Monday, February 16, 2009


I have so far tried to stay away from direct political commentary on this blog, as my goals for it were about improving my writing and trying out a few different types of cultural commentary. Yet I feel compelled to address Nate Silver's post on progressivism at FiveThirtyEight.

The shorter version is: Eeek! Marxism!!

Silver sets up a binary between "rational progressivism" and "radical progressivism." Even if I hadn't learned from Derrida to treat all binaries like Trojan horses at best and blatantly hegemonic thought-oppressors at worst (thanks, Jacques!), the terms Silver selected give away which end of this binary he's going to endorse. If you can't guess, let's take a look at the table he creates to distinguish these types:
Nate Silver's Guide to ProgressivesSilver goes on to describe each type in more detail, consistently undercutting the radical side of the equation, ending up with this:
The truth is, I don’t particularly care whether you call me a “progressive” or not. In fact, I'm suspicious of people who line up on the same side of the ideological divide on every single issue. The world is more complicated than that, especially when one strives to see the world through a scientific, empirical lens. While progressives, in my view, clearly have the preponderance of good ideas, they do not have a monopoly on them. Nor do conservatives have a monopoly on bad ideas, especially when radical progressives flirt with Marxist modes of discourse.
Silver's attempt to oppose "Marxist modes of discourse" with "scientific, empirical" analysis lays bare a tremendous indifference to a lot of actually existing Marxism, substituting for it a bogeyman borrowed from the conservative imagination. I would submit that maybe DailyKos and OpenLeft are not the interlocutors Silver should be engaging with, and that taking them as the intellectual standard-bearers of Marxism or the Left is kind of silly when he could be taking a look at someone like David Harvey and working through The Limits of Capital.

Attempting to split the Left with a characterization cribbed from the Right is not going to help "rational progressives" win anything—elections, reform, even ideological debates with conservatives. Well, it might "win" some blog arguments, but the idea of "winning" an argument on a blog is like winning a kissing contest at a family reunion—doesn't everyone just end up feeling icky? And what's the prize, really?


Richard said...

Wow, Silver's commentary is just embarrassing. Here's a notion: so-called "rational progessivism" is going exactly nowhere. It's telling and disturbing that "technocratic" is a good thing in this breakdown. Among the many problems with public discourse is that so many people have no idea what they're talking about. Silver merely reinforces this truth with every word.

zunguzungu said...

It's almost too perfect, too, that a blogger who's made his reputation on a particular kind of expertise -- the arcane secrets of polling data -- would have taken to extolling expertise. I found his previous post (on why we need to stop thinking and listen to people that are smarter than us about teh economics) even worse. I'm undecided whether to remove him from my google-reader or to just mentally move him into the part of my blogreading categorized as "understanding how the hive mind works."

Andrew Seal said...

Yeah, I guess I still find much of his statistically-grounded analysis worthwhile. But he seems to be trying to carve out a position for himself within the liberal blogosphere, but he's finding that most of the prime real estate has been taken. So he's left with the "listen to the technocrat elitists" message, I guess. Although as a UChicago econ grad, I imagine he's not uncomfortable with that.