characteristically polished prose and remains an excellent introduction.

Forthcoming at the end of this year, Marx’s Inferno by William Clare Roberts undertakes an entirely new reading of Marx’s magnum opus Capital. Roberts argues that Marx modeled Capital on Dante’s Inferno, playing the role of a Virgil guiding the worker through the social Hell engendered by insatiable capitalism. Rather than focusing exclusively on Capital as a work of political economy, Roberts returns us to the debates within nineteenth century socialism from which Capital emerged, while demonstrating their relevance to political life today. There can be no greater tribute to a thinker than that his ideas continue to generate such new readings and new thinking long after his death. Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag, Herr Marx.

Christopher Kutz on drone warfare: The real moral debate


By Christopher Kutz

Despite all the sound and fury of the Presidential primary campaign, the candidates have been effectively silent on one issue: our use of drone strikes as the central tool of security policy. Perhaps they could watch Eye on the Sky, by director Gavin Hood. The film vividly imagines two nations’ officials confronting a classic military dilemma, whether to kill an enemy at the risk of civilian life. In the movie, British officials, using drone-based cameras, have identified the home of two al-Shabbab terrorist leaders (one of whom is a British woman) in Kenya as they prepare young militants for a suicide terrorist mission. Given al-Shabbab’s history, which includes the attack on a Tanzanian shopping mall, the British officials have good reason to suspect an attack against large numbers of civilians. Because local forces are unable to storm the compound, the officials request support from an American drone with a Reaper missile.

The movie’s theme is that while drone technology appears to make war ethically easier, by reducing risks to civilians and soldiers, it mainly shifts the scene of responsibility, from the battlefield to the conference room and control center. The movie gains its dramatic power by reintroducing the dilemma, in the form of a little girl who comes to sell bread outside the compound during the crucial moments. The British and American officials and drone operators must now decide how to weigh the likely death of this concrete and identified girl against the unidentifiable civilians who might be killed in a terrorist attack. The film very effectively personalizes this debate by foregrounding a few of the officials and soldiers with clear views, for and against the strike, against the majority of officials who seek only to refer judgment to other layers and departments in government. (The movie indulges in a – perhaps accurate – stereotype of Americans as callously decisive and Brits as hand-wringingly nuanced and unsure.)

Eye on the Sky is right to remind us that the ethical dilemmas of war survive the shift to drone warfare. But I believe it makes a dangerous mistake about the real ethical problem with drones. The real problem is not that officials are too rarely courageous or principled. The problem is that we citizens have given up our own responsibility for the choices of war. What ought to be a wrenching decision for a democracy, about when to kill foreigners in pursuit of its interests, has been confined within the consciences of a few.

Few doubt that a state can use lethal force in the classic circumstances of national self-defense, with an invader at the border or missiles and bombs raining in. But drone campaigns are not like this: they involve decisions made through national security bureaucracies about killing people (or categories of people) identified through disparate intelligence as members of hostile networks, whose hostilities are often directed not at the US but at local and temporary allies of US security policy. According to public information, far from strapping suicide vests onto would-be martyrs or assembling dirty bombs, most of the targets identified in intelligence or surveillance reports are, essentially, young men with rifles. What used to be a strategic decision to go to war, with Congress involved and citizens rallied, has become a matter of executive decision making at the tactical level, made by the President and his security team, and the director of the CIA.

The personalization of the decision to kill is not unique to the drone program: special forces killing teams have been part of US security policy for decades. But the emergence of drone warfare has both let the policy of secret killing come out of the shadows on the one hand, while keeping it even more deeply in the shadows in another respect, placing it largely within the confines of the CIA, with White House oversight. While even former CIA Director Michael Hayden acknowledges the myth of the surgical strike, since inevitably non-combatants, including women and children are killed, the lesson we citizens are asked to accept is that these are difficult but reasonable choices for the President, not for us.

We should fear the loss of our accountability as citizens more than the myth of the surgical strike. Presidents and CIA advisors, not to mention drone operators, may well agonize over the potential deaths of innocents. But I fear our own complacency, in wanting these dilemmas to be theirs, and theirs alone. The deaths of civilians and militants alike belong to us as citizens, and we must be prepared as citizens to deliberate about our killing policy, and accept its consequences. Instead, the complicity of the media in personalizing drone warfare keeps us citizens in a fraudulent innocence.

How can we stop the fraud we are perpetrating on ourselves? We must put ourselves in the imaginary position of the drone warriors, and come to think of ourselves as making the decision when to kill. President Obama has done little to make good on his promises of greater transparency in the drone program. To the extent the primary candidates have addressed the issue at all, Bernie Sanders has said only that he would seek to use drone strikes rarely, while Hillary Clinton has praised drone strikes as a critically effective counter-terrorism tool. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, on “carpet bombing” and killing terrorist families, does not suggest much reticence on their parts. Only John Kasich has offered a specific position that moves in the right direction: to effectuate the transfer of the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon — a shift that was promised two years ago by President Obama but later abandoned. Such a move would work to increase accountability for drone killings, and to locate decisions within an institution historically better suited to considering legal and ethical limitations on the use of force. (Recall that the use of torture in interrogation was much more firmly resisted by military than CIA officials.)

We need to force our candidates, and our media, to do better than this, to discuss what we citizens must know if we are to take honest responsibility for the deaths of the children and other bystanders in our security policy. While Eye on the Sky does a terrific job of provoking a debate on the way out of the movie theatre, we need a debate that extends all the way to the voting booth.

kutz on war and democracy jacketChristopher Kutz is the C. William Maxeiner Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Kadish Center for Morality, Law, and Public Affairs at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age.

Paula S. Fass: Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Get the Youth Vote


by Paula S. Fass

Paula FassWith her long history of engagement in matters relating to children and families, Hillary Clinton’s failure to inspire young people is notable and, at least initially, puzzling. Compared to Bernie Sanders, who is a youth magnet, she has failed to speak to the Millennial Generation or even the Generation Xers. A little probing, however, may suggest why this is the case.

Hillary Clinton – successful career woman, wife of a young governor and a young president and mother of a dynamic daughter —doesn’t feel their pain. She seems incapable of understanding and sympathizing with the problems of several generations of post 1980s young adults for whom success in careers and in family formation has become extremely challenging. For these people, the global competition for talent and a sexual revolution that Hillary’s generation initiated have complicated career choices and confounded expectations about childbearing and childrearing.

Careers first. Hillary’s generation of women (those who graduated from college in the 1960s and 1970s) which is also my own generation, were challenged to break down barriers in law, medicine, the academy, the police, government, business, etc. We feel very strongly that our careers have been hard fought for and that we won. Young women today do not face the same challenges of breaking through barriers and ceilings, nor do they experience the same sense of victory. Instead, both young women and young men face intense competitive pressures in careers that have been changed profoundly by technology and the fact that their competitors do not always sit alongside them at colleges and professional schools. Doctors fear losing the benefit of their skills to new computer programs and apps, professors to MOOCs, young lawyers and accountants to Indian workshops where poorly paid apprentices can do their work at a much lower price. Women’s growing equality in the acquisition of professional degrees had already intensified competition for highly sought-after positions (in schools and at the work place) in the United States even before the consequences of new technologies kicked in. In a newly globalized economy, the sense of competition has become brutal as has the vision of looming threat to expensively acquired competence.

It is not clear that Hillary, with all her smarts and her experience as a professional woman, understands this. Neither does Bernie Sanders, except that he, at least, offers two possible responses: stop the hemorrhaging of jobs that has resulted from free trade agreements and control Wall Street and the banks which underwrite global competition. While neither of these are likely to solve all the problems they face, young Americans respond to Sander’s firm confidence that something is very wrong with late stage global capitalism and that we need to get a grip on the process which has moved from industrial production initially to highly compensated, well-schooled cognitive-based professional areas today. If high-powered computers can successfully compete with the world’s best chess and “go” players, merely graduating from college is not going to solve the problems faced by most young Americans who can’t get an effective perch in the new economy– and all those young people supporting Sanders know it.

Home life and children. The enormous increase in out-of-wedlock birth over the past two generations in the United States (almost 40% of all children in the U. S. today are born outside of marriage) is not simply a product of the sexual revolution that Hillary Clinton’s generation initiated. Although greater sexual freedom removed the terrible shame once attached to unwed pregnancy, other things also helped to create this phenomenon. For those with less than a college education and minimally marketable skills, an important factor is the loss of regular decent wages. For blue collar families in the past, family life was supported by wages earned by male breadwinners, often supplemented by their wives’ earnings. Those wages have disappeared, at least in part because of the off-shoring of factory work that was given a huge boost during the Bill Clinton presidency. Men who do not have regular jobs often do not marry and their girlfriends do not consider them good marriage prospects. The erosion of once stable family lives has left millions of working women, whose clerical jobs have not as fully evaporated (yet), with children to take care of by themselves, either because they never married or because they are divorced. Their lives are defined by struggling to make-do as they try to find safe and inexpensive childcare, and negotiate more than one job at random hours, while precariously trying to fit together being a good mother and making a living.

Professional women, who have husbands or ex’s, also have it tough but their access to money (and credit) eases some of the worst aspects of this situation. They hire nannies and send their children to excellent daycare and preschools. They can more readily pay for services to make sure that their children receive the preparation they need to succeed in school. College women today and those who have recently graduated from college have observed this process with trepidation. Trained to succeed, accustomed to being evaluated, they are anxious to do it all well, both in their careers and in their childrearing. They have seen the difficulties and costs of this balancing in the working women around them, and in the lives of their mothers and their teachers. They are fully aware that delaying having children can be costly in declining fertility after age 35. They know that new reproductive technologies can be both helpful and disappointing. Young women are puzzled by how to combine fulfilling careers with satisfying home lives; they would like to do both well. But the sense of a noble undertaking, that Hillary’s generation experienced and kept women struggling to succeed, is now faded. The hard work and the frustration remain. Today’s hovering, anxiety-driven mothers are one result of the striving for a completely successful life. Another is the fact that there is a growing tendency for professional women to drop out of their careers in order to devote themselves to raising successful children.

Does successful Hillary, whose daughter was raised in the White House and moved smoothly into Stanford and then on to McKinsey, understand this generation of women’s anxiety about their own careers, their desires to succeed as mothers, and their worries about their children’s futures? I think that she simply does not get it. She does not feel their pain and has no solution for their dilemmas, either in her own experience or in her policies, except for parental leave. And even here she does not see how our society can afford to have this leave paid for. Hillary is very practical and pushes her realism, but in this area she is neither practical nor realistic.

Bernie Sanders may not have solutions either, but he gets the squeeze that young Americans are feeling. His answers may be too pat and repetitive, but at least he makes young people believe that he wants to respond to their very real problems.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Kidnapped and Children of a New World, she recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Fass lives in Berkeley, California. Her latest book is The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.