How Sunstein Explains Nothing

Try, if you can, if you dare, to make heads or tails of Cass Sunstein’s latest, “How the Alger Hiss Case Explains the Tea Party

1. Alger Hiss was a super-elite figure from in New Deal America with an Ivy League background, who was close personal friends with, and had the backing and support of, nearly every other member of elite New Deal America with Ivy League backgrounds.  Chambers was just some illiterate dropout nobody from the sticks, you know, like members of the Tea Party.

2.  Whittaker Chambers alleged, and demonstrated with personal details and documentation, that Hiss was a Communist, probably a Soviet Spy, and lying publicly about it.  Sunstein doesn’t mention that Chambers also implicated a lot of Hiss’ ‘Liberal’ friends.

3. American ‘Liberals’, a lot with elite Ivy League backgrounds, sympathized and sided with Hiss.  They defended him and demonized Chambers.  Conservatives (and?) anti-communists celebrated Chambers.

4. Chambers publicly noticed this … ahem … affinity between American Liberals and American Communists.

“The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.”

It was a few more than two, Whittaker.  And it’s been a few more since.

5. Sunstein says Chambers’ charge, ‘polarized the nation’.  Because it wasn’t already polarized by that whole sympathizes-with-communism filter.  Or something.

6. Chambers is also responsible for ‘helping to initiate suspicions’ of the Ivy League elite’s patriotism, loyalty, and commitment to the traditional constitutional structure of American society.  Because nobody was complaining about exactly this problem decades before Chambers, indeed, while Chambers himself was still a Communist.  Or something.

7.  Eighty years later, elite Ivy League liberals ‘are no longer interested’ in dredging up the unpleasant and embarrassing Hiss case.  As opposed to obsessed crazies who bear grudges for eighty years and can’t seem to get over them and see that things have entirely changed.  I mean, Harvard Law Sunstein worked for Harvard Law Obama and helped to implement socialized health care, which they’ve wanted to do forever.  But crazy Tea Party types still accuse them of being closet Socialists, which is completely crazy.  So there must be some mysterious ‘anti-intellectual’ X-factor that never wears off in American Conservative culture. As opposed to some mysterious ideological Y-factor that is a historically continuous descriptor of liberalism.

8. Therefore Chambers -> Nixon -> Reagan -> Tea Party.  Q.E.D.

Sigh

Sort of Related, David Bernstein on comparative boycotting, anti-communists-in-the-film-business, and anti-anti-gay-marriage-advocates-in-the-film-business.  The latter is encouraged by ‘liberals’; the former is despised.  The latter is defended by ‘liberals’; the former is demonized.  Kind of like Chambers and Hiss.

UPDATE:

Kling:

I would reiterate that midcentury politics revolves around socialism, Communism, and anti-Communism. Both sides have history that they would rather forget. The left would rather forget that many of its leading intellectuals saw Communism as equivalent to, or even superior to, capitalism.

Mead:

There are some tinfoil hat types out there who think that President Obama and his cohorts are hiding Qu’rans in the White House and looking to introduce both socialism and Sharia as soon as they can.

That’s ridiculous.  Tinfoil hat types indeed. Most of Obama’s cohorts are effectively atheists.  And anyway, Sharia, while cool with pedophiliac-cousin-polygamy, remains, for the moment, incompatible with homosexual marriage.

We aren’t seeing a right-leaning populist surge today because of Alger Hiss; we are seeing it because … the technocratic suggestions of the Great and the Good have not been helping ordinary Americans much for the last 20 years.

Ya think?  But, look, loyalty goes both ways.  Have ordinary Americans been helping the Great and Good achieve their utopian dreams?  No! They’re just standing in the way, those ingrates!  Better replace them.  ¡Pronto!

There were those on the right who thought that Franklin Roosevelt was a socialist; there were those on the left who thought Ronald Reagan was a fascist

Roosevelt a Socialist?  Lunatic fringe!  On the other hand, I remember a lot of the ‘Reagan’s a fascist’ accusations (Giuliani too, naturally) and I don’t recall the rest of the mainstream media calling those people tin-foil-hat-types at the time.

It was, however, a prominent manifestation of the class snobbery and intolerance that so often shapes elite liberal responses to political events and that so frequently fills so many Americans with loathing and disgust.

For a generation after Alger Hiss was convicted on two counts of perjury, American liberals went on to defend him as a plumed knight and a martyr. They slimed his accusers as knuckle dragging know-nothings and McCarthyite enemies of freedom. They never forgave Richard Nixon for helping Whittaker Chambers. As the evidence against Hiss mounted, they fought a long rear-guard defense. Even today, Cass Sunstein doesn’t quite come out with the ugly truth. Instead he gives us a mealy-mouthed formulation.

Notice how even Mead refers to Alger Hiss’ real crime as being the relatively minor ‘perjury’.  The fact that someone lied under oath has little importance in itself except as an indicator of character and warning of a deeper secret.  It could be on some trivial matter, a white lie, a compassionate lie, etc.  The important of the perjury derives what they were lying about.  Hiss didn’t deny knowing Chambers because he was ugly, and it’s embarrassing to be known as someone who socializes with ugly people.

Hiss was trying to cover up his Soviet treasonous espionage activities, him sympathies with brutal Stalinist Communism, and, more to the point, he was trying to protect all his Pinko fellow travelers at the upper echelons of the American establishment.  A very ugly truth indeed, that ‘even today’ is hard for certain people to say in a straightforward manner.  That’s why AIACC is important.  Everyone talks about ‘Overton Windows’ these days.  Well, on this subject, unless somebody goes for the throat, no one else will even scratch the surface.

Even today it is rare to hear serious liberals asking just what it was that made so many prominent liberals so blind to the possibility that there were spies and traitors in their ranks. [maybe they weren’t all that blind] We haven’t had a good history—by a liberal—about the nastiness of the liberal response in the case and the class prejudice and ideological blindness that it laid so distressingly bare.

Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of that work.

If Professor Sunstein is hoping to launch a broader conversation among liberals about ways their own missteps have contributed to American polarization, then I certainly wish him the best. But it’s important to remember that the kind of behavior so painfully on display in the Hiss era is still with us today;

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16 Responses to How Sunstein Explains Nothing

  1. Carl says:

    Sunstein does absolutely nothing in the article to justify the title or the last sentence. On the other hand, he does provide some nice pointers to how liberalism = communism. He also mentions the steady leftward drift of politics. There are parts of this article that would not be out of place in a Foseti book review. I’m not sure he’s trying to help undermine the current political consensus, but he might be having that effect. Probably unintentional, but still deliciously ironic.

  2. Anthony says:

    Sunstein really fails to draw his conclusion more explicity. I think the train of thought is supposed to be that conservatives stopped trusting liberals and elites because of Chambers (which is largely true), which explains all those weird things conservatives say and do that liberals can’t understand and object to. Because, yes, the Tea Party thinks that liberals are all a bunch of communists, and that people from Hahvahd can’t be trusted, and all that.

    But he’s left a lot unsaid to be able to draw that conclusion. A rhetoric teacher would fail that essay.

    • Handle says:

      ‘stopped trusting liberals and elites because of Chambers (which is largely true)’

      No, it’s not.

      That’s Sunstein’s thesis, which he states, but doesn’t support. He only says, ‘There was this Hiss thing in the past, there is this Tea Party thing now, there is a resemblance between the two, therefore the Hiss case caused the Tea Party.” so It’s the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

      First of all, it you ask an actual member of the Tea Party, “Why are you suspicious of elite liberals being Socialists?” They aren’t going to say, “Oh, the Hiss case, naturally!” They are going to describe their understanding of (and opposition to) the elite liberal agenda.

      But mostly, it ignores about four decades of prior History of exactly the same division and suspicion beginning in the early Progressive era. This was largely helped by the early Progressives being shockingly honest (by today’s standards) about exactly what they wanted to achieve during a brief period of extreme confidence, optimism, and enthusiasm (a mistake they would learn not to repeat in the future). Read the American Mercury, some Mencken or Nock or even Hayek about the time period. You’ll see that most ‘liberals and elites’ were flamboyantly socialist (the buzzword was ‘central planning’) from the early 1900’s.

      Chambers left Soviet Service in 1939, but didn’t testify until late 1948, and Witness wasn’t published until 1952. Sunstein is rewriting a historical Narrative here in the modern hyper-cynosurist style. It’s like a Hollywood script, and it’s the way people raised in the 60’s or later remember the past; as a collection of selected image-stills generated by television documentary makers and repeatedly watched and reinforced over and over. It warps the brain, and it overemphasizes one particular individual and incident as critical, unique, and seminal, as opposed to merely part of a continuous stream of tendency with over a hundred years of modern-era history now.

      Anyway, I think it’s been clearly established that to contemporary American conservatives ‘Socialist’ or ‘Communist’ means, “Big government centrally taking over / heavily regulating a large portion of economic activity in order to accomplish a lot of redistribution”.

      But to an American liberal, these terms have become ridiculous, extreme, straw-men terms that only describe the most outrageous abuses of the worst phases of the most totalitarian regimes. And anyone who uses those terms to describe their own agenda is obviously a stupid, insane Tea Partier who is exaggerating and paranoid and mentally disturbed and hopelessly out of touch.

      Liberals believe that so long as American society tolerates any private enterprise and inequality in income and wealth, that it’s essentially capitalist, which all the welfare-state redistributionist activity of the government merely being a kind of mild safety-net / corrective to the human suffering that the system would otherwise result.

      • Vladimir says:

        Chambers left Soviet Service in 1939, but didn’t testify until late 1948, and Witness wasn’t published until 1952.

        That however does date correctly the inception of the modern Buckleyite American conservatism. I think Sunstein is in fact quite right to trace the origin of the presently relevant American conservative populism to the Hiss affair.

        Whatever opposition to American progressivism existed before the early Cold War reaction marked by the Hiss affair, it has been completely defeated and obliterated, and has no relevant ideological and political descendants nowadays. The period from the late 19th century to the Hiss affair was effectively a uniform and unopposed march of progressivism, interrupted only by the early 1920s reaction that brought Harding and Coolidge to the presidency, which was however only a brief noise in the trend, giving rise to no coherent ideology or political movement.

        In the early Cold War period, with the Hiss affair as its central event, this trend was punctuated by the emergence of a relevant and long-lasting conservative movement. At its peaks, this movement mounted some serious challenges to progressives, and on some issues even forced them to draw firm lines against further leftward movement, which persist to the present day. Nowadays it’s dying, partly due to demographics, but also because of its lack of any real cultural and intellectual basis for mounting a fundamental challenge to progressivism. But it has certainly been relevant to some degree, and it will take a while more before it becomes completely irrelevant.

        In the light of these facts, a fascinating and difficult question is what particular message Sunstein wanted to convey with this article. Or rather, what (possibly different) messages he wanted to convey to various sorts of people reading it. The possibilities for conjecture are certainly interesting.

        • Handle says:

          I agree with Kling that David Halberstam has it right about the rise of the ‘modern conservative movement’ in the post-war ear. The old Northeast Establishment basically lost control of the party and largely switched sides. The Hiss case was very prominent, but I’m not convinced of its utter centrality to the political dynamics of that time, which had numerous major inputs. Crime and racial matters weren’t secondary to Hiss, I’m confident.

          But I think I can speculate fairly accurately on Sunstein’s message from the stream of conversation on the leftist blogosphere. His audience at Bloomberg is mostly smart and largely other progressives. What Sunstein is trying to do is frame this as a great ‘misunderstanding’ that can be cleared up if only other progressives will listen to Sunstein and repeat the message he’s been trying to put out for years, “We’re not Socialists anymore, we reject Socialism, so don’t call us bad names and don’t be scared of us.”

          The context is that we just emerged from the government shutdown / debt-crisis-du-jour / sequester / furloughs, etc, and the progressives have their own narrative about how it happened.

          That narrative is that the Republicans are acting nuts because they’ve been taken over by the crazy, extreme-right-wing, stupid populist Tea Partiers. Or, if not ‘taken over’ exactly, then ‘held hostage’ on a certain number of key issues (Debt, Obamacare) because of a critical mass of numerical strength and the risk of primary challenges. Basically it’s the same narrative they would have used to explain how, in a highly regionally-split way, the Republican party of 1964 rejected Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (New England’s choice) in favor of Barry Goldwater (who won the Midwest, South, and West).

          But what is the Tea Party to Progressives? Again, their narrative is that the Tea Party is basically the worst (or most-true-to-progressive-stereotype) part of the modern conservative movement. They are the racist, redneck-culture, unsophisticated, gun-toting, church-going folks who listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox news. Something out of ‘Deliverance’ perhaps, plus minivans and pick up trucks. And they are Joseph McCarthy’s political heirs.

          Progressives think that Obamacare (actually, most of their policies) will help most Tea Partiers (who they think are lower-middle-class) and they are confused when these people don’t vote their obvious material interests. That the whole ‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’ meme.

          So, the progressives tell a story where the Tea Party forced the Republican Party to shut down the government because they think that Obamacare is in fact the tip of the spear of the secret liberal conspiracy to finally turn American into a ‘European-style’ Socialist country with Greece-like implications for the nation’s future.

          “What?! That’s crazy talk! These people are delusional and paranoid! We’re liberals and progressives, not Socialists or Communists!” they say. “There’s a huge difference!” they believe, though, most find it hard to explain how exactly.

          But Sunstein himself has tried to explain that distinction elsewhere. I’ll go father and claim he’s the primary voice of the effort to draw a meaningful distinction. He thinks he’s done so successfully. You can be the judge.

          He says the American Left is merely about perfecting the New Deal balance in a ‘mixed economy’ (which includes health care) but without taking over the whole private economy.

          He says the extreme left faction of American Liberals was ‘tamed’ by the Reagan era, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the eventual triumph of the ‘right-wing’ economic intellectuals like Friedman and their demonstration of the power and efficiency of market mechanisms and prices over central planning. The real world evidence had become impossible to ignore.

          The rise of market-friendly ‘triangulators’ like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are typical of this tamed-left transition away from hard-left radicalism in the Anglosphere. In America this was also the era of the reaction in constitutional jurisprudence against the anti-prosecution excesses of the Warren Court at the nadir of America’s crime crisis which almost destroyed every urban center in the country. The Left screamed and kicked the whole way, but gradually came to grudgingly endure a much more severe criminal justice system.

          He calls this the ‘Hayekization’ of the mainstream American leftist elite intellectual (by which, I think, he is actually describing himself and his own ideological journey, as a kind of combination of proxy and model for the class at large).

          The modern American progressive puts ‘Socialism’ ‘out-there’ as being an extreme position which requires extremely high levels of taxation, income and wealth equalization through redistribution, intense regulation and control of everything, collectivist state ownership of most major ‘national champion’ core-economy enterprises, and central planning of economic development. So, Cuba, North Korea, Soviet Union, etc. Sunstein wouldn’t find much daylight between the average American progressive and a member of a European Socialist party, but he would probably imagine that, despite the name, they’re not really ‘Socialist’ anymore. They’re just ‘End of History’ convergents to modern Liberalism. Yes, some of those countries are experiencing slow-motion collapses, but that’s either because of a. other reasons (probably Germany’s fault) or b. they were simply reckless, corrupt, and incompetent, which happens in some backwaters like Greece or Detroit, but won’t be a problem for USG at large, of course.

          In this view, American Liberalism now regards itself as fundamentally ‘capitalism-tolerant’ (so long as the capitalists are on the right side, politically) and, perhaps with a bit of resignation, recognizes its dependency on a healthy and dynamic private sector to finance its goals and maintain its global position of power. Therefore, it is only applying ‘humane correctives’ to compensate for the social strains, imperfections, failures, and predatory excesses of the market economy. Also racism, don’t forget! Capitalism is accepted as the horsepower that drives the chariot and pays for the safety-net, but Government is full of wise and moral civil servants who hold the guiding reigns and keep the system on track.

          The Tea Partiers, on the other hand, (according to progressives) being the crazy idiots they are, don’t get any of this. They’re so out of touch, they just don’t understand that the Left has changed! All that Communism stuff, yeah, we can’t deny that anymore. But it was just one guy! And, anyway, it’s all in the distant past! Yes, it’s true that we revered and idolized those folks who turned out to be Soviet agents, and we coincidentally celebrate their entire domestic agenda (weird!), but these cases really were just quirky aberrations blown all out of proportion, don’t you know?

          But those Tea Partiers, they don’t understand that. Just like that crazy drunk McCarthy, they think we’re all still infiltrated with Communists and Soviet Agents and that Obamacare (which is just what all developed countries do) is just the tip of the iceberg of our secret plan to transform America into a Socialist country. How utterly ridiculous! Ha Ha!

          But let’s not laugh too much at them. First, remember, they get their news from Fox and Limbaugh. And, poor morons though they are, I think we have to admit this isn’t entirely their fault. After all, a stopped clock is still right twice a day like the anti-communists were with Hiss, and so we progressives need to do a better job of explaining ourselves better and put these irrational fears to rest. We might especially make this case to them by reviewing the past decade of work of one Cass Sunstein. Or maybe just let him speak for us. He seems to understand how these otherwise-incomprehensible conservative morons think and where they get their crazy ideas from.

          I mean, honestly, these people believe nonsensical things such as ascribing to us an utter obsession with erasing every form of inequality, an ideological tendency without limiting principle which, when combined with control over a democratic form of government, is bound to manifest itself in ruinous collectivist utopian schemes, never achieving satisfaction, and using every opportunity to push the ice-cap forward another inch. Crazy!

          But that Sunstein chap, he can explain to us how they think, and what we need to do to bring these yokels back under control. We should listen to him.

          • Vladimir says:

            My impression is that the Hiss affair was really the essential event. It kicked off not only the “Second Red Scare,” but also the formation of the Buckleyite intellectual circle centered around the National Review. In comparison, crime was certainly not a big issue in 1948, culture wars were still far from the mainstream consciousness, and race issues would only come to the fore a decade later. (The Dixiecrat schism at the time was, while certainly significant, still an event of lesser magnitude compared to the Hiss affair — and even more importantly, it was an expression of attitudes that were already at the time beyond the pale for anyone trying to build a viable mainstream national political movement.)

            At the time when the Hiss affair broke out, all people who harbored real hostility towards the New Deal regime had been completely marginalized and eliminated from the mainstream political and intellectual life. Whatever particular disagreement people had with them, nobody except the actual loony fringe doubted that the liberal-technocratic New Deal elite were honest-to-God patriotic Americans sharing the same fundamental outlook and values as the rest of the country. The Hiss case was a moment of tremendous awakening in this regard, and ever since then, a significant influence (and much of the driving force) behind mainstream American conservatism has been coming from people with deep suspicion and hostility towards the liberal elites in charge, which was unimaginable before 1948.

            Therefore, I believe Sunstein is correct about the historical roots of the contemporary American conservative populism. Of course, he ultimately veers into incoherence when he tries to present all this as a story in which his side are the clear good guys.

            The interesting question is what exact message he wanted to convey to his audience? Surely, if that was his only goal, he would be able to come up with much more effective ways of trashing right-wing populism and insisting that there is no sane opposition to liberalism than to dig up this ancient history. Could it be that the real message was for his fellow liberals — that they should avoid the temptation of going too far out of the Overton window and showing open contempt for the American folkish values, or otherwise the frog will get nervous and try to jump out of the pot, like it’s been doing intermittently ever since the Hiss affair, causing much damage and inconvenience for the whole liberal ideological project?

  3. Dan says:

    I agree with the first commenter. If the modern left is linked to Communism, great!

    The left *should* be beaten over the head mercilessly about Communism because it did bring poverty everywhere and collapsed because economic redistribution leads to bankruptcy.

    The left needs to be branded as economically stupid over and over again because that is precisely what they are, ignoring like fools all of the economic lessons of the failure of Communism.

    Obama specifically is an extraordinarily stupid man. He really doesn’t understand how personal ownership and the profit motive drives prosperity. He lived through the collapse of Communism and learned precisely nothing. The left needs to be mercilessly called stupid because that is precisely what they are. One could sort of be forgiven two generations ago for believing in redistribution. But the correct answer was already given by history in economic performance of the various redistributionist nations.

    Obama’s cognitive deficiencies are so profound that he is like a student who has been presented with the correct answer on the test and still fails.

    • Handle says:

      I’ve met people who have worked directly with the President and they would not describe him as ‘stupid’ at all. Quite the contrary. But ideology is not a matter of intelligence.

      On the other hand, they all say the same thing, that he has no interest at all for specifics or technicalities and cannot be bothered to pay attention to detail. He considers himself a big-picture, ‘basic principles as guidance’ person. He is also not a take-charge leader, and doesn’t like to ruffle feathers, preferring if the Principals and Deputies ‘make nice and work things out amongst themselves’ instead of directing single individuals to be in charge, or single offices to have primary responsibility. That’s a disaster in a government like ours – it gives everyone a heckler’s veto, but no one any actual authority that isn’t able to achieve unanimous consensus – which is, essentially, impossible.

      • Dan says:

        There is verbal intelligence, which the President undoubtedly has a good deal of, and logical-mathematical-problem solving intelligence, which is different. Romney for example is undoubtedly leagues above Obama in the latter, but the latter is difficult to gauge by interacting with someone.

        The basic flaw of Obamacare is the central problem to be avoided in insurance, the adverse selection problem. The customer has an asymmetric information advantage and therefore can’t be allowed to enroll after they have a need otherwise the concept of insurance breaks down.

        Obama spoke over and over about how you couldn’t be denied insurance for any reason. This is one ‘detail’ (hardly a detail) that he was in the thick of. Apparently he really didn’t see the contradiction.

        Intelligent Russians aren’t redistributive anymore (not counting self-dealing), because history has plainly given the answer. Intelligent Chinese aren’t redistributive anymore for the same reason. Does Obama not reflect at all about how natural economic systems actually work? Isn’t curiousity itself a mark of intelligence?

        The examples pile up. Seemingly Obama could not get his mind around the idea that the Brotherhood in Egypt could be destructive and democratic at the same time. At every turn he seems to be surprised when his own political victory does not guarantee establishment of his goals, as though oblivious to natural law and practicality which are bigger obstacles.

  4. spandrell says:

    Sunstein and wife look and sound so purely evil that if they were characters in a novel I’d blame the author for being too simplistic.

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