Listen, Liberal – Part I

Peter Turchin


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Ironically, it used to be the crazy fringe on the Right that were the breeding grounds for conspiracy theories (“birthers”, “Clinton death list”). Now mass hysteria and conspirology are sweeping the crazy … Liberal mainstream?

Earlier this month Glenn Greenwald wrote a very important article, Leading Putin Critic Warns of Xenophobic Conspiracy Theories Drowning U.S. Discourse and Helping Trump. Greenwald’s starting point is an article by Masha Gessen, which is also well worth reading. He writes:

The crux of her article is the point that has been driving everything I’ve been writing and saying about this topic for months: that this obsession with Russia conspiracy tales is poisoning all aspects of U.S. political discourse and weakening any chance for resisting Trump’s actual abuses and excesses. Those who wake up every day to hype the latest episode of this Russia/Trump spy drama tell themselves that they’re bravely undermining and subverting Trump, but they’re doing exactly the opposite.

Greenwald pulls no punches. The Progressive Fake News sites that have been hyping up the Russia/Trump conspiracy are

no better – no different – than what Macedonian teenagers or Clinton Body Count sites are churning out. But it’s being mainstreamed by prominent, establishment Democrats who have completely taken leave of their senses in the wake of Trump’s victory and show no signs of returning to anything resembling sober, grounded reasoning any time soon.

Why are they doing it? Clearly, the Democrats are still in massive denial about why they really lost the presidential elections of 2016. They are looking everywhere except at themselves. But by buying into the Russia conspiracy theory they are setting themselves up for much worse. When this conspiracy collapses (I personally give less than 10% chance that there is any substance behind it), it would be a colossal reputational hit, from which they might not recover before the next round of presidential elections.

The Democrats should stop obsessing about the mythical “Siberian Candidate” conspiracy. Instead, they should read the remarkable book by Tom Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

Listen, Liberal is a devastating critique of the mainstream Democracy, the Clintons-Obama Democrats, from “a person of vivid pink sentiments” as Frank describes himself. The true left in the United States are so microscopic that it’s worth reminding my readers that the Democratic Party of 2016, when placed on the Right-Left spectrum of the last century or so, would occupy the right of the center position. In fact, although Frank’s book is primarily addressed at the Democrats, it’s worth noting that much of his critique aimed at “Liberals” applies to both mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans (but certainly not to Trump’s supporters or, for that matter, Sanders’ supporters).

What unifies mainstream American politicians of both parties is neo-Liberalism, as it is defined, for example, by George Monbiot:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

According to Frank, one can boil down the difference between Liberals and Socialists (the true left) to two words: competition versus solidarity. By the way, the tension between competition and cooperation is a big topic that I explore at length in my book Ultrasociety).

Part II here

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Peter Payne

Hmmm, interesting posterior, thanks. It’s making two separate points; the second, which I agree with–I am a devout Berner (Hey, I’m from Vermont)–but I guess I am naive, I did not think the mainstream Democrats could so easily be characterised as Neoliberal. But, I have been bemused by the huge negativity still being directed at Bernie supporters by mainstream Dems.

The first point took me aback–I confess I was not thinking of the Russian connection in terms of fake news. The kids in Macedonia know what they are promoting is false, I do not know that “Progressive fake news sites” are consciously falsifying? The FBI IS investigating these connections, Flynn DID lie about his Russian contacts, Trump both has and denies having strong connections to Russia; I am not sure where your 90% belief there is nothing to it comes from? I am also not quite sure why you (or Greenwald) feel it would be so devastating for the Democrats to espouse a conspiracy theory? It was no impediment to Trump taking the White House.

I have seen several articles recently from Democrats or portions of the Left lambasting the Democrats quite viciously for various mistakes. I think some of the critiques have validity (like Frank’s), but I find the vehemence misplaced. Isn’t this what the alert always tends to do–factionalise and attack each other for this or that? Whatever happened to…Cooperation?

Peter Payne

Actually no, I haven’t read the Greenwald article, I am enmeshed in several deadlines, sorry. Taking the overall point that Democrats should not use the Russian connection to avoid looking at their abandonment of authentic Liberalism, Socialism, compassion, common sense, whatever we want to call it…Yes, totally on board.

But, that does not mean I consider the Russian connection a non-issue, to be dismissed a priori as fantasy. Seems to me there is good evidence Putin did want Trump to win, did attempt to influence the election, did promote fake (REAL fake) (OMG, has it come to this?) news to Clinton’s detriment; there were multiple communications between those close to a Trump and those close to Putin. Likely Putin figured Trump would be soft on Russia and easy to manipulate. Were there explicit quid pro quos? Maybe. Implicit? Yes. Does all this matter? Yes. Could in help bring down Trump? Yes. Is it dangerous to the Democrats to push this investigation? I don’t think so. Is all this the cause of Trump’s victory? Probably not although it may have swayed the results. Does it define how the Democrats should be re-tooling? Absolutely not.

Daniel W

Peter T, if you look at both parties, everyone who is mainstream, not just democrats, are losing hold right now. It might be true that Putin’s strategy, to fail cheaply and fail early as you have pointed out, might just have taken hold on a democracy that was already weakened. It doesn’t matter who started it, all American politicians and their constituents must sharesome responsibilty for the conditions in which Trump could rise. People have told me that democracy functions when there is an election, and I say democracy functions when you vote for the person who wants to advance democracy. America as a country has lost its way, and there is no way blame can be put on Russia for that.

Peter Payne

No, I really do agree, whatever Putin has been up to, he is not to blame for the American Zeitgeist–if there even IS an “American” Zeitgeist any more. I am quite happy with the Vermont one so far, but it sure ain’t what I meet in other parts of this country.

Peter Payne

Sorry that”posterior” should be “post”! My spellcheck has a dirty mind.


The thing that I find uncomfortable here is the need to define group differences as an argument about economics. That strikes me as a thing that is only recent in nature and is now in the process of decline.

steven t johnson

Political parties in a plurality vote single member district system tend to organize themselves into two coalitions, which could be called the “Ins” and the “Outs.” Duverger’s law is one of the few proposed laws in political science that has held up well as I remember. It is rare that circumstances leaves everybody happy, so there will inevitably be an “Out” party. It is hard to imagine that any discredit from an absurd political campaign will abolish the need for the losers to band together. The “In” party will not remove the bipartisan structure lest an oppositional party emerge from the ruins of the “Out” party, who are merely rivals.

Further, the Russia campaign is simply tit for tat. The seemingly endless Republican campaigning about Benghazi, email server and Clinton Foundation are all exactly the same kind of innuendo about treason. If you do not disagree on political principles, what is left besides this kind of nonsense? The charges against Clinton had no more to do with reality than the Russia baiting of Trump, but the Republican Party hasn’t been discredited. Quite the contrary, it has prevailed pretty much everywhere, except nationally.

I believe it is reasonable to think the primary reason for the triumph of the Republican Party in the states across the nation is the much cheaper costs of winning with money instead of popular mobilization. But a national election is way too expensive. Not even Trump could have done it without massive indirect financial support from mass media (and the advertising purchasers who tacitly approved it by not boycotting, the way they would have I think if for some bizarre reason the TV networks for instance had given Bernie Sanders so much attention.)

Or to put it another way, your formal objection that the Democratic Party should actually try to gain popular support by advocating policies that help people suffers from one slight difficulty: There’s no reason to believe the current system can provide that many benefits to the majority of people, while at the same time, it is structured to provide benefits to wealthy people who have rigged the political system as much as possible to preserve their own position.

Your implied objection that vilifying Russia is an unprovoked threat to not just one man, Putin, but an entire nation, is of course correct. I suppose you could object that Russians are a part of Christendom as well, but politically the US is McCarthyite (to use a handy tag.) It is premised on anticommunism, and anticommunists hate the masses.

bob sykes

The deeper problem is that the Democrats have become a racialist, anti-White party, to the extent that even Bernie Sanders, a traditional Marxist who emphasizes economic class over race, was pushed aside (literally, by BLM). Hillary was openly contemptuous of working class Whites, and they defected to Trump. Unless the Democrats can purge themselves of the racialists, working and middle class Whites will move into the Republican Party for the foreseeable future. Our whole politics will decline into racialist parties, and race will be the only criteria voters will use to choose representatives.


One of the nominees for the new Democrat leadership said white men should shut up. That was sexist and racist. No solidarity there. It’s abuse. No wonder self-respecting white men, like Trump, with leadership abilities and ambitions for power, have long fled the Democrat fold, and will continue to do so.

The Republican Party only picked Trump up because they happened to be the party out of power. The neocon old guard didn’t want him for the populism he represented but they couldn’t stop the younger generation getting their way. And they will continue to do so because there is no countervailing trend. They could only have been stopped with power, but the people who would have stopped them are now out of power.

Right now the Democrats are only interested in virtue signalling to themselves and completely lack policy substance.

As for the Monbiot quote, the politicians (neoliberal at home, neocon abroad) are in actuality most concerned about protecting the rights of large corporations (they own) to compete against small and medium-sized businesses (that vote Trump). They are not interested in a market. They try to ban or otherwise discourage alternative news, alternative health, gun ownership (alternative sources of authority), alternative energy, alternative wealth (bitcoin, gold, silver) that would affect their power as a class. It’s a racket.

steven t johnson

Let me clarify by amending “I believe it is reasonable to think the primary reason for the triumph of the Republican Party in the states across the nation is the much cheaper costs of winning with money instead of popular mobilization” to “I believe it is reasonable to think the primary reason for the triumph of the Republican Party in the state elections across the nation is the much cheaper costs of winning the smaller states with money instead of popular mobilization.” You are of course correct that Trump is not part of the Republican Party politicians. ( I see him as one of the stockholders rousting management in a hostile takeover bid.) Nonetheless he will work with the Republicans, or be impeached. I do not think the Democratic Party will disappear on the state level because there isn’t enough gravy to include everybody, thus the Out Party will endure, a lifeboat for wrecked hopes.

By the way, part of the reason for the intensity of the assault on Trump is that he lost the election. Winning the Electoral College makes him the legal president, but doesn’t make him legit. The historical anomaly in 2000 was the way Gore rolled over. Nobody since Hamilton tried to lobby the Electoral College to spare us John Adams has anybody accepted the Electoral College vote as the legitimating vote.


“By the way, part of the reason for the intensity of the assault on Trump is that he lost the election. Winning the Electoral College makes him the legal president, but doesn’t make him legit.”

Was Lincoln legit?

In my mind, the lack of legitimacy is partly a matter of the election being a slam-dunk for Clinton. It feels stolen somehow. In any case, I think that the electorate was planning on getting more frisky regardless of the result.

steven t johnson

Yes, Lincoln was legitimate. He won the plurality by a sound margin, despite being kept off the ballot in the Deep South.

Clinton couldn’t run convincingly against her own party’s economic record, but the performance of the Obama administration overall has been thoroughly unsatisfactory for any but the owners. So I agree the electorate would have been fractious regardless of the Electoral College contraption.


Lincoln legitimate with under 40% of the popular vote? After all, it’s not a matter of math but one of how the people feel afterwards.

Good thing they didn’t have any unrest after the election.

What has been most interesting to me is how the gloves have come off in terms of groups taking sides. Practically all of the MSM has dropped the pretense of impartiality and my strong guess is that outright war is breaking out between factions in the bureaucracy. It’s a reasonable side effect of putting an outsider in charge I think. Whether Trump is the immune system of Western Civilization kicking in or merely an aberration (or something else) is still up in the air.

Mike Alexander

Innocent Bystander asks: Was Lincoln legit?

Well no, states started seceding a month after his election.

Chris Kavanagh

I don’t rate much of Glenn Greenwald’s political analysis because it is almost entirely subservient to his ideological commitments and pre- and post- election that has meant his focus is primarily on criticising moderate left wing politicians, while making passing attacks at Trump and the rest of the right.

That he would be promoting the line that liberals are too focused on Russian conspiracies does not strike me as important or at all surprising because he, along with most of the far left commentariat, consistently downplay the failings of any source that is viewed as offering opposition to US hegemony.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a problem with hysterical anti-Russian stories, nor to deny that Hillary could well have lost regardless of Russia’s interference. Both of these points are valid. The problem is the leap from there to painting all concern over the Trump administration-Russian connection as a hysteria induced distraction. That doesn’t seem to follow logically.

Russia did seek to interfere with the election in favour of Trump, as has been pretty well documented (see for example, and Trump has been uncharacteristically consistent in his praise of Putin. Senior members of Trump’s cabinet have also already had to resign due to Russian related issues and there are clear indications that more damaging findings are forthcoming. Consequently, this doesn’t seem so much as a distracting side issue, as a serious consequential thorn in the side of the Trump administration.

That Trump is some Russian Manchurian candidate who personally takes orders from Putin is a fanciful, distracting, conspiracy theory. That the Trump campaign was aided by Russian efforts and key figures in the campaign/administration have historical links and potentially conflicting ties with Russian interests is a pretty view in the face of current evidence.

The lessons of the election of Trump that the Democrats need to learn unfortunately seem voluminous but also tend to fall neatly into the pet issues/ideological views of whoever is commenting. For me, it seems worth recognising that despite selecting the most unpopular Democratic candidate in modern history the Democrats very nearly won that very rare third term. Trump might win a second term but I think he is going to face an uphill battle in 2020 given that he will have had 4 years of being the insider and won’t be able to count on an unpopular opponent. The midterm elections should serve as a useful indicator of whether the anticipated political patterns are in effect.


The beautiful thing about using foreign influences as a hammer on your opponents, and there’s nothing new here I would guess, is that it’s always true. You can always turn up evidence on Saudi, Mexican, Israeli, British, Russian, and (probably) Sumerian money and influence on US elections and policy.

Part 2 is to choose up teams. Apparently Russia, Israel, and a post-EU Great Britain (plus nationalist efforts in other EU ex-nations) are on Team Red, and Mexico plus the various Arab nations (and perhaps third world nations generally) are on Team Blue. It could all change in a minute which shows how vacuous this all is.

In the end, I suspect that everyone knows what side they are on without bothering to think about policy. The interesting part is trying to define the (probably) emotional dividing line. That strikes me as the heart of any study of a predictive nature.

Chris Kavanagh

There is always foreign influence but its a non-sequitur to suggest that therefore there is no real need for it to be a topic of concern or that all foreign powers are engaged in equally damaging efforts. I didn’t notice Mexican state sponsored hackers having much of an impact on the campaigns this time round. I also can’t think of any other US election in recent history where one candidate so readily repeated the talking points generated by a foreign state’s propaganda. You don’t need to see the world in binary black and whites to recognise conflicting goals between nation-states or power blocs.


I don’t want to drag into an argument about the actual (rather than an over-exuberant news media view) extent of Russian cyber-efforts in the US general election, there’s scads of that about, but I do have to say that there’s no comparison in the scale of the effect when comparing countries.

Mexico and Israel, to pick two, exert vastly more steering on the US political scene than the Russians could ever hope to.

So, if foreign influence is a bad thing, how would you go about limiting it? To some extent it’s unavoidable since people will often vote in favor of their own native culture (perhaps a generation or three removed) rather than national interests, but perhaps money could be removed as an issue. I’m afraid that funds will always find a way, though.


I agree with your comment overall, but I don’t think that **Mexico** has an outsize, or even very large, influence on the U.S. government. It’s a large state that directly borders the U.S. A significant fraction of U.S. citizens and residents can trace their ancestry to Mexico. And despite all this, when it comes to foreign policy Mexico pulls nothing close to the weight of, say, Israel or Saudi Arabia or Britain in D.C. .

R. N. England

Capital always influences the governance of any country. That’s not saying any more than, “You can hire a very effective propagandist if you pay him enough”. Americans should wake up to the fact that there is plenty of non-American capital floating around the world, and that it will influence how the US is governed. Some of it is Russian. Big deal. For a long time now, the rest of the world has had to put up with interference from American capital in how their countries are run. Before that It was British.


That strikes me as a reasonable post.

One new difference might be the quality of modern propaganda. It doesn’t seem to me that people have built up immune systems to individually targeted web-borne media as quickly as the media itself has improved.

Mix that up with what appears to be a tsunami of Dunning-Kruger style thinking as of late, and you get a perfect storm.

Peter Payne

What’s Dunning-Kruger, excuse my ignorance?


It’s a bias (named after the study) in which low ability people mistakenly believe themselves as high ability. One notion is that people can’t see their own ineptitude if they are poor at something.

My own reference to it is in terms of the political certainty you see scattered about the internet. People with no background in those domains are tremendously sure about the structure of healthcare policy, tax law, immigration law, etc. This is all far beyond idle tavern banter. I’ve been particularly enjoying the huge number of computer security experts holding forth on Russian cyber efforts as of late.

Peter Payne

“…where all the children are above average…”

John Lilburne

Peter you must be careful …having Russian background and calling the democratic party nutty with conspiracy theories … you are obviously a Putin mole and your site a fake news site ……………….

Ha ha ha


stacking the deck of political violence heavily in favour of the left in Phoenix, leftist Shock Troops out on the prowl.

Peter Payne

OK excuse my ignorance or naïveté, but WHAT exactly am I watching here?!? Is this really what it purports to be?


Larping at revolutionaries?

Either that or it’s some kind of group insanity effect. These individuals probably couldn’t fire these weapons. What are they doing with them and what do they think marching around with them is going to achieve?

It’s funny that they object to being covered by the journalist rather than court his attention.

It’s possible there is some really impossible-to-guess logical reason like they were filming a scene from a movie they were making.


That’s especially true given that the journalist is from the New Times, a famously left-wing weekly.

As a PR stunt it seems at least medium effective, although I expect that most of those people are better at manipulating spoons and forks than they are firearms.

Vladimir Dinets

Come on, it’s been obvious since the RNC that Trump is a Russian spy. I can bet you $100 that the whole story is not fake news.

Peter Payne

Of course it’s fake news, the whole story is a false-flag job to cover up the Swedish connection. Swedish Leftist Hans Linde–you know, they call him “Small” Hans–is pulling Trump’s strings. Don’t tell anyone!

Vladimir Dinets

Just wait a few more weeks 🙂


As a side note, looking at the periodicity of this chart:

and ignoring the chicken vs. egg question (does debt cause political uproar or visa versa…darn those feedback loops), I have to wonder if the real story isn’t the increase in amplitude.

[…] Part I here. […]


The widespread current use of the “neoliberal” label is primarily a dishonest rhetorical trick. It is used to define everything bad, (real or imagined) in economics and politics of the non-Socialists. Since virtually nobody defines themselves as a neoliberal, this allows those using the label to define them at their convenience. Crony capitalism. Bail outs. Excessive regulations. Inadequate regulations. Negative externalities. Any destruction that comes with creative destruction. Everything bad or stupid out of any party.

Everything bad in economics and politics can be folded into neoliberalism. If Monbiot had defined it as people who kill kittens and hate babies, then who will say he is wrong? Few are claiming they are neoliberals, and if they did claim the title and dispute your definition, you and Monbiot would just accuse them of a secret agenda. The proof — just look to all the dead kittens!

Neoliberalism is to a great extent just the latest conspiracy theory. It is the current fad version of the Illuminati. The evil Mont Pelerin Illuminati!

I could try to point out the absurdity of Monbiot’s definition, but what is the point? At best I could clarify how this does not describe classical liberal or libertarian beliefs. But again, you could just argue that of course it doesn’t represent either of these, it represents the true ideology in the shadows behind these fostered by those kitten killers with secret handshakes and funny hats with tassels.

This tactic of taking liberties to negatively define a group which doesn’t really exist is a horrible form of argumentation and adds nothing to the intelligent dialogue. It destroys dialogue and reason, and sows confusion and propaganda.

If someone wants a legitimate argument on the value and benefits of real classical liberal beliefs over the actual horror and failure of real Socialism, then I am all for it. Truth is they already lost that argument, and they know it. Thus they have to change the terms of the debate against an imaginary nemesis.

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