Swings And Roundabouts

In a meeting with German business leaders in 1933, Hitler declared that “democracy” (i.e., actual parliamentary control) was fundamentally incompatible with a free-market capitalist economy …
“The Supermanagerial Reich.”
    Los Angeles Review of Books. 7 November 2016
Josiah Quincy IIIJosiah Quincy III

Prior to the American Civil War the Northern politicians called “doughfaces,” mostly members of the Democratic Party, were essential to the preservation of slavery; for example, as historian Leonard Richards of the University of Massachusetts has pointed out, in 1820 “seventeen or eighteen doughfaces” made the admission of Missouri as a slave state possible, either by voting or abstaining from voting. Hence, by “voting with the South in crucial measures” throughout the pre-Civil War era, Richards says, doughfaces “turned a Southern minority position in the House, and the nation at large, into a majority political position.” Or as Josiah Quincy III—holder of the Boston trifecta as a former congressman, mayor, and president of Harvard College—called them in an 1856 speech: “‘Northern men with Southern principles’ … men who, for the sake of power or pay, were willing to do any work [slaveowners] would set them upon.” So much virtually anyone with a passing familiarity with antebellum American politics might know—but what few Americans today realize is that “doughfaces” are hardly extinct. One of them, for example, is the founder of Vox, Matthew Yglesias—which is perhaps particularly surprising because in one sense Yglesias is Quincy’s intellectual heir.

That isn’t to say that there are not some major differences between the twenty-first century blogger and the nineteenth-century patrician. Unlike the Quincys, for instance—whose founding member arrived in 1628 and bought the site of the city of Boston five years later—the Yglesiases, like so many oppressed immigrant families, began their story with hard labor in New York City sweatshops like The New Yorker and The Nation.

Aside from that vast difference however, both men are noted for their connections to highly privileged educational establishments: while Quincy matriculated at Phillips Academy—according to the school, “the oldest incorporated high school in the United States”—not only is Yglesias an alum of New York City’s exclusive private Dalton School—named by Business Insider as one of the “9 most elite prep schools in New York City” in 2015—he is also, not only like Josiah but so many other Quincys down through the centuries, a Harvard grad. And just as Quincy followed the family business into the law and politics—his father, in a historical moment that might of some interest today, was John Adams’ co-counsel in defense of the armed authorities who shot both a black man and that man’s fellow laborers in the street in March of 1770 (the incident known to history as the Boston Massacre)—so too has Yglesias joined the family business: following in the footsteps of his writer grandfather, grandmother, and father, Yglesias began blogging as an undergraduate before getting work at The American Prospect, The Atlantic, and Slate after college. Yet despite all these differences—and similarities—in their biographies, the significant likeness between the WASP educator and the Jewish-Cuban blogger lies in their arguments, which have essentially the same terms.

Quincy’s speech to his fellow townspeople in 1856 denounced the hypocrisy of “the leaders of the democracy,” by which he meant the Northern Democratic Party politicians who loudly proclaimed their allegiance to the common people against the wealthy on the one hand—a theme of the Democratic Party since at least the time of Andrew Jackson’s demand, “Let the people rule”—but on the other helped to protect the South’s “peculiar institution.” Research into history, Quincy said, would demonstrate both that “when the slaveholders have any particularly odious and obnoxious work to do, they never fail to employ the leaders of the democracy of the Free States,” and how the slaveowners ceaselessly sought “and select[ed] among the leaders of the democracies of the great States” in order to find “the most corrupt and the least scrupulous.” (The implication is, in case it isn’t clear, that at least some of the doughfaces more or less sold their votes for material gain: “To some,” Quincy says, “promises were made, by way of opiates.”) These the slaveowners would recruit for their purposes—and thereby suborn the notion of economic justice in order to protect slavery. Their example demonstrated, Quincy effectively said, just how concern for economic justice does not necessarily mean racial justice.

Quincy’s argument ought to sound familiar: it could be viewed as one side of an argument that has lately largely clustered around the journalist Thomas Frank, founder of The Baffler and author of, most famously, 2006’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. According to the late New York University journalism professor Ellen Willis, for example, Frank’s latter book constituted another episode in an argument she dated back to the 1980 presidential election (but that could be dated, as I hope to have demonstrated, to 1856). Frank’s side argued, Willis said, that “the left must concentrate its energies on promoting a populist economic program, and that the Democrats, if they want to win elections, must stop being identified as the party of ‘upper middle class’ feminists, gays, and secularists”—a theory she, like Josiah Quincy in 1856, vociferously argued against.

Frank has been a popular target: the grounds Willis advanced against Frank in 2006 mirrored Jonathan Liu’s objections to Frank’s 2008 book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. In The Observer that year, Liu said that Frank “insist[ed] on the fundamental reality of economic interests over ‘cultural politics,’” which Liu said is “to throw minorities and gays and women under the bus.” In both 1856 and 2008, one side argues that social justice ought to precede economic justice—the other side the reverse.

As it happens, Yglesias comes down on the same side as Quincy, Willis, and Liu. In 2009, for example, Yglesias criticized “prosperous straight white intellectuals” for seeing “the past forty years” as “a period of relentless defeat for left-wing politics” due to “growing income inequality.” This is, in other words, an updated version of Quincy’s argument: the charge Quincy was leveling at Democratic politicians in 1856 was that by promoting economic populism, they were colluding in a system of racial oppression. If there were, as Leonard Richards says, more than three hundred Northern politicians (mostly Democrats) who fit Quincy’s description of doughfaces, while meanwhile the slaveowners (as Quincy said in 1856) “writhe[d] in agonies of fear at the very mention of human rights as applicable to people of color,” then clearly the doughfaces were promoting economic equality at the expense of the enslaved. Given the oppression faced by those enslaved, Quincy’s obvious disgust is entirely understandable.

Yet, where Quincy’s argument from a century and a half ago has a certain sense given the realities of the United States in 1856, the logic of Yglesias’ 2009 position is not nearly so straightforward. Lighten up, Yglesias advised those “straight white intellectuals” then, with their petty concerns about economic inequality: “these past forty years have also seen enormous advances in the practical opportunities available to women, a major decline in the level of racism … [and] wildly more public and legal acceptance of gays and lesbians.” What you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts.

The problem however is that Yglesias’ advice doesn’t cohere: assuming that Yglesias is right about the “enormous advances,” then why would it make sense to continue to advocate advancing minority rights to the exclusion of addressing economic inequality? That lapse in logic, however, is not nearly as disturbing as Yglesias’ response to a forum conducted in the pages of the Boston Review in 2012, about a paper by Princeton professor Martin Gilens and his Northwestern colleague Benjamin I. Page. Entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” the nut of that paper by the two political scientists was “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” In other words, Gilen’s and Page’s work demonstrated what radical critics have long asserted (without the fine-grained detail Gilen and Page provide): that the concerns of the “little guy” (and gal) have more or less zero impact on American policy. It’s a paper that ought to be deeply worrying to most Americans—yet to Yglesias, as we shall see, it’s just jake.

I say this because Yglesias begins his response to Gilens by saying that he “struggled to think of another essay that brings such excellent data and analytical power to bear on an issue while reaching such a fundamentally wrong-headed conclusion,” and ends by berating Gilens for “pining for a world in which policy outputs precisely reflect the views of the public”—which Yglesias thinks “is neither here nor there in terms of obtaining a better political system.” In other words, the input of voters is irrelevant: “policy responsiveness to public opinion,” Yglesias writes, “is not particularly important.” To Yglesias, it seems, the notion that—as some bumpkin once remarked—the United States is, or ought to be, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” is a ridiculous idea held by rubes and suckers.

The trouble with the “doughfaces,” Josiah Quincy said, was that they espoused (or feigned) a concern for economic equality while secretly colluding with a system of racial discrimination. By that definition, obviously, Yglesias cannot be considered a “doughface”: not only does he not live in the 1850s, he is advocating—as Quincy did—fighting discrimination before fighting inequality, whereas doughfaces backed the opposite plan. But in doing so, Quincy said, the doughfaces “rendered the Constitution of the United States a blank letter”: what was the point of voting in the Free States, after all, if that vote was merely traded away in Washington? Yet while the doughfaces might have, in effect, short-circuited the democratic will of the people in that fashion—without them, it’s possible that slavery might have ended by a simple majority vote—I don’t know of any historical “doughfaces” that actually attacked the very idea of democracy, as Yglesias does. In that sense, I suppose it could be said that Matthew Yglesias is not a doughface—the nineteenth-century friends of slavery, who went so far (as John Calhoun did) to call slavery a “positive good,” never dared to call for the straight-up abolition of democratic government in favor of a state based on identity: even Jefferson Davis never called the act of voting itself into question. So, yep, Matthew Yglesias is not doughface: he just believes that liberal democracy is obsolete and that racial and other identities are more important terms of analysis than any other. You know, like these guys.

How proud the (predominantly Jewish) Yglesiases, and Harvard, must be.

Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s