Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Neon Gatsby

[This post contains spoilers for the film, The Neon Demon.]

Hollywood excels at masking the shallow as profound. It is fitting, then, that a film offering a profound critique of Hollywood is widely seen as shallow. The film is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and its surface is so stunning that some critics assume that’s all there is. Yet, as the grotesque lay beneath the seductive glitz and glamour of Jay Gatsby's decadent parties, there is a familiar alienation and darkness beneath this film's skin. In fact, Refn's stylized portrait of Hollywood is strongly reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic literary vision of New York City. Like The Great Gatsby, The Neon Demon uses metaphor, imagery and symbolism, as well as an unreliable narrative point of view, to explore the romanticization of a corrupt narcissist while exposing the depraved society that consumes him--or her, as the case may be.

Though many view The Great Gatsby as a tragic love story between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald’s novel is primarily about Nick Carraway, the narrator and purveyor of Gatsby's image. We see Gatsby through Nick’s desperate, judgmental eyes. Nick values Gatsby's reckless naivete above the irresponsible manipulations of the wealthy elites (Tom and Daisy Buchanan, in particular), and seduces us into making a moral distinction between them. Nick dreams of success and redemption—running away from the war and his Midwestern past, reinventing himself as a New York City bondsman, but unable to commit to any level of intimacy and too easily tempted by the mire of prohibition-era crime and decadence. Nick is a hypocrite, shamelessly participating in everything he condemns. He helps Gatsby and Daisy pursue adultery in secret and he risks moral condemnation and criminal prosecution by joining illegal parties and indulging in homosexual behavior. The novel is framed around Nick's struggles to maintain his dignity. Gatsby only makes sense as a fetish or scar in Nick’s imagination: a tragic image of purity and beauty destined for failure in modern America. The real Gatsby, if there is one, is something of a phantom, a phony and a crook who will stop at nothing to fulfill his own dark yet na├»ve fantasies.

At the beginning of Fitzgerald's novel, Nick says of Gatsby:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"--it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No--Gatsby turned out alright at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (Chapter 1)
We can imagine those same lines (with minor alterations) spoken in voice-over by Dean (Karl Glusman), The Neon Demon's aspiring photographer, about the film's ostensible heroine, Jesse (Elle Fanning). Though he is discarded before the final act of the film, Dean's point of view is central to how we understand the story. Dean frames the film at the outset with his foreboding photographic vision of Jesse, defining her as an innocent face and nubile body to be consumed, a dreamer destined to perish under the gazing moon.

Dean (Karl Glusman) creates a tragically romantic portrait of Jesse.

Introducing Jesse (Elle Fanning). Are these the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg?
Just as Nick (temporarily?) gives up his dream of becoming a bondsman, Dean (temporarily?) walks away from the world of fashion when his dignity is challenged. And just as Nick stands up for Gatsby and condemns the New York haves, Dean alone stands up for Jesse's inner value and condemns the Hollywood elites for their superficiality. Yet, like Nick, Dean is a hypocrite. Dean balks at Jesse for wanting to be like the elites, but their friendship grew out of a mutual desire to succeed in that world. His photography facilitated Jesse's career, and he hoped it would open doors for him, as well. On top of that, he knowingly risks moral condemnation and criminal prosecution by dating an underage girl. His indignation at the fashionistas is most likely a temporary upheaval. Dean might leave Hollywood, but he has not found a better path.

The parallels between Jesse and Jay Gatsby are also striking. James Gatz, the youth who would become Jay Gatsby, took his good looks and charm for granted. At the age of 17, Gatz used his innate gifts to redefine himself: He devoted himself to “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” inventing “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (Chapter 6). In The Neon Demon, Jesse falls in love with her own image at the age of 16, and is faithful to it until the end. Jesse's raw materials are the same as Gatsby’s: good looks and an innocence that captivate everyone in the fashion world. They are all taken in by Jesse, and it is not long before she is confidently using her image to her advantage--or so she thinks. Yet, like Gatsby, her persona is a fabrication. We cannot be sure where she came from or how she got to Hollywood. She could be a runaway, though she is happy to let others assume that her parents are dead. What matters is that her parents are dead to her, and she will forge their signature to get what she wants. And it's not just money and fame. Jesse wants glamour, to be the brightest star in every room she enters, and she is willing to cheat and turn her back on humanity to get there.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) falls in love with her reflection.
Gatsby's dream takes its final shape--"the incarnation is complete" (Chapter 6)--when he kisses Daisy for the first time. Daisy is the outward projection of his narcissistic desire, and his blind devotion to her is what ultimately destroys him. Jesse, in contrast, is her own outward projection. Her dream is wholly centered around her own image. It is therefore when she kisses her own reflection that her incarnation is complete. And it is her devotion to the image of her own purity that eventuates her demise.

Neither Gatsby nor Jesse earns our scorn. We see their lack of compassion, their moral bankruptcy, and we feel sorry for them. They are victims of their singular dreams. They each seem to understand this right before they die. Nick describes Gatsby enjoying his swimming pool for the first time at the peak of a fevered summer, but rather than suppose Gatsby hoped for or expected Daisy’s call, Nick says:
I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about (Chapter 8).
These words could be used to describe Jesse as she, like Gatsby, hovers above a swimming pool moments before her death. In Jesse's case, the pool in which she is murdered is empty. The blue of her dress replaces the reflective blue of the water. She has become no more than her own image.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) hovers above the emptiness.
Jesse and Gatsby accept nothing but their demon, an impossible dream at odds with the material world. Gatsby lives in his own image for a number of excruciatingly lonely years before finally realizing that his dream is false and his life is a lie. In contrast, Jesse’s misery is not prolonged. We could imagine Jesse growing old, never coming to terms with the lie her life has become, always reaching for another star, always trying to shine brighter than before, but always feeling lost and alone. We can imagine her aging in a mansion not unlike Gatsby’s, throwing parties she cannot bear to attend, full of people who know her but do not care about her. And she would not care about them, either. She would watch them desperately, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, hoping their presence heralded a new dawn, a final validation of her quest for greatness. Everyone wanted a piece of Gatsby and Jesse when they were alive, but few will miss them once they're dead. Very few show up for Gatsby's funeral. Who besides Dean will care that Jesse is gone?

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), ready for her close-up.

In The Great Gatsby, Nick fetishizes Gatsby's beauty. He worships Gatsby at the same time he sees through the facade, and it leaves him lost and alone in the end. We are tempted to elevate Gatsby, as well--and many do see him as a Romantic hero. In much the same way, The Neon Demon also lets us see through the facade, but invites us to worship Jesse's so-called "natural beauty" all the same. It even tempts us into valuing her beauty above all others, by opposing her beauty to the supposedly inferior, "artificial" beauty of Gigi (Belle Heathcote). To the fashionistas, Jesse is an oasis in the desert. She pulls at their thirst, just as she is meant to pull at ours. Gigi, in contrast, looks like a model trying on somebody else's style. Gigi is criticized because she has relied on plastic surgery, but she does not look like the product of cosmetic surgery so much as a weak and uptight imagination. Jesse succeeds because she is able to sell the image of authenticity.

Gigi (Bella Heathcote) does not like to be challenged.
Beauty is always both natural and artificial—artifice is part of human nature, after all. The image of Natural Beauty is no more authentic than the image of Artificial Beauty, and Jesse and Gigi each die when they recognize this fact. Jesse dies after she sees the artifice behind her image of natural beauty, and Gigi dies after she sees the humanity beneath her image of cold-hearted artifice.

Jesse's love of artifice is manifest in her relationship to Ruby (Jena Malone). Ruby is the master of artifice, the maker of outward beauty, who longs for purity but lives only through reflections. She craves Jesse, either for sex or food, or both. Ruby thrives in emptiness, makes love to make-up, be it on living flesh or a corpse. As the scene revealing Ruby's necrophiliac depravity is interlaced with images of Jesse's self-love, we are invited to question the relationship between them. When Jesse touches herself, is she, like Ruby, making love to a corpse? Is Jesse dead beneath her skin? Is Ruby Jesse's alter-ego? Are they reflections of each other?

When Ruby and Jesse meet for the first time, they are looking in opposing mirrors with their backs to each other. Ruby apologizes to Jesse for staring at her, but it seems as if they were only staring at themselves. It is as if they each exist inside of the other. Of course, we can take their relationship at face value, as one between a model and a predatory make-up artist; however, we can take it as a metaphor for something deeper. We can see Ruby as the demon taking possession of Jesse; conversely, we can see Jesse as the haunting image of purity within a depraved Ruby.

Ruby (Jena Malone) through the looking glass.

Right after the masturbation scene, Jesse changes into the blue dress and stands above the empty pool. Just as a "ghost" named George Wilson comes to haunt and murder Jay Gatsby in his swimming pool, a ghost-like Ruby appears to Jesse in the emptiness of the pool beneath her. When Jesse sees Ruby, she sees the truth about herself: Ruby has already consumed her, because Jesse has consumed herself. It is possible to read the murder sequence as a metaphor for Jesse’s suicide: She was not pushed into the empty pool; she let herself fall in after she saw the falsity of the image with which she had fallen in love. On the other hand, we can take it as a scene of literal murder. It does not matter. Ruby killed her either way, and either way, Jesse was already dead inside.

Like Jesse, Gigi also dies after she sees the falsity of her own image. She (literally or metaphorically?) cannot stomach what happened. Her body violently rejects her actions. She claims to be the Bionic Woman, but she cannot exorcise her conscience. In the end, it is her humanity that kills her.

The Neon Demon is ultimately about beauty and how we relate to it. The true conflict in The Neon Demon is not between natural and artificial beauty. Those are false idols which we only followed, if we ever did, because we were told to. No, the conflict at the heart of the film is between ways of relating to beauty--between compassion and consumption. It is telling that we are never told whether or not Sarah (Abbey Lee), the only model that survives in the end, has ever had any cosmetic surgery. Jesse, Gigi and Sarah are more alike than they may realize. They all relate to beauty in terms of consumption. They long to be shot and consumed. Yet, only Sarah survives, because only Sarah accepts the grotesque for what it is. She swallows the eye of conscience whole. It doesn't matter if Sarah has had cosmetic surgery or not. Sarah survives because she is unhindered by compassion and she knows it. She exemplifies what Hollywood rewards: sociopathic consumption. Yet, what is Sarah's reward? At the end, Sarah is faced with nothing more than a barren desert.

Sarah (Abbey Lee) triumphant?

Gatsby’s and Jesse's stories can be seen as two versions of the same cautionary tale: This is what happens when American individualism runs amok. It is hard to shake the American Dream, the capitalistic conviction that all you need are the raw materials and the drive, and you can become whoever you want to be. Refn and Fitzgerald warn that, if you devote yourself entirely to that dream and follow it to its logical conclusion, you end up living and dying alone, and all for an illusion. Jesse and Gatsby are themselves more illusion than reality, and their deaths are less tragic than their lives. We can balk at their deaths as affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, we can see them as trite, as inevitabilities: standard set pieces in the story of American depravity. The most compelling interpretation might be this: The deaths of Gatsby and Jesse are theatricalities, performances meant to draw the curtain on a depraved illusion. They are not tragic heroes in the Romantic mold. They are the constructions of morally compromised yet tragically romantic imaginations. We are invited to partake in this imagination by witnessing their downfalls through Nick Carraway's and Dean's hypocritical eyes. Dean is a stand-in for the audience and frames our vision of Jesse and the broader conflicts between the Hollywood haves and have-nots, much the way Nick curates the reader's experience of Gatsby and class conflict in the Roaring Twenties. And like Dean and Nick, audiences are likely to balk at what they see without learning from it.

For The Neon Demon, as for The Great Gatsby, there is no path to happiness. There is only hypocrisy, cruelty and isolation. The irony at the heart of the film is that the fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) may be right when he says, "Beauty is not everything. It's the only thing.” All creation is the same, he says, be it a line of clothing or a dramatic character. Art is a unity and beauty is an indivisible, all-encompassing whole, the monistic God of Spinoza, the one, supreme substance of which all else is made. What the designer does not understand, however, is that compassion is also beautiful. What we see in the film depends on how we define ourselves in relation to beauty. We can laugh at the film, embrace narcissism and celebrate ourselves as beautiful products to be consumed. Yet, can humanity--the lived compassion for other people--survive in the process? The fashion designer's Hollywood is a reflection of our world, where consumption is rewarded over compassion and children grow up embracing narcissism, longing to be mass-consumed. This is the profound dilemma at the heart of The Neon Demon. If it is shallow, it is no shallower than the pool in which we see our own reflection.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

We Know Who Won The Democratic Primary

In a new video, filmmaker Matthew Cooke taps into all the anger, frustration and disappointment that Sanders' supporters are feeling in the wake of the Democratic Party's primary voting process. His main contention is, "We don't know who won the Democratic primary." In other words, Bernie may deserve the nomination, despite the fact that he has lost by every discernible measure. He says, as many of Bernie's supporters say, that the results are invalid because the process is undemocratic. As much as I understand why some of Bernie's supporters might feel cheated, and why they feel he still can (or at least should) win the nomination in July, I think it is deeply wrong. There actually is a clear winner of the Democratic Primary, and it is Hillary Clinton.

Cooke's argument begins with a reference to a recent study which, he says, ranks U.S. electoral integrity as "the lowest in all developed nations in this world."  That is factually incorrect. The report he is talking about is the Electoral Integrity Project's 2015 Year in Elections report. It ranks the United States as the lowest among long-standing democracies, not lowest among developed nations.  There are dozens of developed nations which ranked lower than the United States for electoral integrity.

Still, you're probably thinking, being ranked the lowest among long-standing democracies is bad enough, right?  Maybe, but consider the bigger picture.

Imagine a child is enrolled in an extremely competitive and challenging school, and has managed to make it to the last year. They are about to graduate, and their final grades come in. Alas, the parents find out that they are ranked the lowest in their class. The following dialogue ensues:

Parent: I don't understand this! How can you be the worst in your class? It's a disgrace. You're a failure! You are wasting your life away! 
Child: But I'm graduating! 
Parent: What a joke! This diploma is meaningless. It's not valid. You haven't learned enough. You haven't really made it! 
Child: But I have good grades! 
Parent: What? 
Child: My GPA is a 3.2.  It's a B.  Actually, last year I got an A. You know it's a really competitive program, right? And I've faced a lot of disadvantages that other students haven't had to deal with. 
I hope we can all agree that the parent was wrong.  The lowest score is not necessarily a bad, or even mediocre, score.  Despite being the lowest among established democracies, U.S. electoral integrity received a high mark, the equivalent of a B, despite the fact that the United States faces challenges that most of the higher-ranking nations do not face: an enormous, widely heterogeneous population divided into many states, each with different voting processes. (The biggest concerns about U.S. electoral integrity were about campaign finance regulation and gerrymandering--both of which are particularly difficult problems to manage because of the enormity and diversity of the population.)

It is also important to realize that the report in question is based on subjective perceptions of 40 experts worldwide. It is not a comprehensive or objective analysis.  Furthermore, it is only based on the elections from 2012 and 2014. The United States scored higher in previous reports, and--like the student in my fictional scenario--recently earned an A.

So, yeah, based on expert opinion with respect to the 2012 and 2014 elections, America's electoral integrity is . . . good.  It's not great. It has problems. But it's good.


Cooke's second point is that, as bad as it was in the past (or as good as it was in the past, if you want to be more accurate), the current election was worse.  To make this case, he presents a list of complaints supported by a series of visual images of Websites reporting on election issues. The alleged problems can be divided into two main categories.

Problem 1: The media announced the nominee the night before "six key states" had a chance to vote.

Were the six states voting on June 7 all key states?  Surely Cooke was exaggerating by saying "six key states."  Nobody would claim that North and South Dakota were key states. Montana and New Mexico? Likely not.  New Jersey?  Maybe. California? Arguably yes, though the role of California in this election is debatable, as I will discuss shortly.

The point is, key states or not, why did the Associated Press announce a presumptive nominee the night before so many people voted?

The explanation is straightforward. Over the weekend (on June 4th and 5th), Clinton won over 40 pledged delegates in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Then, on Monday, June 6th, the Associated Press got confirmation from additional superdelegates that they were, without reservation or qualification, going to vote for Hillary at the convention in July.  With the new pledged and unpledged delegates behind her, Clinton's numbers were enough to make her the presumptive nominee.  That is newsworthy, and it happened on June 6th, a day before California's vote.  (Lots of people voted early in California, but let's say that doesn't matter.)

Now, maybe it's not always a good idea to report whatever is newsworthy. The AP certainly could have waited a day, but it wouldn't have helped Bernie.

Bernie needed a ridiculously large win on June 7th to get the majority of pledged delegates. Without that, he had virtually no hope of winning over a significant number of Clinton's superdelegates. So, the AP was technically correct.  Clinton had clinched the nomination. She was the presumptive nominee on June 6th. Furthermore, as Jeff Weaver even admitted, the AP's Monday announcement was just as likely to lower the turnout for Clinton as it was to lower the turnout for Bernie. I imagine it did more to lower the turnout for Hillary, because a lot of Bernie's supporters seem to be motivated by a desire to be heard despite the official outcome.

Of course, the general concern here is that the media has worked in Hillary's favor throughout the election.  According to the Electoral Integrity Project's 2015 report, the role of the media is one of the biggest problems in elections throughout the world. But did Bernie really get it worse?  It is easy to conclude that your favored candidate has gotten it worse, because you are more likely to notice and remember all the bias against them. Yet, every candidate has been the victim of negative media bias. We can't trust our subjective impressions to conclude which candidate has had it the worst. Fortunately, we don't have to.  There have been two studies of media bias in the current primary (one and two), and both conclude that Hillary has suffered the most. The media's effect on Bernie's campaign has been net positive. Not so for Hillary.

Problem 2: The voting process is severely compromised

There is more legitimate room for concern here.  We can and should be critical of flaws in the system. We can and should push to improve the voting process. I appreciate all of the attention that this is getting, and I don't see the Democratic Party trying to ignore it.  In fact, the DNC filed a lawsuit in Arizona, and Clinton's campaign was critical of the massive purging in Brooklyn (especially considering that those voters were very likely to have voted for her)..

Cooke says that millions of California voters have been "denied voting rights" because "their ballots haven't even been counted yet."  Yet, the reason they haven't been counted yet is because California is an extremely large state and the process is extremely thorough.  This is not a denial of voting rights. It is a painstaking attempt to guarantee them.

Cooke says that longstanding Democrats have been bumped off voter rolls, but the evidence here is almost entirely anecdotal.  Somebody knows somebody whose brother's wife says she was bumped.  That's pretty much worth ignoring.  In fact, according to one of the articles Cooke flashes on screen, a woman appeared before a court and complained that she was bumped from the Democratic Party, only to have the court reveal that she actually bumped herself when she registered with the DMV.

There have also been complaints about unaffiliated voters having trouble voting for a Democrat in the semi-open California primary. The complaint here is just that some people didn't bother to find out how to vote properly.  There's no evidence that the information was withheld, or that people were misled. Some people just didn't bother to figure out how to vote.

Then there are the complaints about long waiting periods.  People had to wait in long lines, sometimes because the number of polling stations were reduced, or because they were understaffed. Some people had to wait an hour, maybe more, because the polling stations didn't have enough ballots.

Polling stations have to manage their resources. They calculate what they need based on expected turnout.  If the turnout is more than they expected, there will be delays. This is unfortunate, and it can even mean that fewer people will end up voting.  That is terrible, and should be avoided.  I think we all agree on that, but it is not evidence of fraud.

However, if your complaint is that people shouldn't have to spend an hour or two just in order to cast a vote, then how can you fail to mention caucuses?  Caucuses routinely take hours. Why doesn't Cooke mention that?  (Hint: It's because Bernie won most of the caucuses. Clinton won the majority of open primaries and the majority of closed primaries.)

Cooke also complains about voting machines.  There's an unreliable video of a touchscreen machine that seems to refuse to register a vote for Sanders. And Cooke presents a screenshot from True Democratic Party, which looks like one of the least reputable (but perhaps most amusing) sources out there.  The article makes highly suspicious claims and vague arguments without any factual support. If you look at other articles on the Website, you will learn that the moon has a magic portal and that the pyramids in Egypt were built by giants.  So, yeah.  Okay.

But What About The Exit Polls?

The final claim Cooke makes is one that has been used by a lot of Bernie's supporters to suggest that all the accusations of tampering are legit.  It's the claim that exit polls, which are a "benchmark" for electoral integrity, have been way off.  And yet, this report was based on a comparison of election results with unadjusted exit polls.  Of course unadjusted exit polls are going to be off. The adjustment process is necessary to make exit polls meaningful in the first place.  (Here's a rundown of how exit polls work, if you want more info.)

Imagine this scenario: Two voting districts have vastly different population sizes. One district has 100,000 voters. The other district has 10,000 voters. Let's say exit polls are taken in both districts, and the same sample size (100 voters) is used for each poll. To simplify, let's say that the large district overwhelmingly votes for Clinton, and the smaller district overwhelmingly votes for Sanders. The exit polls reflect this: 100 polled say they voted for Clinton, and 100 voted say they voted for Sanders. If you look at unadjusted results--that is, if you look at the exit polls without looking at the populations they represent--then it looks like Clinton and Sanders each got 50 percent of the vote. They each got 100 out of 200 polled. But if you adjust to the number of actual votes cast, you realize that Clinton got about 100,000 and Sanders only got about 10,000.

Clinton tended to do better in urban areas. Bernie did better in rural areas. This explains why the unadjusted exit polls underestimated Clinton's performance.

The Bigger Picture

This was not a very close primary. Clinton is the presumptive nominee by a large margin.  She has millions more in the popular vote and almost 400 more pledged delegates.  Even if Bernie got the support of the vast majority of superdelegates (which, good luck), he still wouldn't have more delegates than Hillary.

Yes, Bernie had unique challenges and disadvantages, though Hillary arguably had it worse in crucial ways.  And yes, the system is not perfect.  Thousands of people were prevented from voting.  Maybe even hundreds of thousands.  That is unacceptable. However, it is not grounds for denying the fact that Clinton has won.

If you are only willing to respect the outcome of an election when it is flawless, then you are setting the bar too high. You could not claim that Obama is the legitimate President of the United States of America.  You could not claim that any President in US history was legitimate.  In fact, I doubt any nation could pass that test.

Cooke's video is dangerously irresponsible.  He is not presenting a dispassionate assessment of what is wrong with the system.  He is presenting extremely biased, misleading and factually incorrect propaganda in an attempt to undermine Clinton's victory.  His goal is presumably to support Bernie's continued attempt to win the nomination even after he has lost, and to provoke even more anger and frustration among Bernie's supporters.  As far as inflaming anger and frustration, I am sure Cooke's video is successful.  However, it will not win Bernie the nomination. It will only hurt Clinton and the Democratic Party.  

We can work together to improve the system without divisive, negative propaganda which seeks to undermine the legitimate winner of the Democratic nomination. That should be our goal, unless you want to see the Democrats lose in November.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Clinton Has Won According To Bernie's Own Rules

Clinton won New Jersey by over 60 percent of the vote. This is the fourteenth contest she has won with 60 or more percent of the vote. Why is that a significant number? Because Bernie says anyone who has won that much of the vote should get the superdelegates, as well. If you add up the superdelegates in all of the contests which Clinton won with 60 percent or more, you get 183 delegates. That's a lot of delegates. In fact, it's enough.

Clinton looks to have won about 400 pledged delegates yesterday. The exact number hasn't been reported yet, but it is probably very close to 400. To be very conservative, let's say it is 390. That means she has won 2,202 pledged delegates. Let's make it an even 2,200--just to be more conservative.

So how many delegates has Clinton already won, according to Bernie's rule? Add the 2,200 pledged delegates she has won and the 183 unpledged delegates Bernie says she has also won, and you get a magnificent number. It's 2,383.

In case you have forgotten, 2,383 is the number of delegates needed to win the nomination.

Remember, I was being conservative.  She most likely won more than 390 pledged delegates yesterday.

If Bernie wants to continue campaigning, he needs to contradict himself. That's a hard fact.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Will Bernie Follow His Own Rule?

Bernie has argued that superdelegates should follow the will of the voters in states and territories which have been won by very large margins. In other words, if a candidate has won "60 or 70 percent" of the vote, he says, then the superdelegates from that state or territory should support that candidate at the national convention.

If we follow Bernie's rule, then Clinton is closer to winning than Bernie may want us to believe. If Clinton wins 405 pledged delegates tomorrow, Bernie will have to either contradict his principle or drop out of the race.

Clinton has won 13 contests with 60 percent or more of the vote. According to Bernie's rule, that means she has won the superdelegates from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Maryland, Virginia and the North Mariana Islands.

That's 167 superdelegates.

Clinton has already won 1,811 pledged delegates through the voting process.

According to Bernie's rule, that means Clinton already has won 1,978 delegates.

She is therefore 405 delegates short of the needed 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.

There are 714 pledged delegates left, and most of them will be awarded in tomorrow's contests.

Clinton needs 58 percent of the 694 pledged delegates from tomorrow's contests to win the nomination, according to Bernie's rule.

(Of course, if she wins any of those contests with 60 percent of the vote, then she will need even fewer pledged delegates. but that is unlikely.)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Bernie's (False?) Promise

Whenever Bernie is asked about the possibility of losing the nomination, he says exactly the same thing: He promises to do whatever is in his power to make sure Trump is not elected President. Isn't that suspiciously vague? And isn't it odd that nobody is calling him out on it?

In case the problem is not clear, let me spell it out: Bernie is not saying he will do whatever is in his power to make sure the Democratic nominee wins. He is not saying he will do whatever is in his power to support Hillary Clinton. Yet, a Hillary endorsement is what is expected. By not committing to one, he is implicitly saying that he might try to oppose Trump in some other way.

It seems fair to deduce that Bernie is planning to do one of three things:

  1. Run as an independent in the general election. 
  2. Endorse a third-party candidate in the general election. 
  3. Threaten to do either of the above at the DNC to put political pressure on the Democratic Party. 
Unfortunately, none of those options will help Bernie live up to his promise.

I would hope that Bernie realizes that the only way he can live up to his promise is by endorsing Hillary without qualification, and I would hope that he cares enough about the world to stand by his promise.

I would hope those things, if I had any faith whatsoever in Bernie Sanders.

Advantages and Disadvantages in the Democratic Primary

Bernie Sanders and a lot of his supporters complain about the fact that hundreds of superdelegates endorsed Hillary Clinton well before the primary season officially began. While this certainly gave Clinton an advantage, I don't think it was an unfair one. [Update: It looks like Bernie's claims about hundreds of early endorsements are not even true.]

Hillary Clinton earned her support. Aside from her resume, she has shown that she can win votes: She won more actual votes than Obama in 2008--more than anyone else has in a primary--Republican or Democrat--ever. The greatest strength a political party can demonstrate in an election is its ability to unify behind an exceptional candidate who motivates a broad swath of its constituents. That is what hundreds of party officials and leaders have done by endorsing Hillary.

Perhaps some of Bernie's supporters believe that the Democratic Party should pretend to be weak. Some may believe that the Democratic Party should just dissolve so that a phoenix can rise from its ashes. However, I wonder if a lot of Bernie's supporters only refuse to see party unity as a good thing because the party isn't unifying behind their favored candidate. They claim that Clinton hasn't earned her place in the party. That she's somehow bought it, or won it through brute force and intimidation. They refuse to see her as anything other than corrupt, and her support as anything other than evidence of her corruption. Her supporters, in contrast, see her support as a sign of strength, not weakness.

While Clinton was advantaged by getting so much support from party officials, Bernie still had a good shot at victory. For one thing, he had a chance to win over all the unpledged "superdelegates" as well as the majority of pledged delegates. Nobody was ever obligated to accept Clinton. And let's not forget the fact that you do not even need the superdelegates to win the nomination. Even though it would have been hard for anyone to beat Hillary, Bernie had a clear path to victory.

He came pretty close, and he and his supporters should feel proud of that, but Bernie could have come a lot closer--and maybe could have even won--if he had chosen a different strategy. Whenever he was confronted with the fact that Clinton had enormous support (from superdelegates, from institutions, from voting blocs), he tried to undermine their legitimacy. Why did hundreds of superdelegates support Hillary? Bernie said it was because they were "establishment." Why did Planned Parenthood? Same answer. He even went so far as to denigrate women for wanting to rally behind a woman, saying he would never ask anyone to voter for him because of his gender. In short, his tone has been insulting and he has not respected the fact that people have different values than he does. Instead of trying to appeal to all of us, he has insulted us. And instead of trying to appeal to superdelegates, he has insulted superdelegates. It is no wonder he lost.

And lest you think Clinton is the only one who had advantages, let's consider some of the ways Bernie was advantaged, too.  For one thing, he is a white man. For another thing, the media has been biased against the Clintons for decades. According to one study, Hillary has gotten the most negative media coverage and the least positive media coverage, proportionally speaking, of anyone--including the Donald.  Bernie was able to rely on decades of media spin and scandal to paint Clinton in a negative light, a light which has so far spared him considerably. I'm not saying the media has treated him fairly, but that when it comes to media bias, Clinton has had it much worse--not just because of the coverage in the present campaign, but because of the history of coverage that still works against her.  I think one reason a lot of people respect her is because she has been able to weather these disadvantages and still come out ahead.

It's hard to feel bad for Bernie.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Closer Look at The OIG Report and Clinton's Emails

As is to be expected, most corners of the press are coming down hard on Hillary Clinton after the release of the State Department's OIG (Office of the Inspector General) report. If you read the report itself, however, you will see that the case against Hillary has been exaggerated.  This is not to say that she didn't make any mistakes, but only that their extent and seriousness are not entirely clear.  This is not because the OIG failed to do its job, but because the goal of the report was to identify weaknesses in the State Department's email records management and cybersecurity systems, and not to indict  Hillary Clinton.

The report focuses on two main areas of criticism which apply to Secretary Clinton. The first is that she did not strictly follow formal procedures for storing copies of her emails. The second is that she used a private email server without going through the proper channels for clearance.

What the report shows is that the agencies responsible for ensuring the integrity of governmental systems have not been doing their job.

Let's start with the criticism that she did not strictly adhere to formal procedures for preserving records of her emails. The OIG finds that the agency responsible for overseeing such practices--the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)--was not doing its job: "Although NARA is responsible for conducting inspections or surveys of agencies’ records and records management programs and practices, it last reviewed the Office of the Secretary’s records retention practices in 1991–a quarter century ago." Furthermore, in 2015 (two years after Clinton left the State Department), "NARA reported that 80 percent of agencies had an elevated risk for the improper management of electronic records, reflecting serious challenges handling vast amounts of email, integrating records management functionality into electronic systems, and adapting to the changing technological and regulatory environments." This is about all government agencies, not just the State Department. The OIG is clear: "NARA identified similar weaknesses across the Federal Government with regard to electronic records in particular." The question must be asked: Why was it that almost every governmental agency was failing to follow the formal guidelines for records management, and why wasn't NARA bothering to check to see what was going on?

The answer, as the OIG report makes clear, is that the United States government did not have an appropriate system in place for the proper storage of email records, and NARA did not impose any penalties for failure to comply with their guidelines.

Clinton had a choice: One option was to use the SMART system, which was believed to have technical problems, to be difficult to use, and to "allow overly broad access to sensitive materials." The other option was to print and file all of her emails. She chose to print and file, but--as with almost every other governmental agency--only did so "sporadically":

employees in the Office of the Secretary have printed and filed such emails only sporadically. In its discussions with OIG, NARA stated that this lack of compliance exists across the government. Although the Department is aware of the failure to print and file, the FAM [Foreign Affairs Manual] contains no explicit penalties for lack of compliance, and the Department has never proposed discipline against an employee for failure to comply.
The OIG criticizes Clinton for failing to turn over records of all of her work-related email prior to leaving the office--a failing which can presumably be explained by the fact that her office had only "sporadically" printed and filed its emails. While there is clear evidence that Clinton fell short of policy requirements, the OIG acknowledges that this is "mitigated" by the fact that Clinton was able to produce 55,000 pages of work-reated emails upon request.

Yet, the OIG was "unable to systematically assess the extent to which Secretaries Albright, Powell, Rice, Clinton, and Kerry and their immediate staff managed and preserved email records."  The report continues:
In particular, OIG could not readily retrieve and analyze email records, in part because of the previously discussed weaknesses in the Department’s records management processes. Although hard-copy and electronic email records dating back to Secretary Albright’s tenure exist, these records have never been organized or indexed.
I would think that no amount of organizing and indexing printed files could guarantee a flawless accounting of any email storage and retrieval system. Unless you have direct access to the emails themselves, then you will never know if any emails were overlooked. Organizing and indexing make it easier to detect whether or not somebody has tampered with the records, but they don't make it easier to detect whether any emails were left out of the record-keeping process altogether. Nevertheless, the OIG has deduced that some emails were left out because they did not receive printed records of emails from the first few months of Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State. This is presumably because Clinton was transitioning into the office and had not established a proper system yet.

In sum, yes, we can criticize Clinton for not strictly following NARA's record-keeping guidelines, but there is virtually no bite to that attack.

The more serious concern, as we have all known for some time, has to do with her use of a private email server. However, on this front, the OIG report offers nothing new of substance. It does not conclude that her email server was unacceptable or that it did not comply with security guidelines. All it says is that Clinton did not go through proper channels to approve the system.

And let's be clear about one thing: This is not about using a private email account. It's about using a private email server. If the OIG report makes anything clear, it is that Clinton was allowed to use private email to conduct official business. The OIG report repeats this, just so we don't misunderstand: " laws and regulations did not prohibit employees from using their personal email accounts for the conduct of official Department business." It is currently advised that "personal accounts should only be used in exceptional circumstances," but this guideline was put in place in 2015, well after Clinton's tenure. So, when Clinton says she was allowed to use a private email account, she is not lying.

The question is, was she allowed to use a private email server?

The OIG report does not give a clear answer to that question.  What is clear is that any such system would have had to have been approved, and the OIG couldn't find any evidence that Clinton sought approval through the proper channels:
Throughout Secretary Clinton's tenure, the FAM stated that normal day-to-day operations should be conducted on an authorized AIS [Automated Information System], yet OIG found no evidence that the Secretary requested or obtained guidance or approval to conduct official business via a personal email account on her private server. . . .
During Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the FAM also instructed employees that they were expected to use approved, secure methods to transmit SBU information and that, if they needed to transmit SBU [sensitive but unclassified] information outside the Department’s OpenNet network on a regular basis to non-Departmental addresses, they should request a solution from IRM [the Bureau of Information Resource Management]. However, OIG found no evidence that Secretary Clinton ever contacted IRM to request such a solution, despite the fact that emails exchanged on her personal account regularly contained information marked as SBU.
Though Clinton appears to have made a mistake here, it does not seem to be a punishable offense. This can be deduced from the fact that the OIG ends the report by recommending the following:
The Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources should amend the Foreign Affairs Manual to provide for administrative penalties for Department employees who (1) fail to comply with recordkeeping laws and regulations or (2) fail to comply with Department policy that only authorized information systems are to be used to conduct day-to-day operations. 

In other words, even though Clinton fell short of formal guidelines (both for record-keeping and for using an unauthorized server), there were no penalties in place for these infractions. The conclusion, therefore, is that Clinton has not been found guilty of a punishable wrong.

The bottom line is, the OIG report does not tell us whether or not Clinton took acceptable precautions to protect the security of her email. It does not tell us whether or not her email system was secure. The OIG report does not give us any new, decisive information about those concerns. All it does is flesh out some of the details in a way which, hopefully, will help the State Department (and other governmental agencies) get their act together.

It's also worth noting that one of the OIG's recommendations is to "evaluate the cost and feasibility of conducting regular audits of computer system usage to ascertain the degree to which Department employees are following the laws and policies concerning the use of personal email accounts." The management rejected the recommendation, saying such audits would "not be beneficial or feasible, especially because the Department already conducts continuous monitoring to ensure the integrity of the Department's networks and systems."  Does that mean that there was an appropriate oversight mechanism in place during Clinton's tenure? If so, why didn't they respond to Clinton's use of a private server?

US Tax Center Infographic

The US Tax Center is promoting an infographic comparing the effects of Clinton's and Trump's tax policies on income. As you might expect, it has an angle.

It's "THEIR PLANS vs. YOUR PAY." The emphasis is personal.  Apparently, we are supposed to think that everything you need to know about how these plans will "affect you" is how they will affect "your take-home pay."

This appeals to a very limited set of values. It is as if the US Tax Center doesn't want people to think about income inequality or policy in any detail at all. It's just, "which candidate is going to help put some extra cash in your pocket at the end of the month?"

Of course, the answer is the Republican candidate. If all you care about is getting some extra cash at the end of the month, then Trump is going to appeal to you.

The infographic does at least acknowledge that Trump's policies "would require cuts in a lot of services and spending."  What cuts? How will those affect us?

And shouldn't the average American care that Trump wants to lower taxes on the upper class by almost twice as much on the dollar?  According to these numbers, Trump wants to cut everyone's taxes, but he wants to cut them on the rich and powerful in particular.

Clinton wants to do the opposite. She wants to protect the income of lower and middle class Americans, and moderately raise taxes on the upper and upper middle classes. You can call her a moderate, but her bent is clearly progressive.

For what it's worth, I asked for comparative information about Bernie Sanders, and here is what they sent me:
Bernie Sanders:
The most aggressive tax plan, which establishes new brackets for the highest-income individuals. Will increase tax rates on all the existing brackets as well. 
Annual Income | Change to paycheck (bi-weekly)
$20,000 | -$8.81
$35,000 | -$59.21
$55,000 | -$148.16
$100,000 | -$293.80
$250,000 | -$683.00
As would be expected, this shows everyone paying significantly more per month.

Bernie is all but out of the race, but this is still worth considering. In terms of numbers, Clinton is very much in the middle between Trump and Bernie. However, in terms of values and principles, her approach is much closer to Bernie's. In contrast to Trump, they both want to raise, rather than lower, taxes. Also, whereas Trump wants to lower taxes on the rich by a higher percentage, Clinton and Sanders both want to raise taxes on the rich by a higher percentage. (As it happens, it looks like Clinton wants to raise taxes on the rich by a proportionally higher percentage than Bernie does.) Again, Clinton's plan might be more moderate, but it is clearly progressive.

There is one more element which distinguishes Clinton, but which you can't see in these numbers.  It is that, of the three, she is the only one whose proposals have not been criticized by experts for "magical thinking."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

More Circus

News flash: A male television personality who owes his success to misogynistic comedy (via "The Man Show") has helped two male candidates pretend they aren't losing to a woman. There's no question who Donald would rather run against, is there?

And in case you missed it, Kimmel was doing Bernie's bidding. CNN reports: "Michael Briggs, a Sanders spokesman, said that Kimmel allowed the Sanders campaign to submit a question to Trump to be asked during the taping -- so they asked about a potential debate."

Then, doubling down on the challenge with Wolf Blitzer, Jeff Weaver said he hoped The Donald wouldn't "chicken out." Yes, "chicken out." Just to make sure nobody was mistaking Jeff Weaver for a mature adult.

Apparently, Bernie is hoping to bully his way to the nomination by challenging Trump in the most childish way possible and by pretending that Clinton is no longer in the race at all. I guess the next couple of weeks are going to be a doozy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Why Did Bernie Lose?

Technically Bernie hasn't lost yet, but let's face it. He's not going to win over hundreds of Clinton's superdelegates without winning the majority of pledged delegates, and he needs over two-thirds of the remaining pledged delegates to do that. With Clinton still ahead in California and New Jersey, that just ain't gonna happen. Bernie has every right to stay in the race and amass as many delegates as he can, but the fact is plain: Bernie lost.

The question is, why?

Bernie says the election process was rigged. One claim is that independents were unfairly excluded. While independents are excluded from closed primaries and caucuses, whether or not that is fair is open to debate. It seems fair to require a simple and free registration process before you are allowed to vote in a primary. In any case, yes, there were some closed primaries, and Bernie lost most of those; however, he lost most of the open primaries, too. The other claim is that there was electoral fraud; however, there is no evidence that Clinton benefited from anything like that. In short, there's no reason to think that the voting process was rigged.

So why did Bernie lose?

A recent article at Vox attempts to shed some light on the answer. They say the system was rigged, but not in the way Bernie means. They mean that Hillary won some advantages from the system. They identify two ways that Bernie was disadvantaged:  First, some voters take their cues from party elites, and the party elites were strongly in favor of Clinton from the start. Second, the system's approved policy experts were lining up to work for Clinton, leading to a "wonk gap."

Those are interesting points, but it leaves a lot to be said. For one thing, we must remember that Hillary Clinton did exceptionally well against Barack Obama in 2008. She and Obama each received record-breaking numbers of votes. For that reason, there had been buzz about Clinton's 2016 campaign for almost eight years before the current primary began. Many, many millions of voters have been waiting for another chance to vote for her. When it was clear she was going to run again, everyone knew that she was going to be one of the most formidable opponents in modern political history. It would have taken another Obama to stand a chance against her.  This was not because the system was unfair, but because Clinton had established a prominent place for herself within it.

The Vox article insinuates that Clinton established that position by instilling fear: Powerful people supported her because they were afraid she would hurt them if they didn't. It's the line about how the Clintons are "notorious" for punishing disloyalty and rewarding loyalty. It would be nice to see some substantiation of that, because it sounds an awful lot like propaganda. This is Bernie's line: We should not listen to individuals or organizations (not even Planned Parenthood) who have endorsed Clinton, because they are just part of "the establishment."

It is most certainly true that Clinton has received numerous advantages because of her position in the Democratic Party. This is how it should be.  If a person establishes strong relationships with policy makers and party officials, and appeals to a broad swath of the party's base, then of course they will be advantaged in the nomination process.  This doesn't mean the party is closed to new faces or ideas. It only means that the strength of the party is found in the partnerships between its members and officials, and not despite them.

Winning support in an election is winning trust, and trust has to be earned. Bernie failed to win over the trust of the majority of Clinton's supporters. The question is still, why?

I think tone is a big part of it. From the start of the campaign, Bernie presented himself as an exception to the rule. He denied being a "career politician," despite the fact that he was one. He accused everyone who disagreed with him of being corrupted by "the establishment." He seemed more intent on propping himself up than he was on listening to what other people had to say. He suggested that Democrats in the South don't matter. He said superdelegates were going to steal the election from him, until he realized he needed them to win. He said he would never ask anyone to vote for him because he was a man--showing that he did not understand how being a man was an advantage in political elections. I could go on.

There's also policy. His promises rarely rang true.  Like, for example, the promise that all he needed to do was overturn Citizens United and we would somehow get money out of politics. Also, he often questioned people who asked difficult policy questions, as if it had not been his job to give us a clear picture of what future he was selling. If we dared to question his vision, we would be dismissed as pessimists shilling for the status-quo. Bernie was selling the blind hope that somehow all would be well once the revolution saved us from Evil. It was the magical thinking that, I believe, turned a lot of us off.

Bernie always excelled at showing anger and at pointing fingers. He did make many respectable policy proposals, but he was also an effective demagogue, and his intransigent posturing inspired many people. He made it clear with every breath that he was not going to put up with fraud or corruption, and that he would not budge on matters of principle. Then we saw his campaign profit from corruption and abandon its principles. The doubters among us have been vindicated.

I don't begrudge anyone for voting for Bernie or for believing in what he stands for.  I have close friends and family who supported Bernie, and some who still refuse to accept that he has lost. The important thing to remember is that this populist movement, this progressive revolution, started before Bernie entered the primary campaign, and it will continue after the trials and tribulations of his campaign are forgotten. Bernie was never the heart or the mind of the revolution. I don't think any single politician deserves that title, but if anyone did, it would be Elizabeth Warren, and her refusal to endorse Bernie speaks volumes. For a short spell, Bernie was the movement's most prominent champion. He may have helped build the movement, though I'm not sure he did so in entirely positive ways. I hope future champions learn from his mistakes. Perhaps the biggest lesson is, don't insult the people whose party you are trying to win.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Cynical Observer

I don't see any reason why Bernie should drop out of the race before California and New Jersey have had a chance to vote. I think most people agree. Hillary Clinton has clearly said she supports his decision to remain in the race, reminding us that she did the same thing back in 2008. So I don't know why there's this idea going around that Clinton and her supporters want Bernie out of the race immediately. The problem with Bernie's plan isn't that he wants to stay in until the June 7 votes are tallied. The problem is that he wants to bring a fight to the national convention in July even if (or, rather, when) he fails to win the majority of votes and pledged delegates.

This is a dangerous strategy, as Jamelle Boule argues at Slate: "A cynical observer might say that Sanders isn’t angry with the lack of democracy as much as he’s angry at losing."

Well color me cynical.

It's not just that Bernie wants to disrupt the convention. It's that he wants to ignore the will of the voters.  As he told Jake Tapper on CNN, he thinks the superdelegates "have a job to do." He says their job is to elect the candidate who has the best chances of winning in November. He says that might mean going for the candidate who has fewer votes and fewer pledged delegates. Seriously, he literally said that. He said that superdelegates should choose who is "objectively" more likely to win in November, and when pressed on whether or not that meant going against the will of the voters, he said, "we'll see."  Watch the video. Tapper raises the question at the 5-minute mark, and asks it several more times before we get a clear view of Bernie's position:

The problem with this was recently explained by Markos "kos" Moulitsas on DailyKos:
"Fact is, Clinton won people of color by massive margins. Sanders won white people. Sanders thinks the election results should be tossed aside in his favor. Whose votes would be disenfranchised in that scenario? This is simple extrapolation, and don’t think us people of color aren’t noticing."
Bernie is arguing for the disenfranchisement of voters--minority voters, especially--in the name of Democracy. This is the face of America's progressive movement?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sanders Complains, But Without A Good Argument

It's hard to respect the complaints Bernie Sanders is making. Apart from repeating his campaign's position that Debbie Wasserman Schulz is the embodiment of everything that is unholy about the establishment, CNN recently reported the following:
Sanders also said it is "absurd" that superdelegates began supporting Clinton even before she had a competitor.
"There's something absurd that I get 46% of the delegates that come from real contests, real elections, and 7% of the superdelegates," he told Tapper. "Some 400 of Hillary Clinton's superdelegates came on board her campaign before anybody else announced. It was anointment. And that is bad for the process." 
Sanders, who has frequently cited polls saying he does better than Clinton in a matchup against Trump, also said there's "a good chance" the former secretary of state can beat the presumptive Republican nominee. 
"I'm not saying she cannot beat Donald Trump. I think she can. I think there's a good chance she can," the Vermont senator said. "(But) I am the stronger candidate because we appeal to independents -- people who are not in love with either the Democratic or the Republican Party, often for very good reasons."
There are two main points here.  First, he says superdelegates shouldn't endorse candidates before the competition has officially presented itself.  Second, he says he is a better candidate in a general election because he appeals to independents who "are not in love with" either party.

Why shouldn't superdelegates endorse candidates as early as they want? They know the playing field. They're not guessing blind. Furthermore, and most importantly, they can always change their minds. At no point have any superdelegates been prevented from endorsing Bernie. None are nor have ever been bound to Hillary. There was no "annointment."  There was support, and Bernie hasn't shown why anybody should have a problem with that. Bernie might say that it gives the impression that one candidate is better than another. If "better" means "has a better relationship with the party's leadership," then the impression would be entirely accurate. What is wrong with that? If "better" means something else, then I think Bernie is wrong. Voters are not stupid. They know what a political endorsement is.

Second, there's the line about independents.  Here Bernie talks about "love," insinuating that registered Republicans and Democrats are driven more by emotional attachment than rational argument. Bernie, in contrast, appeals to the cautious and rational independents.  Surprising, then, that independents seem to be the ones most responsive to demagoguery.  And I am sure Bernie is aware that many people register for a political party because they want to influence the primary process, and not because they feel any deep sense of devotion to that party. In any case, the question remains as to whether Bernie is a better candidate because he appeals to independents.

According to the most recent Gallup data, 44 percent of the electorate are independent, but 49 percent of the electorate are or lean towards Democrat, while 41 percent of the electorate are or lean towards Republican. Hillary Clinton presumably appeals to the 49 percent of voters who are or lean Democrat, and she probably appeals to a good number of the 41 percent who are or lean Republican, too, since we know there are many on the right who prefer her to Trump.

Bernie has won more independent voters in the Democratic primary, and polls currently show him doing slightly better than Clinton against Trump. However, neither of these mean mean that would win more independent voters than Clinton would against Trump. It does not mean that his support among independents makes him a better candidate in the general election. It doesn't mean he's a better candidate in the general election at all.

For one thing, as is often observed, Bernie has not been the target of a massive hit campaign yet. We cannot predict how he will fare after months and months (and billions of dollars) spent assassinating his character, his policies and his record.

Additionally, polls will most certainly change once the primary is over and Bernie is out of the race. It is very possible that a lot of people who take the "Bernie or Bust" sentiment to heart are driving up Trump's performance in polls against Clinton, but will change their tune once Bernie is out of the race. Clinton's performance in the polls will most likely improve once the primary is over.

Finally, Bernie is assuming that registered Democrats will come out to support him in droves. The reality is that many, many Democrats have lost respect for him and his campaign. (It doesn't help that he accuses Clinton supporters of being irrational or deluded.)  Many, many Democrats are very enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton.  If superdelegates were to go against the vote, ignore the primary voting process altogether, and anoint--yes, anoint--Bernie Sanders, then a great number of Hillary's supporters will be pissed the hell off. They will prefer Bernie to Trump, but they will not do so with enthusiasm. The Democratic Party will be damaged, and that could depress voter turnout in November.

In sum, there is no reason why superdelegates should abandon Clinton, whose performance in the primary has been phenomenal. Turning on Hillary at this point would be shooting themselves in the foot.

What Bernie Wants

Bernie Sanders says he wants to win the nomination. He says he can win.  The question is, how?

Bernie Sanders says he wants to win as many pledged delegates as possible in the remaining states. He says he can win enough to go to the national convention with a majority, though this is very close to impossible, and gets even closer to impossible every day.

Bernie also says that with or without a majority, he will win by convincing hundreds of superdelegates who are backing Clinton to switch to his side. Again, the question is, how?

Bernie knows he cannot win the support he needs by arguing policy. He knows he cannot win by repeating his stump speech and accusing the Democratic Party in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, of being untrustworthy and corrupt. His rhetoric has taken him far, but he knows it's not enough to win him the nomination.

The only way he can hope to win is if he can convince the establishment that he is the only person who can carry the Democratic Party to victory in November.  That's it.  Bernie must convince the overwhelming majority of superdelegates nationwide that he alone can beat Trump. He must convince them that the only way to save the establishment is to put Bernie, the anti-establishment candidate, in charge.

That is what Bernie wants. To achieve that goal, Bernie is promoting two main claims.

First, he claims that he has more support than Clinton.  Since he has won several million votes fewer than Clinton, and since he has won fewer swing states, it is unlikely that this claim will ring true for enough people to make a difference. However, he continues to sell the idea that his supporters are being silenced by the Democratic Party. His supporters would have us believe that Clinton is not winning fair and square. The system is rigged, he says. And while millions of his supporters might agree, that is not going to convince hundreds of Hillary's superdelegates. As a result, this claim is obviously not enough.

Second, he claims that an enormous portion of his supporters will not vote for Clinton in November. Bernie wants to strike fear in the heart of the superdelegates, fear that millions of Americans will revolt if Clinton wins the nomination, and that they would rather vote against Clinton than for her. He creates this fear by suggesting, for example, that the outrageous behavior exhibited by some of his supporters in (and in the wake of) the recent Nevada Convention is the natural result of the Democratic Party's corruption. We are supposed to believe that the Democratic Party conspired to award Hillary Clinton one whole delegate more than Bernie in Nevada, as if they felt her lead in the delegate count were hanging by a thread. We are supposed to believe that the Party's behavior and policies breed chaos, and that it will show up at the national convention if they don't give Bernie what he wants. Bernie creates fear by threatening to mobilize his delegates to create a fight in July. He creates fear by placing demands on the Democratic Party, as if his voters were his leverage to wield as he saw fit.

For this threat to work, the superdelegates would have to believe that the overwhelming majority of Bernie's supporters are so anti-Hillary Clinton that they would rather vote against her than vote for her. They would have to believe that the Democratic Party is politically bankrupt.  They would have to believe that Bernie's supporters, by and large, prefer Trump over Hillary.

Do superdelegates want to give in to demands from a person whose supporters actually think Trump is a better candidate than Clinton?  Why would the Democratic Party want to cater to voters like that?  Is Bernie actually saying that the Democratic Party would be better off if it were more like Trump, and less like Clinton? Because that is the logical result of the argument.  If you tell the Democratic Party that you represent people who prefer Trump to Clinton, and you want the Party to cater more towards those people, then you are literally saying that you want the party to be more like Trump.  That is, possibly literally, insane.

Bernie is not banking on rational thinking.  He's banking on fear. He wants to sell himself as the Democratic Party's savior, but you can't have a savior if you don't have a crisis, and you can't have a crisis without desperation. Bernie's hope is that, if the superdelegates panic, they will give him whatever he wants. He is trying to create an atmosphere of crisis and chaos. What Bernie wants is fear.

It is vital to this strategy that Bernie does not make Hillary Clinton the primary target of his campaign. He's not trying to defeat Clinton anymore, because he's figured out that he can't.  He's trying to defeat the Democratic Party. This was probably always his plan. He knew from the start that he would have a hard time getting more support than Hillary, so he's been positioning himself against the establishment from the start. He has thus been targeting Debbie Wasserman Schulz for months, and now more than ever.  She stands for all the corruption and evil that, Bernie says, is standing between him and the nomination.  She is the bogeyman.

Since January, there have been several petitions calling for Debbie Wasserman Schulz to step down. The calls are getting louder, evidence by Bill Moyers popular piece falsely denouncing DWS as a Clinton surrogate, among other misrepresentations. One popular misrepresentation is that she told CNN's Jake Tapper that superdelegates exist to protect the establishment from grassroots activists. Here's the video, in case you forgot:

She was explaining why party officials are unpledged delegates, as opposed to pledged delegates:  If they were pledged, then they would be bound to vote for whichever candidate they had supported from the start.  Since they are unpledged, they are able to change their mind. They are able to listen to and work with grassroots activists, and not be bound to vote against them because of decisions made early on in the primary season.  She was very clear that she wants the Democratic Party to be open to grassroots activism, and that she didn't want party officials and leaders to be forced to fight against them. Yet, Moyers twists her words to make it sound like she is saying the opposite.

She has also been vilified for suspending Bernie's access to the Democratic Voter Database, after his campaign was caught illegally accessing the Clinton campaign's data--as if no strong measures were needed to ensure that Bernie's campaign was acting appropriately.

Now the calls to oust DWS are echoing again because she has called out Bernie's weak reaction to what happened in Nevada. She was speaking for the majority of Democrats, who strongly feel that his response to Nevada was inadequate. There are no leaders in the Democratic Party who are against her on this. They're all against Bernie.

If Debbie Wasserman Schulz were to step down or if the Democratic leadership decided to give in to the pressure Bernie is trying to put on them, it would send a message. It would say that Bernie was right: The Party had not acted fairly or responsibly. Bernie had not had a fair shot at winning this nomination. The system was corrupt, and Bernie deserved more respect than he'd received. It would also say that the Party was scared of Bernie and would do whatever he wanted in order to make him happy.

Bernie's supporters are in favor of that.  I am not. The way Bernie's been campaigning, I think he gets way more respect than he deserves. If anybody needs to be taken to task for corrupt and irresponsible behavior, it is him and his campaign staff, not Debbie Wasserman Schulz.

Bernie says he's not into regime change, but he wants to cut off the head of the Democratic Party and replace it with a figure of his choosing.  He is aiming for a coup, plain and simple.

Unfortunately for Bernie, it's not going to work.  The Democratic Party is not in crisis mode. There are those who want you to believe that Clinton is a weak candidate, but it just ain't so. The weakest candidate in the race is Bernie Sanders. You only need to look at his campaign strategy to see why.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Monetizing Specter Of Reason

I've decided to monetize Specter of Reason. According to Blogger, Specter Of Reason has received 200,599 page views since its inception on October 28, 2007. For the past year or so, it was averaging around 100 to 150 views per day. This year, the numbers are going up rapidly. For the past week or so, it's been getting around 600/day. Yesterday, the blog received over one thousand page views.

I've been blogging for almost nine years, and never wanted to earn money from it. It's always been primarily about two things: (1) developing my writing and critical reasoning skills and (2) influencing philosophical debates (both academic and popular).  It's hasn't only been about philosophy. I've used the blog to pursue some other interests, as well. I've been writing a lot about politics lately. I also write film criticism and reviews, and I incorporate musical interludes from time to time, too. However, philosophy has always been the focus, and I thought monetizing would be counterproductive.  I was afraid that if I monetized, people wouldn't take my arguments seriously.

Monetizing does open me up to a certain line of criticism:  If somebody thinks one of my arguments is weak or superficial, they can accuse me of posting garbage just to increase my income. It's an easy way to dismiss an argument. However, if somebody wants to dismiss an argument, they will find a way to do it. The ads might give them an easy tool, but it won't give them the motivation to dismiss me in the first place. If somebody wants to take me seriously, the ads won't stop them.

The only issue for me, therefore, is whether I want to participate in online advertising at all. I don't have strong feelings about it yet, so I'm giving it a shot.

I'm not sure how this will influence my posting habits. I will, as always, try to develop a more accessible writing style. I will probably also try to include images and other elements to grab attention, but always in a way that is both relevant and interesting. I might try to post more regularly. I might try to post on topics that I think will be more popular.  You might think politics, film and music are likely to generate more page views than philosophy.  It could be that I'm getting a lot more hits now because I'm writing more about film and politics. However, I'm not sure.

Most hits go directly to my home page. None of my specific posts from 2015 or 2016 have received a huge number of views, though the most successful are indeed about film and politics.

The most successful from 2016 are:
From 2015:
If we look at my most successful posts overall, however, philosophy takes center stage.  The posts that seem to be getting the most attention lately are from 2013, and they are all related to philosophy (with one--on the Ball State controversy--related to the intersection of philosophy and politics):

I'm glad to say I'm happy with all of those posts.  Most of them have received over 1,000 views since their original publication, but three of them have not:
For the adventurous and bizarrely curious reader, here are all of my posts which have received over 1,000 views so far. Most are related to either popular or academic philosophy:
I'm not sure what lesson, if any, can be learned from these numbers, so I'll just try to produce more of the same and see how it goes.